When it comes to sparring, one invaluable piece of advice is to keep your hands UP. When the hands are up, they can protect against quick strikes to the head and can be dropped quickly to guard the body. Keeping the hands up is common sense to anyone who has gotten clunked in the cranium, and is the go-to stance for boxers and mixed martial artists.
That being said, there are also times when it is acceptable to keep the hands down. Why would you want to do such a crazy thing? The answer is simple – deception.
That’s right – chicanery. misdirection. good old fashioned martial arts mind reading. Keeping your hands down during a combative engagement can open the door to all kinds of possibilities…if you’re shady enough to utilize it.
‘Hands Down’ From A Sporting Perspective
One of my favorite movie quotes comes from Spaceballs, directed by Mel Brooks. In it, Evil Dark Helmet is fighting the hero Lone Star and he exclaims – “If there is anything I despise…it is a fair fight.” Have truer words ever been spoken?
Even in the sportive realm of sparring we are constantly trying to get a leg up on one another through speed, power, and technique. But just as important as physical prowess is mental dexterity. Think of it like a mental chess match. Some of the best fighters I’ve ever encountered were great “chess” players. I’m constantly reminded of that whenever I spar my instructor Bruce Heilman. He makes the whole concept of sparring look easy because he manages to stay one step ahead of his opponents. Distancing, timing, and strategy allow him to beat punks like me all the time.
One of the tactics he and other well-honed artists utilize is mental suggestion. For example, by keeping your hands down, you send a subtle signal to your opponent that you are open and undefended in the head region. On top of that, humans have a natural instinct to strike toward the head first (it’s a primal target, like when dogs capture each other by biting and clamping down on the back of the neck). These instincts and signals create the impulse to attack, and since you are aware of that impulse, you can have a reactionary concept already prepared.
Of course, you then need to consider who you are sparring. Is it someone who is likely to know about your tactic? Will they intentionally preempt you by faking high and striking low in an effort to stay one step ahead of your trap? If so, you’ve managed to stay ahead of their strategy again.
Think of it this way –
The Princess Bride is my favorite movie of all time. I say that without hesitation or remorse.
The layers of mental positioning can get quite complex, but luckily mushin can help quell the problem of over-thinking. Tactics like keeping your hands down and the possible outcomes of that setup can become instinctual, and when that happens, it can be an effective concept indeed!
When Fighting Isn’t A Sport
Sparring with your hands down can be a clever way to outmaneuver a sparring partner, but it can also serve a much more useful purpose.
Outside “in the real world” there are few occasions when we find ourselves with our hands up in a guard position. Whenever we are at work, out shopping, at home, taking a walk, etc. we move around with our hands down. We might even be carrying something. In these situations, if we are attacked, it won’t be preceded by bowing and gauging ma-ai. Even if someone gives us the evil eye or starts mouthing off (indicating a potential for escalation), we don’t drop back into a combative posture.
Wouldn’t it be wise then, to do some training out of the stance we would likely find ourselves in?
A lot of people think of fighting as something that happens gradually with some warning. In reality, violence tends to happen quickly with some sort of sucker technique. If you ever see two guys square off against each other, there may be chest puffing or shoulder pushing, but eventually one guy hauls off and tags the other in the face. The days of two gentlemen putting up their dukes is long gone. By taking some of your sparring time and practicing your reactionary techniques from a hands down position, you are effectively teaching your body how to react when an aggressor makes his move.
Learning From Kata
Did you ever notice that kata start with the hands down? I’m just saying.
Other Casual Stances
If you get the chance, try to pay attention to other natural stances you utilize throughout the day. This will be a good way to gauge what kind of postures you might need to react from in a hurry. For example, most people fold their arms. But the real question is how do they do it –
Do you know which habit you are in? The left picture is preferable because the hands are completely free to deflect attacks without a moments hesitation. The right picture, while certainly not an undefendable position, suffers from a moment of tangle. Furthermore, both arms in the right picture could be compressed or seized with a single hand from the opponent, leaving his other hand free to do whatever.
Keeping the hands down gets a bad rap because a lot of people do it for the wrong reasons. High kicking, lack of tactical understanding, and sheer laziness all result in the kind of ‘hands down’ sparring that gets people thwacked in the head. But, if you know why you are doing it and how to utilize the potential outcomes, you can manipulate hand positioning to your advantage.
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Facebook is a monster! It’s amazing how many people are on it these days. I just wanted to let everyone know that Ikigai | Blogging the Martial Way now has an official Facebook page.
