Dipping Your Toe in the Water | Sparring for beginners

sparring for beginners
The first taste of ‘the leather’. The first time you taste your own blood on the inside of your mouth. The first time your eyes water from a jab to your nose and everybody laughing, thinking you are crying. An old friend of mine summed it up pretty good. “You can never forget the first time you smell ‘the leather’”.

At first I thought he was using some sort of metaphor and meant the smell of fear. It was only later, during another sparring session that the penny dropped. The smell he spoke of was the smell of leather in your face as yet another punch found its way home.

It took some years getting used to it. Once I was, it was replaced with the feeling of panic as you suffered a choke that almost made you pass out. Strikes had been replaced by grappling and with it, the feeling of burning in your aching muscles and limbs.

I imagine, most of us, during these times ask ourselves what the hell we are doing there.
What events took place in our lives to compel us, even drive us to this moment and the similar moments that come after it on many more occasions?  If, like me, you make promises to yourself that this is “the last time” only to make and break the same promises the next time then you may want to take a journey back to the start.

My own experience is probably typical. As a bullied skinny kid, I was lucky that my sister started dating a Black Belt Karate Instructor who took me under his wing. I sat in and watched the first session and, whilst admiring the participants, did not, for one minute think I could do that! “Still, might give it a go,” I thought. A tiny ripple was made as I dipped my toe in the water for the first time at the next session. As a novice, sparring was out of the question, thank God. So after being taught a few basics, I made my way to the side-lines to watch the advanced grades score points off each other. There was absolutely no contact allowed with no protective equipment worn or needed. The skill and control shown was excellent. Again in my head the “not for me” mentality shone through and again it was followed by “well it can’t be that bad, must be worth a try” voice.

The next time sparring was on the agenda I was asked if I wanted to try it. Nodding, I took my turn. I don’t remember how I did but I do remember how much I enjoyed it, especially as there were no marks or bruises on me. There were none on my partner either but I suspect that was pure luck rather than any skill on my part.

I soon became a fan of sparring, preferring it over kata (personal choice not a reflection) and looked forward to more of the same.

sparring for beginners
At this time, the club I belonged to travelled out of our area to train in a joint session to be hosted by our Sensei who taught basic Shotokan and a club from Liverpool who would host the second part of the evening, teaching us an unknown system (certainly to me)”Freestyle”. They, if my memory serves me correctly, wore red suits and a type of boxing glove.  We had, never seen suits of this colour, we all wore the Traditional white GIs. The guys from Liverpool whilst respectful, literally wiped the floor with most of the Karateka from our gym. They certainly did with me as sweep, after sweep saw my gi bottoms strike a fall onto to the gym floor.

It was only a few years later when I became more familiar with the “names” in Martial Arts that I realised we had just been introduced to Alfie Lewis and his boys and their maverick, effective and highly skilful way of sparring. Again, I decided that their style was not for me. Far too heavy handed even at semi contact, yet a niggling desire to know more about this way of fighting kept cropping up in my mind.

For one reason or another, after some years of training and earning my purple belt, I parted company with Karate. It would be a few years before my interest was rekindled and when it was, the new club I joined wore white, elasticised cotton mitts with marginal contact allowed. The seminar with Alfie Lewis temporarily forgotten, along with the bruised calves and bashed ego, I watched with fresh fascination as the guys at the new club, fuelled by the confidence of wearing mitts, gave and took a few heavy digs.

“Mmm, not sure about this” I thought to myself as my toes itched and wiggled to dip themselves into the water again. So, I bit the bullet, padded up and proceeded to take a few hits. Still with control but now with a touch more aggression techniques were thrown in my direction and I threw some back.  A couple of bruised ribs, bit of a lump to the side of the head, nothing major and I was comfortable again. I was happy where I was until I came across some semi-contact guys who re-sparked in me what the Liverpool guys had first bought to my attention.

We were at a multi-style tournament in the North West and, as usual at these tournaments, some of us were on time, some weren’t. People, mostly in Traditional Gis and pads, warmed up and waited for their turn to fight when our attentions were turned to a group who had just arrived. There seemed to be a change in the atmosphere as we watched them warm up. I had never seen Karateka use skipping ropes and focus pads to prepare themselves before and it is fair to say that the majority of the other people there were intimidated by it all. Even more so I think, when the semi-contact guys “padded up” in their shiny dipped foam equipment.

A clean sweep across the scoring boards in the favour of the nonchalant semi-contact guys grabbed my interest. Non-contact Karate was a good stepping stone and the now padded light contact was, for me, as far as I would go. Except my bloody toes thought different as they itched to “dip” again. I visited a local semi contact club affiliated to Howard Brown’s ECKA/WCKA and watched as they sparred heavier than I was used to. Common sense gave way to the itch that can’t be scratched. I remember thinking to myself “well it’s not full contact, it’s not going to hurt so I’ll give it a go”.

