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The thoughts and viewpoints on this blog are my own and represent my skeptical, critical-thinking approach to martial arts, combative training, film, the field of cognitive science, and random subjects.
Updated: 4 hours 3 min ago


Sat, 2016-04-30 17:33

"I like a man who grins when he fights."
Winston Churchill

The martial arts academy where I trained back in the 70s was like an early version of Fight Club. I know, I know. I'm not supposed to talk about it, but as this is the last article for my blog I thought it might be fun to look back one last time.  

This school, located in Nashville, Tennessee, had an open-door policy, and once a week on Saturday mornings anyone could drop by and spar. We had boxers, wrestlers, judoka, tough guy brawlers, and gung fu stylists all come in and test their skills. I had the chance to fight guys from lots of different karate styles including Wado Ryu, Shotokan, Isshin Ryu, Kyokushinkai and Goju Ryu. I also fought Korean stylists such as Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do fighters, and I even fought a guy with a background in Hapkido, one of my favorite styles.

We hated point-tournament type fighting, so it was mostly full-contact sparring, with standard, no foul rules. Takedowns and ground fighting were allowed. Safety gear was encouraged, with mouthpiece, boxing gloves, and groin protector mandatory. We all looked kinda goofy because the school's policy at that time was that you had to wear your cup on the outside of your pants to prove that you were wearing one. 

We had a loud timer set perpetually to 2 minutes with a 30 second rest between rounds. Most people would fight for a few rounds with the same person and then move on to another opponent. I liked to try my skills against a wide variety of styles, so I usually switched opponents every round or two. In a typical Saturday morning session we might fight 20 or 25 rounds, maybe more. We would shake hands at the beginning of a round, and then just go at it at the sound of the buzzer. 

You never knew what you might encounter. I remember one time getting slammed to the ground early on in the round by a college wrestler who shot in super fast with a beautiful double leg takedown technique. Another time, purely by luck, I did a spinning backfist and knocked out my rushing opponent about 1.5 seconds into the round! It was probably some kind of record at our academy, but I couldn't duplicate it again if I tried.

One day I fought a guy who had trained in Muay Thai and WKA-rules kickboxing which allowed leg kicks. Although I had sparred under these rules before, this was different. He was a superb craftsman, and he knew how to chisel away at the legs, weakening them and setting up higher kicks. He massacred my thighs, leaving big bruises up and down my legs and making me walk like the mummy from the old horror movies--step and slide, step and slide, step and slide--for several days after.

Another time there was a boxer, a Golden Gloves guy if I remember correctly, who practically tore me to pieces whenever he got on the inside. His combinations were incredible, and he rarely threw just one or two punches. I had to work really hard to keep him away by using stop kicks or tying him up in a tight clinch. 

Judo guys and wrestlers in general were the absolute worst. They were unbelievably strong, and they had well-muscled torsos and thick necks. Their fitness levels were through the roof--you could not make them tired if you tried! Plus if they ever got a grip on your triceps or wrists or the back of your neck, they could pull you in and down so fast it felt like you had whiplash. The main reason I started fighting shirtless back then was because I had been caught more than once by a vice-like grip grabbing my T-shirt. If they got a hold of you, forget it. Your were pretty much done for after that.

Knockouts happened. Frequently. We rarely had any serious injuries, but occasionally we had some guys who had to go to the emergency room for treatment. One guy had a ruptured spleen, and another time a guy broke his collar bone when he landed wrong after a hard takedown. Our goal was not to hurt one another, but to learn from one another. If somebody was an asshole and threw illegal shots or was a tad too rough, we had one fighter in our school who was an extreme badass. He would give the guy a quick lesson in respect, and the guy would self-correct or pack up and leave.

This was also the era of the "Tough Man" fights where amateurs could make a little money getting in the ring to lay it on the line for cash. A few big, burly guys dropped by from time to time to prepare for their fights. As a rule of thumb most of these guys weren't too fit. They didn't follow a disciplined training regime at all, and some of them were drinkers and smokers. But they hit really hard, and they were tough and wild, throwing big haymaker punches that would take your head off if they got lucky and connected.

We occasionally had some female fighters in open class. I sparred a female gung fu fighter one time who was incredible. She was very fast, and her high kicks were extremely accurate. At the end of a particularly intense round she shook my hand and thanked me for fighting her like she was "one of the guys." Apparently she wasn't used to this, and rarely got to show what she could do.

I learned so much about fighting during this time. I fought small, fast guys and big, slow guys. Within a few fights you learned pretty early on what usually worked and especially what failed miserably. Fancy was generally a mistake, and practical usually ruled the day. I learned to stay calm and cover up, keeping my knees bent, my chin low, my hands high, and my elbows in. I learned how to use footwork to move lightly and how to shift my weight to hit hard. Proper breathing was critical. I developed some go-to techniques, especially snappy jabs, sharp, fast sidekicks to the ribs, good clinching skills from Greco-Roman wrestling, and head and shoulder feints like a basketball player or a boxer might use. I learned to be confident but never cocky. Every time I started thinking I was any good some guy would quickly knock me back to my senses.

None of us wasted much time with form. We couldn't care less how we looked and instead focused on what worked. I'm not sure if any of us practiced kata, at least not seriously. Those robotic motions, we figured, would just get you creamed in a real fight. Every now and then we would fight what we called a "dojo warrior," or somebody who could look great performing a kata but had his ass handed to him when he put on the gloves. That's not to say that precision wasn't important. I knew one guy who was a stickler for form. He spent hours working on drills and practicing kata and getting his moves just right, and he was one of the best fighters I ever met. Most of us though simply didn't have his discipline and single-minded dedication.

My buddies and I spent time during the week honing what had worked and figuring out what didn't, building a solid repertoire of techniques. We did a lot (A LOT) of heavy bag work and calisthenics. We were early proponents of the little known type of explosive training that athletes behind the Iron Curtain were experimenting with. Called plyometrics, these exercises were terrific at building power and helping to avoid injuries. Most of us also did roadwork, with LSD (long, slow, distance) runs and sprint work at the local high school track. A few of us worked out with weights, although this was generally frowned upon at the time. I went to the gym with a friend of mine, and we had a simple weight lifting routine we followed. Nothing like today of course, but cutting edge back then nevertheless.

Most of the time the Saturday morning sessions were routine. A lot of the same guys, regulars I guess you'd call them, dropped by frequently. Some guys we'd see only once, or once in a blue moon. 

Every now and then the routine would be interrupted by something weird. 

A truly weird moment occurred the time I fought the guy I called "The Narcissist." One wall of our academy had big ceiling-to-floor mirrors, and while this guy was fighting me, I shit you not, he was watching himself in the mirror the entire time! He couldn't take his eyes off of his image in the mirror. Thus, I pretty much hit him at will. I said, "Hey, why don't you look at your opponent when you're fighting?" He said that he was just checking his form, to make sure he was getting it right. I suggested that his form might be okay, but we'd never find out if he didn't get in the game. I'd throw a kick and get him right in the ribs, or I'd throw a punch combination and hit him with each strike, but still he just stared at the mirror. I'd knock him down, but even when he was on the ground or trying to get up, he'd be watching himself. He gave me the creeps, so I bowed out before the first round was over.

Another time I had a really wacky fight. Before we started the round the guy I was fighting told me that he had been training to fight in the dark. In order to improve those skills he usually trained with a blindfold on. He asked me if I would tie his blindfold, but I refused. So he said he would fight with his eyes closed. You're probably not gonna believe this, but he didn't fight so well that way. He couldn't hear my moves above the din of all the fighters, which made him a sitting duck. What a loon. I'm not sure, but I think he was dain bramaged.

These were strange times. While most of us wore loose fitting athletic pants with no shirt while we were working out, some people wore some pretty odd clothing. For example one guy showed up in a ninja costume with his face covered and wearing those tabi shoes, the ones with the individual toes. Another guy fought while wearing a shiny, gold-colored satin gung fu uniform. My favorite was the guy who came in wearing jungle fatigues, sans patches, and a black beret. I asked him if he was a US Army Ranger, but he said that he "couldn't talk about it," as if he was on some super-secret clandestine mission. 

I don't consider myself a fighter per se, never did--just never was that competitive or had much of a killer instinct I guess. My skills were moderate at best, but I was persistent and worked hard. I guess I was tenacious, but most of the time I was less focused on winning and instead concentrated on learning and improving. My nose bled too easily for me to be much of a fighter. I got knocked down, and I got knocked out a few times. I was choked out on more than one occasion. That taught me to protect myself. But I also learned to take calculated risks, and I was sneaky. 

I have been around some incredibly talented martial artists through the years, guys who had more talent in their little finger than I had in my entire body. I would always watch and learn, stealing a trick here and a move there. 

I have a profound respect for fighters and for highly talented martial artists and combat experts. I was never much into team sports and generally only followed combative sports like boxing, wrestling, fencing and Judo. I was so excited in the mid 90s when NHB arrived on the scene. This was the culmination of what I had been preaching for decades, and I felt vindicated when MMA started growing into one of the fastest growing sports in the world. 

Even now in my 60s as I have slowed down considerably, I still like to do some combat training from time to time. My speed is still there, and in some respects my power has improved. But my endurance is crap, and my recovery takes weeks, not days. My knees are shot, and my joints ache. But every now and then I feel energy racing through my old muscles, and I will throw some combinations and yearn for the good times when I was a sweaty, bruised and battered, grinning young man.


Mon, 2016-04-18 01:55

"The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters."
Cus D'Amato, Legendary Trainer

"If you screw things  up in tennis, it's 15-Love. If you screw up in boxing, it's your ass."Tex Cobb

My dad, who used to be a boxer back in the 50s, took me to the Nashville, Tennessee fairgrounds coliseum to watch a local boxing tournament when I was 13 years old. I had seen boxing on TV plenty of times but never up close where you can actually hear the oomph of a body shot and the smack of a glove on an opponent's cheek bone. 

I was, and always have been, a boxing fan, and I consider boxing to be the second most important of all the martial arts (with wrestling/grappling being number one).

Here's the deal with boxing. Go to a boxing gym and watch the athletes train. You won't hear a bunch of what-if scenario talk. You won't see them dealing with hypothetical situations or discussing theory. They deal with the practical. They train for the fight, nothing else.

I love the inside of a boxing gym. The sound of the speed bag and the jump rope and the round bell, the smells of sweat and disinfectant, the sharp instructions from trainers. There's nothing like it. Where most martial arts academies are sterile and organized, the boxing gym is chaotic. There is a stoic, single-minded devotion to the preparation at hand for the next looming fight.

And don't get me started on their fitness. I remember in the early 80s when I used to be a pretty good runner. Back in those days I ran every morning and sometimes again in the afternoon. I ran to Shelby Park, made a complete loop, and ran back. One day I met up with some professional boxers who were jogging in combat boots. I tried to hang with them, but they just kept going. Five miles in I was pretty much spent, and when I turned to head home they were still at it. They didn't even look tired. 

I had met these boxers at the martial arts academy where I taught classes. The academy was a multi-purpose fitness center which housed my classes, a fully-equipped gymnasium, a competitive table tennis school and a power lifting gym. It also had a full-size boxing ring and an area for a dozen or more heavy bags and speed bags. We all used the same equipment, it's just that the boxers who trained there had a no-nonsense approach to training that just didn't quite translate to my group of kickboxing students. I think that for the most part the boxers approached what they did as a job. It put food on the table. My guys and I just did what we did as a hobby. The fighters were all lean and muscled and had a flame-like intensity in their eyes.  

In the Army a few years later I got to train side by side with members of the military boxing team in Germany. These guys were soldiers first and boxers second. But most of them were good enough to compete at a high level and really didn't don the uniform much at all except for mandatory training and formations. One thing I remember was their power. I could hit the heavy bag pretty hard, but they seemed to hit harder and with less effort.

I watched what they did, and I tried to mimic their moves. The way they managed their energy, the way they moved around lightly without wasted motion, the way they shot out their punches and snapped them back to an on guard position. Chins down, knees bent, hands up, body coiled like a cobra. No one-punch wonders, these guys threw two- and three-move combinations. High/low, low/high, inside and outside. Conservative but constant footwork and subtle body and head shifts that kept the opponent guessing.

One of the boxers and I became friends. When he rotated back to the States he gave me his 16oz training gloves. He used to tell me, "Ron, you gotta hit with your toes." He meant that the power of the punch travels up through the pivot of the toes, through the unwinding body, and down through the snapping, outstretched arm. I had felt some of his punches while wearing a thick head guard. It truly felt like his hands were made of stone. His jab felt like my power punch. While I could absorb one or two of his body blows, I couldn't take a barrage, and he knew how to rain the punches down and hit exactly where you weren't protecting.

Why do I love boxing and respect it as a preeminent martial art?

  • The common sense, no nonsense approach
  • A small but lethal repertoire of techniques
  • Tight yet graceful footwork
  • The ability to move in all directions without getting tripped up
  • The intensity of their training and the way that nothing they do is superlative or fancy
  • What they do in the gym is preparation for what they do in the ring
  • Courage and fearlessness
  • Ability to withstand punishment
  • Speed, power, and accuracy
  • Tremendous conditioning
  • Acceptance of critical commentary by coaches and trainers
  • Dedication, both in and out of the gym
  • The scientific process they use to remove extraneous motion 
  • The respect they show other fighters
I used to tell martial arts fighters that they wouldn't last a round with a professional boxer. They would laugh at me and brag about their skills. When PKA and WKA kickboxing arrived, and martial artists started putting on gloves and getting in the ring, they found out fairly quickly that they had been approaching their training completely wrong.

I even knew a few kickboxers who were really just boxers who had learned to throw enough kicks to satisfy the rules. They ended up doing pretty well in the sport. 

In my own training, mostly just for fitness nowadays, I revert back to boxing time and again. I love to hit the heavy bag, shadow box, work the speed bag. No sparring these days, but I sure miss it. Miss the discipline, miss the camaraderie, miss the contact.

If I had one piece of advice to share with up and coming fighters, it would be this: Learn to box. Never stop learning how to box. Keep your hands up and your chin down. Keep your knees bent, and move lightly on the balls of your feet.

And hit with your toes. 


Sat, 2016-04-02 21:30
“Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sign it ‘U.R. Hooked’ and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong driver’s licence for identification.” Chief of Police, Houston, Texas
Moses Pray: 'I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?'Addie Loggins: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!' From the movie "Paper Moon"

The psychology of persuasion is a fascinating topic. If you ever watched the movie "Cath Me if You Can," about the legendary con-man Frank Abagnale, you may have thought it was all mostly exaggerated by Hollywood. But the truth of the matter is Abignale fooled lots and lots of people. The "con" in con-man comes from the word "confidence," and Abagnale had loads of it. He convinced people that he was a pilot for a major airline, head of surgery at a top notch hospital, a knowledgeable attorney, and even an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He understood human psychology perhaps better than a professional therapist, and he grasped the concept of persuasion better than a convention hall full of salespeople. 

Abagnale eventually went on to become an expert on the other side of the law, assisting law enforcement agencies in tracking down forgers, thieves and other impostors. In his current capacity he has revealed some of the dirty little secrets that confidence men use to separate people from their money.

I just read about an interesting scam that has apparently fooled more than one gullible person in the UK. Here's how it works:

Step 1: The assistant walks into a shop, explains that he lost his expensive glass eye earlier, and offers a £1,000 reward. He leaves his (fake) number, just in case.Step 2: Later, the con enters with a glass eye he claims was on the floor. The shopkeeper naturally wants to look after it but the con insists on returning it.Step 3: Thinking of the reward, the shopkeeper offers to buy it for £250. The con and assistant split the takings, and the shopkeeper gets a cheap glass eye.Abagnale, as you can imagine, is not alone. The world is full of people who, without conscience and without a shred of decency, will gladly take your hard-earned money and give you back, if you are lucky, the equivalent of snake oil. In fact you may be surprised to find out that the worId of martial arts, where trim, athletic men and women exhibit amazing fighting prowess and exemplify the epitome of honor and self-discipline, is also filled with con-men, swindlers, hustlers, flim-flam artists, and shysters.

I have seen it with my own two eyes. I have observed con-men in martial arts uniforms fleece the gullible, and I have wondered why they get away with it time and time again.

My guess is that they, much like Abagnale and other swindlers, exude confidence and are able to persuade and manipulate people with their knowledge of human behavior. They not only display self-confidence, they help others to become more confident, and they gain their trust. They have a natural ability to intuit weakness and insecurity in others, and they have learned to exploit those fears and emotions. With absolute conviction they will look another person straight in the eye and make bold promises. They use active listening, body language, false friendship, and other tactics to help the targeted individuals to open up and drop their guard. 

They may also take advantage of the seedier side of humanity--the greed, the lust for power and influence--and they may help people to come to believe that they can help them achieve their goals.
I hate to see people get fleeced. It bothers me that this type of behavior occurs right under the noses of concerned parents who want the best for their child and who search out a martial arts academy to help their child succeed. It concerns me when they hear empty promises and false claims. 

Not all martial arts schools participate in this type of behavior. Many are active in organizations who are careful to weed out bad behavior and avoid any semblance of false advertising or illegal activity. 

But a few, perhaps more than a few, have no such scruples. In fact, many of the things that legitimate academies do are often counterfeited by scam artists.

Here are a few examples I have encountered in my almost five decades of martial arts training:

1. Belt ranking, uniform patches and testing: I had a friend who was an Eagle Scout, a unique achievement in scouting and a true honor. He was intelligent, competent, poised and knowledgeable about life in general. I admired him and his years of devotion and dedication. When I asked him about his scouting experience he told me that for the most part it was very positive: The hiking, the camping, the exposure to nature. He enjoyed learning about what he called "cool boy activities," making a fire, pitching a tent, and learning first aid for example. But he also told me that there was a lot of tedious activities as well as he worked towards earning required merit badges, literal symbols to be worn on the uniform. 

Some martial arts academies have discovered the power of patches. As students participate in self-defense classes or nunchaku seminars or demo teams, they earn patches to be worn on the uniform. Not necessarily a bad thing, that is unless each activity costs money, in which case the richest kids often end up with the coolest uniforms.

As the student progresses at his or her academy he or she is often awarded a new belt, usually starting at white belt and culminating in the coveted black belt itself. Along the way the student may earn 4, 5, or more colored belts. In some cases there are stripes in between. So a student may be orange belt, third striped. It can be quite complicated, but the student usually knows what he or she needs to know in order to earn the next belt.  

None of this should automatically be suspicious. It helps to know each student's skill level. This ensures that the student is safely matched against others with similar skill levels, and it helps to motivate the student to progress. Unfortunately it all to often comes with a steep price. Each testing or grading event costs money. Each piece of a cheap roll of tape can be expensive. 

My advice is to watch the black belts, and especially the youngest black belts, in action. If they have sharp skills, power, poise, and accuracy, if they can confidently display athleticism and agility, balance and stamina, and if they have intensity and focus, then the rank is legit. If, on the other hand, they stumble and look confused, have trouble focusing, cannot effectively demonstrate skill, then the school is not legit. I remember one rather shady martial artist telling me one time, "My car note is due--time for another testing!"

2. Promises: Who wouldn't want their child to make good grades in school, to be self-confident, respectful and to resist the temptation to use drugs. Some desperate parents turn to the martial arts academy that makes claims about what they can do for the child. How they can teach a child to say "yes ma'am and no ma'am" or "please and thank you." How they can train a child to be obedient and willing to do chores. I'll never forget the academy I visited where the young kids shouted loud and in unison about being a CHAMPION. "A 'champion' in what?" I asked the head instructor. "A champion in life!" he responded.

Martial arts was not always a systematized grouping of specific skill sets. Instead it was handed down father to son and warrior to warrior as part of a tribe's need to ensure survival. Real battlefield fighting skill was what was needed, not some clean, sterile, devoid-of-intensity, by-the-numbers display of technique. It has evolved into something else entirely. It is an art form. It is a means to teach confidence. It is a way to brainwash obedience to authority.

When the martial arts school becomes a daycare, when "fighting" becomes a bad word, when the student can utter long creeds and tenets but is unable to defend himself or herself, then the school is focused on the wrong thing, and the student is being charged good money based on false promises.

3. Tournaments: I believe in the sports mantra that competition breeds competence. Without competing, measuring one's skills against another, it may be difficult to determine one's progress and achievement. For combat sports such as fencing, wrestling, boxing, judo and BJJ, competition serves as a necessary vehicle to move the practitioner forward and to hone one's skills against a resisting opponent. 

However, a few crafty individuals have learned that there is a lot of money to be made in tournaments. In some cases the tournament is a 'closed' tournament, not open to outsiders or other schools. In this case there is no fear that a participant will be outclassed. The tournament is controlled, and everyone is a winner. The student comes home with a trophy that is larger than he is, but he has not learned a thing. There was no risk. There was no real chance to lose. There was no opportunity to learn and grow and feel challenged. Moms and dads payed out a lot of money, but it might as well have been flushed down the toilet.

4. Unique abilities and special courses: Too often I have seen special "closed-door" seminars where a travelling instructor will teach things such as no-touch knockouts or chi development. While there is not scientific evidence that chi exists or that one can master this power or life-force to hurt or heal others, that does not stop shysters from making wild claims and charging exorbitant fees to learn their secret skills.

A new type of course I have been seeing recently bothers me personally. As a combatives instructor who has introduced legitimate fighting skill to a large number of students in otherwise traditional schools, it concerns me that there are scam artists now offering "commando" fighting courses, military camps or special ninjitsu classes. The students may be encouraged to buy camouflaged uniforms or special equipment or t-shirts in order to participate. They pay extra fees to attend and advance and become certified in these courses. As long as the knowledge is legitimate and adds true value, no worries. But when it becomes just one more source of income for the school, and the student is merely doing cosplay, it is a scam and a gimmick.

5. False history and faked qualifications: Used to be that it was relatively easy to create a false background, forge a false certificate, and fooling people about who they are and what they have achieved. Now, with the internet, it is much more difficult. With a few clicks you can learn quite a bit about an individual, and you can root out faslehoods. But some people have learned to side step the searches. They may show you amazing bios and enough certificates to cover a wall. They may make claims about being a world champion or being an instructor in the military. My advice is to watch and listen. See if the instructor cares about his students, is concerned about their safety and the quality of instruction. See if the instructor helps to instill knowledge and provide opportunities to grow and be challenged in keeping with the students' ability. What they show you can be much louder than what they tell you. Make sure you're getting your money's worth before you sign a lengthy and costly contract.

6. Certification: There is an allure to gaining knowledge. To believe that one is among an elite, with special knowledge that is not known by the masses, can be seductive.  The certificate, and especially the instructor's certificate, is a tremendous tool in keeping the student coming back for more. Most of the time, I see no issue in this. But if the student is already paying to attend a seminar, charging extra for the certificate seems wrong to me. Also, if the certificate comes from a legitimate organization, or a solid individual, and the certificate is earned, then I agree wholeheartedly in the practice. If the certificate comes with a reasonable fee, again I have no issue. But when the certificate is suspicious, signifies nothing, is recognized by no one else outside of a small circle, and when it costs a considerable amount, then I am immediately suspicious.

7. Proprietary equipment: Some academies insist that each student must purchase specific equipment, and they also insist that this equipment MUST be purchased in house. This is not always a ruse. Sometimes the academy or chain of academies want to maintain quality control, or perhaps they can purchase in bulk and pass the discounts on to their students. However, this is not always the case. In some cases the student could buy the exact same equipment elsewhere and save money. I do not agree with the practice of over charging a student for equipment he or she will need to safety practice the art.

In conclusion: Not every martial arts instructor is part of a scam. Most are professionals who want the best for their students. But look for the wolf in sheep's clothing and remember Caveat Emptor, let the buyer beware.