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A quote (from Arthur C. Clarke, if I remember) that stuck in my
mind was that people are defined by their disasters, meaning that in a
certain sense, we are really us fully when the shit hits the fan. This
is why I think some people seek out disasters (at least the ones who
have no experience in them). They understand at a basic level that if
they had gotten through something they'd have bragging rights but they
also fail to understand that to adapt to an extreme situation requires
you change into someone else. When if you don't like that person? It's
hard to change again. Those that do manage to pull through (such as
yourself) have learned how, in some way, to cope.
                                    Jeff Gaynor

Making you tough

On this page:
Been there, done that | The appeal of the ultimate fighting system | Impressing the easily impressed | Real tough | Respect | Physical fitness | Taking a hit | Training for the fight that never will happen | Immediately effective | Cult of personality | Titles | It's your ass Cochise | Further Resources

Unfortunately, when I see the full page ads in martial arts magazines with someone in a puffed up pose, glaring out the reader with a truculent sneer, surrounded by offers to make you an unbeatable fighting machine I can't help but put in a soundtrack.

And the song that just seems to fit perfectly is Tim Curry singing "In just seven days, I can make you a man" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

If I am feeling particularly fed up with macho nonsense that day, I picture this so-called expert, who is promoting his unbeatable fighting system, dressed in nylons and a leather corset, doing a Dr. Frankenfurter imitation, prancing about singing the same song.

I find this imagery far less repulsive than what they are selling with that kind of ad. Which, when compared to the idea of men in drag, should tell you what I think of these people's claims that they can teach you how to be tough streetfighters.

In a word: Bullshit.

And here is why.

Been there, done that
As Aerosmith said so accurately, this is a new version of an old dream. But we need to know what the old dream is before we can understand how this 'new' approach is just the same old tired dog, but with a new collar.

And that dog didn't hunt back then, and it still doesn't hunt now.

Having been around the martial arts world for over thirty years, the one thing I can say with utter certainty is that I have seen many fads come and go: Karate, Judo, Kung fu, JKD, Kickboxing, Ninjitsu, Grappling, Knife fighting, SEALs, Streetfighting, silat and now, Reality Based Self-defense. All -- in their time -- were looked upon as the ultimate fighting art. Mere mortals cowered in fear from the people who knew these deadly arts.

And that impression lasted until someone watched the practitioners and figured out ways to beat them.

Which, not to put too fine of a point on it, is the history and evolution of warfare and martial science from the dawn of time. Someone either brings home a trick they picked up while traveling abroad, or invents something new that whups the local talent -- for a while. Then someone watches what he is doing and comes up with the counter. And the cycle begins over again.

As martial arts rags are eternally seeking the next Bruce Lee, practitioners of the combative arts have always been busy looking to stack the deck in their favor. And usually that is by doing something new and different than how everybody else is doing it. For a while, these new inventions run the battlefield until something else comes along that can defeat it.

Once the new wears off, those people start losing fights again. Return to top of page

So why the appeal?
The appeal of learning the "ultimate art" is based in misunderstanding of the reality of fighting.

It's the appeal of never being hit again or losing a fight. It's the appeal of thinking that you will have the emotional security and be free of fear -- if you know the ultimate fighting art.

Simply stated, fighting is like playing American football. It's fun to run around the field, throw the ball, catch the ball and to tackle people. It is however, unrealistic to think you can play and not get tackled yourself. You will get hit and you will get tackled. And every time that you step onto the playing field, no matter how good you are, no matter how much protection you have, there is a serious chance of injury.

But more importantly, the very idea of "the ultimate fighting style" is erroneous. Sticking with the football analogy. The reason that there is no such thing as an ultimate fighting style is that as you advance, so do other people.

The best way of understanding this is to think about pee-wee league football. In that you have a lot of little kids running around and tripping over themselves. The delusion of those seeking the "ultimate fighting style" is that they want something that would make them NFL players. And face it, an NFL player has nothing to fear from a pee-wee leaguer.

Thing is, it doesn't work that way. The better you get, the better the people you are playing get. You move up in the leagues. A kid may play pee-wee football, but that doesn't mean he will have what it takes to play on the high school team. And that goes double for the college team. Now from there you get into the semi-pro and the professional leagues. And only the very best of the best get up there.

