Letters: Older blokes; specialist MMA training

9 August 2005

Dave Wheeler in Canberra wrote recalling the brief time he spent training at Earlham Street with his mate Spud Murphy and detailing his subsequent martial arts career. Dave had two questions that may be of interest to a wider audience, and we’re printing them here with Steve’s replies.

1) What are your recommendations for training for older blokes like myself and Spud, who are in our early to mid fifties? Having been there you would have a far better idea than us.

Basically, one thing for sure you don’t want to do is to train like a 50-year-old. The fight isn’t going to change for you, so you can’t back off it. You can’t start doing Tai Chi and think it’s going to be combat. You’re always looking to prepare for a challenge either in the gym, or on the street. And the best policy in any fight is to take the fight to the man so that you fight within your areas of expertise, to set the intensity at a high level of ferocity, and to be ruthless. That isn’t going to change, regardless of your age.

You have to always anticipate it’s going to be very high intensity. The problem is, for a 50 year old just coming in with no fitness base, he’d probably have a coronary. So your best way to work it is to come in from two approaches. And you can get more details about what I recommend for conditioning by looking at the conditioning notes on the site.

1) First establish an aerobic base. My recommendation would be to do 30 minutes of indoor cycling (instead of running, to reduce joint impact) gradually increasing the resistance until you’re working within the anaerobic threshold zone. You’ll be producing lactic acid, but not enough to tie you up. You’ll still be able to function. Once you’ve achieved that, you can then start adding variables within that 30 minute period: sprints, to represent punching in the open position; cranking up the resistance to represent ground work or closed grappling on the feet. Do this 3-4 times per week, no excuses. This builds your base.

2) Within your training, apart from non-specific strength/speed/agility work, you have to get more specific to what you need to do in the fight. Let’s take the pads. Most people train on the pads as if they’re on fucking valium. They do a 15,20, 30 minute workout on the pads and it’s all paced. A better way is, once you and your training partner are familiar with the moves that are combat-scenario oriented as opposed to just hitting the pads, to run your exchanges off at very high intensity, full power. Now if you can only do that for 30 seconds, great. That’s good. But now increase the number of 30 second bursts you do, until you’re going for five minutes. Have a rest, and do it again. Or throw in some other kind of specific work, e.g. pummelling hard for 30 seconds. And so on, until you’ve included all the components of the fight (in their specific form with a man such as exchange drills on the feet or on the ground, in conditional fighting, and with equipment substitutions for the man such as ground and pounding a bag) within a 30 minute workout.

So you’re looking to cover open position on the feet, standup closed position, takedowns, ground and pound, and submission. You need to do this offensively, defensively, and counteroffensively. You need to also allow one of the partners to play the role of striker, or a ground and pound specialist, or a submission fighter, to give yourself experience of different kinds of fighters and so as to apply yourself in different ways. If you just took two submission fighters and let them go at it, you’re going to end up with two guys on the ground for 30 minutes looking for submissions. Two standup fighters will just stand up and strike. You don’t want that. The reality is, if for example one of those strikers was better than you at striking, you wouldn’t want to stay on the feet. You’d want to get him down. So you need to play different roles in your training to simulate that.

My guiding principle for all training is intensity, intensity, intensity. Your exchanges should look like two wildcats going at each other, not two pussies. Most sparring I see on the feet and grappling on the ground goes too easy. It sets the wrong impression in your brain, and physiologically it doesn’t prepare you for the reality. Whatever strokes you’re learning, you’ve got to learn them in a fucking storm in the North Sea, because they are the product of a storm.

Rather than going straight in at high intensities, though, use both approaches. Use the endurance work on the bike to gradually build up your thresholds. And use the intense work at very short durations, going all out, to give yourself a sense of what level you need to be working at in a fight. Then you can increase the duration of the intense intervals as you develop the conditioning for it. But don’t do aerobic sparring. The only long-duration fighting you should be doing is playfighting where you’re trying stuff out, and that’s purely for experimentation. The amount of experimentation you need to do needn’t be very much, because the evidence of what key moves are effective is there for you on video footage, and you might as well take advantage of that. You’ll get stances, footwork, and all sorts of other information if you watch enough fights analytically. Anyway, in the playfighting you will discover possibilities, but they will need to be tested and turned into probabilities through your intense exchange drills and conditional fighting, and I can’t stress enough that these must be done competitively. This is the only way you will get your killer mindset.

