An Unexpected Milestone

A few weeks ago I was having fun at a Carlson Gracie Jr. seminar when my instructor pulled me over and informed me that I was being promoted to black belt.

This was, to put it mildly, a shock. I had just told a friend that I had at least a year, maybe two, to go before being promoted. I had been enjoying myself while rolling secure in the thought that I was not one of the people being considered for promotion.

If it had just been my instructor, I might even have argued with him to give me more time to work on the holes in my game. However, the decision apparently came from Carlson himself. (Later on, my instructor told me:  “It’s was Carlson’s decision – but I have veto power. If I didn’t think you were ready, I would have said no.”)

I think Carlson may have been taking my age into account. There were 3 other brown belts at the seminar who deserve the promotion at least as much as I do. Carlson gestured towards them and said “They’re young. They have plenty of time.” (Geeze, Carlson. I’m only 50! Do I not have plenty of time? Do you think I’m going to keel over before the next time you come to town? Do you know something I don’t?)

I’m still ambivalent about the new rank. Shouldn’t a BJJ black belt be a total bad ass? I don’t feel like a total badass. Sure, I’m pretty tough compared to any other 50 year old computer programmer I know, but I train in a gym full of young athletes where there are lots of guys who can give me a hard time. Maybe I’ll feel better about it once my equally deserving peers receive their promotions.

The promotion has given me motivation to up my game, so as to not embarrass the rank. I realized that Carlson has always seen me rolling at my best since he only sees me at seminars and I’m usually in the zone after a few hours of drilling techniques and watching him teach. Knowing that I’m capable of rolling like that, I have been trying to be more consistent about maintaining a relaxed, technical, and super-focused mindset whenever I roll. I think this determination has helped to raise my performance baseline over the last few weeks.

For anyone who wonders what it takes to get a black belt in BJJ, in my case it took something like 5000-6000 hours of getting my butt kicked on a regular basis. Given that I am naturally neither athletic or coordinated, if I can do it, then anyone can. You just have to keep going and never give up.


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Recreational Violence 2014

As much as I love BJJ, sometimes I need to stratch out and try something else. Thus is was that last weekend I drove to Dayton for Recrational Violence 2014, an all day series of classes for practitioners of Western martial arts.

The instructors were an eclectic bunch. Kirk Lawson studies classic pugilism, Bowie knife, Tomahawk, Bata (Irish stick), Military sabre, Bartitisu, and holds black belts in Judo and Aikido. Ken Pfrenger practices Boxing, Wrestling, Sombo and a variety of historical European stick and knife systems. Randal Gustitis has a martial arts bio long enough to make its own blog post, but his expertise ranges from Eastern arts such as Yang style Taijiquan and Pencak Silat Tanjung Sari to Western arts such as Jogo do Pau do Ilha Terceira and Highland broadsword and a whole bunch of other arts besides. Tim Anderson practices the AMOK! knife system and has a background in JKD Concepts, Filipino Martial Arts, Bowie and Tomahawk.

The field of Western martial arts (WMA) is often referred to as HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), although technically the WMA moniker is a bit more inclusive. Most of these arts have been reconstructed by dedicated amateur scholars working from old manuals that cover topics ranging from armoured longsword fighing to bare-knuckle boxing.

The seminar started at 9:00 in the morning with Kirk Lawson covering the wrestling methods present in old-school bare-knuckle boxing. Before the 1860s, wrestling was an essential component of boxing technique and could be used either to throw the opponent or hold him in a advantageous position for punching.

Before we started on the wrestling, Kirk took us through the basics of old-school bare-knuckle boxing and why the stances and tactics were different from modern boxing. Rounds in old-school boxing lasted until one boxer was either taken down with a throw or knocked down by a punch. The fights lasted until one fighter could no longer stand back up and return to the mark at the beginning of a new round. Striking was generally done at a longer range than modern boxing because coming in closer quickly lead to grappling.

