This afternoon, in the last 20 minutes of training when I was wringing out the last of my energy on a hanging bag, Sakmongkol’s boss who I met yesterday called me into the ring for some padwork. Sifu McInnes is a calm, confident and quiet man with a larger-than-life reputation as a trainer. The walls of WKO are lined with champions he trained, in WBC belts, K-1 championship posters, Karate championship certificates and awards, etc. I was nervous to step into the ring with him, not because he’s intimidating in his person – he’s very kind – but because he’s the head honcho and a master trainer and “you only get one chance to make a first impression,” as they say.
I climbed into the ring and stood by the ropes, waiting for the round to start. Sakmongkol was doing padwork with this enormous fighter I’d thought initially was Russian but his accent indicates either New Zealand or Australia. He’s got some beautiful techniques and form, though his size makes him quite a spectacle and certainly hard work for trainers. In a good way. I could see that Sakmongkol was watching me, but not to analyze or diagnose – he was just curious to see me hitting pads with the man who he holds in such high respect that he considers him like a father. (In Thailand that’s a really big honor.)
The bell rang and Sifu altered his posture slightly, definitely not in an exaggerated pad-holding pose. He holds everything very close, so every strike feels pretty much like it would if you were hitting a person. Uppercuts are against his chest but at my chin level. He let me throw maybe four jabs before he stopped to tell me I’m telegraphing by popping my elbow up. I nodded and straightened it out; he nodded approval and moved on to the next bit. I needed to stick and move, sit down in my crosses a bit more, he adjusted my uppercut and my left hook, then showed me how to add leg kicks to link everything together. He did all this at a steady pace over about four rounds. The way he explains technique is very clear and he always adds a why that gently persuades you to choose the adjustment over the habit. It’s a brilliant way of teaching really. It builds autonomy and confidence because you know why you’re doing it that way. He showed me how the way I was dipping my shoulder on a hook could be interrupted by a counter and I’d never get the hook off. The way he showed me, you basically uppercut from your regular guard. It’s quick, it’s strong and it’s pretty difficult to see coming. I’ve had difficulty with my left hook for a long time, mostly because it’s inconsistent. I can get good power on it, but I can’t depend on the form enough to know I’ll get that power when I throw it – or that it will land, actually. My range is wonky. He told me to make it longer and pivot my front foot, then let my shoulder do the “hooking” bit. Sure enough within a couple of throws my left hook was ripping loudly on the pad. He complimented the power, then worked it into the padwork with more frequency, asking me to hook off of being hit on the right side, as a counter.
Sifu showed me how to hunch my shoulders on the hook. At first I smiled and told him that my Thai trainers hate how tense I am, so they are always telling me to put my hands and shoulders down (which is true). But he recognized the difference and told me you hunch the shoulder on the strike, to protect your chin, basically. That makes sense. You’re not telegraphing with the hunch, you’re not stalking around the ring with it, you’re lifting it to protect your chin and get a tight rotation. Like how you use your shoulder to protect your chin on a jab or a cross. Why neglect to do so on a hook? With your elbow cocked you’re pretty much open for a counter right to the button, so hunching the shoulder resolves the problem of being open while you’re punching. He also explained how to create a psychological tether (or rather use the preexisting psychological tether) of an opponent’s vision and your front hand. If you keep your glove out, the opponent will adjust her distance to keep the hand in focus, which is about 30 cm. If you pull the hand in closer, the opponent will come closer, so a tight guard means you want to fight close. Shove that glove back out and the opponent will adjust her distance to keep it in focus again. I’ve recently started using the front hand to gauge distance for myself, knowing that opponents generally respond by backing up, but knowing that you can adjust that distance with the front hand without throwing it is really interesting.
I could feel immediately how valuable Sifu is as a trainer. His explanations are clear and he builds steadily, even in a short span of time. I was very happy when he said we could work more, a little bit each day. When I got out of the ring I watched him work with the big guy for a while, listening to the instruction he gave to soak up anything I could. Sifu instructed him on footwork, pointing out that the guy was bouncing straight back rather than stepping efficiently at an angle to cut distance or slip into a blind spot. I unwrapped my hands and walked to the other side of the ring to drop all my equipment by my bag. Sakmongkol was instructing a young Thai guy on kicking the bag, but he came over to me and with wide eyes and a low voice said, “you are very lucky Sifu hold pads for you.” His expression was one of shock, maybe a little awe. He struggled with his words a little bit, but chose what he meant to say carefully, “He not hold for beginner,” he said, pointing to Sifu. “He train many champion,” he continued, then took me over for a tour of the framed photos and magazine covers on the wall, pointing to men in the famous green belt, “champion, champion, champion,” he said as he pointed to each. “Sifu hold pad for all of them.” He looked at me again, very sincerely, “You, very lucky.”