Sparring For Performance But Saving Your Brain

Over the past couple of years, it seems, that many MMA athletes are starting to wake up to the pitfalls of constantly sparring hard. Not only is there a physical price to pay, but also a mental one. We know now, unequivocally, that even mild trauma to the head can be detrimental over time. Nowhere is this more evident than in combat sports, where often, trauma to the head is a sustained occupation for years. Going light then in training sparring, and leaving the big fight to the fight night, seems like the most logical, health saving thing to do. But what these fighters don’t understand,is that it may be to little to late. If you are one of the unlucky ones to sustain head trauma in your professional or amateur fights, sparring light in training may not make much of a difference.

As James Te Huna, now retired from the UFC found out the hard way,

“I got hit by something that shouldn’t have really put anyone away…I got taken to hospital for all the check-ups and scans, and they discovered I had a bleed on the brain. They discovered I had a whole bunch of lesions on the brain.” When he booked to see a neurologist, Te Huna notes, “He went over it then [all of my previous brain scans], and said to me all right, this is your brain a few years ago. There’s a couple of lesions there…They look like a grazed knee or something. He [Neurologist] said ‘now there’s more dark spots — more lesions all over the brain.’ As Te Huna explains, ” [the Neurologist] said there’s no test that can determine if they can be harmful or not — only you can tell me that.”

Clearly we know they can be harmful. Movies such as Concussion have highlighted this. When the Doctor suggests you will only know — what he means is when you wake up one morning, slide to the edge of the bed, put your shoes on — but then sit there for five minutes staring at them, because you can’t remember how to tie your laces, you know. This tells you there is something wrong. But because the damage is so subjective, and only you know — its quit easy then for others to dismiss it, or for you to not to say anything in training in case you are perceived as a pussy. This is the part never discussed in fight circles, the undercurrent of patriarchy that leads men to do things that will cause irreparable damage to themselves and others in the name of manning up.

Flow Sparring, going light and technical — is nothing new in Crazy Monkey Defence. For years we have been advocating fast, but technical, light sparring. Our main emphasis along with this, has always been to focus on defence as primary, not as secondary. I would argue, that in hard sparring sessions over the years, equal to the intensity of an MMA fight in the UFC, focusing on CM’s defensive system, I have taken 95% less punishment than most MMA fighter take each time they step in the Octagon. Sadly, it may have been a little to late. The years running up to my realisation that defence should come first, and not simply be an after thought, I like many of the MMA fighters today, thought is was simply part of the game to take punishment. I am suffering the consequences now. Weekly headaches, mood swings, and forgetfulness, are all signs that I spent way to long taking unnecessary punishment. Yet, the good news is, for our students training with us now, this wont be their fate, and I won’t allow it. Thankfully our approach has gained respect, not only by our casual students, but equally by forward thinking professional combat athletes and even neurosurgeons.

“As a neurosurgeon I treat people who have sustained head and spine injury. I am particularly concerned about activities that can put someone at risk for either injury to occur. It is for this reason that I have personally chosen Crazy Monkey Defense for my own fitness and self-defense program.

As the name suggests, Rodney has designed a martial art that has at its centre the goal of defense – not aggression and attack. The techniques are moldable to my needs and functional ability whilst providing me with a superb level of safety. I appreciate how the program grows with me – the more knowledgeable and skilled I become, the more complex and experimental I can make my responses. My learning is helped considerably by having James at CMD Australia – a great coach and facilitator.

I also like how CMD deliberately and actively embraces a holistic approach to training and performance. CMD is just one part of the me – but as it allows me explore options, think about new techniques, and plan and execute moves in real time it actually replicates and reinforces the surgical decision making part of my life, where I must have the confidence and clarity to make the right decision in an emergency setting.”

Quentin Malone – Neurosurgeon, Perth Australia


Can You Still Train Real?

