Friday, November 13, 2020

Martial Misgivings: The Problem with Systems & Styles

Years ago I came across a quote I really like. It was something along the lines of,  “There are no martial arts styles, only human movement.” Either Bruce Lee or Dan Inosanto said it; I can’t find the original source anywhere online. Maybe I just made it up.

No matter where the quote came from, it reflects my own point of view. I have long been somewhat disenchanted with the idea of martial styles and nomenclature, something I’ve written about previously.

Specific styles of martial arts styles are, by their very nature, limiting. The idea of a “complete” style is fallacious; all of them have their strengths and weaknesses, no matter how seemingly well-rounded they are. A problem arises when those teaching an art refuse to acknowledge the gaps and holes in the curriculum and instead teach questionable techniques that reflect the style more than real fighting.

While this is especially an issue with traditional, closed systems, more modern, open systems are not immune. A perfect example is knife disarms. Both Aikido and Brazilian Jiujitsu have knife disarms. In my experience, none of them work very well against an aggressive, resisting opponent. They sure look nice though, and the Aikido knife disarms look like Aikido and the Brazilian Jiujitsu knife disarms look like Brazilian Jiujitsu. The style — not efficacy —  is dictating the technique. The basic knife disarm I practice and teach doesn’t really look like anything. Actually, it’s rather ugly. But it has been repeatedly pressure-tested and it works.

Another problem with systems is the fact that any martial art is effective against someone practicing the same martial art. This can lead to a false sense of security. If you are totally wedded to a specific style, you decrease the chances of training with someone with a different way of fighting. If you’re strictly a striker but have never gone to the ground, that’s a problem. The same goes for a grappler who’s never had to deal with punches. And note: Having one guy at your Karate dojo pretend to be a boxer so you can learn how to defeat a boxer is not the same as training with someone who actually knows how to box. Incidentally, I consider it imperative for anyone practicing unarmed self-defense to get some direct exposure to both boxing and Brazilian Jiujitsu. Many bad guys are would-be boxers and/or would-be UFC fighters.

Earlier I used the terms “closed” versus “open” styles. What did I mean by that? Closed styles are more or less done changing. They already have set curriculums, and while there may be some variations from school to school, in general there will be more similarities than differences. A Shotokan dojo is a Shotokan dojo no matter where you go. If you take a 5 year break from Aikido and then go back to it, the art probably hasn’t changed at all.

Enson Inoue
Open styles, on the other hand, have curriculums that are always changing. Sure, the basics remain the same, but techniques are regularly being added or dropped based on trial and error. A good example of this is reflected in Enson Inoue choosing to demote himself from Brazilian Jiujitsu black belt to purple belt. (He later reversed his decision.)  Inoue explained that he hadn’t trained exclusively in BJJ for a few years, and “didn’t want to go roll somewhere and be so out of the loop that it would put shame on the people who gave me my black belt.” He was legitimately concerned that the art had moved on without him, which it undoubtedly had. Essentially, if you take a 5 year break from training in an open style, expect that things will have changed when you go back, even if you go to the exact same school.

Closed systems are nice for historic preservation, but not for self-preservation. When it comes to real-world self-defense, techniques must change and adapt based on experience. I’ve come across instructors who teach techniques they acknowledge are, at best, questionable, and at worst don’t work, but they teach them because it’s part of the curriculum. I don’t subscribe to that approach. Anything I teach has been pressure-tested against aggressive, non-compliant training partners. If I don’t know first-hand that something works, I don’t teach it. If I learn a way to refine or improve a technique, I’ll change the way I teach it. To paraphrase retired United States Marine Corps general and former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, you can’t expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s thinking.

It should be obvious that I have a strong preference for open, evolving systems of martial arts. What arts fall into this category? In general, combat sports such as Brazilian Jiujitsu, Muay Thai, Sambo, Krav Maga, and of course Mixed Martial Arts tend to be open systems. Filipino arts such as Kali usually are, but not always. Jeet Kune Do should be the most open system in the world, but alas, that often isn’t the case. Too many JKD schools insist on simply copying what Bruce Lee did, which totally goes against his philosophy. Lee wrote, “I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see ‘ourselves.’”

