Think the skills of a world-class kickboxer are all anyone would need for self-defense? Well, kickboxing legend Kathy Long might disagree with you. In this two-part story, the Black Belt Hall of Famer explains why she cross-trains in other arts for a more street-oriented skill set.
Sooner or later, it happens to every martial artist: You’ve devoted the past five or 10 years of your life to honing your skill in isshin-ryu karate — or Shaolin kung fu or muay Thai kickboxing or whatever — and you think you’re a pretty good fighter.
Then one day, you spar with a practitioner of a different style — maybe a judo player — and he succeeds with so many defensive and offensive techniques that it takes you completely by surprise. You throw your best roundhouse kick, but he just absorbs it and slams you to the mat. You poke at his headgear with your tiger-claw strike, but he just slips to the side and locks up your arm, then sends you sailing over his hip.
You never even see most of his counterattacks coming, but afterward you thank your lucky stars the encounter happened in the gym and not on the street.
For some martial artists, such an experience elicits nothing more than hokey attempts at rationalization: “Our sparring rules don’t permit throwing.” “The mat was so soft I couldn’t push off to throw my reverse punch.” “I didn’t know he was going to grab my legs and take me down, but I’ll be ready next time.”
But for more open-minded martial artists, such as former kickboxing champion and Black Belt Hall of Fame member Kathy Long, such experiences serve to open their eyes to a whole new world of self-defense training — in a different but complementary art.
If you don’t believe in the need to supplement your primary art with techniques from other styles, you should listen to Kathy Long. “I now practice san soo kung fu with William Vigil and jiu-jitsu with the Machado brothers,” she says. “I’ve done kung fu for a little more than 10 years, and before that I did aikido. I’ve also done wrestling, kali and a little bit of wing chun.”
Kathy Long has invested time in so many styles because she believes that martial artists interested in self-defense should strive for maximum versatility. “It’s like when you get into kickboxing: If you have a really good jab and nothing else, you have a deficit,” she says. “If you’re going to be a well-rounded martial artist, you can’t study just one style. One style doesn’t have it all. Even in san soo, there are holes and deficiencies. You have to be able to fill those gaps.
“The interesting thing about san soo is that it comes as close as anything I have ever seen to being the most complete system. They have grappling, leveraging, punching, kicking and ground work. I have stayed with the style for so long because it is very functional, practical and effective. But I’m glad that I’m an open-minded person who can see the holes, and I’ve decided to try to fill them.”
More Than Kickboxing
While training in boxing and kickboxing under former manager Eric Nolan, Kathy Long defeated some of the best female fighters in the world, including Ramona Gatto, Bonnie Canino and Kyoko Kamikaze. She developed such incredible power in her punching and kicking techniques that, in preparation for her successful quests for five world kickboxing titles, she often worked out with men instead of women. But she never rested on her laurels or felt satisfied with her ring-fighting skills.
Just having the jab, cross and a couple of kicks from kickboxing is not enough for self-defense, Kathy Long says. “It’s not even close. Kickboxing is a sport to start with, and there are a lot of rules and regulations that you have to fight by. I think that if a woman decides to punch a 200-pound man in the face, she’s probably not going to be that effective. However, if she takes that punch and turns it into a finger spear to the eyes, and the right cross becomes an open-hand strike to the throat, then a knee to the groin and a strike to the base of the skull, things change.
"You can’t do just one style to be as destructive as you’d like to be in self-defense.”
Although little of Kathy Long’s san soo arsenal made it into the kickboxing ring, the art’s principles did influence the way she fought. “San soo does a wonderful thing: It teaches you to strike in combination, as opposed to striking once and thinking that’s enough,” she says.
Another benefit of her years in the ring was the development of the ability to take a hit — a right cross to the jaw or Thai kick to the leg, for example. “You have to understand it’s going to happen,” she says. “You’re going to get hit, no matter how slick you think you are. I’ve gotten hit more times than I care to talk about.
“It prepares you to think under pressure, to be hit and be dizzied, to almost get knocked out but stay calm enough to think rationally until you’re well enough to do something. When I started kickboxing, there were times when I would get in the ring and it would be pretty easy to knock me out. Later on, as I got more used to it and more conditioned, that same hit wouldn’t even make me wince.”
The experience of getting hit, the conditioning and the mental preparation helped make Kathy Long more able to defend herself on the street. “At first, I wasn’t mentally prepared, I didn’t know what [getting hit] would be like, and I wasn’t used to it,” she says. “After a while, my mind frame just changed to ‘I don’t care if I get hit.’”
Story by Robert W. Young