When you finally get up to the professional leagues you are no longer playing against pee wee leaguers. You are facing other professionals -- who are just as sophisticated and skilled as you are. They hit harder. They are far more sophisticated and competent than the chaotic scuffles of the pee wee leagues. They have plans and strategies that if you don't counter them perfectly WILL work. That is what comes from moving up into the major leagues.

That's what comes out of trying to learn how to be a better fighter, you end up fighting better opponents.

So you might want to reconsider your desire to learn an unbeatable fighting system. Not only is there no such animal, but the only real result of learning how to be a good fighter is attract the attention of the other big leaguers. And these are people who can hit as hard and fight as well as you can. And if you think it gets nasty on the pee-wee playing fields you ought to see how ferocious it gets in the major leagues. Return to top of page

Impressing the easily impressed
The world is full of school yard bullies. Unfortunately, many of them have left the school yard and moved into the dojo.

There is hardly a school in the world that you can't walk into and find some little tin god strutting around. Now whether this is the instructor who has convinced himself that he is a god - or a senior student who is getting his revenge about being picked on in school out on others because NOW he knows the ultimate fighting system -- doesn't matter.

It's still the same tired old shit that you are trying to get away from. But this time the bullies want you to pay them so they can teach you how to be as cool as they are. Yeah, they may dress it up in tradition, or how street effective their system is, or how empowered you can be if you go through their program or how deadly their ultimate fighting style is, but in the final analysis they are selling you the delusion of being tough.

In many ways these guys are kissing your ego. But more importantly they aren't selling you the real enchilada, but rather what you think the solution is. Because face it. isn't this how tough guys act? They're walking around with total confidence. Doesn't that mean they are as good as they say they are?


What's more is that they believe the same thing. Their confidence comes from telling themselves the same stories. In their minds, knowing this system is the same as being tough. But they never have gone out and put it to the test in the real world. Which, if you think about it, is like a business professor thinking he is as good as business as a self-made millionaire.

In short, it's easy to tell yourself that you are tough if you never have to prove it. And staying within the safety and confines of the school or playing in tournaments is the most common way these people tell themselves how tough they are.

It is also extremely common to become overly specialized. What commonly happens is that the "deeper" someone gets into a particular art, the less likely they are to "think outside of the box." of that particular style. In other words, certain ranges and responses become "ingrained" and are used when, in fact, a different set would be more effective. But these responses are no longer even known -- much less considered, because that is not how their style or teacher likes to do things. This leaves the person vulnerable to different types of attacks. The best example is the first UFC where fighters who were used to kicking and punching were overwhelmed by grapplers - because they had trained away from dealing with such problems.

In the streets however, there really are No Rules and that means you never know what you will be facing. This is why the swaggering arrogance commonly found in the dojo is not an indicator of real survival skills. Sure the person is confident about his skills -- because he knows everything that will be coming at him. However the reality is that in violence and fighting, you don't. This is why you cannot afford to be a specialist, focusing on only one thing like grappling, hand to hand fighting, or knives. Because if you do all your armour will be in one place. While you will be able to deal with that kind of assault, you will be susceptible to the other kinds of attacks that you might face.

Swaggering confidence, boasts of how much he knows, how many styles he has mastered, that he has scientifically developed the ultimate fighting system or that this art is direct from the great master "Who flung poo" who used this system to kill 537 enemy soldiers with his bare hands, are the loudest indicator of someone who will get you killed if you ever try to use his system in a real self-defense situation.

Do not confuse confidence for competence on this subject - especially when it comes to self defense, That's because the more you understand the problem, the less confident you are. For one thing, you always know there is much more to learn and much more that you don't know. For another thing a responsible teacher comes to realize that people's lives depend on the accuracy of the answers they give. And therefore giving someone a simplistic and unrealistic answer can - and will - get that person hurt if he/she ever ends up in a real situation.

But that doesn't stop these kind of instructors from telling you that their system is combat proven and that it works in the streets. They honestly believe that their simplistic answers and limited way of thinking would work in a self-defense situation. And in the safety of the dojo they will never be proven wrong -- and that is why they are there instead of out on the streets.

