Friday, June 12, 2009

π, Lyoto Machida and other "irrational" things

The other day I was reminiscing with a colleague about high school physics. He was surprised that I could still quote the periodic table which I had memorised all those years ago (H – He – Li, Be – B, C, N, O, F, Ne – Na, Mg – Al, Si, P, S, Cl, Ar – K... you get the picture). “Ah ha,” he countered, “but how about π (pi)?” He could remember it to 6 digits. Digging into the recesses of my memory I surprised myself:
“3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510582097494459230781640628620899862803482534271106798...” (I think that’s right – you can check it yourselves.)

That little discussion got me thinking. π is of course the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number – which is to say it cannot be expressed as a ratio of 2 integers. Yes, we commonly see it rendered as the fraction 22/7. But that is an approximation only. π is a number that has unlimited decimal places; its decimal expansion never ends or repeats. I always found the term “irrational” to be wholly fitting. Here is a universal constant that we cannot even express as a fraction. It defies our everyday “logic”. Yet its existence is a matter of fact.

So how was π discovered? How does one stumble across a constant that is “irrational” in this way? The answer is, through experience; you take a circle, measure the circumference and its diameter and go from there. If you do it accurately enough, you will always have the same result: π – a constant that defies our everyday “rationality”; one that is derived experientially.

This got me thinking about the brouhaha surrounding Lyoto Machida, in particular following his bout with Rashad Evans. Many traditional martial artists are pointing to his traditional karate training as the reason for his success, while modern combat sports practitioners remain sceptical of this, to say the least.

Even though I am a traditional martial artist, I have to say that I agree with my colleague Christopher M when he said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum: “all this constant floating of him in the TMA community is starting to get ridiculous”.

And yet Machida does have something unique about him – something quite like π; a constant that his opponents cannot describe in their own terms but that they have experienced. To quote MMA writer Sergio Non:
    “Machida's stylistic quirks are becoming a commentary cliche in the MMA press, but that doesn't make them any less unusual or effective -- no one in MMA seems to know how to beat the karate guy. What do you do with a guy who steps back to dodge your blow, then explodes forward before you've reset yourself?”
Steve Morris has an interesting take on it. Naturally it is something he’s “been doing for years”. As he will tell you, “... this is what I’m an expert at. Anybody want to know how to beat Machida? Give me a phone call. No problem.” What is his take? Steve argues quite persuasively that it is about the strategic use of timing. It comes down to understanding, and taking advantage of, the intervals of time operating before a movement, during a movement and after a movement. In summary Steve’s position is as follows:
    “What’s important about Machida isn’t his Shotokan-influenced style of movement, but rather the sense of time that has been instilled in him. You don’t have to study Shotokan, doing the katas, etc. to acquire this heightened sense of time and distance appreciation—in fact, the style is just baggage. What Machida has got and his opponents haven’t got is the ability to sense time, appreciate distance, and read subtle cues (physical or psychological) in his opponent’s behaviour that allow him to take the initiative and keep it.”
I suspect that Steve is right that timing is Machida’s greatest strength. And I think that his shotokan heritage is overplayed. Unlike Steve however I don’t think his shotokan training can be dismissed either. It might not be the sum of Machida’s skills but it has played an important, I would say vital, role in making him into the fighter that he is. And it is precisely this element that has differentiated him from his opponents who invariably have no similarity in training background.

As Steve says: “you have to be able to move without visible preparation and with great economy”. What has given Machida this ability? For one thing, I have no doubt that this is partly a function of his many tens if not hundreds of thousands of zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) steps up and down the floor – each one watched by his sensei so that any element of “telegraph” – even a twitch of the front foot before a step-through – is “penalised” (in my case it was often with a whack from a shinai (split bamboo) sword).

Those countless hours of sweat undoubtedly also produced the requisite muscle memory and muscle strength to take advantage of timing; his explosive movement in and out of what I call the melee is highly evident of this.

The tradional stance-work Machida did might seem to be "baggage" when viewed in isolation. This traditional training might even have been “baggage” had he misunderstood its purpose and attempted to apply it literally - or had he disregarded it and defaulted to what I fondly call "faux boxing". But when it is applied properly you get something like the Machida result. There are many other skills that I believe Machida has drawn from his traditional training, but this one will suffice as an example.

But what of Steve’s comment: “Whilst it’s true that there are elements of Machida’s game reminiscent of Shotokan kumite, his recent knockouts have come from blows which bear no resemblance to Shotokan.”?

