My First MMA Match

It still sounds funny to say it.  I went to Las Vegas and competed in an MMA tournament. No, there wasn’t a cage involved! As part of the ATA Nationals Taekwondo tournament, the organizers ran a special “demo” event for the ATA’s Integrated Martial Arts Systems (IMS). Traditional Taekwondo sparring is fun and athletic, but not totally practical. IMS is an attempt to change that.  It allows takedowns and submissions. However, competitors wear head gear for safety and a few moves the UFC would allow are illegal.  For example:

  • No straight punches to the face
  • No striking on the ground
  • No elbows and knees

A match consists of two 2-minute rounds and fighters score points for different type of maneuvers.  The rules advertise this as light to medium contact and it’s supposed to be all in fun. It’s a way to test your skills in an environments that’s broader than traditional TKD sparring. I decided I had to try it. My first serious martial art was Jiujitsu and I’ve been training hard at TKD lately. However, I’ve never had the chance to mix them. This seemed like my best chance. Here’s how things went down.

When I got to the event, I found about 20 competitors signed up for the IMS event. We all had to weigh in. I was aiming to come in under 150 and fight in the lightweight class.  I hit 146 at the weigh in.  I was pleased about that. However, it kind of back fired on me.  After all the weigh ins, they built the brackets.  It turns out about 8 of the competitors were women and had their own division. For the remaining men, I was the only lightweight and there was only one other middleweight (170 and under). The offered me the option of taking a match against the middleweight.  It would be a single fight for the title in our own division.

My opponent was slightly taller than me, more than a decade younger than me and I was giving up 20 pounds. What else could I say except, “I’m game.”  With that, the match was on. Here’s how it went down. I’m on the right in the picture below.

As the referee started the match, my opponent moved forward and threw an outside leg kick and connected. Kicking to the legs isn’t allowed in traditional TKD sparring, but I had been training for this. I woke up and started throwing kicks back. I tagged him a couple times and was feeling good.  Then he went for a double-leg takedown. I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I went for a standing guillotine. I didn’t get it locked in tight, but I had him in a nice headlock where I could control him.

I tried to sweep his legs, but couldn’t get them. We came out of the clinch and I threw some body shots. He came back and started firing back punches to my head.  In ATA traditional TKD sparring there is no punching to the head — kicking is encouraged, but no punching to the head at all.  In IMS, punches to the headgear are allowed, like a hook, but no straight punches to the face.

When he started going for my head, I admit it took me off my game. I didn’t have a good defense reflex for it. I backed away and then he tagged me with a right cross.  The ref broke the fight at that point and issued a warning to my opponent. He even docked him points. No straight punches to the face are allowed.  The punch opened up a small cut on my nose, but we continued.

We exchanged some more leg kicks. I’m pretty sure at this stage that I’m ahead on points and we’re getting near the end of the first round.  Then he threw another leg kick. I should have just checked it, but my TKD reflexes decided to try and block it.  My low block left my face wide open and he followed in with another right cross direct to my nose. You can see it below. Here is me trying to block the leg kick:

Here is me trying to get up to block his punch, but I’m too slow. He tags me right in the nose – hard!

And here is my block arriving too late to do any good. Ouch!

He doesn’t knock me out with this. However, I promised myself going into this that if I thought I was going to really get hurt that I’d fold.  I covered my face and went down to get out of the way. I’m not going to be a UFC fighter and I needed to be back at work at my professional job on Monday.

The ref came over to check me out. He saw how much blood was coming out of my nose (a lot!). He told me to stay down and called over the medic.  He then walked over, chewed out my opponent and disqualified him from the tournament. Rule number 1 was no straight punches to the face.  He’d done it once and been warned. This second time was over the line for this type of tournament and the fight was over.

The judges awarded me the win, and by virtue of that I took first place in the division. After I staunched the bleeding in my nose, they gave me a card and told me to go collect my trophy.

All I could do was take my trophy and head back to the hotel with my Little Ninja. BTW, she was totally nonplussed by the whole thing.  She’s seen me spar plenty of times, and does it herself too.  I don’t think she thought this was much different.