Speaking of Bruce Lee, I find it interesting that there are still some Wing Chun practitioners who resent the fact that Lee moved on from the art before he finished learning the complete system. That sort of sentiment is echoed in a rather arrogant, reactionary book by Forrest E. Morgan called Living the Martial Way: A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think. Morgan, who for some reason believes he can tell his readers how they should think, argues that a student shouldn’t leave their current martial art to pursue a new one until they’ve obtained black belt level.

Walk on....
All of this is nonsense. If Lee felt he had gotten all he needed out of Wing Chun, why shouldn’t he move on? Similarly, why should anyone waste time with any art that they feel isn’t worthwhile? In Brazilian Jiujitsu, you will generally learn the bulk of techniques relevant to real-world self-defense by the time you reach the blue belt level. After that, you’ll mostly be refining your skills and focussing more on advanced techniques for competition. In fact, and I could be wrong, but I think the Gracie Combatives BJJ curriculum only goes up to blue belt. I’m not saying people should stop training in Brazilian Jiujitsu after achieving blue belt status, and I’m not saying they should keep training either. I’m simply observing that someone could get quite a bit of practical knowledge from Brazilian Jiujitsu without earning a high rank.

Black belt?
(Let me note in passing that I’m ambivalent about ranks and belts. Sure, it can sometimes be a useful way to track progress, but people put way too much emphasis on this sort of thing, such as the aforementioned Forrest E. Morgan and his “you can’t quit until you’re a black belt” dogma. Earning a black belt sometimes means a lot, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like you’re a magic-user in Dungeons & Dragons and go up a level and can now cast new spells.)

Reading this, one may construe that I am essentially in favor of training in mostly open systems, changing arts when appropriate, not being a slave to tradition, and altering techniques based on information gained from pressure testing. That’s exactly it. I am totally in favor of Bruce Lee’s mantra  “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” 

It’s important to note that I am not uniformly opposed to the idea of martial arts systems. Having a system with a name and general curriculum is a quick, convenient way to convey some basic information to prospective students. If it were up to me, I’d describe my own style as bladed and impact hand-held weapons techniques from the Philippines; striking techniques based on boxing, Savate, and Muay Thai; stand-up grappling using Silat, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Greco-Roman wrestling; and ground fighting based on Brazilian Jiujitsu. Alas, all of that won’t fit on a business card, so I just say Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian Jiujitsu.

Friedrich Nietzsche
I think a good example of the right approach to martial arts styles can be to look at genres in films, fiction, and music. Both Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory came out in 1990. Both are examples of East Coast hip-hop. Yet while the two albums do share some characteristics, both is very much its own thing with its own sound.

I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers, whose writing has had a profound influence on me and helped me to overcome my nihilistic tendencies, Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Twilight of the Idols he wrote, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” 

Nietzsche wasn’t writing about martial arts, but he sure could have been.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Martial Misgivings: Faith-based Martial Arts

With this post I kick off a new series, Martial Misgivings, in which I'll look at aspects of the martial arts world that I have issues with. 

For this inaugural post, I want to take a look at what I call faith-based martial arts. By faith-based, I don't mean styles or schools tied to a specific religion, such as the "Christian Cajun Karate" dojo that used to operate out of my home town. Not that I don't have problems with that; I do. That just isn't what I'm referring to when I say faith-based martial arts.

What I am referring to are individuals whose belief in the validity of the techniques they are taught stems solely from faith as opposed to actual knowledge. 

An example: At the school I often train at, we once had a visiting student who had been practicing some form of Kung Fu for more than 10 years. Let's call him Grasshopper. He readily admitted that he had never sparred or tested any of the techniques he'd practiced against a noncompliant, resisting opponent. Before class started, I asked, in a polite way, if he ever questioned the efficacy of his art. Grasshopper admitted to having occasional flashes of doubt, but said in the end he had faith in his techniques because "Sifu says it works." He was sure he would do well in our class.

Sifu says....

