Learning to Play Hands

There is a term I use, which I call “playing hands”. I did not get this term from the Filipino Fighting Arts, but from my brothers on the DC underground. It is probably just something those 70s and 80s martial arts fanatics came up with on their own, but is very relevant to the FMAs and is found in many FMAs of old. It is a lost part of the art that many of you see the old masters excel at, but often you don’t know where this skill came from.

In a nutshell, “playing hands” is slap boxing. But it goes deeper.

This is what it looks like: two combatants square up in any fighting stance they each try to slap each other in the face, the arms, the hands, and the sides of the ribs. They also try to stop each other from landing slaps.

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No, really. That’s it!



Okay, you feel cheated. Let me expound. See, some of the best things in the martial arts are not complicated and fancy. They don’t have “hidden translations”, secret related movements to the knife, or profound insights into weapons work and how it relates to empty handed fighting. Slap boxing is one of those skills you must do to become good at. There aren’t any short cuts. It isn’t entertaining material for Youtube voyeurs. It won’t sell DVDs or get good reviews at your local FMA seminar mat-chat. But the more you do it, the better your reflexes will be. And the more you do it, the more you will understand how to strike another man without him being able to stop it. I wish I could tell you how, on this blog or in person, to become successful at playing hands… other than simply to tell you to do it.

Many of the skills needed for fighting are best obtained by–well–fighting. Slap boxing only covers one piece of one of those skills, and few other activities will give you the results that you can get from years of slap boxing.

And for you streetfighting “experts”–if you’ve ever hung around real gang members. this is what they do to practice for fighting. And yes, I know that gang bangers are known more for pulling a trigger that fighting with their hands, but the ones who throw hands usually throw hands this way for leisure. Its safe, its fun, and it really does teach you how to use your hands against someone trying to stop you from using your hands. And no, there aren’t many grappling skills going to be developed from slap boxing. And no, slap boxing isn’t full contact, nor does it look like real fighting. But it is a very good way to learn to time hands coming at your face, and it improves your ability to follow the unpredictable pace of a fist fight.

For the martial artist, slap boxing puts you much closer to your opponent that you normally spar from. A real fight is rarely at the long distance martial artists fight from, and one of the things we hear is that your speed and timing is off because of the adrenaline rush of a real fight. But let me add this theory:  Speed and timing are off in a real fight because you will often end up closer to your opponent that you are used to, and the things an untrained fighter will throw at you on the street are far fewer than you are training for. There are fewer techniques, and the techniques are thrown “wrong”–meaning, the jabs aren’t quite like textbook jabs, the hooks are thrown from the back hand rather than the front, you will almost never see an uppercut, and backfist/reverse punch/elbows/knife hands/kicks? Forget it. The only thing an untrained fighter is going to try and kick is ass once his opponent hits the ground.

I would like to caution against trying to add too much to your playing hands also. The most common things you will encounter are the jab, the cross, the hook, the clinch and the tackle. Not telling you to limit yourself, but you need to limit yourself to mainly these things until you are extremely good at them.

And how good is “extremely good”, Mustafa?


Take two years and call me in the morning. There is only one way to find out how good you are, and trust me–your friends have nothing to do with that determination.

When I first hooked up with Bernard, Kevin, Eddie, Vernard, Moe, Bear, Junior, and Beast, I was about 13 years old. About 4 years later and three boxing gyms later, I felt like I was catching up to those guys. When I was 18, I began to incorporate more than just boxing style punches and grappling to my hands, and around my mid 20s I felt like I could whip anyone. This is only one piece of fighting skill that takes a long time of doing the same old boring things (to tell the truth, it never really gets boring) to develop to proficiency. But once you have it, you will be dominant over all those guys doing all that fancy stuff like a choreographed fight scene. And the difference is that you can take a guy on without having to decide on rules or knowing what he is planning to do, and being able to handle him easily.

And as always, if anyone is in the Sacramento area and would like to stop by to try this skill (or any other skill I discuss on this blog) in person, please email me and I’d be glad to go a round with you.

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