No, Seriously. You Can’t Do That

My son is nearing his test for his Junior 1st Black in Kenpo. This summer, after years of training, he’ll be at that first plateau that we look at as the really the first step in a life-long journey.

Of course, being steeped in the martial arts these days means you have to wade through a ton of crap and lies that have sprung up over the centuries. Recently, on the drive home, he told me it was possible to hit someone’s nose so hard it sends shards of bone into their brain and kills them instantly. The trick, he assured me, was to use an upward palm strike so that you blast that nose with everything you’ve got.

In case you’re wondering, it looks like this:

Ninja hoods and Marines shirts add +5 to your strikes. But don’t tell anyone I told you that.

This exact strike – and the killing theory behind it – has been the stuff of martial arts legends for as long as I can remember. We talked about it on the playground when I was in school and everyone knew someone who knew someone who totally swore it worked and back off or I’m gonna test it on you and then you’ll be dead and no one will care.

It’s been used in books and movies. This was the strike that got Nicolas Cage busted at the beginning on Con Air. It seems any time someone needs to die from a single strike, this is the tired old trope that gets trotted out. Unfortunately, it’s utter hogwash. Pushing nose bones into someone’s brain falls into the same category of fighting nonsense as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique and the Hurticane. Simply put, the human body doesn’t work like that. Your nose is mostly cartilage (sexy cartilage, in my case) and there’s another layer of bone behind your sinus cavities that you’d have to pierce into order to shove bits of nose into someone’s brain.

That’s not to say it’s not going to hurt like hell. The nose is always a good target in a fight because it’s so close to everything else on your face. I’ve been popped in the beak a time or two and I can assure it’s no fun. Your sinuses swell up, your nose starts leaking fluids you’d rather it didn’t, and your eyes leak water like a comic book fan watching someone burn the original X-Men. In other words, it’s a great place to hit someone if you want to take the fight out of them quickly. It’s not always an easy target to hit, but it is effective. It’s just not deadly in and of itself.

What about all that anecdotal evidence about people getting killed with one punch? Is that all bull, too? Well, yes and no. It has happened, but in most cases death comes from someone hitting their head when they fall down.

I guess the takeaway from that is if you want to kill someone with one strike, make sure they hit their on something hard on the way down.

So, if you’re writing about a fight scene and want to have your main character kill someone with a single blow, choose something realistic. If you want to have your character do some really crazy stuff, look into Dim Mak. On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of a fight and are worried about killing someone with a palm strike to the nose, don’t fret. Just fire that sucker and get the heck out of Dodge.

This gif cracks me up. Fun fact about Bolo Yeung: he swam from China to Taiwan to escape oppression. Fun fact about VanDamme: he can do the splits.

Just make sure your opponent doesn’t hit their head on the way down.

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Start Early

We’ve been doing an exercise in Kenpo lately that nicely illustrates something that most people don’t quite understand. Your hands and feet have a fixed range and, unless you’re Plastic Man or Dhalsim, you’re not going to be punch someone if they’re further away than you can extend your arm.

The exercise works like this: find a partner who doesn’t mind getting tapped every now and then. Have him or her take a fighting stance and extend an arm, fingertips out. You do the same thing, but don’t worry about taking a stance. Stand naturally, like you would if you were hanging out at the grocery store or picking up people at the bar. Or disco. You know, whatever floats your goat.

The distance between you two is your kill zone. Even though you’re both out of range of each other, this is the distance that a normal person can cover with a single step. That’s right. At fingertip distance from someone, all it takes is single step and they’re on you like flies on a Taco Bell dumpster. If someone steps into that zone, you’re in danger. But, the really cool thing about it is you’ve got all the time in the world to get out of the way.

Unless you’re a lumbering monster.

Start with something simple. Have your partner step in and try to punch you in the head. All you have to do is step to the side and they’ll go right past you. As your reaction time gets better, start mixing things up. Instead of a punch to the head, try a nice, big roundhouse kick. Instead of just stepping to the side, step out of the way and punch ’em in the noggin. Go back and forth and appreciate the give and take. It seems simple, but it illustrates an important point. What you’re training here is awareness. If you’re looking off the to side or checking your phone, you’re going to get clobbered. If you’re focused and aware, you’re a much harder target.

