Tuesday 1 November 2016

Burmese Kickboxing

I recently traveled to Yangon, Myanmar to corner my student Jordan Lucas in his ONE FC MMA fight. I love training at local gyms whenever I travel to corner fighters so this was a great opportunity to train in the homeland of Lethwei, the Burmese style of kickboxing.

I was lucky enough to have some private Lethwei training sessions set up for me by Joey Kyaw from Transcend Fitness and Martial Arts Center where I also coached a few BJJ classes. Joey also helped with a lot of the research and information for this article.

The coaches I worked with in my training sessions were Saw Te Aung a former professional Lethwei fighter who has fought over 300 matches winning the sports most prestigious title, the Golden Belt, in 1996. I also trained with Professional Lethwei Coach Kyaw Soe who has worked as the head trainer for some of the top gyms and fighters in the sport.

I was very interested to see the contrast between Lethwei and other forms of Kickboxing. I have previously trained in Muay Thai in Thailand and had several Muay Thai bouts in Australia and the UK, I have also done some training in other styles of kickboxing including training trips in Holland to learn some of the Dutch style and some Savate (French Kickboxing).

My first impressions of Lethwei is that it is understandably, very similar to Muay Thai but with two big differences. Fighters don’t wear gloves and headbutts are allowed.

The history of Lethwei

Myanmar has experienced many wars throughout history including conflicts with Siam (Thailand), China, Britain as well as civil wars between the states within the country.  Lethwei like many other martial arts, was developed during these wartime periods before gradually evolving into a sport.

The earliest evidence of Lethwei can be traced back to drawings found in Rakhine State dated 600 AD. It is widely accepted that modern Lethwei originated from Bagan, the former capital of Myanmar, where drawings of the sport dating back to 1100 AD have been found in local temples.

Kyar Ba Nyein, who competed in Western Boxing at the 1952 Olympics, pioneered modern Lethwei by developing the current rules and promoting the sport throughout the country and internationally. He travelled around remote regions of the country where many villagers still actively practiced Lethwei and brought talented fighters back to Mandalay and Rangoon where he developed their skills using more modern training methods.

Traditionally, Lethwei bouts were contested in sandpits before boxing rings were introduced in the 1960's. This was probably influenced by British boxing as the country had been colonised by Britain in the previous century. Although the Burmese adopted the use of the ring, they did not take on the use of Boxing gloves .

Lethwei Rules

Up until ten years ago Lethwei bouts could last for fifteen rounds. Often there would be no time limits on the last round so the match would go on until one fighter could not continue.

In the modern rules, Lethwei fights range from three to five rounds. There is usually no scoring system and the match is declared a draw unless one fighter is knocked out.  If a knockout occurs, the boxer is revived and has the option of continuing the bout. Scoring systems are only used for tournament fights where it is necessary to have a clear winner.

With Myanmar being isolated from the rest of the world for so long, the Burmese say they were not pressured to evolve their sport as their neighbors in Thailand did. I asked the coaches if they thought there may be a need to change Lethwei to make it more acceptable to an international audience. They told me there been no pressure or lobbying for the use of gloves or banning head butts and if those rules were imposed then Lethwei will lose its charm and uniqueness and become too similar to Muay Thai.

There seems to be a wider variety of techniques used by the Myanmar fighters than those typically seen in Muay Thai. As there is no scoring system, there are no techniques which are judged to be better or score more highly than others. Scoring systems will inevitably lead fighters to focus more on the high scoring techniques, for example using more body kicks instead of low kicks or punches. Lethwei is exclusively focused on knocking your opponent out regardless of what technique you use.

I was interested to find out if Lethwei had been influenced by other martial arts and fighting styles. The trainers informed me that all the techniques we worked on (which are shown on the video clips) were taught to them by their trainers and they consider them all be Lethwei techniques. However they could not be sure if these techniques were derived from other martial arts. My trainers told me that Japanese Martial Arts are very popular in Myanmar so they would not be surprised if some techniques such as spinning kicks have been inspired by Karate.

The warm ups used in Lethwei training sessions were actually focused more on functional mobility exercises rather than the traditional medium paced run followed by half an hour of skipping commonly seen in gyms in Thailand. I found this to be much more effective and time efficient and appeared to be another example of Lethwei adopting modern training methods rather than sticking to traditional practices.

Another discovery I made was that the inclusion of headbutts can change the dynamics of the clinch position a lot. The standard techniques and strategies which work well in the traditional Thai Plumm position need to be adapted to take into account the extra danger of headbutts. The fact that the fighters are not wearing gloves also allows their hands more freedom to move and manipulate their opponent.

