Two Letters Re: Selecting a Martial Art and a Dojo

Dear Jim,
Over the years, I’ve spent I-don’t-know-how-many hours in dojos of various lineage.
Now, older (but only questionably wiser) I’ll toss out a few caveats for the consideration of anyone who wants to undergo marital arts training:
1. Decide from the outset why you want to learn a martial art and do not deviate from that goal. If it’s for recreation, exercise, balance, spiritual enlightenment or whatever, that’s fine. Practice kata to your heart’s content, learn how to breathe into your danjun and meditate until ch’i runs from your pores. But – recognize from the start that the vast majority of Asian martial arts and their descendants have as much to do with self defense as an engraved Hammerli target pistol has to do with a Colt 1911.
2. Most modern martial arts have been packaged, sold, repackaged, revised, stylized, traditionalized, dogmatized, commercialized, civilized and generally diluted to the point that most of the techniques you’re taught either won’t work outside of a well-lighted and padded dojo (with a level floor) and/or without the assistance of a cooperative “training partner.” If your goal is self-defense, select a few simple techniques that rely on gross motor movements, and practice them to the point of them becoming conditioned reflexes. Consider: When a threat presents (and your heart rate hits 200 and you’re shaking like a leaf and it’s dark and you’re hungry and scared and you’re wiping muck from your eyes because you just slipped and face-planted into a mud puddle) you’re not going to want to stop and remember whether the safety goes down on your 1911 or up on your Smith and Wesson. Stick with one gun! The safety should “disengage itself” as a matter of reflex because of your intimate familiarly and training with the particular firearm in your hand. In your martial arts training, go ye therefore and do likewise. Having a vast repertoire of techniques may impress your SaBumNim, but it won’t do to be running through a decision tree at a critical moment.
3. Most Asian martial arts are inextricably tied to Asian philosophies/religions that are confusing, if not incomprehensible to the Western mind. This is often presented as as a “better way” of living and as a necessary part of training. Nonsense. No offense to the student of Zen Buddhism or Taoism, but there’s a reason that China and Japan send their best and brightest to the West to study at our universities and have largely adopted our Western and pragmatic ways of doing things. In the martial arts, we have an equally rich and worthwhile heritage, that is only now being rediscovered. If you’re a Westerner, stick to Western values and styles of instruction and don’t waste valuable time in marital arts training trying to attain “enlightenment” or learning how to “focus your ki.” It’s irrelevant to your skills.
4. When considering a new technique, ask yourself: Will this work against an opponent of superior size and strength if – I’m wearing boots, mittens, a pack or a heavy jacket? I’m standing on uneven, wet or unstable ground? I’m tired, injured or wounded, in the dark, temporarily blinded or sick? (A close friend and student of savate told me he was once required to go to class drunk to assure his moves would work!) If the technique does not pass muster, set it aside.
5. Don’t waste your time on esoteric “martial arts weapons” such as sai, sickles or nunchaku. We don’t live in 16th century Okinawa and that’s why John Browning invented the Model 1911. (However, if you’re unarmed and a quarterstaff, stick, ashtray, chair or other practical weapon presents itself, more and better!)
6. Avoid styles, systems and instructors purporting to teach “secret” techniques or insisting that it will take years of intensive (and expensive) study to attain proficiency. Avoid any dojo where excessive emphasis is placed on belts and promotions, tournaments or especially where class favorites or bullies exist. Self defense is serious business, with no room for frills, “tournament moves” or bloated egos. If your training doesn’t measure up, walk away and quit wasting money and time. Get a hard copy of Get Tough (or download a soft copy,) Kill or Get Killed (or download a soft copy,) The Close Combat Files of Rex Applegate and FM 3-25-150. Practice your brains out with a friend or two. You won’t regret it and you’ll be better prepared than most students spewing forth from today’s “black belt mills.”
