Saturday, April 16, 2011

Martial Arts

I've trained in martial arts and sports for about 25 years, started when I was 8. Long enough to realize just how little I know and how ineffective they generally are in actual fighting.

This is going to be a very long post. I'm going somewhere with this, eventually, so bear with me. I don't think I am doing to do many posts on martial arts but I started a post on women's self defense and realized it might make more sense if I explained some of my background. This is a brief outline of my experience, in more or less chronological order, lots of overlapping:

- 2-3 years of ITF Tae Kwon Do, typical start for children.
- 2-3 years of Hapkido.
- 6 years of Chen Tai Chi Chuan and a variety of scattered training in Chinese martial arts styles: Mostly Wing Chun but also Hung Gar, Northern Shaolin and a bunch of other stuff
- About 5 years of judo and ju-jitsu. Some BJJ but most of it was informal, not structured
- 6 years of freestyle wrestling
- 10 years of combatives, mostly not taught in any formal setting.
- 1 year of boxing
- Working on some FMA and knife training
A bunch of seminars and short stints in various arts as well.

By informal training, I mean that I learn from various people when I have the opportunity and often that time is spent teaching myself (yes, videos and other ways) and working out with others, no expert instruction available. I don't consider myself proficient in any style and I am certainly not a fighting expert.

I used to work security, some work as a bouncer, and was a reserve police officer for several years, general duty policing. I've had many chances to put what I learned into practice.

One of the major influences on my training was a book I read when I was 12 - Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do. You could safely call that a life changing experience for me. Just the thought of cross training was so....amazing! At that point I was training Hapkido and Judo but the thought of integrating them, the idea of focusing on your strengths, dropping kata, all very amazing.

An incredible book, it opening my eyes to a lot of new ideas and approaches. After that, I went to every martial art school in the city and trained with as many people as possible for as long as they would put up with me. I wanted to see what people did, what worked, and how good the instructors were. I looked at everything from Ninjitsu to Choy Lee Fut! :)

I'm sure it came across as incredibly arrogant to have a teenager show up at a school and challenge the instructors. Wasn't my intent, but I used to think "if these guys can't even beat me, I'm wasting my time here." Some people took it well, others...not so much. An example of the type of bizarreness that can occur when an instructor feels challenged in martial arts:

When I was around 16 or 17, there was a girl in my school that I was quite attracted to. She was some sort of Tae Kwon Do champion (pan-american? can't remember) and I asked her if I could do a story on her for a school project. I was very shy around women and wasn't sure how to ask her out so this was the best I could come up with! I ended up going to her school and watching. As mentioned, I did ITF TKD when I was young but she was involved in WTF - the Olympic style of TKD. Very, very different. ITF (back then at least) was a lot more practical. Yes, there was a lot of ridiculous spin kicks, but we also spent part of every class learning dirty fighting techniques, fighting multiple opponents and other good stuff. Hilarious to think what that guy was teaching 8 year olds but it saved my ass on the playground. I think he used to be in the army. If my memory serves (looooong time ago) he was Israeli and I believe army service was mandatory. A lot of the stuff we learned reminds me of some of the Krav Maga techniques I have seen.

Anyway, I watched her work out with the instructor for a while. At the end of the class he came over and asked what I thought. Something that jumped out at me was that there was absolutely no punching and they always kept their hands down. I asked him about that and he immediately became defensive. He told me that punching was a waste of time, that hand techniques were slow and weak. I was a little stunned. I mentioned that a punch had a lot less distance to travel and kicks leave you off balance. He told me he could kick me in the head faster than I could ever punch him. I wasn't trying to challenge him, I was just puzzled by the whole thing. I suspect he just wasn't used to being questioned and decided to make a point. So, a grown man, 7 millionth degree black belt (they pass out belts like candy), without warning, tried to do a spin kick and take my head off. He scared the shit out of me! Which is why, when he kindly put his back to me, I punched him in the spine and he did an ugly face plant on the ground. What a fiasco. But a not uncommon attitude - questions not really encouraged, no practical fighting experience*, practical techniques ignored, no cross training with other styles, etc. These instructors learn something take as gospel truth (a belief) then indoctrinate others in their "true path" ignoring any evidence that might suggest their training system might not be perfect.

