We trained together inside our Sifu’s garage. It was, well… humble, but efficient. There was a heavy bag in one corner, a kicking dummy in the other, and a speed bag in another. There was room for maybe ten of us, if we were sparring back to back. Some days it would be just me, Sen, and our Sifu. Those days we would dance around the garage throwing punches at each other. Sen started a year before me and practiced Karate previously. We were the same height, but he carried a lot more muscle than I did. He was a good sparring partner for me. I learned quickly working with him. I had to, or else he would keep hitting me. Sen was aggressive. He was there training for a fight. No, not a competition fight, a no rules street fight. I mean we were all training for a no rules fight, but I wasn’t necessarily there to go out and be able to kick someone across the face. But Sen was. He wanted to start something. Half the time he was starting something with me.
Sen would come up to me and say, “What if I…” then throw a punch right to my face. He wouldn’t hit me, but that fist couldn’t have been more than a centimeter from my face. It’s not like it was particularly intimidating, I just had to get used to being prepared all the time. I was used to training with punches coming that close. It’s just how we trained. Sifu would tell us, “We train the way we fight. Throw the punch toward him. Or else it won’t be real. Make him feel the wind so he knows you got through. But don’t hit him. Close, but no cigar.” I definitely felt his wind and heard him snicker each time. Sometimes he couldn’t control himself and he would land one right on my chin. He would say sorry, but it wasn’t the most sincere apology. I would act like it was okay. “No worries, man; let’s keep going.” It was different for me. I tried to control myself as much as possible. Control of the punch helped me develop control of my body. That’s what I was there for. I wasn’t trying to learn how to beat Sen up. I was trying to learn how I could express myself. Martial arts was a way to show control over my body. But control eventually had to be set free.
A few months in I started full contact sparring. That was a whole new ballpark. I had to learn to let go of my control. I had to set my hands free. The first time sparring was… I guess I could say enlightening. I’m dancing around the garage with Sen and BAM. Right in my face. It hurts, but I can’t focus on that too long. I need to get my mind back. Focus on the… BAM. He gets me with the cross. Shit. Relax. Hands up. BAM. Body shot? “Hoof,” I breathed. There was more power in that than I thought. He’s not going easy on m… BAM. Okay, pay attention. Three strikes come, but each one is parried. They almost get me, but no cigar. Okay, not bad… BAM! That one hurt. “You better keep your guard up,” Sen says. I’ll get him back. Dodge the jab, catch the cross, catch the hook, and give him two to the face. Pow Pow. Yeah! I got him… BAM! Right in my face. “Don’t get too cocky,” he snickers as he mockingly points his glove at me.
Sen enjoyed full contact sparring. He could test out what he learned. For me it was to see how free I could be. I wanted to see if I could take in everything I learned and just let it happen. That’s what my Sifu always said, “Learn what you can, but when you’re in a real fight you forget it all. Just relax.” When you’re fighting you don’t have time to think about what you’ve learned, you just have to know you’ve learned it. If you’re in your head too much, your body will move too slow.
It wasn’t long before Sen challenged our Sifu. Sifu just laughed at him. “You’re not ready.”
“I’ve learned a lot. I’m a lot better now. I can fight you,” he argued.
Sifu pushed me forward saying to Sen, “You fight him. If you can beat him then I’ll put you on your ass.”
“I’ve beaten him plenty. Hell, I’ve taught him most of what he’s learned. You can’t be serious,” Sen said, as his anger swelled.
“Put on your gloves. The loser is out of my school,” Sifu replied. I was shocked. I’m supposed to fight Sen? There’s no way I’m as good a fighter as Sen. Sifu must have seen the temerity in my face when he whispered to me, “Relax. You know how to fight. Just relax and let your body speak.”
We squared up to each other, touched gloves, and it began. Sen was fast. He would dance around me throwing jabs to test me. I felt the tension in my shoulders until I heard Sifu shout, “Relax!” I took a deep breath, as Sen wound up his punch. My body moved forward, slipping past it as I swept the leg, and put two quick jabs to his face. Pow Pow. Sen didn’t stop moving though. He moved closer and our hands met, trading punches, but none could get through either’s guard. Overtime I started to see Sen’s movements. I knew what he was going to do. I saw it each time we sparred. I saw the tension build up in his shoulder before a punch. I saw his eyes focus in on my head or body. I saw the openings as a result of his tension. My body easily slipped his punches while getting my own in. There was no match. He had trained to fight. I trained to control my body and mind, then set it free. I could express my movement, while Sen stayed rigid in rage.