Monday, July 28, 2008

Does it work?

You’ve just learned a brutal looking technique. Does it work? Just because it works in class, doesn’t mean it will work on the street, down a back alley, where the stakes are higher, when your opponent is less cooperative and more resolved.

I’ve seen a number of techniques which worked wonderfully in class, but when I went to apply them in a real world situation, they didn’t work so well. Only my training to continue with something else kept me in control of the situation. After awhile, I developed an instinct to determine if a technique would work on the street.

There are a number of factors to consider--the size of the man is one. Strength can sometimes overcome a good technique. You may have great martial arts skills, but I wouldn’t advise you to go in the woods and attempt your favorite combination on a berate bear--even if the bear has no rank. Some behemoth guy you may be facing may be as mean as a bear and break you up while you are trying to twist, lock, or spin him away. You better have an effective, precise, and damaging technique to deliver or suffer the consequences.

Believe it or not, some techniques won’t work on a drunk person as well as they do on a sober one. I know from experience. I tried a nice wrist twist and lock on an inebriated patron when I was managing a nightclub. It didn’t work so well. It worked so many times before on other people. Had no effect on the drinker except to make him ask what I was doing. I had to continue to a better and more effective technique to get him out of the club.

A person with a lot of adrenaline rushing through their system will be able to withstand more pain than normal, so those blows may not deter him from attacking. Even dropping an elbow to the spine of an attacker, might not work if he is pumped up and determined. I’ve witnessed it too many times. They may hurt later, but get you then, if you are not careful.

In class, the person is your partner, helping you learn the technique. In the street, they aren’t going to help you do anything but hit the ground and bleed. Now you need timing and distance appreciation to counter what your attacker is doing while applying your own attack. This is not a coordinated dance, this is a fight.

This is why you need to train and work on doing damage with the technique. You need to condition your weapons so they are more effective. Make that makawara your constant companion, so when you punch or kick, extreme damage can be done.

Sometimes you should go to a tournament with the goal to test certain techniques, not the goal of winning. If your techniques are effective, winning will be a by-product of your success. In fact, that should really be why you go to a tournament, to test your techniques and their effectiveness. How else will you know how they really work, unless you get into a real fight and take the gamble then?

Friday, July 18, 2008

I recently was honored and blessed to receive a phone call from Kyoshi Frank Hargrove. If you do not know his exciting and incredible history, how he helped pioneer martial arts in Hampton Roads, the legacy he built, and the achievements he earned through dedicated work, I hope you will treat yourself to a visit to his site at

We had a long and enjoyable discussion on many matters, much history, shared acquaintances and interests. As those who have traversed a road of martial arts often do, we discussed the state of affairs in today’s martial arts.

Kyoshi Hargrove said something which stuck with me through the night. He said that many of today’s students aren’t motivated to put in the extra work required to achieve excellence because things are too easy now. That struck a chord with me and resounded through my very being. If you read about Frank Hargrove’s journey through martial arts, you will understand hard work. If you attended school and learned under his good friend Grandmaster Harold Hankins, you can appreciate hard work.

It takes motivation, usually self-induced, and often inspired motivation, to overcome difficulties. If you are forced to work hard for something, you appreciate it more. My own father taught me, “if it is worth having, it is worth working hard to get it.” My father believed in you earning your way.

Today’s students train on matted floors in air conditioned buildings. This is not to say they don’t work hard in their dojo/dojang, but compare it to training on a wooden floor where the only time it was cool was in the winter and the only time it was warm, was in the summer' where the mirrors and windows got fogged up year round and the floor was wet with sweat even when it was freezing outside. That was the comfort we enjoyed at 537 W. 35th Street.

Compare that to the luxurious concrete floor Harold Hankins, Leon Nicholson, Gaylord Patterson, and the rest of the brave class had at the old YMCA where Mitake and Hayashi defined the meaning of the phrase, “brutal training.” On special occasions, they would journey to the roof tops, in their customary bare feet, to train on the rocks which covered the roof. They had to be motivated to learn in order to overcome that ordeal because those teachers were truly from the old school, where pain and suffering were expected and delivered constantly.

When a group of students overcome and survive intensive training, they earn a sense of accomplishment and confidence which you cannot achieve if things come too easily. Today, people want the rank and the knowledge, but don’t want to grind out the effort it takes to excel and earn what it takes to achieve true skill.