There are a couple of important takeaways from this exercise. The obvious is paying attention to distance is extremely important. The less obvious one is the question at least one person reading this is thinking right now. That’s not how fights start, right? You’ve got to be closer.

Wrong.

Give this guy a very large kill zone.

All fights start at a longer range that you’d expect. Unless you’re standing right next to someone when they decide you need a beat down, that attacker is going to have to cover some distance to hit you. As soon as someone you don’t know gets within your kill zone, be ready to act. You don’t necessarily have to attack everyone that gets close, but you should be aware of their position and what you can do if they decide to attack. If someone gets too close and you don’t know their motives, move to a better position. That’s what I mean by start early. Before the first punch is thrown, be aware. Watch your surroundings, watch the people around you, and watch anyone who gets into your kill zone.

If we define winning the fight as “getting to go home that night and hug your loved ones instead of spending the night in the E.R.”, then you’ve got a much chance of winning if you’re aware of the world around you. Awareness gives you more time to think, more time to prepare, and – most importantly – more time to avoid the fight altogether. Start early, and you can win the fight before it even begins.

Got any self defense tips? Drop ’em in the comments! I love comments.

A Self-Defense Tip For You

It seems there’s still a large contingent of people out there who will believe you can use car keys to turn yourself into Wolverine.

The set-up is simple and there’s a certain elegance to it. The theory is this: you usually have car keys handy, so why not turn them into a weapon? While I applaud the idea of using common items as improvised weapons, putting your keys between your fingers and punching someone with them is going to have less than stellar results.

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Both of these are extremely bad ideas. Unless you want to hurt yourself, in which case, go for it.

(Actually, when you get right down to it, both of these examples are bad ideas for self-defense, but for different reasons.)

When I was a kid and reading “authentic” “ninja” training manuals, these things would have looked great. In fact, the first time I heard about putting keys between my fingers and slashing at an opponent, it seemed like a great idea. I mean, why not? Keys are quite pointy in parts and slashing at an opponent seemed guaranteed to shred their face, at which point I could take their wallet.

The problem is it only looks good on paper. There are a couple problems with holding your keys this way and assuming you’ve reached the pinnacle of self-defense. First: your attacker is likely to be covered up and keys aren’t terribly effective against clothes. Truthfully, they’re not great against skin, either. Your dreams of going full Weapon X on a guy in a parking lot with nothing more than the keys in your hand are going to come crashing down quickly when you slash at him and wind up doing almost as much damage to your own hand as you do to his face.

If you do any damange to him at all.

The problem is, none of the keys are stable. Try it. Put your keys in your hands like in the above picture and wiggle them. Not too secure, are they? As soon as you make contact with something, those keys are going to press into the webbing between your fingers with an enormous amount of force. Possibly even enough to make you drop them.

Next thing you know, you’ve got a pissed off attacker, a damaged hand, and you’ve lost your keys.

Which leads to the next problem. In any self-defense situation your primary goal should be survival. The best way to make that happen is to get away and the best way to get away is to get in your car and make tracks. If your car is locked and your keys are tangled up in your hands, it’s going to take extra time to find the right key to unlock your car and skedaddle. It may seem easy when you’re in your living room, but remember when you’re attacked it’s a high-stress situation. In any high-stress situation, adrenaline is going to be pumping into your body to stimulate the fight or flight response. Adrenaline’s good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but fine motor skills disappear when it’s pumping. In other words, your brain turns to mush.

So, how about a better solution? Hold one key – the one to your car or your door – securely between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure you’ve got a tight grip and the tip isn’t sticking out too far – that cuts down on the force that’s coming back into your hand and gives you a better chance of holding onto your keys. Now, you’ve got a secure weapon to slash with and you’ve got your key ready to go, so when adrenaline hits you, you don’t have to think about which key is which.

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Think tactically and strategically. The strategy should be escaping in one piece, tactics need to support that strategy, not hamstring it. Although, I would argue the “right” key is still held too far out to be stable.