I have had relatively positive experiences too. A buddy of mine and I, when I was 17 or so, went to check out a new Judo class. I'd been looking for some new training in it but no one seemed to be teaching it. Finally found a class, they were mostly teaching kids though, but I ended up training with those guys for a couple of years. Anyway, I asked if I could have a go at the instructor and ended up going up against the 2nd level guy they had. 2nd degree black belt maybe. He told me I could use whatever techniques I wanted. So of course I dropped levels, did a nice double leg and rolled him in a cradle! Was a little bit funny. Then the main instructor came over, he was a Japanese from Japan guy - he proceeded to wipe the floor with me. Was AWESOME! I've never really been thrown around before, the guy was very good. Unfortunately, we had a bit of a falling out a few months and he wouldn't work with me any more but I still stuck it out for quite a while in the class. He never relented and I ended up moving on, no one else was all that good.

So, a little off topic now.....I'll always remember my first real fight in high school. I was a skinny kid, very smart, got good grades, wore cheap clothes (no money), had a weird religious upbringing and basically had a target on my back - total nerd, geek, loser with a chivalrous bent. Can you say dead meat? I made the mistake of getting in a conversation with someone in class about martial arts and another boy took exception. I was about 5'8 and 115 lbs. He was 6' and at least 200, some fat for sure but a big 14 year old. After the teacher left the room, he told me he was a boxer and he could kick my ass, all that martial arts stuff was shit. I was trapped in the classroom and had no choice. Nothing like throwing down in grade 9 algebra class.

I was scared. I was frequently scared the first two years of high school, I was constantly harassed, attacked by groups of boys, and was in more fights than I could count. But, when I would get cornered and had to fight (yes, I used to run away or back down), things usually went my way. In this case, as I watched this monster put up his hands, I kicked him in the knee with a stepping side kick (thanks Bruce Lee for JKD), he put his head down and I actually threw him with a hip toss, went to the ground and choked him out. Whaddya know, some of that shit did work....

*one of the things I find most troubling about martial arts is that the instructors generally have no actual, practical experience in using them. Some guy who has never been in a fight in his life is the "expert" teaching me to defend myself.

One of the great strengths that grapplers have vs. traditional striking styles, is that they train the way they fight. Karate guys for example, spend most of their time hitting pads or doing sport/touch sparring. All that board breaking? Why? If they do use some harder contact, there is normally a long list of rules, a lot of padding, and it's all done in the "dueling" format - we both square off, we know we are fighting, we're fighting someone that fights the same way as us, etc. I understand that it's pretty tough to get in a bare knuckle full contact training fight 2-3 nights a week - people would get hurt all the time. Yet you fight the way you train and these styles don't teach people to apply the techniques they learn. No one knows if what they learn will actually work. The first time I punched someone in the head it hurt a lot! And by that point I'd already spent years conditioning my hands.

Back on topic - usually they teach them pitty pat striking (touch sparring) and ridiculously complicated techniques that are very unlikely to work under stress. There are ways to simulate fighting, to put stress on people and make them react to it, but they are rarely done. There are some exceptions to the little-to-no-contact striking (boxing, muay thai) but even they tend to get watered down for the non-competitive athlete.

Now grappling arts, BJJ, wrestling (yes, I include wrestling), Judo and others, their practitioners can go full out all the time. Yes they are mostly sports not combat arts but the techniques still work one-on-one - chokes, holding people down, assuming dominant positions, etc. Watch any of the old Gracie challenge videos on youtube - painful and pitiful to see what they would do to people.

Here's a couple of classics:

Kenpo Black Belt Instructor vs Royler Gracie - Gracie Challenge NHB!

royce gracie vs kung fu expert VINTAGE MMA!!

I'm not suggesting grappling is the be all and end all of fighting (it isn't), but it's good to have a grappling base - especially for women, which leads to my next post.

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