I had the good fortune to sustain a minor rupture of the medial deltoid in my right shoulder last week, and the fun just hasn’t stopped since. One of the young men in the Ferrum College club, who we’ll call Nelson, is rather big; side by side we compare like Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (minus the green body paint). He’s fun to engage in randori and grappling drills with, precisely because he is so heavy and solid and I am not. For those of you who may not do randori, it’s a borrowing from the Judo folks- think free wrestling from a standing position, with the basic goal being to off-balance the other person and put them on the ground.

The deltoid rupture came after I maneuvered both Nelson and myself into position for a leg reap. I rode a heavy shove back into him, slammed in shoulder first, hooked the leg and cranked away. He started to topple and it felt like a great takedown, until Nelson sat down in the middle of it. With someone my own size, this would have been an opportunity to transition into choking him out or mangling the arm that I had a hold on. But with his bulk, it meant that my shoulder suddenly had to support my body weight and his, all while twisting and dropping. Ow. I can support my own body weight on any limb, but not a combined 400 pounds of what climbers refer to as “shock” weight. Ow. I found out next that grappling a large person on the ground with my shoulder in this state was not particularly effective. My ego may have been kept firmly in check, but the shoulder did not fare so well. Fortunately it turned out to be a relatively minor injury, and Nelson is a very gentle guy who is afraid of hurting anybody. But in the context of the engagement, it was enough to take that arm out of the fight. Not good when someone who far outweighs you is on top of you.

One of the first things that people tend to solemnly inform me of when they ask me about karate is: “size doesn’t matter in the martial arts.” Oh, yes it does. Size matters a lot. Someone Nelson’s size (250+lbs., former High School/College linebacker, with arms the size of my thighs) has one hell of an advantage against anyone he faces, even someone who has trained. Being at least one hundred pounds lighter and 6 inches shorter than Nelson, I am at an obvious disadvantage from the outset. Yes, for argument’s sake, I know that if the encounter described above were to happen in a real conflict, I would be smashing an elbow into his face or locking my grip on his larynx or attempting to cause damage to the knee as soon as he was close enough for a throw. Throws and chokes work best if preceded/accompanied/followed by strikes to delicate areas and joints.

But I’m his teacher, and during this type of training we’re partners- so it wouldn’t do well for me to kick out one of his kneecaps and then extol the virtues of this technique for taking out larger people. We’re also more or less sane individuals- no one that I train with wants to spend six months to a year in rehab because I just had to make a point about “real” stopping power- and I have no desire to ever injure someone to that extent for any reason that I can avoid. I got hurt because of where I had put myself, and what I tried to do once there. It almost worked- most of the time I can get this sort of technique on him, exploiting his mass to drop him. But in this case, he didn’t even have to try to resist- his sheer size and weight did the work, and my stubbornness did the rest.

So what do I take from this experience? Move, dammit! The aforementioned stubbornness often inspires me to wade into larger people and trade shots, work the inside and look for ways to shut them down at their own game. Sometimes that works- and I like to think that it is good training for inside fighting skills, as well as the reality that most people who are a threat to me are probably also larger and more powerful. Empirical observation has borne this out- in most of the unfortunate instances where I have been attacked, it came from the front, and it stayed tight and up-close, and I got hit just as much as I gave. It’s important for martial artists to be able to handle someone who is much larger than themselves in less than ideal circumstances, and a good karate education must address this. But here we have another learning outcome: sometimes you just have to get the hell out of the way (I’m sure when my teacher comes across this he’ll think, “Finally! I’ve only been telling him that forever!” and he has). You might have to move outside to get to the inside. Not very complicated or mystical sounding, but that is the counterpoint to the sadly popular maxim that “size doesn’t matter in the martial arts.” The best technique in the world can still fail in the face of a larger and stronger opponent.