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“I saw you beat him like no other man’s been beat before and the man kept on coming after you. We don’t want any part of a man like that” – Rocky II (1978)
In the epic medieval poem Le Morte D’Arthur, King Arthur battles his treacherous son, Mordred, who has tried to usurp his throne. Arthur confronts Mordred and thrusts his spear through his son’s body. However, before falling to the ground dead, Mordred strikes a fatal blow to his father’s head. Two great men fell at Camlan: one was the prophesised and rightful king of a united Britain; the other was a man destined to be the instrument of his destruction. This incident may be drawn from the romantic tales of ancient bards, but there have been a number of classic modern confrontations comparable to Arthur’s famous final duel. The fighting world’s finest – in the ring or on the street count many examples of these two different types of fighter: the natural champion and hungry usurper.
It is hard to imagine a more ill-prepared or bloody conflict than when an enigmatic talented champion battles an enemy that will not admit defeat. The clashes often result in horrendous and unpredicted damage to one or both of the two combatants; damage that is not inflicted and ended within seconds, but instead often dragged out with painful regularity, sometimes resulting in terrible long term injuries.
How do we handle an opponent that has a natural fighting advantage? How do we measure up against an opponent that doesn’t know when they are beaten? How do we recognise the Arthur and Mordred in us? In order to answer these questions we must first look at the nature of the Arthurs and Mordreds that make up the world of combat and then examine the possible calamity that can follow when they clash.
According to the story, Arthur was the son of King Uther, one of Britain’s mightiest kings. The sorcerer, Merlin, took the newborn Arthur away from his mother, Igrane, and put into the care a Knight called Sir Ector. There, Arthur grew up as his “brother” Kay’s steward, learning the ways of the knight, until he would discover his destiny by pulling the sword from the stone thus uniting the divided Britain under his Kingly rule to fight the invading Saxons. Arthur’s secluded upbringing ensured that he would learn to develop the great natural skills he was blessed with along with an understanding of humility and chivalry, so when the responsibility of kingship was unexpectedly thrust upon him he would be ready. Arthurs are that rare combination of uncanny natural talent and courageous determination. At the top of their game they make up the likes of Muhammad Ali in the boxing world and Ken Shamrock in the mixed martial arts world.
Mordred was Arthur’s son; the result of the incestuous union of Arthur and his half-sister, Morgause. Mordred knew from the start that his birth was conceived through treachery and went against the laws of man; laws the legendary Arthur represented. Mordred’s very existence was to function as his father’s enemy. He was raised understanding his destiny was to usurp Arthur. Despite having his powerful mother on his side, he was faced with the insurmountable handicap all villains face in the world of mythology and religion – good will always triumph over evil. He may have succeeded in being the instrument of Arthur’s destruction, but when his father’s fatally wounded body was being transported by boat to Avalon, Mordred’s corpse lay forgotten in the mud.
Good and evil have little to do with what I am discussing in terms of combat personalities. The “good” Mordred opposed is symbolic of the advantages that some people – no matter how hard they try – will never obtain. Joe Frazier had the heart of a lion and a method of fighting that would hand Muhammad Ali his first defeat at their initial match entitled “The Fight of the Century.” Yet after this fight, Frazier – with his high blood pressure in addition to the injuries he had suffered – was the man in hospital while Ali was on TV facing critics with confidence and vigour.
In the world of mixed martial arts competition Royce Gracie took out the far larger Ken Shamrock in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, but things were very different the second time around. Their “Superfight” was declared a draw after half an hour plus five minutes overtime, but the scene impressed on most spectators’ minds was of the limping and bloodied Gracie leaving the arena while his opponent still appeared to be fresh and unmarked.
For the majority of the fight, the two combatants stayed in the same positions trying to gain control. Shamrock was on top delivering blows while Gracie held him off “in the guard” lying on the floor. This position was in no way subordinate to Shamrock, but it was hardly the preferred place to be for the majority of a fight.
