Jamie Clubb’s study of the fighting arts is broad, varied and insightful. It reflects his experiences as a circus performer, author and martial artist. A noted pragmatist and innovator, Clubb’s viewpoints, nevertheless, have a certain ring of traditionalism to them. By traditionalism I mean combat being the reason for the fighting arts existence, not competition.
1. How did you originally become involved in the fighting arts and what drew you to the path you’ve taken?
Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow! I have always been a fan of comic-books and superheroes and these two fictional ninjas from the “Action Force” comic (UK name for “GI Joe”) really captured my imagination.
Real combat skills were always right under my nose and I had little interest in them until my eventual martial arts fantasy bubble burst, resulting in me becoming a typical Generation X sceptic. I grew up on a traditional traveling circus around a lot of boxers and people who could handle themselves. The circus breeds those types of people and these skills are important to them. Boxing booths were in our cultural heritage and world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills fought on my grandparents’ show in the early part of his career. His autobiography contains photos of his time spent on the show. Due to the transient nature of our business, circus people had no idea of what sort of community they would be entering into when they arrived, so being able to “cor” (circus slang meaning “to fight”) was an obvious benefit. I have lost count of the number of people my uncle knocked out all over the world. He even successfully tackled and disarmed an armed gunman in Northern Ireland. My grandfather recorded incidents in his autobiography of a tradition where circus people would have to fight bareknuckle matches against gypsies for the occupation of a showground. I even ended up in one or two gypsy scuffles at school, proving issues between our two people hadn’t completely died down. My great-grandfather on my non-circus side was a prize fighter and his father, who was also a boxer, was killed in an altercation that occurred after he had fought a bout.
The non-physical side of things was also drummed into me as it is with most circus kids. Children need to be switched on and aware due to the close proximity of dangerous animals and moving machinery as well as the general dangers travelling.
However, as I said, the attraction to the fighting arts came via the fantasy side. At age 13 I wanted to be a ninja and pretty much thought I was one! Having settled down from circus life, my father began training and supplying animals to the film industry and we lived right out at in the sticks, meaning martial arts clubs were few and far between. My wonderful mum finally ended up taking me two hours to Nottingham to sate my ninjutsu interest. After that I was happy enough to stick with sakiado, an obscure taekwondo/kickboxing hybrid that I had seen an article on in Combat magazine. I read martial arts magazines and books avidly before I took my first formal martial arts lesson. I got them for Christmas and birthday presents, and due to the fact that many of my relatives really didn’t know much about ninjutsu I often got comprehensive books on the fighting art, which provided me with a well-rounded knowledge of the history, pseudohistory, legends and look of the various fighting arts. Martial arts movies and my imagination tended to fill in the rest. From a fairly early age I was used to showbusiness, so mainstream celebrities rarely interested me. In fact, the first TV series we worked on was actually based on the autobiography of our vet! My celebrities were the “stars” of martial arts magazines. I grew up in awe of individuals like Neville “The Devil” Wray, Steve “Nasty” Anderson, Alfie Lewis, Ticky Donavan, Vic Charles, Masaki Hatsumi, Stephen K. Hayes, Dave Oliver, Frank Dux and then, years later, Geoff Thompson. I hadn’t seen them in the flesh, but only read about them, which only intensified the mystique. None of my school friends or circus friends knew who they were and being a bit of militant individualist I liked that idea. It made it my own.
So, as you will see, I wasn’t always a pragmatist or a sceptic.
2. What are the Vagabond Warriors seminars and how did they come into being?
In essence the Vagabond Warriors is a seminar created for people who enjoy martial arts cross training. Cross-training has occurred since martial arts were established, but today it is more common than ever. Even classical and commercialized clubs have realized they need to embrace cross-training. I am seeing more and more traditional syllabuses incorporating courses for other arts, and clubs that used to have their doors firmly shut to other styles are seeing the advantages of booking instructors from different systems. However, once a student steps into the world of cross-training they open up another box of problems. Information overload is the first one. Like an inferior search engine a cross-trainer without a well-developed training compass just accumulates techniques. Some may have got the superficial act of note-taking right, but do those notes really serve them? What can happen is these various experiences begin and end with the lessons or seminars, but are never really taken on board in a way that serves their core training. They might learn certain drills off by heart, but don’t gain any visible attributes.
If this is overcome, the next problem is something I call the “welding approach”. Students make rather dubious connections that end up as complex unworkable combinations. This is common in a lot of cross-training circles. Karl Tanswell, of the “Straight Blast Gym”, calls it “technique-collecting” and many instructors do it to impress students hungry for variety. These complicated and ever-growing combinations are learnt, but never put under any pressure whatsoever. They just remain frozen within the context of a compliant technique application or, at best, as part of a flow drill.
I have watched instructors bring in techniques from another style verbatim and stick them in with the moves they normally teach. So, for example I knew a quasi-traditional ju jutsu school that had got the message western boxers are generally the best punchers (a fair assumption) and therefore allowed his personal barriers down to bring in these techniques. However, rather than teach it in the context it was intended he just replaced the ju jutsu punching with the boxing punching. He mistook attributes for techniques. Boxers are probably the best punchers in the world simply because they focus all their training around punching and in a full contact context. This instructor thought that by simply just including classic boxing combinations and techniques in his class he would have a more efficient system. He even told me that someone on the street would not step forward when they punch and therefore based all his classical ju jutsu defences off boxing attacks. What he failed to understand was the importance of adaption and context.
