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Michael Thue Interview

Michael Thue is someone I consider to be one of the new breed of martial arts instructors making an impact today.  He respects tradition, but embraces a very progressive mindset. And like others who post on Iain's website Michael is also a fighter who isn't afraid to draw on sources outside of karate, nor blend them to suite his needs. I conducted this interview in early Novmber and thought it might interest some of you.

1.   Could you tell us about your background and what originally interested you in the martial arts?

I began my study of martial arts with Greco-Roman wrestling in high school and (Kobayashi) Shorin-Ryu karate.  I got interested in martial arts primarily for what I called “self-defense” reasons.  Although back then, by that I primarily meant that I wanted to ‘learn to fight’ like Jean Claude VanDamme and Steven Seagal; and I recall I didn’t much distinguish that from self-protection (or real fighting) for that matter. J  I eventually went on to achieve a 4th degree black belt in Shorin-Ryu, Matayoshi Family kobudo and Suikendo under Sensei Tadashi Yamashita via my immediate instructor, Sensei Brian Lentz of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Sometime around 2003 or 2004 I reached a personal plateau of sorts with certain aspects of my karate training and kind of ‘went walkabout’.  I ‘sampled’ judo, Filipino kali and panantukan, Thai boxing, police defensive tactics, Jeet Kun Do, so-called ‘reality based’ self defense programs, and Brazilian jiujitsu, each to greater or lesser extent.  Some of these arts I have only gone to a seminar or two.  Some I have researched in detail while not being certified in them as an instructor.  Others I hold, or am presently pursuing, some rank in.  Yet others I cross train in fairly regularly with other high level martial artists who are certified instructors in these systems.  I also travel for work so I occasionally will drop-in at a local school wherever I happen to be.  I always learn something.

 2.   It seems that you have gone on from your karate to develop your own personal style of fighting.  Why did you decide to do that and was it difficult?

Well, as I mentioned, I reached a point where I found that my karate training just wasn’t answering many of the questions I had about the art and human combatives in general.  I wasn’t really looking for another system to ‘replace’ my karate with so much as I was looking for answers that I had not been able to glean as a result of my karate training, and material to both enhance and supplement what I perceived to be ‘holes’ in my knowledge base.

Anyway, while I was out looking at other systems, I also started teaching small classes out of my home dojo— private lessons, really, I didn’t have many students.  But because I wasn’t subject to the constraints of anyone else telling me what I ‘had to’ teach under the dictates of membership in their group, I gradually started teaching the way I wanted to teach, and many of those methods were ways that I personally thought were more effective than some I had been exposed to.

Then sometime around 2008, at the strong encouragement of my close friend Kent Nelson (a highly accomplished martial arts instructor in his own right, who has followed a similar path himself), I made the decision to give what I was teaching an ‘official’ name.  This was not a casual decision for me, and I struggled with it for some time because to me, given my strong karate background, what I was teaching was ‘just’ karate in my head.  Also because as you know, there is frequently a certain stigma in traditional martial arts circles associated with people who ‘invent’ their own style.  And, I didn’t really feel that I had ‘invented’ anything, anyway— I was just teaching what I saw as an organized ‘blend’ or evolution of what I had learned over the years from various sources.

What my friend caused me to see was that I really had, at that point, deviated quite far afield from the ‘traditional’ karate training methods I had been exposed to coming up through the ranks of Shorin-Ryu.  He also managed to convince me that the ownership associated with giving ‘my’ way of teaching (my ‘martial art?’) a name would cause me to become more organized in how I approached it, which, incidentally it has.  So at that point, I named the material I was teaching “Unified Martial Arts” (“Sougu-ryu” in Japanese)…  I didn’t even bother to tell students at that point, it was all just in my head.  And, after awhile, I started teaching outside of the private lessons I had been doing up until that point and started a small class at a local gym, at which time I guess you could say I ‘made it official’.  Since then we have grown and contracted in several phases but the overall trend has been upward.  I’m really happy with the small group of people I have right now.

So, because it’s a deliberate blend of many things, you could call what I teach ‘mixed martial arts for street self-protection’, which I sometimes do, because it is.  And because I describe it that way, I sometimes get students who want to do sporting MMA— they don’t usually stick around long when the first thing I start them out on is swinging a stick at a bag to teach them basic body mechanics.  J  And, on the other hand, you could just as easily call what I teach plain-old ‘self-defense’… either way, it’s just ‘what I teach’ if you take my meaning.

Or, if you want, you could even call what I teach ‘my karate’, in a sense, the way Choki Motobu did.  My own belief is that ‘karate’ is not a uniform or homogenous label to begin with (nor is gung fu, nor is silat, etc.).  My belief is that a combative ‘system’ is defined at the level of the person doing the teaching— you could go to one boxing gym and get a guy like Freddy Roach as a trainer.  Or, you could walk into another gym and get cardio ‘boxing’ taught by a certified (?!) ‘instructor’  in a weekend boot camp.  Every experience of ANY art depends on the instructor, in my opinion, at least at first.

As far as being difficult, yes, it’s been extremely difficult for me in that I feel directly and personally responsible for giving my people ‘good’ information, and ‘good’ training methods.  There’s simply no plausible deniability of ‘middle-manning’ someone else’s drill, or technique, or say-so to your students with the assurance that something ‘works’ simply because someone else told you it does at some point.   I have had to put a **LOT** of thought into making my curriculum more organized, and into testing, debugging, and improving it.  Not just ‘what’ goes in, but also WHY it goes in, WHERE it goes in, and ‘what it’s in there to accomplish’ in the first place in terms of student skill development.  And of course, all of this goes way beyond the level of selecting specific tactics, but filters all the way down to drill selection and placement.  So all of that has been quite challenging.

And—  it’s also been extremely rewarding, too.  It’s been immensely satisfying to see what has previously been only ‘theoretical’ training concepts in my head for a long time actually ‘work’ the way they’re intended to and really bear fruit… along with those many accompanying instances of failure where something hasn’t worked quite like it was supposed to and needs further adjustment, thought, or even total deletion. J  But overall, I would say it has definitely been worth it— for me.  I don’t think the path I’ve taken is for everyone.

3.    What parts of your karate training eventually became problematic for you?

Well, first let me say that I really don’t believe that there are superior or inferior combative systems.  If you think about it, systems are inanimate—  they are simply bodies of ideas about how to APPROACH the subject of interpersonal combat.  So, in my view there are simply superior and inferior FIGHTERS.  I believe a ‘good’ aikido person will beat a ‘bad’ cage fighter any day of the week— and vice verse.

Then, beyond the skill, attitude and determination of individual fighters, I believe there are also both ‘generalized’ and ‘specific’ tactics that ‘work’ a high-percentage of time in a given combative context.  And finally there is both a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ time to attempt to use such mechanics.

Take ‘running away’ as the simplest example of a ‘defensive’ mechanic.  There may be a time to run, and there may be a time to stand and fight.  Most people ‘get’ that intellectually.  But for some reason, when you start talking about individual ‘combative’ tactics and the merits of this throw versus that punch,  stylistic preferences immediately get in the way and people’s prejudices frequently come out.  So this or that move is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ based solely on personal opinion, which of course is ridiculous.  In the end, something can only be ‘better’ if it’s MEASURABLY better when discussed and evaluated FOR SOME PURPOSE.  So ‘slipping’ might be better than ‘blocking’—  in some  situations.  Or ‘striking’ might be better than ‘grappling’— in some situations.  But change the contextual situation and the exact opposite might be true:  blocking or grappling might be just what you need.

So, all those prequalifying remarks now having been made, I learned a lot from my karate training and I don’t want to come across like I am putting it down.  I consider myself fortunate to have the very high quality instructors I have had, and I continue to have relationships with, and respect for all of them.  I even continue some aspects of my karate training, although not necessarily in the typical manner associated with ‘traditional’ training.  But essentially, my problems with my karate centered on two or three issues with regard to how training typically progresses—  especially with regard to kata training and what I saw as a certain disassociation between ‘fundamental’ karate basic training and it’s so called ‘applied’ training.

As early as my 5th-kyu green belt it began to bother me that there was an apparent ‘disconnect’ as I perceived it between the ‘basic’ motions of karate as compared to its ‘self-defense’ application, and still further with its ‘sporting’ application.  And, the more I cross trained, the more I realized that that’s decidedly in contrast to many other systems where, essentially, the ‘base’ units of the system practiced in ‘basics’ are (essentially) the same units that you see deployed in ‘actual’ fighting. Take judo as an example—  a tai otoshi in judo typically looks like a tai otoshi and is identifiable as such in competition, even though it might be modified in the later context to ‘fit’ personal body type or preference.  And its true that some motions of karate have what I call ‘integrity’ when viewed from an isolation-to-application perspective.  It’s also true that a great many don’t in my experience.