(As to “The Way of the 1911…” Here you go. ) Regards, – Moriarty


While I am not an expert in any martial art form, I have studied many of them at one time or another. Here is my 2 cents worth on fighting.
There are, in terms of distance to your opponent, 4 unarmed skills to learn. They are kicking, punching, throwing and grappling. Kicking will allow you to distance yourself from a talented boxer. Keep the kicks below their waist as you are not likely to be flexible enough or fast enough to deliver a kick above their waist without either falling yourself or having you leg caught. Hit the nerve on the middle (a bit above) of the outside of their leg (like punching someone in the arm to give them a dead-arm) a few times and they won’t be able to move, then run away. Groin shots are tough if you telegraph your move at all as all males learn to guard this area and it is easy for them to catch a foot. Better to use this with a knee if the opportunity presents itself. If you are able to use mace to distract the opponent, then a groin shot is fine. Groin and leg shots will not incapacitate someone on drugs who feels no pain. Kicking an opponent on the ground is useful. Better is stomping. Face, neck (front and back) and the floating ribs are main targets, but be aware of the various takedowns a grounded opponent can use on a standing one.
I do not recommend boxing it out with an opponent unless you are either much larger or more skilled then they are. This brings you into knife range and you may not see it until too late. It also minimizes your field of vision (more on this later) if there are multiple attackers.
The easiest is the double leg take down, but this can set you up for a guillotine choke. Learning a few basic judo type throws is useful especially if you can land someone on their head and the surface is hard like the street. If you learn this in a class, it will be more of a sport throw designed to minimize damage to the opponent. To maximize the damage, change your posture and your attackers mid-aerial rotation to land them head down. If you can squat the weight of the opponent, drop down and hook your arm under their groin, your other arm is on their opposing shoulder. Lift them up and over and plant their head in the ground. This is a killing move.
Within this skill set, you must also know how to escape bearholds front and rear as well as various styles of headlocks. I’m not sure I can describe these moves on paper, but here goes. If you are grabbed from behind and your arms are held, step back and left with your left leg and place your right leg behind the left leg of your opponent. Lean back and as you do so, lower your weight and grab the legs of your opponent. Pull the legs out and lean back and the opponent falls.
If your arms are free, snap back with your head into opponents face, jump up and then when you come down grab between your legs one or both opponents legs. Straighten the leg(s) and sit down and a little backwards on the top of the kneecap breaking the leg.
Side head lock escapes are a bit tough to describe. You can bit the nipple, attack the groin and drop the opponent by placing your left leg (if held on his right side) behind his legs, pin his left elbow with your left hand to prevent being punched and fall leftwards tripping your opponent over your outstretched leg. Mount opponent and disable or kill.
A guillotine choke requires you to climb up your opponent. Put your left arm (if held or his right side) as high as possible over his right neck and shoulder and use it to pull/climb up while putting your feet on his knees. This will take the force off your neck on onto his body. When he tires, he will drop you.
Now you and gently try these with a friend.
As for grappling techniques, we have all seen the ultimate fighting championships, and fallen in love with ju-jitsu. You simply must spend 3 months at a grappling dojo. No excuses, just do it. No, video tapes and dvds won’t do it, you simply need the mat time. Having said that, there are 3 serious flaws in this style.
1) Going to the ground in a dojo is fine, in a back alleyway with broken glass bottles and a hard ground is not. A move that is painless to you at the dojo can hurt like hell if you land on a hard littered street.
2) Going to the ground will kill you in a multiple opponent scenario. They will stomp your head in, especially in the ‘superior’ guard position.
3) What you will learn in ju-jitsu is sport fighting. It leave you open to eye-gauges, fish hooks, bites and all nasty manner of things. While studying, always ask yourself, if this was a real fight, would this attack/defense position still work. How can I alter it?
Having said that, learning the principles of ju-jitsu is both fun and easy and in a 1-to-1 encounter, can save your life.
