To Master or Not to Master

What type of Filipino martial artist are you? How far do you want to take this thing? What are your goals in the arts? Is it necessary to complete curriculums, teach the art, fight in matches, cross train, or aim for mastery?

And that, today my friends, is the question. This question is not one that you need to answer aloud, but is one you should be answering to yourself so that you can navigate the martial artist lifestyle. “That” being the why of your martial arts journey–not so much the eight questions I posed.

You see, we tend to filter everything we see in the arts through our own eyes–and our eyes tend to be discriminating eyes. If I have an insecurity about my actual fighting ability, I have been traumatized after becoming the victim of a crime, or perhaps I am a natural scrappy guy who likes to fight, I might be guilty of seeing all study in the martial arts through the eyes of a fighter. If I aspire to be called some lofty martial arts title, or maybe grew up feeling pushed around or held back, I may see the martial arts as a journey that begins with a low rank and ends in a high rank. If I am a community oriented man, have an infatuation with Filipino culture, or an interest in Filipino history, I might look at the Filipino martial arts as a way of preserving, practicing, promoting, or rediscovering Filipino culture. There are many reasons for studying the art, and we must consider why we undertake this lifestyle as well as decide what we would like to do with our knowledge once we have it. Even if your purpose is undeveloped or as simple as you simply thought it was “cool”–each reason to study is valid and has its nuances. Your journey won’t be the same as someone in the same art with a different reason for study and a different plan for his acquired knowledge. Because of this, the question does not have a simple answer. Rather than try and answer for everyone, I will answer when I believe mastery of the art is necessary. You can then decide if you fit this category, and if this path is for you.

Studying by Seminar, Distance Learning, and Long Term Discipleship

The first part of answering this question is to state emphatically that mastery of the art can only occur after one has committed himself/herself to long term discipleship under a true master of the art. If you wanted to learn to become a master mechanic, you will not be able to achieve this goal under a man who has never worked on cars for a living. You will not learn it from a book. You will not achieve mastery of automechanics from YouTube clips. You will not be able to find a weeklong workshop anywhere that will give you the tools, I don’t care if the seminar was taught by Henry Ford himself. You can tinker around in the backyard and learn a few things on your own about cars, but that is nothing compared to the guy who spent ten years under the tutelage of the master mechanics at a car dealership. There are many lessons that, while may be revealed to you through trial and error–are not going to be learned like you will learn after repairing thousands of vehicles with all types of problems 40-60 hours a week for a decade. There simply is no comparison.

Yet, the Filipino martial arts community is heavily populated by men who have absolutely no actual combat experience, no sparring experience, have 20+ teachers (and fewer than 10 actual lessons with 19 of them), and learned from the same source as hundreds of thousands of other FMA students… who consider themselves a “master” of the arts. Preposterous.

If one is a “dabbler” or wishes an introduction into the FMA, then distance learning, seminars/workshops, and extracurricular classes in a school specializing in another art will suffice. These environments, whether the intensity is casual or whether the training is difficult, can do little more than introduce concepts and give moderate explanations about techniques and theories. However, for building an actual foundation in an art, a consistent and regular, regimented and ongoing program is needed. Just as you cannot expect to take 5-6 “seminars” in learning to speak a foreign language fluently, what the average FMA man is doing very similar to the old retired Navy veteran who can say “Please”, “Hello”, and “Thank you” in 10 different languages–but can’t hold even a basic conversation in any of them. Even most “veteran” FMA seminar jocks, who can ramble off Tagalog and Cebuanu terminology as a regular part of his speaking vocabulary and transition from drill to drill, showing a plethora of escapes, disarms, takedowns, and other wonderful demonstrations–cannot hold a “conversation” (i.e., sparring match) using 90% of his knowledge without a feeder or otherwise cooperative partner. Keeping the analogy of language going, a martial artist who can “flow” his techniques through demonstration but cannot fight with those same techniques has the fluency of a 6 year old child. That 6 year old can speak as fluently as the Eskrimador moves–just as quickly, just as clearly–but is no “master” of the English language. Bottom line, dabbling for 20-plus years does not a master make.

Defining Mastery

I’m glad you asked. In conversations like this, a common question is brought up. It goes like this:

To each his own. Who are you to decide what a ‘master’ is to me? We create our own path. We look at things our own way. My definition of ‘mastery’ may not necessarily be your definition. Who do you think you are? Master So-n-So has been in these arts XX years, and has taught hundreds–maybe thousands–of guys. He has world champions/Dog Brother members under him, I guess they’re wrong, huh? Blah blah blah, quack quack quack…

Rather than engage in this debate for the umpteenth time, let me throw out my very simple, short answer. And then expound on that short answer.

Plainly put, A Master is one who has left no stone unturned in his study and development of his art, and anyone in his presence dare not challenge his worthiness of the title.

Is that easy enough to understand? Notice that this definition has two parts:

  1. A Master is one who has fully studied and developed his art, and
  2. His skill is visible enough that no one would argue that he has, in fact, mastered the art.

We must demand more from ourselves besides simply learning techniques, drills, and new arts. I could learn all the mathematical equations in the world–but if I cannot apply those formulas in the real world and use them, that knowledge is of no use at all. Too often, FMA practitioners can demonstrate the art beautifully. They can look as deadly and impressive as ever. But if they cannot use this knowledge to stop a simple aggressive, unfriendly attacker, his demonstration was nothing more than slick choreography. At the same time, we have men who can fight. They can crack a skull, they have the pain tolerance to endure all types of stinging slaps from the stick, broken fingers, etc., but most of the techniques in their arsenal is not used in those fights because he has only developed 10% of what he knows–he is nothing more than a good fighter, not a master. He could be friends with the guy from Ong Bok, he could have hundreds of pictures with GMs and celebrities, he could have certified tens of thousands of students. But if his art has not been fully developed, investigated, absorbed into his reflexes, and can be/has been used against hundreds of opponents, he has not mastered the art.