More importantly, however, that tai otoshi it is generally **TRAINED** the same way in each training sub-context.  Karate has a lot of tactics that, the way I experienced training, anyway, didn’t ‘translate’ directly to EITHER defensive or sporting applications, or at least didn’t do so the way we practiced them in ‘basics’, or in point fighting.  Which of course raises the question as to ‘why practice them at all?’

At the time, I didn’t know enough to separate these things—   i.e. what a martial art ‘is’ bio-mechanically speaking; what it was ORIGINALLY ‘for’ when it first evolved; how it claims to be used and validates itself PRESENTLY; and how its training progresses to effect THAT PARTICULAR END in students.  At times it felt to me almost like I was studying four different arts:  one called ‘basics’, one called ‘kata’, one called ‘self-defense’ and one called ‘sparring’.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of overlap or tactical connection between these areas, and that bothered me, especially as contrasted to say, my wrestling experience.  And the more I trained, the more and more this perceived gap seemed to grow, even though at the time I fully invested myself in learning each of those aspects to the best of my ability.

After I got a second degree black belt or so, that perceived disconnect reeeeeeally started to bug me, especially with regard to the fabled ‘kata question’.  This was particularly troublesome for me because kata occupies such a large percentage of training time in karate.  To make a long story short, I spent about five years of serious effort attempting to unravel the kata/ bunkai knot—  the freedom to do so in my own way and under my own direction was part of the reason I started teaching.  And, while that time was beneficial to some degree and I did learn some very valuable lessons, I’m not sure that I would say today that I think it was time either well or efficiently spent; or that the ultimate reward was worth the effort.

Or, maybe in retrospect it was, because I feel like I finally ‘answered’ the questions I had about the purpose and placement of such ‘choreographed patterns’ in training for myself for how I want to teach; even though that answer ultimately led me away from some inherited aspects of my ‘root’ fighting art.  And, I know a lot of karate people who would say that I am just plain ‘wrong’ about the subject.  But personally, I’m fairly confident that what and how I am teaching is ‘working’ to produce the desired outcomes I have in mind for students, which is what I am after, and which is what concerns me nowadays.  I am really not out to convince anyone that what I am doing is ‘better’ or ‘right’ for them—  it’s just been better and right for me.

Anyway, after having spent a lot of time thinking about, reading about, writing about, researching the subject in detail, talking with other high level martial artists, and personally experimenting—  the idea of ‘interpretive’ training using multi-tool-like motions (i.e. the kind that ‘might be this’ or ‘might be that’, or which need to be ‘read’ interpretively to have combative applicability) no longer has much usefulness to me anymore.  Unless, of course, **SPECIFIC**, combat-tested effective applications are taught alongside those motions.  But even then I have come to believe that this ‘interpretive model’ as I have come to call it is not a terribly efficient method of personal combative skill development.

In fact, at many different levels, one could even go so far to say that the entire ‘purpose’ behind UMA is an attempt on my part to both ‘work through’ and simultaneously ‘address’  many of the questions and problems I feel I eventually identified as existing within my own karate training.

4.    How so?

Well, most research I have been able to discover seems to indicate that it’s actually specificity in skill training that’s important, as the foundational basis to a student’s eventually developing what we might call ‘adaptive generalized skills’.  I explain it to students this way:  if you don’t have well conditioned SPECIFIC tactics, you have nothing to adapt between in a fight.  In my opinion, you need highly evolved and specific CAPABILITIES as the foundational basis to have adaptive ABILITIES.  i.e., Simply put, you need ‘options’.

Take grappling for example:  if all you know is a well-developed straight arm bar, that’s the only option you have to hunt for when you are rolling.  The minute you add a well-developed choke to your arsenal (etc.), you have now just doubled or tripled your available options, and you now have something to move TO or BETWEEN when your arm lock isn’t available, doesn’t work, or is thwarted by your opponent.  But, the key is that I said “well-developed” in both instances.  You can’t just get an intellectual understanding of those techniques and then jump in and go for it, you have to ‘own’ them.  So how do you do that?  You have to isolate each mechanic, develop its attributes, habituate its mechanical execution and make that both efficient and smooth, practice it slowly with a partner offering gradually increasing degrees of physical resistance, and THEN, after literally hundreds of reps putting it in muscle memory, only then do you finally attempt to do it on an opponent who is doing their darndest to stop you.  THEN you have a ‘well developed’ option.

So I guess that is all kind of a fancy way of saying I have come to believe that a student first needs to learn to associate a specific threat situation (whether that’s a mugging or a cage fight) with specific offensive and defensive capabilities.  Typically, most people rely on their instructor to do this, but I believe it’s imperative for so-called ‘advanced’ martial artists to develop this capability, and to eventually become constructively critical of themselves, their instructor and their root systems, such that training can ultimately become self-directed and self-sustaining.

Anyway, after they have been identified, the student need to train those so-called ‘high percentage’ mechanics within that contextual situation relentlessly to a point of personal ‘ownership’ and habituation like I just indicated previously—  i.e., they need to be able to ‘do them’ fluently, or ‘at will’.   I describe this to student’s as being ‘on impulse’—  e.g. as soon as your mind demands it, your body should be able to perform it.

Then they need to explore the adaptation of those mechanical actions, first to a variety of different relational positions and second, to a variety of situational scenarios appropriate to that combative context, all subject to an increasingly stronger degree of physical and emotional pressure-testing.  This is so that the student a) builds confidence, fluency and the ability to relax both mentally and emotionally; and more importantly b) they develop the ability to ADAPT, or ‘flow between options’, under pressure.  Which means they develop BOTH the ability to ‘fit’ such ‘ideal’ textbook-type motions to imperfect situations, AND they develop the ability to ‘flow’ or spontaneously change between such specific conditioned responses and skill sets ‘on impulse’.  In a word, they learn to ‘do’.

Then they need to CONNECT those acquired skills to other acquired skills, and practice in what JKD man Matt Thornton calls an ‘alive’ context that specifically forces them to change between skill sets.  Kata never did that for me, nor did some other forms of traditional karate training (line-work, one-steps), and this was more the direction that I wanted to take my own training in. 

5.    That’s interesting, but how does it relate to the problems you felt you were experiencing with kata training.

Well, weighing against this growing tension I felt about the apparent ‘disconnect’ I mentioned was the eventual discovery that the more I cross-trained in other arts, the more my own understanding of my katas (and karate generally) ‘opened up’ to me.  That was a huge epiphany.  But it’s important for me to stress that this didn’t happen as a result of even years of diligent kata and kihon practice.  Instead it was as a result of studying other systems in detail and then SUBSEQUENTLY being able to ‘see’ the motions I had learned from those systems ‘appearing’ within my forms, and often with regard to some of the ‘karate’ motions that I found so inexplicable.

So, at a certain point, I just came to question the value of having a ‘mnemonic’ or memory tool that was supposedly for the purpose of ‘remembering’ something I had already learned through other methods someplace else…  That’s kind of like making you memorize something like the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence really, really, well, and then telling you, after you have demonstrated that you already remember it and can recite it fluently, that you should write it down so you don’t forget it.  Only don’t write it down exactly the way you remember, word for word, write down a few generalized sort of short-hand Cliff’s notes about it that tell you what you ‘should’ remember… Don’t write down “Four score and seven years ago…”, write it down cryptically… i.e. ‘speech starts with a date’.

If you think about it, a lot of inherited karate kata is kind of like saying to yourself “remember the details of technique X” without writing down what those details are.  Again, there are very capable karate people out there who will tell me that I am just plain wrong about this subject.  But I never really found that in my own training.  Instead what I found was, I got quantifiably ‘better’ results the more specific I was with regard to my training in other arts, and with regard to training motions in controlled contexts OUTSIDE of structured patterns (i.e. more like a sport-oriented system would do).

For instance, I have participated in threads on the internet with people asking if Naihanchi ‘might be’ a grappling kata...  And of course, various supporting arguments can be made both ‘for’ and ‘against’ that concept.  But at a certain point, having grappled a lot, I just had to ask myself—  assuming one really, truly wants to learn to grapple (and is not instead seeking to justify a study of grappling by ‘finding’ it in their inherited forms)—  I had to ask what good it might be to have a (standing) solo representation of (grounded) partner-based movement, all of which has been supposedly subjected to deliberate obfuscation such that a person today is required to reverse-engineer its motions to arrive at a totally arbitrary subjective interpretation?  Especially as that might compare to simply, say, going out and getting competent instruction in an effective grappling art.  Personally, my katas never taught me anything about grappling.  Going out and studying grappling arts did—  and THEN I was able to ‘see’ grappling motions in my katas.  So, I will stand on the empiricism of my own experience, which is what I encourage everyone to do.

