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You can tell he ain't never been in combat. He wants to fight.
                                          Willy and Joe
                                        Bill Maulden

Being a knife fighter
This isn't sparring

On this page:
Knife fighting is an oxymoron | Learning the difference between fighting and "it" | The choice | The aftermath | What does it take to survive? | Frankenstein effect | Draco | In conclusion| Further Resources

I teach knife work internationally. That means that my skill with a blade has taken me - literally - around the world. This extensive traveling has also allowed me to see a very wide spectrum of how knives are used in other cultures. As well as standards of training far beyond just my local area and style. I have also had the opportunity to spar with, and work out with, students from a wide variety of styles and instructors.

Generally I slit their throats within a few moments

This is not to say that I am better than they are. In fact, most of them are much finer martial artists than I am and far more technically talented.

However, their hearts and heads aren't in the right place. Whereas all I do is "flip the switch" and go to town. What do I mean by that? A man named Bob Taylor once said of me "Yeah, there's a lot of people who could kick Animal's ass in the ring. Thing is they'd lose in an alley because he'd run their asses over with a truck." 

And you know what? He's right, I would.

That's because surviving isn't about skill, it's about something else. And you can have all the skill in the world and still lose to someone who has "it." The problem is that despite all the claims of so-called knife fighting gurus, they can't teach you how to get "it." Because the willingness to do what you must do in order to survive combat  is an internal thing. It must come from you, not from an outside source. So in the end all you have is a lot of fancy dance moves and not what it takes to survive a serious attempt on your life.

Knife "fighting" is an oxymoron
To start with let's clarify something: There is no such thing as a professional knife fighter.

Yes, in the past I have referred to "pros" as a way to indicate that there are indeed people out there who are extremely competent with blades. This does not  mean, however, the person makes his living being a knife fighter. We call people who makes their living with a knife
a) butchers
b) instructors, (because they are teaching, not actually knife fighting) or
c) armed robbers.

Having been harangued about the use of the term "pro" by instructors who try to build themselves up by tearing others down, I admit that the use of the term was a poor choice of words.

However, the fact remains that there are people out there who are damn good with blades...and for the most part, they ain't martial artists. Call them what you will, the fact remains that these people will easily dispatch 99% of all martial artists trained in "knife arts." Because they ain't there to fight you, they are there to kill you.

Many years ago Peyton Quinn rightfully observed that most knife attacks are not fights, but rather assassinations.

Yes, they are murders. Or attempts at the same. Sometimes they are hot and enraged, other times they are cold-blooded and calculated. Very seldom is a knife used in a manner that is consistent with the claim of "self-defense"

As I have observed in my tapes on knife fighting, knife-to-knife altercations are rare. I made the observation then and I still stand by it that in a culture where everyone doesn't go around openly armed, knife to knife altercations are a mistake. Somebody screwed up. Usually the attacker who missed his initial assault. Or in the case of preexisting conflict, he was seen approaching and his "victim" had time to pull his out too.

Another way it can happen is when both parties are so emotionally screwed up and intent on "winning" an argument that they pull knives to "posture." When this threat display doesn't have the desired effect of making the enemy run away (submit) then both in a fit of temporary madness escalate it up another level and start slashing at each other.

In truth though, knife-to-knife conflict almost never happens. The idea of combat is to win, therefore it is usually a case of one upsmanship (i.e. knife against empty hand, club against knife, gun against knife, or just driving by and shooting the guy). You seldom will meet up against the same weapon you have.

Therefore the idea of training extensively to be involved in a long, drawn-out, knife-to-knife "fight" is both a waste of time and a fantasy. It doesn't happen that way in the real world.

Learning the difference between fighting and "it"
I was 24 years old when I met Alan Khan. At the time I had survived my share of altercations and I was pretty convinced that I was one tough hombre. I mean face it, I'd survived the streets of LA, brawls, streetfights, knife attacks, being shot at and a whole host of other attempts on my life so I "knew" how tough I was.

When I met him Alan was in his fifties, he was fat, bald-headed, snaggle-toothed, bug-eyed and grizzled. Thing was, he'd been and Airborne Ranger and wounded in Vietnam in 1958. Now if you know anything about US history you know that official US Military combat involvement didn't "officially" begin until after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. Well that's the most people believe anyway. When he told me the date of his wounding he looked at me expecting me to call him a liar. I passed the test. when I said "Oh, you were one of the guys Eisenhower sent in," 

Some more background information:  US military had learned a trick from the Turks in Korea. In Korea, the Chinese would establish a two man look out position, one would sleep, the other stay on guard. The Turks used a bit of psychological warfare. What they would do was sneak up to the fox hole in the middle of the night. The sleeping guard would wake up holding the head of the lookout. Needless to say, this didn't do much for the moral of the Chinese Army. Special Forces had noted the psychological impact of this kind of tactic.

Another side note: After the French withdrawal and the division of North and South Vietnam, the Communists  had left people in the South to work for their cause. Like their counterparts the Viet Cong  in later years, the Viet Minh were "moles"  and guerrilla fighters,  hiding their presence among the civilians whenever authorities were around. However, whenever military authority wasn't around, they would terrorize and coerce the villagers into their cause. Thus resulting in the much heard lament of later years "We ruled the village by day, the VC ruled it by night." War in Vietnam was very much about showing to the villagers which gang was in control to get their support and again, Special Forces had taken note of this fact..

This brings us back up to what Alan was doing when he was wounded. Working on covert information as to who was the communist mole, Alan's team would sneak into the villages late at night. The next morning the villagers would wake up to discover that the inside of the Viet Min  mole's home had been redecorated, -- with the Viet Minh's intestines. No note, no warnings, just a bloody mess. Thereby seriously undermining the myth of VM invincibility and spooking the villagers not to support them. (There is no other way to define this but "black ops"  The sort of thing that the US intelligence community engaged in for many years and would eventually end up with them clashing with Kennedy about. By anybody's standards, it was an illegal operation). Alan was the guy doing the redecorating. Suffice to say, Alan's experience with a knife was not just academic, nor was it from some deadly martial art system from a distant land.

I give you all of this background to explain what happened next. Alan and I started talking shop. I mentioned in passing a particular knife fighting stance that was giving me trouble. He took one look at it and said "Oh that's easy"

Stop for a minute, you do NOT tell a 24-year-old-fighting stud that his problem is "easy." All of a sudden my pride was up and I said "All right old man, show me how "easy" it is." We got some practice knives and squared off. He took a pretty standard military knife fighting stance and I took the stance that was giving me such grief.

He looked at me and said "Are you ready?" Lesson number one...if, in a physical confrontation,  an old fat man ever asks you if you are ready, you are going to learn a very unpleasant lesson. All of a sudden I saw a look come over him like a hood being drawn over his eyes. "It" had surfaced. In the blink of an eye, that fat old man  was gone, replaced by something that was way, way out of my league.

He blurred.

I am not exaggerating when I say this old, bald headed fart turned into a cartoon streak to indicate speed. He moved so fast that I couldn't see what he was doing. Now with many more years of training and experience, I could probably see it; but at the time, he was there one second and gone the next. In that second,  I felt myself being jerked to the side and his knife simultaneously crashing into a kill zone. I knew it was over. If this had been real, I would have been dead and there was nothing I could have done about it.

I walked away from that event deeply disturbed. Yes I was emotionally upset and hurt. Face it, my pride had been deeply stung by being spanked by an old man. In my next few altercations I was doubly ferocious, seeking to redress the injury to my pride and prove to myself that I was indeed a good fighter.

That was when the second lesson began to creep in. The reason I had lost had nothing to do with my physical skill at all and everything to do with my intent and commitment. And that is what I had seen come over him before he proceeded to put me down so easily. See I was there to "fight," to prove something to this old man who had mocked me. He was there to be the one alive at the end of it all. To him, nothing else mattered. Because I had other agendas, I wasn't there to "get the job done." He was. And while I was busy being so wrapped up all those other issues, he got the job done before I could even react. From now on I'm just going to call those "It."

 It isn't about fighting, it's about surviving. If you don't know the difference going in, you're going to die, because you will underestimate and fail to react in time to someone who has it.

Wherever he is now, I owe that man my life for teaching me that most important of  lessons. Because since that time, I have survived many more horrible situations and come out alive. Furthermore, I have never been put down since. Prior to that, I will admit I had been defeated in fights. But not since. That's because, from that event,  I learned to quit "fighting" and instead I started going in with the attitude of "ending it now." 

The reason knife fighting is an oxymoron is that there is no "fight."  It is a life and death issue, which is miles beyond fighting. Knife work is the realm of It. If you go into thinking that you are going to "fight," prove something" or that you have time to use the stuff that you have trained in, you are going to get carved against a dedicated knifer. The agenda that you have in an empty handed conflict (or sparring match) doesn't apply anymore. Your intent and commitment must reflect the higher level of danger.

There is no room for a "sparring mentality" when just being touched will harm you. And being touched multiple times will kill you. That's because by the time you are "warmed up" to fight effectively, it's over. You'll be carved like a Thanksgiving turkey by someone intent on hurting you.

The choice
Surviving any kind of violence is about making choices. Your first choice is whether to be there or not, stand or run. Unfortunately, too many people, for whatever reason, decide to try to stand. It really doesn't matter if  the decision to stand stems  from pride, anger, a need to win or being "rattlesnake cornered" (1) failing to withdraw before things get ugly  is the number one killer of people when it comes to violence.

I am often asked what to do if awareness and avoidance fail. The answer isn't about technique. The answer is: You make a choice. The rest is details.

Details I should point out that A) don't make the choice for you and B) the devil can very much be in the details, but that isn't a problem until after the choice is made. Without this choice having been made, those details will fail you as night follows day. I don't care how good you think your fighting system is, with out this choice, it is just details.

Before we go onto why this is true, let's say that the worst-case scenario happens and you really can't run -- for whatever reason. When you are attacked by someone seriously intent on harming you, you have one of two options. Suffer through it and hope that you survive or do whatever it takes to keep him from succeeding.

Now most people can't make that big of a jump to doing whatever it takes to keep him from succeeding. This is why most people freeze when attacked and end up by defaulting to" suffer through and hope." All of a sudden all the options that they thought they had to handle the situation dry up and they are at a loss. The pathetic thing is how the same thing will happen to someone who thought he had made the other choice through training in some kind of deadly, reality based knife fighting system. Keeping an attacker from succeeding  ain't about what deadly knife fighting system you know. It's definitely not about technique or attitude.

It's about you making a choice. A choice in a dark, deep level of your being. When you make that choice, that is when "it" shows up. And It ain't pretty, nor is it macho. It is not about pride or looking tough. It  is about doing whatever you need to do in order to survive-- and nothing else. Once you make up your mind, then nothing else matters. IT takes over.

Something I really want to stress, that choice is yours and yours alone to make.

It doesn't matter what ultimate, bad ass knife fighting style you know...your training isn't going to make the choice for you. Thinking that because you know some super kick ass, reality based fighting style that It will automatically be there for you is "cargo cult" thinking (2). No matter how much you ape what you think you are seeing, the system will not make the choice for you. In the end, it is you who must make that choice. Nobody can make it for you or give it to you through training.

The reason I mention this is that, having looked into the eyes of many people who have made that choice, I know what it looks like. What I see an overwhelming majority of the time when I look into the eyes of these so-called knife fighters (cocky guys trained in these ultimate knife fighting systems) is fear. Fear that they don't have what it takes. They want that training to make that choice for them. And they keep on telling themselves how they've gotten It by studying and working so hard at this system. But their eyes still tell the truth when the look at someone who has It. Down deep the know they still don't and it scares the hell out of them

What is really disturbing is that they have no idea how much they are putting themselves in danger. They dream of the day when they will not be able to run and be forced to unleash their deadly fighting skills. And unfortunately, a whole lot of them seem to go out of their way to get themselves rattlesnake cornered. What they don't understand is It is not going to show up and save their asses for them just because they know whatever fighting art they've tricked themselves into believing that will give It to them. As such, they can put themselves into harms way  and while they are standing around waiting for It to save them, they are going to get either seriously hurt or killed.

Now quite honestly, that is their own suicide, and I could give a shit. Where I begin to have problems is when they start teaching others these lies and by doing so, sign these poor unsuspecting people into a suicide pact. So let me spell it out for you in simple and plain letters: It doesn't matter what ultimate bad ass knife fighting system you isn't going to make the choice for you. And if you have made the choice, then what every you do is just a detail about how you are achieving an end.

And after you have made that choice, that is when the shit gets really deep. Not about what you did to survive, but what kind of life you are going to have forever after.

What I am trying to say here is that it is possible for people to survive a knife attack, but there is going to be a hell of a cost. A cost that someone can most of the time avoid paying by instead investing in awareness and avoidance. Someone who doesn't want to pay that investment is going to be left with an ugly, ugly  choice if they are ever attacked, get killed or kill  their attacker. Making that choice while in the middle of getting attacked ain't likely to happen. Which is why so many people are killed/maimed in when actually attacked -- even if they have some kind of  training.

Before we go on... To the uninitiated, what follows will seem like some kind of mystical mumbo jumbo. In truth however it is strongly supported by the field of psychology. While many professional psychologists might disagree with my conclusions, there are many others who do - especially those who deal with the aftermath of extreme trauma. And if you don't think that having to fight for your life is traumatic, then you are sadly misinformed.

I know from personal experience the long term effects of surviving combat and a life of violence. My own life is an odyssey of crawling out of hell that killed most of the people who were there with me. Drugs, alcohol, rage and violence were integral parts of my life for decades as I fought to understand and overcome the issues I am about to address.

If you don't understand what I am talking about from this point on, consider yourself lucky. It is a hell that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemies. And my best advice is DON'T go there, it's not glorious, it's not cool, it's not macho and most of all it is not impressive. It is a living hell.

The aftermath of survival
Dr. Al Siebert made an interesting observation in his book "The Survivor Personality." In it he observed that 'survivors' had certain personality traits in common. And that these traits, while integral to being able to survive horrendous events, could not be taught. They could however be known, and cultivated, by the individual. How each individual would manifest them however would be uniquely different.

Bottomline, is that I cannot teach you what it takes to really survive a knife altercation -- nor can anyone else, regardless of what they claim -- you have to find it within yourself. I can however tell you that it is beyond words, beyond rational thought, beyond pride, beyond is in fact, beyond ego.

Although technical expertise with a blade can - and does help - the real source of survival lies in your ability to go to a place of sheer commitment and will. A place far beyond your normal way of thinking -- a place I am sorry to say that will change your life. Because once you go there, who you are will be shattered forever.

People often ask what "it" is that people who "have been there" use to recognize each other. It is almost an "invisible aura" But those who have it see it in each other. Unfortunately, until now there has been no concise explanation of what "it" is.

Skeptics will tell you that it is BS. Wanna-bes will tell you that they have it. It goes unnoticed by the average person. And to those who have it, it is a painful mark of Cain that we would all gladly give back if we could.

In order to demystify what "it" is -- and how those who have "it" recognize each other -- I have started using the term "Frankenstein effect." Like Frankenstein's monster, they are mentally and emotionally sewn together.

Which if you think about it, someone who was shattered and has tried to put themselves back together would look like this. It's no mystery. And once you know what to look for the signs are obvious.

What does it take to survive?
What follows is a post I made to an email list explaining not only what I am talking about, but why simple technical proficiency in a knife system is *not* the same thing as being able to survive combat.


From Marc MacYoung

maurice g. said
<< again, I say the reason why seminar training is failing the Philippine martial arts community, is that too many people get teaching credentials with no experience required except "come to 10 seminars and a camp". people who learn technique with no experience. >>

There is a lot in your post that I agree with, and I think you hit the nail on the head several times about issues that we must really sit down and consider -- especially about how they affect what we are teaching.

