I have been interested in martial arts since probably around age twelve. There wasn’t many classes available in my home town of Comines (France), only traditional Judo and Karate. I tried a few Judo classes, but it wasn’t what I had in mind when thinking about martial arts. Judo would actually have given me a good base, but I chose karate, because let’s face it, it was flashier, more like what I saw on television! Progress however was slow. Not only did we have to repeat precise movements over and over, but we also had to remember their names, in Japanese. I didn’t question their methods. There was an older (I just say that to make myself feel better) girl in class who had a brown belt and could kick my ass. I thought that eventually, I would get there.. Four years later, I wasn’t much better, but I didn’t know it. My training, or so I thought, would have been sufficient to prevail in most violent encounters. I am rolling my eyes here thinking about how naive I was and how little I knew. Fortunately, I didn’t find out after waking up on a hospital bed, like so many “martial artists” who encounter real violence. No, I got punched by my little brother! The worst part is, I told him to do it. But I told him to hit me with a right to show him a cool move. He used the left… Wham! I said “no, you can’t hit me like that.” That’s when reality set in.. What I learned worked, only in the dojo…
I wasn’t about to give up. I later found a Kung-Fu class in Villeneuve d’Ascq, 45 minutes away on my 50cc motorcycle (a glorified moped actually). Most of the time, that meant 45 minutes in the cold, or rain, or both. What we trained in was a sort of stylish Karate. The teaching methods were about the same. I did last six months in that class, just because the techniques were more refined, more clever. In the end, it wasn’t any more effective. Unfortunately, I regained that false confidence that comes so easily when among peers, unchallenged. When a Tae-Kwon-Do class opened right across the border, on the Belgian side of the town, I gave it a try. This time, it was sort of an aerobatic karate. Fortunately we also did full contact, and that was somewhat better. Ground fighting back then was not popular like it is now. That experience didn’t last long. One of the students ended-up sleeping with the teacher’s wife (now, that’s what I call having some balls). The class closed shortly after that. So, I had trained for years in different styles and was pretty confident of my abilities. But confidence isn’t a bad thing, right? Well, only if it isn’t misplaced…
Not far from my house was a “maison de la jeuness” of sort, a youth house, with a bar, ping-pong tables and whatnot. I don’t think the bar was supposed to serve alcohol, but it wasn’t like anyone would card you in France if you looked old enough to ride a bicycle. I was wearing a black leather jacket, which I set on the back of a chair to play ping-pong. After a while I heard a ruckus behind me, some drunk guy jumping on tables, wearing a jacket too big for him… Mine! I decided to finish the game before leaving. He would get tired of it and leave it somewhere around, I figured. I just kept a eye on him to make sure he didn’t leave. Ten minutes later, it was time for me to go home, and I asked him to give me my jacket back. “Come a get it!” he screamed.. That moron was going to waste my time. I ran after him. He couldn’t run straight, so it wasn’t long before I caught him. He tried to swing at me, but I was holding him by his collar, actually, my collar. Now, I have long arms, and he was smaller than me. He tried to swing at my face repeatedly, but wasn’t making contact. I thought that was pretty funny and laughed. His face turned red, he violently shook himself free and pulled a knife out of his pocket. By that time, we were outside, with about two dozen witnesses around. I heard someone yell “cut him!” (went to see the guy afterwards. He apologized profusely). This is when false confidence can get you killed. I stood my ground, in a classic karate stance. Today, I would simply leave, I don’t care. At eighteen years old, you don’t think conservatively. In a way I am glad I didn’t turn around. I don’t know if that would have been better or not. He may have decided to attack if I hesitated. I made one step forward. He hesitated for a couple seconds, then suddenly put the knife back in his pocket, and threw my jacket on the ground. The incident was over. Lucky or not, I can’t help but think about the consequences, had he attacked. We had a photo in our Systema class of someone’s back after been sliced. You can see it here, with other gruesome photos (NOT FOR KIDS!) That always turned “knife fighting” from “cool” to “get me out of here” in two seconds flat, for most people, me included. The others never stayed more than for a few lessons.
