By Sensei Doreen Montesclaros
Lately I’ve been free grappling with a bunch of colleagues in the army who are fellow martial artists with backgrounds in Escrima, Judo, and BJJ. The most recent grapple I had, we went through three rounds that resulted in an overall tie. I won the first round with a submission by rear-naked choke. My mate won the second round with a figure-four arm bar from side control. On the last round, we mutually agreed to call it quits since we had been at it for a good ten minutes with nothing conclusive and the gym was closing for the evening.
I haven’t had the chance to train in BJJ for a long time now. I’ve been out of touch. But I was very amazed at what I remembered physically and mentally from training with Maai Hyoshi.
Everyone I’ve ever grappled with out here make a lot of similar comments about how I fight. They say things like, “you could have gotten me that time, you were very close a number of times in fact, I was very worried” and “I thought I had you then, but somehow, I couldn’t finish you off” and “I couldn’t quite get you where I wanted you to go” and “I don’t know how you always manage to end up in an offensive position when just a second before, I could have sworn I had you near-to submission” and “I thought it would be easy to take you down since you’re so tiny, but now I’m very cautious”.
The secret? Well, it’s not much of a secret to us at Maai Hyoshi really. We train at it endlessly. Sensei Cockell in particular hammers us with it every time we are at training: the importance of fitness & strategy over techniques & brute force.
These days I score in the G1 standard pass for males in the army at the RFL (Regular Fitness Level) test and at the BET (Battle Efficiency Test). G1 is a high pass. It is the expected standard of fitness to be operational in the Defense Force. Males and females have a different G1 standard. This had been how I was able to go the distance with my mates. This was also the very reason why I was able to defend and fight effectively against them whilst free grappling. Had I not been as fit, I would have panicked. But as it was, I wasn’t struggling to breathe and I knew what more I could handle. So my mind was free and still – enough to enable me to focus on the little things that make all the difference in the world: the principles.
It’s actually quite funny because in all those instances, I feel like I’m in an out of body experience looking at both past and present events: the current free grapple with a mate, and my training sessions with Sensei Cockell and Sensei Norton. As I carry on with the grapple, it’s as if my mind steps out of my body, taking on the form of Sensei Cockell and Sensei Norton on the sideline, simultaneously coaching me through the fight.
Throughout each grapple my mind goes over all the principles Sensei Cockell and Sensei Norton kept stressing at us in training: The principle of positions, of the five armies, of insight and foresight, of hidden space, of weight transfer, of control, of movement, of flow, and of adaptability. Be it on offense or defense, I find that I’m fault checking myself on any breaches of these principles in action – that stepping outside of the situation going “hmmm, what’s wrong with this picture?”
Whilst grappling with my friends I quickly remembered and understood the importance of moving into a position – be it a mount, a guard, a side control, a back control, a north-south position etc – because it not only granted me options for a clean and effective finish, but also more importantly kept me safe from any clean and effective finish from my opponent. Which brings me to the next principle: the five armies.
In the midst of every struggle, I seem to keep recalling Sensei Cockell insisting to me in the past that I have five armies and must use them all to gain every advantage offensively and defensively. I remember him saying, “What’s your right and left leg doing? Your arms? Your head? Don’t just have them lazying about while the rest of you is struggling to work at something”. The idea was that my opponent would have more to worry about with all my armies in play. Also, whenever I had been defending myself, I realized that my opponent had the same armies. I noticed that whenever I was able to disable half his armies but in such a way that I still maintained freedom of movement with all of mine, his attempts at a finish became ineffective and I was then able to more easily make a shift into the offense. A clearer appreciation for the positions hit me then. Each position took away at least half the opponent’s armies. In addition to that, as it pertained to an offensive strike, the concept of “one foot on the ground at all times” also comes into play. To effectively execute a finish, you mustn’t have any limb lazying about. The concept is similar to how we assault in the army in our pairs etc: As both advance for the kill, one offers suppressive fire to pin the enemy in place while the other moves closer to the enemy – leap frogging in this way until we’re finally on top of the enemy, able to take that clear shot and kill. Your five armies or your limbs must do the same when free grappling.
The next set of principles I came to understand and appreciate was of: insight and foresight, hidden space, control, weigh transfer, movement, flow, and adaptability. Since I had been exposed to a number of finishes from the basic delivery positions in training, I was continuously able to anticipate the series of movements that would have led to my demise, as they were about to occur. As such, I’ve then been able to work with ‘what I knew was about to happen’ to look for the hidden spaces between the transitions of movement. I let my opponent commit himself to the technique and then inch my way into the gaps of his transitions. Most of them had always been so focused on the arm bar or the wristlock or the choke that they hadn’t realized I already freed my other armies to attack them from a different angle. Rather than having a finishing technique in mind as most of them did, I went with the positions and with what revealed itself to me as we shifted around in the struggle. I realized I was making them fall into a technique rather than forcing them into it deliberately and exclusively. Whenever I did manage to gain control towards an effective finish or hold, I remembered Sensei Norton and Sensei Cockell’s advice of being patient and snaking my way an inch at a time into securing the other points of contact. From such lengthy struggles, I’ve been able to appreciate the effort I had put into gaining those initial points of control. It made so much sense not to risk losing gained ground by forecasting what I was about to do next with large movements, especially since rushing always has a tendency to open up hidden space. Yet, despite all this, adaptability was still prevalent in my approach. The mentality of “if it’s not working since you’re now forcing it, then move to a new position, try a different approach”. As little as I am, I was able to hold my ground as well as gain ground effectively against the guys.
These experiences have taught me quite a lot by reinforcing what had been taught to us at training. It taught me to trust our instructors because they do know what they are talking about even though we might not immediately recognize or grasp the entirety of what they say from the offset. It taught me the importance of training continuously, because clearly I’ve only just scratched the surface. From here, a more proficient and aware martial artist would be able to think 3 to 4 moves ahead and manipulate the opponent’s movement towards the intended outcome. I still have a long way to go. Also, like they always tell us in training: “it’s one thing to see the gap; quite another to put yourself in it; and different again to be able to do something effective while in it”. I am now able to see and put myself into advantageous positions when in a grapple, but because the finishes are not yet ingrained in my system, I lose the opportunity and keep having to fight it back because I take too long trying to remember the movements toward the execution of the most appropriate finish. Practice, practice, practice.
So, in conclusion, I wouldn’t have had a fighting chance first and foremost, if I wasn’t fit enough to fight. Because I was fit, I could breathe and think – remembering all the principles they keep hammering at us in the dojo. Because I was able to breathe and think, I was then able to fight more effectively – consciously directing my movements toward specific outcomes that contribute to my survival and success. Because I was able to fight more effectively, I significantly increased my chances of winning the fight despite my natural disadvantages of weight, height, and gender. Fitness and Strategic Principles make or break you in a fight. So instead of just accumulating a bunch of techniques and relying on your size or strength, work on your endurance and apply the principles they teach us in training. They do make all the difference.