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Sunday, 8 July 2012

Jab Jab Cross: My first taste of MMA



 MMA (mixed martial arts) does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a combination of many different martial art forms, though has now been distilled to predominantly Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing, with a little bit of wrestling thrown in for good measure. It is enormously popular in Brazil, for obvious reasons, and also in the USA. It is now the world's fastest growing sport, and over the past five or so years has dramatically increased its profile in the UK. My partner Justin has been a fan for quite some time, and pays for ESPN solely for the purpose of spending long Sunday mornings watching grown men make each other bleed. But it is only recently that he has started doing MMA training. In a bid to get fit and defend himself against the terrifying teens of the Caledonian Road, he found himself an MMA clinic in Islington, and a trainer called Jacek Toczydlowski.

Justin regularly comes home grazed, bruised and extremely sore, so I was pretty dubious when he challenged me to have a go at MMA for my 30@Thirty. I dithered and put it off a few times. My triathlon training taught me to deal with being sore, but I wasn't so keen on the bruised and grazed bit, or on the part where you end up with your head buried in someone else's sweaty parts. But then I remembered that part of the aim of 30@Thirty is just to say yes a bit more often. This might not be as meaningful as giving blood, but it is something I've never done before, and something that Justin genuinely enjoys. Plus it's always a good thing for me to find new and interesting ways of keeping fit, as I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to going to the gym.

So, on a rainy Saturday afternoon we betake ourselves to a little alleyway off Upper St in North London. Jacek (known to those of us whose Polish pronunciation could use some work as Jack) is waiting, a reassuringly (not) large and fresh bruise over his left eye. An excellent beginning. He tells us that he had spent the previous two hours trying, without much success, to train a stag-do who had decided that an MMA session was a good way to kick-off a weekend of drunken debauchery. Well, it takes all sorts...

The session starts with skipping. I'm a girl, so, you know, I've done a far amount of skipping in my time. But this skipping involves alternating between normal pace, high knees and sprinting, and about 45 seconds into my hour of training I have already turned a delightful cranberry colour. When Jack tells us to drop the ropes I am briefly overjoyed. Alas, the skipping makes way for combinations of press-ups and burpees. Ugh. I hate burpees. Then we go back to skipping. I swear the big digital timer in the corner needs to be verified by a horologist. Its seconds last at least double the normal amount.


Next Jack points to a pile of dumbbells. I look fruitlessly for something ladylike around the 1k mark, but it's 2k minimum. I am sad. The instruction to shadow box fills me with dread. I've never boxed in my life, and am instantly aware that I must look nothing short of ridiculous. I would have been a lot more comfortable doing an on-the-spot interpretative dance routine on the theme of despair. The shadow boxing lasts approximately four hours, as far as I can tell, and also involves the dreaded sprint. The 2k weights are not my friends, and I really struggle to keep my arms up, let alone devise any kind of credible combination. I came in here determined to prove my mettle, but I feel uncharacteristically uncoordinated, and weak as a kitten. Things are not going well. That being said, there is no doubt that this warm-up gets you sweating and works pretty much every part of the body, as well as setting the heart racing. I can already tell that I've pushed myself harder than I usually do in a hour at the gym, and we've barely even started.


Jack wraps my hands and finds me some boxing gloves. We step into the ring. I'd never imagined myself slipping through the ropes of a boxing ring, and I have to say that there's something special about the feeling. You're crossing the threshold into a different space, a space where there's no room for doubt, or for feeling stupid. If you're in the ring, you'd better mean business.

Over the following three minutes Jack instructs me on various combinations of jabs, crosses, kicks and knees. With each addition to the combination he gives me a pointer, never overwhelming me with too much information, but seeking to improve my performance with every strike. The floor is soft and springy and I find myself inclined to bounce around like a nervous kangaroo. In my head I know that this is a pointless expense of energy and probably looks damned silly, but somehow I can't seem to stop myself. Apparently most novice girls do this. I wonder why.



I confess that I hugely enjoy myself in the boxing ring. Jack knows just how to encourage without ever being patronising, so that when he tells me that I have a good left kick I believe him and feel pretty pleased about it. There are a lot of things to remember. Keep your hands up to protect your face, extend the punches, pull back with the opposite shoulder, drive with the hips and for pity's sake STOP BOUNCING. I manage most of these with varying degrees of success. Except the bouncing one. That is apparently going to be a difficult habit to shift.


A left kick of champions. In my head, anyway.
Next it's downstairs to the MMA cage, where Jack demonstrates a double leg take-down. I derive some cruel pleasure from watching Justin being knocked over multiple times, especially since I am then given free rein to knock him down some more. Sweet revenge for all that
Over you go. Double leg take-down
housework... I also learn a selection of the things that can be done to your opponent once you have them on the floor, including a key lock and an arm-in-triangle. It's exceptionally technical stuff, and I develop a new level of respect for anyone who can do this at speed, with an opponent who is actually trying to fight them off. There's no doubt that this is not a sport for meat-heads. You have to be able to think fast, improvise, and train like a demon to develop the necessary skills, strength and endurance. I don't love the technical element, but I really do enjoy watching Jack throw Justin around the cage.

We end with a session of Ground n' Pound. I kneel at the end of an old punching bag and am told to land my choice of strikes, hammer fists and elbows on it for an uninterrupted two minutes, fast as I can. Justin encourages me to imagine the face of someone I dislike to add aggression to my attack. Now, I am generally a peaceful person, but some of you reading this may guess whose face I was imagining, and will, I am sure, forgive me for taking some pleasure in beating the living daylights out of him.

Who's this then?
Take that!
Next Jack threads a long strap around my waist and we repeat the two minute punch-a-thon, this time with him dragging me off balance, in order to simulate a battling opponent. Every time he succeeds in pulling me off the bag, I must fling myself back at it with as much vigour as I can manage. It is seriously difficult and seriously fun.

And then, we're done. The skipping feels like it happened hours before, and at the same time the session has absolutely flown. Jack gave me a fantastic taster of MMA, and I leave feeling like I've worked hard, both physically and mentally, and that I've learned a lot. I also feel like I'd like to come back, particularly to have another go in the boxing ring and see if I can't bring an end to the bouncing. Plus, well, I'm just not sure if that punching bag has learned its lesson...


Me and Jacek


Five down, twenty-five to go...