I’ve come across it a lot in my time spent in gyms and among fighters, that men struggle with their aggression in the context of combat. It seems that a lot of the guys who talk about this are aware of their aggression and have made a point of controlling it, probably in their daily lives. He often states that if he gets hit he gets very aggressive in the ring and that he wants to keep his cool, that this is a difficulty. In some cases, aggression is needed in the practice of combat even though these men claim to be suppressing it.
My most recent focus in training has been aggression. My friend and fellow fighter Robyn worked with me on several occasions, pressing me to be more aggressive. Other trainers have attempted to get the same thing out of me, although phrasing it differently. Kru Nat wants me to be “busier,” by literally throwing more strikes – which isn’t quite aggression, but relies partially on it. And Master K has always pressed me to be more confident, which is perhaps a very keen word for understanding the benefits of aggression.
The aggression needed for successful encounters in the ring is not necessarily (and perhaps necessarily is not) emotional. Emotional aggression is often anger and I have experienced this when it is suddenly “turned on” by receiving a strong strike. I like getting hit and need it to a degree, because it gives me permission to strike back with equal or greater force. By waiting for it and basically mirroring my opponent, I’m not being aggressive. I’m matching. Aggression, when understood in the light of confidence, takes away the passivity of waiting for permission; it’s pressure. Non-emotive aggression allows one to move forward and backward without emotional connection to those movements – backwards is not retreat; forward is not manic. Most importantly, aggression allows one to recover very quickly from mistakes. If a kick lands, it doesn’t matter – you don’t care. Nothing interrupts the intention of the aggressive fighter and she can move in and press her opponent even while she’s taking blows.
These men who are struggling with their aggression are unaware that their propensity (or at least capacity) for aggression is a gift. Surely they understand why it is suppressed in their normal lives and I’m not arguing against that control. But the capacity for aggression is not universal, just as the capacity for true compassion is not ubiquitous. Having it, however, allows the person to go when it is needed. Not everyone would stop to help a crying child on a street corner, but a compassionate person would. Not everyone responds to pressure by moving into it, but an aggressive person does. This is essential for fighting.
What’s more is that aggression must be trained. Robyn taught me that and I will forever be grateful to her for that. In the process of training aggression you must also offer it as a gift to your teammates. Aggression and pressure help your teammates immensely and it is a disservice to them if you hold it all back for the sake of control. Don’t bash your teammates to the point of injury; but pressure them and instill a little bit of fear, so that they can learn to act on it. One of the most beautiful things to me about fighting in the ring is that there is no hiding. You feel pressure and fear and you have no choice but to face it.
A guy at the gym where I spar the other day was telling a teammate who is about to have his first fight that, “nobody is going to hit you as hard as I do.” That’s true and it’s not. I train with guys much bigger than me, so yes, a fighter my own size cannot hit me as hard as some of these guys can. But it might feel harder, given the pressure or the context of the fight. Likewise, a very strong puncher can seem much weaker than she really is given the context of the fight. The interpretation of what you can take depends greatly on your own level of aggression and dealing with pressure.
I’ve trained outside of this gym with one of the guys from sparring and I’ve been stressing the importance of controlling space and using aggressive energy to back the opponent up, whether or not punches are being thrown. I know he understands what I’m saying, but he’s unwilling to practice it because he likes his teammates. He’s afraid of being a jerk. The thing is, hitting your teammates as hard as you can will prepare them to take strong punches, but if they feel this impact while understanding on some level that there’s no real threat – because you’re a teammate and a nice guy – then they are not going to be able to handle the pressure that comes with that impact in a real fight. “Nobody’s going to hit you as hard as I do,” is less important, to some degree than, “nobody can pressure you as much as I do.”
I remember watching Gina Carano fight Chris Cyborg in an MMA bout. Carano came out looking scared, something I’d never seen in her before. She wasn’t confident and was so scared, in fact, that she let Cyborg up after taking her down in an early round. That alone changed the fight tremendously. While watching the fight my husband remarked that Carano’s training camp had failed her by not pressuring her enough during training. She was unprepared for the aggressive pressure that Cyborg put on her. And it was sad; Carano is a beautiful woman who’d achieved an unprecedented visibility in female MMA and had prepared for this fight with Randy Coutour, giving a degree of credibility to her name. But as a beautiful woman, and a sweet, girly person, it’s easy to see how her trainers did not work to take her will away. I experience this a lot. As a petite female who is not super feminine but certainly not butch, I have had to practically beg for training partners to really hit me; to press me and scare me so that I can acclimate to that pressure. This is why, as much as it is claimed to be a benefit for women to spar with bigger men, it is also incredibly important for women to spar with other women. We will kick each other’s asses without mercy in a way that a lot of guys, attempting not to be jerks, won’t.
This is important not only for being able to turn on your own aggression and handle someone else’s, but being able to respond to loss can make you a much more dangerous fighter. Just as you practice aggression you have to practice losing. When one of your teammates out punches you, hurts you, pressures you, or takes your confidence you have to be able to recover from that – preferably within the time that you are still sparring. It can change a fight. In Thailand, where betting has a huge influence on how fights are performed, betting on the fighter who wins the first two rounds is not a “safe” bet. The third round determines the outcome very often and the fighter who has dominated a lot of rounds can suddenly lose the fight to a “sleeper” opponent who becomes very aggressive and explosive late in the match. And this is not chance; it is the result of hundreds of hours of practicing exactly this. It’s how one can lose without being defeated.