If you are a student, push your teacher to give you more। You do not have to be disrespectful about it. You can demand it with your dedication and your performance. But push him to give you some of what he probably endured to earn what he got. Then push yourself to go beyond what he got. You may regret that choice temporarily, while you are earning your knowledge and skill, but you will appreciate it after you have endured the present you will receive. Then you will appreciate the art and science of the martial arts class you are taking. You will understand that the secret to excellence is hard, proper, constant, and consistent work. Then you will be on your way to becoming a true martial artist and not just someone with a belt.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Analyzing Technique

Some of the greatest lessons I received in my martial arts training were mere sentences spoken to me. All the hard training, the extensive drills, the constant repetition of techniques, the intense sparring, and all the other physical aspects involved in improving your martial arts skills require an innate understanding of why you are doing it if you really want to take it to the next level.

In May of 1976, while at the Authentic Karate Club, I met Sifu Duncan Leung. This Wing Chun instructor, who learned personally from Yip Man, helped change my life for the better. Duncan Leung knows fighting. I’m not talking about sparring. I’m talking about real fighting. But that is another story altogether.

One of the most memorable things he ever said to me occurred one hot day in a corner of the Authentic Karate Club one Saturday when he was teaching Wing Chun there. We were practicing some timing drills. I was dominating my partners, over-powering them with my superior size and strength. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. Sifu Leung was paying close attention to me.

When we finished the drill, he moved closer to me and said, “You are a big guy.” I nodded.

He continued, “You are strong and you can beat these guys easy because you over-power them.” I smiled in agreement.

Then he dropped the bomb on me. “What are you going to do, when you face a guy who is bigger and stronger than you, and faster too?”

I had never considered the possibility. All I was concerned with was beating my partners in class.

He continued, “You should concentrate on learning the technique the right way. You are already strong. If you do the technique right, your natural strength will help you anyway.”

It was my epiphany moment. Suddenly I understood the training. Suddenly I knew how to utilize my training. As a matter of fact, from then on, I immersed myself into analyzing the technical aspects of each technique and discovering the science within the art. From that moment on, I trained as if I were the frailest, weakest person in the class instead of the biggest and strongest. I convinced myself that my very survival depended on me learning the technique properly, because I could not afford to get hit, and each strike I gave, had to count.

I wasn’t afraid of getting hit. It was just that I imagined I was made of fine, expensive China, so I could not afford to get hit unnecessarily. I was protecting my valuable property.

Applying this theory in real life fights has saved my life numerous times and kept me from getting hit. These ancient techniques have usually stood the test of time, because when applied properly, they work. Your art will be better when you embrace the science behind it so you can properly apply the techniques.

Sifu Duncan Leung taught me many other things over the years, which helped me understand martial arts, and made me more effective in real life situations, but this one simple thing was the foundation for a much broader understanding of martial arts.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Substance Over Style

Karate was designed to kill. One blow--one kill. Some say, one blow--one victory, and that is alright, but it was designed to kill.

Of course, we are civilized people (mostly), and we can’t just go around fighting death matches. We have tournaments, and sparring with rules, to keep people from meeting a painful death,due to deadly strikes from hands and feet, but there should be evidence, by the technique, that severe, if not deadly, damage could have been done, when a technique was executed properly (pun intended).

I have witnessed the decline in such techniques over the years. There is more interest in style than in substance. Go to a tournament these days, and any motion in the direction of the opponent is considered for a point. It often doesn’t matter if the technique had focus, power, balance, or even proper technique. It is closer to a game of tag than to a fight.

In the old days of the Authentic Karate Club, winning trophies in a tournament was a by-product of entering. The purpose for competing in the tournament was to “show the people good technique.” The hardest battles, the place where you practiced and perfected your technique, was in the dojang (dojo, school).

Some basic techniques appear simple, but may take years to master. There is a huge difference in knowing a move, form, or stance, and mastering them.

Take for example, a basic front-forward stance. Any white belt can do it--few black belts have even mastered it. In a good front-forward stance, I should not be able to push you out of it any kind of way, nor should you have to push back to keep me from pushing you out of balance. A reverse punch delivered from that front-forward stance should be devastating, with the power originating, not from the fist, arm, shoulder, or even torso, but from the very earth itself.