Of course, you still have to deal with the pesky “getting a key past your attacker’s defenses” part, but if you do it right, you’ll have surprise on your side. Slash at the eyes or throat and get the heck out of there.

Just a quick note on the ring up there, too. Most people don’t know how to punch. It actually takes some time and a lot of practice to get good at punching something. If you slash at someone with that ring, it’s just going to turn on your finger and not do much to your attacker. If you punch someone with that ring on, you’re really going to be in trouble.

The thing about punching is the hand is very good for punching if you punch correctly, namely striking with the big two knuckles on your fist. That ring will put an enormous amount of pressure on the long bone of your middle finger. If you hit a hard enough target – anything on the head, for instance – you’ll break your own finger.

If you want some things to carry for self-defense that aren’t obtrusive, look for a kubotan or something similar. Heck, even a monkey’s fist made from paracord and a big ball bearing would work better.

Don’t believe me? Check these sites for more info:

Martial Arts on Stack Exchange

ACWA Combatives

Think Like A Black Belt

Book Review – The Kenpo Karate Compendium by Lee Wedlake

bookReview

Most martial arts books aim to teach you martial arts by showing you pictures of people doing things. Some do it really well, others do it exceedingly poorly. Some of the books out there that purport to teach a martial art through pictures are trying to teach a shitty martial art poorly. In those cases, you’ve got the double whammy of suck.

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Don’t try this at home.

I have a huge library of martial arts books ranging from obscure treatises on Savate to modern explanations of Krav Maga and everything in between. Some are good, some not so good, but most of them can be counted on to have a gem or two ferreted away between the covers.

Whether or not you can learn a martial art from a book is debatable. I would argue that it’s really not possible to understand motion from static images, but once you’ve got a solid grasp of a martial art, you can start to pick things up from books and videos. The caveat, of course, is what you learn will be tainted by your understanding of whatever art you’ve been studying. In other words, you’d be doing Jeet Kun Do as a Kenpo practitioner, not as a Jeet Kun Do practitioner.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure. I’m of the opinion that if you can make it work, it’s all good. Others would likely disagree.

But, I digress. Lee Wedlake’s The Kenpo Karate Compendium: The Forms and Sets of American Kenpo isn’t one of those books that aims to teach you a martial art. It’s written for people who are already proficient at Kenpo and shows some extra details and notes that may or may not have been picked up during live training.

Kenpo’s a fractured system. It started out in Hawaii, moved to Utah, and exploded after that. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), that explosion has lead to a lot of different schools doing a lot of different things. My school broke from Ed Parker’s school at some point in the distant past, but we still use a lot of his techniques and forms. In fact, the bulk of the first forms from Parker Kenpo are still extant in AKKA Kenpo. There’s more divergence as the belts go higher, but especially the early ones are almost exactly the same as what Lee Wedlake wrote his book about.

That kind of fracturing isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s nice sometimes to go back to the source and see that it hasn’t changed as much as we sometimes like to think it. It’s also nice to get some insight from someone else. Not knocking my own Kenpo instructors here, but it can be a great thing to break out of the norm and see what someone else has to say.

The bottom line for a book like this is it isn’t a great book for beginners. This is for people who want to dig into the original forms and pick up what’s changed here and there over the years or catch those little details that get lost from time to time. It’s also nice to have a different take on something.

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Get your copy here

Changes Changes Changes

My Kenpo school in Albuquerque is closing down. Our head instructor wants to be able to spend more time with his family and, after decades of running a school six days a week, probably wants to be able to sleep from time to time, too. So, my seventeen years at AKKA on Montgomery came to an end today.

It’s a melancholy time, but I wish Mr. Gilbert the best. He’s certainly earned it. On the plus side, my son got a personal lesson from a man with something like forty plus years of experience today. I’ve had plenty of one-on-one time with Mr. Gilbert over the years, but this was my son’s first chance to get some insight directly from a Grand Master of Kenpo and that’s a pretty special thing.