Influence of Mixed Martial Arts

The Myanmar coaches were not concerned that the increasing popularity of MMA will damage the native fighting sport. There has recently been a surge in the popularity of Lethwei with more people eager to learn this style and Lethwei shows becoming bigger than ever.

Based on the performances I've seen from the Myanmar fighters so far in their MMA fights I am sure they will become fan favourites in the sport due to their style and fighting spirit.

If you are interested in learning more about Lethwei and have the opportunity to visit Yangon I can highly recommend Transcend Martial Arts located at Level 5, Junction Mawtin. Corner of Anawratha Road and Lan Thit Road.,Yangon, Myanmar

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Staying 'Fight Ready' - Part 1

Why MMA fighters need to train year round in order to reach the highest levels in their fight career.

This article was written with the help of Wayne Goldsmith who I have been working with for the past few months. Wayne is a sports coaching expert who has worked extensively with sports teams and organisations all over the world including Swimming Australia, the US Olympic Committee and numerous Football and Rugby clubs.

Stay Fight Ready

I have always encouraged my fighters to train consistently all year round rather than doing ‘Fight Camps’. I believe in constantly improving your skills so that you are a much better fighter the next time you step into the cage than you were in your last fight. Fight camps usually involve training hard for six weeks before a match which inevitably leads to slacking off afterwards until another fight comes along. This is pretty common in the world of professional MMA which leads to low level fighters trying to do the same hoping to get the same results.
The alternative to this is to be in the gym every week constantly improving and adding new skills to your repertoire and also ensuring that you are staying fit and ready to fight at short notice if necessary.

Baseline Fitness Level

It is easier and more logical to maintain a ‘baseline level’ of fitness and skills throughout the year rather than to take long periods of time off, then having to rush the development of fitness and skills when a suitable fight opportunity arises.
Ideally, MMA athletes will aim to never be more than 3-4 weeks from their peak performance fighting shape. To achieve this, it is essential that the MMA athlete remain committed to maintaining a "baseline" of skills, technique and fitness training at all times of the year.
Over time, this "baseline" level can be progressively improved to higher and higher levels so that the athlete's peak performance systematically improves over the long term.

Obviously it is more difficult to maintain year round training rather than going hard for a few weeks then taking months off. It requires much more professionalism, determination and work ethic on the part of the fighter, however, I feel that the ability to do this will separate the top fighters from the rest.

Using 'Periodization' for MMA

Mixed Martial Arts is a relatively young sport which leads to uncertainty about the best ways to train and prepare for it. Often this leads to athletes and coaches imitating what they see athletes doing in other sports. One example of this is the practice of 'Periodization'.
Periodization is the systematic planning of Physical Training with the aim of reaching the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. It usually involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period, usually divided into the off season, preseason, in season, and the postseason.

Although there are elements of Periodization which I feel can be beneficial, there are several reasons why I feel this does not work as perfectly for Mixed Martial Arts as it does for other sports such as Football or Athletics:

Lack of a 'Fight Season'

Mixed Martial Arts is less predictable schedule than other sports. There is no clear calendar of events such as national championships, world championships and Olympics. MMA doesn’t have a ‘Season’ such as in Football or Rugby. Fighters, especially those early in their careers, need to be ready to take fights all the time at short notice. This is due to need for exposure which will help build their profile and career, the need to gain experience against increasing levels of opponents and also to make the most of opportunities when they come along.

Missing out on Big Opportunities

I would advise any fighter who wishes to make it to the top level, to be ready to fight every two months for around the first 2-3 years of their career, while also making sure to constantly build on and improve their skills between these fights.

Need to Keep Learning and adding to your skills

Another big reason to not take time off between fights is because there is so much material to cover. Even if you are already a high level competitor in one fighting style it is essential  to keep improving and adding weapons to your game. Opponents will study your previous fights to capitalise on weaknesses. It is essential that you are spending time fixing up the holes in your game while adding new skills and weapons from one fight to the next.
Compared to other sports there are lots more skills to learn and practice. There aren’t enough hours in the day to master all the various skills and techniques of Take-downs, Boxing, Jiu jitsu, Kicking, Clinch Fighting, Leg-Locks and more but you can make an effort to gradually add some elements of a different skill-set to your arsenal which gradually turn you into a much more dangerous opponent.
The fighter needs to commit to being in the gym every day, year round to keep getting better all the time not just when they have a fight coming up.

