Fighting and Not Fighting

AikidoI’ve spent more than half my life training in martial arts, but I’m not all that interested in fighting these days. What really grabs me right now is learning to use internal power — being able to take someone’s balance and control a situation without appearing to do much of anything.

It’s hard to describe in words and it can sound (and look) like “magic,” but it’s got more in common with physics. It’s real and it works, though it’s not easy to understand or master. If you catch me in person sometime, I’ll be glad to show you what I’ve gleaned of it so far.

Which is to say that subtle methods of dealing with human conflict interest me a lot more these days than, say, punching out Nazis. Note that I’m not saying you have to be nice, or even civil, to Nazis, only that there are ways of dealing with evil people more effective than hitting them.

I was reminded of this last weekend when a friend of mine told a story of how she used Aikido to resolve a conflict in an organization. An angry person was ranting about how the board must all resign. She agreed with everything he said, shifting it all slightly so that by the time she was finished, it was the ranter who was forced to leave, not everyone else.

I’m sure there are some great stories of Aikido folks using joint techniques like nikkyo or throwing someone across the room, but most of the ones I know involve solving a problem without a fight. (I also know a lot of stories about taking headers off of bicycles or motorcycles and rolling out of them, leading to my theory that self defense and accident prevention come from the same roots.)

It is, of course, one of the ironies of martial arts training that the better you get, the less you need to fight. Back when I studied karate, I remember that it was the people who were getting close to testing for their first black belt who wanted to go out and find a fight to prove themselves. I know very few senior people in any art who bother with that.

The other irony about all these high-minded ways of dealing with conflict is that people need to learn to fight so that they don’t have to. One of the reasons I can get some of the internal work I’m studying is because I know — physically, in my body — how to deal with another person out to do me harm. The people who tell the stories of handling a complicated situation without violence have trained long enough to bring the useful ideas of training into their overall lives.

That’s why I think it’s important for people to learn the physical side of fighting — not so much because they might be in a fight someday as because learning those skills changes people so they don’t need to fight. This is particularly important for women, since most of us are not only raised not to fight, but also learn with our bodies that we can’t fight. That isn’t true, but when we learn things with our bodies we can’t just reject an idea intellectually. We have to let our bodies figure it out by learning something different.

Whenever I bring up women and fighting, someone — usually a man who doesn’t train — mentions male upper body strength. That always reminds me of training in Aikido with strong guys who would on occasion get me in a bear hug from the front and say, “What are you going to do now?”

My response was generally to bring my knee — which was conveniently located between their legs — up close to their groin and suggest that their position was somewhat more vulnerable than they thought. Which is to say that people with external genitalia might want to be careful about asserting the value of their upper body strength.

Now I know that “hitting below the belt” is a cardinal sin in boxing and other male-focused fighting sports. That’s partly to make them less dangerous. However, I’ve also noticed that a lot of men, raised on that ethic, don’t protect their groins nearly as well as they ought to when fighting for sport.

If your genitalia is internal, getting kneed in the groin can hurt, but it doesn’t leave you lying on the ground or crawling slowly to safety. I’ve seen what happens to men who take a real hit to the groin and it isn’t pretty.

I know a lot of small fighters who can handle big strong guys. The whole point of most martial arts training is to teach smaller people how to handle larger one. For women who are smaller than men, this is an object lesson. Small men don’t win fights with big ones using upper body strength. There are more useful ways to fight.

Three takeaways from all this:

One: Don’t assume your strength or other assets make you invulnerable. Everyone has a weakness.

Two: Women can learn to fight and also get to the point where they don’t need to fight because they know how.

Three: I may prefer internal training and resolving conflicts without a fight, but that doesn’t mean I won’t fight if I have to. And I guarantee you I’m not going to follow Marquess of Queensberry* rules if I do.


*I looked up the Marquess of Queensberry to check the spelling of his name and discovered that he was not a very nice man at all, which makes me even less likely to take his rules seriously.



Fighting and Not Fighting — 10 Comments

  1. Oh, yeah. Queensberry was one nasty piece of work.

    Great post. It takes discipline and dedication to get to that level. And a whole lot of bruises and falls in between.

  2. Rule No. 2: no wrestling or hugging allowed. No mystery why he would have added that rule…Yeesh—what a horrible ordeal to have him as a father!

    True story: a certain mother, wishing to impart a few life skills to her young (perhaps eight or ten years old at the time) daughter regarding what to do if any man ever tried to attack and/or abduct her, advised her to knee him in the groin (then run like hell, making as much noise as possible). One day, the young lass related this lesson to an older, childless, male relative, who recoiled in horror, exclaiming “Oh! Don’t ever do that—that’s not nice!” At which the mother later explained that when one’s safety and well-being are on the line, “nice” is not a viable or necessary reaction.

      • I should probably add that this advice is equally applicable to boys who find themselves in the same predicament. But something tells me that they might have a visceral understanding for where to aim their blows that girls don’t possess.

        How disheartening, though, that this relative was more concerned with the potential for injury to the attacker than to their victim. I would just shrug it off (even these many years later) if this attitude weren’t still so pervasive.

        • I think that a lot of boys have bought into the idea that it’s “cheating” to go for the groin. But a boy being attacked by a much bigger man needs to use that as well.

          It is an interesting phenomenon that men who attack people they don’t expect to fight back often stand in a way that leaves their groin wide-open. This is not at all uncommon in rape attacks, for example.

  3. I took one class in aikido at a local community college. I wanted to continue–it seemed like physics in action to me–but knees didn’t like it.

    At a mid-90s Aggiecon or Armadillocon, I recall Joe R Lansdale talked about not fighting as the better option, too.

    • Aikido can be hard on knees, though I think mine would have gone to hell even if I hadn’t trained. One of the things I love about working on the internal stuff these days is that I don’t have to do all the falling and movement that is hard on my aging body, but can still work on the core of Aikido.

      And yep, not fighting as the better option is pretty damn universal among people who have trained seriously.

    • AggieCon. Where among other things we saw Joe teach a man that you *could* use Tai Chi to stop a blow. It was THE KARATE KID but with a different discipline.

      What writers and fans do when there is no bar in the campus student union. . . .