So, to conclude, my advice is… always carry a knife. Ask any martial artist and if they are being honest, for all their years of training, they know their odds against a knife are at best 50-50. Yes, yes, learn to kick, how not to telegraph, how to block or take a punch (move into it to minimize the force and keep your chin down to avoid a knockout punch and take it on the forehead). Learn 2 or 3 throws, some basic grappling and how to use your and your opponents clothing to choke them but still, carry a weapon (or weapons). A weapon makes all, I repeat, all the difference. It gives you distance, confidence, magnifies your ability to inflict damage and puts fear in the opponent.
Regarding a knife, I believe that a knife attack to the torso, neck or head is attempted murder but to the extremities is assault with a deadly weapon (not sure–check your state laws). If you are using a knife to kill, puncture, don’t slash unless you can get to the brachial artery on the inside of the arm. Do not go for a rib target unless you have a push knife or are very strong and have a thin blade. You may not make it through the ribs. Concentrate on belly, and throat, and if he is armed, first his hands.
You must fight dirty. If you want to learn a standing art that is brutally effective and very very fast to learn and great for kids and women too, visit Attack Proof. It focuses on directly attacking the eyes. Everyone has them, there are no muscles or bone protect them, and if you can overcome your squeamishness about jabbing your fingers into someone’s eyeballs, you can end a fight with a larger opponent very fast.
Some final thoughts.
1) Carry a knife. Carry another knife.
2) When you think you might be being interviewed by an assailant(s) to determine your value and resistance level, put your non dominant arm’s elbow (say left arm for illustration) at your same side ribs, arm across the belly and left hand over right ribs. Cup your right elbow in your left hand and stroke your chin thoughtfully. This will
a) protect your ribs,
b) decrease the response time for you to block a punch to the face or make a punch yourself
c) prevent a rear choke by protecting your neck
d) seem totally innocuous
2) Never go to crime scene 2. To explain: Crime scene 1 is where the weapon is shown and your money is taken. Crime scene 2 is where the assailant says, come over here behind this dumpster. This is where you are raped and or die. I repeat, Never go to crime scene 2. (Where the body is found with the chalk outline). Run, fight, scream but do not willing go to your death. Make sure your family understands this.3) In the majority of fights, statistically speaking, the first person to attack wins. So, if you are going get into a fight, hit first. The psychological momentum and the initial reaction to defend causes a person to minimize what they can see coming and gives the first person to strike a huge tactical advantage.
4) Focus on endurance rather than strength. If you have a knife, strength won’t be of paramount concern anyway. I use the desperado from cold steel. If will fit down your front pocket and is fast to pull and is a variant of a push knife for maximum force.
5) Work on your peripheral vision. Since we spend so much time reading, we have largely lost the ability to use our peripheral vision. This type of vision is the most efficient at seeing motion and someone creeping up alongside you. Take a cheap pair of glasses and put white tape over the front of them. Then draw a dot in the center of one of them on the white tape with a dark pen. When looking at this dot and your eyes are completely relaxed (like looking off into infinity) find the place on the other lens so that when a dot placed on the that lens, the dots overlap and look like one dot. Make that mark.
Now, looking into the glasses, you should see 1 dot (not 2). Looking but not staring at the dot, keeping your eyes relaxed become aware of your peripheral vision. Since your glasses are covered in white tape, you will only be able to see at the outer edges of your vision. When you do this for a while you will train your brain to start using your peripheral vision again. Once you get the hang of it you can do it without the glasses. Just change your focus from in front of you to the peripheral vision. This will give you an advantage against being attacked from an angle.