And once all that research has been done, the sparring partners have been trained with and beaten, the art has been revised and reduced and concentrated and renamed–he should have developed his skill to such a high degree that most people who encounter him cannot name ten men with the same level of skill… or he is no master. You cannot call yourself a master when most people know plenty of people with better skill. Age is irrelevant here. If you’ve ever encountered a master musician (and I have) a master artist, a master mechanic, a master physician, a master of academics, a master chef–then you would know exactly what I mean. Many of us just don’t know what a true master is, so it is easy to call a likeable, older fellow with mediocre or above average skills as “Master”. I get that. But once in a while, you encounter a true master of the arts–any art. One who seemingly has no peer. One with nearly perfect technique. One who can answer every question, not from his opinion file–but his been there, done that file. To bring it home, at a bare minimum, and this is not mastery but the first step towards achieving mastery–you should have developed every strike in your arsenal to the level that you can shatter bones with it. I have met many so-called masters who tell me that they don’t do backhand strikes and abaniko strikes “because they aren’t destructive enough”. Telling that to a guy who can break objects with every technique in my curriculum is actually telling on yourself. Let’s be blunt here; very few men in these arts have full investigated their art. And very few have developed their physical skills to a destructive level, and this is just the ground floor of the uphill climb to mastery.

But of course, there are men who feel that fighting with blunt weapons and blades do not require physical fitness and therefore knowledge is sufficient to combat effectiveness. If that were true, I could put a razor-sharp blade in the hands of a determined 16 year old and none of these “combat experts” will fuck with him while empty handed. There is a higher level to this martial arts thing, and that path is not for everyone. Most guys don’t even know that the path exists. Let me drop a few tips that will help you get started on your path towards mastery:

  • perform every technique in your system–attack as well as defense–at least 5,000 times
  • face and fight 100 opponents
  • develop and train at least 3-4 defenses for every attack 1,000 times
  • regularly work with 500 repetitions in training
  • impact training and testing; you should be able to break wood, bricks, coconut, baseball bats with your skills
  • have a specialty, that if you used that skill, weapons or technique–you know you will defeat 90% of your opponents
  • you can actually BEAT 90% of your opponents and have done it regularly
  • accomplish and then revisit a technique that you have used 10,000 times–and do this regularly

To most people reading this blog, this section ^^ above will sound unrealistic. However, if any of you know my personal students, anyone who has studied with me more than 4 years has already done this. Plus I know several other martial artists who train this way and these numbers do not sound unreachable or unreasonable to them. If you truly want to explore the possibility of achieving mastery, give it a shot. It is a simple, but difficult goal to achieve. Anyone with the will, and anyone with the guidance and motivations can do it.

Depending on your goals in the martial arts, this may inspire you. Others may thing it’s overkill. Plenty of folks have ridiculed me for saying these things. But only those who have been to the summit of this climb know how real and lonely this journey is. This is not for the dabbler, and it is not for the guy who lacks the vision and stomach to make it happen. Achieve it and you will have few peers, but you will understand how silly awarding a “Master” certificate in a weekend seminar actually is. Yes, this is a physical goal and we did not touch on the nonphysical benefits of such a training regimen. Perhaps next time. Either way, there are many benefits to fully developing an art as far as your body will allow you to–and during this training you will find that your brain’s creativity will come up with much more material than even your teacher gave you. Understand that there is another dimension beyond simply knowing a martial arts, and another past being good at that arts. Few will understand, but take the nonconventional road to proficiency and that other dimension will be revealed to you. I hope this article sparks your curiosity to digging deeper than most of your peers will.

Before I let you go, I would like to introduce you to a FMA Vlog I recently came across:

His name is John, and he just started making videos such as this. Make sure you go over to YouTube and subscribe and support his channel. I suspect that there will be some great topics being discussed over there! Thank you for visiting my blog!


Fighting Advice from Mustafa Gatdula

One thing that the modern FMA man tends to neglect in his pursuit of martial arts ability is the study of fighting strategy. This is not a flaw in the tradition of Filipino martial arts, but a flaw in the way that our arts are taught. Because of the casual method most western FMA people learn–in seminars taught by out-of-town teachers, or in classes taught by local teachers taught by out-of-town teachers–the study of the fighting arts for us is very shallow and superficial. Students spend too much time in activities that do not challenge the body and mind. “Skill” is more often than not a test of coordination and rhythm rather than a true measure of combat effectiveness. Drills are described far too often as “fun”. The occasional hit hand or head when a strike is missed in choreographed practice are the war stories told by today’s FMA guy, rather than stories of lessons learned against actual opponents. Unlike yesteryear, FMA skill is mostly demonstrated with dance partners instead of proven against unfriendly, adversarial opponents. This has lead to entire generations of “fighters” who cannot teach a student to defeat a semingly superior opponent. The difference between a teacher who imparts an art to students limited by their size and physical ability versus one who can increase the effectiveness of any student’s achieved physical prowess is the study of application through strategy.

To illustrate this point:

Fighters A and B are similar size and experience in the art. They both know the same amount of techniques, and have put in the same amount of training time. They are both physically matched in strength, speed, agility and power. For this example, let’s say both fighters come from teachers who studied the same art, and have learned the same curriculum. Is the difference between the two fighters as simple as “power is in the martial artist himself, instead of the art”? This saying of it’s-the-fighter-not-the-art is oversimplified and lazy and terribly cliched. Both fighters may have learned the same techniques, both fighters may have trained just as well. But one fighter employs his art more effectively, efficiently, and with better planning than the other. Just as two boxers of similar stature know the same techniques–it is their use and mastery of strategy that makes one the victor and the other the loser. Chess players know the same moves and have the same pieces. But one is a superior strategist while the other is simply “playing chess”. Study strategy and psychology of fighting to dominate fighters on a level that is not limited to physical ability.

