MAI-AI, or fighting distance in English is an essential aspect of all martial arts. And for each martial art that fighting distance is different; indeed in truth it is different for each individual. In normal Judo practice we take this rather for granted, but a study of it, an understanding of it, can produce a more thoughtful style of Judo: it can also make the difference between success and failure in live situations.
A closer look at the subject reveals that what is really being spoken of when mai-ai is mentioned is the relationship between time and space. Time and space are critical aspects of military planning: they are also critical aspects of personal conflict and of Judo. It is easier to consider merely the space aspect of mai-ai – the usual matra is real; a boxer wants a greater distance to wreak havoc than a judoka wants – but the reality is that distance (space) only makes sense when related to time.
Whilst uchikomi training is important, exchanging throws on the move help judoka understand the importance of time and space relations. Certain throws are only advisable under certain conditions, so for example if our training partner has his/her right leg advanced, the chances of performing an o-uchi-gari on the left are slim. This is related to time and space: you simply have not got the time to cover that distance before being countered, aside from any considerations regarding balance. This can be achieved, of course. Seasoned judoka are adept at feints that help them cover that distance in time, by fooling their partner. A few years ago I heard a senior dan grade answer the query as to how we manage to cross the gap between ourselves and an adversary to get the throw in. The reply was delivered with a whimsical grin: “we cheat,” he said, explaining that by moving our partner we close the gap before they realise that it has disappeared.
A good friend of mine is a former continental champion and he told how over the years his opponents would work on ways to stop him from getting his favourite throw off. What he then tasked himself with was ways of disturbing their equilibrium, so that he could then get into the position he wanted. Time and space. He did a thing I call changing the shape. By that I mean, if you think I am coming at you front on, I will merely move to your side, so that the situation is now different from what you planned for. I may need to get back to being in front, but I do that as you adjust to your newly perceived positional threat. Then is the time to launch an attack.
This understanding of mai-ai is part of what enables higher graded judoka to outsmart young, faster opponents and training partners. It is a vital aspect of self-defence and security work. Watch police officers talking to a person whose intent they are unsure of. They will stand slightly to the side. They will avoid invading personal space, but by coming to the side they are also giving themselves the space and time to react to an attack. They are also positioned in a way to take out the threat posed by a potential adversary’s limbs by ensuring that any attack has to come either with limited power, because the distance is short, or it has to come from across the assailants own body, generating power, perhaps, but giving away that advantage because the mai-ai is wrong – his attack has too far to travel before detection and a possible counter or evasive move. Time and space.
So it can be seen that the mai-ai is a very personal thing, even within the art you perform. If my speciality is armlocks, I want to be close enough for my adversary to think he has an opportunity to strike out, but I need to be ready to step back so that his arm can be fully extended. That distance is personal to me and whoever I am facing. Or I need to be in even closer, so that I can pre-emptively take control of his limb – something I was very adept at during my time as a security attendant in a hospital A&E department. Note, however, that although I was close, my mai-ai was sufficiently worked out to avoid a pre-emptive strike, usually because of the angle I would be at in relation to my (potential) adversary: too close for him to generate power in a strike, firmly on balance to enact the ABC of self-defence (Avoid, Block, Counter) should he attempt one.