As I have said many times, "While experience is important, the lessons you get from it are far more important." Congruous with your points, I might add to that quote "and failing to have first hand experience, it becomes doubly important to make sure you are getting those lessons in your training."

There are several critical issues that I don't see being taught or emphasized in nearly all the knife training I have encountered. The first is that it is murder. The truth is that the spectrum of judicious use of lethal force is so incredibly narrow and specific that nearly all the training I have encountered will put you in prison if you were to use it. You would cross the line from self-defense to homicide. And I can tell you, right now, 99.9% of current knife training will put you in prison because of an integral lack of understanding about use of force laws.

The second is that you are fighting for your life -- especially if you are unarmed against an armed attacker. There is a totally different mindset that is involved there. It's not about tough, it's not about macho, it's not about being a superfighter, it's about being focused on a goal....and that is staying alive. And doing whatever it takes to do so -- including jettisoning "parts of yourself"

By that I don't necessarily mean getting parts of you chopped off (although that is a very real factor), what I refer to is "letting go of how you think and normally do things." This is a very subtle, but very important issue, because what I am referring to quite literally means "letting go of who you are" in order to survive. And if you don't think that is a biggie, go ask a psychologist about how massive of a task letting go of self-definitions are.

It is the second point that brings me to what you said and what I started this post with. You speak of seminar training is failing the FMA. Just for your speculation I'm going to throw out this idea:

What if the normal mindset of the seminar attendees (i.e. collecting techniques and misconstruing knowing something for understanding something) that is providing the disservice. And the resulting, attend five seminars and a camp and then think you are qualified to teach is a manifestation of this?

By this I mean, the person is trying to take the FMA and instead of using it to grow and become "more/ different/ greater/ increase understanding" (or however you want to put it), he is trying to strip away enough that it fits within a nice neat tidy box that he can use to make himself "better than other people". In the first you become part of something bigger and you have a lot of exploring and learning to do. In the other you take something bigger than you, strip it down to size and use it to build up your own ego.

As near as I can tell, technique collecting and teaching from seminar generated credentials are more symptoms of this problem rather than themselves the main problem. I believe that the loss of 'critical lessons" is the first step in allowing yourself to float into ego-reinforcing training.

And it has to be, I mean face it. The first two critical lessons are "In order to survive I have to become a killer. To be the one who lives through this have to throw away everything I think about myself away (literally throw away my life as I know it). the old me will die and I will be left lost and alone in the world"

I will tell you the truth, every combat vet and person who has had to fight for their lives -- that I have met -- has done that. They literally shattered who they were in order to survive. And then they spend many years afterwards reassembling the pieces.

No bloody wonder people take the idea of knife fighting and strip it down so that it fits within how they view the world. Then they walk around talking about how they know the subject and train for that possibility . They do this safe and secure in that by leaving out these critical elements, they have left themselves and how they think intact.


Frankenstein effect
I don't care if you define it through psychological or metaphysical terms...what it takes to survive a knife altercation is outside your ego. It comes from a deeper, more primal part of you that civilized life seldom if ever touches -- and for good reason.

By stepping outside of our egos, we literally commit mental suicide. We shatter who we are to bring forth what it takes to survive. Since it is our egos that define not only ourselves, but our definitions of reality, stepping outside of those boundaries will destroy who you are. You will still be physically alive, but everything you think of about yourself will have been shattered.

Thing is, life goes on. And in order to survive you need ego/self -definitions. And that means you have to reassemble yourself.

For many years after undergoing this event you will be trying to put your life back together. But an object once broken, even though glued back together will always have the cracks and seams.

When you know what to look for, these mental "Frankenstein scars" are obvious. As is what is underneath.

Redefining oneself is a major psychological undertaking even under the best of circumstances. Trying to put yourself back together again after a major trauma is a far more risky task. Many people who do survive begin to define themselves by the trauma. Others try to submerge this aspect and conform back into daily life. While a very few take the opportunity to expand themselves and become something more than what they were.

If you do a little research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, rape recovery and crisis intervention procedures you will begin to understand what it is that I am talking about.