Here are a few basic strategies you should explore and utilize in your training and teaching. They are universal principles that apply to all styles and forms of combat–whether in the ring, on the street, armed, or unarmed:

  • Intercept your opponent’s movement with your own movement. Anticipate what your opponent will do next, where he will go–and then attack him, cut him off, or move your position before he can do/complete it. This can be based on your observation of his habits, his footwork, even repetitive techniques. Look for things like a short step he may take before launching an attack, where his eyes look before moving, or habits like dropping the front hand before kicking. This will give the impression that you are reading his mind
  • Keep your opponent off balance. Never allow your opponent to sit for more than a few seconds in a comfortable fighting stance. Force him to move back, move to the side, follow you. Change your position often, which forces him to change his position as well. By initiating the movement, your opponent becomes predictable because he is following you. If you notice that you can now force your opponent to move when you want him to–you can also change mid-motion, which causes a short stumble or change in balance. When he is off-balance, it is only for a fraction of a second if he is a good fighter–so you must attack him in an instant
  • Make use of obstacles. Obstacles can be things that get in your opponent’s way like walls, the ropes of a boxing ring, even bystanders, other attackers, or the referee if you are fighting for sport. Obstacles limit where and when the opponent can move, they can interrupt his movement, even distract him for a second. Look at the opponent’s eyes. When his eyes shifts to, say, the referee or trash on the street–capitalize on it and destroy him
  • Bring his targets to you. Tall opponents, faster opponents, and opponents with better mobility than you have can all be frustrating to fight. But they are not unbeatable. You can force a faster fighter to fall into a trap by attacking you in positions where you have the advantage. For example, attacking less frequently or dropping your guard will certainly invite a faster fighter to attack and make use of his skill. Wait for the attack and then lean away or step away to put more distance between you. This will cause your opponent to fail in his attack–and he will try again. The second, unplanned attack will almost certainly be slower–especially if you moved away from the position he was attacking. This is your cue to take advantage of the unexpected second attack. Had he been smarter, he would have backed away and reset his stance to attack again. But an opponent with a superior advantage over you would be less likely to take precautions and launch that second, unprepared attack. The same strategy works against bigger men, who assume their reach will not fail. By forcing a bigger man to attack twice, he is most likely going to have disrupted balance, in a longer, stretched-out stance, and his hands will not be in a position to protect himself. This is how bigger, stronger men get knocked out by smaller, weaker men–after launching a failed attack or missing a punch… and the smaller opponent was waiting on him
  • Miss your attack. Sounds like bad advice, right? I learned this after almost getting knocked out myself. My opponent was a Kyokushinkai fighter who was much older and slower than myself. I saw him miss a hook punch several times in another fight (which he won anyway), and planned to take advantage of his poor punching skill. Sure enough, like clockwork he missed me while headhunting and unlike the earlier opponent, I had the speed to close in on him and BAM. I walked into a spin kick. I ultimately won the fight, but asked him for a rematch after the tournament. He laughingly told me that he waited all day to use the combination, and I was the sucker who fell for the bait. Turns out, he had developed several “missed technique” follow-ups as he aged. His name is David Rhodes, and this old fox taught me that martial arts can still evolve and change to accomodate an aging competitor as he gets slower and loses his endurance. It is born of wisdom and experience and takes advantage of the cockiness of more youthful, but naive fighters. These techniques are now a part of my own martial arts practice, and as I approach my 50s I look forward to trying out this strategy myself. For a colorful example of a fighter who evolved as he aged, watch the difference in methods used by George Foreman, who maintained his power but lost speed while improving his ring wisdom. Not only did he defeat men half his age–he dominated them while they sought to take advantage of his “disadvantages”. You can “miss” in your own way while you are young, too. If you have great feet but less developed hands, let your opponent try to take advantage of your lack of fist speed. If you are a shorter fighter, let your opponent become sloppy because he thinks his height will help him. Pretend you are out of breath. Fake an injury or pulled leg muscle. On the street, pretend to be afraid–then make him pay when he tries to use his assumed upper hand. Perceived advantages/disadvantages can be very powerful if you learn to use them!

We will save the other items on my list for a future article. Hope you like these! Give yourself some time to come up with techniques that are already in your arsenal and how you can express them through my suggestion. Then, grab a few opponents and try them out. You’d be surprised how many ways you can skin a cat with some slick thinking (and good acting). Subscribe so you don’t miss the rest of them! Happy Veteran’s Day for my fellow vets (and shot out to the 459th MAW, Andrews AFB)….

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Thoughts on FMA Empty Hand, pt II: “Translating”

This article is a continuation of yesterday’s article, answering a reader’s question about the effectiveness of FMA empty hand. If you haven’t read it, please do, because you will need to understand where I am coming from in order to fully grasp what I am saying here.

One part of Mike’s question is that he wanted to transition from weapons to empty hand, and this is a conversation that I believe is sorely needed in the Filipino arts. My articles on this blog, which I’ve got several that address this idea, are almost always met with anger and opposition and even a few challenges here and there. Unfortunately, the only two who had ever shown up to follow through have been non-FMA guys who had limited exposure to the FMAs. Both, in fact, became students of mine. So let’s just give the short answer first, then I will give the longer answer afterwards.

In short, weapons translations to empty hand is a waste of time if your interest is combat and self defense.

And here’s why.

I have yet to meet, spar/fight, or see spar/fight a martial artist who subscribes to this philosophy who could spar or fight well. Are there Eskrimadors who can fight empty handed? Of course, there are many. But I have never met a man who can fight empty handed using skills called “Empty Handed Eskrima”. Where I’ve met Eskrimadors who can fight empty handed, he is using Muay Thai, boxing, BJJ, or something else. Trust me, I’ve tried! But I gave up in the 1990s on finding FMA guys who could use this stuff, and then I just changed my focus on developing what I do into something that is hard to beat. I doubt there are many men reading this article who have been challenged as often as I have, so good luck finding such a fighter. Now, for those who wondered if I believe that FMA empty hand is ineffective… No I don’t. I understand and teach many of the things taught in seminars and DVDs and certification courses, but as I say in my articles–they don’t work the way most people teach them. This is what is ineffective. Ideas like “catching a jab”, gunting, and other FMA empty hand staples are in fact effective, but the way most people teach them will get students clobbered on the street. The test of it all is if these skills can be used effectively and with dominance against a non-FMA man who is both an adversary as well as unfriendly and combative. In the rare occasions I have seen FMA folks use their empty hand skills against myself, my students, or a non-FMA fighter the skills were ineffective. So if someone would like to demonstrate these skills used effectively, I’d welcome the opportunity.