Coming back to the age thing, what you mustn’t do is to extend your fighting over a longer period so as to save yourself so you can get through the session. Even a small amount of very high intensity, high quality training is better than doing a lot of long, low-intensity stuff. Back up all your specific work with good cardio on the bike as I’ve described–again, aerobic threshold, not aerobic–and speed/agility/functional strength/reactive power (plyometrics) work which you can get on the general fitness market and then adapt it for fighting. In this way, training 3-5 days a week, you will find that you can support those high intensities because you’ve built a base of fitness.

Keep your training short. Try doing what I call a 10 second workout. Do 10 seconds of an exercise at the highest possible intensity, then change immediately to another exercise and do the same ten times. Take a short rest, but not enough for full recovery. Then go again, either the same exercises or different ones. In this way you can mix in general strength, speed, agility, as well as specific work like bag, knees to medicine ball, etc. If you mix it up well, you’ll get all your important work in every workout. And that ten seconds can be adjusted; you might have to increase it for some exercises. It’s the principle that’s important: total intensity, and don’t over-concentrate on one particular exercise. Get your heart rate up and still be able to do the work effectively. Aim to do quality work at a high rate of effort. Try it. It’s hard.

One of the most important things is the impression of what you will have to do. A lot of guys, old and young, train like pack horses. Train like a tiger. When I see a lot of guys training, it’s obvious that they’ve got the wrong impression. They’re trying hard physically, but they haven’t got this ferocious explosion in their mind’s eye. And usually because they’re inhibited, their body holds back. They’re unable to let go and allow that ferocity to express itself in the body. It becomes too much technique. I very rarely ever see that level of ferocity in the ring, much less in the gym. You see it sometimes in Thailand. There seems to be some social, psycho-physiologically inhibiting factor that people are unable to overcome. But that’s the worst level of violence you’re going to have to deal with, so you have to be able to go there. You need to have been there before to deal with it. When it comes at you, it is like a fucking tiger coming at you.

Capture that ferocity in your mind and then translate it into your body for the duration of the exertion. Again, and again, and again. You need to be able to keep firing that ferocity. That impression needs to be available to you as if on tap. If you’re an MMA fighter, you’re preparing for a planned fight. But as a martial artist in the true sense, you know it could kick off anytime, anyplace, and it could be really serious. With that in mind, the most important thing I’ve found over the years is continually stimulating that impression of violent exchange. And I figure, the more violent ferocity I can produce, the more likely I’m going to win. I work in micro-cycles. Most people work over a period of weeks: nine weeks, six weeks, three weeks, or even one week. I work through the day. One day is my training cycle. I’m always high alert. I’ll break off whatever I’m doing and imagine: somebody’s just come through the door. I’ll do a quick shadow-exchange at very high intensity, just as if it’s real. Then I’ll go back to what I was doing. And this goes off randomly all day long. I never let go of it. The safety’s always off my gun. It’s ready to go.

No matter whether you’re drunk, asleep, you name it, there’s always some part of your mind that’s ready. But the only way you get that is to build it in by daily repetition, and that’s what I’ve done for forty-odd years. So it’s not so much that the exercise is intense, it’s that you’re intense, and everything you do is intense as a natural result. However, this process can work like a feedback cycle. If you train intensely, it will affect you. It’s you that needs to be intense, and that’s what the training is for.

Weight is obviously important, particularly as you get older. Although I was up to about 15 or 16 stone in the Earlham Street days, I’ve always kept my best weight at about 13 and a half to fourteen stones, and I maintain that. If you’re overweight, you need to lose it. No two ways about it. You’ll just make your high-intensity work more difficult if you carry extra weight. Usually if you’re overweight, there’s a reason for it, and the problem is not the weight so much as the reason for the weight–it points to a lifestyle that’s too easy. If you’re overweight because you’re sitting in front of the tv, or having beers and socializing all the time, then it’s your mindset that needs to change and the weight will come off. But carrying extra weight doesn’t mean you need to panic. If you’re doing these high intensity workouts I’m talking about, you’ll drop weight as long as you keep your calories down. And always, when you exercise, look for total body movement. Use all the muscles, not only for more efficiency, but to get more out of the training. You’ll produce more testosterone and more growth hormone this way.