Well, once class stared, I was paired with Grasshopper. He couldn't even deal with a very slow, telegraphed left jab that he knew was coming, much less a combination, and was totally lost in the clinch and on the ground. His sense of distancing was totally off when hitting focus mitts.

After class was over, we talked a bit more. Grasshopper said he felt a bit humbled, and thought he would have done better. His plan was to go back to his sifu and work even harder at getting better at the same techniques that hadn't worked in live training. This strikes me as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy. Grasshopper had already invested a decade of his life and who knows how much money learning ineffective techniques and no doubt uses that history to justify further investment of his time and money, despite new evidence — such as repeatedly getting hit in the head — suggesting that the future cost of continuing training outweighs the expected benefit.

(By the way, if you've trained for 10 years and are incapable of defending against even basic attacks, you aren't practicing a fighting art. You're practicing a dance.)

A few thoughts.... For one, having faith in a technique because "Sifu says it works" is, in my opinion, a straight-up cult-like way of thinking that has nothing to do with reason or logic. I'll post more on the cultish nature of some martial arts schools in the future, but suffice to say it's something I have no patience or tolerance for. I don't care how many "Supreme Mega Grandmaster Pompatus of Kung-Fu" made-up titles your instructor has in front of their name, that isn't an excuse to turn off your brain. Think for yourself. As Mikhail Bakunin wrote in his classic essay What is Authority?

"When it is a question of boots, I refer the matter to the authority of the cobbler; when it is a question of houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For each special area of knowledge I speak to the appropriate expert. But I allow neither the cobbler nor the architect nor the scientist to impose upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and verification. I do not content myself with consulting a single specific authority, but consult several. I compare their opinions and choose that which seems to me most accurate."

This way of thinking should absolutely apply to martial arts, especially if your principal goal is to learn practical techniques to defend yourself and others.

Real punches, real training.
So, how do you know if a technique works? You think like a scientist and you test it under pressure against a resisting opponent. Trav at Fight Smart puts it this way: Try your techniques on someone who wants to prove you wrong. I like that, and fully agree.

How do you pressure test a technique? The most obvious answer is sparring. Real sparring. Not Aikido randori or Tai Chi sticky hands. 

Some instructors I admire have issues with sparring. While I don't totally agree with their arguments (I'm definitely in the pro-sparring camp), I try to remain openminded and do not totally dismiss their points of view. However, sparring isn't the only way to pressure test techniques, nor should it be the only method used if you are serious about training. Another, possibly equally important tactic is to test techniques against a partner offering ever-escalating levels of resistance. 

Why even block that?
For example, if you're learning to parry a jab, I'll start off throwing fairly easy, somewhat slow open-hand jabs to your forehead. Note that I'll actually try to make contact with your head, and I won't leave my arm dangling out there either. That kind of training accomplishes nothing except to screw up a student's sense of distancing, yet you see it all the time. As you get better, I'll throw faster and harder. Then we'll put on helmets and gloves and I'll try to punch you in the face. Eventually I'll be throwing punches at about 70-80 percent power and speed.

Novelist and martial artist Barry Eisler did an excellent job summing up the need for this sort of live training:

"If you’re trying to learn how to weave off the line of an incoming punch, it helps if the punch is thrown by someone who’s really trying to knock your head off. If you’re trying to learn how to hit someone with a hip throw, it helps to learn how to do it against an opponent who’s trying his hardest to stop you. Yes, I know neither of these examples is the same as the 'real thing.' Training is an approximation. The closer the approximation, though, the better the training."

Some people will read all this and say, "But won't I get hurt?" Well, yes, sometimes. One of my martial arts mottoes is "If you always get hurt, you're training too hard. If you never get hurt, you're not training hard enough." Note by "hurt" I don't mean "injured." You shouldn't be breaking your bones (or your partner's!) or anything like that. On the other hand, expect  a few bruises, cuts, the occasional hyperextended joint, and other dings to your chassis. Yes, it will be tough, and you'll have to get used to a bit of pain, but as Alexander Suvorov, the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire, famously said, "Train hard, fight easy."

