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Guest Post: Fighting and Sparring

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Since I was twelve, I've trained in sparring. In Tae Kwon Do, two men face one another on a square mat and attempt to strike one another to draw points. Two points are awarded for a strike to the head and one point is awarded for a strike to the torso. For the less experienced; the lower degree belts, this meant that quite a bit of your round was spent rapidly shooting out roundhouse kicks to the opponent’s flank with your favored leg while the opponent fired back the same. As the degree of experience progresses and the belt level becomes more elite, the flailing and constant motion give way to tactical strikes, an increase in blocking, and lateral movement. While it may be apparent that two competitors are "fighting," they are in fact not.

During my third sparring competition, I defeated one opponent (just barely) and prepared to spar a second opponent of comparable skill level and weight. Prior to the match we shook hands and bowed. When the referee said fight, we began. My focus was on quickly striking the other guy's side with sliding round houses (which were fairly new to me at the time) and then quickly retreating. Some connected drawing points, but most missed or were blocked. Midway through the match, I threw the same type of kick but this time, decided not to retreat. I attempted a back kick right to his stomach. As I connected with his torso, his kick landed square on my face breaking my nose.

The referee stopped the match. My nose dripped blood and began to swell. As with any sport, in Tae Kwon Do there are risks of injury due to the contact involved. We wore pads to prevent skeletal or soft tissue damage. Striking of the face and groin is prohibited. But mistakes happen. Strong kicks lead to falls which lead to the occasional broken bone. Quick spins and a moving target lead to unintentional contact to the groin or face. I gave and received my share, a fact visibly evident as my face showcases a broken nose that never set correctly. 

Sparring is not fighting. I've fought people since I the first grade. There are similarities of course. There may be spectators, just as there are if you spar. And usually in a fight, there is a great deal of flailing by someone inexperienced. Still, there is no ref, which means there are no rules, which means it's not a competition. When you fight, someone your mindset is different. You're not considering points and strategy, you're considering how (and how much) you want to hurt this other person. 

Fighting is chaotic. Real fighting isn’t like movies or television. A fighter never just throws a straight punch to be easily blocked resulting in a counter punch. An angry and aggressive person, regardless of gender and age is unpredictable. They can do anything from bullrush you to throw heavy objects to wielding improvised weapons. This results in a response fueled most likely by instinct rather than training.

In college, I stood up to a guy hassling a female friend of mine. Outside after he called her a "whore" I attempted to defend her honor while pleasantly buzzed. I remember twisting on the ground with a guy pressing his head hard into my stomach while simultaneously swing both arms toward my ribs. I tucked in and jammed my elbows down on his collar bone to force him off. I left the conflicted bruised and with a torn collared shirt. 

Sparring is competition. Fighting is chaos. While sparring resembles a chess match of moves with counters, strategy and skill, a fight is propelled by anger and a lack of logic where two combatants clash with unpredictable and detrimental results.

five comments

I talked with some people in college about this. The difference between sex and rape is consent. The difference between fighting and sparring is the same. Essentially sparring in consensual warfare.


sounds like you need to learn some grappling, and it sounds like he was a wrestler. with some good submission work (jiu jitsu) you might have been able to put him to sleep. I’ve done mma for a few years now, and, while it’s hardly perfect for a streetfight, it’s the best training you can do in the unfortunate circumstance of defending yourself. that said, it doesn’t sound like you did anything to de-escalate the situation.

I’ve been reading this blog for a little bit, and I’m very interested in the perspectives you all have. I’m just finishing a semester on “ethnic” violence at my university, and so this blog particularly struck me.

I’d particularly like to recommend to you my professor’s book “Extreme Politics” by Charles King. It’s chapter, “the micropolitics of social violence” is very elucidating, and i think might help with your articles. (you can actually find the chapter on jstor.org). it’s an easy read, but very informative.

Also, the site http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/ has some interesting insight on the nature of violence. random site, i know, but it’s interesting. I plan on making more comments soon and, if possible, maybe even a guest post of my own, if you would take a look at it.

Thanks, hope to hear from the writers.


Tae Kwon Do sparring (in competitions anyways, though individual schools may focus more on self defense) is really restrictive. You generally don´t get points for punches, punches to the face are prohibited, kicks are supposed to be above the belt, of course no clinching or groundfighting is allowed and in Tae Kwon Do a hard block is generally preferred over a parry. Tae Kwon Do is more on the art side of martial arts, although it is extremely competitive, athletic, and can be brutal as well. It has set rules and boundaries just as boxing, albeit it is a little bit less brutal than boxing. A spinning hook kick is the best and most powerful weapon in Tae Kwon Do and works well in the ring but could land you in trouble on the street.

I remember the first fight I was in in school, it was a normal highschool hallfight I had with a bully but I remember a clear thought running through my head as the fight began: “No one is innocent here, we both chose to get into this fight, and we both deserve whatever bad stuff is going to happen to us”.


@ Chris M – Love to hear from new people. I don’t have access to jstor right now, but I’ll keep that chapter in mind. it sounds fascinating.

I’ve seen a lot of good links today. The no-nonsense website is an interesting find. One of the first pages I went to, the author described getting shot at dozens of times, which makes me question his ability to avoid fire fights, but something I’ll check out.


The taekwondo forms have series of one, two and three step sequences that are designed for fighting. These fast take downs using strikes are brutal so you have to think twice about using them… the aggressor could be disfigured and maybe permanently damaged.

But in high-school the normal competitive development of youngsters moves them towards doing more free form sparring which is designed to enhance quickness and reaction times and not necessarily self defense. Free form sparring can also be practiced as a sport with scores, etc. there fore its popularity among the youth. But it is really an exercise and not an end to itself.

I am not sold on MMA as a self defense because it is primarily a sport and lacks the elements of brutality that are necessary for a realistic self defense system. But understand that almost all martial arts are moving in the direction of becoming sports including such unlikely candidates as the weapon arts from the Philippines. So that feature is here to stay… over time they might all develop just like fencing has… into modern fitness sports rooted in what was once a martial art.