The actual wrestling was pretty basic – some basic clinches, hip throws, trips, and counters. The double-leg takedown which is the mainstay of modern MMA was noticeably missing. (I’ll have to ask Kirk if he knows why that is.) The interesting thing was the examination of the techniques in historical context.

At 10:30 we moved on to “Dirty Boxing” methods as taught by Ken Pfrenger. This continued the examination of Pre-Marquess of Queensbury boxing with a focus on some of the nastier striking methods which would not be allowed in modern competition but are very applicable to street self-defense. Once again, we spent some time learning some of the basics – stance, power generation, general theory – before moving on to the “dirty tricks”.

The “dirty tricks” were mostly things like elbows and groin shots. Nothing revolutionary, although I did pick up on a couple of variations I hadn’t tried before. Once again, the interesting part was the historical framework and the discussion of why certain approaches were used based on the rules of the time.

After lunch, we changed course a bit. Instead of continuing our study of the manly art of pugilism, we examined the methods whereby a gentleman of quality might use his walking stick to subdue those unmannerly ruffians who practice these “boxing” methods for the purpose of assaulting their betters on the streets. Single stick methods of the day were typically based on military sword systems. In this case Randal Gustitus built the class on the old Highland broadsword method of Andrew Lonnergan.

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time around ripped and heavily tattooed professional fighters, but at first glance you would not guess Randal to be the highly accomplished martial artist that he is. At first glance he would seem to be a nerdy, bespectacled couch potato IT professional. Once we got going, however, I was left with no doubt as to his knowledge and skills.

We started out with the basic movements of Lonnergan’s system. Next we examined a number of ways those movements could translate into defenses for sword against sword. Then we went through the sequence again using the same techniques for a walking stick against an unarmed assailant. The tricky part was the footwork. The concept of the angles being used was familiar to me from the Filipino martial arts, but the stepping pattern was different from what I am used to. By the end of the class I was feeling basically comfortable with the footwork, but I could tell that this was an area which would reward deep study and practice.

For the last class, we took a break from the historical European focus. Tim has studied historical methods for Bowie and Tomahawk, but this session was built around the AMOK! system, which is a modern American system. I’m not sure what the foundations of the AMOK! system are, but the techniques shown were familiar to me from my exposure to FCS Kali.

My favorite part of the class was a training exercise we did after the technical practice. Tim designated a strip along the gym floor about the width of a narrow back alley. One participant got the “fun” of being the defender. Two other participants were given training knives and instructions to gut the defender. Since the attackers were doing their best to “win” rather than feed easy attacks for a demo, this left the defender with no option but to flee full speed up and down the alley, parrying all the way. After the first lap, we mixed it up – one armed and one unarmed attacker, one armed and one unarmed attacker with the defender also armed, everyone armed. We got no pauses between laps, so my lungs were burning by the end. I really appreciated this drill because it did a lot to break practitioners out of the “dueling” mentality. In this scenario, if I spent time trying to fake out or score points against one opponent, the other would already be stabbing me in the back. The only option was to move continiously and try to survive.

After class I managed to score an extended interview with the instructors that I hope to get transcribed into another blog post or two soon. This may be the first time that I’ve had the chance to sit down with a group of people that love to talk about the martial arts in all their variety in as much detail and length as I do. If I hadn’t had other comittments for the evening, we might have carried on talking into the next morning.

I’d like to thank Kirk, Ken, Randal, and Tim for putting on a great seminar and S.W.O.R.D. in Dayton, Ohio for hosting the event.

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Road Maps

Occasionally I listen to students of arts such as Tae Kwon Do or Kempo and am struck by comments such as “for my next belt I have to learn 3 new kata and 7 new self-defense techniques.” It strikes me that am doing something fundamentally different from what they are. I don’t mean am practicing a different martial art. I mean I am practicing a different learning process. They seem to be collecting discrete units of knowledge. In contrast, I am building a map.