One of the most common arguments I hear against pressure testing is the "our techniques are too deadly" canard. Sure they are. Where is the evidence? Where are the reputable reports of someone being killed by by your sifu's patented Five Fingers of Death blow? Do you have a study from a reputable, peer-reviewed medical journal explaining how the Five Fingers of Death blow works? And are your saying you are incapable of defending yourself without killing someone? That strikes me as a pretty limited martial art. 

I've also seen some rather stupid arguments against pressure testing. A few years ago, I came across a YouTube video making similar arguments to the ones I'm making here. One snarky commenter thought he was being clever in arguing that not all self-defense techniques need to be pressure tested. He wrote something along the lines of, "I know pushing someone off a tall building will kill them without pressure testing it." For one, pushing a non-resisting, non-threatening person off a building isn't self-defense or martial arts. It's murder. As for pushing a resisting, threatening person off a building, you actually can pressure test that if for some reason you thought you should. Put a couple of judo mats on the ground, imagine the mats are a rooftop, and try to push or throw your partner off. It might not prove as easy as the commenter thought. 

If you pressure test all your techniques against a resisting opponent, you won't have to rely on faith. You can rely on knowledge. Boxers know jab-cross-hook combo works because they've done it countless times and had it done to them countless times. BJJ practitioners know how to apply a rear-naked choke and they know how to escape a rear-naked choke. It isn't a matter of faith or belief. It's a matter of knowing based on evidence derived from constant testing. 

Pressure testing a choke.

Martial arts schools aren't churches, and self-defense isn't a religion. Insist on facts, not faith.

(Standard Martial Misgivings disclaimer: I practice martial arts first and foremost to learn and hone skills I can use to protect myself and others. It is from this perspective that I'm writing. Other people practice martial arts for different reasons, such as sport, self-improvement, or mastering an esoteric tradition. There's nothing wrong with that, and I do not criticize those motivations. They just aren't mine. Please keep that in mind when reading my posts.)

Friday, August 14, 2020

Remembering Martial Artist Manny J. Valladares

My friend, fellow martial artist, and longtime training partner Manny J. Valladares died recently. He had been fighting a long, tough battle with cancer, but eventually succumbed to COVID-19.

Manny, Karate Kid.
Manny had been practicing martial arts for about as long as I've been alive. He started practicing Goju-Ryu Karate in Spanish Harlem in the early '70s, eventually earning a 5th degree black belt. From there Manny moved on to Judo, earning a 3rd degree black belt. Manny's stories of training in those rough-and-tumble early days always fascinated me, and clearly influenced his development as a martial artist. He talked about how his Karate dojo would practice all the standard kata and drills, but at the end of the class would put on gloves and start sparring. If it was too hot, they would train on the rooftop. Manny said he quickly learned what parts of Goju-Ryu were effective and which parts were not, and how to differentiate between martial arts practice and actual streetfigthing. This, to me, this is exactly the right mindset for anyone  serious about the self-defense aspect of martial arts, and Manny kept this attitude  throughout his lifelong training.

In fact, it was probably this mindset that led me to meet Manny. I met him when he started training in Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Burton Richardson in Honolulu. Remember that Manny was already a more than accomplished martial artist, and was no longer a young man. Yet he dove right in, eager to learn new things and hone his formidable skills. And Manny trained hard, often harder than those decades younger than him. More than one eager young buck under-estimated the middle-aged Puerto Rican guy with a bit of a belly and quickly found themselves outclassed.
Manny scores a hit with a rattan stick.

I loved training with Manny. It wasn't just because he was a cool guy with an infectious laugh, which he was. It was also because he was skilled enough and mature enough that we could train and spar really hard without either of us worrying about injuring the other. For example, Manny was one of the very few people I felt comfortable stick sparring with real rattan sticks with. Yeah, we would get a bit bruised and beat up (well, mostly I got bruised and beat up), but we both accepted that as part of pushing yourself, facing your fears, and getting better. 

Sometimes when doing drills in which one person attacks and the other defends, Manny and I would get into trouble because we each kept attacking. We both definitely had an aggressive, not passive fighting style. Yet Manny also excelled at some of the more artistic, intricate aspects of martial arts, such as the dancelike, Kali drills known as Sinawali. We could get pretty fancy going through the partner Sinawali patterns, banging our sticks together and flowing with fluidity. 

