Why This Buzzfeed Self-Defense Video Doesn’t Suck

There’s an old joke in the martial arts world: How many martial artists does it take to change a light bulb? 100. One to change it and 99 to tell you how your way of changing bulbs won’t work.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time around martial artists, you’ll know we’re fantastically egotistical, very dogmatic, and prone to pointing out all the flaws in every system but our own. Frankly, this is antithetical to the idea of martial arts. We’re supposed to be able to look past all the nonsense and collect anything that we can use, put a little thought into it, and say “Okay, this has some promise.” And then use it.

There was a video from Buzzfeed floating around Facebook last week that I stumbled across in one of the many martial arts groups. Predictably, the comments were full of “there’s no way this would work” and “you’ll get yourself killed if you try this” with a handful of positive comments. In my opinion, there were some decent tips in it, with a few caveats.

The video, in case you’re interested is here:

It’s only a couple of minutes long and worth a watch. Just as a side note, this is Buzzfeed’s property and if they ask, I’ll happily take it down.

Now, granted, there are some shady videos out there. Marie Claire had a pretty bad one that focused on fancy techniques to escape things like wrist grabs and chokes and relied a lot on fancy movements and specious theories with a few bits of good advice at the end. A pair of MMA fighters took that one apart and showed why it wouldn’t work. Here’s a hint: it wouldn’t work because it relied too much on being fancy and having a cooperative opponent. In a stress situation, fancy is the last thing you want and you can safely assume someone trying to rough you up isn’t going to cooperate. Rather than try an obscure Chin Na technique against someone grabbing your wrist, how about just kicking him hard in the balls and boogying the heck out of there?

As a martial artist myself (nearly 20 years of Kenpo), that’s what I found interesting about Buzzfeed’s video: There was nothing fancy about it. It’s just simple, relatively easy to pull off things. Someone grabs your wrists from behind? Look at who’s grabbing you, kick backwards as hard as you can then turn around (something you’d want to do anyway) and hit them. Easy peasy. Someone’s too close, maybe a bear hug or just getting a little too aggressive? Thumbs in the eyes work wonders for getting people to back off.

The only thing I didn’t think was a good idea was punching someone straight in the jaw. Someone else might be able to shed more light on this, but it seems like a hook to the side of the jaw or a straight shot to the nose would work better. Jaws can be pretty pointy and tough and the last thing you want to do in a fight is hurt your hand trying to hurt someone else.

Sure, the video might not be the way your system teaches Purple Dragon Spreads Its Wings or Monkey Steals the Peach, but that doesn’t mean it’s not functional. And functional is all we need to care about in a simple self-defense video. The question shouldn’t be “Why didn’t they go for a wrist grab to ground and pound?”, but rather “Will a rear kick to the midsection followed by forearm to the side of the neck be enough to create enough space to get the fuck out of the situation?”

That’s it. This is about survival and creating the means to escape, not auditioning for the next Kung Fu biopic. Truthfully, all self defense situations should be seen through the lens of keep it simple and keep yourself safe.

Again, there’s a lot more that could be covered. For instance, once you’ve got your thumbs in someone’s eyes and their head is tilted back at a huge angle, keep pushing. At the very least, they’re gonna stumble if not flat-out fall, but that’s something that’s beyond the scope of a video designed to give you a few pointers to keep your ass out of too much trouble.

Toward the beginning of this point, I noted one thing that I’d like to reiterate. Even though all this stuff is pretty straight forward, watching a video and doing stuff in the air is one thing. Doing it against a person is something else entirely. The air, and even a heavy bag, will just hang out and let you pummel it. People have arms and legs and they go in all kinds of weird directions and we even have pointy parts (like chins) that hurt to hit. Even some heavy bags hurt to hit – my instructor has a bag that feels like punching rocks – and a broken hand is not a surprise you want in a fight. Find a friend and very carefully work through things. Do that a lot. Do it until it you’re sick of it and then do it some more. That tactile awareness is very important. Then find a heavy bag and pound the snot out of it. Don’t just rely on two minutes of video-based self-defense techniques to make you feel safe.

Besides, fighting is great exercise and beating holy hell out of a heavy bag feels pretty damned good.

As always, I’m interested in your comments. Tell me what you think, share an anecdote, or tell a quick joke.

Advertisements

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.

Kung Fu Theater

When I was a kid, I used to live for Kung Fu Theater. It was a show that popped up from time to time on one of Farmington’s minimal stations, usually at odd hours and oftentimes without warning. Kung Fu Theater wasn’t a show so much as a clearing house of old Kung Fu movies. This was where I first met Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sonny Chiba and experienced the horror of The Master of Flying Guillotine.

