I knew it was Stand-up Day as soon as I entered the dojo. There was always a low turnout on such days. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the strategy is to close the distance, enter the clinch, execute a good take-down and then finish the fight on the ground. Stand-up Day was the only sparring session of the week where we were allowed to—even encouraged to—strike with punches. For some students of the ‘Gentle Art’ this was just way too scary. But for the rest of us Stand-up Day was the best day of the week. Not only were there less students—making the class more like a private session with the teacher—it was the only day in the week where we could more realistically test our street readiness. On ‘glove-day’, as we affectionately called it, I could test aspects of my Wing Chun together with my BJJ skills. It was, and is, one of the reasons why I love BJJ so much. And I wasn’t the only one having fun on that day.

As I drilled a clinch and takedown sequence with a partner, I heard the sound of laughter behind me. The thin, silvery haired old man I had seen the other day had also turned up for ‘glove day’. He wore a blue belt with no stripes which meant that although he was skilled, he was not an advanced practitioner. Before long the technical session of the class was over. We all lined up and the teacher summarised the session’s key learning outcomes before announcing: “Today is glove day guys. Remember: take downs are where most of the injuries happen. If your partner has you in a good takedown don’t resist too much. If you resist, he has to apply greater force. If he applies greater force, you can land badly and injure yourself. Be realistic but be sensible. Some of us have to go to work tomorrow. We don't want to go into the office with a black eye or a broken nose. Any questions?” We all shook our heads. “Okay. Gum shields in. Gloves on.”

The Rolling Session Begins

The timer beeped and the game was on. Sparring or ‘rolling’ sessions can last for anything from thirty minutes to one and a half hours. Everyone changes their partner periodically. My first opponent tried the usual feints—faking a punch to the face hoping to get a reaction that would allow him to level change and go for a takedown. Wing Chun teaches us patience and sensitivity. His feints elicited no response from me. This was not what he expected. He moved back, I moved forward. He fired a low kick trying to control the distance. I moved forward again in a Wing Chun step— kicking, blocking and pinning his foot. This put me in perfect range for a clinch, followed by a leg-hook takedown. I let him down gently—for his own safety, and to set up the next move. As my opponent landed softly on the mats he instantly turned to his side, contracted his knees and placed his hands in an optimal defensive position. I continued the advance. We grappled on the ground. Occasionally I launched soft punches at him to expose vulnerabilities. He responded in kind. It could have gone either way. At times I had him close to a submission, at other times I was close to being submitted. And then the buzzer went and it was time to change partners.

It had been an exhausting thirty minutes or so. The stand-up phase had been all mine. My Wing Chun skills clearly gave me an advantage over the opponent. But the ground was a level playing field. It had been a tough round. With beads of perspiration dripping from my forehead I shook hands with my partner, stood up and turned to face my new opponent. It was the old man I had seen earlier.

I felt sorry for him. He looked frail. He was all bones and silver wisps of hair. He adjusted his blue gloves on his wrinkly forearms and we got to work. Standing toe to toe with a BJJ fighter is always fun. Wing Chun body mechanics make it is easier to avoid takedown attempts from grapplers. We simply don’t react in the way that most fighters expect. Wing Chun teaches us to close the distance and capture the opponent’s centre line by adherence to simple principles and footwork. But the old man was not like other BJJ fighters. I couldn’t quite penetrate a punch through his centreline. His body seemed to always move just a few inches out of alignment from my incoming attacks.

I stepped in and closed the distance. He stepped just a little forward at an angle that made me lose his centre line, exposing me to a punch to the face. I avoided the blow, but just barely. The old man was good. Maybe, I thought, he had some boxing experience. Come to think of it, he did move like a boxer. In any case, I had him perfectly set up. I lowered my stance, shifted my body weight and level-changed to go for a single leg takedown. But somehow it did not work. He managed to move just ever so slightly again, shifting his body in the same direction as mine and pinning my head under his right arm.

From a Wing Chun point of view this was not a good position to be in. My head was locked beside his hips under his arm. My centreline had been completely compromised. My body structure and alignment were broken. Worst of all I was in a headlock. This type of headlock is a favourite of street brawlers. From this position they like to pound their victim’s head with the back of their fists—or an incidental weapon of choice, like a brick or glass bottle. From the corner of my eye, I could see a blue gloved hand getting ready to land some strikes. In situations like this, time itself seems to slow down.

But not for my opponent. To him—as to an inexperienced observer—he had the superior position. Victory seemed to be his, and in attempting to hold on to that victory, he tightened his lock on my head. And so he didn’t feel the subtle shifting of my body weight on to my rear foot. He didn’t notice my left hand around his back and my right hand reaching out to block his left knee. Before his left punch could make contact with my head my right foot had stepped across the front of his body. It was already too late for him. As I sat down close to his left foot, the torque generated by this movement sent him crashing to the floor. And time—for me at least—resumed its normal pace.

If he had not been holding onto my head so tightly, I would not have been able to take him down so easily. As he landed on the mats my right leg came over his body into a modified mount. All the while he still held on to my head. Now more for his own safety, than for anything else. From here it was a simple matter of releasing the grip with a framing arm across his neck and following up with a classic arm bar. The old man tapped. And the session was over. It was a textbook demonstration of a classic BJJ headlock escape. I helped him up, shook his hand and asked him his name. “Ken,” he said. “Nice to meet you.” He was happy and smiling. But we were both panting and exhausted from almost an hour of consecutive sparring.

I walked slowly back to the bench to get a sip of water and sit out the last few rounds. Pleased with my effort, I removed my gloves and gum shield and settled down to observe the few remaining students battling out to the end of the allocated sparring time. Ken—to my surprise—was walking back on to the mats. For the next gruelling forty minutes I watched him take on another two opponents—all bigger, stronger and younger than him. He was clearly tired. But he was not out. The old man battled on, bobbing, weaving, shifting, punching, clinching, escaping—even taking someone down with surprising efficiency. He was breathing hard; he was sweating profusely. One of his opponents leaned into his chest as he lay on the floor, in an attempt to squeeze the air out of him and make him tap. But Ken continued. Trapping one leg of the heavier opponent mounted on him, he managed to bridge—creating enough leverage to have the bigger man roll over and end up underneath him.

The fragile looking Ken was a fighter. Despite the heavier, aggressive pounding of his opponents he maintained a gentle serenity. His thin-boned structure redirected attacks, his use of leverage helped him escape from difficult situations and reverse what looked like a fait accompli. It was not easy to make him surrender. His performance was impressive.

Some weeks later I saw him again at the dojo. We greeted each other like old friends. He recalled our last rolling session. When I remarked on his impressive stand-up skills and asked him if he had ever studied another martial art, he told me he used to be a boxer and had also studied Wing Chun. I had, by then, already guessed as much. It explained so much about the way he moved and responded to threats.

A Lesson Learned

But on that particular glove-day Ken had displayed much more than great Wing Chun body mechanics. Observing Ken, his fragile looking frame and thin body, taking on any and all comers in consecutive, intense, sparring sessions was a powerful lesson. The truth was that whereas I had sat out after my second or third round, Ken had lasted the entire one and a half hours of sparring. Whereas most students didn’t even turn up for glove-day, not only did Ken show up every single time, he took on every single opponent. Ken exemplified within him one of the truths of budo: the study of martial arts cannot make you invincible, but it can make you indomitable. This is the real lesson being taught every Glove Day. But for those who never show up, it is a lesson they might never learn.

The above is an original article by Munawar Ali Karim, co-author with Loukas Kastrounis, of Wing Chun In-Depth: Skills for Combat, Strategies for Life, publication date May 2, 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 9781594399375.