I’ve seen Mr. Gilbert, who is in his sixties now, punch so quickly I could barely see his hands move. That’s what a lifetime of practice looks like. But, for all his training and stories about people walking into his school trying to cause problems, it’s his reactions that will always stick with me. Bear in mind, this is the same man that once taught me “luck is the intersection of skill and opportunity”. If you’ve ever wondered where I got that phrase from, it would be from Mr. Gilbert.

People sometimes wonder what the Martial Arts is. What does it entail? What do you have to do? What does it all mean? Pure and simple, no bullshit here; the Martial Arts (all of them) are about learning to inflict the maximum amount of damage on opponent in the smallest amount of time without getting hurt yourself. In other words, once you boil away all uniforms and mottos and rigamorale, learning the martial arts is about learning to beat the snot out of someone.

Of course, the best martial artists don’t have to rely on their fists to win the fight. One of Mr. Gilbert’s many stories that stuck with me was one I heard for the first time this morning. It’s an apt story, especially given the caustic environment in this country right now.

It would appear, back when Mr. Gilbert was running a school on Central in Albuquerque, that a guy came in looking for trouble. “I’m gonna kick your ass!” he screamed.

This wasn’t an entirely uncommon event. We even had a loon wander in off the street during a pretest and try to cause some problems. A couple guys and I escorted him out and convinced him this wasn’t the best place to cause problems. No one got hurt, so it was all good.

Anyway, the guy on Central was probably one of the run-of-the-mill nutters down there that lives to look for trouble. Mr. Gilbert looked up from whatever paperwork he was working on and calmly asked, “What’s your name?”

This threw the bad guy for a loop. Here he was trying to look tough and this Karate dude just asked for his name. “Why do you need my name?” he asked.

“Well, I need to make sure you’re on the schedule. If you’re not on the list you’re going to have to come back later.”

Talk about defusing the situation. The underlying statement was there were so many guys looking to kick Mr. Gilbert’s ass that he needed a list and a schedule to keep up with them. In the end, the angry guy wound up walking out of the school with a brochure about learning Kenpo and all of Mr. Gilbert’s contact information.

I gather he never took a class, but no fight broke out and no one got hurt, so it was all good.

Those are the kinds of stories that will stick with me. Punching is punching and kicking is kicking, but learning how to avoid the fight entirely is priceless.

Now, since the school is going away, I finally got around to taking some pictures. These are paintings of the animals (Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Dragon, Snake, and Monkey) of the style. Each of the animals represents are certain movement forward in Kenpo understanding. The paintings were made directly on the walls of the school sometime in the 80s by a former student.

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Tiger and Leopard. Tiger is the first animal and represents beginner understanding. Push a button and three attacks come out. Tigers are linear and power-oriented. The Leopard combines the power of the tiger and the ability to move of the Crane.
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Crane. The second level. Cranes start to change from linear movement to what we call point and circle defense. Moving around the opponent and firing quick, precise strikes. The Crane actually comes between Tiger and Leopard.
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Dragon introduces twisted stances and more movement. This falls at the Green belt level, the last belt before someone hit expert level at Brown.
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Snake and me taking a picture. The snake has two components: constrictor and viper. Constrictor elements of Kenpo include methods of coiling around arms and bodies. Vipers introduce very precise shots to small targets like eyes. The three Brown belts compose snake techniques.
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Monkey is the Black Belt element. Monkey can use any and all of the other animals and the Black Belt is, at least partially, about learning to combine the elements together.

Mr. Gilbert will still be around, so it’s not like AKKA is losing him forever. And also, as he pointed out, Bill Packer died and the system kept going. Thomas Connor died and the system kept going. Ed Parker died and Kenpo lived on. It’s not an easy change to swallow since I left the system once before and came back primarily for Mr. Gilbert.

Happy New Year, everyone. It’s a time for change and renewal. You can either approach the problem head-on and beat your fists against the wall or you can use a bit of trickery to turn the problem to an advantage.

Book Review and Martial Arts Theories: Nerve Centers and Pressure Points by Bruce Tegner

As was common with martial arts books back in the seventies, Tegner’s treatise on nerve centers and pressure points had a mouthful of a full title: Self-Defense: Nerve Centers & Pressure Points for Karate, Jujitsu and Atemi-Waza. It’s a bit lengthy for a blog title, but an interesting book nonetheless.