Imagine you are visiting a strange city with no map and no GPS. You are given instructions to get to your hotel: “get off the highway at exit 134, turn right, go 6 blocks, turn left, drive for 2 miles, turn right at the Shell station, 3 more blocks and it will be on your left.” That’s all well and good, but what if the exit is closed for construction? What if you miss one of your turns? What if the Shell station has been replaced by a BP? What if you come into town on a different highway? What if you lose your map and are relying on memory? Can you remember how many blocks before your next turn?

It seems to me that some people learn martial arts as if they were memorizing lists of directions in a strange city. Here’s how you get to the hotel. Here’s how you get to the park. Here’s how you get to the stadium. Once something goes wrong with the directions, they are lost.

Compare this approach to the process of handling directions in a city that you are familiar with. You know the landmarks. You know where they are in relation to each other. Someone can tell you: “start from the university and head north on Main. Turn left a block before you get to the stadium. Go down to where the Toyota dealership used to be.” You’ll be able to find your way even if you’re coming from some place other than the university and even if traffic is blocked on Main.

When you become really familiar with the city, it’s like having a roadmap in your head. you know major and minor landmarks. You know multiple routes from one to another. You know the traffic patterns and the shortcuts and the shops and the bad neighborhoods. You can adjust your route on the fly to deal with changing conditions, even while thinking about something else. If you do somehow get lost, you know the quickest way to get back to familiar territory.

This analogy is useful for martial arts training in general, but particularly so for jiu-jitsu, because of our emphasis on position. I’m caught in side control? No worries. I’ve got a shortcut to butterfly guard. From there I can take a right turn to x-guard, which gives me a straight shot to top control. Once I’m on top, I know my opponent’s available routes of escape and can lay a trap in each one. Alternatively, I can completely shut down every escape route except one and then wait for my opponent to go the only direction I’ve left open for him.

The implication of this metaphor for teaching and for training is that isolated techniques devoid of context aren’t much use. Techniques should provide a connection between one situation and another. Students should be working towards understanding the big picture and building a roadmap that will allow them to head for an appropriate destination, regardless of where they start out and regardless of the roadblocks that an opponent might throw in their way.


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Hang around in martial arts circles long enough and the subject of lineage will inevitably come up.

It’s not always explicitly spelled out, but the traditional concept goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a brilliant, badass fighter who created an innovative, super-effective method of combat. He (occasionally she) passed this method down to a handful of selected students, who then trained others, and so on down the line to the modern age.

There are a number of corollaries to this view. Typically the legitimacy of an instructor is tied to how close his connection is to the founder. Often there will be suggestions that the founder didn’t pass all his secrets on to his students, or that he passed those secrets on to just certain selected students. Some times the statement is that a certain student didn’t stay around long enough to be trusted with the details which make the system truly effective. In some traditional Japanese arts, the system may be referred to as a “Ryu“, which means “school” or “system”, but has implications of a spring flowing from an original source. Sometimes there will be a headmaster (“soke“) appointed in each generation of the ryu to protect the continuation and integrity of the school. This person would have the authority to decree what is taught in the system and who is allowed to teach or train in that system.

This sort of outlook is not entirely absent from BJJ culture. Helio Gracie and his sons have actively promoted this view of history. According to their version, BJJ was entirely the creation of Helio, who watched the Jujutsu his older brother Carlos had learned from Mitsuyo Maeda and improved it, focusing on refining leverage and technique so that a smaller fighter could overcome a stronger one. I’ve read an interview with Helio Gracie where he explicitly states that you can judge the ability of a teacher by how closely he is connected to Helio.

On the other hand, once you start learning more about the actual history of BJJ, the more you get glimpses of a different way to think about lineage.

To begin with, Carlos Gracie studied under Maeda for no more than 3 years, possibly less. I’ve also seen suggestions that Carlos actually mostly studied under Donato Pires, who had learned from Maeda. In this time, Carlos primarily learned a few Judo throws and self-defense techniques and was certainly not any sort of Judo master. He probably wasn’t even awarded a black belt. This, then, might suggest that Helio’s account is correct. All that knowledge had to come from somewhere, right?

