GET FIT WITH STAGE COMBAT
Fancy the adrenalin rush of a fight without the black eyes?
Mens Health’s Ed Vanstone steps into the firing line to see if stage combat is a satisfying alternative to the Saturday night punch-up...
The black curtain is drawn back on the studio revealing Seb Morgan and Mark Ruddick poised a metre apart – squaring off. After a deafening war cry the two men attack. And to all those watching without an expert’s eye, they appear be beating the crap out of each other.
After blocking a flurry of punches to the face, Morgan ducks his head and charges forward. He headbutts Ruddick square in the stomach and follows up the surge with three quick blows to the midriff. Grunting in pain, Ruddick yanks Morgan's head upright and attempts to break his neck. But after a few seconds’ struggle, during which the air is filled with effortful grunts and groans, Morgan releases a devastating elbow jab just above Ruddick's hip, causing him to stagger away.
As the fight goes on, the blows grow more savage. Ruddick gets slung spectacularly hard against the wall, arms splattering into the unforgiving brick. He manages to get away a couple of punches to Morgan's chest as his opponent presses in, but is finally decimated bya huge, arcing hammer-blow to the face after failing to recover from a jab to the belly. Beaten, he slumps slowly to the floor to a chorus of sympathetic moans from the gathered audience.
Enter stage left: Men's Health's Ed Vanstone (trembling): "In a few hours' time, I’ll be subjected to a beating like this myself... I'm groaning already."
"Luckily for me, I’m in no real danger. Ruddick and Morgan – along with our diminutive but deadly female instructor Haruka Kuroda – are professional stage fighters; a trio of experts with skills in every form of stage combat, from classy broad sword melees to gritty barroom brawls, whose job it is to create armies of Jason Bournes in less time than it takes to watch the agent’s frenetic fighting trilogy.
Every punch and kick, every yank and twist, and every single one of the elbow jabs so viciously thrown by Ruddick and Morgan are meticulously controlled: either missing their target by a precisely calibrated inch or, at the last split-second, slowed to a manageable speed before impact, with their hand switched from damaging fist to flimsy open palm.
Evil-looking head yanks and grappling moves are all dictated by the perceived victim of the attack, who drags their supposed assailant around while unleashing the best guttural groans and tortured shrieks they can muster – all to better bolster the realism of the scrap.
So – it’s simple when you know how, right? Well, not quite…"
"For one thing, Ruddick, Morgan and Kuroda might be professionals, but the 10 of us who have gathered at this special Fight Club workshop are resolutely not. As such, our punches are raggedy and wayward, our switches from closed fist to harmless palm sluggish and half-baked. Within an hour, I’ve taken an insufficiently slowed elbow to the hip bone, a couple of scuffs to the forehead from overenthusiastic hammer-blows, and my belly and chest have turned the colour of well-cooked salmon courtesy of a hundred floppy slaps.
These blows are administered not only by my sparring partner, but are also self-inflicted. As I swing each fake punch just past the head of my fellow combatant it is necessary to make the impact noise – the 'knap'. A tentative suggestion by one budding Bourne that stamping or slapping your hands together is an effective method of 'knap'-creation is greeted by glowers from the three professionals. This, we’re told, is the old school, amateurish way of stage fighting. These days, if you want to make it in the world of fake scrapping, you grit your teeth – and then slap yourself to a pinkish pulp.”
"After a while, though, the body seems to numb itself to the endless assault of smacks, and it’s the exertion of practising the routine we’ve been taught – the very same series of moves showcased by Ruddick and Morgan upon our entry into the 'Fight Club' – that begins to wear me down. Pretending to take and deal out a pummelling, it seems, is a pretty punishing workout.
Though, of course, no actual blows are being properly landed, the effort of the endless pretend punches and pretend grapples, the pretend theatrical crumplings and pretend careenings away while emitting howls of pain, not to mention the pretend slamming of myself into the (very real) wall, has me absolutely exhausted. I doubt this kind of training burns quite as many calories as nine rounds in the ring with Ricky Hatton – but at times it feels close.
But it’s also, without doubt, an incredible amount of fun. Not once does boredom tempt me to accidentally slide my fist a crucial inch to the right during the periods when Ruddick steps in to finely nuance our routine – and not only because he’s proficient in innumerable martial arts and combat disciplines and could probably kill me using just his ears."
"As the day goes on, we’re taught some tips and tricks to polish the routine – simple things such as where to place our bodies with regard to the camera, and how to use a lychee to make it appear we’ve just gouged out the jelly of an opponent’s eye.
And finally, we’re invited to customise the finale of our fight. “Something to think about over lunch,” says Kuroda, as the morning session draws to a close. “How would you like to kill your opponent?” I opt not to strangle or be strangled to death. My fighting partner has succumbed to a slight shoulder strain after one too many frivolously unleashed roundhouses, and I’ve learned I will now be fighting Ruddick for the final, video recorded bout of the day – the culmination of all we’ve been taught.
The thing is, I know that Ruddick doesn’t really want to strangle me to death. I know that he does this for a living and if he’d killed anyone he would have been fired by now. I know that when we practice choking I am, in fact, pulling his hands as hard as I can around my jugular while he strains to pull away, creating the illusion of strangling. I know all this. But I also know that Ruddick's eyes do want to kill me. He’s just a little too good at the psychotic stare.
Thus, I resolve that, rather than be asphyxiated to death against the wall, I’d like to finish the routine with a surprise stamp to Ruddick's foot before smashing his face into my knee – it’ll be a nice change after taking a pretend pounding for the majority of the bout."
"I haven’t got the stomach for perhaps the most eye-watering move in the stage combat repertoire: the malicious kick direct to the gonads. This, we’re taught, can be safely executed by a combination of the ‘kickee’ thrusting their pelvis forward, and the kicker arching their foot backwards as they zing it harmlessly into a fleshy buttock with a satisfying thud.
Kuroda and Morgan's demonstration of this move, which when done properly looks horribly, horribly real, is enough to rule it out for me. Instead, I stick to perfecting my punches and harmonising my screams of pain.
When the time comes for the final bout (which you can view here), things go relatively smoothly. I’m far from a master, but have managed to pick up the basics and thanks to Rudick's expertise take a couple of fake punches that look very nasty indeed.
I can’t yet flip to my feet without using my hands, as Ruddick does regularly (apparently the best way to learn is to practice with a slope, then gradually decrease the incline). But if anybody ever needs to be pretend-killed by a skinny guy – perhaps due to the sudden onset of frozen feet before a wedding – I’m your man.
The workshop was organised by Jameson whisky to herald the beginning of their Cult Film Club, which opens appropriately with a screening of David Fincher’s magnum opus Fight Club at Village Underground, London on October 6. All events are free and readers can apply for tickets and find all the information for further events, at www.jamesoncultfilmclub.com.