On the way back to the hotel, I couldn’t decide how to feel about the whole thing. DId I win or did I loose? Should I feel proud of myself or did I fail. Despite technically winning, he’d hurt me more than I hurt him and that meant something at a primal level. It upset me. However, everyone I talked to told me I fought a good fight and that it wasn’t my fault if the other guy couldn’t follow the rules.

Surely the whole affair pointed out a hole in my game I’ll work on in terms of protecting my head, but I’ve decided I have nothing to be ashamed of. It was a pretty good first time out. When we got back to the hotel the Little Ninja insisted on taking a picture of me with my trophy (and my rapidly developing black eye, and a blood soaked tissue stuffed up my nose).  I find I actually quite like this picture now after looking at it for a while.

Of course, the even more interesting picture if of my face the next day!

So, how do you think I did?  Why don’t you watch the video and leave me a comment? I’d love to hear from you.


The Little Ninja Goes to Vegas

Back around new years, the Little Ninja and I decided we were going to go to the ATA Nationals Taekwondo tournament in Vegas. This would be her first “real tournament” (not counting local intra-school), and her first trip to Vegas.  It promised to be fun and it was! There was too much that happened this past weekend to cover it in one blog post.  I probably need three, so here is the first installment.

We skipped work/school and Friday and headed to Vegas on Southwest first thing. We checked into our hotel and headed direct to the Convention Center.  Her first events were the XMA Weapons and Creative Weapons categories.  These are both non-traditional forms categories that focus on intensity and showmanship. She loves this stuff — and she gets to wear a cool black uniform for the events. Here’s a picture of the Little Ninja (far left) looking sassy (with her deadly looking Kamas) while lining up with the rest of her ring (all 7-8 year old girls).

The competition in the ring was fierce. Some of these girls clearly practice night and day.  However, she wasn’t intimidated (even though several of the girls were sporting State Champ or even World Champ patches on the back of their uniforms. She went out and did here thing.  Here are a few snapshots (click to enlarge).


She didn’t place top 3 in this event, but all the girls got “awesome competitor” awards that were well deserved. She was happy to wear her medal. She watched one of my events after hers (another post on that later). We then declared victory and headed out on the town!  Of course, out on the town with a 7 year old doesn’t mean the casinos, it means ice cream!

The next day, it was time for the traditional competition. She has never like to do traditional forms.  It’s her lead favorite part of Taekwondo.  However, she set a goal to completely learn her black belt form.  The ATA 1st degree black belt form is called Shim Jun and contains 81 precisely proscribed moves.  She worked hard on it for weeks and just recently has reached the point where she can do the entire form herself without help.  Of course she’d only done it at the school and in our living room before the tournament.  It was still to be seen if she could do it under pressure.  While there were a couple of shaky parts, especially towards the end, she did the whole thing!  She didn’t place Top 3 here either, but I couldn’t have been prouder.  Here’s her form.

Here are the competitors from her ring. Have you ever seen a scarier looking bunch?

After my events (more on that later) it was time to party like rock stars.  We tooking in a the Cirque Beatles show and then headed home on Sunday.  It was a super weekend with my Little Ninja!

Almost Time!

The last twelve weeks, I’ve been on a training program to get me ready for the ATA Nationals tournament. The tournament starts on Friday.  Almost there.  I don’t know how I’ll stack up against the competition, but I feel like I put in the time and met my goals of sticking to the program. Over the past twelve weeks, I’ve put in over 80 hours of training (while continuing to work long hours at my full-time job).  I’ve done well over 5,000 push-ups to boot.

On the nutrition side, I’ve been good about following my Fighter’s Diet program.  I’ve dropped my body fat percentage from 15.5% to around 13.5%, and feel like I’ve gained some strength in the process. You can see a chart of my progress below.

You can see a lot of variability in the day to day measurements, but the trend is clearly downward.  And, trust me, I wasn’t starving on this diet. In fact, I was eating like a horse most weeks. The only real break from the program came from a week-long international business trip earlier this month where I broke my diet almost everyday — and you can see the backslide on the chart.  Overall though, I’d say the diet part of the program has been doing what I wanted. However, my next challenge in this area is to put on more muscle mass and I expect to make some adjustments there.

