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For those of you who aren’t aware of it, it hurts to get punched in the face. It’s also not a lot of fun to take a knee to the thigh or a kick to the tits. But take it I do; and no, I’m not an abused wife, masochist or BDSM aficionado (though as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with the latter two if that’s your thing).

You see, I fight as part of my karate training. I’m not very good at it — sparring, that is — but I suit up, shut up, and get my butt in the ring with grown men (and one other woman) and do my best to kick their asses. Every now and then, I land a really good punch and a few times I’ve knocked a few of ’em down. Or maybe they tripped. Who cares, I still got the credit! — and that part I LOVE.

We usually fight in two-minute rounds which doesn’t sound like a long time until you’re a minute and thirty seconds into it, wheezing like an asthmatic, and trying to remember to “block AND punch,” or “block AND kick.” On the edge of the ring is Sensei, shouting out every damn thing you’re doing wrong, “Keep your hands UP!” “Don’t let him back you into a corner!” “Follow up with a kick! A KICK! Jesus, you have feet! Remember!!! Ai, yi, yi!!” (Sensei is Puerto Rican and the former US Army Martial Arts Champion and all around bad-ass.) 

When Sensei is in a particular mood or when we’re testing for the next belt level, we fight the gauntlet. One person takes the center ring then the rest of the classmates and the two black-belt assistants (10 people total) fight that one person, 30 seconds at a time. So that means, one person fights continuously for 5 minutes all the while getting a fresh, non-tired opponent every thirty seconds.

I definitely get bruised and a couple of times I’ve gotten bloody. So far it hasn’t happened to me, but a few of my classmates have thrown up either as a result of a well placed kick or general exhaustion.

Which all begs the question — why? Why on earth would I do this to myself?

It’s a good question, and here are a few thoughts:

I love it because it scares the hell out of me. I KNOW it is going to hurt; and I get in there anyway. I know my opponents are bigger, stronger, and often better than me; and I face off against them anyway. I know it is unlikely that I will ever compete in a tournament or actually be IN a “real” fight; and I work hard to get better anyway.

I love it because it makes me stronger. Not just physically, which it does, but fighting increases my mental toughness. In addition to the fear, when you get hit, the pain starts a cascade effect of chemical reactions in the body. The first thing I have to overcome is choosing “fight” over “flight.” I have to decide to fight back therefore over-riding years of social conditioning that taught me to run away from things that make me uncomfortable or difficult or painful. Looking through my raised gloves, protecting my face, I see the jab come straight in; step and lean back, the fist pops my head back but then I explode forward into the red zone to return a front kick into his ribs.

I love it because it makes me more calculating and less reactionary. When someone is punching and kicking you, the first reaction is to simply lash out, swing back, and try to connect a fist or a foot with some soft tissue, and that’s a good way to lose and lose fast. You have to watch your opponent, see what he’s going to do, predict what is coming your way. You have to learn quickly what he does over and over and what opening he usually presents because we all present an opening sooner or later. He always fakes two steps, lift and fake, lift and fake. After the second fake he brings up a rear leg roundhouse. I turn in and take the kick to the gut as he over steps the angle, leaving his chest wide open for side kick. When it’s there, you have to attack it.

I love it because it calms my mind. A person purposefully hurting you usually causes anger. Again, it’s a chemical and justifiable reaction when someone is trying to hit you but one you CAN control; you don’t have to get mad even though it’s easy to do. The more of their moves that connect the calmer I have to be; in fact, I often try to focus to the point that time slows down so I can see the kick coming, block it with my left forearm, while pulling power from the ground up through my leg, butt, and back, down my arm and returning a vicious right cross.

I love it because we learn from each other even while we’re hurting each other. My partner is my opponent, not my enemy. He too, is a student and though often more adept than me, he is learning as well. He tries but can’t always pull his punches enough not to send my flying backwards on to my ass and sometimes lands a hard punch square to my face mask. I sometimes flail back, landing punches to the face or below the belt. We know the problem is a lack of skill not a lack of intelligence and certainly not a lack of character. Hands up, palms out. We back up, breathe deep, and circle around looking for our next opening.

I love it because it isn’t soft or nurturing. Sensei’s encouragement is aggressive and no holds barred. He has no interest in being supportive and he isn’t going to be nice. “That hurt? Well don’t just stand there and take another! Hit him!” “Good one! Make ‘im feel it. Don’t let  him think he shouldn’t be afraid of you.”  When coaching my opponent, “Don’t worry about the fact she’s a girl, get your foot up there!” “Strike harder, she’s not made of glass and if she is, tough shit! That’s her problem, not yours!”  

At the end of two minutes (or five!) I usually have spit running down my chin because the mouth protector is hard to swallow around; my body is dripping with sweat; I have at least two or three new bruises, usually on my thighs or shoulders, where there is no padding. My partner and I touch gloves, bow, and leave the ring where we then slide down the wall into a semi-sitting/squatting position to remove our head-gear. We catch our breath, drink some water, then stand back up to cheer on the next two combatants.

Every time I spar, every single time, I get better. And the improvements carry over into life. I face down fears, especially painful ones, head on. I am mentally and physically tougher in all my dealings, whether it’s dealing with the beaurocrats at City Hall or with an obnoxious sales clerk, I stand my ground. In an argument or a debate with the same beaurocrat or clerk, I look for the opening I need and when it is presented, I attack. I no longer easily accept someone else’s limited responses as an appropriate response. I rarely get mad at “opponents” or people who are standing between me and getting results. I am not reduced to anger by someone merely striking out at me verbally. I don’t expect my partners (husband, friends, and general acquaintances) not to hurt me. They are learning too. But I do expect them to get better, and to pull their punches. If they don’t, then they aren’t partners. I don’t listen for gentle encouragement, but instead hear an inner voice shouting out to me from ring-side, “Get in there, Stasha!! Kick some ass!”

I don’t worry too much about taking names though. I’ve learned it slows down the ass-kicking.

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