In part two I’ll discuss the various levels and stages of fight readiness and preparation.

Team Nemesis

Check out this short documentary on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt and Team Nemesis Head BJJ/MMA and Co owner Denis Kelly. A brief insight into who he is, what he is about, and what it’s like to be BJJ/MMA coach in Melbourne.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Mental Training

"How do I stop pre-fight nerves affecting my performance and ruining all the weeks of hard training and preparation before a fight?" This is a question that I often get asked by students before a fight or competition.

Everyone gets Pre-Fight Nerves

The first thing to remember is that everyone gets nervous before fights. The only people who don't get nervous are those who already know that they are going to lose. They have no need to be worried or put any pressure on themselves and already have all the excuses lined up for afterwards.
Even top level fighters are nervous and anxious before fights. There are numerous stories about top fighters such as Mike Tyson and Crocop being in tears and vomiting from panic and nervousness just minutes before stepping into the ring. Top level fighters have put in months and years of training and preparation and just have a short amount of time to make it all pay off. If top fighters appear not to be nervous it’s because they are acting in a confident manner knowing that appearing more confident will help them feel more confident.

Dealing with the Stress before it overpowers you

The first step to dealing with this stress is actually understanding what you are afraid of. You are not afraid of fighting. If you were afraid of fighting you would have many opportunities change your mind or find excuses to pull out in the weeks and days leading up to the fight.
The real reason fighters feel nervous before they compete is performance anxiety. You are afraid that you won't perform at your best and that all your training will be a waste of time. The problem is that this stress can make you feel weak, unfit, tired and nervous which can contribute to you not being able to perform at your best.

Get used to this Stress and Use it

The next thing to understand is that the nervousness won't just go away the more you compete. What actually happens is that you become better at dealing with it and using it to motivate you rather than negatively affecting your performance.
Getting used to the pressure doesn't happen overnight. You need to take small steps and set goals to gradually get better at dealing with the stress and performing at your best under pressure.

Steps to getting better at dealing with pre-fight nerves.

You need to spend as much time working on your mental skills as you do on your physical skills. It's good to find ways to combine both such as starting sparring from disadvantageous positions or pushing yourself to the point where you feel like quitting during fitness training to build your mental strength.

Mental Rehearsal - Don't put off thinking about the fight or match until it’s too late because then all the stress will hit you in one big rush. Visualise the fight in the weeks and days leading up to it so you will gradually get used to the pressure and stress in small doses. Visualise getting your hands wrapped, warming up, the ring announcer calling out your name. If possible watch videos of your opponent as so you know exactly what he looks like and how he moves, imagine yourself fighting him so that when you actually do fight it will seem that you're fighting someone who you've already fought or sparred with many times before.

Pre-Fight Routine - Have a few things that you do the day or night before every fight. For example watching the same inspirational movie, going for a walk on your own to think about the upcoming fight, listening to certain type of music. This will help build a feeling of consistency and familiarity to make you feel like you’ve been through all of this before. Don't do things to avoid thinking about the fight or take your mind off it. You need to stay focused on what you're going to do in a few hours time and make sure you are mentally ready.

Confident Mindset - Going into the match that you need a confident frame of mind. You need to be confident in your skills and ability and be positive and certain that if you perform at your best you will be able to win. The best way to develop this mindset is to think of previous times when fought really well or felt confident while you were in the ring. If you have never had an experience of feeling confident and positive in a fight then just think about a time when you felt confident in training.

Think of a time when everything went well and you were sure that you could rely on your techniques, where you felt fit and when your timing felt spot on.Try to remember how you felt during this time and the feelings and emotions that were going through your head. Then try to imagine you are back there doing the exact same thing. You need to practice this state of mind as much as possible so that you are sure that you can get back to it whenever you feel like it. The pre-fight routine mentioned above will also help you access your confident mindset more easily.

Attitudes to avoid

Just go in there and have fun’ - The reality is that you just have a short amount of time - 9 to 15 minutes to either win or lose the fight. That isn't enough time to 'have fun' and 'show what you can do'. What you need to be thinking about is going in and executing as perfect a performance as possible and not leaving anything to chance. What you need to be thinking is 'I've only got a short amount of time, I need to execute my game-plan perfectly and make my opponent quit.'
I just want to get it over with’ - This attitude shows that you aren't prepared to put in a big effort to win possibly due to the strain and exhaustion of all the training in the weeks leading up to the fight. What you need to be thinking is 'I've already put in all the weeks and months of preparation and I'm prepared to fight for as long as it takes to make my opponent quit even if that takes two hours'.
I deserve to win’ - All of the training that you did leading up to the fight or your performance in previous fights is no guarantee of how will perform in this fight. If you are not switched on enough and you opponent is then he may still be able to beat you even if he is less skilled.