Vagabond Warriors sets up a personalized path for the cross-trainer by providing set objectives. I learnt a lot of this by travelling to so many different classes and having the opportunity to fast-track my learning by interviewing so many top level instructors. These guys often got to where they were by having original perspectives on things. They fired my imagination and desire to create. A major part of my creative impulse was to teach and to improve teaching. I saw certain fundamental things in the individuals I interviewed that made them stand out as teachers. They were all very clear about what they wanted, they were all very critical about at least one aspect of martial arts that forced them to make big changes and, finally, they understood themselves very well.
The seminars promote critical thinking and experimental training methods with a view to creating an individual training compass. We do not teach a style or system, although training in aspects of disparate arts is included as part of the process. The seminars are events where people from all sorts of backgrounds can train and be challenged – both physically and mentally. We use the CSI (Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality) framework to guide our training and I also use my “Hierarchy of Training” procedure, which we will come to later.
We also have an open forum approach, allowing for collaboration, critical analysis and individual research. A major objective of the seminars is for people to take as much away from the sessions as possible and to test them out for themselves and then report back. The internet has ushered in a new age of more collaborative thinking and learning. The training does not start and end in a lesson; it is an ongoing process of testing and sharing information between vagabond warriors. I don’t want clones doggedly following a set syllabus, but free-thinking individuals that dispense with complex and ritualized hierarchies. What you end up with is a ground-up model for training as opposed to the old appeal to authority top-down feudal system. Coaches become guides. They show leadership and organization, of course, but they are fed by those who attend. The coach should be forced to look for ways to cultivate individual performance as opposed to making everyone fit in with their own perceptions of a system.
I learnt a lot from the brief period I spent training under MMA and fitness gym owner, Steve “Stevie B” Brindle in his “Mongrel Fighting Method”. This little group of interesting people – consisting of a wide range of experiences and including many instructors from different schools - would meet once a week and go through training concepts inspired by real-life situations. What made it so different was the collaborative way everyone trained. The scenario-work we did was taken from recent real local events. So, it was not uncommon to hear students say things like “This is what happened with your cousin last week” or “This is the type of weapon we regularly finding in use around this area”. Stevie B would encourage constant feedback from the group to create new activities. He was also a fascinating interview subject, having led a life “in the field”.
I went to a Quaker secondary school (high school) for seven years. I hated five years of my time there, but certain concepts stuck with me that I saw had potential for better teaching. I liked the way they held meetings rather assemblies at the beginning of the day. These were always represented in a circle as opposed to rows to promote equality and the idea that anyone could speak up. I took the concept to my classes, where no one’s grade is on exhibition and everyone’s view is listened to. Obviously the coach takes control and guides the lesson plan according to the objectives at the time, but for the most part I am trying to develop a ground-up teaching paradigm.
3. What are some of the reactions people have had towards these seminars?
People often walk away from a session fully worked over. Their body feels exhausted and their mind is blown. They will then start posting up new information they have found on the internet and provide feedback on how a certain concept went down at their class. I am anticipating a great deal of negativity when the whole thing takes off, as it will really throw a lot people outside their comfort zones. The Vagabond Warriors approach turns a lot of mainstream martial arts on its head. For example, I have been at one hour workshops where the first activity everyone does after the warm-up is a pressure test. The point of this was to tap directly into primal feelings and abilities, so that whatever I said afterwards wouldn’t seem that abstract. We’d all be discussing matters from a similar standpoint. These participants immediately gave me honest feedback. This isn’t necessarily verbal – it’s in their performance and the look on their faces. The pressure tests are organized to be intense and unforgiving, immediately revealing individual capabilities. Many martial artists go into how important it is to get a person’s stance, posture or footwork correct – and I agree – but this is all often taught in a very contrived and artificial way. Why not organize specific activities that encourage this naturally? Why keep telling everyone about the chaos of reality when you can organize something that will at least put people in that mental state for a limited period of time?
I am much more into reverse engineering concepts. To a certain degrees this is comparable to the way my father trains wild animals. He first puts untrained animals into their training environment and does not interact with them. He observes them, watching their natural abilities and works out how to cultivate the best trained behaviours for each animal. Over a period of time he finds out who is capable of what. The same thing applies with the human animal. There are certain generic things that are fairly constant and by thinking generically you don’t get lost in performing a technique in over-analytical way. However, the best always comes from the honest feedback provided by the pressure test.
4. How have the participants benefited from them?
Many instructors have told me that their classes have become far more focused and their training more honest after a Vagabond Warriors session. They start getting rid of abstract warm-up exercises and take a more time managed approach. Better still and contrary to popular opinion, by teaching them scepticism/critical thinking, they have opened their mind up to other possibilities. Suddenly they are not bound by styles or systems or techniques, but by a process that demands constant reviewing and will not settle for absolutes. Much of the feedback I have received comes from people who have read and researched broadly after my sessions, often into areas they never considered to be important, and have immediately seen improvements in their training and the training of those they teach.
The seminar is only one factor of the whole Vagabond Warriors service. Participants become a part of the whole process from the moment they sign up, if they choose, and it continues after the session. The idea is to have a constant feedback loop of progress and improvement. The participants improve, those they train with and have any form of influence on improve, and the service improves by their personal input. Because I encourage real empowerment – as opposed to the empty buzzword sold on the back of many modern martial arts schools – no one feels like they are stepping out of line and they end up creating new training methods, which they can bring back to the seminars. I tell even the youngest children in my regular classes to think like coaches or teachers.
