Whenever I have a new student I start the first class with teaching them the ‘secret of martial arts’. I do this because most people think there is some secret knowledge/technique that only a few know and they hide it from others only to divulge it to their best and inner most students. Many masters promote this idea, that if you knew what they knew you’d be invincible. They have cult like followings due to this strain of thought but I think it’s a little insane, so I will divulge one of the secrets to real fighting here and explain why it is so important. Here it is:
The body always follows the mind.
I first really got an insight into this many years ago when I used to work with Geoff Bodine and Dr Jerry Punch on racing shows; generally Goody’s 500 at that time. Geoff is a legendary racecar driver and I asked him if he sped on local streets when he drives. He emphatically said, ‘No”. I asked him why and he said, “If there’s a problem I cannot trust the common driver to react in a safe away, I can’t assume anything they do so I would not put myself in that situation.” I asked, “So what is different between what they do and what a pro does when there’s a problem?” He said, “An everyday driver, when he encounters an accident or whatever, will look at the problem and not the way out. In other words they see a crash and look at it while trying to avoid it; this is the completely wrong way to do it. The pro sees the crash and looks to where he wants to go and not the crash itself. This way the car will follow what he is looking towards. When you look at the crash you will head into the crash”. He went on to tell me that if your car is sliding on ice or whatever to look where you want to go and not the impending crash. If you do this you might escape the situation unscathed.
I thought about this long and hard and how it applies to everyday life, especially martial arts. One of the things I teach initially to prove Geoff’s point is this, and every guy knows this: You are driving down the street, might be going only 15 miles an hour, and you see a pretty girl walking down the street. You want to look at her so you decide to lock your hands on the wheel so you don’t drift and look over and keep going straight. Invariably the car drifts towards where you are looking. Somehow the body subconsciously follows the object of the mind. It’s very difficult to do otherwise. So how does this apply to martial arts? Well, it is germane to winning a fight and here’s why. When you are engaged in a conflict if your mind is in retreat mode, it is backing away from the fight; you have no power in your strikes. Your mind is in defense and not offense. If you are scared or intimidated your mind is in protection mode, it wants to flee and so there is little forward energy in your punches because you don’t want to go into the danger. This is particularly apparent when backing up in a fight. Pros always talk about how difficult it is to punch when backing up. You must back up while projecting your energy/mind forward to have any power otherwise you will be very weak. You are moving back with the intention of luring the opponent in to strike him or to maintain a safe striking distance. This is vastly different from moving back just to protect yourself. If you are moving forward and do not have forward intent, that is to say, you are not intending to hurt the opponent, you will not be effective.
There is this idea taught by many that you want to develop defensive moves, that you want to protect your ‘castle’. There are arts based on this notion; I need only to defend myself. I find this to be a terrible way to think. It should be ‘how dare you attack me!’ and attack the attack, not defend the castle/self. This puts you on top of the fight and not behind and reactive to it because then you are just responding to an attack. When you do this you are letting the opponent control the fight. You are reacting to what he does and not initiating an attack on him. There is no such thing as self defense, it’s self offense! Damn, I just gave away the second secret of martial arts….and I only have a few of them. A defensive mode puts you outside and reactive to the attack. If attacked you attack back and twice as hard. Your mind cannot be defending. When I teach beginners and they ward off some strikes I can see that what they are thinking is, “Whew! Stopped those ones, great! Hope I can stop more”. As opposed to, “I want to crush you for punching at me”. In the first example the mind has escaped an attack and gained no advantage but in the second the mind wants to squash the attacker, put control in his hands, thus ending the source of the attack. You cannot develop a ‘wait and see’ attitude in a fight. Teddy Atlas calls this,” posing for a picture”, you want to see if you caused enough damage and stop for a view. You can’t do this in a martial art. I am not talking sport here but life and death though in sports you can’t do it either.
When attacked you must engage completely and thoroughly until the threat is neutralized, period. This can mean disabled or no longer a threat because they left. You must develop your mind so that even when backing up to avoid getting hit your total intention is to hit forward, to deliver into the opponent while staying safe. The body will always follow the mind in these situations please be aware of this. If your mind is scared your body is weak. You fight with one intention only: to win. The other person has trespassed on you, they want to harm you, now you take control and stop it.
I was approaching the ring on a job recently and ringside was the ex-heavy weight world champ who is now an announcer. He loves to imitate movies trailers so as I approach he starts in his best Don LaFontaine voice says, “ In a world where only one fighter can survive Joe McSorley is about to face his greatest challenge”. With that he does a Bruce Lee ‘waaaahh’, thumbs his nose and launches a back fist into the air while shaking his head Bruce Lee style. I immediately rise up on one leg and wave my hands classic kung fu movie style and settle into a mantis stance while returning the ‘waaaahh’ call back to him. Folks standing ringside stop and look at us with a ‘WTF’ expression. Then we both laugh, hug each other and talk work and family.