Another epiphany experience I had along the way was with regard to ‘making up’ my own forms, which was something I actually just kind of stumbled upon.  I had read in several places the idea that I should ‘visualize’ an attacker when practicing my inherited karate kata.  But I honestly had a great deal of difficulty doing that with any kind of specificity when practicing.  Think about it— if a person is telling him or herself that Motion X “could be” a wrist lock if they just changed it slightly this way; or, in contrast,  it “could be” a throw if they just changed it slightly that way, how can they possibly be ‘visualizing’ a specific attacker?  At that point, they aren’t even visualizing a SPECIFIC tactical response action for themselves, let alone attempting to worry about what the other guy is doing!  So I had trouble with that.

Then one day, sometime around 2005 or so, I found myself without a training partner but wanting to practice Sensei Yamashita’s Suikendo system, which is initially taught through choreographed partner practice.  So, lacking another body, I decided to ‘chain’ several of the patterns I had learned together ‘in the air’ and kind of ‘shadow box’ them, and to mark each change in pattern with a directional change, just so I could remember and have a vehicle to practice the movements WHEN I DIDN’T HAVE A TRAINING PARTNER AVAILABLE.  (That point is key).  Suddenly I found I could easily ‘see’ my attacker— but only because the attacks I was conditioning myself to ‘respond to’ were specific in nature, and therefore, so were my responses.  So I could actually ‘see’ the attacker’s arm as I cleared it.  I could see where I was hitting— precisely— on my virtual target.  And, because I had experienced how a body actually reacted to that strike ‘for real’ with another person FIRST, I could easily visualize my opponent’s physiological positioning for the next hit.  And that’s when I understood that what I had previously thought was ‘visualization’ was in fact ‘imagination’, and finally understood the difference.  Looking back, it seems kind of obvious, now, but there is (I believe) a lot of confusion, speculative rationalization and (mostly unintended) misinformation in karate today about the role and place of kata in training.  So it’s my belief that it falls to individual practitioners to find a method that makes sense to them.

Anyway, from there, I went on to do a little experiment.  I taught a small part of of my made-up ‘form’ as non-applied ‘motion only’ to a couple other less-experienced Suikendo students, and asked them to ‘interpret’ the motion as Suikendo.  And, what I found was, depending on the degree of experience, that some were more able to do this than others, but in ALL cases there was a great deal of ‘evaporation’ where the student couldn’t ‘back translate’ or ‘reverse-engineer’ into a specific application that they hadn’t ALREADY learned.  I also tried teaching it to less experienced students who were not at all familiar with Suikendo and the results were even more wildly disparate.  And that led me ultimately to make up a specifically NON-COMBATIVE ‘form’—  I think it was me pantomiming, in a stylized way from standing, me driving down the road in my car, shifting gears (I had a stick at the time), tuning the radio, and making a hand over hand hard left turn.  I taught that to an experienced martial artist, then asked them to interpret it— and got predictable results that were virtually no different than most inherited kata ‘bunkai’ I had seen in the past—  if I just changed the motion this way, the movement ‘might be’ this; if I just changed the motion slightly that way it might be something else.  And… ding ding ding… that’s when the dome light finally went on for me and I started wishing I could have all those years I spent chasing speculative interpretations back.  J

A final and concluding epiphany occurred when I began to look in earnest at how other systems use both what I now call ‘structured pattern work’ and free movement drills in different proportions in order to bring a practitioner from A to B, i.e. from ‘unskilled’ in the art to ‘skilled’.

For instance, I mentioned sporting systems above, who, in my book, generally tend to user more ‘literal’ ‘what-you-see is-what-you-get’-type training methods… There is no need to ‘interpret’ a jab or a cross in boxing, they are simply a ‘jab’ and a ‘cross’.  And once I started studying these other systems, and researching what I could find around the sports-psychology of physical skill acquisition in humans, I quickly came to conclude that REPRESENTATION of a MOTION-SKILL inside a form for solo practice and/or legacy curricular purposes is a fairly insignificant part of learning **TO DO** that skill.

It’s kind of like PANTOMIMING dribbling a basket ball and expecting that exercise will teach someone about the skill of ‘ball handling’—  even if you developed a ‘perfect’ illustration containing all the possible sensitivities of dribbling in one or several motions—  you could even have an entire ‘dribbling’ kata—  this obviously wouldn’t impart the SKILL of dribbling to a player.  But in karate, we tend to cling tenaciously to such ILLUSTRATIONS of physical movement, which I believe has the deleterious effect of keeping us focused on how to successfully REPLICATE **the illustration** of the motion itself, while at the same time prohibiting us from learning to USE the motion in a tactically adaptive way.

Nowadays, this idea—  the similarities and differences in physical skill development  between combative systems—  is actually a pretty fascinating subject to me and it occupies most of the time I spend thinking about and journaling about training.  It’s also to a large degree behind my desire to survey as many arts as I have—  I fully understand that I could never ‘master’ any of them in such short lessons, but I learn SOMETHING from the exposure every single time.  And more importantly, I get a sense of how they train, which is different from instructor to instructor as I mentioned above.  So looking at HOW training commences in different systems has become something of an ongoing research project for me.  The fact is, as you might imagine, there is an absolute plethora of HUMAN similarities between systems in this capacity— probably more similarities than there are differences as Guru Dan Inosanto puts it.  And there are some unique aspects as well.  So this study has really improved my instruction overall.

6.   How do you organize your curriculum?

The first step to organizing our curriculum was to acknowledge that assaults and ‘street fights’ frequently cross all ranges of combat— standing, clinching, asymmetric and grounded— and that they frequently employ the full gamut of human attacks— striking, grappling, choking, so-called ‘ground and pound’, etc.  So that was where I started, with the idea that students needed skills to deal with attacks in all of those combative sub-contexts.

Honestly, this wasn’t too much a leap for me, because this was a good portion of how I had learned ‘self-defense’ from my original karate instructor—  it’s just that, as I said previously,  in doing so, we didn’t really use the ‘base’ elements of our system in an ‘out of the box’ fashion.

A second key idea in the development of our curriculum was, if I was claiming to teach students ‘self-protection’ skills, that I was actually doing them somewhat of a disservice if I needed them to spend two to three years training with me before they learned ‘enough’ for the material to be actionable in self-defense.  I wanted people to be able to pick up something that was, if not immediately actionable, that at least achieved that outcome in a very, very short amount of time.  I’m talking a couple of lessons at most, and growing outward from there.

After that, I folded in a third idea I picked up from a DVD of Paul Vunak’s, basically his interpretation of the Paretto principle. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but Vunak made the assertion that, given literally ‘any’ combative system out there, only 10% or so of its tactics are truly combatively useful for what he called “self-preservation” purposes.  The other 90% he asserted were more for dealing with one of two situations in achieving what he called “self-perfection”:  First, the remaining 90% was for the practice of secondary tactics that he called “incidental and accidental”— i.e. those for dealing with spontaneous opportunities that you just happen to commonly ‘fall into’ or that frequently MIGHT just ‘come up’ in combat.  And second, for the student’s development of supporting mental, physical, and emotional “attributes” that serve to improve the overall effectiveness of such primary self-preservation tactics and supporting secondary tactics.

This was an idea that made a great deal of sense to me at a lot of levels.  If you look at them, most self-protection-oriented arts START with common human acts of violence (i.e. McCarthy’s HAOV).  It’s from there that they move on to trend toward what I call ’complexity’—  i.e. they add in superfluous ‘stuff’, sometimes simply so that a teacher can ‘stay ahead’ of his or her students in terms of personal skill and maintain their interest (or revenue).  Or, they start to focus on the hypothetical question (sometimes even without meaning to) of:  ‘What do we do if we have to fight somebody who fights like we do?’  i.e., they get really good against defending against THEIR school of thought’s ‘proprietary’ ways of attacking.

So wrestlers get good at fighting other wrestlers, karate people get really good at defending against nice, straight karate punches and thrust kicks at full extension, knife arts get good at ‘tapping’ or countering the angles that they feed, and the like.  And everybody has all sorts of ‘reasons’ justifying why this practice is all so sensible.  But unfortunately, I would assert that ‘real’ untrained assailants frequently tend not to play by the dictates and justification set down by that system.

As proof of that, think about the last white belt you worked with was.  If your experience has been anything like mine, likely that person was tense and stiff as heck and wildly unpredictable—  the former because they had not yet learned where they were physically ‘safe’ within the system, and the latter because they had not yet learned how they are ‘supposed’ to move.

Meanwhile you, as a diligent black belt have conditioned yourself to expect them to move like you do—  i.e. just like all the other black belts do. 

The danger, of course, is that the system potentially comes to spend more training time learning to fight people who use ‘their’ proprietary-type of tactics than they do preparing to fight people who use untrained, unpredictable tactics; or worse, who might use acquired tactics learned from OUTSIDE their system.  And really, how can you think that you are preparing to ‘combat’ the tactics of a DIFFERENT method of fighting anyway, unless you go out and gain at least SOME fundamental understanding of how they actually fight and then train against those tactics?  (Or better yet, train with someone who is fluent in those tactics).

