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The thoughts and viewpoints on this blog are my own and represent my skeptical, critical-thinking approach to martial arts, combative training, film, the field of cognitive science, and random subjects.
Updated: 5 hours 3 min ago


Fri, 2015-09-04 16:57
See this image of Chuck?  See how he punches and punches and keeps on punching?  I know exactly how he feels.  

May I introduce you to some of my pet peeves?  I have several.  They get on my nerves, or, as one lady I know used to put it, "My reserve nerve."  

1.  TRIGGER:  The pressure point fighter.  He holds seminars all over the country.  You show up, notebook and fee in hand, and he will demonstrate how to render someone unconscious with a few well-placed touches to chi meridians or pressure points.  He has a name and/or number for each one.  There are hundreds, maybe thousands.  He can knock out people left and right.  Doesn't matter how big they are, they drop like a sack of dough. Speaking of a sack of dough, that's what you're going to need to spend to learn all of his secrets.

2.  COMMANDO:  The military instructor.  He has taught members of the Special Forces, Navy Seals, and the FBI. He has not actually been in the service, but he's the go-to person for elite warriors.  He knows a million ways to kill. He is reluctant to teach this stuff to civilians, but, for the right price, will begrudgingly do so.

3.  ROLLER:  The new grappling instructor.  Just a few years or so ago, he hated, HATED, grappling and ground fighting. Thought it was all B.S.  Told anyone who'd listen that this was a bunch of junk, that it didn't work, that it was dangerous and ill advised.  Now he seems to be an expert.  His curriculum is full of stuff that wasn't there not that long ago.  Says it was ALWAYS there, but that he only taught it to "advanced" students.

4.  CHAMP:  The title holder.  Claims to have won championship titles that you've never heard of.  Says he defeated the best of the best.  Tells you that Google doesn't always list these tournaments because they were highly illegal death matches.  Is reluctant to share any specific details for fear of retribution or criminal charges. Has tons of anecdotes about the men he has injured.

5.  TIGGER:  The former bouncer.  He was a bouncer, and he likes to remind you of this...often.  He bounced people out of clubs.  Busted his knuckles on lots of hard-headed drunks.  Learned his lingo from the Roadhouse movie.  Has had more fights in one weekend than you've had in your entire life.  Thinks that what YOU do is a load of crap and is glad to tell you so.

6.  MONK:  The peaceful warrior.  He USED to do what you do.  Enjoyed fighting.  Saw the ugly side of the street and was knee-deep in violence before he saw the light.  Now speaks primarily in Zen koans.  Smiles.  A lot.  Likes the smell of incense.  Thinks that you should NOT learn to fight, and instead you should train to improve your spirit. Teaches stuff that will get you killed if you ever have to use it.

7.  REBEL:  The rule breaker.  Thinks the UFC is a joke. Tells you what would happen if HE had to fight one of those behemoth MMA fighters in a REAL fight without rules and referees (usually consists of poking the eyes, ripping the groin, and dislocating the fingers).  Says they wouldn't last a minute on the streets where he grew up.  Somehow doesn't look all that tough.

8.  HOARDER:  The collector.  Has enough certificates to wallpaper his living room.  Can take an hour to list all the people he's trained with.  Has his picture taken with them to prove it.  Acts like he and they are old chums.  Can critique your moves til the cows come home.

9.  CHATTY CATHY:  The blowhard.  Goes to a seminar and can't wait to ask questions or offer commentary.  Knows more than the instructor.  Does not mind giving advice to anyone who'll listen.  Was vaccinated with a phonograph needle.  Has a dozen what-if scenarios he'd like to ask you about.  Can talk non-stop about the history of a specific technique.  Monopolizes the conversation.  Beats the proverbial dead horse.