Mid-way through my program, I did a warm up tournament in Rocklin, CA.  Results were mixed. I placed in sparring (my strongest event), but I bombed in my other two events. In fact, I was disqualified from my weapons event because my form didn’t meet the black belt forms requirements. That meant I had only six weeks to learn an entire new weapons form. While it isn’t perfect yet, I’m pleased to report that I’ve learned the form and feel confident I can perform it at the event. We’ll see how I place! If you want to check it out, here’s a little video of a practice run.

Next week, I’ll report results from the tournament!

Rank Testing

A big part of most martial arts is testing for your next rank.  This past weekend, the school I train at held testing.  The  Little Ninja and are both helped to officiate at the promotion for the advanced colored belts and then we tested for our own mid-term stars with the other black belts.  Here’s a nice picture of the black belts who tested that day.  You can see my Little Ninja is still the smallest of the bunch — even though she’s outgrowing her uniform!

Here is a picture of the colored belts completing their testing

The testing was followed by a fun pot luck lunch and gave everyone a chance to bond and to celebrate what they’d accomplished the past few months.  This school is now about a year and a half old and it’s great to see it start to come together with such a feeling of family.

If you’d like to see more pictures you can check out the slideshow below.  Music is courtesy of one of my favorite 80s “hair” bands: Telsa!

Rocklin Regional Tournament Results

As part of my training program for ATA Nationals in Las Vegas next month, I decided to do a tune up tournament. Last month I competed in the ATA Regional tournament in Rocklin, CA.  This was my first tournament as a black belt, and I’m really glad I went.  I competed in three events.

I was lucky enough to be joined at the tournament by two of the top junior students at my school.  Here’s a picture of our team at the tourney.

Now, the first event I competed in was forms.  Here’s a picture of my near the start of my form.

The ATA first degree black belt form has 81 moves and I’ve only been working on it for a month.  I actually felt pretty good until half way though.  Then I totally lost my way.  I didn’t place in that event, but this went a long way towards showing me what I need to know for my next tournament in this event.

My next event was weapons.  This one was even worse.  I did my form and felt pretty good about it.  However, I found out the form (that my instructor helped me select!) was an not eligible form for competition.  I was disqualified!  Of well, I now know what forms are acceptable and I’m learning a new one.  This will be tough to get ready for Vegas, but I’m working hard at it.

Lastly was sparring.  This is my best event and after my poor showing in the other two events, I was determined to make a good showing.  Here’s a quick shot of me getting psyched up.

Here’s a video of me sparring in the semi-finals for my division.  I’m on the left and I’m “white” when the judges call for points.


I won that round 5 to 1!  I didn’t win the finals, but I was pleased to take home at least a second-place medal.


I’m now about half way through my training program for Nationals.  Lots more work to do! Thanks to all of you for your support.

New Martial Arts Goals

In 2010, the Little Ninja and I both worked hard to help her earn her black belt.  After we succeeded at that, 2011 was really where I focused on myself so I could do what was required to earn my own black belt.  That was a fabulous experience, but after getting my black belt confirmed in December, I now found myself without a short term goal.  Second degree black belt is a long way away, so I needed to look for something more immediate.

A few weeks back, I came up with the idea of going to the ATA Nationals Tournament.  I’ve competed in some smaller tournaments, but nothing like this.  This is a big tournament, and I’ll have to compete in a higher division now than I have in the past — since I have my black belt now.  I talked to the Little Ninja about it and she loved the idea of taking a trip to Vegas with her dad.  So, we have 12 weeks from the start of the year to get ready.  We just finished the first week of training.

The Little Ninja is planning to compete in traditional forms, traditional weapons (with a Bo Staff form) and XMA Weapons (with her Kamas).  For her, I’m really only worried about getting her to put in the training hours on technique.  If she does just that, she’ll do great.  For my own training, I need to be more aggressive.

