The first punch doesn’t matter so much, instead it’s all about the man who keeps swinging until the end.
The One Hundred Man Sparring Session, or hyakunin kumite, is one of the most grueling tests of strength, endurance and fortitude which an aspiring master of Kyokushin karate can attempt. It involves full contact sparring, over several days, with one hundred opponents of equal or greater capacity. Those who fail are considered worthy just for having attempted the test. Those who succeed join an elite group in the world of the martial arts, a list only nineteen names long. The most recent completer of the Hundred Man Kumite was the Russian karateka, Tariel Nikoleishvili on April 26th of this year. The first, and thus far only, woman to have completed the test was Naomi Ali, of Australia, in 2004.
Judd Reid, an Australian heavyweight karateka, chronicled his journey towards being the eighteenth person to complete hyakunin kumite in the documentary film, 100 Man Fight. The movie follows this imposing, bull-necked athlete through grueling training, broken and bruised bones and sheer exhaustion, both mental and physical, to the pinnacle of achievement in his sport, one which fewer than a score of his fellow humans have achieved. It is a powerful, moving story writ in his cauliflower ears, the deeply etched lines on his face, each drop of sweat and kick resounding off the heavy bag.
I have been fascinated with endurance athletes, lately. Not necessarily runners, although I cannot imagine reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall without becoming enraptured by the story of ultra-marathoners like Scott Jurek, Annie Rason and the entire field at the Leadville 100 (along with the full Tarahumara tribe). Part of this is, perhaps, because I have come to subscribe to the persistence hunter hypothesis. It is so poetic, it says something about human nature and how we must approach the world that it is likely that our greatest innovation is patience—the sheer will to pursue a goal, specifically prey in this case, to the bitter end. If we hurry unduly, we fail. If we endure, mentally and physically, dinner is served.
My interest in endurance has also come, at least in part, from my own recent physical limitations. As a powerlifter and strongman athlete, for several years, I was used to exerting as much effort as I could over a few seconds. After a string of totally non lifting related injuries in the last year, however, I find that my knees buckle with less than half of my previous squat total on my shoulders. It’s not a good look, especially since even that percentage of my personal best would fold me like an according and hurt like Sam Hill when we finally kissed the floor. The only exercise I could do for months was Pavel’s Simple and Sinister program, nothing but swings and get-ups with a couple of old kettlebells I had laying around. This, in its own way, was a form of endurance training even more subtle and insidious than the movements themselves. I had been used to the unending variety of the Westside Barbell method, now I was limited to two exercises. I compensated by trying to be really, really good at them—to make it a Zen practice, even. I achieved this, some days. Others it was just boring… but a rehabilitative sort of boring, at least, because thanks be unto God my poor, shaken legs got stronger.
I’ve become interested in competition, again, of late. I won’t be laying under any nearly quarter ton barbells again, any time soon, nor will I be trying to toss a caber at the Fort King George Scottish Festival. Videos by Valery Fedorenko, Ivan Denisov and others have introduced me to the world of girevoy sport and the sea change that it has forced in my viewpoint is incredible and, I hope, healthy. Five reps used to feel like an eternity, now I’m not even warmed up with them. The first ten, even twenty, feel light. The last five are agony, a fire in my shoulders and lower back, but nothing so terrible as dropping the bells before ten minutes are up. I’m chasing WKC ranks instead of an Elite powerlifting total, now. God help me, one day I’ll get one of them.
That’s because I hope I’m enduring in an even more profound way. Like a shark I keep swimming from challenge to challenge. If one becomes impossible then I move on to another, knowing that if I sit still the hereditary diseases that plague my family and heritage (we are the kings of diabetes and heart disease, my friends) will overtake me. The first punch doesn’t matter so much, I keep telling myself, it’s all about the man who keeps swinging until the end. This is the strength that endures, the fight that won’t lie down and die. This is the fight that makes a human.
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Photo: Matsui Shokei Biography/Screen capture