They accepted the fantasy answer that this stuff works - without testing it out themselves - and now they want to sell it to you too. The less you know about what is really involved in violence and fighting, the more likely you are going to be sold a bill of goods by someone who confidently tells you that he has the answer to all of your fears.

Real tough
The truth of the matter is that most people have probably never really seen a true badass. They've undoubtedly looked at a few, but didn't actually "see" what they were looking at. In other words, they may have glanced at the guy, but they didn't recognize what he was. On the other hand these same people can spot a swaggering punk a mile away. And that is exactly who they are worried about having to fight and who they attribute the glorified title of "Streetfighter."

What they don't realize is that the guy quietly sitting in the corner is someone those same punks would take one look at and run like hell from. Because those punks recognize a really dangerous order to survive on the street they have to.

There is an old street maxim that anyone who tells you that they are in the mob isn't. Made members are like a force of nature, they don't have to advertise, they just are. It's the same with "heavy hitters" they don't need to tell you how tough they are. Nor do they have to impress you with how dangerous their fighting style is.

There is a very important lesson about being tough to be taken from shooting sprees. And that is a shooting spree - where someone comes in and shoots many people - ONLY happens when one side has the guns. Everyone remembers the Columbine High School tragedy. What few people remember is a year after I graduated from my high school, four guys came on campus drew guns and opened fire. The campus police, members of the faculty and even some students drew their guns and returned fire. The four original shooters turned and ran. Total body

In the same vein, it is easy to be tough if you are the only tough guy there. And in a martial arts school it is easy to tell yourself how tough you are and swagger around impressed with knowing such a dangerous art, when nobody really wants to eat your liver.

This is why however, people who are concerned about those street punks will walk into such a school and sign up. They believe that the swaggering, and bullying of the instructor/senior students is the real thing. It your not knowing what is involved in real violence and conflict that will leave you susceptible to the sales pitches of wanna-be tough guys. Such a mistake will cost you time, money and, if you do find yourself in a real altercation, blood.

Al Siebert wrote a book called "The Survivor Personality" In it he tells a story of when he was in the paratrooper training and how they were going to be taught by guys who had survived real hell. The recruits told themselves how bad and mean these guys were going to be. His realization of what those who really were tough enough to survive hell were like vs. what he thought they would be like is a serious reality break about what you think it takes to survive. Return to top of page

Physical fitness
There is good reason to be physically fit in order to fight...if you are in the military.

Simply stated physical fitness is mandatory if you are expected to be able to endure cold, wet, harsh conditions for days on end and then be able to function when the battle arrives. Without good physical conditioning you will more easily fall victim to fatigue, exhaustion and stress. In doing so you will make mistakes, perhaps lethal ones.

Physical fitness is also necessary for prolonged sports activity. Both anaerobic and muscle tone are required to endure the long drawn out demands and punishments that your body will endure in a contact sports match. Without some degree of physical conditioning you will not be able to last, much less win in an extended match.

It can often be important if you are in a lifestyle or profession where you will be called upon to engage in strenuous physical activities on a regular basis. If you are cop, fireman, lifeguard, EMT, bouncer or security guard, your job may require you to carry an unconscious or hurt person, give chase to a fleeing individual or control without harming a violent individual. And in those conditions you do need to have a certain degree of physical shape and well being.

Realistically speaking for self-defense you don't really need to be in that great of shape. First of all because of the difference between self-defense and fighting, a self-defense situation isn't going to be as long and drawn out as either a fight or a sporting match. Your only goal in a self-defense situation is to get the hell out of there. That means instead of standing there trying to fight you only engage your opponent long enough to knock him down and run.

In fact, the reason for physical fitness should be more for your health than its use in self-defense.

There really is no reason for you having to "get in shape" for self-defense. How good of shape do you need to be in in order to knock someone down and run to safety? Yes, you should be in good enough shape to do a 100 yard dash in a reasonable time. But that is not all that hard. Again though, that is more an issue about your health than self-defense.