I would like to point out however, that there is a significant difference between a victim and a combat survivor. And that is that while victims are often shattered, there is something missing. They are shattered and terrified. With those who have survived combat they too are shattered, but shining through the cracks is a very specific "light."

There is a very primal presence, an awareness, a radar, an almost draconian essence that is within that person. And once awakened, that part of you never really goes back to sleep. It is always there within your consciousness. It is like having a dragon for a roommate. It is a presence that you must share your space with, but within your head.

This "presence" is one of the key differences between victims and those who have survived hell. Both have the mental/emotional jigsaw patterning, but there is a sense of commitment about those who have "been there." A commitment that they did whatever it took to survive - and won't hesitate to do it again.

Among those who have successfully reassembled themselves it is like a dragron sleeping underneath the surface of the lake. Occasionally it awakens and peers out of their eyes for a moment before returning to the depths.

Among those who have defined themselves by the "beasts" awakening, it is right out there in the open. The anger, rage and fury are blatantly displayed

Those who have desperately tried to reassemble themselves and attempted to suppress that part of them are walking time bombs of self-destruction. They try to live normal lives, but the beast within them is always fighting their attempting to cage it. It turns against them and whenever it gets a chance it gets it escapes to wreak havoc with the person's life.

Alcoholism, drug abuse, uncontrollable rage, other addictive and self-destructive behaviors and suicide are often the result of not learning how to deal with both this "aspect" and the shattering of self that tends to come with surviving combat.

You now know why I am very strongly against awakening the much touted "killer instinct" without very serious and immediate need. And why I am adamant against the idea of waking it up in training just so you can swagger down the street telling yourself what a bad ass you are.

It will stay with you for your entire life, and if you don't find effective coping mechanisms it can kill you just as certainly as putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger.

In conclusion
I don't remember who said it, but "One of the greatest tragedies of this century is that a man can live his entire life without ever knowing if he is a coward or not." Unfortunately, that statement rings all too true for people who are trying to prove something to themselves with reality based self-defense or  by learning the ultimate knife fighting system.

I know the fear, I know the gnawing self-doubt that can eat away at you. I know about doubting if you are a man because you are scared of violence. Gawd damn it, you should be scared of violence. It is a horrible, traumatizing, life altering experience. One that had I known what I know now when I was younger, I never would have been so quick to engage in.

.I also know the sweet sounding lies that seem like the answer to these painful motivations. Lies that we tell ourselves to keep from looking in the places where we really could get help. Lies that are told by organizations that are pandering to you fears instead of providing solid, reliable information.  I assure you like siren calls of drugs, alcohol or other addictions, these lies are not the way out.

I'd heartily recommend that you take a look at the Tough Enough, the Hollywood Macho and making you tough pages and do some serious reflecting on why you think being a knife fighter is such a great thing.

Return to top

1) A rattlesnake is so stupid that it can think itself cornered in an open field. As such, it coils and strikes at what it perceives as an attacker instead of slithering away like most other snakes would. This results in a great many rattlesnakes being killed rather unnecessarily, because the snake chose to stay and "defend itself" instead of fleeing -- unfortunately too many would-be warriors share in this behavior. Instead of the buzz of a rattle as the warning of the presence of  a rattlesnake, the question of "What if I can't run?" is the usual warning sign of someone who is likely to find himself "rattlesnake cornered" Such people tend to dismiss the idea of prevention, avoidance and de-escalation and paint scenarios in their minds where they would have no choice but to use their deadly blade art on someone. In my opinion, they aren't looking for an escape. Instead they are looking for an excuse. As the old Murphy's Law of Combat states "Never share a fox hole with anyone braver than you are" you might want to remember "Never associate with someone who is looking for an excuse not to run from a knife fight"  Return to Text

2) Cargo cults were a phenomenon noticed during WWII in the Pacific theatre. Basically the cargo cults were primitive people who saw landing fields and saw that when either the Japanese or the Allies built them, planes landed and delivered goods. Thinking that there was a cause and effect, the natives built their own landing strips in hopes of attracting planes to give them goods like they had seen it work with these invaders.Return to text

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