So, over time, styles trend toward ‘self-inflicted self-pollination’; and the system, while it grows, grows in a lop-sided direction that is (potentially) not in keeping with its original self-preservation intent— kind of like it grows in on itself.  And, when you add in the idea of cross-generational transfer of ideas and methods (along with the natural evaporation of knowledge that occurs at such times) it’s no wonder that entire systems obsolesce over time and need periodic renewal.

So, taking all of the above into consideration, and working from my own interpretation of Vunak’s 10-90 theory, I structured our system to be experienced in two primary ‘domains’. The first domain is what I call “Core Combatives”, where it is intended that the student learn a narrowly defined gross motor skill set that is both heavily redundant and widely applicable to both a) all physical ranges of interpersonal combat and b) which ‘works’ equally well in a large variety of civilian threat contexts.

Then the second domain is what I call “Martial Artifice”, and by ‘artifice’ I mean ‘personal skill development’, not flashy hocus pocus.  This domain is the individual person’s on-going individual life-study of what society tends to call “the martial arts”—  i.e. where they develop IN-DEPTH, and PERSONAL so-called ‘advanced’ level understandings of different tactical ‘skill subsets’—  striking, grappling, locking, wrestling, and the like.  But ideally, these ‘advanced’ skill-subsets are simply layered on top of, and always return to, the foundational core combative skill set.

Put another way, I want students to quickly master the “10%” (+-) of our curriculum which is designed to be applicable in “90%” (+-) of ‘most’ common civilian threat contexts.  That would be our ‘core combatives’.

Then, they have the rest of their lives to study the remaining “90%”(+-) of the system, which in reality, is only intended to cover “10%”(+-) of possible threat scenarios (and which ideally, would actually involve a high degree of independent study from OUTSIDE the system).  This is the domain where you learn that one special ‘move’ for fending off a pack of rabid blue-haired old ladies using close-quarter umbrella tactics at a Thanksgiving-weekend shopping sale (Yes, there is a move for that).  J   The percentages are totally arbitrary and impossible to prove, of course, they are just there to give one an understanding of the concept—  the ‘core’ skill set is purposely kept small, fundamental in  nature, and highly generalized; while the martial ‘artifice’ domain is more specific, more long term,  and more open to students pursuing certain avenues at their leisure  and /or based on their personal interest.

So, returning to the idea that ‘real’ street fights potentially cross all ranges and skill sets without discrimination, our core combatives curriculum is then further broken down into a sequentially experienced “offensive”, “defensive”, “grappling”, “ground” and “weapons” sub-strata, with a culminating “integration” unit.  Each of these curricular ‘pods’ is designed to be experienced in stand-alone isolation, but cumulatively over a year or two of training.  So, no matter at what point a student starts the curriculum, they can be ‘plugged in’ with the rest of the class, I don’t really have ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ classes or material.  And, at the end of one or maybe two years at the outside max, they have ‘owned’ a fundamental skill set that is widely adaptable to ‘most’ threat contexts.   From there they simply go in to improve their personal ‘game’ (as a mixed martial arts guy might say)—  i.e. they go on to develop and refine THEMSELVES— by mastering additional tactics relative to individual subsections of the ‘martial artifice’ domain.

But I should probably say ‘theoretically’ at this point because no one has made it that far yet.  J  It’s obviously a young program and more than half of it is still in my head.  I’m sure it will change a great deal as we go forward.

7.   What role, if any, does kata play in your training today?

Today, I have become a big believer in the method of teaching ‘application’ first, with static patterns [e.g. ‘kata’ or ‘forms’] as a CURRICULAR ‘back-stop’ to that practice intended mostly to help students ‘remember’ different sections of our curriculum.

You’ll note that I said that this is primarily a CURRICULAR purpose.  The primary reason that such patterns exist in our system is simply to provide students with a physical ‘body learning’ tool and repository for a particular curricular ‘section’; mostly so that they can make sure they have all the pieces.  In fact, this is exactly no differently than if I gave them a written list with the names of a dozen techniques on it with a half a dozen corresponding ‘quality control’ check-points for each and then told them they were responsible for ‘knowing’ the list and its elements from memory.  Remember, ‘originally’ back in its misty nascence, kata was a PRE-LITERATE training tool.  It’s somewhere between ‘possible’ and ‘highly likely’ that many teachers and certainly an even greater number of students probably couldn’t read or write at any significant level.  So initially, kata was simply a body-memory tool, in my opinion.

In fact, I even go so far as to tell students that our forms are specifically NON-combative in nature.  But they’re still very important because (quoting Mafilindo Silat Guru Harley Elmore from one of his DVD’s) “Patterns exist because people need a starting point”.  I think that’s very true, and in this capacity, I’ve found pattern training can be very, very useful.  So we still use ‘forms’ in our curriculum, but in highly specific ways that vary from inherited karate kata practice in several ways:

First of all, our forms are what I call ‘actual’ motion illustrations.  That means that the motion is a ‘literal’, non-interpretive depiction of ‘real’ application that has been recorded, in an unmodified state, almost like a video fragment or still picture would be ripped from a larger motion-capture video.  And, just like we understand that ‘watching a movie clip’ of something isn’t the sum total of the ‘real’ thing, nor is it the ‘whole’ thing itself; and that even watching an entire movie on some subject is likewise not the ‘whole’ thing; so too are the motions within our forms also not the ‘totality’ of the thing they illustrate.  But they do give **ONE** clear, non-interpretive DEPICTION of an actual motion application— because people need those starting points.

I explained it to a student once this way:  say I showed you a picture of a cow.  You would understand immediately that the picture was not itself a cow.  You would also understand that a ‘real’ cow would probably look somewhat different than the cow illustrated in the picture.  You would also understand that not ‘all’ cows look like the picture.  You could, however, upon thorough examination of the picture and its details, likely be able to go out to a nearby field and pick out a cow from a horse.  And, you would also understand that the picture simply gives you a point of reference.  It does not, beyond a certain extremely elementary level teach you ABOUT COWS— how to be around them, how to care for them, what they are like, what they smell or feel like, where and when they might be dangerous, and etc. etc. etc.  The picture is just a REPRESENATION of the ‘real’ thing.  To me, martial forms and patterns are no different.  But they DO give people that initial point of reference, just like you would show flashcard pictures to a toddler to cement and distinguish certain representative ideas— ‘dog’, ‘cow’, ‘horse’, and the like.

The next point of deviation in our use of forms is one of what I would call ‘training emphasis’.  When I was first learning karate, solo basics and solo kata practice, supplemented by a large amount of line work and, to a lesser degree impact training, formed the backbone of my learning.  In the UMA curriculum, even once a student has learned a ‘whole’ form, there is no real emphasis placed on SOLO forms practice for its own sake.  Since they are mostly non-combative INVENTORIES, the student doesn’t really learn anything worthwhile from their repeated practice once they have ‘owned’ the mechanics contained therein at the level of being able to successfully replicate them ‘correctly’.

Accordingly, the student is simply required to ‘know’ and be able to walk through and explain, in detail, the fine points of the pattern.  The emphasis in class, and even in solo training, is instead placed on taking mechanics **OUT** of the form and ‘doing something’ with them in live motion situations.  After a basic, basic level of familiarization and ownership, I would much rather have the student work APPLICATIONS of a particular mechanic subject to real stimulus, real timing and real resistance with a partner; or have at least have them ‘shadow box’ the mechanics to timed rounds like a boxer or Thai boxer while visualizing real applications (the way I described above); or have them train attributes of the motions using timing or impact equipment, etc.  The pattern is simply there like a reference book, so that they know that they haven’t forgotten anything.

Also unlike karate, where I previously learned a ‘whole’ form in a couple of long sections, the approach I have settled on is to ‘build’ the students’ acquisition of a particular pattern one motion at a time over several months of application-oriented lessons.  To do that, one needs to look at how we go about attempting to ‘set’ a specific skill.

8.   So how do you go about that process with your students?

Well, for instance, in one of our first beginner patterns, we have (as a familiar example) a mechanic that a boxer would call a ‘bob and weave’ and a wrestler would call a ‘duck under’.  I usually try to focus on about two or three mechanics per class—  half a dozen at most if they are related.  It’s pretty amazing to me how quickly most students pick things up when you are focused on only one or two things at a time— and how easy it is to overwhelm people by trying to download too much, too fast, which is something I am definitely guilty of on occasion.

So, several classes might focus predominately on ‘applications’ of the bob and weave / duck under mechanic: first through isolation of fragmentary aspects of the mechanic:  i.e. by first starting with simply the ‘bob’ or level change only, say versus a structured ‘feed’ such as a predetermined punch or grip attack from standing.  Then, after a dozen reps or so, when the student has that down, we fold in the ‘weave’.  Then maybe the student will explore the mechanic as a whole through a couple of rounds of ‘dynamic’ motion reps against that static feed.