To anyone watching semi-contact and thinking the same as I thought, you, we are both right and wrong. It wasn’t full contact but it did hurt. Nothing major and all in good sport, but a few cut lips and sore limbs, perhaps the odd ringing in the ears from a few hooks caught from not paying attention. These were par for the course and this was how I proceeded for a while.

Until Stallone appeared.  Damn those “Rocky” films and the real hitting taking place as Balboa mania swept through all the fighting arts. Suddenly everybody wanted to know what it felt like to get hit by a big lump of meat. I myself developed an interest in Full Contact Karate which we know went on to be re-labelled as Kick-Boxing. I started watching regular Sunday night bouts at a local nightclub and as the sport grew in popularity, was fascinated to see Wales’ Russ Williams defend his World crown against a strong opponent from the USA. A guy I knew also thought on the same bill and in a chat later on he laughed at my questions and explained “it’s good fun but doesn’t half hurt!”

A good friend of mine was making his name in the ABA’s and invited me to the local boxing club. I had not done any full contact conditioning and was put onto the bags straight away, snatching the odd peek at the sparring taking place behind me.

After a few sessions I had Deja-vu from my Shotokan days when the coach called me to the sparring area and asked “do you want to glove up and have a go?”
Adrenalin in overdrive, with a dry mouth and my brain screaming “no way!” I listened instead to my toes as they demanded a “dip”.
“C’mon” they seemed to say “It can’t get any worse than full contact can it”.
Right, easy for them to say, hiding comfortably in the safety of my Nikes.
My first spar was with my friend who was much more experienced in the full contact game and worked at my pace. I appreciated the respect and we became regular sparring partners. After several months we hired a room to have extra sessions ourselves and introduced kicking into the rounds. He was slightly heavier than me but with my experience in kicking, we came out even.

I had been watching a Heavyweight train at the gym and tried to imagine what it would like to take a punch from him. When he was sparring I would develop an interest in more bag work. I was not getting hit by one of those!

Spoke to soon. One Friday night I arranged to meet my friend at the gym but upon arriving, learnt he had decided a night off was deserved. So now the gym was occupied by just the three of us. Myself, the coach and, that’s right…the heavyweight. Even my toes gulped as the coach suggested a few rounds.

In for a penny and all that… Whoever thought of that saying must have been stupid or never trained in full contact. Or perhaps he was stupid but had trained in full contact, hence coming up with stupid sayings.

Several rounds over and the following day I was back for more. I found I loved it. I loved the fear, the fight, the glowing aftermath. Days became months, months became years, sparring partners, opponents and partners in crime became friends.

From absolute no contact Karate through to light, semi and eventually full contact I thought there was no further I needed to go. I had dipped my toes in enough water. Until I met up with a leading Martial Artist who asked how my ground work was. I didn’t know how it was because I had never worked on the roads.

When I told him this he looked at me like I was speaking a different language and proceeded to explain he meant grappling. I watched a video he sent me and realised there was another aspect of “fighting” I was going to have to sample. And so I trundled off to courses and training sessions and eventually became a BAWA Wrestling Coach. My nose, jaw, ribs and other bones in my body were happy they weren’t being punched or kicked anymore. However, my muscles ached, my limbs cried out for a rest and the burns on my knees and elbows needed much love and affection to heal. At least some parts of my body had a respite.

That was until my toes thought it a good idea for another “dip” when I came across sessions that “put it all together”. “Animal Day, No Holds Barred, Strike & Grapple” call it what you will. The whole non-contact training  to the “what the hell was that!” experience was and is an education, a humbling experience and well I suppose to be honest…. fun.

So good luck if you are embarking on this path, I wish you well. I will never forget my first taste of ‘the leather’ nor the first smell of ‘the leather’, I am sure you won’t either. I am getting to the stage where I think it’s time to put my toes in their slippers, keep them there and stop them dipping my feet in the water again... Not a chance!

About the Author:

Simon Morrell has trained in Martial Arts and Combat Systems for 34 years and holds the rank of 6th Dan Black Belt. 

He is the only person in North Wales to hold a Dan grade in Krav Maga recognized and awarded by I.K.I (direct from Israel) and The British Combat Association for whom he is a Senior Instructor. 


He has written about his life’s experiences in the books ‘From Bullied to Black Belt', a true U.S.A. by Flixster Studios. He runs a full time MMA Academy, Fight Fortress in North Wales. You can find out more about him, his books and seminars at: www.simonmorrell.com

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