This is not to suggest that weaponed movement is not similar to empty hand movement. Doesn’t take advanced science; of course the movements may be related. But it is NOT true that if you study stick fighting, “you can pick up a stick, a knife, a broom, a sword, a common household object, blah blah blah, quack quack quack…”  We need to stop spreading that nonsense. A fist is a fist, a stick is a stick, a small blade is a small blade, a staff is a staff, and a nightstick is a nightstick. Each of these are very different from the other, and must be learned and trained separately. So an Eskrima #1 to the temple may come at the same angle as a right hook, an Eskrima #1 with a knife, and an Eskrima #1 with a staff–but the distance is completely different, the damage caused is not the same, power is generated completely differently, the TARGETS on the opponent will be different, and the method of defending each is not even closely related to the other. For example, let’s create a small matrix below:

  1. Eskrima #1 with rattan stick–distance of about 3-4 feet away/designed to break or shatter bones/power generated mostly with arm/striking the temple, neck or eye socket/defend by leaning out, stopping striking arm with either hand or blocking stick itself close to the opponent’s hand
  2. Hook Punch with fist–distance of 2-3 feet away/intended to lacerate eye or rended opponent unconscious/power generated from waist/targets are eye socket, jaw, cheekbone/defend by raising elbow to meet punch, ducking, shooting punch straight at opponent’s face while protecting jaw with punching arm’s shoulder
  3. Eskrima #1 with knife–distance less than 3 feet/intended to cut flesh/power originates from attacker’s grip, arm movement, and how much of blade makes contact with skin/targets are primarily neck, face, arms–but any available exposed skin (may not damage if opponent is wearing jacket, sweater or blade is serrated)/defended by blocking followed by grappling, intercepting, or evading
  4. Eskrima #1 with staff–distance greater than 4 feet/used to break bones or maintain range/power generated by momentum of the strike/targets are head and limbs/defended by intercepting opponent’s range of motion at close range

Throw in speed (each of these are used at different speed and tempos), ability to attack in combination (some weapons are likely used in combination, others will be single strikes), and either fighter’s familiarity with the weapons–you will see that you cannot simply “translate” one to the other without any serious study. Each is so different from the other–they are completely different arts and skill sets. So while they all come at a similar angle, once cannot just make a blanket claim to proficiency or ability at each weapons just because you know Eskrima. It is impractical, dishonest, irresponsible, and foolish. Try a stick defense against a knife, and you’ll be in big trouble. Use a hook defense against a staff, and prepare to be thrashed. The footwork is different for these weapons, the timing is different, and the distance and likelihood of a counter attack varies, depending on which weapon is being used. To think that one can translate a staff to a hand, a knife to and elbow, a chair to a rattan stick is naive and foolish. Shame on the teachers out here teaching that stuff.

In order to be an effective empty hands fighter, you must simply train and investigate empty hands fully. Eskrima Empty Hands can be highly effective, but one cannot just devote 15 minutes of class time to it, playing patty cake and hitting focus mitts and think you’re preparing for the streets. The nuances and intricasies of fighting without a weapon must be dissected, studied, trained, and tested–then studied some more. Much more than what the average FMA guy is doing, and darned sure not in the same way you would practice stick and knife. If I could ever fault our pioneering Grandmasters in the western FMA world for anything (besides promoting this as an art one could “add-on” to other arts in seminars and video), it would be this one fallacy, that learning weapons means your empty hands improves. It simply is not true. They are separate schools and separate specialties. Students will suffer a great disservice by teachers who teach and promote classes without fully investigating these skills and subarts. It would be better to drop those weapons from one’s curriculum and inform students that we have not specialized in those arts, than to lie to them and say we know it all because we know how to swing a stick. If you want to become proficient at small blades, you must train primarily with small blades. If you want to become an expert at the rattan stick (as opposed to the hard wood stick; I consider these different weapons and skill sets), you will need to choose it as a specialty. If you want to specialize with the staff, empty hands, the bolo, yo yo, or other weapons–you must undertake it like a college major. The Filipino martial arts are indeed one of the great combat arts. Our arts are practical, simple, and deadly. We are most effective at fighting with weapons, rivaled only by Japanese Kendo/sword related arts. Our masters are walking libraries of information because unlike most other stylists–they have actually fought with the weapons they teach. But they are not all-inclusive. Just as a libary is a place of learning for nearly all subjects, you cannot possibly know everything just because you walk in one–not even just because you work in one. You cannot absorb knowledge through osmosis. The information is there, but most of it must be explored, deciphered, and developed. Sticks and knifes can indeed enhance empty hand skill–but this is not automatic, and it is not 100% relatedable. Please remember this. We are, at our core–weapons fighters.

I should also add that it is not necessary to go to other arts to supplement FMAs as well. There is enough in the Filipino arts to gain this knowledge; but it must be studied, trained, and tested. In tomorrow’s segment, we will discuss how to do so even further. Thank you for visiting my blog.

And if you haven’t read my book, How to Build a Dominant Fighter, make sure you get it. It is an easy, quick read; my training philosophy is summed up in its pages. It’s a great place to start!

Thoughts on FMA Empty Hand: The Doubter (for Mike Jolly)

Ah, that “Fallacy of FMA Empty Hand” article… I thought my Hermit article would be my defining article, yet the Empty Hand article seems to be the one that endears me to my readers–or make me the FMA public enemy #1. No need to fret FMA brothers and sisters, by this time in 2017, I will be retired and back in the Philippines and will be able to accept the many challenges I’ve received over the last 15 years. Being that we are all Filipinos and part of this beautiful culture, I expect that those who issued challenges will actually show up? I would like to announce here on this blog that the Typhoon Philippine School is coming to Batangas and Manila, so I will need such matches both on the mat and off–in the dojo and out–to build credibility for my schools. If you are interested in a match, training, or just to have lunch–please leave a comment under this article and we will see you soon, kumpadres!

So I receive a question that I’ve often answered by email or in person. I’d like to post my reply here, because it is one that the Fallacy article has sparked. I received it via Facebook and it is from one of our readers who was not offended by the article.

By the way, I should admit. When I wrote the article, I wasn’t angry–but feeling silly that day, and the article was meant to be sarcastic and humorous. The articles following the fallout were written while I was angry, but not this one. I am shocked, but not disappointed by the response. Let me say this, FMA brothers:  You should welcome people who doubt the validity of your art; not be offended. We are martial artists. We grow through our experiences, through stress-tests, through defending our arts, and by having our skills and ideas challenged. A man who says he does not think your art is fully effective should become your best sounding board after your response. You should prove yourself to him, and make him a believer. People keep saying, “I don’t have anything to prove to you.” Oh no? Then you are in the wrong art, my friend. Fighting is not about opinion; fighting is all about proof and what you can do. Theories in the martial arts should not be theories for long. In order to convert your theories to actual combat methods, you absolutely must “prove” its validity to yourself, to your rivals, to your peers, to the public. Otherwise, an unproven martial arts theory isn’t worth the paper they are written on. They are as smelly and undesirable as the breath you explain them with. You can dress them up with mints and fruit juice and bubble gum all day long, but at the end of the day and unproven, untested martial arts theory is nothing more than smelly old, hot air. This is not what the FMA is all about. So when a guy says, I don’t believe your art–this is a great opportunity for you to pick up your stick or put on a pair of gloves and make this guy a believer. And when you do, you will end up like me:  admired or hated.

That said, doubters have a second important role in the martial arts. They cause you to think. I don’t discount any new idea I encounter in the art. If unable to test the theory, I will at least reflect on what I do to ponder if the guy has a point or not. Quite often, I have been perplexed by something a martial artist had said and went on to test the idea. Once, I was showing a technique to a friend who was not a martial artist. He was a police officer, and had fought for a weapon on several occasions. He was helping me put together a curriculum I was teaching to some Maryland State Troopers, and thought my techniques wouldn’t work. We took a plastic water gun and a knife, and spent a few days fighting over the knife as well as the water gun. At the end of the week, we both had learned about disarming, neutralizing and weapons retention. He learned how realistic disarming and neutralizing could be–I learned the limitations of disarming and neutralizing–and we both learned more about weapons retention on top of what he was already taught to do. I’d like to add a side note here. My friend’s name is Brad (won’t use his last name), and he is one of those “good cops”. I didn’t realize it then (1996), but each time I showed something, he kept saying, “We can’t do that”, and “That technique is banned”, things to that nature. I realizing retrospect that Brad was exploring ways to deal with an armed, combative subject without killing him. In fact, he wouldn’t even allow me to teach him simple skills like punching to the face, striking the head with a baton, and redirecting a knife into the attacker’s belly. In my opinion, he is a truly respectable officer who puts his life on the line–rather than the rhetoric I hear today of “kill the subject if you think you’re in danger”.  If the average citizen must use appropriate level of force even in self-defense–our trained police officers should do the same. Political rant over. Anyway, I was humbled. I realized that many things I was teaching at that time were either inappropriate for Western culture, or plain old impractical. After only four days of wrestling with a man who had never studied the martial arts, I modified a good portion of my Eskrima permanently into the art I teach to day. Encountering doubters can do wonders for your development as a martial artist, even if you are a Master of the art–if you allow it to.

And now, the question:

Question for you sir if you have a few minutes…I follow your blog, and I appreciate the honesty you put out, I’ve read your post on the fallacy of FMA empty hand combatives in the sense it’s taught now days in the different kali organizations. I do believe myself the FMA are superior when it comes to the use of tools but me wanting to specialize in being not only a high weapons practitioner but to be able to transition from empty hands to a tool, against one or mass attack scenario. What would you recommend and thoughts on this subject? Thank you for your help and time

All articles on this blog are edited before being published, so please stay tuned for part II. Thank you for visiting my blog.