I have 2 answers to this:

First, I don’t really care if his punches are different from basic shotokan. He has adapted his style to the ring. As I’ve said, his fighting style is not the summed up as “shotokan”. Rather his shotokan has been applied properly for the circumstances. It has been adapted and complemented by other training. He has not tried to follow slavishly his karate basics – ie. he hasn’t tried to apply his formal training literally (as I’ve argued above).

Second, once you get over the lack of “literal fidelity” to his basic or formal shotokan karate techniques, you start to see that they are all part of the same continuum (see my articles "Karate punches vs. boxing punches" and "Why are my karate punches more like boxing punches when I hit shields and bags?"). As I’ve frequently argued, a boxer’s cross and a reverse punch are really quite the same. It just depends on where in the chamber “arc” you start your punch.

You’ll note from my article on chambers that I’ve used snapshots of Machida in action, showing him using a (more or less) classic chamber. It is just a bit “looser”; the essential movement is the same. As my friend Zach Zinn said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    “... it's like all these guys think that applied Karate punches will look just like kihon lol. To me, Machida's punches look exactly like applied Karate punches if you watch he even has some hikite action.”
Where am I coming to on this? Machida’s fighting style is, in my view, not comprehensible to many of his opponents because they haven’t trained “his way”. In this respect it is quite like coming across a new irrational constant: his style exists, yet it cannot be expressed in terms normally used by his opponents. They only know it is there because they have experienced it, otherwise they might have continued to deny its very existence (before Machida the argument that "there is only one style - human" was all too common). His style seems “irrational” – a "stylistic quirk". And yet it works.

Like π, sophisticated martial arts techniques often don’t seem “rational” or intuitive until they are experienced. In Russian Systema they are fond of showing you the effects of their ballistic punches; totally relaxed and casual movements that don’t appear to have any “power” produce very surprising effects as you’ll note from the video below:

Val Riazanov demonstrating Systema Ballistic Striking

While many traditional martial artists seem quite taken with this “new” discovery (once they experience it), it is my view that this has always been part of understanding the traditional punch. My own karate instructor Bob Davies demonstrated such concepts to me (and often on me!) almost 30 years ago. You’ll note in the video below (taken in 1985) at about 1:00 how he taps my senior Sensei Simon Bolze on the torso. You’ll also note that Simon sinks a little after that “tap”. This isn’t theatre; Simon was genuinely winded even though the blow didn’t hit his solar plexus. I should know; I’ve experienced that blow many times. Rather it was a hydrostatic blow, focussed just deeply enough to momentarily “freeze” his nervous system around his diaphragm. Laoshi Bob could effect this result by hitting you pretty much anywhere on the torso. He could vary its effects depending on how deep he it, or what angle he punched etc. You have to "exprience" it to know what I mean. I've heard many a systema practitioner tell me the same thing.

The key to this kind of punching is understanding the nature of hydrostatic shock – as I have discussed in my articles “Kime: the soul of the karate punch” and “Visible force vs. applied force”. In my view, those traditional martial artists who haven’t experienced it before haven’t really been understanding their traditional punches at all.

My teacher Bob Davies demonstrating distancing with Simon Bolze; but notice his little "tap" at the one minute mark...

And so the explanations for Lyoto Machida's fighting style are coming thick and fast.

Many will claim it is pure orthodox shotokan; that it is not. It is applied and adapted shotokan of Machida’s own making. It is a product of traditional and modern combat sports training.

Conversely many will claim that Machida’s style is nothing new to combat sports and that his traditional training has nothing (or at least has very little) to do with his effectiveness. I disagree. I believe this comment is often borne of a lack of understanding of the purpose of traditional martial arts training.

Some of those who make this argument do so without any significant traditional training. For example it’s not good enough to go to a few tae kwon do classes to get a understanding of the role of stances. Just like measuring π, you have to do the hard work before you can understand the role stances play in enhancing your overall fighting skill level.

Some like Steve Morris have a background in traditional martial arts yet choose not to use training methods like kata or karate basics. Maybe they have found a more optimum way of developing things like timing. If so, good for them.

However I can say that I use traditional training for developing the kinaesthetics and muscle memory/endurance pertinent to timing, as well as many other facets of civilian defence. Accordingly I’m not surprised to see that Machida has put his traditional knowledge to effective use. Good for him.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic