When Fedor Emelianenko—the baddest man on the planet—walks through the door, the first thing you notice about him is … he’s not all that big. The statistics list Fedor Emelianenko as 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, but even that seems a stretch. When he enters a Manhattan gym with an entourage of handlers, several of whom are larger than he is, you might not know he’s regarded as the greatest heavyweight in the history of the mixed martial arts unless you were already a fan of his. And the common wisdom has long been that his fan base in the United States is confined to the hard-core MMA junkies, the kind of people who scour the Internet for hours on end just to learn what Chuck Liddell had for breakfast this morning. But either the common wisdom is horribly wrong or New York has more MMA fans per capita than anywhere else on earth. Word of Fedor Emelianenko’s arrival in town for a public workout and press conference was sent out only a couple of days beforehand to MMA journalists, but hundreds of fans were lined up around the block an hour before he was scheduled to show up. There was a brief period earlier in the day when it appeared the event wouldn’t even get off the ground. Several uniformed firefighters made their way into the building, and concerns about safety-code violations related to overcrowding began to dance in the heads of the Showtime executives who’d scheduled the appearance. But it turned out the firemen were there simply to get their pictures taken with Fedor Emelianenko. Apparently, even the NYFD are big fans. It was difficult to tell if the enigmatic heavyweight returned the sentiments. Although he’s always polite, it’s hard to fathom what’s going on in the 33-year-old Russian’s mind. During the press conference, he gave his careful, stock answers to queries about why he signed with Strikeforce rather than the much larger Ultimate Fighting Championship and what he thought of UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar, always taking his time to listen to his translator—even though he has a good grasp of English. Known as an emotionless, stone-faced fighting machine inside the ring, he prefers to give little away outside the ring, even when there’s just one reporter rather than a hundred. At a private photo shoot the next day, Fedor Emelianenko would listen as translator Tanya Svyatodumova interpreted the questions from a lone interviewer, then pause for several seconds glancing down at the floor as if lost in thought before giving brief replies. When asked why he seemed so careful and thoughtful, Fedor Emelianenko said: “I don’t think we should say just anything that comes out of our mouths. We shouldn’t utter empty, meaningless words.” The reply from his interviewer, that journalists would be out of business if this were true, managed to bring a small, bemused smirk to his face—but just for a moment before he clamped down again. So much for witticisms. The kind of fame that brings a constant stream of fans and media to his doorstep is not something Fedor Emelianenko ever sought, although he handles it as gracefully as a reluctant celebrity can. His poise may end up being tested even further with his next fight against Brett Rogers, set to be broadcast live on cable television for the first time in the United States via Showtime, a company that would love nothing more than to make him a household name. If that happens, it’ll be on the basis of his fighting skills, not his love of the spotlight. “Fedor Emelianenko’s just a very quiet, private guy,” said Annie Van Tornhout, Showtime’s supervisor of sports communication. It’s her job to help cajole him toward American superstardom. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that his reserved nature is a Russian character trait or the product of the old Soviet sports system, which was just winding down as Fedor Emelianenko began his training in sambo, the Russian grappling art in which he became a world champion. He grew up idolizing the Soviet sports stars of the past, men who were often perceived in the West as cold and robotic. Despite being a self-described weak child, Fedor Emelianenko seized the opportunity to participate in sambo, making up for his lack of athleticism with a burning desire to excel. His longtime trainer, Vladimir Voronov, has said persistence is Fedor Emelianenko’s greatest talent. It was persistence that kept him practicing the martial arts when he entered the Russian army but was inexplicably denied a post in one of the units that specialized in athletics. Instead, he was placed in a firefighting brigade and forced to train on his own during off-duty hours. He left the army in 1997 and ended up winning national championships in both sambo and judo. He probably would have been happy with a career in either sport—he still competes in sambo and has won the world championship three times—but with little money to be made there and a new family to support, he had to turn to the one place his skills could earn him a decent living. Joining the Japan-based Rings organization, he began fighting in MMA competitions in 2000 and has never looked back. Amassing a 30-1 record, his single loss came early in his career—a stoppage that followed cuts from an illegal blow in a bout that should have been ruled a no-contest. He later avenged the lone blemish on his ledger by brutalizing Japanese fighter Tsuyoshi Kohsaka with a one-round TKO. Essentially, he’s been unbeatable for his entire MMA career—although this is an idea Fedor Emelianenko openly scoffs at. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “Sooner or later, it will happen that I lose.” Hardly the typical answer from a champion fighter. “He’s humble. Very much so,” said Joost Raimond, CEO of M-1 Global, the Russian-based company that manages and co-promotes Fedor Emelianenko. “That may put him in a different category from everyone else. But he doesn’t need to pound his own chest.” Indeed, chest pounding is the last thing anyone would expect from Fedor Emelianenko. Although engaged in the most brutal of sports, he doesn’t conduct himself like most other mixed martial artists, often referring to himself as a “sportsman” rather than a fighter. He said he still has a passion for learning and practicing the martial arts but doesn’t like watching others fight. This continued love of the arts was evident when he started running through techniques with his partner for the photo shoot, top-ranked light-heavyweight fighter Gegard Mousasi. Despite the bright lights and camera, it was quickly apparent that this, more than anything else, was Fedor Emelianenko’s natural environment as he began laughing and joking with Mousasi like a couple of youngsters enjoying themselves in the dojo. Losing himself in the pleasant familiarity of the training hall, he even slipped up on a few occasions and lapsed into a bit of English. “Gegard, your feet are dirty,” he teased. When Gegard Mousasi playfully tucked his chin at one point, making it difficult for Fedor Emelianenko to demonstrate his fearsome rear choke, the Russian casually forced Gegard Mousasi ’s head up by driving his knuckles under the other man’s jaw. He jovially explained how he uses the knuckle of each thumb to press underneath the hinge of his opponent’s jaw, causing enough pain to make him lift his head. Sliding those hard, bony knuckles down along the sides of his partner’s neck like water finding a crack to seep into, he slipped one arm under his chin to secure the choke, then proceeded to make Gegard Mousasi pay just a little for his temerity, applying the hold more than once with a touch of glee. Fedor Emelianenko is open when it comes to sharing tips about his legendary ground-and-pound technique from inside an opponent’s guard. Although many fighters become cautious under such circumstances, fearing a submission, or they look to simply loosen their opponent up with a few strikes so they can pass his legs, Fedor Emelianenko is renowned for administering a dominating punching attack while remaining inside the guard. It’s a skill that enabled him to handily beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, one of the best guard practitioners in the sport, on two occasions. From down on his knees, he’ll wind up his stocky body, cocking his punch back the way you’re told never to do in a stand-up fight, then hurl himself into the blow like a man throwing a javelin down into the ground. When asked if there’s a risk he’ll unbalance himself, he emphasized the importance of keeping the knees wide for a solid base. Then he explained how his body lands on the opponent’s torso, which he uses to maintain balance and stay somewhat upright. It was a fascinating change to witness a little of his normal reserve fall away as he became more involved in the techniques. Watching from the sidelines, Van Tornhout said she’d never seen him this way. Fedor Emelianenko confessed: “In my childhood years, I was very emotional. Now, maybe, all that energy goes into training.” It would be a mistake to assume he has no ego—almost all world-class athletes do, or they wouldn’t be where they are. When asked to allow Mousasi to place him in a few holds for photographs, he politely declined. No champion ever likes to be seen on the short end of the stick. It’s always tempting to read meaning and devious motives into every action of those in the public spotlight, but that kind of over-analysis isn’t necessary when it comes to understanding for Fedor Emelianenko. In the end, he may be that rarest of all modern celebrities, one about whom you can say, “What you see really is what you get.” What you do see is a thoughtful, reticent individual who genuinely doesn’t care for fame but who tolerates it because it’s part of his job. He also seems to be someone who, like a lot of martial artists, would be happiest simply hanging out at the gym with a few friends, swapping techniques on the mat. And whether in a gym or an arena, that may be something he does better than anyone else alive. (Mark Jacobs is a freelance writer and martial artist based in New York.)
To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!
In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements
Brief History<p>Musashi was a samurai who lived during the 17th century. In feudal Japan, he was regarded as a kensei, or sword saint. Toward the end of his life, he wrote The Book of Five Rings, a classic on strategy and philosophy. It delineates the elements of air, water, fire, earth and the void. The timeless beauty of this text lies in the way it can help us understand those elements in a way that improves our skill in combat, as well as our ability to comprehend human nature.</p><p>For most of us nowadays, the martial arts are not needed for survival on a daily basis. We have laws and firearms to protect us. This fact makes the mindset and spirit of the martial arts even more important because they are what help us combat stress, handle people with opposing views and endure conditions that otherwise might threaten our well-being.</p><p>In the 1970s, my father Joko Ninomiya had a huge impact on the world of full contact — specifically, on kyokushin, the style of karate developed by Mas Oyama. In Japan, my father is known as the prince of karate and a modern-day Miyamoto Musashi. Why? Because when he fought, he used angles, leverage, positioning, timing and sensitivity to overcome bigger opponents. He didn't rely on brute strength; he relied on sabaki.</p><p>In 1988 he created his own style of full contact called enshin karate. The name means "heart of the circle." Enshin signifies not only the spiraling nature of sabaki techniques but also the authentic connection between ourselves and others, as well as the community at large.</p>
Book of Air: Discernment<p>When we work with energy, a fundamental idea is that we can consciously give direction only to something we're aware of. To effect change, it's essential to be aware of that thing. Take, for example, a tire that's slowly leaking. It requires us to discern that something is wrong and then devise a strategy to change or repair the tire before it bursts on the highway.</p><p>In the martial arts, we don't just get hit out of nowhere; something happens, and we pick up on it. My father likes to say, "Your hands are like antennae." Our mental space must be bigger than our opponent's, and our hands should project that power with sensitivity. In sabaki, we want to be in an ideal position in which we know everything about our opponent and his movement potential is limited.</p><p>Air is also responsible for our ability to develop and use strategy in combat. If we cannot follow directions pertaining to strategy, usually we are very earthy. This is because the element that's in opposition to air is earth. If we are earthy, we're grounded. That can make us more susceptible to sustaining continuous damage. On the flip side, if we have too much of the air element, we're more susceptible to getting swept.</p><p>Another important role of air is its influence on our mental space. Ideally, we won't get hit, but if we do and our mental space collapses, we become more vulnerable.<br></p><p> <strong>How to enhance the air element:</strong> Eat foods that are less dense. Take a course in public speaking to learn how the mind is used to project what you feel. Simulate defending against multiple attackers. Keep a structured journal.<br></p>
Book of Water: Attachment<p>Water relates to feeling, fluidity, timing and rhythm. As my father always says, "Put your mind into what you're doing." When we put our mind into our opponent, we can feel his rhythms and interrupt them. In sabaki, we use the concept of kyushu to connect with the force of our opponent. Kyushu means "to absorb and cushion an incoming attack." It's the tool that bridges awareness and lets us feel what's actually happening, which is superior to being forced to simply react. Kyushu and the water element in general represent a movement that's in opposition to the fire element. It expands out and away from us.</p><p>Kyushu, on a more social level, refers to putting ourselves in another person's shoes. Many courses on conflict resolution involve being the person we have a problem with, all in an effort to make us realize the trigger is a barrier we set up to isolate and protect ourselves. The name of my father's karate is enshin, which refers to the heart of the circle. It's not only the physical heart that circulates blood in our bodies but also the energy that allows us to feel and have empathy. This empathy is an attachment and harmonization to another person's feeling or intention.</p><p>Musashi wrote a poem titled Senki (War Spirit) that explains the water element: "The moon, in a cold stream like a mirror." The mind is calm and unaffected like the cold stream that keeps moving while reflecting the emotions (the moon) of the opponent. So even though we're separate from our opponent, we're calm and can feel everything he's thinking.</p><p>When we use kyushu to respond to an attack, we absorb it through a solid structure that has elasticity embedded within it like a trampoline. This trampoline-like strength relies on opening and closing the joints and the fascia, the web of connective tissue that has a strength and sensitivity greater than muscle. While a muscle requires oxygen, the fascia is avascular, which means it doesn't have blood vessels because it doesn't need oxygen. This frees up the oxygen in our bodies so it can be used by the brain and vital organs. When our operating system has freed up some of its resources, we can feel what's happening more accurately.</p><p>To do kyushu with proficiency requires a mind shift from that of fight or flight, which is encoded in our DNA, to that of releasing muscular tension and using the body's natural intelligence of the fascia and bone alignment. Something interesting to note in the kihon (basics) of enshin karate: The blocks are technically not blocks according to that word's conventions, which conjure an immovable and hard structure. The blocks of traditional karate are rigid and linear, with a start and a stop. The blocks of enshin use spirals, which are the language of how energy is transferred along fascia. A spiral has no start or stop, which results in a continuous stream of connected power.</p><p>Once kyushu has been established with an incoming attack, we can move toward a position that's more advantageous. In this position, our movement potential is amplified, and our opponent's movement potential is limited. As soon as position has been established, another critical concept enters the picture: kuzushi. Often referenced in the grappling arts of judo and jujitsu, kuzushi means "to borrow the opponent's balance." When we have to stabilize our balance, it's very hard to simultaneously defend against a strike. Using kuzushi, however, we can choose how to respond — with a strike or a takedown. The sabaki method uses both options.</p><p> <strong>How to enhance the water element: </strong>Take up yin yoga, a gentle form of yoga that uses relaxation to create space. Practice giving and receiving. Play and interact with music, song and dance. Hit a heavy bag while moving in and out in sync with the bag's swinging. Volunteer to do something that resonates with your higher purpose, such as teaching a skill or donating money without expecting anything in return.<br></p>
Book of Fire: Will<p>The fire element is expansive in nature and deals with any percussive strike. On a personal level, it calls on the will to materialize an action. Someone who has a strong fire element has a strong will. When things get tough, we can harness this element to dig deeper — this is called fighting spirit. The person with the fiery personality is often the life of the party. Fire is spiritual, rules philosophy and connects to intuition.</p><p>Fire is the only element that doesn't exist in nature without the application of an external force. It requires a balance of other elements to ignite it. When fire is in excess, we can be irritable, moving and attacking with a lack of focus and purpose. When it's in harmony, we can maternalize our reason for fighting (water), discern when to do it (wind) and be grounded enough to not get carried away throwing wild punches (earth).</p><p>A pivotal point in Musashi's career occurred when he learned that the reckless actions and duels in which he'd participated had no direction or purpose in life. Legend says that a Zen priest named Takuan Soho taught him to cherish his life first so he would know what's worth fighting for. When we care enough about something, he learned, we will fight for it.</p><p>In Musashi's fire book, he spoke about how different movements and strikes embody different kiai. Essentially, he said the kiai should match the action. He also highlighted the gaze, which should be focused and composed.</p><p>In sabaki, once we discern an attack or detect an opening, we use the water element to connect to the opponent. Then we can choose to strike depending on the circumstances. In kihon, we use correct form to learn how the bones and connective tissue transmit striking power. The traditional stance known as sanchin dachi, a pigeon-toed position that relies on the stability of the triangle to connect the hands to the feet, is hard-wired energetically. When the stance is freed up in free fighting, we learn how to connect all the moving parts.<br></p><p><strong>How to enhance the fire element: </strong>Learn to strike and kiai properly. Develop single-pointed focus in standing meditation with your eyes open to prolong the time you can act before reaching the threshold at which you want to quit. Engage in resistance training with light weights and explosiveness. Do high-intensity interval training that focuses on body mechanics and breathing.</p>
Book of Earth: Persistence<p>In a nutshell, the earth element teaches that how we do one thing is how we do everything. On a deeper level, this means connecting to the rituals that underlie our daily habits. It's really the earthly persistence of how the other three elements interact to embody a skill while maintaining integrity on all levels.</p><p>Many skilled martial artists can tell just by sight if they come across someone who trains in the arts — and often they will know which art the person practices. This level of embodiment in a person and the ability to detect it cannot be forged overnight. It takes years of doing the one thing until it becomes part of you.</p><p>In a practical sense, the earth element keeps us grounded and gives us the ability to use the techniques we've practiced without having to think. One of my father's favorite quotes, one that he often renders in Chinese calligraphy, is "A drop of water repeated over time makes a hole in stone." This is the secret to success that we must remember: Just keep training.While the rootedness of earth can make it challenging to throw or sweep someone who has too much of the earth element, it's often easier to strike such a person and then use kuzushi to borrow his or her balance before throwing or sweeping.</p><p>While this element may seem like the most mundane, it also is a reflection of the divine. This means that the rituals and care we see in the dojo remind us not to take our practice for granted. If we follow an empty ritual or do something only because it seems fun, in the future, we may become bored and never grow deep roots. The source of the bow in Japanese culture represents grounded humility. Reference the rice plant: As it matures, its head drops toward the ground so others can eat it and grow strong. The reverence that arises from an authentic bow instills a sense that there's always more to learn. As the Japanese say, "With true strength comes humility."</p><p><strong>How to enhance the earth element: </strong>Learn to stand on a stability ball. This is one of the most direct ways to develop a real root, as opposed to a physical root. (A real root is an energetic connection that runs deep into the ground and takes advantage of intention. A physical root involves widening one's stance and dropping one's center of mass.) Develop a daily schedule and create a routine to document your progress. Eat foods that are denser in nature.<br></p>
Book of the Void: Emptiness<p><br>This is the most mysterious element in that it represents the mind itself. In the martial arts, mushin refers to the state of "no mind" — in other words, a mind that's empty. The mind has two parts: the active mind, which has one pointed focus, and the passive mind, which is voluminous and wide.</p><p><strong>How to enhance the void element:</strong> In the spirit of Musashi, train your mind to be like a sword: extremely sharp yet so polished that you can lose yourself in its reflective nature. Meditate in your quest to attain mushin, striving to have your active mind focus on emptiness and your passive mind gently observe. Such a goal can be difficult to attain on your own. It's best achieved through participation in retreats that teach meditation. </p><p><em>Mike Ninomiya is a four-time Sabaki Challenge world champion. He has an eighth-degree black belt in enshin karate, a black belt in judo and a brown belt in jujitsu. In addition to martial arts, he teaches meditation, energy work and yin yoga. For information about his retreats that use The Book of Five Rings, visit <a href="http://mikeninomiya.com" target="_blank">mikeninomiya.com</a>. For information about enshin karate, visit <a href="http://enshinacademy.com" target="_blank">enshinacademy.com</a>.</em><br></p>
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