5. You’re a proponent of cross-training, how come?
One thing I have noticed about success in any activity is that those who achieve the most progress tend to be the individuals who can take a step back from their respective discipline and look at it from a different perspective. This is what cross-training is all about. A good cross-trainer does not only look to other schools, styles and systems of martial art, but also into other non-martial activities and areas of study.
Cross-trainers are forever stepping outside their comfort zones – different systems, clubs, coaches and students. A true vagabond warrior cross-trainer will win a degree of respect from his fellow pupils, but will rarely settle into the whole social framework for very long. If you cross-train correctly you will be drawn to whatever clubs challenge you the most and this encourages faster growth.
Because I lived so far away from any decent schools and my local sakiado club closed down after I achieved my first dan at age 16, I have become very used to travelling long distances for training. After training for two years in taekwondo in an attempt to continue what I was learning in sakiado, I began cross-training in a local kickboxing club. Some of my fellow students had started it to bulk up their twice a week classes in taekwondo and I joined in. Within little time the instructor of the kickboxing club asked me if I wanted to become an instructor and started training me privately. At 19 years of age I was suddenly driving all over the country, sometimes coast to coast, teaching kickboxing. I did this for four and a half years and during that time I had the opportunity to start training in other classes. I trained in Escrima and various Chinese martial arts in addition to the various non-kickboxing methods my instructor taught me. So, I guess I have always taken quite naturally to cross-training and have a lot of sympathy for cross-trainers.
6. Do you feel that eclecticism is a more traditional approach than the stylistic boundaries many people experience today?
Historical evidence in the form of eye-witness testimony, documentation and even photographic evidence reveals that most of the great traditional masters of the late 19th century/early 20th century endorsed cross-training. It’s no great secret. They had to be, as many of their arts from karate to judo to taekwondo to choy lay fut are hybridizations of other arts.
My friend, Shihan Chris Rowen, who seems to representative of traditional martial arts and appeared on two of my “Cross Training for the Martial Arts” DVDs, told me that his teacher 10th dan goju ryu karateka Yamaguchi Gogen regularly brought in Mongolian wrestlers and other martial artists to train with his students at his dojo. We know that Funakoshi Gichin taught and demonstrated for Kano Jigaro at his dojo, and that the former took a lot of ideas from the latter. All the great karate styles that were developed after Funakoshi’s shotokan did so due to further cross-training experiences. The most notable examples were Mabuni’s wado ryu and Oyama’s kyushinkai, and that’s before we get to melting pools that developed Japanese and American kickboxing. Brazilian jiu jitsu has been a continuous development of an art through the experiences of its various ambassadors in different combat sports. We find that many of those who preached a return to pragmatic methods of fighting did so after experiencing various other styles.
Victorian martial arts pioneer E. Barton-Wright in the UK is perhaps the real godfather of British self-defence, making a point of explaining that combative arts outside of Britain were not just practiced for sporting reasons. He had observed that self-defence had been long linked to boxing and wrestling, which were generally practiced as combat sports. Much of the detached British gentry seemed to buy into the idea that when it came to interpersonal violence, all matters could be settled by stepping outside, removing one’s coat and fighting one-on-one until satisfaction was sated. Barton-Wright founded the short-lived Bartitsu system, which had a very open programme involving instructors from Japanese ju jutsu, Swiss wrestling, fencing, western boxing and other arts. Meanwhile, the lawyer, historian and revolutionary Tang Hao criticized his native country of China for the way its arts had deteriorated into ineffective and flowery martial arts, and credited his later studies in Japanese martial arts for their pragmatism. Hao was experienced in both Chinese and Japanese martial arts.
The closed door approach is a relatively new approach. When instructors defend this idea with arguments of dilution and making their system impure they are actually being disloyal to their heritage. Many fear losing their students to another club. I guess that is a kind of tradition if we are thinking in terms of religion or business. They see their students as objects almost possessions to a certain degree. Geoff Thompson said they behaved like “jealous lovers”. Chris Rowen once told me that he doesn’t like it when instructors refer to class pupils as “their students”. They are comments that have stuck with me. All of this possessiveness is connected to an outmoded paradigm.
Even modern businesses don’t cling to this notion. The transient employee is a product of the net generation. I see it all the time in showbusiness – a single employee advancing their career not through one company, but several. My parents’ company have had several employees that have worked for three years, left, returned and left again. It is becoming an accepted practice. I have had students who have come and gone from my classes, workshops and seminars since I began teaching. It’s quite wonderful, as they always feel comfortable coming back and enjoy both new things in the class and bring new experiences to my classes.
7. What would you consider traditional martial arts?
Gavin Mullholland was the first person I heard to make a distinction between traditional and classical martial arts. I think it’s a good rough line. A traditional martial art is taught at a class that upholds the core values and principles set down by the person who provided it with its name. It is not a question of the age of the system. We have relatively new traditional arts. We also have relatively old combat sports that have no traditions attached to them whatsoever. It brought a huge smile to my face to hear someone like Chris Rowen, garbed in a traditional Japanese hakama, say he didn’t like the notion of styles. My friend and perhaps the world’s most avid proponent of practical karate bunkai, Iain Abernethy, regularly cites the fact that Funakoshi didn’t like the concept of styles either and didn’t want Shotokan to be referred to as “a style of karate”. Rather it was just the name of his school. I don’t think a traditional martial art ceases being traditional if
the system changes superficially. After all, most of the arts we call “traditional” were being continually changed during the lifetime of the founder. Everything changes otherwise it stagnates.