I’m planning to compete in Traditional Forms, Traditional Weapons and Taekwondo Sparring.  I’ve done all these events at small tournaments before, but I’m also planning to push myself.  The ATA has been introducing a new Integrated Martial Arts System (IMS) that uses TKD’s striking and adds submissions and takedowns.  This is really MMA fighting (with more restrictions and safety gear than the UFC).  I’m planning to train to compete in IMS at nationals.  For this I need to up my game a lot!

I’ve started by putting together a format to track my progress over the 12 weeks leading up to the tournament.  I just finished week 1, and I’m going to try to peak my training at week 11 (a week prior to the actual tourney).  Here’s what I’m tracking:

  • Minutes of traditional Taekwondo training/sparring
  • Minutes of MMA training/sparring
  • Minutes of fitness training outside martial arts (includes: gym time, weights, running, intervals, etc)
  • Push ups – I can do these anywhere and I’m setting a goal to work up to at least doing 1,000 a week
  • Adherence to my Fighter’s Diet program (I mark down each cheat meal so I don’t have too many)
  • Weight and body fat percentage.  I don’t really want to loose weight, but instead want to drive up my muscle mass without also gaining fat.  I’ve never tried to actually gain weight before so this will be new!

Here are my entries for this week.  I’ll be posting these once a week to help keep me honest.  I appreciate any feedback, suggestions or encouragement.  If you’re reading this then consider yourself one of my virtual training partners!  I appreciate your help!

So, this week I trained just over 1 hour per day (including all seven days of the week), did 400 pushups (not counting any from my regular martial arts classes), and had one cheat meal (the fries my friend ordered looked just too good!).  Oover the course of the week I weighed in on average at 143.5 lbs with 14.8% body fat (calculated using my fancy new scale).  Let’s see how next week compares!

Matthew Polly’s Tapped Out

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to train for a real MMA match?  You should check out Matthew Polly’s Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts. A few months back, I reviewed Matt’s first book American Shaolin about his time as a young man living with the Shaolin Monks. I really enjoyed that book, so when I saw Matt had a new book out, I knew I’d have to pick it up.

Tapped Out is an odd-ball kind of sequel to American Shaolin. 20 years after training in Kung Fu with the monks, Matts has put on 100 pounds and settled into the soft life. This book chronicles his two year journey leading up to fighting in a real MMA bout. Along the way he meets big-time MMA personalities like Randy Couture, GSP, Fedor Emelianenko and Joe Rogan.

Polly’s book is funny, informative and uplifting. He constantly entertains you while making you feel you’re there living it with him. From training with top MMA coaches in New York and Las Vegas to training adventures in Russia and Thailand you get to feel the adventure.

The part I loved most about this book is that Polly really worked his butt off. He didn’t just train for a month and jump in the ring.  He trained hard in Muay Thai, BJJ and really became a credible mixed martial artist. He’s never going to be GSP (and after seeing GSP up close, Polly makes that clear) but he’s no slouch. This book may inspire you to train harder and do things you didn’t think were possible. You should check it out.

Testing for my Blackbelt

Last night I tested for my ATA “Blackbelt Recommended” rank. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time and I’m pleased to report that I passed! I didn’t feel like my performance was perfect, but it got the job done. Here are a few pictures of the event along with a few pictures of my Little Ninja and I afterwards (she’s already a blackbelt).

Getting warmed up

First Board Break (Reverse Punch)

Finishing my first break (see half the board down by the holder’s knee?)

Second break (spin heel kick)

Looking sweaty after sparring

Tying on my new belt

The Little Ninja giving her old man a hard time about how much he sweat!

With my instructor (5th Degree Blackbelt Mr. Indalos)

I also have some videos of my poomsae (form) and sparring matches (I had three that were back-to-back-to-back). I’ll try to get those uploaded soon.

Thanks to all of my Twitter and Blog friends who have supported me the past few months while I’ve trained for this. You really helped keep me motivated! For those who are interested, I’ll be posting some details about my training program too. I calculated it out the other day and realized that I’d lost 28 pounds since I got serious about martial arts training!

