Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rules of engagement

This my last blog for this year, and I have decided to tackle the topic that has too often been disregarded and ignored, although more important than any gear review or technical piece of advice anybody could ever give you.

We have all heard, numerous times probably, that in a street fight there are no rules, referees, time limits etc. While that sounds very true and common sense at the first glance, things are actually bit different if are able to see beyond the most obvious, seemingly random and chaotic appearance of such altercations. If we analyze them critically, most so-called real fights seem to share many things in common, which means that in effect they can be taken as rules. Then, the real question is whether one knows the rule at play, although many people will adhere to some rules even on a subconscious level.

Fist of all, what is commonly termed a street fight can belong to one of two main categories – social and asocial. Some matter experts and authors will have different terminology (fight/combat, altercation/assault etc.), but it boils down to either being involved in a fight over an insult, petty differences, some sort of grudge etc. (shortly, bruised ego); or being subjected to a criminal assault (mugging, robbery etc). For those interested in a more detailed analysis of each there are many fine books out there, but I particularly like and recommend Rory Miller’s “Meditations on Violence” (you gotta like his term Monkey Dance for the social category of street fights), although you would also do well with some works of Marc “Animal” MacYoung, Peyton Quinn, Bill Kipp and Rich Dimitri and others…just do your homework.

So, what are those rules we have in play here? Essentially, I could divide those in two broad categories – social and personal. Now, the social rules of engagement, in this case, could be institutionally imposed (i.e. local or state laws), or maybe take the shape of certain actions being frowned upon in various degrees, even if not legally discriminated (eg. hitting another man or another woman, a young buck or an elderly man; fighting over a parking place or over a woman). The interesting thing here is that various people will reason differently over various criteria in this regard, so as a consequence what seems like a mindless and stupid fight to one man will make perfect sense to another. This in itself was/is and will be the cause of many a brawl among the members of different strata of the society, so it deserves some consideration.
Ready to be frowned upon?

The legal rules apply just as much to the asocial type of fight, i.e. even if you do emerge “victorious” from an assault, but after the use of physical means on your part to make it happen, you better be sure to deal as affectively with the possible judiciary aftermath. Invest some effort into learning about the local criminal laws and penal codes of your place of residence, as your ability to understand them might have some ramifications later. Namely, there have been more then a few occurrences of a thug pressing civil charges against a person who had defended from the attempted mugging or robbery, but failed to justify their acts. Do not let yourself be a victim of that. Again, do your homework and have some backup – as much as I detest the profession, it is better to have a good lawyer on your side.

Training-forged, street-lethal...court-proof?

Self-imposed rules (sometimes more appropriately called personal issues) often stem from the social ones, from the way you were raised by your family and how you were treated in life, but sometimes it is a matter of deep personal stands (religious beliefs, ethical stance) and/or trauma. For example, you will sometimes see people taking classes in weapon based martial arts, or being computer “tactical” game aces, while getting sick from seeing a chicken or a pig slain. Well, do you think that a human being, even if a lowlife thug, will not bleed and scream after being stabbed wit ha knife or wacked with an iron pipe? On the other hand, we have the opposite type – a hoplophobic person who would not touch a gun or reach for a knife even if their very lives were at stake. To me, neither makes sense, but it’s just me… Everybody has got to take a good, honest look inside themselves and ask some serious questions.

In this regard, it is much better to be clear about things up front, because those answers will certainly not be easier to find when facing a bully in a bar, or even worse, an armed robber in your own house. What are you willing to do, and what price are you willing to pay for your choice of actions is very important, as it makes the foundation for the development of the proper mental state and attitude you will need to deal with these kinds of situations… One thing is for sure, complacency is neither an answer nor attitude. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Role of biomechanics exercises in Russian Martial Arts

During my years of practice in Russian Martial Arts, one of the areas of work that really has become vital for my approach to training and teaching it is the study of biomechanical body work on the ground. In certain Russian schools this type of work is referred to as “lower acrobatics”. Now, this kind of work, in general, is not unique to RMA, but the role it plays in the training methodology there differs to similar areas of curricula in BJJ or other, predominantly grappling, systems.

Namely, in those other styles and systems this field of practice is mainly treated as part of the overall conditioning and physical attributes development. In the Russian systems that do feature this kind of training, the function of the “solo groundwork” is somewhat different. Of course, the study of biomechanics is not limited to the ground work and techniques employed in that phase of combat; the scientific study of biomechanics can be (and is) applied to any human physical endeavor, for two primary reasons – technical efficiency and injury prevention. In that sense, it is also present in RMA, regardless of the “level” of work, i.e. standing (either striking of grappling) or on the ground, usually called “structure maintenance/breaking”, depending on whether you focus on yourself or the partner/opponent.

So, what are the specific features of the lower acrobatics in RMA? Well, for one thing, this is one of those rare instances where one can work on achieving what is commonly known as flow while working solo, i.e. without partner(s). In this case, the goal is fluid transition from one movement to another, with the overall appearance of softness in work. This emphasis also carries over to working from the grounded position against an opponent, i.e. when you are down and he is standing.