There are, of course, those who hold their hand up and say “Look, I like the sport that developed from the older sport or the non-sporting martial art” and there is nothing wrong with that. We also have those who are similar to historical re-enactment enthusiasts. Arts like iaido, kyudo, Renaissance fencing, sumo and archery do not try to pretend their training has any direct relevance to modern combat. This is not to say a student cannot use them to acquire some useful relevant attributes, but that’s another discussion. There are those who enjoy going through the motions of solo or two-people forms or drills for the sake of the activity. I am also all in support of those who are trying to resurrect extinct systems through academic research. Being an avid history fan I think this is wonderful, so long as they don’t start claiming a false direct lineage or saying that it is the most effective martial art known to man. These are the real classicists and the neo-classicists.
Unfortunately there are easily as many people, probably more, who do delude themselves or others. They like the ritual and believe that the ritual is the martial arts as it has always been practiced. The flawed logic then follows with the assumption that if it worked then it should work now. To make matters worse rituals are very appealing to humans. We have evolved to see patterns and we feel safe in routines. Martial arts that don’t ask people to think are more attractive than ones that tell you to do the thinking. This is what makes it easier to spread myths and legends about their art’s history, which are then repeated without question. Taekwondo is probably the largest and best example of the way a martial arts history can be changed over time along with its objectives in order to tell a certain narrative. There are even more modern systems that have done this too. This has nothing to do with tradition. It’s to do with telling a story that fits the ideals of an individual and a good reason why the top-down model is a flawed teaching model.
8. You stress deciding the purpose of one’s training, what exactly do you mean?
If I were a motivational speaker or some sort of self-help guru I guess I would say “Begin with the end in mind”. However, clichés aside that pretty much sums it all up. You manage time better if you start with a set purpose and you ensure you get the most out of cross-training if you remember what you primary goal is. This is at the heart of “The Hierarchy of Training”. You manage time by prioritizing the training that is the most attached to your objective. This works on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. It stands to reason that the more time you spend working on something the more you learn. As my current coach, Mo Teague, often says “Perfect practice make perfect”. He has tortured me in just about everything I do with the question “Is it relevant?” So given the time you train is always limited, isn’t it better to spend as much time as possible on specific training.
When it comes to the physical side of training many martial artists waste their time with irrelevant activities, which might help explain why they buy into the by-product of myth of believing in the power of ritual (mentioned in my last answer). Go to the majority of martial arts classes the world over and watch how they warm-up. You will see a lot of running around, jump jacks, sit-ups, press-ups and squats. I am not saying these activities don’t have their benefits and shouldn’t be trained in addition to the martial arts class – I believe they should - but what is their real justification for being there in a class that is supposed to be about learning martial arts? Better question: what makes them safer as a warm-up exercises to shadowing martial arts movements?
I started asking these questions when I first started training behind closed doors with martial arts instructors. I noticed it was very rare for any of them to warm-up using any of the non-martial arts exercises. I know a few who just went straight into light pad-work or sparring. From the moment a class begins it should be about relevant training.
Objectives are important. We have case studies where individuals have been seriously injured and killed due to unforeseen flaws in training. Go to most modern martial art schools and start the sentence “You fight how you…” and those in attendance are likely to chorus “train!” And yet how many people really take this issue on board? How many hand back a weapon to the partner they have just disarmed to repeat the same procedure? They don’t realize that when this is done as part of the routine the brain doesn’t distinguish the action from the disarming action. How many students practice running away when they are supposed to be training self-defence drills? Again, this is why honest pressure-tests are so important. All these faults come out during these drills. I have seen students “stabbed” by practice knives they instinctively gave back the partner they had just successfully disarmed. I have also seen students caught out for not maintaining awareness after they have dealt with their first attacker.
The Hierarchy of Training is divided into three sections; they are – in order of importance – specific training, attribute training and functional fitness. This helps promote a type of time management model for martial artists to use for their own training.
For the sake of clarification I define each as follows:
Specific training is partner training that isolates a certain activity, strategy, tactic or technique. It revolves around progressive resistance and restriction.
Attribute training is more general and concerns cross training. If you imagine your core training to be a straight line journey to a destination then attribute training can be compared to the various stop-off point en route. You pick and choose these various areas of study and study them for their sake. However, you don’t allow them to distort your core training. You bring everything back to this straight line journey, enriching your experience but remembering your main objective. So you might gain the attributes of using your hands with speed and power from boxing, but you are never going to weld on the whole system you have studied without adaption to a straight line journey of self-defence, muay Thai or MMA.
Functional fitness concerns conditioning exercises specific for your chosen discipline. It’s all right being fit, but you need to be fit for purpose. If you are training to be a martial artist then there is little point in following a routine designed for bodybuilders or even power lifters. Using our compass metaphor the exercises we put more time into are those that provide the most functional benefits to achieve our martial arts objectives. The closer the exercise trains a specific desired action the better.
9. You’re very much a skeptic when it comes to martial arts, why?
I am very much a sceptic when it comes to most things! This might be down to the fact that my cultural ancestor was Phineas T. Barnum and I have learnt the rule of all those who have been close to chicanery – have fun, but don’t drink the proverbial Kool Aid! It might be because I was given the “Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies” when I was 10 years old. It might be because I have been involved in the seedier side of martial arts during my days working for a rather unscrupulous kickboxing instructor and had a rapid education in all the rubbish that permeates the world of martial arts. Perhaps I carry some guilt from those dark days and am trying to compensate. It could be a lot of things, but I guess it collectively comes down to experience and then making a rational decision on how I approach things.
