The Most Important Thing

Too much time is given to the development of skill and too little to the development of the individual for participation. Bruce Lee

Wing chun kuen is a fighting method. Presumably our objective in practicing it is to develop fighting skill. Fighting skill, regardless of our fighting method, can be viewed as the interaction of three aspects: intensity, technique, and judgment. It is our individual combination of these aspects that give us fighting skill. These aspects are hierarchical yet effect each other in ways that need to be addressed.

Fighting intensity is what I call fighting‘s “the meta-attribute“: a combination of numerous attributes and qualities, both mental and physical, including, but not limited to, ferocity, aggressiveness, power, speed, strength, conditioning, cunning, explosiveness, intent, killer instinct, focus, level of threat, ability to absorb punishment, etc. Perhaps the single most significant contributor factor to intensity is our level of physical conditioning. Tito Ortiz charging in for a double-leg takedown has great fighting intensity. And the angry, wet
tomcat that you try to pick up, frenetically hissing, clawing, biting, etc., has fighting intensity. There is an old saying, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.” Intensity is that “size of the fight.”

Intensity, because it is a combination of numerous attributes and qualities, can be quite diverse, and is in fact personal and individual. One person’s intensity may derive mainly from an abundance of raw strength, aggressiveness, explosiveness, etc. while another person,
perhaps someone physically weaker, has intensity that derives from speed, quickness, cunning, killer instinct, ferocity, etc. Another’s intensity may derive from endurance, ability to absorb punishment, conditioning, focus, etc. Your personal level of that mix, the “size of
the fight”
in you, is more important in determining your fighting skill level than any other aspect.

Moreover, because the attributes and qualities that are pertinent to success at the three various phases of fighting -- stand-up, clinch, and ground -- vary and are often specific to that phase, our personal intensity at each of those phases may vary considerably (and consequently need to be developed at each phase). For example, Mike Tyson may have world-class level intensity at stand-up that he’s developed from years of hard boxing training and fighting with the world’s best boxers but he will have much less intensity on the ground where he is at his normal, untrained level.

The number one deciding factor in any fight (other than an ambush) is the relative levels of fighting intensity of the participants. Simply stated, the fighter with the greater fighting intensity will almost always wins. Technique and strategy, in fact, won’t even enter into the equation if there is a significant disparity in intensity levels. Technique, and then strategy, will only become significant factors when the intensity levels are at or near the same level. The fight always boils down to intensity versus intensity at the most basic level. This is why bigger, stronger people typically beat smaller, weaker people -- they typically have a greater natural intensity level because they have naturally greater attributes that go into the mix.

Frequently martial arts are marketed by saying they are designed to enable smaller, weaker persons to defeat larger, stronger opponents. Those claims may or may not be true. The trouble is that type of marketing suggests that a practitioner of its methods would not need to develop higher levels of intensity to be successful at applying those method‘s techniques. Even if those claims are true -- and that can’t be determined from theory -- the only way the smaller, weaker person can defeat a larger, stronger person is if their fighting intensity, their mix of attributes and qualities, is at least at or near the same level of their opponent. Then they will have the opportunity to use their technical skills and strategies. To get to that point, however, will take a great deal of commitment and arduous physical training.

This is not to say that smaller, weaker persons must develop the muscular strength of a much larger, stronger person. In many cases that is simply not possible. But intensity is more than one simple attribute. The smaller person must develop their overall mix of attributes and qualities that go into their intensity to the level of the larger, stronger person to have any chance of defeating them. This may entail developing other attributes or qualities to a much higher degree. In other words, the smaller, weaker person will need to do a great deal more training to develop greater levels of intensity.