There are some fighting techniques that are unrealistic for the beginner. These include what you might label the esoteric arts like Tai Chi, Aikido and Dim Mak. The first two require years to master. Once you have 10+ years worth of them under your belt, you are in great shape, but for the first few years, they are actually counterproductive in a real fight. A beginner gets a false sense of security and will expect an opponent to graciously leave an outstretched arm for the twisting and throwing, or grab on to their collar rather than maul your throat. Dim Mak is another example. Yes, you can either knock an opponent out, or make them really, really nauseous and practically incapable of continuing to fight with Dim Mak, but this technique is not for beginners. This technique, (hitting on nerve plexi) is usually only taught as a ‘secret’ to advanced students. They are imbedded in blocks and katas, but not taught until later. When you have mastered the basic form, and if they like you, you are then shown that with a slight change of intent, the block hits the nerve point and the opponent magically goes down. You must keep in mind however that these points are the size of a dime. Imagine taping 8 dimes to your sparring partner, and trying to hit any of them with any force in a full speed sparring match. You see, what happens when a beginner learns a few Dim Mak points is that her or she becomes so fixated on the points that they try to force the issue and miss the larger picture. What ends up happening is that rather than clawing out an exposed eye or grabbing a leg for a take down, you end up with a series of ineffectual glancing blows near a Dim Mak point, but rarely on it. You also are now focusing on the points rather than your opponent so you may not see the kick, punch or knife coming your way. Focus on the basics, at least for the first few years. Oh yes, here’s another trick. If you are dealing with an unarmed opponent, walking backwards is usually a really bad idea. It makes kicks impossible, saps the power from your punches and puts you off balance for a moment when your front leg crosses behind your rear leg. Try walking backwards with any speed and you’ll see. Plus, if someone rushes you when you are walking backward, your going to go to the ground with your opponent on top. Move backwards, when you must, like a fencer. Move your back leg a little farther back and then quickly slide in your front foot. Some people even suggest moving forward like a fencer. Watch some of the more seasoned UFC fighters and you will see this technique in action.
Notes regarding improvised weapons: Even when unarmed, weapons can often be improvised. Anything that can be thrown at an assailant instantly becomes a weapon. In a convenience store, cans and bottles, at a beach, a handful of sand in the eyes, in a back alleyway, garbage cans and lids and broken bottles, in a bedroom, a lamp or alarm clock. Just look for anything and start hurling. This is surprisingly effective. A jacket thrown at them or even the change in your pocket can disorient and provide an opening for retreat or attack. Even the most hardened criminal still has a reflex to block things thrown at his face. This can expose the abdomen or groin to an attack. On a budget, I know a friend who made a habit of carrying a handful of salt in his pocket. If you have an umbrella, it may help distance you from a knife. A rolled magazine held tightly can also help.
As an exercise, when out and about, or even in your home, ask yourself, what could be a weapon right now if I needed one?
Now a word about disarming a person with a knife. This is an opportunity for you to practice “sneaker-fu.” That is, run your a** off. Okay, okay, if you are cornered or protecting your family, your going to get cut. make your peace with it. The good news is that you almost never die from a slashing attack. According to inmates at Folsom prison, the graduate school as it were in knife and shiv fighting, you’ll probably never see the knife that gets you, but if you can, try to determine where your opponents hands are. If one arm is tight to his body or behind him, assume a knife. If you have a jacket, whip it at his face or his knife hand. If you must block, use the back of your forearm. Lots of low kicking and a rapid slapping motion to keep the knife from your neck, face and torso. Keep your belly and chest slightly caved in. Don’t let the fantasy school of martial arts make you think that you can rely on a overhead cross-arm block or some other hollywood trick. This will get you killed fast. No one attacks with a telegraphed straight thrust that you can deftly avoid by moving to the side while simultaneously grabbing the wrist, twisting the arm and disarming your foe. Want a reality check, think you’ve good the skills to avoid getting cut? Give a friend a rubber training blade with an inked blade and do some sparring at full speed.
Knife fights are fast and a skilled fighter will feint and counter feint. Reach for his wrist and you will have your hand a bloody mess.
So, be aware of people getting close to you in a public place. Carry a small flashlight (I use the Gerber Infinity LED flashlight) to illuminate parking lots at night, and with that, some better peripheral vision and a handful of table salt, you’ll do just fine.
Stay safe and draw first blood. – SF in Hawaii