Through this the student learns first to isolate the ‘fine points’ of the bob and weave motion, then to habituate it, and, finally, to a very beginning degree, to identify what stimulus ‘trigger’ cues to watch for.  With further practice, the student learns how to perform the mechanic efficiently and with a more highly developed sense of timing in response to that ‘real’ stimulus— whether that stimulus is the perception of an incoming ‘attack’ or the perception of an ‘opening’ to attack themselves.

So now you have a person who can bob and weave vs. a ‘structured feed’— i.e. an attack where they ‘know’ in advance exactly what is coming at them.  From there, the student goes on to learn how to apply or ‘use’ the mechanic ‘on impulse’ the way I defined that above, with correct timing through the introduction of what I call ‘variability drills’.

A simple example would be what we call an ‘attacker-option’ variability drill (i.e. where the attack is still structured, but the ‘feeder’ is free to use either hand, as a simple example, and does so in an unscripted fashion).  Or, we’ll do a ‘surprise’ insertion type drill:  for instance, we’ll set aside the bob and weave momentarily and go on to, say, a straight-punch parry drill.  But then, at some arbitrary rep determined by the attacker and unknown to the defender, he or she will throw in a ‘surprise’ haymaker with either hand and the student is required to successfully apply the bob and weave mechanic in response.  So they are still isolating the mechanic, but now they are doing so under a semi-structured feed and under the added pressure of ‘really’ having to recognize a specific trigger stimulus.  (These are ‘gloved’ contact drills, so they have an incentive not to be lackadaisical. J)  And from there we go on to add countering and the like.

When we drill, I like my people to run at about 80% efficacy because then I know they are getting a strong ‘seating’ of the skill with lots of successful reps, but I also know that they are still challenging themselves to ‘tighten up’ a motion’s performance.   So they know that for every ten reps, if they are doing well, they SHOULD BE getting hit at least a couple of times.  If, on the other hand, they are only successful one out of ten times, they know they need to slow down and back the pressure off (or their partner does.)  Likewise, if they are pulling off every rep flawlessly and without real effort, then my view tends to be that they aren’t pushing themselves enough and both partners know to ‘turn up the heat’ a little or add even more unpredictability to it until they are again landing in that 80% success zone.  I don’t believe that it’s necessary to experience every rep flawlessly, and getting hit teaches you things too.  (I once heard a psychologist refer to such an exercise in parenting as ‘optimal frustration’… just enough difficulty to be frustrating and trigger problem solving but not enough to be overwhelming.  J)

The goal of ‘variability’ drills is twofold:  first, to thwart the student’s subconscious desire to anticipate an incoming known attack or exploit an opening such that they start to move before it actually presents.  We have all seen and done this in training—  for instance, as you start to get ‘better’ at a new defensive skill in response to a structured feed, you frequently start to ‘jump’ the attack by acting at the same time as the attacker, or even before the attack, like you have a mystic sixth sense or something.  That’s great for demo’s, but not too hard to do once you have seated a motion at a basic, basic level.  Let’s face it—  it’s not terribly difficult to block or evade something that you ‘know’ in advance is going to happen.  So to prevent that anticipation, your partner needs to periodically ‘surprise’ you with something in order to ‘keep you honest’.  And second to heading off such anticipation, variability drills teach people to watch for a ‘real’ stimulus cues as I mentioned above.  Or maybe its better to say that that is HOW they teach you not to anticipate in isolation.  (Actually I think ‘defensive anticipation’ is an important skill to ultimately attempt to develop but we are talking about isolation here.)

From there we go on to drills that adapt the target mechanic to other contexts.  So, if we have been practicing the mechanic for most of a class as a ‘bob and weave’ against wide punches, we’ll do a round or two that focuses on how the mechanic adapts (or doesn’t adapt) to straight punches, or on how the exact SAME body mechanic can be used differently from a grip attack to achieve a ‘shoot’ to the opponent’s rear-quarter position and produce a takedown.  Or maybe we’ll look at how, if you are on your back with an attacker punching or stiff arming from the mount, you can parry or ‘shuck’ the punching arm by and cinch up to their torso before executing a reversal.  But we classify these as all being the ‘same’ movement, or at least in the same tactical ‘family’.  In terms of application training, I really want students to think more in terms of objectives (i.e. ‘avoid incoming punch by whatever means necessary’) than in terms of which specific tactic they should be using to avoid it.  I’ve found by grouping related things and teaching them as the ‘same’ mechanic, that tends to delimit options, which lessens mental ‘freeze’ in students somewhat and puts the focus on attacking position:  i.e. where is his arm in space and how can I get under it vs. where am I and which ‘move’ do I use from here?  One is an attacking mentality, the other is a reactive mentality.

Next we look at connectivity drills… so, staying with the bob and weave example, I will have the student ‘find’ the mechanic by “prefixing” motions of their own in front of it—  i.e. they get to ‘attack’, and at an un-choreographed point, their partner will swing a haymaker or front hook with either hand and they need to bob and weave successfully.  Or, as another example, I will have the student attach counter-offensive motions to the mechanic by “suffixing” it.   In this case we start with a structured feed INTO the bob and weave, but the student is then required to ‘chain on’ several effective follow-up strikes of their own choice.   What’s more, if they perceive an opening, they are allowed to ‘bridge’ with strikes to ‘targets of opportunity’ that may present, or to employ tactics which may not ‘officially’ be part of our curriculum, because I want them thinking in terms of opening, position, and available target, not in terms of regurgitating what I have shown them.   The repetition of what I have shown them does come out— it’s just that I try not to ‘direct’ how it comes out, I want that to be spontaneous. But that’s because at this point, we are focusing on ‘adaptive generalization’ the way I mentioned in response to one of your earlier questions.  

If instead, we are focused differently, say on the student’s habituation of a specific combination, then I do structure the movements I want students to perform.  But if I am prescribing a specific action as the instructor, then we are all the way back up to ‘isolation’ training—  it’s just that in that case, we happen to be ‘isolating’ a specific combination of mechanics, instead of a single mechanic.  It’s important to understand that that is a different kind of training, and you need to do both in order to facilitate skill development.  And you need to ultimately culminate in totally free sparring or scenario type exercises where anything goes, subject to the constraints of safe training.  I’ve come to beleive that it’s the degree of (artificial) arrangement and choreography, along with degree of cooperation (or non-cooperation), that are the important control variables in training.  In my experience, you can have highly contrived training that LOOKS like you are free fighting and which deludes you into thinking that that is what you are learning when entirely the opposite is true.

Accordingly, it’s also very important to note that these are mostly ‘play’ exercises… the student is free to pick THEIR OWN entries or follow-ups to prefix/ suffix drills, provided they ultimately lead ‘to’ or ‘from’ the target mechanic.  Of course we do some structured training in this regard, but in prefix and suffix drills they learn what ‘works’ from different positions largely by trial and error.  They also ‘learn’ (i.e. **SELF**-IDENTIFY) where a structured combination might ‘plug in’.  And, I have seen what I believe is a higher degree of both what I would call ‘natural customization’ of the system to fit the student (instead of the other way around), as well as a higher degree of observed retention through such exercises.

The bottom line is, in my view, the student cannot acquire ‘real’ adaptive S/R discrimination skills that FIT THEM—  either the defensive skills necessary to react to a specific attacks, or the offensive skills necessary to exploit a specific opening— without a ‘real’ stimulus experienced in an increasingly more emotionally-pressuring environment. (I’m definitely not the first person to say that.  J)  So everything we do is focused on trying to produce that outcome.

Through this process, the student gets a lot of increasingly more intense application-oriented lessons, first in how to ‘do’ a mechanic, and next in how to ‘use’ a mechanic.  But even though I consider many such exercises to be part of what I call ‘applied’ learning, I also still consider most of the above to be “attribute-development” oriented training for the most part— i.e. the kind that SUPPORTS so-called ‘real’ combative application.  And as I said, this typically occurs over several classes, not just one.

Then as a final stage, we look at what Vunak calls ‘actualizing’ the skill… i.e. we try to put it in a real, “alive” DOING context.  So for instance, leaving the BW mechanic example aside, tonight’s class was primarily on the various defensive responses to straight punches.  So, we spent six or seven rounds per side with each partner again isolating various SPECIFIC responses to straight punches which I would assign them—  this parry, that parry, slip, head destruction, etc.   Then, by contrast, the final few rounds were focused on completely ‘free’ activity— within the parameters of straight punching and defending.

The purpose of this last drill was not yet completely free defense or free sparring, we were merely isolating an ASPECT of a ‘free’ street-defense ‘game’ or skill set—  no differently than an MMA fighter might isolate their ‘ground game’.  So, we were only looking at ‘defending the straight punch’ tonight.  But the focus at this point shifts from correctly ‘regurgitating’ this or that structured mechanic ‘correctly’ with all of its technical details in place, to the tactical objective of simply ‘not getting hit’— by whatever means the student can make available.