The most important aspect, nevertheless, as I see it, is the awakening of the body awareness in the lower section (below the waist), and the control of one’s own movement. Normally, in the daily life practices common for the cultures of the western world, the lower portion of our bodies is rarely moved in a deliberate way, which leads to frequent lack of awareness for this section of our bodies and resulting diminished ability and freedom of movement there. Once we get engaged in the movement on the floor, it requires the new perspective on this part, as well as the related training of the torso, which takes over the guiding role in many of the exercises. Pay close attention to the video below to see an illustration of what I mean.

Finally, the perspective of control. How many times have you heard teachers in all kinds of martial arts talking, or at least mentioning, the need to control your opponent? Do you see the difference between what they mean by that and what they mean by “controlling yourself”. For some reason, controlling the opponent is always physical, while the self-control tends to be in the mental or even “metaphysical” realm. Well, guess what – you need to be able of controlling your own physical expression just as well!

One of the first problems encountered by a practitioner when starting the ground work we are discussing here is the spatial orientation. Over time, you should be able to know and govern your movement in such a way to know which way you want to face upon completion of any individual movement, or the entire chain of those. We start with basic front, back and side rolls and their combinations, and later branch out into more advanced moves, but always with spatial awareness and corporal control. A simple way to test the degree of the control you have is trying to do the exercise as slow as possible and as fluidly as possible at the same time, with proper breathing and without unnecessary strain. A common symptom most beginners experience when doing this is the habit of holding their breath during the rolls (I call it the diving syndrome, as if doing the exercise under water), and consequently difficult breathing afterwards.

OK, let us conclude this introduction here, and maybe I’ll get to some more specific work in a future post.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DVD review - John Jacobo's "Keep it Combat" series

Admittedly, the videos reviewed in this post are not of the “freshest” production, but since many people may not be aware of them, I have chosen, nevertheless, to try and point to their worth. The author says that his own training and performance has changed since, under the influence of GM Topher Ricketts, but these products are of very good informational value, hence my decision to proceed with the review.

Those of you who are involved with the world of Filipino martial arts (FMA), widely known as eskrima, arnis or kali, probably are aware of the term Bakbakan, which was probably the most prestigious FMA organization in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century. Under the skillful guidance of grandmasters Rey Galang and the late Christopher Ricketts, both renowned as the students of the legendary Tatang Antonio Ilustrisimo, Bakbakan was widely renowned for its training methodologies and ability to produce skilled fighters consistently. 

Guro John and GM Galang

Possibly the peak of Bakbakan’s fame were the two seminal books on FMA, edited by Rey Galang – Warrior Arts of the Philippines and Masters of the Blade (if you do not own those, then get them!). While fair amount of space was dedicated to several members of then Bakbakan HQ in New Jersey, it was obvious that one name was in the forefront as the representative exponent of the new generation of masters – that of guro John Jacobo.

 Even back then, his focus on the combative features of martial arts lead guro John to seek instruction with other acknowledged authorities in this domain, but his home system was certainly that of Bakbakan Kali Ilustrisimo. However, all the other influences and training experiences had Mr. Jacobo establish his own school to teach his view/philosophy of the martial training, under the banner SWACOM (School for Warrior Arts and Combatives). It is under this banner that he has published the two DVDs presented here.

Volume 1 – The Combat Principles of De Cuerdas.

In my recent conversation with guro John, he mentioned that in teaching he prefers to present fewer techniques/concepts and then focus on demonstrating their versatility and adaptability, rather than going over countless individual moves or principles that are then left unexplored. This DVD certainly is a good example of this approach.

It opens with a couple of nice clips of the author’s fights in FMA competitive events, clearly indicating that the instruction to follow is not purely theoretical, but tested and proven instead. While it seems that guro Jacobo was not too comfortable in front of a camera at the very beginning, once the action gets going he moves in a confident and authoritative manner.

The first chapter is Escalera De Cuerdas, and provides the basic pattern of movement that should have the practitioner cover and easily retain all the basic targets and movements of the De Cuerdas technique. We are shown a symmetrical exercise, to ensure that both forehand and backhand variations are included in the practice. Interestingly enough, almost entire video is shot with the use of metal training blades, and not sticks as frequently seen on other FMA videos.

Next, the video moves to the Offensive Applications of the techniques learned. Here, guro John takes each of the individual particles of the escalera exercise and shows how it is used in offense, mostly in the form of feint/bait and the following attack to connect through the opening thus created in the opponent’s defense. Another important point covered here is the integration of proper footwork with the weapon techniques, which is especially important with the use of blades, in order to allow for the precision and angling required.

In line with the philosophy of versatility, guro Jacobo then advances to the Defensive Applications of the material. It is in this chapter that the foundation of Kali Ilustrisimo shines through most clearly, as all the techniques are direct and economical, again with precise footwork and positioning in relation to the opponent.