They were all old school Kung Fu movies, written, produced, and filmed in China. They were all also overdubbed, usually poorly.by voice actors who were phoning it in to get a quick paycheck. To be fair, though, most of those movies were big on talking. The golden rule of classical Kung Fu theater meant fists flew and kicks smashed things. It was world of animal styles where Tiger Style and Crane Style clashed with monkeys and dragons in a cataclysmic orgy of fighting prowess.

I’ll confess, I still have a deep and abiding love for watching a good fight scene and there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there right now. The Raid, the current crop of amazingly artistic kung fu cinema, Tony Jaa’s elbows and knees putting Thai boxing firmly on the cinematic map, and Donnie Yen’s ability to calmly destroy his opponents (even if they’re stormtroopers) are all good stuff.

The only thing that’s lacking now is my ten-year-old imagination and blind faith that with enough training I, too, could jump thirty feet in the air or master the Buddha’s Palm technique.

Unfortunately, the more I’ve trained in martial arts, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing magical about them. The martial arts, as a collective, tend to be about practicality more than flash. That doesn’t mean modern martial arts aren’t worth studying, they very much are and I heartily recommend that everyone try out one of the many arts lurking around out there.

Martial artistry is a fascinating study – and damned good exercise – but it bears so little in common with the Kung Fu Theater I grew up with it can be hard to reconcile what I’m learning with what I thought I’d learn.

Oh, ah. What are you gonna do?

The answer, it turns out, was to write my own martial arts book: Greetings From Sunny Aluna and write in plenty of fight scenes and general badassery. It’s my love letter to the old-school Kung Fu movies I grew up with.

And the cool thing is it’s on sale right now and for the next couple days.

Go get a copy!

Little Things

My old Kenpo instructor (now retired) used to say, “Kata is how the system expresses itself.” It was one of those little things he’d say that made perfect sense at the time as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. Later, I’d wake up at 3am or 4am or whenever the dog decided to go out, and I’d think, “Wait. What?”

Of course, after pondering for a bit, I’d come to almost the exact same conclusion that I had when I first heard it. Full circle.

Now, for those of you scratching your heads wonder what the heck a kata is, it’s a pre-programmed set of movements that’s common in the martial arts. Some systems live and die by them, others use them sparingly, still others eschew them entirely. Think of kata as a way of chaining strikes and blocks together and you’ll get the general gist.

tumblr_onfbalft8m1udlkano2_540

One of these people understands movement, the other does not

His intention was to point out that kata is a way to display the ebb and flow of the system. It’s not carved in stone, it’s not the end all be all of movement, but it allows us to take the bits and pieces of Kenpo and see how they can fit together. Each kata has a kind of theme with it, be it retreat, dealing with grabs, dealing with pushes, dealing with punches, or kicking people when they’re on the ground. And each of those kata are built up using techniques and transitions. In a way, kata is how the system expresses itself, by pulling the basics into techniques and then finally putting the techniques together into a coherent piece of expression. Ideally, in the final analysis of kata, they become moving meditation.

Since kata are built on techniques which, in turn, are built on basics, one could say a kata is a large system comprised of little things. They may look fancy, but at their heart kata are nothing more than a lot of things like steps, blocks, kicks, and punches all performed in a particular sequence. Which would imply each of those little things has to be done correctly to get the whole sequence to come out right.

gunkata

Otherwise someone gets shot.

This may seem like an esoteric thing, limited only to arcane aspects of the martial arts, but it’s really not. Every large system is built on little things, be it a book or a program or even just painting your bathroom.

Little things matter. In the writing world, it’s the small details that make the story come to life. Maybe a character’s penchant for peanut butter shakes or cheap beer doesn’t drive the plot, but it can say a lot about the character. That character, in turn, helps move the plot forward.

I’m not saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is wrong, I’m saying pay attention to those little details and treat those details with as much care you can. The end result, be it a kata, a program, or a book will be all that much richer for the attention.

chainsawkata

Even your chainsaw kata will look better.

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.

monkey_steals_the_peach

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.

517vgD+2OlL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

img_20161229_174756

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.

img_20161229_174738

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.

img_20161229_174707

Dragon introduces twisted stances and more movement. This falls at the Green belt level, the last belt before someone hit expert level at Brown.

img_20161229_174730

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.

img_20161229_174714

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.