How To Get Your B.S. In Martial Arts

Anyone who’s been involved in martial arts for any length of time can tell you there are a lot of schwag schools out there that will promise you the moon and deliver a back-alley ass-whooping. For some reason, the martial arts seem to attract a lot of self-aggrandizing whack-jobs who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground but talk a good game.

History is replete with names like George Dillman (who says he can shoot Chi balls out of his hands), Count Dante (the self-proclaimed “Deadliest Man Alive”), Frank Dux (whose lofty tales inspired Bloodsport) and countless others.


I’d love to have a Black Dragon Fighting Society T-shirt.

Unfortunately, people like Dillman, Dante, and Dux have watered down the fighting arts to the point of fantasy fit only for Wuxia stories and high fantasy fanfic. Meanwhile, MMA has captured the imagination of the country and the rallying cry has become, “If it doesn’t work in MMA, it’s crap.” And stuck in the middle are a whole bunch of systems that are really damned good at what they do, they’re just not geared for MMA’s ruleset. So, just to get this out of the way, Dante, Dillman, and Dux can all suck it for spreading their nonsense, but the rest of the traditional arts deserve a bit more respect than “If it doesn’t work in MMA, it’s crap.”

A few days ago, I was reading an article I found posted in a martial arts group on Facebook. The article was about the five worst martial arts on the planet and how they were totally useless. I see articles like this every now and then and they all lay out the author’s distaste for varying fighting arts. Among other systems, Wing Chun, Kung Fu, Aikido, Ninjutsu, Krav Maga, Karate, Shaolin, Sumo, and Tae Kwon Do are common entries in these lists.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I have seen Wing Chun, Shaolin, and Kung Fu in the same list. For the unitiated, Kung Fu is basically a blanket term for the Chinese fighting arts which includes styles like Shaolin, Hun Gar, and, yes, Wing Chun. Always be wary of authors who aren’t even familiar enough with what they’re dissing to get the names right.

Articles like these include a variety of reasons why this, that, or the other style is a waste of time, but most of them come down to the fact that no one has ever won an MMA title using that system or that system didn’t work very well in MMA.

Wait. Let’s back up a second here.


MMA is a sport style. Don’t get me wrong, the people that do it are talented, tough, and I wouldn’t want to walk into a ring with any of them, but the whole of MMA is geared around keeping fighters intact, alive, and able to fight again. For a thing that bills itself as no holds barred as close to real fighting as you can get, it’s still a sport system. And that means things like poking the eyes, punching the throat, and doing all manner of nasty things is forbidden. And for good reason. You can learn to take a punch or a kick and shake it off, but a thumb in your eye is a whole different ballgame.

Not to say that people don’t get seriously hurt in MMA, just that the rules are in place to minimize the number of times a fighter gets crippled in the ring. The idea is to pit a fighter against someone roughly his or her size and approximate skill set. It’s a great test of skill, truthfully, because it eliminates a lot of variables and focuses on the fighters.

Less sport-oriented fighting covers a different kind of ground. Most of those aforementioned Chinese systems grew up in a different kind of arena and they focus on doing the most damage in the smallest amount of time and getting the heck out of danger’s way while the opponent is still clawing at their eyes and wondering why their throat doesn’t work anymore. They’re largely upright styles because you don’t want to go rolling around in a Shanghai alleyway and, besides, the guy you just kicked probably has some buddies lined up waiting to break your knees.

Krav Maga grew out of fighting Nazis. It’s a nasty, mean system designed to keep someone alive in a harsh environment where the opponent’s waving a broken bottle in your face. It’s wartime stuff, modified to be a little friendlier to civilians, but at its heart, Krav Maga shares the same philosophy of get in, hurt someone badly, and get away. Kenpo has the same philosophy, as do a lot of traditional arts, because traditional arts were about survival, not winning in the ring.


Not a whole lot of guns in MMA. I’m also not sure I really like this technique, it’s fast, but it doesn’t get the gun offline very much.

There are, of course, outliers. Sumo is pretty against Sumo and not much else, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone offering Sumo classes for self defense. It’s a very ritualized sport, seeped in tradition, and does what it does very well. But pushing an opponent out of the ring or getting them off their feet does not translate well in MMA’s fighting world.