In the chapter on possible Counters and Re-counters the author touches upon some of the concerns a practitioner should have in mind when applying the De Cuerdas tactics. This section is brief, but points to the direction that one should then take in doing their own exploration of the material.

The last technical chapter features the exercises called Walo-Walo (translates from tagalong as “eight for eight”), which is essentially a cyclical flow drill that has both partners doing eight predefined techniques in sequence. The particular value of this drill is illustrating the contextual application of previously presented techniques with integrated footwork and other lines of attack and defense, this reminding us of having a bigger picture in mind, i.e. being aware that De Cuerdas is not a be all and all method on its own.

Guro John concludes the presentation with some closing remarks on the way to train, and although very short it is very important. Namely, he uses the example of footwork in pointing to the importance of training with a wider context in mind, i.e. with appropriate upper body mechanics and technical work in place. In this regard, his teaching reminds of the pedagogical approach of Luis Preto, which confirms that truth in combat knows no ethnic and/or geographical differences.

The DVD ends with some archive footage of Kali Ilustrisimo masters Tony Diego and Topher Rickets training in Manila. I would say the footage is well chosen to depict the right atmosphere and most productive way to approach this kind of training.

Volume 2 – Dos Manos Methods

OK, I have a confession to make. While the previous video is very good, and in line with the name of this blog, I really like this one even more. The reason for that is twofold – first, it seems that while doing the De Cuerdas DVD guro John grew accustomed to working for a camera, so his demeanor is even more fluid and enjoyable; second, I just love the primordial appeal of fighting with a staff.

That said, the author mentions that the origins of the techniques shown lie with the two-handed kampilan sword of the Philippines, the material is demonstrated by using a rattan staff, which in my opinion makes it more versatile for the modern day environment.

The video, of course, opens with some Fundamentals discussed, more specifically how to measure the length of your staff to best suit your individual, then showing basic ways to grip the weapon, the stance and four main footwork types you will use with the staff. In order, those are retirada (shuffle footwork), equis, lutang and salisihan. What struck me particularly (again) was that guro Jacobo demonstrates the equis footwork, being probably the most specific of the four, in conjunction of the staff technique it is mostly used with, thus putting both in a more understandable context.

Another thing that really pleased me is that this is the first time I have seen someone actually being able to transfer the skills acquired with shorter, single hand weapons almost directly to the two-handed one. What do I mean by that? Well, other fighting systems that I respect, and which deal with wielding staff (such as Jogo do Pau and Dog Brothers material) favor the off-leg lead in their work (although in they JdP will have the practitioner hold the staff with their off-hand in the upper position, while DB will use the dominant hand, as if swinging a baseball bat), but guro John works from the strong side lead and with the dominant hand in the upper position, and he does so in a very convincing manner. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that with his measuring guidelines the staff will be almost a foot shorter than in Jogo do Pau, but that does not change the reality of his ability to move very well.

We are then shown soma basis Strikes and Flowing Attacks, which actually serve as the reference points for further work, as the main body of material builds off of it, and is covered in later chapters. Nevertheless, if practiced properly, these strikes should build your stance structure and develop your balance and footwork.

The main body of the technical material is then demonstrated in the chapter on Defense Methods. This is where we get to see and learn some of the specific techniques, tactics and maneuvers that actually make this specific style, and if you have some previous experience, you will recognize again some of the characteristic movements of Ilustrisimo here.

After getting a grip of the techniques, we need to learn some Training Methodologies in order to make the performance as fluid and seamless as possible in the right context (yes, this is a major concern in my eyes – out of context everything is possible, and it is the environment that will show what is actually probable and functional). Essentially, guro Jacobo shows two main training methods:
  • Escalera de Cuerdas – that’s right, he reverts to the material from the first DVD, which again underlines his belief in working thoroughly on understanding a smaller number of principles and tactics, as opposed to being sloppy with the smorgasbord of cool moves.
  • Short skirmish scenarios – I really liked this one, as it requires one of the partners to act as in a real fight and attack with some attitude and commitment, thus offering their partner some realistic energy to work with. While I do believe that sparring is essential in the practice of any functional martial system, it also bears some side-effects that should be kept in perspective.

Again, the DVD ends with some archive footage, this time of Tatang Antonio Ilustrisimo himself. For me, it is a real gem, since he is filmed working with a stick in the susi (reverse) grip, which may be puzzling for many of us, but it is evident that with a firm grip and understanding of the core principles of integrated footwork and body mechanics, it can be a very functional method.

I would like to add that both DVD are packed in just a bit short of 40 minutes. However, do not be fooled into thinking it is short. Guro John is able of bringing his point across very efficiently and succinctly, while making the videos dynamic, with little fluff and mindless repetition. Sure, as such these videos are not aimed at the raw beginner, but if you already have some background in weapon-based martial arts, and particularly FMA, then they are highly recommended.

Finally, at the end of the second DVD guro Jacobo mentions “following videos of the Keep it Combat series”… Seeing these two, and some of his training footage of the later date, I certainly hope there will be more.

You can find more info and order the DVD from