So tonight what that meant was the feeder simply threw straight punches at the pace and timing necessary to maintain that 80% +- effectiveness mark.  Then, the ‘defenders’ job was simply to evade, stop, parry, or destroy those punches— by whatever means they had managed to soak up (or not soak up) in that class, or even with additional means of their own—  simply without getting hit.

Through this process, the student goes from ‘learning how to do **A TECHNIQUE** which is a lesson focused on the technique itself where success is measured by ‘correct’ REPLICATION in a controlled environment, to an objective-oriented lesson were success is measured differently— not by how well the student replicates a PARTICULAR motion, but by whether or not the student successfully executes from a tactical standpoint, i.e. ‘at all’.  It’s simply hoped at this point that ‘technique’ will INFORM the application, but it’s not a requirement.  And generally it does.  Most nights.  J

9.   And then you go back to forms?

Exactly.  So, by now a hypothetical student has had several hundred reps on ‘applied bobbing and weaving (or whatever the target mechanic might be); conducted in increasingly more emotionally-pressuring, live-motion contexts.  Then— and only then— once the APPLIED skill is solidly ‘seated’, do we then ‘add’ the new mechanic to the REPRESENTATIVE form we are ‘building’ over time— strictly so that they have a ‘body method’ for ‘remembering what they are supposed to remember’.  So they add a new body-picture to the form.  And when they move through the form, it’s almost the physical equivalent of watching a picture slide show on your computer… How many times have you done that and looked at a picture of a day you’ve spent someplace or someplace you’ve been and all of a sudden all of the details of that EXPERIENCE come flooding back.  But that’s entirely the opposite of trying to look at a picture of a place you haven’t yet been and trying to imagine what it might be like to go there.  They key, I believe is in triggering that memory of prior experience, because that’s what I believe ‘training’ essentially is:  an attempt to ‘pre-experience’ something you might eventually face as realistically as is safely possible.

At the point that we add a mechanic to a form, the pattern might only consist of a motion or two.  Or it might be near the end of that curricular ‘section’ and the pattern might contain a couple of dozen mechanics at that point.  The critical point is that the pattern, in most cases, POST DATES the ‘applied’ lessons.  And in this way, the student can use the body ‘picture’ of the idealized motion as a ‘placeholder’ to SIGNIFY or represent the embodiment of all of the applied lessons for later mental recall.  But our training focus is not on PERFORMANCE of the form beyond a basic, basic, elementary level.  I tell students from day-one that the focus of our system is on taking the mechanical ‘tools’ DEPICTED by the form OUT of the ‘toolbox’ and on both INTERCONNECTING and USING THEM to some combative purpose.  If your tools are simply kept locked up in a metaphorical ‘toolbox’, they are as good as useless for ‘doing something’ with them—  for instance, like plumbing a metaphorical sink, building a metaphorical house, fixing a metaphorical engine, etc.

From there, once the form has been additively ‘constructed’ in its entirety, we frequently go on to add a ‘two person’ variant.  So for instance, for our Offensive Core Combatives form, there is also a corresponding ‘standard’ ‘mitt-holders pattern’ that accompanies it, male-female style.  So a beginning ‘hitter’ can practice hitting in an elementary sequence, as well as in isolation.  At the same time, a beginning ‘holder’ can start to learn what the basic elements of ‘good’ mitt placement are, which ‘holds’ signify which techniques, how and when to provide safe counter pressure to protect both partners, etc.

Likewise, Our Defensive Core Combatives form has a two-person version, where one side feeds attacks, such that the other side can mentally ‘walk through’ and review the individual defensive mechanics, inventory style.  And again, as the ‘defender’ is learning defensive mechanics, the ‘feeder’, if they are paying attention, is also learning properly structured offensive mechanics.

But mostly, the defenses are structured to be based on a ‘feed’ of common attacks—  for instance, those indicated in Sensei Pat McCarthy’s HAOV concept—  human ‘habitual acts of violence’.  So for instance, one of the feeds for our defenses is against so-called grab and punch ‘hockey-fighting’… not because I want student’s to pick up that habit as a primary offense, but because a) its common for them to encounter this behavior defensively from an untrained person and b) on a bad day, they are likely to do it under stress anyway.  So they might as well get good at doing it.

Personally, I have come to believe that, while they may not have been the precise methods I have settled on personally, such ‘application first’ methods were probably how things were taught in traditional arts like karate ‘originally’ (whenever that might have been).  Which, LOL, based on your book, is a perspective I’m guessing that you might share.  J

 As I said, I think perspective on this issue is slowly changing, and for the positive.  I think there are individuals out there (Patrick McCarthy and Iain Abernethy come to mind) who are doing stellar work with inherited karate kata.  But so far as I know, there is a big push from both of them to teach application in parallel to the ‘traditional’ motions, which is why I find their approaches to be sensible.

10.        What do you think of RBSD?

Well, first let me say that I appreciate it.  However, personally, I don’t like the term ‘reality based’, for two reasons.  The first is:  training, no matter how intense, is NOT reality—  “reality” to me, is what happens to you if and when you have the misfortune to face an actual threat.  Further, reality is FULLY unpredictable…  I don’t care how long you train, there’s just no guaranteeing that you are going to have the skill set needed to face whatever threat fate ultimately chooses to deal you.  **THAT** unfortunate fact is ‘reality’.

The second reason I don’t like the term RBSD is a personal conviction that ALL combatives training should be ‘real-ISTIC’ in its approach to how it ‘trains’ (a.k.a. ‘prepares’) people to face whatever threat context it claims to be preparing them for.

So in my view, ALL combative systems, to the degree that they claim to be ‘fighting arts’ should be ‘reality based’, by which I mean that they should make training as realistic as possible while recognizing that training is still ‘just training’— i.e. it is an attempt to develop some degree of what I earlier called ‘pre-experience’ with a particular threat context in as close of FACSIMILE as is SAFELY possible.  I joke with students that no matter how much we might wish it, there’s just no way to practice full force neck breaks and still ‘recycle’ our training partners…  So how do you ‘know’ they work?  Well, you use your intellect and common sense.  You seek out and listen to the experience—  the successes, mistakes AND misfortunes—  of people who have actually experienced the threat context you are training for.  And you test everything to the best degree that you safely can.

If I’m preparing for a cage fight and Anderson Silva or Randy Couture puts out a video that shows his ‘ten best techniques’, you can better believe I will watch that DVD and try to learn something from it, at least as a starting point for future self-testing and experimentation in my own game.   Getting quality information from any and all VETTED sources is a widely accepted idea in America in just about any context. Yet in martial arts, especially in traditional martial arts, this idea is frequently sneered at… if you haven’t gotten at least a black-belt in something the prevalent thinking seems to be that you couldn’t possibly hope to understand it.  And that’s true— you can’t possibly hope to understand anything ‘fully’ that you don’t put a LOT of time into.  But that truth DOESN’T correspondingly mean that you can’t learn SOMETHING from that study that makes you better, or develops your own understanding further than it was when you started.  People in martial arts try to approach those two ideas like they are mutually exclusive, and they’re not.

Likewise, if I am prepping for infantry combat in Afghanistan, the above tips from cage fighters probably would be somewhat ‘less useful’ information to me (as in:  ‘a LOT less useful’).  It might even cause me to go into that DIFFERENT threat context with certain preconceptions that put me in even worse danger than I might otherwise be.   But, by contrast, the opinions and experience of returning military veterans who have actually ‘been there’ would be of HUGE value to me.  And just because I could not ‘fully’ understand the nature of conflict in Afghanistan without spending literally years studying its people, history, customs, culture, and the like, does not automatically mean that I couldn’t learn something highly pragmatic and useful that actually helps me preserve my safety in a hostile environment in a matter of days or even hours.

I went to a seminar with Thai Boxing legend Arjan Chai last year, my first, which was fantastic.  And guess what—  the weekend experience didn’t magically transform me into a Thai boxer.  J  But, realistically, I hadn’t expected it to.  Among other things, I DID come away with, however, was a beginning footwork drill that has been EXTREMELY helpful in assisting me to get my people ‘up off their heels’ and moving on the balls of their feet.  That made the seminar fee worthwhile, and like I said I learned other things, too; in addition to deepening my overall ‘familiarity’ with Thai Boxing and how Thai boxers move and train.   So, overall, it was an extremely good experience, and I grew from it.

That small caveat about ‘terms’ being noted, I very much appreciate the role that RBSD plays today in helping to keep the martial arts industry as a whole focused on pragmatic, effective self-defense.  But, beyond weekend classes for people who have no interest in long-term training, I don’t think it’s terribly beneficial training for martial artists to seek out beyond a certain initial exposure.  Instead, they would be much better served (in my opinion) finding a martial system (or rather, a specific instructor) that is ALREADY ‘reality based’ in his or her approach to combat.  And I would also advocate that they should approach ANY system with respectful but healthy skepticism, criticism, and personal testing in order to SELF-VALIDATE whatever claims are being made by the instructor.   A maxim of Iain Abernethy’s I like fits here:  “If you haven’t done it ‘live’, you haven’t done it.”  (and by extension, you shouldn’t tell others that you somehow ‘can’, or worse, delude yourself that you can.  J)  Likewise, if someone else can’t do it live, but they are telling you they can, personally, I would probably call ‘bull****’ on that.  But within reason, one also needs to understand that there are simply some things that a person simply can’t experience in training, because training, no matter how well structured, is inherently UN-real.  The only ‘reality based’ training that I believe exists is so called ‘on-the-job training’ for whatever threat context you are preparing for—  i.e. if you go out and DO IT, and live to tell about it, I guess you could call that ‘reality based training.’