Don't Run Away from it

Don’t try to avoid the stress - Just the same way that your muscles need stress from weights and resistance exercise to get stronger, the mental side of your fight training needs controlled amounts of stress to improve your ability to perform well in competition.

Monday 27 June 2016

Training vs Competition

‘You sink to the level of your training, you don’t rise to the occasion’

A big factor which holds people back in their training is putting too much emphasis on what they can do in training and performance in the gym with their training partners. They mistakenly believe that how they perform in this comfortable setting with their friends and training partners is a good reflection of how they will do in competition.

Training Vs Fighting

Winning in training is easy. You turn up at the familiar environment of your own gym every night at the same time and train and spar with partners who’s games you’ve already figured out. You know which positions they are good from and which submissions or attacks they are likely to attempt. You are also certain that you won’t get injured or hurt during training.

Fighting is much different. You turn up at a venue which you’ve probably never been to before and take on opponents who its likely you don’t know much about. You don’t know their strengths or weaknesses and will usually have to quickly figure them out on the spot. Even if you had the opportunity to research and study your opponent before hand there is no guarantee that their game hasn’t changed significantly since then.

Don't leave your best fights in the Gym

Some people look really good and perform well in training but can’t put it together in competitions and fights. Others do not look great in training but perform well in fights. The reality is that the guys who don’t look good in training are usually just holding back, working on their weaknesses and developing their overall skills rather than just trying to win every round.

People who win matches and fights know how to train. They know that winning in training is not important and is meaningless. They use training to work on their weak areas and to keep improving.

Why do the others not improve? Due to going too hard they eventually run out of people to train with. The other students in the gym either get injured or eventually just avoid them or refuse to train with them. People who go hard in training are usually also the same ones who are first to complain and quit when training partners turn it up on them.

People who want to win in the gym often avoid training or start skipping rounds as soon as their training partners start matching their intensity. Due to their desire to always win in training they tend to stick exclusively to their good techniques and avoid having to work on their weak areas. This leads to their game stagnating over the years while other students keep developing and eventually overtake them.

Don't Try to Win in Training

The number one principle of Training Vs Competition is this: Training is just training. What you can do in training is a poor indication of what you can do in a real match. In training you are relaxed, there are no nerves, no fear, no risk of injury, no stress about embarrassing yourself, no fatigue from cutting weight the previous day,

To get the most out of each training session:

  • Figure out what you are good at

  • Figure out what you are not good at

  • Force yourself to work on your weak areas

  • Help your training partners to figure out ways to shut down your strengths. This will force you to develop & expand your arsenal & skills.

  • Realise that how you perform in training is not a good indication of how you would perform in a real fight. Pick your best ever day in training & you can expect your fight performance to be 50% or less of that.

Monday 9 May 2016

Risks of MMA

Photo Courtesy of David Ash

I’ve been watching MMA since 1994, I had my first fight in 2000 and I’m now a full-time coach of professional fighters. What first interested me in MMA was the idea of testing different fighting styles against each other. Due to the evolution of the sport, it has become less about style versus style and more commonly each fighter learning and adopting the most high-percentage techniques and using them to win under the rules and scoring system of the modern sport.

Criticism of the Brutality of MMA

When I first saw the UFC in 1994 it looked brutally violent and more of a spectacle than an actual sport. Since the early days, there have been calls for the sport to be banned. Many critics argue that a sport like Mixed Martial Arts is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society because it will encourage violence. There is also a perception that the sport is too dangerous with an unacceptable risk of serious injury to competitors.

I personally don’t believe there is any connection between watching trained athletes compete and street violence. MMA has been extremely popular in Japan for many years, a country which has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world.

Comparison to Boxing

But Is MMA more dangerous than other more acceptable sports such as Boxing?

It has long been argued that MMA is safer than boxing due to the fact that there are fewer punches to the head in an MMA fight than in a typical boxing match. This was definitely true in the early days due the fights being bare knuckle which led to fighters being more conservative with their strikes to avoid breaking their hands. Within a few years, MMA gloves were introduced which made it possible to throw just as many punches as in boxing. As a result, the punches thrown and absorbed has steadily increased over the years.