However, no matter which way you look at it, neither man got his victory. Shamrock may have been happy that he had removed the “phantom” of Gracie, but he still hadn’t made the man submit or knocked him out. He was in the favoured position on top, inflicting the majority of the damage, but what would have happened if he had lost his concentration or got frustrated? Whose stamina and will would have lasted the longest had there been no time limit (Royce’s father was reputed to have won a match in three hours and forty minutes of non-stop fighting)?
Gracie came up against a Mordred of his own a couple of years previously in the third Ultimate Fighting Championship. Both he and Shamrock were expected to fight in the final of the tournament, but this was not to be. Gracie fought the show’s wildcard, a huge street-fighting, gospel-preaching “Taekwondo” behemoth called Kimo Leopaldo.
This huge man monster appeared to go through his entire fight with “survival” etched into his heart. There was little technique applied by Kimo, who was taken to the ground early on in the bout, but his tenacity seemed to be super-human. With no apparent tactic he just resisted all attempts to make him submit. At one stage Gracie even had hold of Leopaldo’s ponytail and was pounding his face with his fist, but still there was no submission. Gracie got the big man to tap in the end, but not before the impact of a fall during the fight put the Brazilian Jujutsu flagship in poor shape for the rest of the tournament. He fainted in the changing room moments after his exhausting match and despite bravely coming out to face his next opponent; Gracie made the sensible decision not to fight. After leaving the octagon the figure of Kimo Leopaldo was seen rushing to the ring in celebration of his impact on the Gracie legend. Mordred’s victory, it would seem, had never been sweeter.
A “Mordred” is often a tragic figure. The natural kings of this world attract a following at a faster rate than their limited ability counterparts. Along with natural ability comes natural confidence, which can make a person charismatic. Arrogance and cockiness, although despised, has a certain type of magnetism.
The Mordreds, however, have a harder road to tread in order to win social acceptance. Having to work hard to achieve their goals without many natural advantages usually means they have had little time to develop socially. Some become quite self-conscious in public and are often introverts. They are used to large-scale sacrifice in their life due to the time commitment required for them to hone their fighting skills and therefore, have had little time to work on their public relations. A slow and steady learning process has helped them develop mental and physical scar tissue that numbs the pain and shields their spirit from doubt. This has left little time for them to build up their sociability and many come across as either shy, brooding or are mistaken to be slow-witted.
Pushed to extremes they become a single-minded weapon of destruction that is easy to liken to Japan’s Kamikaze pilots. Their glory has always been a private matter. This is in stark contrast to the extroverts who have picked their skills up with ease and feed off public attention. For a life-loving soul such as this, their worst nightmare must be the prospect of a force whose single purpose is to destroy all this. A natural champion has difficulty understanding or relating to such a psychology. Few Arthurs, unless masochists, relish the day they have to face their Mordred.
The beloved Sugar Ray Robinson out boxed his worthy rival, Jake La Motta, in several blood-soaked encounters, but as Robert De Niro demonstrated in his portrayal of La Motta in the film “Raging Bull”, the victories were far from glorious. We can see a perverted version of the Mordred complex in the film when Robinson reigns blow after blow on La Motta in their last ever bout. La Motta, veiled in his own blood, stands defenceless but taunts Robinson that he will never be able to knock him out. Robinson continues to go for the bait, but although he is easily winning on points fails to send La Motta down in the final round. The film puts across the idea that winning the Boxing match had ceased to be a goal for La Motta; his private victory was that he took everything Robinson dished out and was still standing.