11.        Do you consider developing your own style keeping with tradition?

Yes, I think so.  I would assert that if you look at the historical root of just about any combative tradition on the planet, you will find one or two things:  First, that the system was designed and developed to combat a specific threat in a specific context, in a specific time and place.  And second, that the system was, in its earliest beginnings, an eclectic composition gained from a wide variety of instructional sources.

And, almost as universally, if you are looking at open hand traditions, you will generally see that a system is either a) the outgrowth of a weapons art, or intended to be only a secondary skill set for when weapons were not available, and/or b) it is the evolution of an athletic form of competitive combat that developed from such an art, out of the need for rules to protect practitioners from injury.  Or both.  And at that point, that is where you will frequently see the attachment of a ‘dao/do’ or ethical construct.

So called “traditional” arts only BECOME a tradition when they are passed on to somebody else a couple of times in a ‘generally intact’ state.  Before that stage occurs, they are just another instructional perspective, plain and simple.  And when it does occur, they are subject to that curricular change and evaporation that I mentioned before.  The fact is, no matter how prestigious (or ignominious) the lineage of your combative tradition, two things are true:  One it won’t matter in a fight; and two:  INHERITING something doesn’t make it effective.   Even inheriting an effective tradition doesn’t mean it will be effective FOR YOU.  You are the only person who can make your own combative skills effective.

12.        What are some of the differences you have noticed between different styles of fighting?  Have these differences enhanced your training?

That’s a good question, and it would take a book to answer.  J  Hmmmm.  I think karate offers a kind of ‘stacato’ power that I have not seen in many other arts.  Kali offers a contrasting fluid, flowing type of movement that is almost entirely the opposite and which is worth study simply as a counter-point. Judo is ‘the art’ for dealing with the clinch and standing grappling as far as I’m concerned, but it’s terrible for realistic ground grappling, not because of tactics, but because of the direction that competition has taken training.  So the ground is where BJJ really shines, but you need to do it both with and without some sort of striking because it changes when someone is punching and gouging you.  Western boxing is, in my opinion, essential for learning agile, mobile hitting, but Thai boxing adds the feet knees and elbows from a similar range in a ‘complete’ package.  Filipino arts are great for weapons training.  Silat gives a really good understanding of angulation and base.  Chin Na really enhances an understanding of physiology and the muscular-skeletal structure.   …That’s just a knee jerk reaction.  I believe every art out there truly has something beneficial to offer, and more so the longer you happen to study it.

One idea that I would like to refute here that I have heard bandied about by self-proclaimed purists but never really seen in action is the idea that somehow certain arts ‘just don’t mix’, like they are oil and water or something.  The argument goes something like, because say, judo is frequently about closing to the throw, and say, boxing is more about staying on the outside, that studying both will somehow cause you to freeze or be paralyzed or something when you find yourself in the heat of the moment.  Not only is this idea entirely contrary to my own experience, along with that of a great many more experienced martial artists I have talked with, it is logically ridiculous.  To me, if that were true, it is no different than saying that in a real fight you will not be able to ‘know’ whether you should block or punch, because these things are such wildly divergent skills.  Clearly the idea has no basis in fact.

I do believe however, that it is important to TRAIN transitions between your skills sets—  the same way you would train striking to blocking and vice verse, etc.—  if you truly hope to be able to connect something ‘for real’, you had better PRACTICE connecting it in training a lot.  But provided you do that, I don’t think there is such a thing as two arts that don’t mix, not in my own experience anyway.

13.        Who do you feel is worth looking to in today’s martial arts?

Well, first of all, I think there are a lot of competent local instructors out there, some of whom may not have made ‘name’ status beyond their little corner of the world, or whom maybe YOU simply might not yet be acquainted with.  When I first went in search of judo training, I didn’t think I would find anyone outside of California who could offer me the quality level of instruction I was hoping for—  certainly not probably anyone in my own city.  What I found was a former international-level competitor who has been teaching judo since the late 1950’s less than ten miles from my house… who knew, right?!? J  So, there may be someone who is extremely competent to learn from right around the corner.  Same way with my karate training—  I literally went to evaluate only two different schools when I started—  the first was closed when I went there, and I signed up with the second one after meeting the instructor and deciding he met my preconception of both professionalism and amicability.  J.  I didn’t realize until much, much later just how lucky I had been to end up with the instructor that I did—  I really lucked out.

And then again, if you are ‘serious’, you should also be willing to travel to seek out the best quality instruction you can find.  But most people are subject to both limited resources and time, so that idea is not always practicable.  I have found instructional DVD’s and an experienced partner to be a good supplement for some material provided you accept the admission that it’s a step down from a living, breathing instructor.

I guess my short list of living people (there have been a great many historical perspectives) who I have drawn material and ideas from at a national or international level would include:  Tadashi Yamashita, Dan Inosanto, Erik Paulson, Paul Vunak, Tony Blauer, Geoff Thompson, Iain Abernethy, Patrick McCarthy, Rory Miller, Chai Sirisute, Forrest Morgan.  I’m sure there are many, many other experienced people out there who are worth listening to; those are just the ones I have been most exposed to either intellectually or from a training perspective.

14.        How important do you think weapons training/defense is today?

I think it’s imperative for any kind of fighting art that claims to be preparing people for anti-crime or self-protection contexts.

I recently finished Sanford Strong’s “Strong on Defense” (which I was put onto by reading Rory Miller’s first book, “Meditations on Violence”. Incidentally, I highly recommend both).  As an example, Strong articulates that statistically, a high percentage of rapists employ a weapon, frequently obtained from the victim’s home when the assault occurs in that environment.

So, say you are an instructor teaching a hypothetical ‘women’s self defense’ class in which you cover anti-rape scenarios.  Given the high incidence of the use of a weapon in that simple example, how could you NOT address the employment of a weapon?

And further, how can you do that effectively in both a gross motor and a tactically generalized way that you can impart to seminar participant in a Saturday afternoon session?  This is another problem that I believe exists with weekend type self-defense seminars… They are definitely ‘better than nothing’, but they give the false sense to attendees that they now ‘know how to defend themselves’.  If you think about that, can you even learn everything you ought to know about facing a violent assault in months or even years?  I would say ‘no’.  But operating from the argument I made earlier, at least you are then a step ahead of where you started if you attend a seminar like that.

So, from a defensive standpoint, I believe people should have LOTS of scenario training against three primary weapons classes:  sticks, blades and firearms, mostly focused on gaining control of the weapon.  And of the arts that I know to be out there, select kali and Krav Maga, along with some Nihon Jujutsu instructors are excellent for that.  Also a lot of the police DT type stuff from guys like Tony Blauer—again, it really comes down to the instructor.

Then, to the degree that you claim to be teaching them to potentially ‘fight for their lives’, I think students should also get some basic OFFENSIVE training in weapons— again, stick, blade and firearm; but here I would also add two additional classes:  flexible weapons and, even more importantly for what I consider to be ‘realistic’ personal protection, in improvised weapons.  Certainly anybody who carries a weapon— I don’t care if its pepper spray, a .45 caliber handgun, a taser, or a rubber band—   should get training in both the tactical deployment AND retention of that weapon.   And they should also get a LOT of training centered on the idea that they shouldn’t deploy a weapon they don’t intend to use, and on what situations truly constitute threats where a weapon would be allowable by the courts—  i.e. does their state have a ‘castle law’, what duty do they have to retreat, etc.  AND on the idea of what consequences they will potentially face— both legal and moral— if they employ a weapon in self defense.

Beyond that, I am also a big believer in improvised weapons training, as I said.  I think everyone should take ten quiet minutes in each of their primary environments—  their car, their worksite, each room of their house, and every place they regularly frequent— and simply make some decisions about what primary and secondary weapons are available in each of those environments.  I’m not saying that everyone should secrete a knife or gun throughout every room of their house.  I’m saying that everyone should thoroughly **THINK ABOUT** what everyday object-weapons are available to them in each context they regularly inhabit, and imagine/ visualize how they might successfully employ them instantaneously against an armed predator.   They should even maybe consider training with them a little—  for instance, if you think that 8x10 picture frame would be a good weapon, get a similarly sized piece of scrap plywood and try to work with it a little.  You don’t have to carry or sleep with it, you don’t have to ‘master’ the art of picture-frame defense, you just need to understand its properties and its offensive and defensive capabilities.  Basically, anything you can hold in your hand can be used as a weapon in some capacity.  And that’s to say nothing of what the Sayoc people call “environmental weapons”:  doors chairs, walls, corners, etc.