10. PHARAOH:  The master.  Believes that he is at the top of the pyramid.  Sees you at the grocery store and calls you Steve, wants YOU to call him "Master."  Loves hierarchy and titles.  Loves belts.  Loves striped belts.  Thinks you should bow when you see him.  Teaches you how to bow the right way.  Spends more time lecturing about respect than actually teaching how to fight.  Usually has the starchiest uniform.


Tue, 2015-08-04 22:59
"Do it again, do it
(Do it)
Let's do it again
(Do it)
(Do it again, do it again)
The Staple Singers

"The more understanding you have about Karate, the less you need to change or modify it.”
Tsuguo Sakumoto 
"Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way."
Edward de Bono

I am a kata skeptic.  That doesn't mean I hate kata.  In fact I find that some kata is very interesting to watch.  It also doesn't necessarily mean that I denigrate all kata or the purpose of kata in general.  In fact I see some merits to this type of training; however, I believe that when it comes to martial arts training, there are tons of other things that are way more important than kata.  

We all know people who are great at kata, but who suck at fighting.  

But we all also probably know some great fighters who can perform beautiful kata.

Arguably kata develops precision, and precision generally means efficiency and economy of motion.  This efficiency helps to produce power by removing unnecessary, wasted energy.  

Think of a golf swing.  Without proper technique and precision, without the efficiency that comes from a good swing, the power and accuracy needed to win will not be there.  So if you compare kata training to the fundamentals of learning the proper mechanics of any sport, then perhaps there is some value to it.

But I'm still skeptical.

If you attend a martial arts tournament you are likely to see all kinds of kata:  Hard style, soft style, even some creative style.  Some kata competitions feature kata set to music or multiple person synchronized kata.  I have watched kata bunkai, where 2 or more people demonstrate the fighting applications of various movements within the kata.  There are also weapons kata, 2-person kata, and acrobatic kata featuring leaps, spins, flips and tumbling.

Several years ago I was invited to attend a martial arts camp for high-ranking instructors.  At this camp I taught some combatives to the group, stuff that these guys didn't usually train in; i.e., edged weapon defenses, close quarters combat and clinch fighting.  Most of the attendees were from a particular traditional style, so I didn't participate in their kata training or their point-based sparring.  Instead during this part of the camp I sat on the sidelines and watched.  

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the group of about 30 senior black belts spent 15 minutes trying to determine whether the palm of the right hand was supposed to face up or down during one particular movement of a rather lengthy kata.  Some said up, while many said down.  In their discussion they talked about the history of the kata, what it represented and symbolized. Some believed that the move ought to be true to its founder's intentions, so if he said it was up then that was good enough.  Others said that the founder allowed some minor variations, so down was also acceptable.

The highest ranking member of the group, a master of the style, finally weighed in.  He indicated that both the up and the down position had merits, and he showed them how they might work in a fighting application of the kata.  He determined that either was acceptable and was up to the individual instructor.

I recently read some posts from a message board pertaining to a demonstration of a creative version of a familiar kata. Some people felt like the introduction of acrobatics ruined the kata and made it non-street-worthy.  Others felt that the addition of music made it too much like a dance routine.  A few were upset that the practitioner had dared to make up his own movements instead of adhering to a set, established pattern.  One or two people didn't like the uniform of the person performing the kata.  I actually read one response in which someone called out the fact that the practitioner forgot to kiai at a particular movement.

So why am I a kata skeptic?