I have an extensive collection of martial arts books I’ve picked up over the years, everything ranging from the in-depth examinations of Donn Draeger to a bunch of introductions to various arts. Nerve Centers and Pressure Points is the first Tegner book I’ve come across in the wild.

With any book on martial arts, the author is of key importance. Unlike fiction, non-fiction books aim to provide facts and reading a book on fighting from someone who claims to be an expert is a good way to get yourself in trouble. There are dozens of Ninja books out there that purport to explain Ninjutsu, but are written by people whose sole experience with the art was watching Sho Kosugi movies on Saturday morning. Not that Sho Kosugi didn’t know his arts, but learning from a movie is a dicey proposition at best.

A bit of research on Bruce Tegner reveals he was ahead of his time. In the sixties and seventies, the world of Asian martial arts was still steeped in tradition and it was expected that practitioners would learn those arts exactly as they were taught and that should be good enough. Tegner respectfully disagreed and, decades before “reality based martial arts” became a thing, he was stripping out the parts of traditional Asian arts that simply didn’t fit the bill for realistic defense. This attitude of discarding things that had been taught for decades or centuries earned him no amount of scorn from the traditionalists.

In the final analysis, Tegner created his own martial art – Jukado – which combined what he felt were the best elements from the multitude of styles he studied over the years (Karate, Jiu Jitsu, Savate, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, etc) and rolled them into something effective and easy to learn.

He was quite the iconoclast during his life and it shows in his books. Nerve Centers and Pressure Points paints a very different picture of self-defense than was readily available at the time. He starts by analyzing the need for varying levels of combativeness depending on the situation, rather than saying “go hard all the time”, which is something the martial arts world desperately needed at the time. Tegner then proceeds to tear apart the results from attacking various nerve centers and pressure points. For instance, it’s a commonly held belief that a sharp, upward strike to the nose will push bits of bone into the opponent’s brain and kill immediately. Any study of physiology will reveal this simply cannot happen. At a time when things like death touches were still talked about as realistic, Tegner pointed out the flaws in the logic.

Nerve Centers and Pressure Points is a simple examination of what can happen when a particular point on the body is struck. It’s meant as kind of a layman’s book, but still requires a degree of understanding about how to strike. As a guy with twenty plus years of experience, the strikes made sense to me. For someone with less experience, the text might not be as useful.

Don’t expect a detailed examination of exactly how to poke someone in the ribs and have them fall dead five steps later; this is a simple look at what happens when various parts of the body are struck.

If you’re looking to learn how to defend yourself, this isn’t the place to start. Go find a decent school and do some studying. If you’re a martial artist, this is a good book to read if you can find a cheap copy of it.

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Find a used copy on Amazon

Read up a bit on Bruce Tegner. He was an interesting guy. Unfortunately, he died in 1985 from a heart attack.

Absolute Violence

What do Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, and Paul Dehn have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all writers and/or screenwriters, Fleming, Dahl, and Dehn attended a little known World War II camp known today as Camp X. It was located on the Northwestern shore of Lake Ontario and was put together in early World War II for the sole purpose of training people to go deep into enemy territory and cause as much havoc as possible.

Camp X trained spies, assassins, and saboteurs: people with the necessary skills to drop monkey wrenches into the machineries of wartime Germany. Since not only was an individual’s life on the line, the whole war was on the line, training at Camp X was as realistic as possible. Among other things, live explosives were used with and on trainees.

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Not the kind of spy Camp X was training.

While the idea of people being taught to drop into Nazi Germany and really mess things up is fascinating in and of itself, it was the hand-to-hand combat training that I find most fascinating. You have to realize the modern United States military has only recently undertaken a serious martial arts program. During World War II, the hand-to-hand combat largely consisted of simple punching, stabbing with bayonets, and some easy to learn and use throws. MACP (Modern Army Combatives Program) and MCMAP (Marine Corp Martial Arts Program) were still a long way off in the 1940s. Krav Maga was still a twinkle in Imi Lichtenfeld’s eyes, even if he was field testing what would become his system using Nazis as test subjects.