Muhammad Ali referred to such punishment absorbers as “catchers.” The book “Ghosts of Manila” by Mark Kram, details the bitter real-life rivalry between Ali and his “catcher” opponent, Joe Frazier. When interviewed by Kram, Ali was quick to express his dislike of “catchers” and looking back at his record he had good reason. Chuck Wepner was the boxer who inspired Sylvester Stallone to create the character of “Rocky” for the film of the same name when he saw the massive underdog shock everybody by both flawing Ali and going the full distance with him. Wepner was a definite “catcher” with limited skill who, although was behind in points throughout the whole fight, sent Ali crashing to the canvas. Ali would go on to win, but his frustration with the fight could have been summed up by the words of the “Rocky” character, Apollo Creed: “I won, but I didn’t beat him.”
Joe Frazier always claims that he beat Ali each time they fought. In reality, Frazier won their first encounter by unanimous decision, lost on points in their second match, and was retired in the fourteenth round of their final encounter. Looking at the decline of Ali’s health after this last fight, publicised as the “Thrilla in Manila”, we can see what angle Frazier is coming from. The bitterness Frazier felt towards Ali was given full vent at this match and, in Ali’s words, they both left Manila as “old men.” When discussing Mordred psychology, it is important to note that Frazier’s corner prevented him from continuing and he was arguing that he wanted to go on. In contrast, according to the “Ghosts of Manila”, Ali almost didn’t come out for the eleventh round. Even though Frazier lost the “Thrilla” it is referred to by a number of boxing journalists as his greatest moment. Furthermore, many sports critics believe Ali should have retired after that battle. Ali later declared the fight was “the closest thing to dyin’ I know.”
Rocky Marciano is perhaps the most successful professional combat sportsman to use the Mordred approach. Marciano may have been a natural athlete at school, but as a heavyweight Boxer he was both physically disadvantaged and technically limited. His size and weight would put him in with the middleweights today. His approach was to charge into opponents, absorbing punishment while he hammered away with his fists like a pair of pistons. This was the exact opposite to the legendary heavyweight champion who preceded him. Joe Louis was a technician who carefully picked his shots whereas Marciano was a brawler who punched until he got through his opponent’s guard. His courage eventually won the public’s support and to this day he is the only heavyweight champion in history not to have lost a single professional fight.
Opponents such as this run on heart and a conditioning of their physical attributes earned through persistent graft. A Mordred will suck an Arthur’s energy at unending rate; driving him into what will seem like a never-ending nightmare. Whenever I have taught a martial arts class, naturals rarely impress me. I reward enthusiasm, but stop myself from being excited about someone who picks techniques up as if they were born to do it. This is not to say these people don’t realise their potential with me, but they are the first I will pressure to see if they have what it takes. If they are a true “Arthur” they will stay the distance and demand more to fully realise their potential. If they are a true “Arthur” they will stay the distance and demand more in order to fully realise their potential.
On the other side of the coin I have also come across people with very dedicated self-sacrificing hearts, but just haven’t got the necessary tools to back it up. One such pupil showed his perseverance in his strength and fitness levels. Simple exercising had graduated him from being a skinny normal guy to becoming a proud representative of our gym. My co-trainer and I brought him to another gym where we had been invited to guest-instruct. He did us proud in the warm-up, easily out staying all the other students. Later on that day we decided to host some friendly sparring competitions. Our student was first up against an apparent beginner. Try as he might he just couldn’t get a sufficient hold on his inexperienced opponent who, in the end, pinned him. The match was very upsetting for us to watch, as our helpless student just didn’t have any idea how to put a plan into operation. He panicked. Worse still from time to time he would look back at us as if somehow we could wave a magic wand and give him the respectful victory he deserved.
I refuse to give up on these students and have had some great success stories with some who, at first, seemed hopeless. They have gone on to overcome bullies and achieve their goals all thanks to their inner spirit that refuses to accept the limitations nature and society have placed around it. Because I was born a Mordred with no natural co-ordination or athletic ability, and have had to work hard to achieve my goals, I can sympathise with these cases. The aforementioned episode had a sad ending, however, as our student made up his own mind that his limitations were always going to be too much for him to get over. I hate to see such dedication reach its end, but looking at the possible horrific endings where some Mordreds find themselves, you can’t help but think that sometimes it is a good thing. If you don’t give up on me I will never give up on you, but I refuse to mislead people into a dangerous fantasy world.