1.  Kata was created by someone or a group of people. (Humans, fallible humans, most likely).
2.  Kata was passed on from that fallible person or group to others.
3.  Add to this fallibility the fact that inevitably, over time and distance, subtle changes begin to creep in, so that the final iteration may have changed substantially from the original version.
4.  Kata is often filled with symbolic, representational movement.  Many gung fu patterns seek to mimic the movements of real or imaginary animals.
5.  One man's kata is another man's series of unacceptable techniques.  Don't believe me?  Just ask a practitioner from one style to critique the kata from another style.
6.  Some say kata is not about fighting, and they believe they are right.
7.  Others say that kata is specifically about fighting, that it is an encyclopedia of that style's fighting curriculum, and they believe they are right.
8.  Both of these competing views cannot be right.
9.  Kata, no matter how many you practice, cannot, in a practical sense, contain every response/defense to every possible action/attack.
10. Humans are pattern-seeking/pattern-finding beings. We look for and detect patterns even when no discernible pattern exists.
11. Kata satisfies this need to detect patterns, and the originator(s) of a specific kata likely believed that the movements they designed accurately replicated a group or pattern of combat movements.
12. Some kata has been designed as an art form, a method of expression.  These kata can then be judged in competition because the movements have been established in an agreed upon standard.  WuShu is a good example.
13. Some kata has been designed as a means of self-development.  The practitioners of these kata seek to develop inner strength, balance, breath control, and fluid movement.  Tai Chi is a good example.
14. Some kata is a slice of the big pie.  Some Judo kata, for example, teach specific throws or specific defenses, and thus they more closely replicate techniques from the bigger picture of combat.
15. Some kata is designed to represent and train the individual for likely combat scenarios.  Ashihara karate, for example, has a number of sequences that show likely defensive actions against probable aggressive actions within the context of combat.  Shorinji Kempo has embu training, which is essentially a 2-person kata featuring prearranged offensive and defensive movements.  Wing Chun gung fu has a pattern of movements in which the practitioner will practice skills against a wooden dummy.

In most kata, and to me what defines a kata, the movements are pre-determined and pre-arranged.  The goal of the practitioner is to perform those movements correctly, in sequence, leaving out nothing, adding nothing, and demonstrating proper form throughout.  

In this I would compare it to a pianist practicing scales on the keyboard or repeating a classical piece of music as accurately as possible to the intention of its composer.

Some combat practitioners, Boxers of Kickboxers for example, will perform solo shadow boxing or will work the heavy bag.  While generally free-style, the boxer will return time and again to favorite movements or techniques which need to be developed.  In Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) the practitioner may similarly perform free style movements with a knife or a stick.

It has been argued by traditional martial artists that even these more progressive arts also contain patterned or sequential movements.  However, I would argue that this is not kata per se in that the movements are generally spontaneous, have no fixed or discernible pattern, attempt to enhance muscle memory within a combative context, and may be improvisational.  

In this I would compare it to a jazz musician who may have a sense of the melody or standard but who modifies the rhythm, the beat, and the syncopation, adds or deletes elements from the expected melody, and makes the tune uniquely his own.

Chances are if you consider yourself a traditionalist, you will defend the concept and practice of kata.  On the other hand if you believe yourself to be practical, modern and progressive, you will eschew the use of kata.

I started out as a traditionalist almost five decades ago, and I even learned and practiced kata.  However, after observing some very realistic, very violent real world encounters, some right in the neighborhood where I grew up, I began to explore training that more closely replicated real-world conditions.  This combative path is definitely not exclusively free of patterns or sequential movement.  In fact I practice and teach a number of TTS, Tactical Training Sequences (drills).  The difference between TTS and kata is that these sequences encourage improvisation and the concept of PIC, Progressively Introduced Chaos.

So I remain a kata skeptic.  I would love to hear your own views on kata and why this type of training should still be an integral part of martial arts training.


Thu, 2015-07-30 13:27
"My old and very good friend, Jack Dempsey, has a saying which he has proved time and again in the ring. 'The best defense is a good offense.'" 
Elia Kazan

Let's do a word association exercise.  I'll say a word, and then you say the first word that pops into your mind. Ready?

  1. TRUE
  2. BAD
  3. UP
  4. ANGEL
  5. OVER
  7. SMART
  8. DOG
  9. COLD
  10. ATTACK

So let's see how you did.  Most people will respond with FALSE, GOOD, DOWN, DEVIL, UNDER, TOP, STUPID, CAT, HOT, and DEFEND.  