But if you’re going to drop people in Nazi Germany for nefarious purposes, simple punching isn’t going to help them. You need to take all the concepts of fair fighting and throw them away. As Kelly McCann is fond of saying, the fair fight is the one you lose.

So, who was going to teach this new collection of bad asses? That would be a British gentleman by the name of William Fairbairn. If you’ve ever heard of the Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife, he’s that Fairbairn.

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Fits neatly into the base of a skull

William Fairbairn was a scary dude. He learned his trade as a cop in Singapore in the 1930s, fighting Chinese gangsters with a Colt 1911 and his fists. At one point he was stabbed nearly 40 times and left to die in a gutter. He survived and went on to learn as much about fighting as he possibly could. He took the best of what he found and discarded the rest. If he learned something but couldn’t make it work in a fight, it was tossed by the wayside. When he was done, William Fairbairn made Chuck Norris look like a child who had found a copy of Enter the Dragon and tried to imitate Bruce Lee.

Fairbairn was a natural choice to train the new spies and miscreants that were going to be dropped into Nazi Germany. He taught what he called “Gutter Fighting”, a system of relatively easy-to-learn moves that were designed to debilitate or kill an opponent with a minimum of fuss and muss. The techniques were mean, but effective. At a time when most people were looking to boxing and Judo or Jiu-Jitsu, Fairbairn advocated fingers in eyes, punches to the throat, knees to the groin, and so on.

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Even his picture is looking for ways to kill you.

In other words, William Fairbairn advocated fighting dirty. Long before Kelly McCann advised us that the fair fight is the one you lose, Fairbairn was upping the ante on Western hand-to-hand combat by saying, “You either kill or get killed.” And when Fairbairn said it, it wasn’t the tagline for a Charles Bronson movie.

Now, the funny thing is, if you look at what Fairbairn actually taught – and we have a lot of records of it, there are videos of him and he wrote books on the subject – a lot of his techniques are straight out of traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts.

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She’s doing White Crane Kung Fu, if you were wondering.

What makes Fairbairn’s interpretation of the techniques he chose different from what we’re doing today in the martial arts is intent. A lot of modern martial arts students have the sole intent of getting to the next belt. Fairbairn’s intent was to cause maximum damage in a minimum amount of time. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what the traditional martial arts were created to do.

Somewhere along the line a lot of martial artists and martial arts schools forgot what they were doing and decided to focus more on memorizing movements and less on the intent behind those movements. Personally, I blame lawyers. Learning a physical act like fighting is going to result in some damage. I’ve been popped in the nose, kicked in the knee, kneed in the groin, and given myself a wicked huge gash with a katana. Unfortunately, there are people out there who cannot stomach getting hurt and run to a lawyer when it happens. Lawsuits are expensive and have driven many a school out of business.

The end result? Watered down traditional martial arts or straight-up crap. In the martial arts world, we call it Bullshido.

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What Bullshido may look like

So, what’s the solution? Unfortunately that will probably rest with the student as the schools are too worried about being sued out of existence. If you’re planning on taking up a study of fighting, that’s great. Keep at it. Just realize the effectiveness of what you’re learning rests with you. The school can teach you how to do it, but you’re the one that has to actually make it work. That means you have to cultivate a mindset that’s capable of putting your thumb in someone’s eye, punching someone in the throat, or breaking the odd bone here and there..

At Camp X they understood that intent was paramount and trained students to understand that their life could quite literally be on the line in a fight. Once students got to that mindset, everything else flowed naturally into seriously messing the opponent up. Without that intent, everything they were taught would have been useless, which is why I titled this post “absolute violence”. In a fight situation there is no room for holding back. Holding back is what gets people killed.

William Fairbairn understood that and he taught the students at Camp X that same philosophy. And that may have saved more than a few lives.

Links:

A brief video on Fairbairn’s Gutter Fighting

Fairbairn’s Get Tough!

Wikipedia entry on Camp X

Camp X official site

Rex Applegate

William Fairbairn

Defendu