In the famous portrait of Socrates, we are presented with the image of what a true philosopher looks like. Here the old man stands defiantly about to drink a cup of hemlock thereby fulfilling the death sentence imparted upon him by the state of Athens. His crime? Refusing to stop teaching his methods of philosophical inquiry which sought to arrive at truth. The accusers in this instance were the various Sophists whose primary philosophy centered on rhetoric and persuasive speech to convince others of their INDIVIDUAL TRUTH as opposed to the Socratic approach based on logical inquiry to arrive at the objective TRUTH. The Sophists would claim that they could argue any side of an argument regardless of personal feelings or validity of the argument as a means of demonstrating the power of their rhetoric. This is an important topic considering the post modernist hell scape we currently reside in, but I digress…
When it comes to martial endeavors we are confronted with this very same problem. What is true and what is not and how can we cut through all the theory and rhetoric that is masking busy work, needless complexity, and ineffectiveness in a venire of sophistication all to turn a profit? The short answer… Pressure testing!
There is a great poem written by Guro Dan Inosanto. In the work, Inosanto describes martial arts as an individual journey to the top of a mountain. While we are all trying to arrive at the same destination, each journey is different. This is a great analogy for a lifetime of learning, I think many have taken this along with Bruce Lee’s JKD philosophy of creating your own expression has actually had the inverse effect. Under this thinking, you can see a multitude of individuals who have developed their approach to martial training without a firm basis in understanding what combat and violence truly are.
Combat, unlike water, does not become the cup. While you are flowing, crashing, and thinking about becoming formless and shapeless, combat will be what combat is…. Chaos. I am not picking on JKD here. On the contrary, JKD is a great fighting system and Bruce Lee with his students building upon intellectual foundations has created a streamlined and scientific approach to fighting. My point here is the bastardization of the JKD philosophy by all manner of inexperienced and uninitiated practitioners who utilize it as a universal permit to create all manner of theories and approaches to martial arts/ combatives. This is presently on my mind with the forthcoming “Birth of the Dragon” film coming out soon. I would like to note that many of the heavy hitters of the JKD community, including Lee’s family, have not had favorable reviews of the film (Link Here). I see the potential for this film rekindling interest in Bruce Lee and JKD as well as the slew of fanboy martial artists evoking, for good and ill, the associated philosophy.
The JKD philosophy is something that has been inexorably tied to the FMA in the US likely due to the ubiquity of Guro Inosanto’s influence. But again, there are many instructors who like to quote the greats like Lee and Inosanto but do not actually practice what they are preaching. They spend time dabbling in the FMA only to go on, for business reasons, to participate in an ever-evolving arms race to see who can make up the fanciest and flashiest material and methods for public consumption all under the premise of “exploring movement” or “personal expression”. I consider many of these types of instructors as entertainers, not educators. Unfortunately, there are a lot of these types making more and more of an impact in the industry thanks to their sleek marketing and social media presence.
The hallmark of any combatively effective art is simplicity. In the old acronym popular in modern military doctrine, we strive to “K.I.S.S.” (Keep It Simple Stupid). When confronted with a clear and present threat to life and limb many things conspire against us. The fact is that the initial action of the attacker gives them the upper hand in this situation. However, the danger that the attacker poses is actually second to the enemy that is our individual physiology and attributes.
It is no secret to anyone that has been in a fight or combat that cognitive and physical functions diminish. This is due to the effects of adrenaline, cortisol, elevated heart rate, and respiration. Fine motor skills are diminished and gross motor skills and “muscle memory” take over. An old axiom penned by the Greek Mercenary Achillochus in circa 650BC sums this up, “We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” This is why the quality of training methods is so crucial. This is the primary reason why I no longer consider the systems or styles as part of my decision of whether or not to train with a group or individual. I am more concerned about the individual training methods being utilized because it is the methods that allow us to circumvent the negative affects of the physical and mental stresses of combat.
Muscle Memory, Procedural Memory, and Common Task Memory are different nomenclatures describing the same truth. Regardless of which you prefer, it is important to understand the importance of these processes in your training. The underlying principles of Procedural Memory are governed by the idea of training how you will fight because you will inevitably fight how you trained. By constant repetition of a task, we are inherently increasing our chances of being able to perform it successfully under stress. Fundamentally, more quality repetitions in training equal a higher probability of success in combat. This is the basis of ALL modern military doctrine. The question here is what constitutes quality repetitions?