When it came to Manny's fighting style, aspects of his Karate training definitely came through. If we were kickboxing, he would stay fairly stationary, not moving his feet very much. You would think you could step in, throw a punch to his face, and step out again. That was often not the case. Manny was incredibly skilled at distancing and moving his head just enough to avoid your punch, and fast enough with his hands to follow up with vicious punches of his own before you've had a chance to retreat. Manny had some of the fastest hands I've ever encountered. I can't help but think of the Wu-Tang Clan lyric, "And I'll be damned if I let any man come to my center, you enter the winter," because Manny kept his centerline so well-protected and those who tried to find a way in suffered the consequences. For a good example of his hand speed and coordination, check out this video of Manny and I practicing the Kali knife drill known as sumbrada:

This didn't just apply to kickboxing. Our main targets in knife and stick sparring are the hands, legs, and head. I hardly ever was able to hit Manny's head. In fact, one day after Manny and I had gone a few rounds with the sticks, a classmate asked me, "Why don't you ever go for Manny's head?" I replied, "You'll see after you two do a round." Sure enough, our fellow classmate did a couple of stick rounds with Manny and every attempt to hit Manny's head went badly.

Ow, my arm!
With his Judo background, it probably goes without saying that Manny easily took to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I had the honor of being his sparring partner when he took his blue belt test, and Manny definitely tossed me around a bit. On his own he worked on blending BJJ with Judo, creating a very potent personal fighting style. You can watch highlights of Manny's blue belt test here.

Despite the fact that Manny was big and strong and capable of being a very aggressive (in a good way!) sparring partner, he could still train and spar with those who were far smaller, weaker, and inexperienced without letting ego get in the way. Manny wanted to learn, and he wanted his partners to learn, too. If you trained with Manny, you were sure to come out of the experience with more skill and knowledge. Manny eventually earned his instructor certifications in Kali and Jeet Kune Do, adding to his already impressive martial arts resume.
Manny at his home gym.

A few years ago, Manny and his family left Hawaii and moved to Las Vegas, where he started his own JKD Unlimited school and began sharing his expertise with a new batch of students. He never stopped training, never stopped learning, and never stopped teaching. We kept in touch via social media, and I was always happy to see the photos he shared of himself and his students hard at work perfecting their skills.

In this post, I've mostly talked about Manny J. Valladares as a martial artist, because that's how I primarily knew him. He was also a husband, father, grandfather, and entrepreneur, as well as a former Marine and sheriff's deputy. I'll always remember him as one of the best training partners I've ever had and as a man I'm honored to have been able to call "friend."

Rest in peace, Manny....

Friday, January 31, 2020

Books Read, 2019

A couple of years ago I decided to log every book I read and then compile a master list at the end of the year. Below is my Master Reading List for 2019, in alphabetical order by title. As you can see, it was quite heavy on fantasy, with my initial forays into Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series taking up a fair amount of my time. I'll post a list of my favorite books read last year soon.

  • Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings
  • The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
  • Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce
  • Enchanter’s End Game by David Eddings
  • Eye of the Hunter by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
  • Fool Me Twice by Matthew Hughes
  • Fools Errant by Matthew Hughes
  • The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
  • Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Into the Fire by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Into the Forge by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Magician’s Gambit by David Eddings
  • Night of Madness by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
  • Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings
  • The Realms of the Gods by Tamora Pierce
  • The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan
  • Voyage of the Fox Rider by Dennis L. McKiernan
  • Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
  • Wolf-Speaker by Tamora Pierce
  • Ancient Magic: A Practitioner's Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome by Philip Matyszak
  • Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life by Edith Hall
  • Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts by Jason Thalken
  • The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classic Stories by Philip Matyszak
  • How Music Can Make You Better by Indre Viskontas, PhD.
  • A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May
  • Staying Alive: How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters by Safe Havens International Inc
  • The Tao of WU by RZA*
  • Tao Te Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Book of the Tao by Lao Tzu, translated by John Minford

(* reread)