By Nicholas Vrchoticky | 1 December 2018
Sparring, wrestling, and martial arts seem far removed from the quiet farm life. Yet, these pastimes seem tame when compared to men and women who routinely operate machines large enough to swallow houses, easily throw around 50 lb. hay bales, and out stubborn 1,500 lb. or more beasts.
It's About Respect
More importantly, we respect each other. The mud-stained clothes and occasional bloody noses are a badge of honor.
The ugly faces of bragging and egoism may show themselves from time to time, but the respect we have in the Iowa community allows the pleasure of these activities. They get us through long autumn nights in a place where hog squeals and coyote yips fill the silent air.
As a teenager, I spent hours ‘playing hands’ with my Moy Yat brothers at the campgrounds along the Iowa River. Other nights, someone would bring their sparring gloves and the boxing club would have some improvised rounds.
We’ve watched a whole capoeira roda tumble with laughter because one of the players in the circle slipped on a cornstalk, falling flat on their face while attempting an undoubtedly impressive flourish.
These sparring matches are critical to Midwest martial arts culture. They are about bonding through a shared lifestyle.
Sometimes, karate wins, and sometimes karate losses. The wrestler did the takedown, and the wrestler caught a spinning heel to the head and went down.
We break down the misconception that one art is better or more useful than another. And, we do it one match at a time. We test our strengths and learn our weaknesses as individuals, schools, and styles. Our style gets better through our diversity.
The cornfield sparring makes us better martial artists. We learn we weren’t as good as we thought, a rude awakening most of us have gone through at one time or another. And yet, we improve our skills before we’re tested in real life.
When we spar, we’re watched. “Awesome sweep!” “Nice takedown!” People notice when landing an impressive spin kicks or send our opponents soaring through the air.
This is how I ended up training five different styles through high school while fighting sleep to get my homework done on time. Our friendly spars push us to attain new levels, broadening our community and strengthen our bonds.
In the real world, martial arts schools don’t challenge each other to duels with the purpose of gaining popular sway in the public eye, like the Kung Fu films.
One side effect of our community sparring in such a public platform is accidental recruitment. People we’ve known all our lives, and sometimes those met that evening, approach to talk about training. Or to talk about that orange belt they earned when six years old and how they really should pick training back up.
A few of these people will actually show up to introductory classes and stick it out the whole ride. They become lifelong friends and training partners.
The main downfall to our for-fun, redneck tussles comes from bully fighters. It’s amazing how many people have to be the toughest guy in the room, to win for the sake of winning.
And these people, with a few drinks in them, decide they can easily take on the world tournament fighting nak muay or tap the all-American wrestler. I don’t believe in separating the ‘us’ from the ‘them’… except when it comes to sparring matches, sanctioned or cornfield.
We’re professionals when it comes to saying the word ‘no’ to these people. The mutual respect and skill swapping from earlier are gone when the fighter starts swinging. Our bonding is replaced with combat and fighting for our safety.
It kills the camaraderie, leads to injuries, and shuts down a fun get-together. Learning to say No is just as much a learned martial art skill as the punch and kick.
I’m sure other areas have their own traditions with similar qualities and problems to ours in Iowa corn country. But, whether it’s in the barn, around the bonfire, or slipping on silage, the love of cornfield sparring will always be an Iowa martial artists’ pastime.