Being a sceptic simply means I support critical thinking and base my opinions largely on science and empirical evidence. The whole world of martial arts could really do with more critical thinking. Many of the traditional system have become fused to philosophical or religious dogma and the reality-based and combat sport sides seem to be gradually getting more caught up in New Age stuff.
Scepticism does not provide absolute answers and requires constant questioning. Unlike dogma there is nothing to hide behind. There are no sacred cows. It challenges everything and defines a fact as a temporary position supported by the best available evidence.
This means everything and everyone is up for review. I want to see students who are really searching and unafraid to be critical of anyone. All the great old and modern masters of martial arts were sceptics. They affected change by spotting something they felt was at fault with the current order of things. Their attempts to correct that fault resulted in fascinating mutations within the martial arts culture that often advanced its progress. The truly great masters encouraged this type of criticism, considering the greatest compliment being the student who sought to build on their education rather than to just be a “yes man”. Unfortunately, what seems to happen in virtually every instance is that tribalism sets in and everyone starts adopting similar terminology – no matter how quirky – and the stars, the elders and champions of the tribe become irreproachable. Mix in all the brand protection that comes from either a deep-seated cultural tradition – “Don’t question your elders!” – or an outmoded approach to business. This slows down growth in a way that you don’t see in science.
The great scientist astronomer and sceptic Carl Sagen once said "In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion"
This is an observation I think we could apply to martial arts and is the reason why I wrote my series of articles, “Martial Arts Scepticism”. By understanding the nature of error and why we have difficulty in accepting our own mistakes, martial artists could vastly improve upon their whole teaching and learning process. Furthermore, it presents real humility, an attribute often promoted by martial artists but rarely seen. Our default function is to believe, which is why we seek easy answers. Critical thinking requires a real detached type of discipline. It doesn’t so much as seek to eliminate errors as to constantly test.
The world of martial arts is full of odd beliefs and concepts that are quoted in martial arts magazines without contention and conveyed to students as if they were facts. This includes pre-science superstition – the kind that the “Boxer Rebellion” of 1898 to 1901 should have disproven – and pseudoscience nonsense that the US military’s investments in the ‘70s and ‘80s should have thoroughly debunked. There is also loads of unscientific mumbo jumbo about psychology and nutrition that seem to permeate virtually every area of martial arts. This includes mixed martial arts magazines, which employ professional journalists and generally provide top quality information on training methods. Just going through my collection at the moment I have seen nonsense being spouted about PH balances in foods and fad diets as if it were mainstream science. In truth, the only time mainstream science comments on these fringe ideas are on websites like “Quackwatch”. Worse still, these magazines provide new appeals to authority, replacing the irreproachable masters of the past with the professional fighters of today to reinforce belief in pseudoscience. A good reading of Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” or MMA/fitness coach Jamie Hale’s “Knowledge and Nonsense” would be a great start for many martial artists to set up a rational and science-based filter for information.
Furthermore, we have a large amount of pseudohistory that has been a part of the martial arts scene since at least the turn of the century. Tang Hao was battling the myths about Bodhidharma and the Shaolin temple back in the 1920s. It would appear that his battle has been largely lost. Today, the likes of Iain Abernethy fight an uphill struggle to prove that the karate of the past little resembled what is mainly taught across the world today. The funny thing is that he is the one with all the credible and verifiable evidence and yet is in the minority. Myths have been passed down without question and repeated enough times for them to become “common knowledge”. It’s shocking how easily this can be done despite all the available material. However, I have witnessed many modern and quasi-traditional martial arts re-work their own histories to suit the preferred narrative. It’s quite shameless sometimes and can easily be done because of a general lack of critical thinking in the world of martial arts.
It is quite understandable that martial artists like to wax philosophical. Humans are like that. There is only so much we can do with violence. Most great fighter/teachers become philosophical as they see it as a new internal or mental challenge once they have exhausted the external physical side. We see this occurring throughout the martial arts. There are plenty of reasons why, but essentially you get good martial arts teachers who also happen to be keen philosophers. The wrong correlation is thus made. I argue that empirical scepticism ought to be a philosophy adopted by the martial artists of the 21st century. Scepticism really provides the martial artist with a tough internal battle and offers real, quantifiable knowledge rather than esoteric or spiritual promises.
10. Much of your training revolves around real world self-defense. What drew you to this path?
When all was said and done I found that this is at the heart of all fighting systems. Many have lost this objective and are quite happy to stay away from it today. However, they all began as either a means for testing combative prowess in a competitive context, as a means for training soldiers or custodians of the law or as a means for training civilians to defend themselves. There are other activities you can take up that develop better discipline, address philosophy at a far deeper level and even get you fitter than your average martial arts class. However, distilled martial arts are the practical study of violence.
Most civilians take up a martial art in this day and age to address their own issues with violence. The aerobics/martial arts hybrids and the commercialized New Age end of t’ai chi are perhaps the only real exceptions to this rule. Plenty of people will tell you, especially when they are deep into their training, that they didn’t study martial arts for self-defence, but deep down it is of interest to them. Most buy into the by-product myth in order to alleviate this insecurity. They think that by practicing their particular art they will be better equipped to deal with a real life threat of violence than they were when they started training.