As you age, you will probably find that you need more recovery time, particularly if you’re taking up a new exercise. Joints can become a problem for a lot of people, so it’s just common sense to try supplements and see if they work for you. If you’ve got a particular problem such as injury, you have to find a way around it, and the older you are the more likely you are to have a particular problem. I remember David Dubow had a friend who had lost one leg, and he wanted to get fit. At the time, I was riding an indoor bike because I’d had a knee injury. I’m trying to think of a way this guy could do it. I took the saddle off the bike and sat behind it, and cycled it with my hands. That was in the Seventies. As long as you know what you want to achieve and what your problems are, you’ll find a way around them if you try hard enough. But you have to be self-reliant and self-motivated.

The whole idea is not to fit into the stereotypical view of training in a gym. It’s about fighting. That’s why you have to throw out all the bullshit and stick to the stuff that you know works. I used to hit a bag for hours at a time, nonstop. You know the black bag: it broke a lot of guys’ hands. I did that then, six or eight hours a day sometimes. I hit it like a crazy man. But I wouldn’t do that now. I don’t need to: I’ve got the bullet. I just need to keep the weapon primed. In the past, I wasn’t working out like that for the sake of exercise, I was doing it to be able to fight and to do everything I could to make my shots more effective. Once I discovered how to do that, I could move on.

2) Given the absence of someone like yourself in Canberra, I recommend to the young blokes who I train in striking, to also train in Freestyle wrestling and BJJ. We have a world class Freestyle coach here in Canberra, a 61 year old ex Polish representative who trained full time in Poland when it was Stalinist. Do you believe I am offering them an appropriate mixture?

It depends. If you’ve got the guy on your side, that’s great. If it’s this guy’s objective to teach your guys wrestling for MMA, as opposed to wrestling for its own sake, then you’ve got a good deal. Naturally, any cross-training which touches reality (freestyle, Greco-Roman, Muay Thai, BJJ, boxing) is great, providing you don’t have to go through the system to get where you want to get. Because there are lot of moves within each of these specialities that you don’t need.

However, you will potentially run into the problem where this coach, however good his intentions, will very likely find it difficult to look at the fight from an MMA perspective. At best, he’ll be looking at it from a wrestler’s perspective in MMA. If you go to a guy like this, you have to take what he shows you with a grain of salt. And it’s a Catch-22. Because if you already know which moves you need, then why do you need him to teach them to you? And if you don’t, then how can you trust him to make that determination when he doesn’t have the experience of having been kneed in the head while trying to execute a double leg?

That’s why the real best way is to watch a lot of MMA video and actually see what they’re doing in the fight (not in the training). Then, if you have a fundamental understanding of boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, it’s easy to adapt their training moves and conditional fighting within your own gym. You don’t necessarily have to go somewhere else for instruction.

The logic of it is, if you had to train separately in each of these disciplines that contribute to MMA, you’d be an old man by the time you ever called yourself a complete fighter. And there’s no way you can get all of the essentials in just a few lessons, because so much of what’s in there is non-essential to MMAÑunless you’re putting your head together with the coach who’s running the session. MMA, by my interpretation, is the closest representation of a real fight, and is uniquely different to wrestling, submission wrestling, Muay Thai or boxing. It is its own combative sport.

The whole thing is in the fight. You have to look at the fight and do what the fight is telling you to do. A lot of guys go into BJJ or go into Muay Thai and they get sidetracked off the real issue, and that’s the fight. That doesn’t mean that say a wrestler can’t fight, but he has to adapt his wrestling to fighting, like Couture. And he won’t learn that in a wrestling gym. Remember, as an MMA trainer, you’re not trying to teach wrestling. You shouldn’t judge yourself on that basis.

