Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Scenery vs. Destination

The goal of Combat Systema is not to learn how to beat an ass. That's something that you pick up if you stick with it for long enough, but it's scenery, not the destination. Anyone who has that as their final goal is misguided. Unless you live in a penal colony, you will spend almost exactly 0% of your life fighting. Spending years on that is a pretty poor return on investment.

We study Combat Systema because learning to accomplish your will in the face of determined and skillful resistance is a Pretty Good Skill To Have.

It translates well to a lot of things that aren't prison.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Russian swordwork vs western fencing

As I noted a few posts ago, I've been pretty heavily into swordwork for the past few 5-6 months. As this is a Slavic martial art, I've been looking for historical references to how Cossacks, Russians, and various other Slavic groups practiced with blades.

The results have been frustratingly sparse.

In the field of written material, one of the few references I've found ("Training for Cossacks - 1889") is very short and doesn't have very many details - much of it appears to be dealing with horse-mounted carrying and presentation of the sword. Plate 21B is interesting because it shows the Shashka being held in an unorthodox manner described on an early Scott Sonnon knifework video.

The purpose of this hold is not at all clear, as in most other schools of saber work that I've looked at (particularly Alfred Hutton's British work), the small fingers are critical in controlling the blade; here they are under the handle. I've seen this facilitate some interesting blade twirls that - while they are interesting to look at - have little to no practicality in combat. Google Translate hasn't been much help in translating this page, BTW, so I'm going to see about chatting up some of my Russian buddies and see if I can't get a decent translation going.

The majority of the shashka videos available on Youtube show blade twirling demonstrations. Some of them breathtakingly beautiful. While these are similar to moulinetes (french for "little windmills") described in western fencing sources as early as 1570 (Di Grassi), the cossack ones seem purely decorative, as the circular motions often go completely behind or to the side of the sabreur. In western saber fencing, the moulinets are intended to warm up the wrist and are always targeted towards an opponent.

To go back to the example of the Youtube girl - as near as I can tell, the purpose of this type of cossack swordplay is to familiarize the user with the blade, and to demonstrate to observers (including out-of-range combatants, perhaps?) that the person has spent a fair amount of time behind the handle of a saber. As for combative ability, some of these spins could be used for attacks both with the forward edge and the back (false) edge of the saber, but many could at best be parries with the side of the blade, as the edge is not always lined up with a combative target.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Gross Misconceptions

When I first started studying Systema (Ryabko style) back in 2007, I had a giant misunderstanding of what I was seeing. I'd watch a master put an attacker on the floor seemingly without effort, and two things jumped out at me:

  1. The encounter ended with the master standing and the attacker on the ground, usually caught in something horrible (typically an armbar or neck crank)
  2. The master moved very smooth and relaxed.
 My brain saw those two things and created a rule that was simple, elegant, and completely wrong:

"If you stay relaxed and move fluidly, you can do whatever you want to your opponent".

 ...which went a long way towards explaining why for several years, my Systema never worked on anyone who wasn't in my Systema class.

This horrible bullshit "rule" took up space in my head for a long time. Like most terrible ideas, it persisted long after it should have, and it took many years of getting choked, ankle locked, swept off my feet, punched, kicked, and generally manhandled by martial artists outside the main Systema community for me to replace it with more correct* rules.

* More correct. Not absolutely, authoritatively, mathematically provably correct. But better than the lie they replace.


Pressure test often. Find schools around you with open mat policies and an absence of meatheads. Play with your friends. Play with wrestlers. Play with passionate but inexperienced n00bs. Play with BJJ guys. Judokus. Boxers. Guys with black belts in Korean Day Care. Find what works and what doesn't. Come back to this step often as your refine your techniques.

Staying calm and relaxed just helps you see opportunities better. Calm and fluid movement also can allow you to get your body into a better position without drawing your opponent's attention to it. Most Systema drills are a blend of these two. The "what makes sense" part is usually called biomechanics, and deals with which forces his body is strong in fighting against, and which he can't resist well. (i.e. 'His weight is mostly off his front leg - it's  ripe for sweeping' or 'His weight is fully forward and overcommited; continue and push him into the floor')

The "how to accomplish it" part is usually not given a name - you are just told to relax and breath. The name it deserves is "misdirection", because that's what it is, but that name makes it sound like a parlour trick, so no one calls it that. (for instance: you can pull and arm by grabbing a wrist, but this alerts your opponent and allows him to resist that pull with full force. If you catch his wrist in the crook of your elbow, you can often pull him off balance before he knows what you are doing - he's not used to being "grabbed" by anything except hands).