Now granted this is not an accepted point of view by many people who insist you have to be physically fit in order to defend yourself. Well, if they think this way, odds are what they are teaching is more of a sports oriented approach. And that means that they expect it to last a long time...which if what they are teaching are sports techniques (designed not to really hurt an opponent) then it can turn into a long drawn out fight. But that is not self-defense. Return to top of page

There is no more word tossed around by wanna-be tough guys than respect. The problem is they don't know what it means or where it comes from.

Taking a hit
I once had a conversation with one of the most brilliant men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He was an interesting character, having paid his way through medical school by being a mercenary in Central America during the summer. Needless to say he was no stranger to violence. Our conversation went something like this...

"If I were to hit you what would I be doing?" He asked

"Other than signing your death warrant?" I retorted. "Yes, other than that" he replied.

I thought about it for a second and then said "You'd be telling me that you are pissed"

"Exactly," he said "I'd be communicating" What then ensued was a long convoluted nature of communication. However the point I am trying to make is that being struck is more than just physical contact. This can be expanded to the physical trainer's oft heard "pain is a message."

Once you receive a message, you can be overwhelmed by it or you can acknowledge it and keep going.

When it comes down to it, I am not much of a fan of constant, hard core, full contact training. I do not feel that it of long term benefit. In fact, I consider it to be long term destructive. I say this for several reasons.

First, it IS important to be able to take a hit.

You DO need to be able to "speak the language of scuffle." And that is to be able to be struck, not only physically but emotionally by an angry person and be able to continue to operate. You cannot be overwhelmed by the pain and fall back in confusion.

The reason that I speak about the "language of scuffle" is that like a real language, you must be able to recognize what language is before you can respond. And in order to do that you must be at least be familiar with it. Once you recognize it, then you respond appropriately. Therefore someone who walks up to you and speaks to you in Spanish, instead of trying to reply in English, you can at the very least say "Lo siento, no hablo espanol." If you are fluent in Spanish, you can shift mental gears and communicate on that level.

It is the same way with being hit. Instead of reeling back in confusion and being overwhelmed by the shock and pain, you need to be familiar enough with the sensation to say "Okay, I got hit, it's time to change gears." Like you don't talk English to someone who is speaking Spanish you, once someone strikes you, you quit talking and react in an effective manner.

For that purpose I will say that you do need to train to take a hit. But only so that you learn not to fold in the face of pain. Therefore a certain amount of contact is necessary to acquaint you with the lingo of scuffle.

However, having said that, I am rabidly against extended and continuing full contact training Number one, the idea is to inflict pain and suffering on your opponent, NOT on yourself.

Cumulative damage is a very real thing. What you can shake off in youth, will come back to haunt you in your old age. Because you didn't really shake it off, you just ignored it. Broken bones, bruises, sprains, hyperextensions, dislocations and soft tissue damage taken in youth, will allow you to predict changes in the weather for the rest of your life. Repeated impacts to the head will manifest in nervous system damage. "Palooka syndrome" - an effect well known among older boxers even before the AMA was formed - has been medically proven time and time again.

Secondly, anybody can endure an expected pain.

However, as I often say, I offer a buffet of pain. That is to say that there are several kinds of pain. The ability to withstand one type does not automatically instill the ability to withstand others. There are people who can take a blast of pepper spray in the face and not fold. And they will brag about it to prove their point about pepperspray's ineffectiveness. However, I have never met such a person who is willing to prove that he can take a blast of pepper spray AND a kick to the balls. Simply stated the pains are different and when they combine they are harder to resist.

Hard core full contact training will teach you how to endure the pain of a blow, that is not however the only way there is to attack.

In a brawl, I once been taken to the ground by a gorilla who shed my blows like water off a ducks back. His momentum had overwhelmed and he was in a "mounted position" where he was sitting on my stomach pummeling me. I tried to buck him off and the move failed. He did however slid forward enough that I was able to bite him in the crotch. He screamed and literally flew off me where he landed in a fetal position crying and whimpering. This man had taken my best shots and just kept coming, but a bite to a sensitive area put him out of commission.

While the advocates of it may say it isn't so, full contact training DOESN'T prepare you for different kinds of pain.

Finally, it encourages a lack of defense.