How to Beat an FMA Guy – For “Wolf” Soderstrom

My Kung Fu brother from another brother (Sifu Randy Bennett, my older Kung Fu brother) is competing in a televised weapons-based tournament called the UWM. His name is Martin Lobo Soderstrom, and his character name for the show is “Wolf”. Please take a look at his profile video:
We were chatting about weapons fighting, and he observed that Filipino martial artists and HEMA fighters tended to do the best in these tournaments over other styles. The interesting feature of the UWM tournament is that they do not have “divisions” pitting like weapons styles against each other. In the UWM, anything goes, and you may end up with anyone in front of you. I really like that! It’s something I’ve been talking about for years, and when we’ve had weapons fight nights at my school, we’ve done it. Unfortunately, we rarely get takers. I am appreciative for the few risk-takers I’ve been fortunate enough to meet over the years who obliged me with matches in their respective styles. Such tournaments are starting to pick up momentum here in America. Master Darren Tibon holds such tournaments in California. The Dog Brothers I believe pioneered the concept in the 1980s, and to this day holds the only mixed-weapon, mostly unpadded tournaments around. Lately, Shihan Dana Abbott has been promoting his Chanbara padded weapons tournaments pitting FMA against Japanese styles. If you want to take your martial arts skills to the next level, participating in such events is the best way to get experience that can’t be duplicated in the classroom or training with friends.
So, SiHing Soderstrom was looking to neutralize these fighters with his skills–and this article was written for him and anyone else looking to do the same.
And before I go on, let me say this:  A very important stage in the understanding of your martial arts is one of self-criticism. Too often, we simply learn our arts and practice them. Yet, by failing to look for holes and openings in our own systems, we miss the opportunity to improve what we already do. Teaching others how to beat us will teach you a lot about your art–or show how little you know about what you do. When I teach seminars, two popular themes I use are “How to Beat thekuntawman” and “How to Beat Eskrimadors”. These are challenging workshops because they force me to look at what I do, and show others what can be done to counter me or my students. Of course, I keep the counter to those counters for my own students. 😉  Try it yourself. I guarantee you will discover a whole new set of skills to practice. If you’ve ever lost a fight, doing this will most likely tell you how to prevent it from happening again!
Secondly, I would like to add that the answer is not necessarily to study other styles. In order for me to learn to beat Mike Tyson, I don’t have to go and train with Kevin Rooney or Teddy Atlas. I simply need to study how he fights, find opponents who fight like Mike (or have his attributes) to fight with, and then find a way for me to use the skills I already have to beat the skills Iron Mike has. Be better at what I do, than he is at what he does, and then know which skills to use where and how to employ them. Not to “cross-train”, but cross-fight. If I am a boxer who has never grappled and I fight an expert grappler, even if I study a little grappling–I could never catch up to my opponent on the ground. I would do better learning how I could force him to deal with my boxing skills and never give him the ability to use his specialty. Those who ask what if I get taken down are doing two things. First, they are assuming that boxing is inferior while on our feet to grapplers and I will be taken down 100% of the time. Secondly, they are assuming that with a little cross training, I can beat a superior grappler at his own game once we hit the ground. Both are preposterous ideas. Find how you can get the most use out of the advantage you already have in your system against your opponents. Not easy to do, but it’s a hell of a lot better than trying to beat a man at his own game with just a few lessons. I get this from seminar guys all the time. I’ve been doing this art all my life. Since the age of 18 or so, I have been throwing thousands of strikes a week, and have only recently started missing workouts. If you are a grappler, and I pull stick on you, and you come at me with the little bit of seminar Eskrima you got from Master So-n-So… I’m going to make you my girlfriend. No homo. LOL you’d better find a way to get me on the ground and kick my ass there!
And here goes!
Mustafa Gatdula’s “HOW TO BEAT AN FMA GUY”
  1. FMA guys swear by the Triangle. The Triangle is angled stepping, and FMA guys practice it as a dance. I have never seen any Arnisadors train this angled stepping with any sense of urgency. It’s a formality, really. First, when FMA guys practice, they lackadaisically move. If you get an opponent who does this, attack at full speed, and you’ll catch him–guaranteed. They are not used to moving at top speed. And do you know what happens when an Arnisador actually is forced to move quickly? He says screw the Triangle, and moves back in a straight line. Attack him with intent, you’ll catch him either way. The drawback? If you get a guy who knows how to use that Triangle and does it well–you’re fucked. Soon as you notice that he has mastery of angles, use a back-and-forth footwork that puts you back at your original spot. When he attacks from his angle, he’ll land right in front of you (where you would have been had you stayed). Finish him there.
  2. Speaking of abandoning angled footwork, if you do happen to notice your opponent retreating in a straight line back–attack him in large strides. You can always move forward faster and with better balance, than he can while moving back. Eventually, he will stumble, hit a barrier, and/or you will catch him. But careful, one of the skills we use in Eskrima is the Mongoose attack, a simultaneous retreat (footwork) and counter (with the hands), which I have yet to see in any Kung Fu form. It is easy to follow the opponent and neglect to protect yourself while he is running. Keep in mind that moving while moving the feet is a specialty of FMA folks
  3. Most modern FMA systems are defense-oriented systems. This means that most of his training has been against an opponent’s attack. He will more prepared to counter what you throw at him, and have more trained responses for your attacks. For this reason, I would advise try to beat them when they attack. One thing I know about FMA guys is very few of the newer styles have studied methods of attack. So you will most likely only have to defend against one and two hit combination attacks. If your FMA opponent does attack with long combinations, it is not natural and the rhythm of the strikes will be slow. He may even lack power or slow as the fight progresses. Take a look at YouTube clips of FMA, you will notice two basic things which are typical of modern FMA styles. First, about 90% of material covered will not be attacking skills. Secondly, when you do find attacks, they are always single hit attacks or two hits. There is almost no instruction in how to attack. When training, give yourself enough training on countering a one or two-hit attack, and then fire back with multiple hits. Because we generally only train with one or two hit attacks, no FMA style has a defense from 4-5 hit attacks, except to run
  4. Although Eskrimadors train for angled footwork, two things we never train for:  a. An attack with multiple advancing steps, and b. An attack that changes direction. Be creative in your planned attacks. Start off attacking from one direction, then zig zag to a different direction and attack from the new position. It’ll be like speaking a foreign language to an American; we sometimes act as if our way is the only way. Using the Zig Zag attack is very confusing to a fighter who was trained to thing everyone attacks from one direction. You’ll knock em dead
  5. Filipino styles cover all kinds of weapons. However, we specialize in short sticks and blades. As a Jow Ga fighter, I know you have experience with all types of weapons. Jow Ga is known for the staff technique, and in the late Sifu Dean Chin lineage, the Sern Tao Gwun (double headed staff, for non-TCMA folks) was his specialty. This weapon is especially advantageous against Eskrima. If you can neutralize an Eskrimador by simply using longer footwork and more steps–imagine doing so with a longer weapon. I would recommend taking the Sern Tao Gwun form and dissecting it into techniques to use for the competition. Remember, you have the advantage of reach with the staff–and you also have the advantage of power. The staff, if you train it right, can deliver sledge hammer-like power. The rattan stick has power, but not the same type of power as the staff. Eskrima can shatter a bone; but a staff can break bones, even those protected by muscle and fat–even those protected by armor. Train for destructive power, and then train to use that destructive power with speed. Then use that quick, destructive power with footwork that your opponents cannot escape from
  6. The Eskrimador has a mastery of close quarters. We are experts of trapping and disarming, which is something that Chinese styles contain but do not specialize in (especially concerning the weapon). If you wanted to learn anything from the FMA, I would recommend learning this. I haven’t seen any art with a superior set of skills for our trapping and disarming. Even by studying basic Arnis disarming, you can gain an edge on the best weapons fighters. However, against another FMA man you might looks for ways to counter disarming. This is something very few FMA people study. I would advise to learn the disarm, and then find ways to stop yourself from being disarmed. A good start is to strengthen the wrist and the grip, and then practice twisting your wrist away from the direction of the disarm. Disarms work because of the element of surprise; with resistance many do not work
  7. I’m not sure if empty hand skills are allowed in the UWM, but few FMA styles teach punching, striking and kicking with a weapon in the hands. Incorporate this into your regimen, and at close quarters you will have an advantage most of your opponents won’t be expecting

Without being in person to teach you, this is probably the best advice I can come up with by blog. Hope this helps!

And for my FMA-based readers:  Please use this list as ways to modify or update your FMA training. Study your art for what an opponent could do against you, then have something waiting on them when they try it. Don’t let these Kung Fu guys get an advantage over us. Mabuhay ng FMA!

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Why the “Perpetual Student” Is Misguided (10 Steps to Expert)

There is a concept often thrown around in the FMA/SEAMA circles (mainly, seminar circles) that I must challenge.

In the hopes of maintaining one’s appearance of humility, many claim to be “always a student” of the art. Some use this perpetual status as an explanation for always investing in their video collection and adding yet another seminar certificate to their walls. Some may use it to avoid claiming to be an expert or skilled, as this preemptively excuses mediocre skill. Then you have the guys who use this title to avoid being challenged in a community of martial artists who frequently challenge each other. And there are always the “Always Learning” guys who still claim to be experts and Masters–but are constantly adding to their knowledge base by attending and “researching” (put into quotation marks for a reason, btw–but more on that later). This last group irritates me the most, because they are (mis)leading others down the same path–when they should be leading students to fighting dominance.

In a nutshell, the Perpetual Student is like that beloved old guy who has been attending the local community college for 40 years and has amassed something like 15 degrees–still lives with his mom, and has never actually held a job although he’s damn near 70. For someone called a martial artist–this is unacceptable behavior.

