I Get Knocked Down But I Get Up Again by Ruby Barnes
Our club, Evolution Martial Arts Academy in Kilkenny, competes in a variety of competitions. We do all kinds of stuff, ranging from traditional karate to demonstrations that are best described as a series of stunts you might see in a martial arts film. We also do creative forms, with or without weapons, to pieces of music that we choose ourselves. Another category we compete in is sparring, or fighting, and that's where the oldest ninja in town (yours truly) wheels himself out to do battle.
|Mr Incredible is me, of course (this is non-traditional garb, it was Halloween training).|
Over the past two or three years I've been making sporadic appearances at a quarterly tournament up in Dublin. The category I compete in is called points fighting which means the competitors try to score a hit with foot or fist on the upper body of their opponent. Once the referees see a hit, the action is paused and then restarted. So it's about speed and accuracy, rather than power and durability. That's not to say there isn't an occasional bloody nose or lip, or knockdown, even though full protective gear is obligatory. I have a very consistent record in my division ("veterans"). I won one fight. Other than that, I always lose. But I like to think I'm getting better. In my defence, the age category for that division is 35+ and I'm now 53 years young, so my opponents are often spring chickens by comparison. Also there's no weight limit so my 78kg (172lb or 12st 4lb) self is often pitted against much heavier fighters. The last fight I had at that venue, I lost 4 - 6 to a 35-year-old guy. On the same day I fought for the first time in the light contact continuous division (which doesn't stop when a point is scored). I lost, what a surprise, against a 38-year-old who went on to win the division. In fact I was knocked off my feet, but I got up again and fought on. There's no points score in that style, it's based upon aggression, accuracy and control of the fight. I lost.
|Ruby takes to the floor|
Then, during a karate club night out, which included a spattering of alcohol, it was suggested that I could enter another tournament which had recently announced a new "super-veteran" 50+ category. That sounded great to me, I might even stand some chance against ninjas of a similar vintage. There was a weight split too, with a division below 74kg and one above 74kg. I solemnly swore to shift a little bit of weight and be guaranteed to fight similar-sized old fellas.
Time went on and the club members were asked to choose their divisions for an upcoming tournament. I looked into the details on the website and realised two things. Firstly, this was the tournament with the new super-veterans 50+ divisions. Secondly, it was the Irish Open, an annual affair which has thousands of entrants from all over Europe and also attracts the top names from the USA and Canada. My stomach flipped. This could be my ultimate humiliation. I consulted with the club elders and opinions see-sawed from "you'll be fine, most people over fifty have been doing karate so long that they can't kick above waist high, so you'll have an advantage" to "anyone you fight will have forty-plus years of experience and be a high dan grade black belt" to "they'll all be karate instructors and won't have spare time to dedicate to their own training". So, taking all this on board, I did the best preparation I could under the circumstances. I set about losing 4 kg (9 lbs) in two weeks.
Today's TV is full of weight loss shows with the pounds falling off folk left right and centre. At 177cm (5' 9 and 3/4") tall and 78kg (172lb or 12st 4lb), I wasn't sure I had 4 kg or 9lbs to lose, but I was determined to try. I train up to eight hours a week so I knew the exercise regime was already in place. My focus was purely upon diet. All that karate gives me a big appetite so I decided to cut out bread and beer. For the first week I didn't touch a slice of bread or a roll or a pizza. No beer or wine that week either. For carbohydrates I ate only brown rice or wholegrain pasta or couscous. Lunch was a salad with every vegetable and leaf I could find plus feta cheese, mixed bean salad and smoked salmon. Luckily I love all that stuff so it was no real sacrifice. Week 1 weigh-in and I had lost 3lbs, just over a kilo. It was good but not good enough.
Week 2 and the weight-loss pressure was on. If I couldn't reach less than 74kg by the Thursday evening weigh-in then I would have to fight in the over 74kg division with the big old lads who would seriously outweigh me and, from experience, a hefty kick or punch from a seasoned heavyweight would be no laughing matter. I decided to cut out carbs altogether. Pasta, rice and couscous were off the menu. Bean salad and feta cheese bit the dust too. I upped the salad vegetables and smoked salmon for lunch. In the evenings I had chicken or poached salmon on a bed of mixed leaves. Hunger pangs at any time of day were met with the allegedly negative calories of celery sticks. I was very lucky that I've always been a fan of celery, because I really consumed a lot of it that week.
|celery, my best friend celery|
Six o'clock on the Thursday evening and I took my turn to stand in my underwear on the Irish Open weigh-in scales at City West Conference Centre, Dublin. The result was 73.7kg (162.5 lbs or 11st 8.5lbs). I probably could have kept my trousers on. That weight allowed me to enter both the over and under 74kg age 50+ divisions, so I took part in both on the Saturday, having eaten like a hungry lunatic in the interim.