When you fight anyone, you must be able to match, weather, or contain your opponent’s intensity. If you can’t, no matter what you know, no matter what your style of fighting, you will go down in defeat. For example, you may know how to sprawl and be competent at sprawling, but you will only be able to pull it off if your intensity level is at or near the level of the person attempting the shoot. So if Tito, who has world-class level fighting intensity, shoots in on you for a double-leg, you’re going down unless you too are at or near world-class level fighting intensity. You may put great faith in your eye jab but if you can’t match Tito’s intensity, he’ll mow you down and you’ll never get it off. Once you can match his intensity, then and only then can your technical ability come into play.

This explains the old saw, “it’s the man, not the art.” You can know what you believe is the most superior fighting art in the world, but if your opponent has a greater fighting intensity level, he’ll beat you every time.

We can look at it as our fighting intensity as what fuels our techniques or as the environment in which we need to be able to perform our techniques. The technical level is a secondary level. Or, to put it another way, our fighting skill is largely the fighting intensity level at which we can perform our techniques. You won’t be able to pull off your arm bar from the guard, your pak sao, your left hook, your whatever, unless you can operate at the same fighting intensity level as your opponent. Only if you and your opponent operate at or near the same intensity level will the individual with the “better technique” will have an advantage. If you and Tito had the same level of intensity, then and only then it will become a question of whether his shoot technique is better than your sprawl technique, of whose wrestling skills are better. But to emphasize: that won’t be a factor unless the intensity levels are at or near the same level.

Recognizing the primacy of fighting intensity is critical for anyone wishing to develop significant fighting skills because our level of fighting skill will depend first and foremost on our personal level of intensity. Our training therefore needs to be principally directed to developing that aspect of fighting skill. How you train -- to develop your fighting intensity -- is much more critical to your ultimate chances at success in fighting than what you train.

Some “women’s self-defense classes” have recognized this and begun to use a ‘living dummy’, someone that attacks the participants while wearing a fully protective suit which allows the women to open up and do anything with full power and full speed, which is directed specifically to developing their fighting intensity. All modern (sport) fighters recognize this aspect and target intensity as a significant part of their training. In fact, modern fighters have taken personal intensity levels to new heights with modern sport training methods. In so doing, they have revealed numerous weaknesses in both traditional training methods and traditional fighting methods.

Your first priority in any martial art training needs to be to develop your fighting intensity to the level that you aspire to function at. To be able to beat the average guy on the street, you need to have intensity at least equal to the average untrained guy on the street. If
you want to be able to beat someone larger and stronger than yourself, you’ll need to develop your intensity to be equal or greater to their level of intensity. To beat a mid-level MMAist, you’ll need to develop your intensity to at least their level. To be a world-class fighter, you’ll need to develop world-class intensity.

If you are a boxer, just “knowing” the formal techniques of boxing, the jab, cross, hook, slip, bob-and-weave, catch, cuff, etc., won’t help you if you can’t perform them at the intensity level which your opponent is operating. Your performance as a boxer will depend on your personal intensity level while using those techniques. If you just “know” the techniques, certainly you’ll be able to hold your own against a Golden Gloves boxer if you do “slow sparring”, moving around at 30% intensity, for example. But when the intensity level is kicked up to 100%, then you will not be able to box effectively since you aren’t prepared to work at the intensity level of the Golden Gloves boxer. And it is the same in
any fighting method, including wing chun kuen: “knowing” wing chun kuen won’t help if you can’t perform at the intensity level of your opponent.

Fighting intensity, while being most crucial to fighting skill, is the most difficult of the three aspects -- intensity, technique, and judgment -- to develop and maintain. Of course everyone can produce some level of intensity. For purposes of illustration, we can view fighting intensity as analogous to the intensity of running a mile race. Everyone in somewhat decent shape can run a mile, just like everyone can fight. Let’s say the average person on the street can run a mile in ten minutes. Well, very, very few, however, can run a 4 minute mile (world-class level). That’s incredibly intense. Tito Ortiz is someone who can run a four minute mile. So, unless you are on that intensity level, you won’t even be in the race with him, regardless of your technique or style. Some can run a 5 minute mile. More can run a 6 minute mile. And so on. Almost anyone in decent shape can run an 8 minute mile. Unless you are unusually gifted, you won’t be able to run a 5 minute mile unless you do a great deal of training, and training directed toward accomplishing that task.

Some people believe that should they ever need to fight, that they’ll be able to call upon a short burst of intensity sufficient to defeat their opponent. However, their opponent will be able to do the same thing, and if they begin with a higher level of intensity, their short burst will be greater. Others believe that in emergencies that they’ll somehow find the intensity they need. Well, if you don’t train to run a 5 minute mile, your not going to be able to do it regardless of the need.

Further, you won’t be able to maintain your level of intensity unless you continue to do a great deal of training. This is why when fighters stop fighting, they begin to lose their fighting skill. Intensity, in part because it is highly dependent on physical conditioning, deteriorates rapidly if not maintained. The fighters don’t lose their technique so much as they lose their level of fighting intensity. As we age, it also becomes more difficult to develop or maintain our levels of fighting intensity. Helio Gracie probably knows more today at 90 about brazilian jiujitsu but he has less fighting skill since his advanced age has diminished his intensity level.

One of the most important considerations in terms of intensity is that many fighting attributes, like timing and sensitivity, are intensity specific. So if a person has good timing and sensitivity at a certain intensity level, they’ll function well at that level or lower but will
not have good timing or sensitivity at a higher intensity level. Intensity specific attributes can only be developed and maintained by performing at that specific attribute level. For example, your ability to perform the slip in boxing relies on moving at the right time. Your
timing for the slip will rely on your intensity level. If it matches or is superior to your opponent‘s level, you will be able to time the slip appropriately. If your opponent’s intensity level is greater than your level, they will move much more quickly or explosively with their jab than you can react with your slip. Your timing will be off. As our intensity levels decline, due to exhaustion for example, so do our intensity specific attributes.

Some people are born with higher levels of intensity than others. But we all can develop it. It’s just that is difficult. To begin with, one must have a solid base level of aerobic cardio and a solid base level of fitness to work from. This needs to be maintained. In addition, one will need to do specific sorts of training to develop that intensity. The principal training to develop fighting intensity is fighting with better and better fighters, those that have higher levels of intensity, who will push us. Of course, there are all kinds of supplementary exercises and drills one can do depending on the phase of fighting, the method one uses, etc. Typically, all three aspects of fighting skill -- intensity, technique, and judgment -- are trained simultaneously, though one aspect may be the focus of the training.

A very significant consequence to training to develop your fighting intensity is the discovery that the level of intensity itself will directly effect those things that you can and cannot do. There are things that appear to function well at lower levels of intensity but
fail to work at higher levels of intensity. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, there are also things that don’t function very well at lower levels of intensity but work extremely well at higher levels of intensity.

The “chambered punching” and blocking of traditional karate are good examples of a techniques that actually inhibit us at higher levels of intensity. Those techniques can work, and have worked effectively, against the untrained, lower intensity fighters. But at higher intensity levels, no one has been able pull them off successfully; those techniques actually become a liability to the practitioner at higher levels of intensity. This is why they are absent in NHB competitions. In contrast, western boxing punches and its defensive measures have proven themselves to be techniques that function at higher levels of intensity. Thus, we can see that technique, like attributes, often are intensity dependent.

With this in mind, it is imperative that we approach our technique as being a means helping us function at greater levels of fighting intensity. In other words, that we approach developing our technique as a means of furthering our personal level of intensity. At the same time, we need to be mindful that our technique may be intensity dependent.

Consider the case of Burton Richardson. He was the golden boy of JKD/FMA in the 1980s, and appeared to be Dan Inosanto’s heir. He put on amazing demonstrations with the stick, could do all the drills, sumbrada to numerado, with dazzling speed, precision, etc. He taught seminars, wrote articles, was conversant with theory, etc. Then he had some stick fights
with the Dog Brothers. And nothing he did worked. This was because he wasn’t at or near the Dog Brothers in terms of fighting intensity. He had the technique, but as we know, technique is secondary. He learned that technical drills do not develop fighting intensity.