I’m looking forward to meeting more of you on Facebook where interaction is the name of the game. I have a discussion post up where you can recommend potential topics for the blog (I’ll give you personal credit should I choose to pursue it!). I also have some interesting pictures and videos should you be the visual type.
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Who can resist marveling at weird and unconventional martial arts from around the world? I know I can’t. Turkish oil wrestling is a perfect example – so don’t look away.
MMA fighters and wrestlers are known for getting up close and personal with their opponents, but even they might wince at how ‘familiar’ turkish wrestlers can get. This is an oiled down, slicked up grab fest where someone ends up with a face full of dirt.
Discovering Yagli Gures
Turkish wrestling, known as Yagli Gures (yaw-luh gresh), first came to my attention while watching an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Worlds. Some of you may know him from his main program Bizarre Foods, but this is an offshoot. Andrew was travelling to Turkey to experience some of the amazing geology and natural wonders of the area, not to mention some of the truly remarkable underground cities. But before going off on any excursions, Zimmern had a date with tight greasy pants.
What is Yagli Gures Exactly?
I had to do some digging, but I found a few interesting tidbits about the history of turkish wrestling. Here is an excerpt from the premier(?) website for Yagli Gures:
“Every year since 1640 Turkey’s best wrestlers – men and boys – have gathered for their national championships on a grassy field near the capitol of the old Ottoman Empire (Edirne). The tournament is called Kirkpinar, or “Forty Springs,” in honor of a 17th Century wrestling legend.
About 1,000 barefoot grapplers compete, oiled up and stripped to the waist. The anything-goes style and the oiled leather trunks originated with the world-renowned Janissaries, an elite fraternity of body guards to the imperial Sultans. The modern stadium is located on the former site of the Sultan’s palace, and Turkey’s president crowns the champions on the final day.
For three days the field is crowded with simultaneous matches in eleven divisions, ranging from school kids to forty-year-old masters. The sun is hot and the fights are long. Only if there is no winner after a half-hour is the mach decided with a sudden death overtime. There are few forbidden holds, and grabbing of trunks is not off limits.
Despite the fierce aggressiveness, however, and the obvious opportunities for fouling, these Turks behave like blood brothers despite their hunger for victory. If one is injured, or gets grass in his eye, for example, it is his opponent who comes to his aid.” – http://www.turkishwrestling.com/
And here is a little bit about the garb and rules of winning:
“The wrestlers, known as pehlivan (from Persian pahlavan, meaning “hero” or “champion”) wear a type of hand-stitched lederhosen called kisbet (sometimes kispet), which were traditionally made of water buffalo hide, but now also of calf leather. They also douse themselves in olive oil.
Unlike Olympic wrestling, oil wrestling matches may be won by achieving an effective hold of the kisbet. Thus, the pehlivan aims to control his opponent by putting his arm through the latter’s kisbet. To win by this move is called paca kazik. Originally, matches had no set duration and could go on for one or two days, until one man was able to establish superiority, but in 1975 the duration was capped at 40 minutes for the baspehlivan and 30 minutes for the pehlivan category. If no winner is determined, another 15 minutes—10 minutes for the pehlivan category—of wrestling ensues, wherein scores are kept to determine the victor.” – Wikipedia
Hold on to your kisbet – here is some video footage of Yagli Gures.
So What Happened to Poor Andrew Zimmern?
Unfortunately I don’t have access to any video clips of Andrew participating in the event. You’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was messy.
First, Zimmern had a heck of a time putting the ‘pants’ on. He had two or three helpers trying to squeeze him in but it was still rough going. When he finally got onto the field, his opponents were gentle but firm in their victories. Judging from Andrew’s reactions, the whole experience must have been difficult and exhausting.
For anyone who has grappled before, you know how quickly the body can get fatiqued from all the pushing, pulling ,and tension. Just imagine that with the added grief of not being able to grip anywhere. Keeping stable and in a dominant position must amount to a ton of used energy.
Sport or Martial Art?
This is always an interesting question. Clearly, Yagli Dures is played like a sport. There are rules, regulations, penalties, and judges. However, there is also a significant amount of historical pedigree here. As stated in the above information, this wrestling is descended from the military gaurd of various sultans. Furthermore, the techniques applied in Yagli Dures have distinct combat applications (especially in the historical sense). All of that leads me to state comfortably that turkish wrestling could be considered a martial art…an unusual one. I don’t think i’ll be trying it though.
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