If you were to visit a war-torn country, or a crime-riddled neighborhood, what would you take with you for protection, a prototype weapon that is still being tested? Or a reliable old 45 caliber that’s been used by hundreds of thousands of men in combat?

If you were a mugging victim who swore to never be a victim again, who would you go study with–the guy who has admittedly never fought in his life (but attends every seminar that comes to town) and is too chicken-shit to call himself an expert around other experts? Or the guy with one Black belt who promises you that after you train with him–no one on the street will be your match?

Some of us really need to think about the message we are putting out there. Often we tell more about ourselves than we think when we come up with clevel stuff like “I’m no expert, just a guy who loves the martial arts!”  You’ve been clearly eating too much tofu, dude… The least you could do is talk like a meat-eater!

There comes a point in a martial artist’s life when he has to put away the check book, take off the “student” label and become a scientist/fighter. We simply cannot avoid it, if we are indeed seeking to teach others to defend themselves. Martial arts technique must go through ten basic stages in its development. Too often, we take techniques from the Learning stage to the Teaching stage so quickly, teachers themselves fumble with them while teaching. I have witnessed GRANDMASTERS who claim to have studied these arts all their lives perform a technique as if they had just learned it themselves months earlier. I have seen two grandmasters get asked in a public forum about how to handle a very basic technique–and they both stuttered and fell over their feet trying to explain as if he asked them to calculate the circumference of the moon. You would think that if you have been doing this art for a lifetime and call yourself an expert–regardless of what age you are–such answers would be delivered as smoothly and straightfaced as you answering what your name is. But apparently, our ideas of what makes a Master or Grandmaster are vastly different.

The transition from Learning to Student must have several stages:

  1. Student learns technique
  2. Student practices technique
  3. Student becomes good at technique (practicing isn’t enough–you must have proficiency)
  4. Student learns to apply technique (because learning and applying are two different things)
  5. Student learns to use technique (applying is a little different than using… “how to throw” vs “how to fight with”)
  6. Student learns to fight with technique, even when opponent is countering (and then, ready?)
  7. Student learns to become dominant* with technique (more on this later)
  8. Student becomes teacher
  9. Teacher alters technique, based on proven experience with technique
  10. Teachers teaches technique to student

Notice, that while the Perpetual Student does get something right–the student status really is the most important part of the learning process–most FMA guys stop at Step II and go directly to 10. There is very little actual research with each technique. Most learn, practice casually, get promoted awfully quickly, and, barring a few concepts and independent ideas (often merely possible variations rehearsed with a friendly partner)–goes directly to the classroom to teach someone else. The learning process is thusly disrespected and taken for granted. No, the learning process is severely disrespected. You have seen, as well as I have, teaching certificates in the FMA community get awarded the same day techniques were taught. This is the reason not a single FMA tournament in America–and I can say this without ever going to every tournament in America–ever pits empty hand versus the stick in a match. Yet, we ALL teach it, don’t we? The reality is that there is a rush to promote those who learn the FMA to instructorship far too soon because most people are unaware how to judge the advancedness and expertness of martial arts skill. The FMA industry is much like the medical industry here–we are not in the business of building teachers, just the appearance of building teachers. Just like the medical industry is more in the business of treating patients than curing them–actually building teachers cannot be done on a mass scale, and requires closer, more individualized attention. A doctor who only has a few minutes with each patient must quickly guess what a patient needs and quickly write a prescription to get to the next guy–your friendly Mainstream Guro needs to hurry and sign certificates to get to the next city. Quantity over Quality.

Bottom line, the Perpetual Student is only interested in learning things that makes him look like a warrior, he does not actually have the stomach to become a warrior. So by calling oneself a “Student” and not a “Fighter”, he can comfortably continue what he had been doing for years–while in his mind BE whatever he envisions he is. The Student is like the 40 year old guy who never moved out his mother’s house; although he looks like a man, may have a job, might even have children, claims to be a man–in reality, he is avoiding actually BEING a man.

The Filipino martial arts cannot survive off of so-called experts who never give their knowledge a full course of study and development, and never feel ready enough to declare himself a true authority and stand on whatever his research and investigation has concluded. Another reason why tournaments, fighting matches, and allowing oneself to be challenged are all very important parts of the Filipino arts… and why those who dislike these pillars should be avoided if you’re serious about your martial arts.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Keep Swinging, pt II (How to Make Video Training Work)

If you are an FMA veteran, even if only a veteran student, you may walk away from today’s article feeling cheated. Please don’t, though. Because although much in today’s discussion is common sense and often-quoted advice, very little is followed. I am reiterating them here, because those often-ignored, seemingly common sense things are what stands in the way of mediocrity and true martial arts dominance and superiority.

Let me explain.

I often hear the terms “boring/mundane” practice described as unimportant, foolish wastes of time. This term really underemphasizes one of the PILLARS of martial arts skill, and those who use them are really telling on themselves as foolish martial artists themselves. I hate to keep picking on Bruce Lee, as I consider myself a fan–but we have to separate the actor Bruce Lee from the martial arts philosopher Bruce Lee from the young inexperienced man Bruce Lee. He made many wise observations about the martial arts and really taught his fellow martial arts generationers how to train and how to think. However, I don’t believe that he had enough time to fully develop and investigate his philosophy. Since he died at a young age, and before he had a chance to see what his JKD would manifest into through his own students–we are stuck with a 30 year old’s unfinished work. And those who carried his torch stopped developing and testing his system although they did continue adding to his system. Many fundamental “truths” to his JKD were flawed. This concept of there being a such thing as “mundane/mindless/boring/repetitive practice” is one of them. Watch a master of any sport or activity at work. Not during the actual game or function of his expertise, but his actual practice of his craft. What will you see? You will see Mike Tyson throwing 4,000 jabs in several hours. You will see Michael Jordan throwing hundreds of layups. You will see a master chef cook the same dishes hour after hour, day after day, year after year. How do you think they became so skilled? Hopefully, you don’t believe the chefs who created the greatest dishes in the culinary arts got so good by cooking thousands of different dishes! No. Skill is perfected by isolating one’s repertoire to only a few key, core tasks–and then rehearsing or practicing those few things over and over and over and over, more times than a man can count. When you are watching the news, the musician is practicing his notes. When you are sipping coffee, he is practicing his notes. When you are driving to work, he is practicing his notes. When you sleep, he is practicing his notes. It is not the variety that drives him to perfection; it is the actual act of perfecting a few pillar skills in his chosen craft that affect everything he does in his specialty. Does he do everything perfectly? Absolutely not. But he may have the appearance of perfecting everything, because he does so much so well–and a few memorable things we witness, he does better than anyone else we have ever seen.