Training will always continue to evolve as a greater understanding of the mechanisms of human performance and learning is achieved. However, even with the best training methods, we must still be honest in the expected outcomes of our training. This is a major point of contention when it comes to the realm of blade training. There are plenty of conflicting schools of thought on this topic will well-meaning instructors mixed in with the ranks of charlatans and snake oil salesmen peddling parlor tricks mixed with healthy doses of misinformation to the masses. The types of things I am referencing are the high dexterity movements that look visually appealing when performed against a compliant training partner. In this environment, everything the instructor shows will work. But can they perform their techniques or illustrate their principles in a sparring context with non-compliance? This is the litmus test for me.
Real martial arts are never pretty but they are effective. So addressing my criteria above, I do not expect individuals to pull out a beautiful textbook application in sparring as they would in demonstrations or teaching contexts, however, I expect a reasonable approximation. This is an expectation I have for my students, my fellow instructors, and myself. If you wish to claim skill or validate a technique or method, you must be able to show it in realistic conditions.
Today, thanks to the ubiquity of security cameras and streaming video we can easily view plenty of CCTV footage of fights, shootings, and knife attacks. While this may not be as enjoyable as a night of NetFlix and Chill, it is an important and often underutilized resource by many people in the industry. If you spend even a few minutes a week analyzing these attacks, you should be able to assess whether you are physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to handle this type of encounter.
Keeping up with the title of this entry, most of what I learned over the years in blade-based training in the Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Martial Arts would not cut it (PUN INTENDED). The vast majority of the training I received revolved around parrying and redirecting the weapon only to catch it later and performing various high dexterity moves against a compliant partner with single locked-out attacks. This is something that nearly all martial arts systems that train knife defense fall prey to. FMA at least transcends this most basic of methodological flaws by incorporating the defense and techniques into various flow drills. However, these are still compliant and often contrived choreographies.
Once I encountered it in the Cebuano-based styles of Balintawak and the associated groups of blade systems like Baraw Sugbo, I began to see another way. In the Cebuano styles, functionality under stress and pressure are critical components to training on day one. No need to memorize complex choreographies or endless series of techniques. Instead, the training is attribute-based with a small number of direct and straightforward techniques designed to end the encounter quickly. Over time your partner will attempt to counter your techniques and you will counter their counter and so on. This is similar to the realistic approaches to training found in Wrestling, Judo, and Jujitsu. One can learn techniques from these 3 grappling arts, but until they drill them in a sparring situation with a resisting partner, it is all just static and theoretical.
This was a fundamental concern when I began to develop my Counter Blade Tactics curriculum. Based on my experience in Budo, Boxing, and the Cebuano arts, I endeavored to create a simple and effective training platform for students to be able to achieve a high level of functionality both in application and training their juniors in a relatively short amount of time. The blade is not a mystical or magical element of training. It is a weapon that can easily maim and kill in even the most novices of hands. Rather than venerate it and further muddy the waters of understanding by subscribing to some cult-like bladed culture with dubious and often mythological “histories”, I strive to demystify it into its most basic elements in terms of geometry, anatomy, and physics. As such we can develop an effective approach to addressing it topic of blade-based self-defense while still maintaining a very healthy respect for edged weapons through the means of pressure testing, seeing where techniques or practitioners, breakdown, and then trying to sure up the weaknesses.
Going back to the principal philosophy of JKD, we as instructors and practitioners should be in a constant state of “absorbing what is useful, discarding what is useless and adding what is essentially our own” through the process of, as Guro Inosanto says, “researching our own experiences,” I am striving for truth in my own martial arts journey. For me, truth should be measured in successful repetitions in quality training sessions. I am not alone, nor am I original. There are many instructors doing similar things as me. But you will not find them on the big martial arts seminar circuits or in the polished and clean high-profile schools. You will find us in the back yards, the garages, and in the dingy sweat-soaked gyms because REALITY is not POPULAR. It is hard, bloody, painful, and chaotic, but at least it is true.
Vertitatem in Disciplina est Veritas in Praxis