So, he took that lesson and he began to train to develop his fight intensity -- by fighting and by bringing fighting intensity into his drills. When he did that, he discovered that many of the things he had learned to do in the traditional technical drills wouldn’t function
effectively at a higher intensity level. This is because your body and mind behaves differently at those higher intensity levels. Higher intensity levels effect what you can effectively do, what works and doesn‘t work. It changes your technique. You can’t drive an automobile the same way at 30 mph as you can at 90 mph or 120 mph. After his experience, Richardson began to modify his training, and teaching, to reflect those experiences.

Most of the tradition Chinese marital art masters, including those in wing chun kuen, are “pre-Dog Brothers Burtons” -- they are great at the forms and technical drills of wing chun, can talk theory, can do splendid demonstrations, and so forth. But none of that says anything about fighting skill or technique that is functional at higher levels of intensity. The only way to know what is or is not functional at the higher levels of fighting intensity is by working at that level.

Technique is our ability to use the tools of your fighting method. The better our technique, the better we are able to use those tools most effectively at the higher levels of intensity. Better technique is that which permits us to operate at higher levels of intensity. In fact, we could say that good technique are those things that promote and increase our functional level of intensity. The only way to determine what is or is not better technique is by doing it at that level. Someone may believe that such-and-such will work at very high levels of
intensity -- but there is an old saying: we don’t know what we don’t know. Someone may believe their driving skills at 30 mph will “transfer” to driving at 100 mph but if they don’t have the personal intensity to reach 100 mph and haven’t tested their driving techniques at that level, they can’t know.

When we view technique as a means of enhancing and increasing our intensity, it is easy to see how many traditional martial arts rely on training methods, like the slow motion training, extensive forms practice, standing post, horse-stance training, etc. not only won’t promote the development of intensity but will actually inhibit the development of intensity. In other words, they are actually training to be worse fighters!

It is worth noting that boxing, a fighting method that fosters and promotes the development of higher levels of intensity, has evolved over time to do exactly that due to its practitioners continuing involvement in competition. Its practitioners have, over time, eliminated or modified various technical aspects, for one example, the old ready-position with the fists rotated so that the palms face the body, the head erect, weight mostly on the rear leg, and body leaning slightly backward, in favor of the more dynamic modern ready position that permits greater intensity in offense and defense. All successful modern
fighting methods, ones that have proven themselves in NHB/vale tudo competitions, have evolved and continue to evolve by a similar process.

Since most of our “fighting attributes” as well as our technique is intensity dependent, it follows that our judgment is also intensity dependent. Judgment is the strategic and tactical considerations in setting up and using the various tools of our fighting method in various situations. This only comes from experience actually using those tools at a certain intensity level. Going back to our automobile metaphor: strategy and tactics will be a significant factor in a automobile race only when two race cars are roughly equal in terms of speed (intensity). But if one car outclasses the other, it will blow the other one away in
the race. If both cars are equal but one driver has poor driving skills -- so that he doesn’t make the most from his car -- the race will go to the better driver. If both drivers have good driving skills, tactics and strategy will become a factor. And the usefulness of various tactics and strategies may very well depend on the level of intensity involved.

The bottom line for all martial artists to consider is the primacy of intensity in determining our fighting skill. That intensity isn’t some generic attribute but an individual’s mix of attributes and qualities that is specific to that individual. It is based on their natural, inherent abilities and qualities to a large degree. A person needs to determine their individual mix that goes into their intensity. That is most easily and best determined by fighting. Fighting will also best develop that intensity. And by fighting, the individual will find those techniques and strategies that best promote their specific mix of intensity, their specific attributes and qualities. This explains why good fighters are almost always the product of individualized instruction, training, and coaching.


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