This lack is also common among larger people who rely on their size to protect them. If you do not fear a blow, you won't take measures to prevent it from landing. Which might be fine except there is no way you can be sure the guy doesn't have a knife or razor.

If you have trained away from mobility and effective defenses because your belief in your ability to take a hit, you have trained away from real self-defense. Return to top of page

Training for the fight that will never come
As stated most people really don't have an idea of what real violence is. Therefore how can you tell if what you are training in would work?

"Uhhhh.... because my teacher said it would?"

Without being too sarcastic, that is the literal translation of "my instructor trained under Grandmaster Monkey Dung who used it to kill those 537 soldiers."

Unfortunately, you don't stay in the business of martial arts by telling people that you don't know what you are talking about.

The reality of it is there are countless ways that violence and fights happen. And while you don't have to train for every possible contingency and detail, you do need to realize that there is a wide spectrum of fighting. In many ways fighting is like rape, the realities do not match what people assume is the reality. They are so busy looking for what they think it is that they don't see the real thing coming to run their asses over.

Most martial arts, and by extension self-defense courses, tend to focus mainly on one-on-one, mano y mano fights. Or they assume that you both are equally armed with stick or knife. The Dog Brothers did a very good thing for giving the martial arts world a dose of reality when they re-introduced unequal weapon contests.

Welcome to reality.

You're not always going to be on equal footing. You're not always going to be fighting someone of your skill or size. You're not always going to be fighting one on one. You're not always going to have a weapon. You're not always going to be attacked in the ways you expect. You're not always going to be fighting for your life. You're not always going to be in a friendly fight. You're not always going to be sober. You're not always going to be justified to use physical force. And most importantly you aren't always going to have warning that you are about to be attacked.

Each of these situations require a totally different mindset and set of responses.

And by that, I don't mean the same attitude and reactions of your school -- or system -- just slightly tweaked. I mean totally different. (I especially don't mean "this is how we handle knife attacks in this style." I cannot tell you how many times I have been heard that from sports based, empty hand style practitioners. Whom, after one glance at what they are doing, I know they would be dead at the hands of any 14 year-old punk from the old neighborhood.)

The problem is that these kinds of false assumptions are deeply embedded in most people's training. They think they are training for the reality of fighting and violence.

Well, yeah, one particular kind, but what about the 99 ways that things happen?

This is why you have to do your own research and find out -- from outside sources - if what you are being taught will or won't work. It's not that what you are learning is totally useless (as another instructor who is trying to sign you onto his school or program will often tell you), but that it really only good for one particular type of circumstance.

Now what are the other, more common, types of situations that you are going to run into?
Return to top of page

Immediately effective
I have a real simple standard of measuring self-defense moves.

Does it work? And can it begin to work within five minutes of you being taught it?

Because face it, if you need an effective self-defense system, you need it NOW!

A self-defense system needs to be immediately effective, not become effective in five years or require that you do it right. You're not going to be in the best of circumstances while being attacked, therefore a complicated set of moves that require years of practice before it works is of little help.

This is a standard you need to demand from anyone who is insisting that what they teach is self-defense. Within moments of being shown the move you should NOT be getting hit by people coming at you at reasonable speed.

If it really works, it will work now. In five years of practice it will just work a whole lot better. Return to top of page

Cult of personality
Many martial artists are seriously offended when people liken the martial arts to a cult. Well if the shoe fits, wear it.

It seems that the people who most strenuously object to the idea are the ones who are most strongly engaged in cult-like behavior. Politics are bad enough. But it goes over the line when you see students in internet flame wars, smear campaigns and even physical assaults against other instructors who they feel are not as good as their "found messiah" of martial arts/self-defense. Their fanatical adherence to a way of thinking, system or instructor turns them into "True Believers" who dedicate large portion of their lives to the cause.

Now if that isn't cult-like behavior, I don't know what is.

Like any group, these organizations tend to attract like-minded people. Like minded people tend to reinforce each other and that way of thinking. It is therefore important to realize that any large organization reflects more of the mindset of the members than the realities of fighting and self-defense.

The more rabid someone is that their organization or leader is the possessor of the "right" way of doing a martial art style or about the truth about self-defense, the more they are telling you that they have some serious psychological issues. Because that behavior has left self-defense/martial arts and moved into neurosis and obsession.