The Power of One-on-One Coaching

Last week I was lucky. I made it the lunch-time, adults-only Taekwondo class at my school , but I was the only one who did — other than the instructor. That meant I got an hour of totally customized, private training.  I had a few private sessions over the past couple of years and they’re always special.

When I have a true one-on-one lesson, I don’t have to follow the “class planner” and work on what everyone else is doing. The instructor knows me. He sees me every week, and he knows what I’m good at and what I’m not. At one private session I had 6 months ago, we spent almost the entire time on my side-kick. My side-kick was kind of broken, but I didn’t even know it.  However, with 45 minutes of dedicated attention and a number of drills to focus on it the instructor fixed months of bad habits I’d developed.

At last week’s private lesson, we spent 15 minutes working on the form I’ll need to show at my next grading. The instructor showed me things to focus on that we’d never get to in a class full of kids — which describes most of the classes at my school.

I’ve recently been enjoying the HBO series Game of Thrones.  It’s a fun swords and sorcery piece with great charters. My favorite character is Arya, a 9 year-old noble-born girl who is something of a tomboy. After it becomes clear his family is in danger, her father agrees to let Arya learn to handle a sword.  The clip below from the third episode shows Arya’s first lesson. It’s a great example of the power of one-on-one coaching. Watch how engaged she is. He is totally focused on her and she senses that. If you’re a martial arts teacher, when was the last time you had a session like this with one of your students?

Interval Training for Martial Arts

If you watch UFC fights on TV, you’ll somtimes hear announcer Joe Rogan exclaim, “Uh oh, he’s gassed!” This means that one of the fighters is showing signs he’s out of breath. This is usually followed shortly thereafter by the gassed fighter being knocked out or submitted. Being in better shape is clearly a huge advantage in the UFC.

However, this clearly isn’t only for UFC fighters. Earlier this year I started to notice the same thing in my Taekwondo training. At the start of a sparring class I felt strong, but 20 to 30 minutes in, I was gassed. I might win my first match, but by #2 or #3 my guard had dropped, so I wasn’t protecting my head, and I couldn’t kick high or fast. I was a sitting duck, and I decided I had to do something about it.  I’ve been quite successful so far.

The first thing you might think of when you need to “get in shape” is running. Marathon runners run for miles and don’t get gassed, do they? Well, you’ll want to be careful about adopting that kind of static endurance training if what you’re training for is a fight. Marathons take hours. A fight is over in minutes (or less!). A fighter needs the ability to turn on maximum effort for a short burst, then recover and go again. This is where Interval Training comes in.

Interval Training involves exercises where you push yourself to peak exertion, hold that for an amount of time, scale back to a lower level of exertion and then push again. Repeat. You can see this illustrated in the chart above. This type of training allows you to train harder at max exertion than you could with something like a consistent running pace — as a marathoner does. A marathoner doesn’t have a high peak exertion level.  They operate at a low/medium level for the entire event. In a fight, you have to be able to turn on your full capacity to push the offensive or escape from an attack.

I’ve added Interval Training to my program in two ways.  One way is using the “Interval” programsetting on the elliptical machine at the gym.  It automatically cycles between a hard setting and an easy setting.  This let’s me push myself to the absolute limit for a full minute, driving my heart rate up above 170 bpm, and then ease back to a level where I can recover.  I can then get my heart rate back down 130 bpm and catch my breath in time to crank it up again.  This is great for simulating the cadence of a fight.

The other way I’m adding Interval Training is running through hilly terrain.  Running on a flat surface is good for endurance training, but running through hills allows me to push to exhaustion while ascending and then recover during a descent period.

With these additions to my program, I find that I am never gassed during a typical Taekwondo sparring class.  Better yet, last week I competed in a regional ATA tournament.  I had to fight 3 sparring matches in rapid succession with different opponents. While I pushed hard in all of them, and worked up quite a sweat, I never felt gassed and that kind of endurance was a big factor in how well I placed. Adding 20-40 minutes of Interval Training to my program ~3 days a week has made a huge difference. You shoud give it a try.

Do you have any experiences with Interval Training for martial arts?  If so, please share them here.  Do you have any good ways you use Interval training in your program?

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