So staying relaxed and fluid allows you to do whatever trickery you are up to for a little longer before your opponent can figure out how to resist it. Sneaky.


You know that feeling you get when you try your favorite armbar on a 300-lb gorilla and he just grins and flexes as it fails to work? Your hands are already on him; just because Plan A didn't work doesn't mean you disengage and go back to the beginning. Fluidity helps you turn it into a hammerlock. Or kick out one of his legs as he's concentrating on his upper body.

Afterwards, be sure to play it off like that's what you intended from the start.

Monday, June 9, 2014


So I've been spending a lot of time over the past few months working with the sword.

The Mameluke sword, specifically. It's a terrific weapon that is part of the dress uniform of every Marine officer. Marine NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers, like myself) have their own sword, but I really prefer the look and the feel of the officer's model. I tell people that it's because it lacks a hand guard and so students can see my hand motions more easily, but that is bullshit, because you really don't need to see how my fingers move. They don't.

I just like the look of the saber.

The crazy thing is, the Marine Corps has included swords in their dress uniforms since at least the 1820s, but there is absolutely no training offered for them. No combative training, anyway. You are taught to draw the weapon, to salute with it, to make crisp motions on the drill field, and to re-sheath it. At no point does any Marine get any training on how to straight up Highlander off a head with one of these things.

It makes me sad. And I'm not the only one.

So back to training. Why the hell do you NEED to learn how to use one of these things? It's not like you carry one regularly, or are likely to be challenged to a duel. 

You need to learn how to use one because it's a goddamn sword and swords are awesome, that's why.

Fencing was taught for centuries as a critical part of a young man's education, a refining step to turn a young lunkhead into a braver, faster, more competent, and more physically fit lunkhead. Teddy Roosevelt fenced. Aldo Nadi (1920 Olympic triple gold medalist in fencing, considered one of the best fencers of all time) commented that America was a perfect match for fencing, as our citizens were naturally athletic and enjoyed physical exertion (he wrote that in 1941. A lot has changed).

Even the Boy Scouts of America had a fencing merit badge (actually, a "Master at Arms" merit badge. It included fencing, archery, quarterstaves, and wrestling.) until about 1911, when a bunch of 1911 soccer moms decided it was a Bad Idea (it wasn't).

So anyhow, it builds character.

And it starts with weapon familiarity. Saber spinning gives you that.

There are a few really good resources out there for getting you started with this kind of work:

1) Spyro Katsigiannis has an excellent video on the basics of stick spinning for power generation.

2) Jim Keating has forgotten more about bladework than most instructors ever learn. Here's him breaking down a flourish from western saber fencing.

3) Your own eyes. I like to use VLC Player to slow down videos to 1/4 speed and analyze their motion on my own. It's an invaluable tool, and something that is inexplicably discouraged in some schools of systema. Use it anyways.

Happy training.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Names and Children

"Lilly, what kind of tree is this?"

My two year old pauses for a second. "A dogwood tree!" She triumphantly yells. "Daddy, do you see the red berries? And the wavy leaves?". At this age, she delights in repeating back exactly what she has learned. Last walk, she learned that trees that have berries and wavy leaves are called dogwoods. She'll repeat the "red berries and wavy leaves" mantra back to me every time she notices one.

She's proud of her knowledge. There are dozens of different tree types in the neighborhood, but dogwoods are one of the most common, and she recognizes every one we pass.

She doesn't know that her knowledge isn't complete. She doesn't know that the dogwood trees won't have leaves in a month, and only rarely have berries. Or that in the spring, they'll look completely different with their explosion of white and pink blossoms.

She doesn't realize that having a name is only a starting point. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman talked about an episode in his childhood when a friend pointed out a bird in their neighborhood. "Do you see that bird? It's called a thrush!" the child gloated, reveling in knowing more than his friend. Feynman's father wisely pointed out that the other boy still didn't know a single real thing about the bird. Didn't know what it ate. How it acted. Where it lived. How long it lived. What it sounded like. What it tasted like. The only thing he knew was the name that English speaking folks called it, which was barely different than not knowing anything at all.

Russian combatives don't use names very often, and this is very confusing for many new practitioners. Sometimes we'll use names to make learning easier (I borrow the numbering system of the Doce Pares school of Filipino martial arts because saying "number 1" is quicker than saying "forehand downward angle strike").