We tend to think like this, in opposites.  Dualities. Love/hate.  Eat-this-not-that.  The Beatles contributed to this way of thinking in their song Hello Goodbye:  "You say yes, I say no, You say stop, and I say go go go."

It even bleeds over into our martial arts methods.  When our opponent does a punch, we do a block.  When the attacker grabs our wrist, we try to escape from the hold.


But there have been a few geniuses who have noticed this duality and tried to change things.  Bruce Lee for example. He was one of the first proponents of directness and simplicity in combat, and he thoroughly articulated the concept of interception.  Here's one of his great quotes about his fighting philosophy:

"There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. There is nothing artificial about it. 
I always believe that the easy way is the right way."
Instead of merely teaching a rigid "you-do-this-when-he-does-that" methodology, he taught the concept of freedom, expression and fluid movement. Freed from classical, over-stylized, fancy-for-fancy's-sake techniques, Lee focused on quickness and efficient movement, with such concepts as stop-hits and a strong offense as a good defense.

But before JKD there was fencing, and long before it was a competitive sport, fencing was a martial art and an effective method of combat.  In fencing the concept of "stop-hit" has been around a long time.  "The simple stop hit," says fencing master Walter Green, "is probably the most frequently used of fencing's counteroffensive actions. At the most basic level it simply tries to beat the opponent's attack in speed or timing."

So JKD has interception.  And so does fencing.  You may not think much about it, but boxing also has interception techniques as well.  Johnny N, over at, recommends the outside hook, the right cross, and the right hand blast to the body as counters to the attacker's right hand.  Just as the other guy should be landing his shot, you land your own with superior timing.

Let's don't forget that wrestling also has interception techniques, and they've been around a lot longer than any modern fighting method.  Shooting in for a single or double leg takedown is the epitome of interception, and a good wrestler can shoot in the blink of an eye.

I'm also very impressed with the fighting concepts of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) which primarily focus on edged weapon and impact weapon skills.  When an attacker slashes with his weapon, the FMA practitioners know that a counter slash (sometimes demonstrated as a mere block) against the attacker's wrist, arm or hand can be devastating.  Their gunting, or limb destruction, techniques, where punches and elbows land against incoming forearms, hands and biceps, are extremely painful.

Muay Thai has cut kicks which attack the attacker, Wing Chun teaches simultaneous blocking and hitting, and many if not most martial arts methods have interception techniques in their curricula.

Some instructors teach interception techniques; however, they often reserve these for so-called "advanced" classes. They believe that the call-and-response of blocking versus striking is a "basic" concept that beginners need to learn first.  The problem I have with that is that early skills often form the foundation for skills which come later.  Once those early, foundational patterns become fixed in the mind of the practitioner, it becomes difficult to dislodge or supersede them.

Why not teach interception skills early?  Why not let these superior skills form the basis of a effective fighting style?


Mon, 2015-07-27 01:49

"Move like a beam of light, fly like lightning, strike like thunder, whirl in circles around a stable center."
Morihei Ueshiba

"When Takeshita Sensei was a Grand Chamberlain he was told by the Emperor to arrange for aikido to be shown to him, so he went to the Ueshiba dojo. Ueshiba Sensei answered, 'I can't show false techniques to the Emperor. Basically in aikido, the opponent is killed with a single blow. It's false if the attacker is thrown, leisurely stands up, and attacks again. On the other hand, I can't go around killing my students.' He refused the invitation in this way, but when Takeshita Sensei told this to the Emperor, he said, 'I don't care if it's a lie. Show me the lie!'"
Gozo Shioda 

I confess.  I love to watch.

And you know what I really love to watch?  Aikido!  It's just so beautiful, graceful and stylistic.  In fact it's downright ethereal.  Ethereal:  I had to look it up.  As it turns out it's a perfect description: "extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world".

That's the problem.  Aikido is just too perfect for this world.