This was an issue I kept stumbling over and I often found myself going back to Geoff Thompson, perhaps my biggest martial arts influence. I have trained in martial arts for sport, for art and as part of physical theatre. However, in the back of my head the issue of using it for its original purpose kept cropping up. Sakiado made me pretty confident; in fact, a little cocky and self-assured. I went from being the kid that avoided any form of confrontation at my secondary school for five years to someone others respected for being able to handle themselves. My experiences in taekwondo changed all that. The stricter rules on hierarchy and control undermined my confidence. At this time I started reading articles written by Geoff Thompson in Combat magazine. He seemed to be a complete heretic and I really objected to what he was saying about martial arts at the time. However, I couldn’t help but be drawn to his work. Then, not long after I left school, a few of sparring bouts with non-martial artists/circus workers that got out of hand suddenly burst my mystical martial bubble.
Suddenly all my high-kicking antics that won me praise, points, victories and status in my club and around my school friends met with the realities of fighting. With no institutionalized experience of martial arts fighting my opponents worried little about distancing and just charged in as hard and fast as they could. My kicks were caught nearly every time and I was thrown unceremoniously to the ground. With my nose streaming blood I ended up resorting back to tactics I had informally learnt outside of my formal martial arts education – in other words primal fighting. I grabbed my opponents’ by their tee-shirts and pummelled them with punches. At other times I covered up and charged in. I would say that a combination of fitness pure luck stopped me from being knocked out early on helped me give a good account of myself. However, I left the scene completely bewildered; my whole perception of what I had been studying for the past four years ago was completely shaken.
At this stage many would retreat into self-justification. I have interviewed many people and read accounts of others who somehow try to justify and correlate their martial arts training with the way they have handled real life situations. I am not dismissing these or even saying there isn’t some truth here, but for the most part during the early 1990s few clubs taught anything that remotely resembled real life situations. People like Gary Spiers and Dennis Martin were very much on the periphery in the UK. They were years ahead of their time. For the most part, self-defence was just a side service offered by most martial arts schools and generally just consisted of less aesthetically pleasing techniques built on the same teaching format as a regular lesson.
Fortunately for me, Geoff’s writing suddenly resonated with me and the experience broke completely through my martial haze. Dave Oliver (founder of the Taekwondo Association of Great Britain) had also taught a workshop at my local taekwondo club that focused on modern self-defence. I was his practice dummy for the whole day and that experience also hit home. For the most part all that was taught was impractical. It worked off the flawed self-defence concept of one-step sparring – a ludicrous teaching method that doesn’t even have the dubious appeal to antiquity going for it. The workshop had no pressure testing whatsoever and consisted of a series of complex combinations. Essentially it was selling locks, leg stamps, headbutts and takedowns to the mainstream taekwondoka of the day. However, the closing section of the whole workshop was worth the entry fee alone. Mr Oliver addressed the pre-emptive strike and the aggressive and deceptive approaches one can use in a real life situation. For that I was very grateful to him. It was, in other words, what Geoff Thompson articulated as “The Fence”.
Following my “awakening” I wrote to Geoff Thompson outlining my concerns. He sent me a handwritten reply on two occasions offering some great advice. I also bought two of his books “Animal Day” and “Weight Training for the Martial Artist”, both which had a profound effect on me. I would later end up getting most of his books and reviewing at least four of them. I even wrote the forward to one of them. However, it would be 11 years before I actually met Geoff face-to-face and then privately trained under his then most senior instructor, Matty Evans, for a while. I quickly got into the reality-based self-defence world. At different times I have experienced most the major modern combatives systems in the UK and international scene. I qualified as a self-defence instructor under Geoff and he is responsible for helping raise my profile in the martial arts world. Without Geoff’s help I wouldn’t have got into mainstream martial arts magazines and been in a position to tout my best-selling “Cross Training in the Martial Arts” documentaries in 2005 and 2006.
I was fortunate enough to train at a Mo Teague seminar and he remains my coach to this day. Being selected as one of his first instructors in the Hard Target System was a milestone in my career. Despite his impressive reputation I think he is seriously under-rated. Mo really does call it how it is and never settles for complacency in any aspect of martial arts training and personal development. He wants hard fighters and tough thinkers. He is a vociferous advocate of questioning, researching and acquiring knowledge. I really feel he is perhaps one the best things that has ever happened to the martial arts world; certainly in my lifetime. He promotes provocation and despite being an approachable and friendly person, doesn’t hold back in his assessment of the martial arts scene. He has no interest in towing the line or following a particular trend. I find that I agree on most things with Mo, but he won’t think twice about debating with me and I never feel like I have to worry about questioning anything he has to say. In fact, he encourages it and that’s the way we all continue to learn.
11. Fight, flight or fear syndrome, how much does this affect our abilities?
Understanding the fight, flight or freeze response is vital for understanding combat under stress. In essence this is when our body goes into emergency survival mode - flooding our body with a chemical cocktail, halting or slowing down various bodily functions, slowing down our cognitive process and drawing
blood away from the extremities and to areas of the body where it will best serve. Because it is a very primitive function and best understood in the context of living in the wild, where the threat of predators and competitors was a daily occurrence society has difficulty relating to it. Unfortunately this means that we most commonly activate in times when the response is not appropriate and we see it as a negative thing.
Mammals tend to react in one of three ways when they recognize what they perceive to be an immediate threat. They attack, they flee or they stay still. The fight or flight response is easily understood. The freeze response despite being the most common is also the most hotly debated. Some say that we freeze in order to play dead. This might serve us well if we were trying to hide from a large predator that responds to movement or if we were under attack it might make a predator loosen its grip, so that we might crawl away once the opportunity arises. Others postulate we freeze because of a sensory overload. It’s like we are caught between fight and flight. There is also a theory that it is literally the body’s self-destruct button. The brain makes a quick assessment of your capabilities and decides that nothing is going to work. In his study of survival, “The Survivor’s Club”, Ben Sherwood talks about a type of circular feedback loop that provides another theory for why we freeze. He suggests that our brain draws upon a previous experience to best deal with situation when it can’t bring one forward it goes back round again and we remain rooted the spot, devoid of any solution and awaiting instructions.