I gave up martial arts as soon as I could buy a gun. I trained regularly for ten years. I would go to Arras, when the only IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) club was. I became pretty proficient with pistols and sub-machine-gun (Owned a Mini-Uzi for three years). I kept on shooting until I moved to Florida in 1993. Five years ago, riding a Honda 600 on a dark rainy night in Sarasota, a driver cut me off in front of Marina Jack. I hit the car head-on at 40mph. I saw the car below me, then the sky, then the pavement, crashed on my face on the wet asphalt. I remained conscious the whole time, got a helicopter ride to Tampa where they put my shoulder back in it’s socket and inserted a titanium rod inside my broken femur. I had no insurance, so they let me out after only eight days, without reeducation or anything else for that matter. I can’t blame them, I didn’t have the money. I knew however that I needed to do my own reeducation if I wanted to walk properly again.
When I was well enough to run around with a cane, I started to go out again. One night I met my friend Milos at Jacks (now Esca). I knew he was into some Russian martial art, and started asking him a few questions. Was it some sort of Russian Judo? I had heard of Sambo before. He assured me it was quite different, and invited me to the class. I made my way to Orange Avenue on my new GSXR1100 (I know, I never say I was quite sane). I could barely climb the stairs to the class. They had a couch there. The room was small, without mats, just a thin office carpet over concrete. The students were wearing normal clothes, some camo pants, jeans, sweat pants, whatever. Some wore shoes, some didn’t. They had no rank belts.
The class started with warm-up exercises, hard ones. Then a ten-minute static push-up, which not everyone finished. The instructor, Sonny, ex Spetsnaz soldier, looked like a though guy who knew what he was doing. The real work started. That’s how we call it, “work.” I guess because Systema used to be only for “professionals.” Sonny had one of his best students Blake attack him any way he wanted. I have seen many martial arts demonstration when I was younger, and I always had the same reaction: “Waoh!” Not this time. This time, it was: “Oh shit…” I knew what I saw was real, and it was the first time I saw it.
Systema doesn’t teach much techniques, it teaches principles. You don’t have to remember any names of moves in Russian, any more than you have to remember the moves themselves. How is that possible you may ask? Without going into every principle, the four main ones being: Breathing, movement, form and relaxation, I will try to explain. There is an infinite number of ways an opponent can attack you, with or without weapons. Preparing to defend against every possible attack, even against every possible kind of attack is a fantasy.
One of the first thing you learn is to move aside. It sounds simple, but it isn’t so easy. Many arts teach blocking. That’s may be fine in some cases, but what if the blow this time comes from a baseball bat? Want to block it? I think not. However, if you have been practicing blocks for years, you may just do that. If you have never trained in martial arts, you probably will. Some people just freeze, an old evolutionary reflex, and get hit in the head without moving an inch. So, you learn to relax and step aside. Not too much, because you want to be close enough to inflict damage to your attacker. You move just enough to let the fist (or whatever else) graze you. That’s where we do our “work,” intimately close, where it will be most uncomfortable and devastating to your attacker. By stepping aside, you can exploit your opponent’s momentum. By not learning techniques, your mind is free to invent it’s next move on the fly, because your brain has learned body mechanics through training, not moves set in stone.
Learning was fast. After three months, I could ask any friend to attack me any way they wanted. Something would come out.. At least, I was avoiding the strikes or kicks, or anything weird my most creative friends would come up with. I learned something I now repeat often to new students: “Move your feet first.” It’s not quite as simple, but it helps them like it helped me.
Next comes the relaxation. Relax in a fight? You can take much harder blows without damage when you’re relaxed. Drunk drivers seldom get killed in the accidents they cause, because they are loose. I don’t even get that many bruises anymore, because I am pretty relaxed when sparring. I am still learning to relax, and more specifically, relax different parts of my body. Good Systema practitioners can use selective tension and relaxation to confuse or hurt an opponent. I am only beginning to explore that realm after more than four years of training.
