Wednesday, September 26, 2012

San shou, no messing allowed for Laura O'Neill

The first time Irishwoman Laura O Neill fought in Chinese Kickboxing wasn’t just her first fight, it was the first time anyone from her gym had fought. Coming from a pure martial arts background into the sport also known as San Shou wasn't easy but she’s happy she stuck with it. 

Laura O' Neill in action. PICTURE: Ces the Day

The former Red Cross volunteer laughs now as she remembers feeling bad for hitting her opponent.

“Initially I didn’t want to fight, I felt it went against my nature – why get in a ring and let someone thump me,” she says, sitting on colourful mats at The Martial Arts Academy in south Dublin.

O’ Neill explains Chinese Kickboxing or San Shou originated in 1960s China. Following the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, many feared martial arts secrets would be lost. She says a number of experts – known as Masters – came together and created a new art from the best of what they knew. 

Punch-bags dangle from the ceiling above her waiting for the pulley to be activated but what catches the eye are the padded walls around the mats.

Fights traditionally take place on raised platform called Lei Tai with points awarded for dumping your opponent one metre down onto the ground. While there isn’t one of these at the gym, the speed of the wrestling moves would make bare walls too dangerous says O’ Neill.

She does mention one World Championship held on a Lei Tai in the middle of a lake in China so when you lost, you also had to swim to shore.

O’ Neill’s own fight career began when coach Paul Moran decided to shift the gym’s ethos from a pure martial arts focus to a fighting gym. So in spite of having studied Kung Fu since she was a child, everything changed for her five years ago.

“When you studying a martial art, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re doing is effective or not. The only way to test it is in a pressurized situation where you can’t just walk off and get yourself together,” she says.

That first fight was a rude awakening. Ruefully O’ Neill says her ‘tough as nails’ opponent taught her mental attitude is as important as physical fitness, and she now sees it as the beginning of a long journey.

Fighting and competing in Chinese Kickboxing

Fights usually last two rounds of two minutes each. If the score-cards mark a draw after that, then one more round is added on.

Points are awarded for clean shots which show impact. As O’ Neill puts it: “her head must flip back from the punch’. A punch scores one point, a kick above the waist two, a clean throw is also two and a sacrifice throw – where you touch the mat yourself to get into position – scores one.

She says everyone’s aim is to get in there, win in less than two rounds, preferably by KO or TKO, and walk out. Game over.

They compete wearing an open-face headguard, chest-pads, a groin-box –women too – shin-pads and 10oz gloves.

Watching the training a comparison with MMA comes to mind, without the going-to-ground element. And without the chokes or arm holds so the movement never stops.
O’ Neill and Moran both say you can pick out elements of many Chinese-influenced styles.

Moran says it’s no surprise to him to see a woman in the class as one of the first San Shou teachers in Ireland was American Carol Stephenson in the 1980s. She had trained under founder Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming who still teaches international seminars.

Moving out of earshot as O’Neill warms up, he says: “It’s probably unusual for a new guy who comes in but if we don’t treat her like a guy we get our asses kicked.”

Demonstrating a few swift moves, he says the real name for the martial art is Chinese Kickboxing. “It gives you the punching, the kicking and the wrestling techniques. It’s a complete stand-up style.”

Laura O' Neill and myself, focused interview! PICTURE: Ces the Day
Being the only woman

In a busy gym, O’Neill is the only woman. The 64.8kgs fighter says she’s had four fights in five years because she just can’t get opponents – estimating there are about ten women competing in Ireland altogether.

“It is a tough sport, it is easier to fight under Tae-Kwan-Do or kick-boxing rules. They are more controlled I think. We don’t stop when you score, we only stop for blood so it is more physically demanding,” she explains.

But the advantage of having so few women, as in other combat sports, is training is often tougher than any fight O’Neill says.

“I get thumped so hard by the guys here that in the ring I’ve never been caught too badly. I respect the women I fight but I’m lucky with the training. There are some times I’d like female company, it’s a big dressing room in there,” she says, pointing off to the back of the gym.

Another challenge is some of the older Masters, like Master Yang, the founder and head of O’Neill’s fighting style, don’t approve of female fighters
But Moran says this is changing, says about 30 per cent of the junior fighters around Ireland are women.

Should you try Chinese Kickboxing?

O’Neill doesn’t hesitate to recommend the sport to women, saying it’s a great short-cut to self-defence.

“You can pay crazy prices in a gym but you don’t get the work-out you get in a session here. When I try to score I need my legs, my back, everything has to move in tandem,” she says.

Standing at a kick-bag, she does a quick demo of her favourite technique. In one swift move, her leg flies up towards the top of the bag – heel first, thuds into the leather and returns back to fighting stance.

This is Chinese Kickboxing, not Kung-Fu Panda.

For more information go to Yang's Martial Arts Association.       And for more great fighting shots -  Ces the Day Photography

This interview first appeared in the recent issue of Irish Fighter. 

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