Bruce Lee had a great concept–to separate from tradition in order to become well-rounded, and to hone in on keys of the skill of fighting in order to become a skilled fighter. He felt that we should know how to do more than one thing in order to become well-rounded. I agree with this. However, a few things he missed:

  • You must have something you do better than 99% of your opponents
  • Knowing a little grappling may help you with a grappler, but it won’t help you if you face a master grappler
  • Knowing a little boxing may help you with a boxer, but it won’t help you if you fight a good boxer
  • Your foundation must be cemented in order to be used to root other skills upon it

And let me explain #3. If I learn a little boxing, but cannot box; learn a little kicking, but cannot kick well; and learn a little grappling, but cannot grapple–what good am I? In concept, I am well rounded. But against a good kicker, I am mediocre. Against a good boxer, I am mediocre. Against a good grappler, I, again, am mediocre. I must have a foundation upon which to build, and if I spread myself too thin too soon–I have nothing but the appearance of a foundation. I kick too poorly to force a bad kicker to fight at a distance. My hands are too undeveloped for me to force a poor boxer to fight me standing up. My wrestling skill is too weak for me to take even a poor grappler to the ground and finish him.

So what does this have to do with the FMA, you ask?

Because almost the entire FMA world has followed behind the approach led by the FMA/JKD community of learning a little of this and a little of that. In the Philippines, we claim to have the best FMA, but we actually have followed the seminar and video trained, western FMA community. So a few die-hard stick fighters are keeping classic Eskrima alive by sticking to stick fighting. But mostly, we have stick fighters with almost no experience fighting barehanded trying to convince YouTube subscribers and DVD customers that they are “well rounded” and have the FMA Holy Trinity of Hands, Stick, and Blade–when they really are lost with one or two of those skills. In turn, said Eskrimadors who cannot fight their way out of a paper bag without their sticks are teaching and certifying new teachers to pass down the art. Each generation becomes more and more diluted through the years, and this is how we end up with videos being made about the “wrecking” of the FMA–by a man who honestly wanted to learn the great fighting art we claimed to have. In the end, we sold wolf tickets and have disappointed many outside the Filipino martial arts community. Before we end up the next Tae Kwon Do, I am hoping article such as this one reaches more FMA people.

On with my point.

So, what I need for you to understand is that all is not lost with the FMAs. We can say what we will about FMA “effectiveness”, by taking a look at our tournaments, you will see how effective the FMA have become. We say that we can do everything out there, from knives to staves, to sticks to empty hands… but in our tournaments, we play tag with chalk and do no staff, knife and certainly no empty handed fighting. Except for Yaw Yan fighters and Silat fighters, what Filipino styles are out there fighting against Muay Thai, Karate, Boxers, and all? Are the FMAs all inclusive arts that need no importing of boxing and Judo? Or are we really importing boxing and calling it “Filipino” boxing and calling Judo “Filipino” wrestling? The truth is, the Filipino arts are like our culture, a mixture of foreign influences. I am not ashamed to admit this. Our cuisine, our language, our blood and ancestry, even our dance and clothing–are all born from the clash and blend of various cultures, and we mix it so well. Understand this first, then let’s bring it all to the middle.

The art you are most likely getting on DVD is just that–a mixture of skills that the teacher on the video is calling “Filipino”. No problem. But do not make the mistake of past FMA generations by simply learning the skills and drills and choreography–and regurgitating in front of your own camera to represent your “skill”. Take whatever foundation you gain from those DVDs and whittle them down to a few core, basics that support all other skills you might find of those and other courses. Trust me, there are possibly hundreds of drills and combinations out there, but look closely and you will see that they all have a very small number of techniques as a common denominator. What techniques do you see repeated over and over and over in all those YouTube clips and DVDs? Those strikes, those punches, those kicks, those cuts and stabs–are your core foundation. The FMA people of the past, almost never practiced them. They preferred to practice only what was pleasing to the eye, what wowed onlookers and wide-eyed beginners, and as a result many had spent decades in the martial arts but lacked the basic skill to injure or stop an opponent with a simple, basic strike. What you will do, is return to the root of the Filipno arts–all the way back to a time when most Eskrima styles only consisted of a few strikes, few blocks, few disarms, and a few take downs–and then reached a deadly level of speed and power with those few techniques. After that skill level was reached, they found hundreds of ways to use them.

And those last two (run-on) sentences really summed it all up:  Pure Filipino martial arts really only consisted of a few practical skills, trained until the fighter could unleash them with blinding speed and destructive power. He did not bother with fancy demonstrations and creative ways to look cool doing it. He simply trained his skills day and night, thousands of times over and over and over and over, during your sleep, in his sleep–until his fighting skill was so second nature, that any attacker who thought of attacking him would be answered in the blink of an eye. The Eskrimador of old was not a showman like today’s YouTube master; he was a killer. He did not bother with rank. He did not carry multiple titles and websites. He never had to brag about himself or his organization. He was a man whose hands spoke for him. Everything that Master of old knew, you probably know now.  You just can’t do it as well as he can. And your mind must work its way through the jumbled, crowded mess of garbage flashy techniques to reach your hands. Forget that stuff. Quality over quantity. You don’t need 50 ways to take a stick. Learn a basic 12 ways to strike, develop each strike in that set until they can destroy anything put in your way. Drop the certificates, the drills, the acrobatics, the forms, the twirling. Just reach a level with your knowledge that anyone’s bones in front of you would be turned to dust when you strike. This will come from those “mindless, mundane, repetitive” trainings, and only by training this way. Give yourself this kind of skill first–then go through everything you know until you have reached this level of ability with your entire arsenal.

This is how you make your DVD learning “work”. Bruce Lee was right. There are only a limited number of ways to strike a strike. Whether you learn it from a sagely old master–or a $50 DVD–a strike is a strike. But there is a huge difference a strike you’ve memorized, versus a strike that you’ve trained 10,000+ times. This is the essence of the Eskrima of old. Let’s see if we can bring that back, regardless of how you learned.

Thank you for visiting my blog!