FIT TO FIGHT
Footwork is a mainstay of combat sports and self-defense.
For most of us, the American frontier would be the last place we’d look for training methods designed to boost our balance and power for martial arts, but Mark Hatmaker thinks otherwise. The examples he presents make a convincing case.
The feet are the deuce and a half that gets your munitions to the field of battle. The feet are your mode of retreat to get out of harm’s way. Your feet are the pegs you use to cut angles to better deflect, diminish, evade and apply your own meanness. Footwork was, is and always will be vital to all matters martial.
An element of footwork that’s just as important as mobility is what you can do on your feet while basically standing stock-still. How steady is your balance? How maneuverable is your upper body? How much force can you generate?
THE HISTORICAL RECORD provides a huge archive of material showing how much emphasis was placed on stationary power, but this static base wasn’t the primary focus of staticstance drills. It seems that static balance in the midst of power was the treasured attribute. It was the ability to deliver “oomph” while retaining your poise.
Records present us with more than a few drills that seek to develop this. We also find a handful of “sporting matches” based on the attributes of balance and power.
On the Eastern martial arts side, we can find complete fighting systems dedicated to balance work — plum-blossom kung fu and its pole training come to mind. To those unfamiliar with it, picture a series of shortened telephone poles driven into the ground. The practitioner drills and even spars while maneuvering on these precarious perches. Anyone who’s tackled pole- leaping challenges in obstacle-course racing can appreciate the added difficulty of fighting while treacherously aloft.
I also call your attention to a sport in Thailand that I absolutely love:
muay tale, sometimes called muay talay, or “sea boxing.” Essentially, two combatants straddle a horizontal boom that’s approximately 5 feet above the water or a padded surface. Then they go to town with standard boxing rules until one or both plunge into the water. They can still fire punches if they lose their balance and spin under the boom, in which case they would need to keep out of the water with a stout leg-scissors.
Interestingly, historian Paul Wellman created a similar battle in the form of an apocryphal knife duel involving Jim Bowie on the pirate island of Galvez in his novel The Iron Mistress. Again, I love this sport! It’s well worth adding to your training if for nothing else than the fun factor.
BRINGING BALANCE and power training closer to the Western side of things, we have accounts of “rail” and “trestle” matches in boxing, wrestling and a combination of them known as Frontier Rough and Tumble. The contests were conducted atop logs, on suspended railroad ties and on the sides of trestle bridges. Basically, the combatants would go at it anywhere odd.
Those matches happened so often because balance and power were coveted attributes on America’s frontier — if you’ve witnessed lumberjacks competing in the springboard-chop event, you know what I mean. Standing on a 12-inch-wide board precariously notched into the side of a tree while you’re chopping with full power — now that’s power and balance!
There are more than a few accounts of Native Americans engaging in competitive brawling atop logs in a variation of the Robin HoodLittle John quarterstaff fight on the log bridge. (FYI, if you dig Robin Hood narratives, Angus Donald has delivered a gorgeous series of novels called
The Outlaw Chronicles that gives a down-and-dirty version of the tale.)
We also encounter numerous accounts of old-school boxing coaches tying their fighters’ shoelaces together to get them to find balance and power in their footwork and to reduce overcommitted lunges. We see similar ideas in “tea tray” training, in which 18th-century London fencing masters would have their pupils work call-and-response with a foil or epee while perched on a tea tray to limit their footwork.
It’s with such historical traditions in mind that I offer the following variations of combat balance-and-power exercises culled from Frontier Rough and Tumble accounts.
BABY RAIL Place a two-by-four or fourby-four on the ground in front of a heavy bag. Stand on it and put in your rounds of bag work. Try to find your power in this constricted position.
ELEVATED FRONTAL RAIL This exercise uses the same idea, but this time you elevate that four-by-four to at least 28 inches above the ground. If you don’t have a heavy bag with that much height clearance, do what I do: Position the frontal rail near a tree and suspend your heavy bag from a sturdy branch. Even if you found the baby rail to be a piece of cake, elevating the platform takes some getting used to because the consequences of overreaching or bag blowback are higher. You’ll find timidity drops your commitment to power. Your job is to keep the work up until you find your power rising back to a respectable level.
FLANK BABY RAIL Place the four-by-four on the ground in front of the heavy bag at a right angle to it. In other words, it should lie so one end is facing the bag. Do your rounds from there.
ELEVATED FLANK RAIL Suspend the rail as described above and begin striking. Once again, you’ll notice a decline in oomph because the stakes are, literally, higher.
THERE ARE MANY MORE unusual training methods in the Rough and Tumble tradition that we’ll save for another day. For now, try the four described here for a dose of preparatory training on the bag. Then add a bit of limited sparring to your rail work. You’ll find that when you go through a week or two of this and then take your game back to an unlimited-footwork, flat-ground base, you’ll be cooking with gas!
Or, as an old-school Rough and Tumbler might say, “You’ll be a rough and tough fighter who has fought through the mill and refused to grind fine.” In our modern parlance, you’ll be a bit more badass on your road to badassery.
Static balance in the midst of power was the treasured attribute. It was the ability to deliver “oomph” while retaining your poise.