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When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called Striking without Thought or Form, and it is the most important stroke. Learn it well.

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

I don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a fight but I end up with three of them anyhow. I win the first two, but the final one, the most important one, is giving me trouble.

My opponent is older than me by at least fifteen years and built like a bear, thick in the torso with stout, strong limbs, but surprisingly fast. Twice now I’ve underestimated his quickness and paid the price for it. He’s good, cautious, refusing to commit to an attack that won’t succeed and maintaining a solid defense. Trying to go toe-to-toe with him is foolish, so I keep my feet moving, waiting for an opening to present itself. The score stands 2-1, his favor.

This is final match of the Black Belt Men’s Heavyweight division. Championship bout. My first competition in twelve years.

As a teenager I did well enough on the tournament circuit to be ranked 5th nationally in my weight class, but I “retired” after my first year of college, unable to maintain the rigorous training schedule necessary for regular competition. I came out to Vegas because the promoters are friends who offered to comp my hotel room if I served as a judge. Competition anywhere other than the gaming tables was not in my plans. But that was before I turned five bucks into two hundred playing blackjack, and on a whim I signed up in the morning, galvanized by a sense of good fortune. I expected to lose in the first round, and I’m surprised–and more than a little proud–to have made it this far, and I know that I’ve already scored a victory regardless of how the match turns out.

But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to let this guy roll over me. Oh, hell no.

If he wants that trophy, he’s damn well going to have to fight for it.

He is, however, giving as good as he’s getting, and maybe a little more on top of that. Though I’m the more flexible of the two of us, faster with my feet, I have to keep surrendering ground to maintain kicking distance, and every time I do he presses the attack. I block a flurry of punches but I’m trapped up against the edge of the ring, and he scores with a lunging thrust kick to my belt. 3-1.

Despite what may be shown in movies and in the UFC, sparring in a karate tournament is less about brute force and more about skill, finesse, and technique, and even open tournaments like this one have lately been cracking down on excessive contact violations. Lower division competitors win by being the first to reach three points, but for black belts it’s either the first to five or a three-point spread: 3-0, 4-1, 5-2. It’s one point for a shot to the body, torso or groin, two points for a more difficult headshot. There are five judges in the ring, and at least three of them must confirm a point for it to be valid.

My opponent retreats a bit, trying to lure me in the appearance of an easy point, but I hold back, controlling my breathing and waiting for a real opening. Most of his previous attacks have come over the top, taking advantage of his greater size and longer reach, but this time when he lunges in I switch-step into a right stance and pivot on my right leg, launching a spinning back kick with my left. It’s a risky move, one that leaves me largely defenseless, and if I’ve fudged the timing I’m going to get clobbered. But my foot slips right on up under his elbow to land solidly in against his rib cage, and the judges give me the point. 3-2.

One way or another, we’re going for five.

I’ve never felt more physically sure that I’m out of my twenties than I do now. The previous matches have taken their toll on me and I’m bone weary. My limbs ache in a way they never did when I was a regular competitor, and I’m sharply aware of the heaviness of my arms and the dull ache in my left thigh that will most certainly turn into a cramp tomorrow, of the nasty silicone taste of the mouthpiece enrobing my teeth and the way the sweat gathering on the bottom of my feet is costing me traction on the ring floor.

We both attack when the center judge gives the command to start, clashing together in a flurry of mish-mashed punches and chops, close enough to taste each other’s sweat, to hear each other gasping for breath and grunting with effort. It’s a clumsy, awkward hit, and neither of us scores any points.

When the judges start us again, I get too aggressive, too cocky, very nearly giving him a free headshot and ending the match. I get my block up just in time, but he still manages to land couple of shots to my solar plexus as I do. 4-2.

My opponent thinks he’s found a weakness. He throws a roundhouse kick to my groin, but it’s just an easily-blocked feint, a cover as he tries to come in with a backfist-punch combination to my head. Instead of raising my block again I sidestep forward and under his attack, landing a couple of quick jabs to his ribs while he strikes the air where my head used to be. 4-3.

I’m starting to feel like I might actually have a chance of winning this thing, but I clamp that feeling down. Fights are lost by indulging it.

We circle each other warily, throwing a couple of feints, trying to feel each other out, but not committing to an attack. My opponent doesn’t need to score anymore to win; he just needs that two-minute clock to run down and the match is his. I know there are only a handful of seconds left, and my energy reserves are reaching a critical low.

Heck with it, I think. You had your fun. Give ‘em a good show on the way out.

My opponent’s strategy has been solidly based on linear backwards/forwards progression, so I for my last attack I play the angles, feinting sideways into hard right stance, intending to transition to the left oblique across his line of attack and deliver a roundhouse kick to his undefended head as he takes the feint and tries to counter attack.

But as I make the switch my sweat-soaked right foot slips forward as though it’s just come down on a stray skateboard, hard enough to make the muscles attached to my hip groan and throwing my weight forward instead of at the angle. I stumble, completely open and undefended, and my opponent moves to take advantage.

I’m screwed. My balance is shot and there’s no way to regain it in time to get my defenses up. And with out any traction available on the ring floor there’s no way to resist as my own center of gravity carries me forwards.

So I go with it. With all my weight balanced precariously on my right, I kick up and out with my left, aiming for the one target zone available.

It’s beautiful. Practically a moment of Zen.

My foot curves up and around like an inverted smile, whipping back into a perfect hook kick to my opponent’s unguarded head. It’s the kind of shot that gets the slow motion treatment in a movie, the physical equivalent of tossing my last five dollars down on a blackjack table and walking away with two hundred. It stops him in his tracks.

The judges’ decision is unanimous: two points to me for the win. 4-5

My left shoulder hurts, my ribs ache, I’ve pulled a calf muscle and wrenched both my right foot and right knee when I scored that final kick.

Damn it feels good.