Good movement is a prerequisite of survival. We learn to move constantly. Our strikes and movements are more circular than linear. This way, you don’t stop moving and become a sitting duck. With good movement, you need good form. Simply stated, keep your back straight. If you need to go down, bend your knees, not your back. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. When a fist flies at your face, your natural reflex is to bend backwards while raising your hands, leaving your feet right where they were. The problem is, you’re still in the line of attack, and now a slight push will make you topple over. Not to mention that you could trip on something behind you. Again, those are principles, not techniques. Once you can reasonably move in a relaxed manner, a flurry of opportunities “magically” appear for you to take advantage of. Actually, your brain, free of unreasonable fear, has learned to recognize those opportunities and make your body move as to steal your opponent’s movement and make it yours, to his demise.
Breathing might sound simple enough. Everyone breathes, we have been since we were born. I remember learning to play the guitar. I would be so tense and concentrated that I would forget to breathe! The same happens in a fight. I still forget sometimes, fighting on the ground. Our strength comes from both the food we ingest and oxygen. There isn’t any time to eat a power bar when someone puts a knife to your throat, so oxygen is your next best choice. Forget to breathe for a few seconds, and you will be in a world of trouble fifteen or twenty seconds later, even after resuming it. I used to find 2-minute full contact rounds exhausting. Now I can last easily ten minutes or more, just by breathing properly and relax. I was sixteen then, I am forty two now. Breathing is also essential to absorb blows, and avoid panic in some situations.
The teaching methods of Systema were developed for the Russian elite special forces. Training elite soldiers is expensive. The faster they learn the better. Systema is fast to learn, even though prospective students find the training awfully slow at first. The reason is that you can’t learn something well by starting to do it fast. No music teacher will try to tech you to play guitar by having you try to play like buckethead (Google him!). Your start slow, your brain learns. As time goes, you slowly learn to replace the flinch response by more appropriate movements.
Strikes are an art in itself within Systema. All parts of the body are used to strike. Blows are loose and heavy, like hitting with a sledge hammer on a string. I often strike with my shoulders, elbows, forearm.. unlike most martial arts, strike are multi-directional, and used to affect an opponent’s form and balance. We learn to take punches too, and getting hit in the body by an experienced instructor can be a sobering experience. A good instructor will find out what your comfort level is, and hit you slightly above it. After a few months, you really just don’t care much anymore.. There are not set techniques here either, and the same general principles apply. Emphasis is on avoiding injury. The only goal of Systema is survival.
Systema is not the only combat system teaching principles versus techniques. I mentioned it here because that’s what I know. Other such systems are mostly military in nature and reserved for special forces. Nobody else, aside from some law enforcement agencies need that level of efficiency in hand-to-hand combat. I say combat here, not fighting. Fighting is a sport, or an agreed upon duel. Combat is when someone tries to kill you, without warning. Most “general public” martial art practitioners fortunately will never have to use their skills. Those who will probably will face unexperienced attackers, and the techniques they know might be enough, with a bit of luck. Our instructor used to tell us about a fictitious character named Todd, or whatever his name was at the time:
Todd is an angry man. He just finished his second tour in Iraq and saw things that really desensitized him to violence and death. He himself killed a few people at close range. He started to go a little crazy, so the Army had to let him go. Back home, Todd didn’t fare too well, started using meth, couldn’t keep a job. He blamed it on everyone else but himself. Todd spent all his time at the gym, getting stronger. He is 6’2”, 250Lbs of muscles. Todd trains five times a week in various martial arts, practices knife fighting. On week-ends, he goes to the range and shoots a thousand rounds, pistol and assault rifle in realistic situations, moving targets while on the move. His wife has had enough of his physical and verbal abuse, and just left him. He is furious! He needs to take it on someone, and goes out, fuming, looking for a victim. That night, that someone turns out to be you…
That is when techniques won’t be enough to save you. Only a good physical condition, with good sound principles of combat will give you a chance. Whatever your art or discipline is, you can always incorporate those principle in your system. Free yourself of limitations imposed by tradition and dogma, and let your mind show you what it can do. If you never trained in martial arts or self defense, then make sure the style you get into isn’t too strict and limited in it’s teachings. Most styles labeled as “traditional” are outdated. You should probably visit quite a few schools before signing-up.. If there is a Systema group near you, give them a chance, go to a few sessions. Training should be fun. Keep an open mind, that is the best way to learn.