Which leads us to everybody’s favorite punching bag: Ninjutsu.


Ninja costumes work everywhere.

After a spate of increasingly bad movies in the 80s, Ninjas took on a strange reputation of being the ultimate badasses. Schools claiming to teach the secrets of the Ninjas popped up in every strip mall in the country, and enough books to deforest the Eastern seaboard were published about the subject. Here’s the deal: Ninjas were real, they had some capable fighters (and doubtless some true badasses), but Ninjutsu is about a whole lot more than fighting. It’s movement, it’s concealment, it’s a lot of sneaking around, and if you want to get traditional about them, Ninjutsu was about stealing state secrets and assassinating people. Fighting skill was important, but it wasn’t as important as being invisible. Any school claiming to teach traditional Ninja fighting arts should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t doubt that there are some out there, but the vast majority are run by guys who got their training from stuff they found in the classifieds in the back of Black Belt Magazine.

In the end, it’s important to realize what the goal of a system is before you start saying it’s worthless. MMA is cool, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of fighting and a lot of its ground and pound stuff is flat-out dangerous to do outside of the ring. In the ring, it’s just you and your opponent. Out of the ring, it’s you, your opponent, his buddies, some drunken idiot who wants to get in on the game, and probably the cops. Going to the ground in a situation like that is begging for a head-stomping.

And, let’s not forget, MMA itself is comprised of things learned from those traditional martial arts. So, if MMA is your bag, go learn it. It’s definitely useful, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the perfect system. It’s the perfect system for what it’s trying to be.

On the other hand, everyone should take a good, hard look at MMA training techniques and realize a couple of hours a week in the dojo ain’t gonna make you a pro fighter. There’s no reason Wing Chun, Shaolin, or Krav Maga can’t be effective; they’re all fine systems. Because, in the end, it always comes down to the person doing it. Practice, practice, practice. Train, train, train.

And you still might get your ass kicked.

And now, your moment of Zen.


Ninja spit is made of bad breath and tiny shurikens.

Shove Off

It’s been a while since I’ve talked martial arts on here and it’s high time I try to be a bit more regular about it.

I recently got hold of a copy of Gershon Keren’s Krav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World Violence and have been reading it when I’m not busy reading books for the Indie Author Review Group or writing my own stuff.  Amazingly, that still leaves plenty of time in the day to glance through and pick up a new idea or two here and there.  Now, I don’t know Krav Maga at all, but I find it a fascinating study in simplification and generally meeting fire with fire.  To the best of my knowledge no one in Albuquerque is teaching it so I’m picking up bits whereever I can and fusing them with Kenpo.  Both systems are pretty practical and all martial arts share a lot with each other, so the fusion isn’t too hard to accomplish.

Every Wednesday, or almost every Wednesday, I’ve been teaching the kid’s Kenpo class.  It’s been an eye opener for me because teaching something requires a much better understanding of it than just learning something.  It’s forced me to examine my assumptions about how and why things work and also let me branch out a bit.  I try to bring in something new every Wednesday, some small bit of arcane knowledge or a different way of looking at things.  For instance, we’ve done exercises where one student will close his or her eyes and another student holding a kicking shield will move around the first student.  When someone calls stop, the student with his or her eyes closed will open up, find the target and strike it.  It’s designed to teach them how to pick up a target when the opponent isn’t directly in front.  We’ve also scattered kicking shields all over the floor and done kata to show that your environment isn’t always as smooth the school floor.

So, back to Krav Maga.  Most of what the Krav Maga folks deal with is fairly practical stuff but things like knife and gun attacks aren’t things most of the kids are going to need to learn to deal with at this point.  At least I hope not.  There was one thing I pulled from Keren’s book, though, that was pretty appropriate for the kids: dealing with a shove.

Mess you up, sucka.

Mess you up, sucka.

The shove is a classic fight starter, it’s a way of pulling off the alpha dog thing and is usually accompanied with a pithy phrase like “I’ll fuck you up.”  Kenpo, like Krav Maga and most other fighting systems, has numerous ways of dealing with a shove and most of those end with the shover on the ground crying.  All of our techniques, though, are predicated on the assumption that the fight is already started and both parties are fully committed to the fight.  Stances are set and both people are primed and ready.