To begin with, the other branches of the Gracie family (from Carlos’s other brothers) do not generally accept that Helio invented the whole shebang himself. They give him credit as an important contributor, but not as the sole inventor. However, there is an even stronger argument against Helio as the sole founder. The Gracies were not the only people that Maeda taught while in Brazil. He also taught others – notably Luiz França. While the Gracies were focusing their efforts on middle-class and well-to-do students, França (and later his student Oswaldo Fadda) were teaching the poor in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Here’s the interesting thing: if you watch BJJ practioners who learned through the França lineage and compare them to practitioners who learned through the Gracie lineage – you can’t tell them apart. It looks like the same art. How can that be? The only connection between the two lineages is Mitsuyo Maeda, but we already established that Carlos did not and could not have learned everything that makes up BJJ in his short time of studying with Maeda.

The answer is to rid yourself of the idea that knowledge only flows downhill from a single source. Over the course of the early-to-mid 20th century, BJJ was developed in an environment where judoka, catch wrestlers, and jiujiteiros took part in numerous challenge matches, trained together, and learned from each other. In the later part of the century, many of the Gracies learned wrestling from legendary coach Bob Anderson and/or judo from Georges Mehdi. Rolls Gracie studied and competed in wrestling and Sombo, and brought the knowledge of those systems back to BJJ. The only limitation was that everything had to be tested in the fires of sparring, competing, and fighting.

In the current century, serious BJJ students continue to grab knowledge from every available source. Competitors study video of tournament champions in order to analyze their techniques. Top practitioners sell videos breaking down the details of their games. My instructor comes from a Carlson Gracie line, but I have also learned from dozens of seminars with other instructors as well as from books and videos.

Knowledge doesn’t even have to flow from senior to junior practitioners. I’ve had higher belts attend the classes I teach and tell me that they learned good stuff. Likewise, I’ve learned a lot from students who are junior to me. The bottom line for BJJ practitioners is “when it comes to grappling, if it works for me, I’m stealing it.”

This is the alternative to the concept of martial wisdom flowing down from a single, divinely inspired source – the idea that we can all learn from each other. Without casting judgment on the more traditional view, this is an idea that works for me.

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Video Review – Arm Triangles by Ryan Hall

Over the years I’ve collected and watched hundreds of hours of martial arts instructional videos. As much as I enjoy these videos, I’ve recently gotten out of the habit of collecting them. The problem is that I already have a backlog of years worth of techniques that I am still struggling to master. In addition, I’m still taking regular classes and adding new material that I need to study. I don’t need to spend money on videos which will just add to the backlog of half-remembered material.

The exception is when I can find video instruction which serves not so much to add new techniques to my catalog, but rather to help me better understand the material I have already learned. For the last couple of years I’ve been studying the Gracie University videos to polish up my jiu-jitsu fundamentals. Just recently my focus has shifted to the instructional videos of Ryan Hall, starting with his series on Arm Triangles.

Hall’s Arm Triangle series is a 3-DVD set, with a total running time of a little over 5 hours. Under the category of “arm triangles”, Hall includes Kata Gatame, the Brabo/Darce choke (with lapel, sleeve, and no-gi variations), the Anaconda choke, and an arm-in version of the Ezekial choke. What makes the series really worthwhile, from my perspective, is that it isn’t really just about these particular techniques. It’s about the principles of jiu-jitsu, with a focus on how they apply to this family of chokes.

Most instructional videos go like this: here’s a technique. Here’s another technique. Here’s another. If you are lucky, the instructor may point out some useful details or group the techniques into a practical sequence.

