John Graden's Secrets to Sparring


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Before we get into the meat of the lesson, let me introduce myself. What qualifies me to teach this material to you? First, let me say what does not qualify me. First, I'm a black belt. That does not qualify me. I'm a seventh degree black belt. That does not qualify me either. While there may be an argument that black belt is important, Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee was not a black belt. I don't even know if he's a good fighter. I do know that he is an excellent coach. So, just being a karate black belt or instructor does not mean you know how to defend yourself or spar in a competitive arena. Usually it means you can perform the forms and techniques of that system and have achieved a level of sparring competence that can only be described as subjective.

I have been a coach, fighter, and official for a number of World Champion United States Kickboxing and Light Contact teams. I was a silver medalist at the 1985 WAKO World Championships, which is widely regarded as the toughest amateur kickboxing tournament in the world. I have trained state, national and world champions such as Kathy Marlor who won the 1991 World Open Taekwondo Championships in Leicester, England.

I have been blessed with two martial art family trees that grew fighters like apples in an orchard. Walt Bone came from the Jhoon Rhee/Allen Steen “tex kwon do” camp of the 1960s Texas blood and guts era. Walt took me to 3 rd degree black belt when he died in a plane crash in 1982. Joe Lewis started training me in 1984 and has promoted me all the way to 7 th degree. In the mid-1980s Joe was named as the Greatest Fighter in the History of Karate by two separate polls. In 1988, Black Belt magazine asked Joe who he felt would carry the torch for him in the coming years. They devoted a cover story to Joe's answer that the bearer of the torch for him would be myself and my brother Jim. In 2002, Joe inducted me into his Honor Roll, which is his organizations’ Hall of Fame. By the way, speaking of my brothers, Jim is a world champion and Mark is a national champion who has won four consecutive national continuous fighting championships. I guess you could say this stuff is in our blood.

So, I have a lot of confidence in what I teach because I know the sources are impeccable. Bruce Lee taught much of what I will cover to Joe Lewis who taught it to me. Now I'm teaching it to you. Welcome to the family. Whether its point, continuous or full contact, sparring is in essence hitting and getting hit. My job will be to help you maximize the hitting and minimize getting hit. As you will discover, the most important tool you will have in any match is your mind-set. As you apply the information in this course to your training, you will see that your confidence in sparring will sky rocket.

The vast majority of what we are going to work on is the physical application of a well thought out strategy. Strategy is a carefully devised plan of action to achieve a goal. All strategy starts with a mindset. A mindset is a set of beliefs that determine your behavior and approach to any given circumstance. In this case the circumstance is a sport combat match against an opponent. All success begins with a mindset.

My goal is for you to have a number of strategies that will give you the tools to analyze and survive any sparring situation. This is an important point. It is virtually impossible to win every sparring match and I would be lying if I were to say I could teach you how to win each time you bow in. Don't misunderstand me here. I'm very confident you will win more sparring matches than ever and that's great. But, it's more important to me that you are able to survive any match. What do I mean by survive? I want you to be able to handle any opponent and circumstance. There are certain opponents and situations that are very difficult and even perilous. If you're a 90-pound women green belt with nine-months’ experience sparring the schools’ black belt tough guy who has bad control and a tendency to hurt people, odds are you are not going to win that match. However, after this course and practicing the material, you will have a much better chance of handling that guy and staying out of harm's way. I didn't say you would be able to beat him or even win the match. I mean that you will be able to protect yourself and survive the match intact.

This will not come as the result of any secret kick or punch combination. Instead, it will because you will be able to recognize how this guy fights and formulate a plan to defend yourself against it. In some cases, you may even overcome the odds and win the match. But, in this kind of one-sided match-up, I'm mostly concerned that you are able to protect yourself and emerge from the match in good shape.

There are also circumstances that arise that can hinder your ability to execute even when the match-up is fair. You might be injured, ill, or exhausted from other fights. I want you to be able to control your opponent and the flow of the fight regardless of how you feel. Again, these are circumstances where the goal will be to just survive the match intact. Winning is always nice and you will have a much better chance of winning following these strategies and mind-sets, but sometimes just surviving in one piece is a win in itself. The Japanese fight fan seems to appreciate this more than any other. If you've watched The Pride or K1 fights from Tokyo, fighters who are soundly overmatched can lose the match yet win the hearts of the audience by their ability to survive. This warrior spirit is greatly appreciated by the Japanese and it's important that you understand this mindset.

This warrior spirit mindset is defined simply as no one touches my body without my permission. This is important. This is the mindset that gives your defense purpose and fuels your attitude. This mindset gives you focus in your training and in your fights. How can you spar without getting hit? Most of the time you can't. You will get hit. But here's the distinction I want to make clear. The word permission in this context is when you take a subordinate attitude. Permission means that you have mentally decided that you are going to lose and take the beating. You lay down. Maybe you are that green belt fighting a black belt. More often than not that green belt is going to feel he doesn't stand a chance. He mentally succumbs to the opponent before the first kick is thrown. He has given permission for the black belt to beat him. I will not let you make that mistake. No one touches your body without your permission.

The foundation of this mindset is a strong belief that while you may not be as fast, as strong, or as experienced, you will not give in. You will fight to protect yourself until the bell rings. This concept is at the root of any confidence you may gain as a fighter. Without this fundamental mindset, you will always have a doubt. You are allowing a potential circumstance for not surviving. That is death to a fighter literally and figuratively. The mindset has to be, you may have advantages on me, but I will defend myself with every fiber of my being. I will never give up trying to protect myself.

I have a good friend of mine who not at all athletic. He got inspired to start martial arts classes at age 40. He was at least 100 pounds overweight and could not do a single push-up. After about a year of training at a local taekwondo school he asked me if I could help him with his sparring. I taught him what I'm going to teach you. It all starts with the first mindset; no one touches you without your permission.

After two classes with me he was matched with the schools’ top fighter. Not only did my friend not get hit once, but he actually dropped the guy with a counter jab. He was so excited he called me on the way home from class. The first thing he said was that a week earlier he would have just succumbed to the black belt and taken the pounding. Instead, he stayed in the moment and did not give permission to get hit. He didn't give up mentally. Keep in mind; this guy can't kick over his waist. He has very few weapons in the way of kicks and punches. Guess what? He didn't need a lot of techniques and neither will you.

While most schools teach you dozens of punches and kicks, truthfully you only need a few weapons. What you need more than a wide variety of weapons is a wide variety of ways to execute the weapons you have confidence in. Most of us have our favorite punch and our favorite kick. Under pressure, it's natural to fall back on what you know best. So if your best technique is a reverse punch, then you need strategies to help you score with that reverse punch. That's what this course is all about. Helping you to discover and then master your strengths. We'll also find ways to plug the holes in your defense. We'll develop offensive and defensive strategies that work for your body frame, fighting style, mental makeup, and technical skill level. Each lesson, we'll create instant drills that you can work into your sparring regardless of how advanced or remedial your opponent is. Some drills will not require an opponent. Some drills will not require your opponent to even know you are working on a drill instead of free sparring. In some cases though, will require a partner who is familiar with the goals of the drill.

This week as you spar and train, I want you to work on one simple strategy. I want you to spar and train with the mindset; no one touches you without your permission.


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