The Noble Art & The Gentle Arts: What Boxing Can Teach Judo & BJJ

You know that smell. The sweetness of sweat and hard work. Walk into any longstanding training venue and it’s like a reminder that what ever else is going on in your life is, now, for the time you’re here, firmly on hold. That sickening but satisfying stench of the boxing glove you pull off the gym rack. There is a ‘need for presence’ in all the combat sports. No time for the outside world, insecurities or worries while the person in front of you is trying to knock you out, throw you into the floor or attempting to manipulate the position of your two bodies to apply pressure to a particular point of your anatomy to force you to quit, to admit defeat. For me, that smell tells me to “be here now.” I’m very fortunate to have a full time career in Judo and I love chasing down goals but, sometimes, training and sparring are a therapy.

I’ve done handfuls of boxing lessons and sessions at various stages in my life starting in my early teens, at a guess maybe 30 in total. That’s not counting the ‘milling’ we used to do on the schoolboys national squad (Judo) training camps up in the north west. 1 pair of gloves between the 2 of you; if you had the right hand glove for the first half of the fight then you swapped half way through, chin down, no back steps permitted, swing from the hip and watch out for the beds and railings. Beds and railings? Yep, these weren’t training sessions. The bouts were back at the youth hostel we were staying at, in the bedrooms and corridors. “The beautiful lake district town of Kendal sounds like a beautiful place to visit doesn’t it Margaret?” “Oh, yes Love.” Turn up to your accommodation and there are 40 young lads swarming your floor, tops off, encouraging the two in the middle with one glove on each and the other hand behind their back to leather each other senseless. Actually, I remember 1 year someone forgot to bring the gloves, fortunately one of the coaches just happened to have a pair lying around in the boot of his car……… 😉 Times have changed. Perhaps for better, perhaps for worse, regardless, I loved those years.

Anyway, maybe a bad habit from the ‘milling’ days but honestly, when I do box I’m not purposely trying to block the shots with my chin! I’m inexperienced, standing with the other foot forward to the one I’m used to leading with (yes I’m considering going southpaw) and, probably the thing that I find most difficult, when I get caught in sparring is to get away and move out. That is virtually the complete opposite to what I’ve been ever taught in grappling, close the space if I’m on the receiving end. I love it though.

I really enjoy learning. Judo particularly is such a complex sport, I haven’t found another physical activity that I can’t transfer elements from it back to what I do on the mat. I have found the simplistic but systematic approach to teaching the basics in boxing revolutionary to areas of my own (Judo) game, and even more so for the kids and recreational senior sessions that I coach at Camberley Judo Club. Stance, basic movement, switching stance, pivoting, moving in certain directions for particular sided fighters and much more; some of these are the base of what we do in Judo yet are regularly overlooked or not actually taught at all at novice level, or any level for that matter. We have a grading syllabus in Judo but it was through my occasional jaunt to the boxing club that I started to think about the base elements of fighting, and fighting Judo. It’s something I also got from BJJ, from putting my ego aside and going back to some beginner classes at Carlson Gracie Farnborough. I really like the way it’s kept simple yet all encompassing; safety, foundational movements, basic positions and basic attacks that all link. I find those Carlson’s classes so well thought through. I take those ideas and methods with me when I prepare the learning content for the classes that I run. It doesn’t have to consume the entire session, sometimes just a few minutes is enough, I tend to add it at the towards the end of the warm up. Start building with the foundations first. With out going too much off point, I don’t actually like the term “warm up” as, personally, staying mobile and loose is one of the reasons I train at all, I prefer to see it as a “progressive build up.” All parts of the session as important as each other. “Warm up” just doesn’t carry enough weight for me but that’s for another post.

I love all the intricate details in technique, I am no master but, Judo speaking, after practising techniques years in years out, looking for minute improvements and understanding can keep me motivated and away from boredom. That’s a little trick needed to develop a technique to a world class level. Ju-ji-gatame, an armlock, is my favourite technique and I’m confident that, in the correct position, that I can score it on anyone in the world. I’ve drilled and practised it thousands upon thousands of time and plenty of days it was the slight different pressure on the opponents head or tweak of my hand position etc that spurred me onto training it as opposed to trying something new. 

I missed the basics of fighting Judo at the recreational club that I started at so, for me, I’ve enjoyed going back and learning them, something I’m still doing. Although I do love those minuscule details I do recognise that a great coach can deliver quality information in a simple enough package for their students to work with. I remember being at a really blue-collar boxing club a few years back and this lad was giving me instructions on how to move forwards and backwards. I said to him something along the lines of, “so, I push off my front foot slightly to transfer the weight to my back foot, freeing up my front foot so that I can move it forwards?” He looked at me with a raised eyebrow which signified his thought of “FFS” and said, “eh?! Something like that, pal. Like I said before, just move the front foot first!” That biomechanics module on my sports coaching degree never had me feeling so thick! He was right though. Just keep it simple. That did make me think about HOW to deliver my planned content when coaching. I break techniques down, during explanation, into 3, absolutely maximum 4, simple, easy to grasp, stages for players understanding. Throws are practiced in the full movement. Groundwork, however, tends to be more fixed positions and scenarios so breaking down individual segments and practising them can be a valuable. I keep it all relatively simple unless questioned on a specific detail or I see an area for individual improvement while someone is practising. There is a level of self indulgence I think to coaches that spend half an hour explaining every detail of a technique and possible reaction that an opponent could give you, then demonstrates it 20 times before even letting you give it a go. Just start! Fine tuning is something that should be done on the way.

Last point. I was on a podcast at the weekend, Coach Gethin Radio (episode available next Thursday, June 11th), I talked about how I prefer full movement practise as opposed to breakdowns, especially for beginner and intermediate players.Regards to my own boxing training and interest, a while back I was watching the build up to a Tyson Fury fight, Tyson was goading his opponent telling him how he was going to knock him out, “slink” he said as he mimed the shot that he was going to land. “Slink.” I thought about what that meant. Slink, as in the action of an old ball and chain weapon, very similar too sling. A beginner in boxing, I’d been practising throwing a straight right (back) hand punch but had been so focused on all the isolated and little details that it was looking and feeling a bit robotic. I visualised a slinging action within the compounds of a boxing stance, shadowed it and then tried it out on the bag that night at Camberley Boxing Club. Instantaneously it felt quicker, more fluid, snappier and ultimately more powerful. I like those kind of large embodying, simple, descriptions, sometimes they help me to put the magnifying glass down, step back and see things as a whole. Now, if I could just not get hit…….