Having examined these two different extremes of fighting personality and explained the obvious dangers involved I would like to look at the possible strategies in overcoming them. There are classic examples of Arthurs disposing of Mordreds without incurring any of the body and soul destroying hardships.
Kimo Leopaldo might have shocked the world by revealing some of Gracie’s vulnerability, but he didn’t last longer than four minutes with the very natural Ken Shamrock. Perhaps mindful of the problems the off-guard Gracie encountered when he matched strength with the monstrous looking Leopaldo, Shamrock got straight down to technical business and dispatched his opponent early with a knee bar.
Likewise, Joe Frazier may have defeated “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali, but he had an altogether different bout with the new Arthur on the block, George Foreman. Foreman was a big powerful force who had won gold at the Olympics in 1968 and was now smashing his way through the professional heavyweight ranks. Frazier was barely given time to come up for air, let alone get a strategy in place, during their first fight. His giant opponent clubbed him to the floor six times within two rounds, knocking him out by means of an uppercut that literally lifted “Smokin’ Joe” off his feet.
However, it would take an Arthur, using a Mordred strategy, to tear the Foreman invincibility myth apart. In Zaire many feared for Muhammad Ali’s health when he took on “Big George.” The match little resembled what most spectators were expecting to see. Ali declared that he would out-dance the slower-moving Foreman and this is what was anticipated – it would be a battle of speed against strength. The critics feared that this was a dangerous tactic for the former champion. Ali had slowed down a lot over the years and many envisioned a fate reminiscent of Frazier when he fought Foreman. Instead, Ali pulled off a dramatic win taking advantage of other weaknesses he’d seen in Foreman; weaknesses that the Mordred method could capitalise on.
Ali goaded his opponent to hit him with all his might in the early rounds by scoring with insulting punches such as “the lead hand right” and most of the match consisted of Foreman pummelling Ali on the ropes. The Ali was employing a method the famous boxer Archie Moore had taught him. It was known as the “Turtle Shell”, but Ali re-named it “Rope a Dope” and it went down in sports history. He absorbed Foreman’s punching by leaning back on the ropes, encouraging him to punch harder. Foreman was not prepared for such stamina work. He was used to pitting raw strength against his opponents and swatting them like flies. By the eighth round, however, the big man was exhausted. This was when Ali came off the ropes to launch his victorious attack. He shocked the world once again, but not without a price. This new punishment-absorbing method of fighting he used in his training sessions as well as the battles he fought in the ring would ruin his future health.
It all looks rather bleak for both Arthur and Mordred when they come together, but there is hope in the rationality of the human mind. Self-defence and reality-combat maestro, Geoff Thompson, has a good rule of thumb – he advises not to play your opponents by their rules, but to look for a range where they feel uncomfortable. Thompson came up against a Mordred during his time working the doors of Coventry’s most notorious nightclubs. In his autobiography “Watch my Back”, Thompson describes an opponent he calls “Granite Jaw” who he under-estimated and seemed to take everything dished out to him. In the end, Thompson had to resort to almost biting Granite Jaw’s finger off and finally smashing his head onto the pavement. The episode was labelled a “human misconception”, on Thompson’s behalf, further proving the adage “Expect the unexpected.”
This appears to be the key to the problems presented in my essay; we must never be overconfident and always be prepared to go to plan B through to Z. We should train to keep our minds alert and adaptable. Such an attitude can be achieved through working with a large variety of people. Once you have a good basic foundation in a martial discipline and you are happy with the school, have a look around. Attend seminars of other styles, spar with as many people as possible, and work within different parameters learning your own weaknesses and how to deal with different types of fighters. Only through trying to understand other people and other ways can we become well-rounded martial artists. You can never train for everything, but an open mind is forever a learning mind.