The question I am often asked by people who don’t train with us, is how do you spar for fight performance, without going hard? Like it or not, there is a prevailing perception out there, that unless you going hard, you are not fighting true. In fact this is celebrated in MMA. I have written about this elsewhere, but although MMA has evolved, the one place it seems it hasn’t is in defence. Taking shots and giving them, seems to be the norm. Not only this, it’s celebrated. Fighters are celebrated for their toughness and their ability to weather the storm. It’s seen as a sign of manliness to be able to step up, and give as good as you get. It’s also a crowd pleaser. People want to watch two men or two woman go to war. It sells seats. Is this one of the reasons little attention is given to the defensive side of MMA? Or is it simply coaches who don’t know any better?

But there is a consequences to going to war like this in the Octagon. We are seeing more and more fighters (and it’s only the beginning), who are now retired, or forced to step down, who are suffering dire consequences because of this mindset. One of those is Gary Goodridge. As he notes, his style was, “I am gonna knock you out, or you gonna knock me out.” One only has to watch this interview with him, to decide if you want the same ending for yourself. No one cares either. The focus has shifted to the next warriors in the cage, the next champion. The old champions, as throughout history, are forgotten, left to suffer alone, no longer the adulation of an adoring crowd.

Can you train for performance in modern martial arts, while avoiding these pitfalls outlined earlier? I think you can, but it will require a major overhaul of your approach, and sadly, the gym you train at may not be awakened enough, or even keen enough to make these changes.

Changing The Environment

There is absolutely no way to spar as we do in Crazy Monkey if the environment is not conducive to the sparring approach we want to advocate. Far to often, there is zero management in fight schools, and people are allowed to go off at each other as hard as they like — with no one saying anything. Part of this is lack of education on the part of the students and the coach, but equally much to do with ego. As a coach, it is my job, my responsibility to ensure everyone’s safety on the mat, and to challenge anyone who goes hard to reign it back in. Its also the responsibility of the student to say to the person they are sparring, “that’s too hard” and if they won’t listen, then to refuse to spar them again in the future (and yes, men hate this, because doing this is somehow seen not as saving their brain, but rather as emasculating).

Secondly, I remind my students all the time about the emerging findings on what happens to a person if they receive sustain and continued blows to the head. I never knew this, but I sure as hell wish someone told me. As the article, Impact Zone notes, don’t think for a second that this is only relevant t professional MMA fighters and other extreme sport athletes, it is equally prevalent among amateurs.

In the end environment informs behaviour. It starts from the top down. If I cannot control myself in sparring, if I don’t lead the way, then my students won’t either. Crucially, there is no way to Flow Spar as I term it, if the environment isn’t set up for it to take place. When answering the question then from people, “how do you spar the way you are describing then?” You first have to get the environment right. Sadly, most environments in fight schools are not like this at all. So unless the coach is willing to see the value in Flow Sparring, and is willing to change the environment — you simply wont be able to spar like we do in Crazy Monkey. What does this mean? If you value your health, you may have no choice but to leave your gym, and go somewhere that does.

As my student, sparring partner and fellow CMD Trainer, 4 X EFC Champ Costa Iaonnou points out,

“its much harder to go fast, technical and place your shots without hurting someone, than simply to hit hard”.

Below is a really nice example of how it should be done….


An Example of How Its Done

2 Crazy Monkey students from Australia sparring. You will note, while it’s not hard, its still technical and live. Both these students are not competing, but training rather for fun, and learning functional martial art skills.


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  1. Wow, what a thought provoking and insightful article. There is a saying, ‘who feels it – knows it’ and you obviously know of what you speak, Rodney.

    I happen to know Gary Goodridge and he as amazing a man as he was a professional fighter…….I’m happy to say he seems to be very well and is like a brother to me.

    So, a big THANKS to you Rodney, for your caring and sharing of your personal experiences and for developing the CMD system……..I know on a personal level it is a great knowledge and training resource.