At my first Systema school, most of the students (and the instructor) shared an Aikido background, so different wrist grabs and locks were given Japanese names. Kotagaeshi (literally "forearm return") is a Japanese name for a technique. The Russians don't call it that - they just bend your forearm to the outside of your shoulder in a painful manner. It doesn't matter which of their own limbs they use to put you in this uncomfortable position; 2 hands is easy, but I enjoy using my elbow locked in theirs and my shoulder on their wrist (if they're holding a knife, the knife usually goes into them at this point). If I'm at a different angle, I can use my armpit to block their wrist and my palm under their elbow. Some styles call it a swimmer's lock. If we're on the ground and I put you in the same position, wrestlers call it a V-arm lock. But it's really nothing different. You're still hurting and immobilized just the same, which is the most important thing. The rest are just details.  4 different techniques (and there are many, many more) to show the same principle: "if your arm bends this way, life sucks for you." 4 different names for the same thing.

And yet the names are still important. The names provide a placeholder, a reference point, something to go back to when their opponent seems like an unyielding mass of limbs. There's a quote attributed to Bruce Lee that goes:

 "Before I learned martial arts, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. When I studied martial arts, a punch was no longer just a punch and a kick was no longer just a kick. Now I understand martial arts, and a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick."
This applies to names. Techniques are names for one way to apply a specific principle. When you understand the principle, then you're free to forget the technique.

But the names are where we start. My daughter and I will continue our walks, adding names to the rapidly growing list of things that she sees and "knows". And we'll build from there. Learn what plants you can eat. Which can make you sick. Which are good for you. Which are good for building a fire. Which has smells that give you a headache when you make fire with them.

It's amazing to learn it all again through her eyes.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Knuckles and Yuckmouth and Sepsis Oh My!

This week Renzo Gracie distinguished himself from the ten million other "R. Gracie"s by posting a bizarre series of tweets that seem to give a play by play of him beating up two muggers.

I'm not going to comment on the possibility that this was staged. Or the wisdom in posting videos of you preemptively thrashing two complete strangers. Perhaps the notoriety you get from such encounters outweighs the legal repercussions when you come from a world-famous fighting clan, but probably not for Joe Average.

What I WILL comment on is that he banged up his knuckles pretty well in the altercation. From his own tweets:

Sharing bodily fluids with a total stranger isn't the best idea, whether it's from casual sex, sharing needles, or from picking pieces of their dentition out of your hand. If you need a more visual example of why you should really avoid the saliva of random people on the street, please click here. But not if you've recently eaten.

(The link shows very graphic pictures of infection that set in several days after a "fight bite". Viewer discretion is advised. )

So a couple of lessons to take away here:

  • Don't punch strangers in the head. Your hand is made of small bones, and their head is made up of large (and in places, pointy) bones. Bad things will come of it. Open hand techniques like slaps and palm strikes lessen the chance of you getting hurt. If you don't believe me, try punching the sidewalk compared to slapping the sidewalk. I promise to sign your cast.
  •  If you do get cut, see a doctor sooner rather than later. I loathe doctors and I still stand by this statement. Modern medicine can do some pretty impressive things what with their broad-spectrum antibiotics and preventative treatments and black voodoo and whatnot.
  • Don't film yourself assaulting people, unless you have a million-dollar or more PR team. Even if this played out the way Renzo says it did and the 2 guys were horrible Nazi dickheads who set orphanages on fire on Christmas morning, they are going to hire lawyers and have a field day with this. Chasing down unarmed people who are running away from you is hard to sell as "self-defense".

Train smart, people.

Awareness drill - Where there's smoke...

Last week, the $3 awareness drill proved itself very useful. I was in a building where a small electronic device had started heating up and smoking, threatening to catch fire. Of the 4 people to see the tiny conflagration, I was the only person who knew where the nearest fire extinguisher was. I had done the $3 drill several times over the preceding month in that building, and it turns out that behind fire extinguishers are a place no one ever checks for hiding dollar bills. :)

After the mess was cleaned up, I showed the other guys where the fire extinguisher was. It was in a little alcove in one of the main hallways. One guy later told me that he had walked by that thing 4 times a day for 7 years and never once noticed that it was there.

Today's awareness drill is simple. Where is the nearest fire extinguisher to you right now? Can you give specific instructions to a person on how to find it?

Follow on for extra credit: Where is the nearest fire alarm switch? (I did not know this one until after the fire, BTW).