So in sum, I definitely believe in the value of sensible, realistic weapons training.  Here again, however, you have to understand what part of the training is actually defensive, and what parts of it are for ‘attribute development’, or which have simply been retained for non-combative meditative, artistic or cultural reasons.  A lot of so-called “traditional” weapons training is good for developing physical attributes like dexterity and concentration, but the weapon properties are not directly transferable to everyday objects.  I think people would therefore be much better suited to training with objects that they might find to be at hand, or which simulate them.

Personally, I think everyone should have at least some degree of exposure to (using English terms): staff, bat, club, hand loads, knife, flail or short whip, and both short and long firearms, because I see each of those as imparting specific and unique properties.  At least a working familiarity if not a personal fluency.

15.        How important is grappling?

Well, first let me say that I both love and practice both judo and jujutsu/ jiujitsu, and that our system draws tactics from both of those arts.  But honestly, I think grappling is somewhat overemphasized in martial arts today due to its prevalence in the UFC, which many people view incorrectly to be the same as ‘real fighting’.

My personal view is that **for self-defense purposes**, training should instead be more COUNTER-grappling based.  And by definition, that means it would include SOME amount of grappling.  (For instance, in our core combatives curriculum, we focus on about three throws, stand up hand-fighting and pummeling, select clinch attacks and defenses, and how to escape or reverse a couple of common standing and grounded grappling attack positions—i.e. a flurry from the mount, someone on your back, someone kicking you while you are down, etc.  But my own opinion is that you don’t need to know 47 ways to pass the guard— or 47 ways to do anything for that matter— in a street fight.  Instead you need two or three that you know really, really well. 

Going into a grappling match where you might find yourself facing an opponent who knows 46, however,   you just might need that 47th method.  So, that point being noted, I will defer to something I heard on a DVD from MMA coach Greg Anderson—  the idea that given two hypothetical and otherwise equally matched opponents, that ‘one extra thing’ that you know and he doesn’t may be exactly what saves your bacon.  So I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘bad knowledge’.  I do believe that there is a ‘wrong’ time to attempt to employ certain techniques—  like going for a that straight arm bar in a three-on-one parking lot fight.  But the good grappling instructors out there recognize the truth of that the same way a good stand-up fighter does and teach accordingly.

16.        What can traditional martial artists learn from MMA?

Well, I won’t say “traditional” when I answer this one, I’ll say ‘non-sporting’ due to the reasons I articulated above, but the answer is:  ‘lots, I think’.

First of all non-sporting systems can learn a lot simply about MOVEMENT from MMA (and other sporting systems), by which I mean the ability to deploy the tactics of their base-art from a ‘mobile platform’, which is (I believe) surprisingly lacking in a lot of non-sporting combative systems.

A second thing I think non-sporting martial systems can learn is with regard to training methods focused on the DOING of ‘actual’ non-interpretive skills.  And another thing is with regard to the self-validation concept I mentioned above.  There is no B-S’ing regarding whether something ‘works’ in an MMA context—  you get in the ring and prove or disprove it— at least to yourself.  But that said, there is plenty of stuff that DOES work that just might not work for you, or might not work against a particular body type, or that might not work every time.  So even that statement needs a certain amount of qualification attached to it.  But generally, the MMA guys I have encountered—  the really good ones since it has become something of a fad— are generally much more confident in the underlying reliability of their methods, because they can actually do them, and have done so, many times, on resisting opponents.

Another point is with regard to general fitness:   MMA fighters are amongst the best conditioned athletes out there.

And probably the last and most important thing that I think other systems can learn from MMA is with regard to not being afraid of blending in material from outside of their little ‘box’ of parts.  Again, historically, that idea hasn’t been very widely received in some “traditional” circles but I think it’s at the heart of any ‘tradition’ you might name, and its essential to maintain the vitality of an effective combat art.

There is an inherent question here:  How much of a ‘specialist’ should one become, compared to how much of a ‘generalist’?  If all you know is highly specialized striking and you meet even a generalized grappler who gets lucky enough to get his hands on you AND TAKE YOU OUT OF ‘YOUR’ ELEMENT, you may be out of luck.  Likewise, if you focus on some limited amount of grappling so that you can be more well-rounded, if you meet a better, more developed specialist, even a better grappler, you may be out of luck.  Rats, I guess in that case you should have studied more grappling… too late!  J   My friend Kent Nelson has a great saying that I like which fits here:  “There are no silver bullets in martial arts, just better chances”.  People need to find the appropriate blend that works for them.  But they also need to recognize that just because something ‘works’ on someone from inside their particular school, doesn’t automatically mean that it will work outside.

And while I’m on the subject of platitude-inal axioms, I also liked the message in the kids movie “Kung Fu Panda”:  “The secret is:  there are no secrets!”.  And to that, another maxim I add is:  there is no ‘one size fits all’ martial art.  There is only fight context, deliberate and thoughtful preparation for that context, whatever training methods adequately and VERIFIABLY support that preparation, and whatever tactics that happen to work for you in the precise moment.  Everything else—  (including this opinion J), is ‘opinion’ as far as I’m concerned.  From a certain point of view, that’s all an instructor is anyway— an opinion about combat that we accept, for whatever reason, as being more informed than our own.

17.        Do you feel the TMA has anything to offer MMA?

I think that non-sporting systems have a lot to offer in terms of an ‘ethical’ construct that is attached to otherwise purely ‘how to break someone’ training.  That’s more important to me as I get older.  So I think I am naturally changing as I age, the way a lot of practitioners have historically.  Let’s face it, “fighting” in non-assault scenarios is typically the domain of young men with rather large chips on their shoulder.  I think that martial arts, both sporting and non-sporting, have a lot to offer in terms of non-combative self-development— there’s that ‘self perfection’ Vunak talks about again.

I was just discussing this with someone the other night— my friend told me that he sees himself not only as a self-defense instructor, but also in the business of ‘making better people’ in terms of giving them both a stronger and more positive sense of themselves.  I thought that was a good way to put it.

From a combative standpoint, I also think non-sporting systems have a lot to offer MMA in terms of ‘real’ fighting.  And by that, I don’t somehow mean that I believe that a guy who has reached the level of say a Royce Gracie can’t defend himself in a ‘real’ fight.  What I mean is, non-sporting systems have a lot to offer in terms of both physiology, tactics and the like which are much more widely applicable in ‘true’ life or death situations.  It bums me out sometimes to hear MMA guys ‘dis’ non-sporting systems, and vice verse.  It’s really asinine to argue about what system is best.

Iain Abernethy recently did a fantastic podcast on a concept he called ‘the martial map’.  In this he proposed a three zone Venn-diagram that manages to accommodate ‘all’ typical combative perspectives—  the so called self-defense oriented, the athletic and competition-oriented, and the self-improvement oriented in a simple, graphic and most importantly non-judgmental way.  This is a FANTATSIC illustration to use to start to show beginners that ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are completely subjective, arbitrary, and utterly useless concepts until you attach an associated purpose to them and extend the question—  i.e. better or worse **FOR WHAT**.   I find the idea to be so useful I actually have students draw their own ‘personal’ martial maps for me as part of their first testing so I can kind of get a sense of where they see themselves and what they hope to achieve out of their training in a simple icon.  It’s really a piece of brilliance— and Iain kindly gives it away for free on his website, along with a bunch of other very good quality material.

18.        What are your future goals, martial arts wise?

Hmmm, that is another good question.  Being that we are such a young program, I think for the next several years will be focused on developing and tweaking UMA, and on tweaking and testing more of the instructional theories that I have.

I have also kicked around the idea of a book or series of instructional DVD’s or both.  But honestly, I’m not sure that I have the energy for it, and I truly have more questions about training than I profess to have answers for, even at this point, almost twenty-five years in.  I am not really out to make a ‘name’ for myself in the martial arts community.  I have a ‘day job’ and I am pretty content at the moment teaching the small group I have, although I would always appreciate the addition of a few more quality-oriented, hard working students—  not that I’m at all unhappy with who I have now.

Since I don’t really teach for money (I don’t even get paid, the gym gets that J), and since I’m no longer officially part of anyone else’s organization, I am free to pursue training the way I want to in the direction and from the people that I want to.  That was a huge transition for me and it took me years to make it, but now that I have, I’m happy.

I suppose if I had an unlimited supply of time, money, and wishes; I would probably train year round.  For now however, I don’t really have extensive plans other than to keep on doing what I’m doing—  continuing my own training and my own research and investigation; and translating the results of that into teaching.  J

In closing, I’d like to say thanks for the opportunity of the interview.  It was very nice of you and I appreciate it.

About the interviewer: Michael Rosenbaum has been training in karate since 1976 and is the author of Escaping Darkness.