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[Debroah Liao trains out of Five Points Academy and fights Muay Thai and MMA. She has been training in the sport for several years and is a member of our sparring circle]

There are so many things that you can talk about with regards to sparring and so many angles to view it from. I’ve been sparring for about 4 years now. My first introduction to sparring was when I was doing Krav Maga with the folks up at John Jay College. My first sparring partners were a 250 pound guy and a Krav Maga black belt woman, Kat. It was a humbling moment getting pummeled mercilessly. Even now, I feel more or less humbled every time I spar.

I think that learning to be humble is one of the things you learn from sparring (or I hope that people learn!). There’s always something else you could have done or could have done better or done differently. And there’s almost always someone who is better than you. There is no such thing as “perfect”. Being humble, from my point of view, is one of the things that sets you apart from people who simply do Muay Thai versus people who do Muay Thai for the love of it. I think if you love it, you can’t not eventually spar. Fighting is a different story entirely and while more people end up sparring, many do not ever step in the ring.

As for sparring itself? I find it to be the least predictable exercise ever. Some days I have good days. More often I have bad days. And almost all the time I feel frustrated by the fact that I haven’t done something or been busy enough or whatnot. Steve [Arjan Steve Miles] once said to me that ignorance is a form of bliss. Because when you’re ignorant about all your options, you just go in and hit only with the intent to hit. Because I am very analytical in my work life and personality, I tend to get tied up in the nuances and the options which can lead to me not doing nearly enough. It’s a hard mold for me to break out of.

And sparring really depends on the person I’m working with. I’m lucky because I have plenty of women to spar with at all different skill levels [at Five Points Academy]. In terms of size, however, the skill level strata are more separated. Emily, our pro WKA world champion fighter, and Rima with almost 20 fights, are my size but their experience level far surpasses mine. Whenever I work with Emily, who’s a WKA pro world champion, I still get a little bit of anxiety because I know that I will get my ass whupped. If I’m defensive I get my ass whupped. If I’m offensive, I eat punches and kicks timed with exquisite precision. It’s a good and bad experience because it makes me realize how much work I need to do and no one I fight will hit me as hard as her. It’s bad because I spar differently with her than with anyone else. With Rima, I have fun with her but her cardio is so good and she’s so busy that I’m always gassed after working with her. The other girls are all awesome to work with too albeit they are taller and bigger than me, which makes it hard, like if I block a kick, I get sent flying because of the weight difference.

As for sparring with guys, again it depends. I don’t mind sparring with guys but I find it immensely frustrating when they significantly outweigh me and have 6+ inches of reach/height on me. They can just pepper me with kicks and punches and stay out of my range. I usually end up getting frustrated and sometimes getting a little pissy/angry when I feel like someone is getting cocky/condescending with me because I know if I were the same size, I’d be able to land a lot more stuff. And I hate it when I get angry because I HATE being pissy when I spar and you should NEVER take it personally when you spar (I blame it on a bad few weeks at work). Case in point, during technical sparring tonight, a guy who outweighs me by 60 pounds or so and is probably 6-7 inches taller than me, decided to try to kick me in the head multiple times during TECHNICAL sparring (no headgear). Kicks to the head are usually not allowed during technical sparring and I felt like he was doing it just to do it. If I were taller, I would have hit him in the head more because his hands are wayyyy down at shoulder level and he stands really square. I did kick him in the head in return and hit him in the stomach a lot more. When we ended up in a clinch situation, I was able to use my experience more effectively to get the dominant position and dig my elbows into his clavicles to jack his head down into a bad position.

It’s also interesting when we have our quarterly grading [at Five Points Academy]. Not that many women grade up to blue level and not that many women grade up and show up for sparring regularly. I find that most new women are very tentative when they are introduced to sparring. For me, I was lucky to have that aggression and dirty fighting style from Krav Maga. So hitting someone wasn’t new to me. I usually find I have to encourage the newer women to be more aggressive and let them just hit me. However, the person’s intent and personality also plays a big role. For this upcoming grading, I foresee possible “trouble” with one particular woman who tends to lack control and attempts to go heavier and faster than she should at her skill level. It’s funny, though, the transition from just taking classes to sparring is HUGE. People can think they’re the shit during classes, but it’s a completely different ball game when it comes down to mano a mano. I think sparring or fighting is a great equalizer in many ways because it doesn’t matter who you are outside of that moment. You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, whatever….but when you are sparring or fighting, it’s just two people going after each other.

Which brings me to another funny thing. I don’t know how it is at other gyms, but there is definitely a pecking order amongst the women. Obviously the more experienced you are, the more fights, etc, the higher you are in the pecking order. Which is only fair because of the blood and sweat and tears and aches and pains and bruises you accumulate getting there. And I feel like people work hard to maintain their position in the pecking order (admittedly, I feel out of the pecking order since my left arm issue has been keeping me from really sparring). I admit that if a new person comes in thinking that they’re the shit, I will go harder and attempt to put them in their place versus if a new person comes in and knows they have a lot to learn. I guess it’s a respect thing.

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