What happens, though, immediately after the shove is important and there are a few ways to go:

  • Shove ’em back
  • Back down and apologize
  • Fully commit and end the threat immediately

Most people choose to shove back, which is really the worst thing you can do in that situation.  Shoving comes down to that alpha dog mentality I was talking about earlier.  It’s a way to exert authority and dominance.  As humans we like to think we’re above all that but we pull that kind of nonsense all the time.  “Accidentally” bumping into someone, getting in someone’s space, pushing your way into an elevator before anyone can get off, yelling, and many other things are just attempts at dominance.  Shoving is just a more physical way of saying “I’m tough but not quite ready to commit to the fight.”

Grrr.  Bark.  Woof.

Grrr. Bark. Woof.

Just in case you think it’s a stupid guy thing, women do it, too.

Wait for the fight, kids.

Wait for the fight, kids.

So why is shoving back such a bad idea?  Two reasons: 1) it ups the ante, forcing the other person’s hand, and 2) it takes away an important tactical advantage.  When someone shoves you the best bet, depending on the situation, is to either walk away or decisively end the fight.  For the kid’s class I emphasized the idea of walking away.  In fact, for the most part, it’s best to just walk away from a fight whever possible, after all it’s always easier to avoid a fight than to win one.  Walking away, apologizing, whatever it takes to defuse the situation costs you nothing but some ego points.  The way I see it, I have a huge amount of ego already so losing some doesn’t really hurt me.

It's all good, bro-dog.  It's all good.

It’s all good, bro-dog. It’s all good.

Interestingly enough, even though picture is supposed to be just a one-off funny, Kramer has actually adopted a good defensive stance.  His hands are up, palms out.  He look innocuous and non threatening.  Look at the position of his hands, though; he’s actually in a position to intercept or block incoming strikes and counter strike if necessary.  This kind of stance is pretty prevalent in the martial arts.  The Krav Maga guys call it the interview stance, other systems have different names for it.  We don’t really have a name for it in Kenpo, we just call it being prepared and non-threatening, but ready if necessary.

Defensive can become offensive in the blink of an eye.  Or a finger in the eye.

Defensive can become offensive in the blink of an eye. Or a finger in the eye.

So, the lesson for Wednesday was basically this: if someone shoves you it’s best to let it go, but get into a position where you can defend yourself if absolutely necessary.  Hopefully the lesson stuck.  I’d hate to see some of the kids getting in trouble at school for fighting.  Although, my son has been hit before at school and hasn’t pummelled anyone into pulp (even though he loves sparring), so maybe the lessons are sinking in.

Next time you get shoved, rather than shoving back or putting on your Ninja face and going to town, you might want to consider just apologizing and walking away.

Ninja Mask!

Ninja Mask!

Fear does not exist in this dojo

Anyone who’s seen The Karate Kid, the one from 1984 not the new one with Will Smith’s kid, will recognize the title.  It’s a repeated line from the bad sensei in the movie.  We know he’s the bad guy because he’s tough and mean and regularly teaches his students to crush their opponents.  Also, he’s cut the sleeves off his gi, a sure sign of being a bad guy.

When I first saw The Karate Kid it made me want to study Karate.  It would actually be many years (well, five) before I actively started studying, in this case an old Okinawan form called Shodin Ji Do, taught by a guy at my college who had studied the art in Okinawa.  It was a real eye-opener.  It was the first time I had been exposed to the endless repetition that goes into teaching some of these older arts.  I think the guys that run the school in the link above may have learned from Dr. Robert Taylor as well, but I’m not positive.

Over time, I drifted from Shodin Ji Do and wound in Kenpo and have stayed there pretty much ever since, with a minor sojourn into Kenjutsu and Aikido.

When I started Kenpo in 1999, I still had some of the ideas about Karate I’d picked up from The Karate Kid all those years earlier; be merciful, karate is for defense only, blah, blah, blah.  Some of those ideals I still hold true to.  For instance, I’m not going to go out and start a fight just because I can.  On the other hand, you regularly hear about people getting beaten to a pulp over trivial arguments.  You still hear about women getting gunned down because they wouldn’t have sex with a total loser.  I also know there are a great many people out there who are carrying knives and guns because they think the world is out to get them and are just itching for an excuse to knife someone or shoot someone.