Understanding the primitive stress response in mammals and being able to train for it vastly improves combative performance. Bad information drawn from pre-scientific days has helped complicate our understanding of what we call “fear”. This is why we associate a person losing control of their bodily functions or shaking at the knees as being cowardly. In fact, we now know that a large percentage of people will urinate and/or defecate themselves as well as vomit when facing an extremely stressful situation. This isn’t because they lack “moral fibre”, it’s because that’s the way their body is responding in an emergency situation. It doesn’t need to deal with digestion when a person’s life is at risk. Shaking and going pale are just examples of the body’s response the chemical cocktail that has been automatically activated.
We also understand that fine and complex motor functions can be seriously impaired under stress unless certain actions are drilled under pressure.
12. Chaos is an inherit part of fighting. How do you train for it and what impact does it have on the fighter?
I chose the mythical hybrid the chimera as my club’s logo for two reasons. The first one was the cross-training nature of my school. However, the second reason was because of the chaos this negative symbol represents. I believe in immersing oneself in chaos as early as possible. This means that training should be unpredictable and present unique challenges to individuals. Although I teach some combination work - especially when we are involved in attribute training - I prefer students to learn instinctive combinations. This means they learn how to naturally respond to a target or a hazard rather wait for verbal commands.
If you are teaching self-defence hard skills you should introduce multiple attacker pressure tests, sight impairment and training in uncomfortable environments as early as possible. Students should also be pressured to understand how their bodies will respond under extreme stress. This includes exercises that bring out tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.
13. Could you explain the dueling myth as opposed to the real nature of an assault?
When a human faces another human their minds and bodies essentially see the situation as a duel. This is represented in the history of evolution and society. Some of the most primitive species respect the one-on-one fight to decide mating rights or leadership of a pack. Humans are very social animals, so this is going to be hardwired into us. We can see how it has been cultivated in the progress of society. We have seen rites of passage represented by one-on-one combat in most primitive cultures. Such bouts have also been held as funeral sacrifices, royal entertainment and as gladiator-style bouts for the general public. Even justice has been decided in trial-by-combat. I believe these progressed into formal duels and combat sports. So, it is really hardwired into us. Anthropologists and social scientists have noticed that inter-species violence is rarely fatal.
Obviously there are exceptions in certain cannibalistic species of animal. But, in general, most animals of the same species will circle or stare off each other and fights are brief flourishes that rarely result in serious injury. Humans and other primates tend to posture, show their teeth and make noises at one another rather than engage in a physical conflict. If they do clash, Desmond Morris noted, the struggle is often a grappling contest. This is ideal for deciding dominance without incurring serious injury. However, this is completely contrary to the nature of an assault.
When a person assaults another they assume the role of a predator. The other human is not an opponent; they are prey. Therefore the attacker doesn’t fight them in the same way. A human “match fight” no matter how much it lacks rules is a to-and-fro affair. It’s social violence. An assault is an example of asocial violence. There is no more to-and-fro between these two people than there is between a lion and a wildebeest. However, because the victim usually has only these evolutionary urges and social conditioning to fall back on he can easily assume that he is facing someone who wants to fight for dominance. This can lead to some seriously flawed decisions. Firstly, he might answer the challenge and underestimate the threat. A mugger who is desperate for your wallet might be “forced” to up the ante and use their weapon of choice in order to either get the money they need or, if this is his regular profession, to protect his reputation.
Secondly a person might go into a fight assuming it is going to be one-on-one only to discover that it is an ambush. Thirdly if engaged in the actual fight, the defender might prolong his involvement rather than seek to flee at the most available opportunity.
We involve ourselves in match fights at our peril. As far as I am concerned, fighting a dominance battle should be left to the cage, the ring and the mats. Outside of that, you really need to grow up. If you are forced to fight then you do so in order to escape the best that you can. If we take the assumption that we fight how we train - and case studies seem to back this up quite well - then fleeing needs to be a big part of a student’s objective in most pressure tests. I have often found that when a student who is only used to regular sparring is suddenly thrown into a multiple attack pressure test or ordeal they will often unnecessarily endanger themselves by trying to fight everyone rather than fight to escape. Furthermore, I have seen similar types fail at the pre-incident phase of a weapons situation. This is because they are conditioned to duel.
There is nothing wrong with regular sparring as part of one’s attribute training. I recommend it in order for an individual to get a more rounded awareness of certain techniques and basic principles. And if I had a choice between training in a class that taught full contact combat sports and one that only taught compliant techniques because “our moves are too deadly to test under pressure” then I would choose the combat sports every time. However, objective decides everything and that is the whole point of this particular argument.
14. How important is role playing to effective self-defense?
Role-playing and scenario-based training are very important in order to train realistically. If done correctly, they help train the often overlooked soft skills side of training. I have known students who love full-contact fighting of all types and can hit like the proverbial stream train. However, when it came to handling the non-physical pre-fight stage they came across as being completely out of their depth. Buying into our inherent instinct to duel, they engage in arguments with people who are just using words of abuse and antagonism in order to set them up for an assault. So, it is very important to get students used to seeing the hustle of the predator that uses aggressive or deceptive words to cover distance or as a set-up for physical assault. Like the chaos training, this is all about getting students to desensitize themselves. The student needs to understand is whether or not the person speaking to them is a possible physical threat and in order to do that he needs to able to spot the verbal tactic for what it is.