For example, the low round kick as adapted for MMA is not the same low round kick you do in Muay Thai; if it were, you’d get taken down. If you go and learn a left hook in a boxing gym the way the boxing coach teaches you to do it, you’re going to have problems trying to use it in MMA. It’s not the same left hook. Equally, if you have to go through the procedures of playing chess before you get positional control on the ground to put an armlock or a choke on, not only would you be missing a lot of opportunities to finish this fight quicker with strikes, but you might be the one on the receiving end of a battering. That doesn’t mean that if a submission comes up, you’re not going to take it if it’s the best option; you do. But going looking for one often leaves you vulnerable for counters. If you do a lot of pure grappling, you form an impression of needed response based only on grappling, and that’s the wrong impression for MMA.

You have to ask yourself, from the grappling point of view, what’s the purpose of it? It’s to throw the guy down any way you can. To hold him down, while you finish him. That’s the main purpose. A lot of people tend to divert themselves from that by learning technique. It’s the spirit of what you’ve got to do that’s important, and that’s the first thing you’ve got to understand. You get clues to how that throwing down and holding down can be done more efficiently through grappling sports, but what I’ve always found to be more valuable, even amongst those people who profess to be grapplers, is to put them in live realistic situations, positional or submission, and set them goals such as escaping, or applying a lock, a choke or a strike. Put the guy into situations which are representative of what will come up in the fight, and then either let him experiment to find ways by which to achieve the objective, or else make an intense competition of achieving a specific goal over a short duration. And doing that for all the scenarios of a fight. And you’ll end up, if you do that enough, solving the problem in a similar way to the way it’s been solved for thousands of years. If you throw a guy a ball, he’ll pretty much catch it the same way as somebody across the world. I’m a great believer in trial and error, and entrustment to the wisdom of the body.

But all of this is provided you break the fight down into its different scenarios and then create drills and conditional fighting by which to become familiar with those scenarios. The function of the trainer is to create the situation, and possibly give clues as to how the problems might be solved or have been solved by others. Beyond that, he stands back; he’s got to let it happen. Trust the wisdom of the body; don’t trust the wisdom of the so-called expert. Don’t do it. You can consult coaches, books, videos, but don’t give yourself over to them.

More than technique or method, what I rely on is knowing my enemy. What could he do next? When I’m practicing, in my mind I’ve already countered his counters. I take control of the reality of the fight. I impose myself on it. I make him react to me. Whatever that reaction is, I’ve already anticipated it. I’m already ahead of him. That’s why this perception of interval of time is so fucking important. There’s no way in for him; I’m not going to give him the time. And I’m definitely not going to give him the time to set up. He’s fucking fighting an animal. Technique denies that animal. You’ve got to tap into that.

You’ve got to know your enemy. And know yourself. The body moves in a very fundamental way, and it’s understanding how the body moves and how it has been adapted to produce a functional movement that gives you the key. My kids, I just watch them and I see them doing hip heists, bridges, runarounds, you name it. They’re doing it instinctively. And out of those instinctive movements of response come the more specialized movements of response. The superior athlete has simply refined those movements he learnt as a child. That’s where too much instruction can get in the way–it interferes with the natural development.

And this is where, when you ask for my advice, you have to bear in mind that I’m only ever talking from my own personal experience. I’ve never learned anything from a coach—except how not to do it. As a 16 year old I was throwing the javelin about 230 feet as a junior. I had an unusual style in the run-up and the way I launched the javelin. An Army Physical Training coach came up and taught me this pattern of movement that was like fucking Riverdance and told me to do it that way. It fucked me up. And you know what? Look at the contemporary javelin throwers, and they’re doing it in a very similar way to my idiosyncratic, natural movement back in 1959—before the coach got hold of me.

I taught myself to swim, ride a bike, ride a horse, drive, and fight. Not because I’m a genius, but because I was always in a situation where it was do or die. People can do things. That’s the beauty of human beings. We’ve evolved to solve problems, and if a fucking sabre-tooth tiger is coming at me, I ain’t gonna wait for somebody to teach me to climb a fucking tree. I’m up it, and I’m on the top branch. And that’s what you need in your training. And commitment, on your part, to doing it.

Let me tell you one more story. You probably remember Chul Jo Kim, the guy who did the nunchaku. Well, back in the early 70s I got word from Geoff at Atoz books in Chinatown that Chul Jo was going to come looking for me to learn nunchaku. I knew some nunchaku, as it was taught on Okinawa, but that was a load of bollocks. Seriously—it was useless. So when, a short while later, the bell rang and it was Chul Jo, I told him to go away, knowing that he’d come back. And you know what I did? I started practicing the nunchaku right then and there. For a couple of days, I stayed up to the early morning hours practicing nunchaku and incorporating within it all my weaponry knowledge of Chinese systems, and even baton twirling, so that when he did come back, I was ready for him on the first lesson. In which I blew his mind.