Personally, I don’t carry weapons and I try to go out of my way to avoid any potentially dangerous situations.  I’m more likely to try to talk my way out a situation than engage in a fight.  Fighting is risky and even though I know how to deal with a gun or a knife, I don’t really relish the idea of testing my skills in a live fight.

Still, just reading the news every now and then makes me wonder if the bad sensei from The Karate Kid wasn’t preparing his students for a violent situation better than Miyagi was preparing his student.  The Cobra Kai were dicks, to be sure, but they were probably better trained at handling violence.  And that, right there, is an extremely important part of fighting.  Most people are not mentally prepared to deal with a dangerous, violent situation.

There’s a biological reaction that happens when we’re put in dangerous situations, the brain dumps adrenaline, your breathing changes and your mind turns to mush.  When that happens, the only thing you’ve got left is gross motor movement and that’s significantly less effective.  The only way to around this problem is to get used to it, to be put in those uncomfortable situations and learn to overcome the biological response.

That and practice, practice, practice.

Today when I was at the gym I started, as I always do, by finding the heavy bag the JCC keeps hidden in the stairwell and was surprised to see someone else in there.  That doesn’t happen too often.  In the years I’ve been doing it, I’ve only ever seen a couple of people hit that bag.  One was a kid with a huge roundhouse punch that’s going to get him clobbered in a real fight, another was a regular guy who petered out after 30 seconds or so.  Today there was a young woman in there actively trying to take what she’d been taught and put it to use.

The more I see people doing that, taking what they’ve learned in a class somewhere and trying to implement it, the better I feel about the state of the martial arts in the world.  Too many people people practice their arts by punching air.  That’s good for form, but it doesn’t teach you positioning, distancing, how to develop power, how to relax, and, most importantly, what it feels like to actually hit something.  Punching and kicking a heavy bag will teach you all that.

After studying martial arts for a while, I have to wonder if maybe the Cobra Kai Sensei wasn’t onto something.  All the various forms of martial arts out there exist for a couple of reasons: learn to avoid getting hit and learn to hurt someone.  Mostly, it’s the latter.  I would argue that all martial arts exist for the sole purpose of making it easier and more efficient to clobber to someone.  To survive the fight, you need to know the mechanics of fighting, but your mind has to be ready to do some violent things to another person.  If you can’t get to that point, you’re just spinning your wheels.

It’s from that mindset that things like Reality Based Self-Defense have risen.  People like Kelly McCann and systems like Krav Maga have taken some of the traditional martial arts and tried to integrate the natural fear response into their curricula.  I’m slowly trying to integrate the idea that you don’t always have a nice, clean dojo to fight in when I teach the kids classes in Kenpo by putting punching shields in and around the kids and telling them they have to work around those things or by getting the kids to do their katas outside or on parking blocks, anything to simulate the rubble-strewn surfaces real fights take place on.  We also did a fun exercise where one student would close his or her eyes and three other students would position themselves around that person randomly.  When I call go, the student would open his or her eyes, locate the student with the red shield and hit the shield as quickly as possible.

Fighting, real fighting, takes place in uncontrolled areas.  While I don’t know McCann’s Kembatives or Krav Maga, I can take some of the the theories they have and incorporate them into my own training and what I teach.  It doesn’t really matter what style you’re doing, as long as you understand that it does, in fact, have real-world implications and it doesn’t always take place when and where you want it to.

I’m always happy to see people learning to defend themselves.  The young woman I saw at the gym yesterday is starting a long path, but when she gets there she’ll be safer.  There’s an old saying, “When seconds count, the police are minutes away.”  Not to diss the cops, they can’t be everywhere at once (unless you’re late for work and speeding, then they’re everywhere).  Ultimately, it’s up to you to learn how to take care of yourself.

So, while fear probably will always exist, it’s possible to get used to it, as long as what you’re learning helps you to understand that fear and tries to get you out of your comfort zone.

If you don’t know how to fight, go learn.  There are a ton of good schools out there (there are a ton of bad ones, too, so go watch a class and see what you think).