Now what does that say about the person who is the head of such an organization or the idol these worshipers venerate?

While he may not be pathological, there is a fine line between good marketing and being a cult figure. And many of these people are pushing it. And that is why it is important to look at their behavior, marketing and dealings with other individuals in the field, and to do it outside the context of martial arts and self-defense.

Does their behavior in these regards conform to normal standards or is it a little left field? And they want you to participate in their little reindeer games too?

The reason this is important is that if you accept such a group's definition of tough, then the only standard you'll measure things to is that standard. While that may not sound like a problem, it can and will blind you to several issues. First, the fact that there are some tough assed individuals out there who are not related to the school. Second, that just because you play this school's game, doesn't make you tough. It just means you're training. Third, once you lose sight of this you lose sight of all kinds of other things about violence too. Fourth, when you start doing this, you start floating off into fantasy. And in this field, fantasy can kill you. Return to top of page

Bob Orlando in his excellent book Martial Arts America takes a very critical look at rank inflation in the martial arts. His premise is that because of competition from other businesses that instructors have resorted to grandiose titles and lowering standards in order to inflate their rank to impress potential clients. (1)

In the same manner, titles like master, grandmaster, professor, doctor and master of arms have been adopted by people seeking to appear not only more credible, but more knowing than the school down the road. As to these people's exact qualification, well that still remains to be seen. Some are qualified, some are not. There have also been a slew of odd titles wrapped in mystery and from obscure and little known societies and fighting arts, pendekar, datu, sultan and khan just to name a few.

Thing about it is, I happen to know a man who claims both the title Master AND Doctor -- and has the documentation to support both titles -- who makes his steady paycheck as a flight attendant. His alleged PhD doesn't come from an accredited University and his ranking of Master comes from within the school that he is associated with. So what does that tell you?

In short, the only real standard of a teacher is the caliber of students that he produces.

And the only standard of a fighter is can he fight? And not just fights that he picks, but in fights that pick him?
Return to top of page

It's your ass Cochise
This is a very harsh page. And I am sure that if the kind of people to whom these comments apply come to read it, they will be very upset about what is stated here.


If they have something to say to me, they can say it to my face. If not, then fuck them.

I say this not out of macho bravado, but in the defense of the students who would risk their lives by listening to these people's teaching.

The whole of the self-defense issue comes down to one basic element: You.

It doesn't matter what anybody who wants your money can do. It doesn't matter how many people in his organization think he walks on water. It doesn't matter his title, rank, what innovations he has come up with or how many years of practice he has...what matters is what can he do for you. What can he show you that works RIGHT now?

That's because it isn't about him. It is about you.

If you are interesting in learning an effective self-defense program then that should be your focus. You are the one who is going to end up getting hurt in a dark parking lot. You are the one who will end up bleeding if someone decides to push your face in. You are the one who is at risk of getting jumped in the subway.

And any training that someone expects you to pay for had better help solve that problem right now. Because face it, what is at stake is your life.

Unfortunately, many people who get tied up with these groups aren't really looking for self-defense...they are looking for something else packaged in a self-defense format. And that is why so many of these programs are so popular. It's not that they are selling self-defense they are selling that something else that the people think they need. And it is that "something else" that the true believers snatch up and take to heart. It's not that they have found the ultimate system, it's that they have found something that they can use to tell themselves that they are better than you.

That wasn't true before they started in the program and it isn't true now that they are involved in it.

Thing is, for every person who has found "their own personal Jesus," there are hundreds, if not thousands who have decided that laughing boy and his cronies weren't it and kept on looking. And this realization usually cost them lots of money.

So look deeply into your heart as to why you want to learn this stuff. If you are looking to get something else from your training, then you would be well advised to recognize it before you pour lots and lots of time and money into something that may or may not work for giving you what you desire.

Return to top

1)For a brief look into the issue of rank inflation and title confusion, an article by Bob Orlando entitled "What is a black belt?" is available for your review on his website. This is a very thought provoking article and appeared in the July 2001 issue of Black Belt Magazine. Return to Title section

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