Then I had a problem. He wanted another lesson. So I went home again and did the same thing. This went on for six months, with Chul Jo innocently believing that I knew everything about nunchaku, when in truth I was only ever eight hours ahead of him. That’s how we made the nunchaku movie, which incidentally has become the source for a lot of nunchaku moves across the world that people have popularized. But those moves didn’t exist until I did them in that movie. And Chul Jo only had six months training. And you can see his development within the film.

That’s the kind of commitment you need. You put yourself in a position where you’ve got to solve the problem, and if the motivation is high enough, you’ll do it. And maybe you were even around for the Superstars Period in Earlham Street. This was where guys kept coming up to me and asking me if I had seen what they were doing on Superstars, as if these guys on TV were supermen. And I decided to initiate a competition which included most of the exercises—pushups, pullups, situps, etc—to prove that they were capable of doing more. And they did—far more. Some guys were skipping for two or three hours. They made Superstars look like wimps. They didn’t believe that they were capable of it until I gave them the opportunity to prove that.

The way I learned to swim was when I was eight in Malaya. All my mates had swum across to a small island in a tin mining lake. I was the only one who couldn’t swim, so I stood on the shore watching them. Then a herd of buffalo decided they wanted a drink! I don’t know if you can picture what this was like, but it wasn’t someplace you wanted to be. The only way to get away from them was to run into the water. Somehow I managed to thrash my way across to the island—it definitely wasn’t Johnny Weismuller, but I got across. Now when I got on the island, completely fucking exhausted, my mates all decided to go back! Now that took some mental determination, to do it all again.

What you have to understand about me–and yourself–is that I’m not some special, gifted, extraordinary guy. What sets me apart is that I’m not intimidated by what other people have done or claim they’ve done, I just do it. I run at it. And if it doesn’t work the first, or second, or third, or hundredth time, I keep going at it. I put a tremendous amount of work in to everything that I do. It’s the experience you gain from doing it, not from being told how to do it, that is the real payoff. Experts can be a real problem, because if you believe there is somebody out there who can give it to you, you’ll never really go looking for it yourself. And you’ll never get the full benefit of that searching.

That’s why I don’t believe in experts, especially if you have to keep going back to them. I have had some good advice from time to time. I taught myself to ride. But Doug Thompson, a top trainer of cutting horses, working cow horses and reining horses from the States, clarified for me everything about the fundamental way of riding a horse in five minutes. Using only a chair and a piece of string. Now there’s an expert worth consulting. And his advice was so good that when Dick Hur, another top American trainer, saw what I could do with a horse, he said I’d have no problem getting work as a trainer in the States even though most trainers there are cowboys who grew up on horseback and spent their whole lives mucking out! But Doug only gave me the key; I had to do the hard work myself.

This is why when people get into ‘who’d you train under?’ or ‘who’ve you trained with?’ or ‘who taught you that move?’ etc. it kind of always reminds me of Harry Cook and his obsession with footnotes. Does my ability to rationalize, process all of my own experiences, and creatively synthesize something new have to be ratified by some official authority? It’s as if we can’t think for ourselves. And if you’re not appealing to the mentality of ‘I’ve been on a course, I’ve got my certificate, and now I’m an authority’ then you find yourself pissing in the wind. When in fact most of the guys offering the certifications and titles are experts only at playing the system. They haven’t got a fucking original thought in their head. With me, what you see is what you get. And I’m essentially completely fucking self-taught. And I urge you to be the same. I say it again and again on this site. Don’t give yourself over to anybody.

I’m an expert; but I’m not. And that’s probably my problem. I don’t sell myself as an expert. I don’t encourage people to trust me, follow me, turn themselves over to me. And what I do say is so simple that most people don’t seem to want to believe it could be true. I can point you in the direction, and I can definitely from my perspective tell you where not to go and what not to waste your time on doing. But it’s your journey. It’s your life. Get everything out of it you can; you have nothing to lose.