The back heel should be rooted into the ground (even if only imagined) a couple of inches, so the punch has a solid brace from which to emanate. The knee should be over the big toe so that a push to the shin of the forward leg, won’t send it back where the knee can be broken or disjointed, or leg be easily susceptible to a sweep. The foot of the front foot should be pointing straight ahead, while the back foot should be no more than a 45 degree angle, almost as if you were about to push a car up a hill. If your stance is rooted properly, you can generate more power and allow your upper body to be relaxed and mobile. There is much more to this stance, but it would take a bit more to explain in detail, and some things are better shown than told.

I have seldom seen a reverse punch even properly thrown in a tournament. Here too, any white belt can do it, but few black belts even master it. Too many people are interested in the flash and stylistic showing, but not the substance of the techniques, so the proper technique is being lost as it is watered down. Properly executed technique is beautiful and artistic on its own.

Speed is no good if it has no power or focus to it. Flash is no good without substance--except maybe in tournaments were practitioners are deluding themselves in thinking they are mastering a deadly art because they have a trophy in their hand. Trophies won’t help you in a real fight where your life is on the line (unless you are using it as a weapon). Practice the science of the art to master the technique and understand the mental process which accompanies the physical performance.

The same goes with forms (kata, poomse). You should analyze and master each and every movement, and understand the purpose of all the motions and positions, then practice them as if you are using them in an actual fight. They are the encyclopedia of the art.

There should be an atmosphere of danger and destruction, as well as an aesthetic grace when you perform your forms. There should be no doubt, even to the casual observer, that what you are doing is practicing a dangerous and deadly art and you can be quite effective with it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Martial Arts Teaches

In reflection, the least important thing I have gained from martial arts, is the ability to fight. Most martial artists, with true skills they are confident work, avoid confrontation whenever possible because they fully understand the deadly power of which they posses.

Bullies and cowards are the ones who prey upon the weak. They face an even tougher inner battle. The purpose of martial arts is not to teach you to conquer an opponent (that is just a by-product), the real purpose is to conquer self.

A good martial arts class will teach you to overcome your own fears and weaknesses. You explore and test the limits of your mind and body. A good martial arts class will build your character, coordination, endurance, precision, confidence, deductive reasoning, grace, speed, power, muscle elasticity, and much more.

A good teacher will instill in you humility. Soke Shiyogo (also spelled Shogo) Kuniba said, “humility is Karate’s greatest virtue.” Kuniba had high degrees in many arts*, yet he was one of the most gentle and humble men I have ever had the pleasure to meet and study under. He was also one of the most deadly. His school, founded by his father, was called Seishin Kai (pure heart).

Today, most classes are watered down to be more commercial. You choose your teacher and school. In the old days, the teacher chose you. You had to qualify to be in his class. You had to display a willingness to learn and retain what you learned. You had to possess a certain amount of patience, and persistence. It wasn’t just a sport or an activity you were learning, but more a way of life.

A friend of mine, Paul, who went to Okinawa while he was in the armed forces, informed me that he wanted to learn from the great master there. They originally tried to teach him the kind they taught American servicemen. But he insisted on the real thing. Finally, he got to meet the master. But, he had to clean the man’s chicken coops for a whole year before he got to enter the school. He was being tested for his resolve and dedication. He now possesses some true skill with his black belt. (He taught me tricks on the speed bag that some boxers would envy.)

Many great masters are often sought after as healers even more than doctors. It is their exploration of the body and how it reacts to various things which give them great insight. They know how to balance the inner workings of the body and the mind that causes these ailments.

Martial arts, like religions, contain scoundrels, saints, sinners, and saviors. It is a journey where you meet remarkable people in pursuit of remarkable things. Much of what I have witnessed seems to defy explanation. I feel privileged to have experienced the lessons of some great men and women.

All that is not to say I did not have more than my fair share of skirmishes. I was fortunate there too, because I survived them without any harm to myself. I was in a different state of mind and environment then. I tested my techniques in real life situations. My best, most useful, technique then and still is a “look.” This “look” is foreboding and warns people not to continue bothering me; to cease and desist immediately whatever they were doing to warrant such a “look.” It is the one technique I still practice regularly because I don’t ever want to hurt anyone again when I can avoid it.

*Some of Soke Kuniba's rank when we met him:
  • 3rd Dan --Aikido
  • 3rd Dan --Kyu-do (Bow & Arrow)
  • 4th Dan --JoJitsu (Short Stick fighting)
  • 4th Dan --Iai-Do (Sword Arts)
  • 5th Dan --Judo
  • 7th Dan --Okinawan Kobudo (Ancient Weapons)
  • 8th Dan --Motobu-Ha Shito Ryu
  • 8th Dan --Go Shin Budo

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Challenge

The challenge is from one’s self to one’s self.