Hall’s approach is more like a concentrated graduate school seminar with an instructor who is determined to impart as much information about the concepts of a particular subject as possible within a limited time. He speaks rapidly, but clearly, with evocative language and an absolutely deadpan sense of humor. As he demonstrates particular concepts and strategies, he frequently references top competitors who are masters of them. He covers a bunch of details, but for each detail he explains why it is important and how it relates to the underlying principles that make everything work.

The first DVD begins by demonstrating the finishing positions for each choke and explaining the principles that make the chokes work. As he goes through each, it becomes apparent that they are all just variations on a theme. He emphasizes over and over that these techniques depend entirely on position and technique. If you are having to squeeze hard to finish the choke, you are doing it wrong. After going through the chokes themselves, he examines the control positions that you might reach the chokes from – side mount, knee mount, top of half-guard, top of turtle, front headlock, knee-across pass, leg drag. He still isn’t going into detail about how to actually reach the choke – just how to control the dominant position in such a way that will set up the submissions.

The second DVD is where Hall gets into the actual setups and entries for the chokes. He focuses on how to use positional pressure to encourage your opponent to move in the direction you desire, which will set up the technique you want to execute. He covers entries from a variety of positions, but emphasizes that these are just examples. By applying the principles he is demonstrating, you can find many more options.

The third DVD covers “troubleshooting” (actually some counters to counters), transitions between different positions, and some drills to burn in the movements he has been covering throughout the series.

I’ve been studying this set for a couple of months now. My success rate with Kata Gatame and the arm-in Ezekial choke has gone way up. I’ve started having occasional success with the Brabo/Darce, which I never did before. Even so, I feel that I only have a strong handle on about 10% of the material. I expect it will take at least a year of focused work before I really get all of it.

The set runs $124.99 for 3 DVDs. They are a bit expensive, but they are far and away some of the best video instruction I’ve seen. I would not recommend these videos for beginners. Much of the material could be useful for newer students, but his presentation is aimed at practitioners who already are very familiar with the fundamentals. I also would not recommend them for anyone with a short attention span. You have to sit through quite a bit of explanation and demonstration before you get to something you can drill. I would strongly recommend them for any serious grappler who is looking to gain a deeper understanding of the art.

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Keep Going

Our friends over at the Valhalla Academy have a tradition known as “birthday rounds.” On their birthday, a student gets to spend the entire class grappling non-stop with fresh partners rotated in regularly to keep the pressure on.

Even though we don’t follow this tradition at 4 Seasons, I always thought this sounded like a fun concept. Therefore I decided to steal the idea for the celebration of my 50th birthday. I put the word out: come on, come all for the opportunity to beat up on the old man.

So it was that at 7:00 last night I took the center of the mat and the 60-minute round began. The first 30 minutes wasn’t too bad. At 45 minutes in, I was watching myself for signs of dehydration and thinking “that’s got to be an hour, right?” At 55 minutes, my last grappling partner jumped in fast and aggressive, trying to take advantage of my weakened state. At 60 minutes I would have leaped up in celebration, but that would have required movement and I was done with such frivolities for the moment.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad way to celebrate turning 50.

I did pull out a few lessons for anyone who wants to try this exercise.

Hydrate early and often. I started guzzling water and gatorade several hours before arriving at the gym. If I hadn’t done this there is a decent chance I would have passed out from dehydration.

Relax. I got tapped out a few times during the hour. I tapped out my partners a few times during the hour. That wasn’t the point of the exercise. If I had gone balls to the wall trying to win every time, then I wouldn’t have made it halfway through.

Keep moving. I’m not in great shape. I’m 50 years old. I’m not a natural athlete. I don’t like doing cardio exercises and I tend towards laziness. There were a lot of moments during the hour where I just didn’t have the strength and energy I needed to pull off the movement I wanted to do. That said, I was always able to make myself do something. Sometimes my movements were small, sometimes they were slow, but I made myself keep moving for the entire hour.