Another reason why MMA could be seen as safer than Boxing is that there are more ways to win. There is a huge variety of techniques and strategies to gain victory including submissions via chokes or joint locks. However, there is a perception that these less violent techniques aren’t as spectacular and fan friendly and that if you want to be a popular fighter you need to win by knockout. An indication of this is the UFC opening sequence which shows clips from eighteen fights but only one of the clips shows a submission. This sends a clear message to new fans and also to the fighters.

Increased Number of Knockouts

By looking at the statistics of how fights finished from 1993 until 2016 we can see that in the early days submissions accounted for around 70% of finishes compared to 15% by Knockout/Technical Knockout and 15% by Decision. This number of KO/TKO finishes has gradually increased to the point where now in 2016 there is roughly even split of 35% between KO/TKO and Submission finishes with 30% of fights going to decision.

The increased number of KO/TKO finishes is partly due to the evolution of MMA fighters. The rise of strikers and the relative decline of grapplers. Early MMA events had very few evenly matched fights. There were some very good strikers but they would either quickly knock out an inexperienced opponent who couldn’t defend their punches and kicks or more commonly they would get taken down and nullified before having a chance to use their strikes. These days there are more well rounded and equally matched fighters. This results in more fights where competitors can potentially stand toe to toe exchanging strikes for three rounds.

No Standing Eight Count

Another argument for why Boxing is more dangerous than MMA is that Boxers are often knocked down and allowed to continue after receiving an eight count. In theory, this shouldn’t happen in MMA because when a fighter gets dropped it is assumed that the opponent will immediately follow up with strikes on the ground, after this the referee will intervene and stop the fight saving him from further punishment.

The problem occurs when the fighters are better conditioned and they can withstand and survive the initial knockdown then hold on or scramble back to their feet. All of this leads to MMA fighters potentially absorbing more strikes over the course of a fight and throughout their career.

High Level of Skill of Fighters Leads to Less Danger but Not All Fighters Are Highly Skilled

The mainstream media have often portrayed MMA fighters as mindless thugs locked in a cage trying to injure each other. Fans of the sport are quick to point out that the fighters are experienced athletes who have spent many years training in one or more combat sports perfecting their fighting skills. This leads to the situation whereby the fighters high level of skill will effectively cancel each other out and make it difficult for serious injuries to occur.

This is not always the case however at lower level events where promoters need to keep the spectators entertained or to help build the record of an up and coming star. Often this leads to mismatches with fighters who are untrained and inexperienced and have no business being in the cage.

The Future

In spite of the brutal appearance of the sport, there have been very few deaths or serious injuries in MMA. It is worth remembering however that the sport is still in its early days and there have been relatively few events compared to other combat sports. There is a risk that the sport may become more dangerous as the years go on but I also believe we can take steps to manage these risks.

Some ways to make Mixed Martial Arts safer:

  • Fighter Screening:

Fighters at all levels should be properly screened to ensure they are fit to fight. They should all have proper medical examination including making sure they have not recently suffered concussion either in training or a previous fight. If fighters have been KO’d more than a certain number times they should no longer be allowed to fight.

  • Minimum Training Requirements

Inexperienced fighters jumping in to have a go so they can impress their friends and put pictures on Facebook are often unaware of the dangers involved and make the sport look unprofessional. All fighters should have spent an appropriate amount of time training and have a good level of skills before they are granted a professional fighter licence. The Fighter screening mentioned above could also be extended to test various fighter attributes such as their level of cardiovascular fitness and skills in areas such as striking and grappling. If they don't meet minimum requirements they should not be granted a licence to compete in professional MMA.

  • More Experienced Coaches:

Inexperienced trainers who don’t understand the sport sending inexperienced fighters into the cage jeopardize both the safety of the fighters and the future of the sport. MMA trainers need to be properly qualified and experienced. They must able to use safe training practices while ensuring their fighters are suitably prepared for the realities of a fight and must also be able to recognize when their fighter is in danger during a match.

  • Better Matchmaking:

It is important to ensure that fighters are of a similar experience level in terms of their wins and losses compared to their opponent. This also means taking into account their experience level and record in other combat sports before switching to MMA.  

  • Pathway to Professional MMA:

Aspiring MMA fighters should work their way up through the amateur ranks first. This may mean having around 5 to 10 fights with no head-shots before progressing to C class fights which would allow striking to the head standing but not on the ground, then to B class before finally being eligible to compete under the Professional MMA rules. I feel that this would be safer for the fighters and would also help build a better standard of fighters and events.

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