You are not in competition with anyone but yourself. Your goal is to improve each time you practice. Everyone has varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses. You may be better in some things than your classmates and worse in others, but your objective should be to improve yourself, even if only in tiny increments as long as they are steady.

An adult trying to compete with a youngster in some things, like flexibility, may be setting themselves up for disappointment. You need only get better than you were and you will be progressing. It is not a sprint to the finish line, but a long journey towards accomplishment. Those who understand the marathon ahead of them will eventually surpass those who were only in it for the quick sprint.

Challenge yourself to do better than you have done.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fiction vs Reality

People often watch martial arts movies and get a false impression about martial arts, unable to separate fiction from reality. They see actors with flashy moves and trick photography and believe it is so easy. Some even get a false sense of bravado and go around to challenge other schools. We had our share of challenges at the Authentic Karate Club on 35th Street in Norfolk, Virginia.

It never ceased to amaze me how people could just walk off of the street and have the nerve to challenge someone in a martial arts school. Such a person had to be terrific or delusional. I think some watched at least one too many karate flicks. They overestimated their skills or underestimated ours, but they would come in and challenge the instructor.

Sometimes a battle would break out over who would fight the intruder. Sometimes Master Hankins would offer the challenger the opportunity to pick an opponent. A few fools even managed to try to fight the instructor (which was the most folly choice of all). No matter what the choice, there was a no win situation for the challenger.

There is a proper way to conduct yourself if you want to go to someone’s school and test your skills. It begins with respect and humility, not with arrogance and false pride. It seemed many of the challengers were talented, but self-taught mostly. They judged their skills against untrained or little trained practitioners. It is a whole other level to face a person who is trained well in martial arts and knows how to fight and not just spar--there is a difference.

Some techniques which work well to score points in a tournament, don’t translate well in the street against determined and motivated fighters. Sadly, far too many people have mistaken these diluted techniques and tried to utilize them in a real fight, only to get their feelings and body hurt. I know, because I have inflicted such pain on too many disillusioned black belts and fantasizing fighters (they put me into that position).

I have a treasure trove of incidents where people came off the street, walked into the Authentic Karate Club, and got a rude awakening to what martial arts were all about. But I’ll save them for another time. Just realize there is a difference in tournament and real fighting, movies and reality.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Diluted & Delusional

It seems to me as if much of the martial arts being taught these days is diluted and the people practicing it are delusional. There are no standards of excellence and anyone can claim rank without any accountability or repercussions. It is a sad state of affairs which weakens the over-all perception of martial arts masters.

It is true, an instructor can’t teach in the ways of the old masters, without fear of being sued or worrying about maintaining enough students to pay the bills, so part of the blame is on the society in which we live. There are also instructors who really don’t know what they are doing but want to capitalize on a na├»ve and easily impressed public.

But there is also the parents, who are more interested in awards, rewards, and accolades for their children, instead of insuring that they receive a proper education and acquisition of real skills and techniques. These over-eager parents have crippled the learning process. They care more about style than substance, praise instead of proof.

I remember a tournament I attended. A little boy (I‘ll call him Billy), a blue belt, was competing in fighting. The first competitor he faced, immediately hit the little boy with a beautiful round kick to the head as Billy stood there oblivious. No head contact was allowed (even though they had on head gear), so Billy won his firs fight by disqualification in a matter of about five seconds.

The next fight, the competition faked a high kick and punched Billy with a reverse punch to the stomach. Billy doubled over and hit the floor. His competitor got disqualified for excessive contact. Billy won and moved on to the finals after they got him to stop crying and breathe.

For the finals, Billy’s competitor danced around a little, threw a couple of feints, and then stuck a pretty side kick up which Billy ran straight into. As the blood trickled down Billy’s nose, the referees decided that they better disqualify this guy too (even though Billy ran into the kick). So Billy won first place by getting beat up and never throwing one punch or even blocking one technique.

The worst part of it all, was how Billy’s mother was so proud of her son. Billy, in reality, got a big 1st place trophy for not knowing how to defend himself. I was flabbergasted. What was the purpose of studying martial arts? To get a trophy? Billy was 1st place punching bag. Meanwhile, the students who displayed good technique probably felt cheated.

Martial arts should not be about trophies and belts. It should be about knowledge, skill, and character. Trophies and belts should be by-products not goals.