This last point is where the life lesson comes in for those who want to look beyond the dojo. Life is a marathon. Sometimes we know what we think we should be doing to accomplish our goals, but we are just too exhausted and worn down to get up and do it all. But no matter how tired we are, it is always possible to do something to improve our position. It may be a miniscule bit of movement and not the dramatic action that we were hoping for, but those tiny, incremental steps can eventually get us out of some bad places


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Understanding context

Discussions on martial arts forums frequently turn into arguments about the nature of “real fights” or “real violence”, as if that nature could be summed up in a sound bite supporting the speaker’s preferred approach to training. Realistically, the topic of violence and how to survive it is a massive area of study – in fact so huge that no one on this planet is expert in all of it. Consider the following examples:

Two school children tackling each other on the playground while the kids around shout “fight! fight! fight!”
A battered wife trying to fend off an abusive husband
A SWAT team raiding the house of a suspected drug dealer
Two drunk idiots slugging it out on a bar room floor
A team of bouncers working together to eject said drunks from the premises
A squad of infantry advancing under fire
A teenage girl trying to dissuade a date rapist
Two professional MMA fighters facing off for a championship
Two samurai of the Edo period facing off in a duel of honor
A street gang putting a beat down on a couple of strangers for wandering into the wrong neighborhood
An unstable individual who feels alienated from society running amok in an attempt to kill as many people as possible
Two friends coming to blows over hurt feelings
A mugger brandishing a knife in order to get money for drugs

These are just a very few of the forms physical violence can take. Some involve weapons, some do not. Some are one-on-one encounters, some involve groups. Some are life and death, some are not. Some involve professionals who are prepared for the encounter, some involve untrained individuals who are taken by surprise, some involve both. There are certain commonalities between many of these situations. There are also many important differences – the techniques, tactics, and preparation that are appropriate for one may be totally wrong for another.

Martial arts are just as varied. They were developed in different times and places by different individuals facing different needs and challenges. Much of the argument about whether a certain martial art or a certain technique “works” could be resolved by understanding the context that art or technique was developed for. More importantly, if we as martial artists don’t understand the context our art was developed for then we are likely to get in trouble applying it inappropriately in the wrong situation.

Understanding the context of a martial art can be tricky. The “history” passed down by many martial arts instructors is wildly inaccurate. Myths are built up around speculation, hero-worship, and wishful thinking. It is necessary to gather information from as many first hand sources as possible and then apply critical thinking.

(For my Tae Kwon Do friends, I’m sorry, but flying kicks were never used to knock cavalry soldiers off their horses.)

For an example of understanding context, let’s look at a particular class of technique – standing wristlocks. Wristlocks are common in jujutsu, aikido, hapkido, chin na, and a variety of other arts. In recent years, there has been some criticism of their validity as a realistic tactic, because we have never seen them used successfully in MMA. In decades of competition with thousands of fights between skilled martial artists no one has ever pulled one off. If you try the experiment of applying any standing wristlock in a hard-contact sparring session, you will find it exceedingly difficult.

Yet on the other hand, I’ve heard testimony from police officers, bouncers, and correctional officers that they have successfully used wristlocks in real-life confrontations. What’s going on? The standard response from the anti-MMA crowd – that MMA is just a “sport” with rules – doesn’t seem relevant. Wristlocks have always been perfectly legal in MMA.

The answer comes when you realize that standing wristlocks are a grappling equivalent of a sucker punch – something that you hit the other guy with before he realizes the fight has started. Many fights are preceded by a period of trash-talking, posturing, and shoving while the participants build up a full head of steam. A skilled practitioner can use that opportunity to slip on a wristlock and gain control of a subject before the punches start flying. On the other hand, if you try to apply a standing wristlock to a competent fighter who has already begun fighting your odds are not good. That is not the context these techniques were developed for.

If you understand the context that your art was developed for and you understand the rules that apply to different forms of violence, then you have a good chance of knowing how and when to use your training appropriately. I strongly recommend that any serious martial artist go beyond the practice of physical techniques to study this in depth.

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