On the day I flitted up and down between the fighting on the ground floor and the weapons & forms on the second, where most of my club-mates were competing. Thousands of competitors milled around eighteen different fighting areas. Although everything was high-tech it was difficult to tell how the different divisions were progressing. My first fight wasn't due until around 4pm but I happened past the allocated area at 3:10pm and went into a panic as I realised they were ahead of schedule and I was due up fight after next. A mad rush upstairs to tell my coach and son, leaping back downstairs, throwing on my fighting gear and performing a few rudimentary stretches, I was on the mat and about to fight in my first international tournament. My opponent walked onto the mat and I saw for the first time where that 74kg weight cut had placed me. He was muscled, grizzled and turned out to be vicious, but I was six inches taller.
So how did it turn out? Well, I used my reach and threw out kicks and jabs that occasionally landed on target. My opponent became frustrated and, when the referee called break, hit me after the break. It rocked me a bit the first time. The second time I really felt it. The third punch after the ref had called stop knocked me right off my feet. I made a Shakespearean show of regaining my footing as the referee consulted with the corner judges. Looking back at the video, my opponent received an official warning at that point but I missed the fun as my ears were singing as if cartoon birds were tweeting around my head. His next punch after the ref said stop earned my opponent a lost point as punishment. We pressed on until the time ran out and someone grabbed my hand to raise it in the air. I had won by 11 - 4. I had a few minutes to recover before the next fight.
|Another one bites the dust. That's me on the floor, with the salad green fighting gear.|
Opponent number two was also shorter than me, but not by so much. He was fast like lightning and his kicks stretched over my head with ease. My tactics from the previous fight weren't effective. As the points mounted up against me, I changed my plan of attack from long range jabs and kicks to crush, kill, destroy, attempting to kick my opponent off the mat. It almost worked and I had him cornered at the final bell but I lost 3 - 5. At least I didn't get punched off my feet that time. Right after the fight my coach came clean and told me what he hadn't dare say at the start of the bout in case I got the heebie jeebies. I had just been fighting a renowned 6th dan black belt, five times world champion who, sure enough, went on to win that under 74kg 50+ years sparring division. The score looks close but, in hindsight, I reckon he was keeping a safe margin and taking it a bit easy on me. Nevertheless, it was a small division and I got to share the podium in joint third place with a lovely Italian chap who couldn't speak a word of English. The bronze medal looks nice on my bedroom wall with all Mrs R's running awards.
|Yours truly far right|
I also entered the over 74kg 50+ years division but was beaten 2 - 5 in my first fight by a very experienced guy from England who was the same age as me but about ten kilos heavier. I made some repetitive errors and he capitalised on my inexperience. Hopefully I learned from that fight too. The next quarterly tournament is on April 16th.
Three weeks later and I've stuck with the big salad lunches but otherwise I'm back on a normal diet, the only concession being management of portion sizes (I usually eat enough rice, pasta or potatoes for two) and sticking to brown rice or wholemeal pasta and occasionally bread. Wine and beer make a weekend guest appearance. My weight has hovered around 74kg and this morning I was 73.8kg. Maybe this is the new slimline me.
So now it's time to do the predictable thing and try to draw some kind of parallel between my recent martial arts beatings and the business of writing novels, but I'm not sure I can manage it. Probably the best thing is to slip a couple of heavy titles inside my gloves the next time I fight. In 2015 I spent my writing energy on the Zombies v. Ninjas series which combined both of my favourite things - writing and fighting (the zombies were incidental but necessary). 2016 was to be my murder mystery writing year but I have a feeling the ninjas are going to prevail once again. On Easter Monday we have our annual fundraising show with 30+ performances by the karate club. I'll be waving my sword around to the original theme of Mission Impossible and also doing an umbrella self-defence routine to the tune of Singing in the Rain. When the dust settles on all that, let's see if the muse says fight or write, or both.
But Ruby, as Susan said, Respect. Leaving aside my cowardice, the words 'I train up to eight hours a week' were enough to remind me that I never have experienced (and never will), the sensations you describe with such verve. All the greater, therefore, is my vicarious enjoyment of your battles. A gripping post.