Geoff Thompson noticed, with amusement, that martial artists whilst learning techniques that were intended to maim and even kill other humans were often offended by the use of vulgar language in a lesson environment. He also noticed how such language was used as effective psychological warfare. People accustomed to real world violence fire offensive language like missiles intended to unnerve and throw a victim in the pre, in and post stages of a fight – pretty much like the great samurai Myamoto Musashi’s three kias.
Scenario-based training is, of course, another mainstay of reality-based self-defence. It distinguishes itself from combat sports and traditional martial arts by trying to replicate a contemporary situation as accurately as possible, so that a student might train in the right context. Many combatives instructors go to great lengths in order to do this, including renting out nightclubs, dressing in everyday clothes and taking a lot of their training outside. Although I see the benefits of this and endorse it to a certain extent this type of training does have certain inherent flaws. For example, the reason why we pressure test on mats with safety equipment and without hard obstacles is so that we can increase intensity and contact. So, the more you take away from the safety the less intensive a lot of training becomes. The superficial resemblance might be closer to reality, but does this really enhance the experience.
Another incredibly under-rated figure in the world of self-protection, cross-training and combatives is American instructor, Ron Goin, founder of P.U.M.A. (Practical Urban Martial Arts). Goin wrote a piece called “High Fidelity” that looked at certain flaws in what he calls “Physical Fidelity”. We can use this to describe scenarios that are designed to resemble the look of reality. This is can be compared to “Functional Fidelity”, which is a scenario that is designed to behave like reality. Goin cites some interesting research. Whilst the piece far from dismisses physical fidelity it presents an argument that a stripped down variation of scenario work is all that is needed to get the results required.
Another problem I have with physical fidelity includes the fact that real-life situations vary a lot. You might be able to tailor these scenarios to replicate typical situations that professionals will experience, going on where they are to be deployed and the likely environments they will be working in, but this is not the case for today’s civilian. In context of civilian self-defence, environments are numerous. The average person could be attacked at home, on the way home, in a shopping centre, in the street, in their place of work, in their car, on holiday and so on. You cannot train for each and every one of these environments and do justice to the tests. Then add to this the fact that the likelihood of someone in the developed world encountering a violent incident is very small. Most people will go through their lives having never been in a real fight. Although important I see an obsession with spending too much time trying to create what amounts to “reality” sets as being an example of what I call the pornography of reality-based self-defence.
So, in conclusion I am a supporter of role-playing and scenario work, but I think the functional objective must always be remembered.
15. Your training has been described as MMA for the street. How did you develop this ground up approach to fighting?
I guess this might be down to my respect for several aspects and concepts of MMA and also because I use it a lot as a regular source for attribute training. I like the compartmentalization of a physical fight provided by MMA – stand-up, clinch and ground. As a concept this can be perfectly applied to self-protection. Fights typically start within striking distance and, if not dealt with quickly, deteriorate into a stand-up grappling range. The ground is not inevitable as a lot of 1990s propaganda will have you believe, but it is an important range that should not be neglected. MMA also deals with the importance of transitioning through positions, which is integral to good self-defence training. I like a student to be able to throw straight and round strikes from standing, kneeling, seated and lying down positions as well as move from any posture.
As a form of attribute training, MMA provides a window into a plethora of full-contact sports that can help refine and develop self-defence hard skills. The student learns an all round toughness and an understanding of how to defend against a striker or a grappler within a full-contact, non-compliant environment. Boxing provides timing and experience with the world’s hardest and fastest hand strikers. Muay Thai adds in closer range striking tools like knees and elbows, and an amazingly efficient low round kick as well as a transition to the clinch range. Wrestling, judo and other stand-up grappling arts provide an excellent education in the clinch range, teaching takedown defence, positioning, taking another’s balance, experience with grapplers and tactile awareness. Submission grappling and Brazilian jiu jitsu provide some of the best ground movement and positioning you will ever get, as well as the execution and defence of strangles a high percentage type of unarmed attack.
Ground-up teaching and learning as opposed to the top-down model is the way of the future. We are seeing it with web 2.0 and the way businesses are developing. The top-down model simply sought knowledge and information from positions of authority – earned and otherwise. Ground-up learning seeks collaboration from a far wider pool of experience. The current MMA scene is very ground-up in that no one style has been able to dominate for long, the sport continuously mutates and develops in different directions due to their not being an artificial hierarchy or authority in place to protect a brand. No one owns MMA and there really isn’t much in the way of accepted styles. Self-protection training should be the same. It should replicate evolution by natural selection the way that society and business does. We should embrace interdependence – the collaboration of independent individuals.
16. If there was one piece of advice you could impart what would it be?
Be an individual and encourage individuality in others. Don’t rebel for the sake of rebellion, but don’t ever get complacent. This is what the C.S.I. approach is all about. Finding your own voice by determining exactly what your purpose is and find new efficient ways to achieve it. Deviation is good, so long as you return back to the original path. If, however, you return and decide this is not the journey for you then start making a new one.
Jamie, thank you very much.
You are very welcome. Thank you for your interest and the excellent questions.
About the interviewer: Michael Rosenbaum is a veteran martial artist of over 35 years and the author of Escaping Darkness