Does Size Really Matter?

"The outcome of the battle between the alligator and the bear depends upon the terrain" - James Barksdale, former CEO, Netscape.

Last week's workouts demonstrated the answer to one of those "unspoken" questions: Does size matter? The answer, at least in the martial arts, is—sometimes it does.

Many folks have heard the oft-quoted adage that the martial arts enable a smaller person to defeat a larger person. This fact hasn't changed. Better skill and technique can win over brawn—we've seen countless examples where the smaller guy beats the bigger guy. Like Bruce Lee fighting basketball giant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the conclusion of Game of Death. Or Royce Gracie and his three UFC wins over much bigger opponents.

What do you think? Cast your vote here!


Aikido practitioners have heard many tales of 5' 2" Founder Morihei Ueshiba's exploits in the early days; besting a group of the best black belts from the Kodokan, judo's home dojo, or defeating the sumo champion Tenryu, pinning the giant wrestler with just one finger.

In each of these cases, the smaller guy excelled at techniques that his opponent didn't know and thus couldn't counter. But when your opponent knows your techniques, knows how to defend against them, and is bigger than you, well, you might be in trouble.

Case in point: We do a sparring drill called "Everything," where two students spar using striking and grappling until one student taps out. It's roughly analogous to pancrase, shootfighting, or vale tudo, in most respects. Anyway, I was doing the drill with our instructor, Dave Burt, who at 6'3", 235 pounds is a pretty big guy. I'm 5'7", 140 pounds. Despite Dave's reach advantage, when we're in kick range I can stay alive for a while; however, once he closes the gap and transitions into grappling, I'm a goner. The 100 pounds of weight advantage is just too much to deal with.

So as a smaller martial artist, what can I do to make up for the size disadvantage? I have to know and use techniques my opponent won't be able to counter. I have to use my size as an advantage, emphasizing techniques that make use of my increased agility. I have to strike hard, fast, and decisively, because I won't be able to take as much damage as my opponent, and I'll need to end the contest quickly.

But most importantly, I have to fight my own fight—not my opponent's. This means that if I'm going to get squished grappling, I had better stay in long range (kicking) and not let my opponent drag me down to get a pin or submission hold. It's one of the fundamental rules of combat: Fight a battle that allows you to use your strengths to your advantage while preventing your opponents from using their strengths to their advantage.  

This revelation calls for a cogent quote from Sun Tzu, author of the classic strategy text The Art of War. However, I have a better quote—this one from James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape Communications: "The outcome of the battle between the alligator and the bear depends upon the terrain." Down-home Mississippi wisdom from the guy we used to call our "adult supervision."

The first few Ultimate Fighting Championships were great examples of this principle. The early matches were billed as "anything goes"; kung fu versus ninjutsu, sumo versus kickboxing, Brazilian jujitsu versus muay thai. And there were sterling examples of little guys triumphing over big guys: sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, all 410 pounds of him, felled by some well-placed kicks by savateur Gerard Gordeau, half his opponent's size, in UFC I. Or 180 lb Royce Gracie choking out 275 pound Dan Severn in UFC IV. In each case the smaller guy used techniques his opponent couldn't counter.

Eventually, UFC fighters stopped being unidimensional and cross-trained in their opponent's styles; strikers picked up grappling skills, while grapplers enlisted kickboxers to train them in the fine art of punching and kicking. The technique advantages disappeared as everybody learned everybody else's techniques. So, the UFC began incorporating weight classes to keep fights fair. As in wrestling, judo, and tae kwon do competitions, weight classes in the UFC eliminated size advantages, distilling the contest down to one of technique and of courage.

Outside the octagon there are no weight classes. But that doesn't mean a smaller martial artist automatically loses. By training hard and using the principles outlined above, you can and will prevail. Use your head; don't let your opponent use his or her strengths against you. Fight your own fight.

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