Okay, okay...I know what you're gonna say.  "Steven Seagal made it work.  Steven Seagal could HURT people with his aikido skills!"  That's what you were gonna say, right?

Well, it's true.  Seagal's aikido looked menacing.  He was fast and ferocious.  The takedowns looked vicious, and his joint locks looked painful.

But that was the movies.  The bad guys were stunt guys. The fights were pre-arranged and highly choreographed.

I'm not saying that Seagal couldn't make some of those moves work in a real fight.  He is a big man, and in his prime he was one hell of a technician.

I am also not saying that a dedicated, committed, well-trained aikidoist couldn't defend himself or herself in a physical altercation.  If you've read the book Angry White Pyjamas, you'll remember that aikido was the basis for the rather brutal martial arts methods used by Tokyo's riot police.  So, there's gotta be SOMETHING there.

I attended aikido classes back in the late 70s, and I was thrown around quite a bit during randori (free-style practice) sessions.  In fact, I was thrown around effortlessly.  One of my training partners, the sensei's daughter, was one of those who made it look so easy.

But here's the deal.  In some of those same randori sessions I watched from the sidelines as some big, local judoka dropped by, and the beauty and the grace suddenly went out the window.  When the experienced judo guys got a good grip on the aikido guys, more often than not the movements became less about finesse and more about physical strength.  Sometimes the aikido practitioners would evade or do a cool move on the judo guys, but more often than not the judo techniques had too much force and usually defeated the ethereal aikido.

That was not a scientific observation by any means.  I didn't see enough of it to state unequivocally that judo is superior to aikido.  However, anecdotally speaking, I did come away with a firm impression that if I was a bad guy with menacing intent, I'd rather be attacking an aikido student than a judo student.

In the blog "White Belt for Life", the author writes: "Perhaps this is why most non-Aikido martial artists see Aikido demonstrations as being fake. Because they are fake! Because aikidoka are not supposed to fight like the way they demonstrate. The techniques that are shown are meant to be drills to teach the body how to move correctly without thinking about it."

So, while a part of me acknowledges that a skilled practitioner might be able to handle himself or herself in a basic self-defense situation, I nevertheless think that all that tossing about is rather absurd.  The level of cooperation that allows the defender to easily defeat 2, 3, or a half dozen attackers is not even close to reality.  The uke, or willing attacker, if he has genuine tumbling skills and impeccable timing, can make the defender look god like.  

My issue then isn't whether it works for basic self defense. My gripe is that in a multiple opponent attack these skills don't work like they're shown in demonstrations. Aikido practitioners believe they have an edge.  Many believe in the mystical power of "ki." Many of them believe that it is a force beyond normal physics and that it can give them a greater strength than muscles and tendons alone.  Some actually believe that they have a spiritual awareness, like a Spidey sense that tingles when an attacker is near. This magical thinking could actually influence a practitioner and lead to a false confidence.

As a method of learning graceful and agile movement and dynamic balance, as a means of learning active mobility and evasion, as a style that develops an ability to blend one's defensive effort with the aggressive force of an attacker, and as an art that leads to self development, I think that aikido is amazing.  The practitioners whom I've met seem to be kind, ego-free individuals.  They train with little regard for competition and the ceaseless struggle for becoming number one.  I admire their inner calm and their budo spirit.  I also am impressed with their desire for non-violence and their commitment to a peaceful art.

So while I have some pet peeves about aikido and the silliness of weaving in and out of a crowd of attackers totally focused on karate chopping a defender's head (it often appears to be the only attack they know), I nevertheless admire their art.  

I have read some of the works of George Leonard, one of the founders of the human potential movement and a notable aikido instructor.  I like this quote and its truly hopeful philosophy:  "There is a human striving for self-transcendence. It's part of what makes us human. With all of our flaws we want to go a little bit further than we've gone before and maybe even further than anyone else has gone before."