What for us is fun and perhaps a homage to traditional martial arts is to others a very serious proposition. They’ve been taught their style a certain way and have great faith in its efficacy. I, too, come from this tradition. When I would go to the different schools in Chinatown Philly or NYC I loved to watch the forms. There seemed to be some hidden magic in the movements that would enable you to beat anyone. I was enthralled by it and learned quite a bit of it. The problem is that as beautiful as it might be most of it doesn’t work, at least in the ring or with a skilled fighter. On the street you might be able to pull off a lot of the moves with some mook but in real life or death fighting with someone with a modicum of skill you’ll be in trouble. Unless you test what you know, or think you know, you don’t know if it works. By testing I don’t mean in your school with a fellow classmate but in some other gym where they don’t care about your art. You will find out quite quickly what doesn’t work. Often when we are clobbered by an opponent we say, “Well, I couldn’t out and out do my deadly technique in this situation”. Well, guess what, the other guy couldn’t either so you’re both holding back and he beat you while holding back.
Once when I got to work with a very highly skilled fighter I said I wanted to mix it up with him but only to a point. I said, “You can hurt me but please don’t injure me, I have to work and can’t afford it”. He was 27 years my junior. He smiled and replied, “No problem, you can injure me” and laughed. We had a great session and it was life changing for me. Some things I do worked very well and impressed him while others failed miserably. It was quite eye opening. I’ve always tested what I know and something that works beautifully in one area does not work at all in another. You have to sort this out for yourself.
A fellow came to one of my classes because of his interest in Hakka style arts. He had studied three other Hakka styles and wanted to see how he would hold up against Jook Lum. He was very nice and clearly had put time in learning other styles. He asked to pair off with one of the students and work out. We agreed. He stood in front of the student, legs parallel, arms in a classic short fist form with one elbow sitting on the palm of the other with his arm at ninety degrees to it and close to his chest. One of the fellows here, who had no knowledge of traditional styles, looked over at this fellow’s stance. He very sincerely said to his workout partner, “Wow, the poor guy is handicapped” because of the contorted arm position. He was not joking around, he meant it. Well the poor guy tried to stop his partner but could do nothing. His opponent was more powerful than him and his parallel stance just collapsed under the assault, mild as it was. Clearly he had never gone against anyone with real boxing skills. He was very gracious and left at the end of class to never come back again. I wonder what his view of it was when he left. “Well, I would have…..”?
I am not trying to pick on him or anyone here but I am trying to make a very serious point and here is why it is so important to me; it’s personal. Years ago I had a studio where we used to train on Saturday mornings. There was a fellow named Jon* who would visit from time to time and work out with us. He had trained with several traditional and qualified masters. He was a great guy and extremely well versed in traditional arts. He knew many forms and techniques and was a skilled and athletic trainer. When we sparred he would talk about the different hands he would use and looked like someone right out of a kung fu movie. He had great kicks and was very strong. I used to play around with him because I liked a lot of those fancy moves but I always admonished him about the true efficacy of them. Generally at one point in the work out I would blitz him and punch him into a corner just to make it real. Over and over I told him, “some of what you do will not work in a real fight, be careful”.
Time went by and I did not see him for a while. One of his teachers called me one day and told me that Jon had witnessed a fight in a park and went to intervene. Some poor guy was getting beaten by four guys and he wanted to help him. He was stabbed in the process and was in the hospital now recovering. Though he had not seen me for a while he wanted his teacher to tell me what happened and what working out with us had meant for him and that I should know about it. I was sad but relieved he was doing ok. Unfortunately the doctors did not realize that he had internal bleeding and he died in his sleep that night. It was a horrible moment in our lives. He had a wife and children and now was gone. There is no time in my life that I would rather be more wrong than this one. My heart sinks writing about it though it was long ago. I am in no way implying or suggesting that I would have fared any better in that fight. I may well have died on the scene. I will always wonder how it went down and what he did. He was a wonderful human being, a loss to us all and a true gentleman. I was so touched that he asked his teacher to contact me. What a spectacular man he was.
So when I see people doing something in training that I think is ineffective I am always reminded of Jon. I watch folks in so many schools doing things that will get them hurt or worse on the street. I see these self defense classes for women that teach pure nonsense that will never work and it bothers me to no end. Decades ago I was observing one of these classes at a university. They had volunteer male students grab and attack the women and the women would enact their techniques and beat them. I asked the instructor if I could try something and he said ‘sure’. I laid a $20 bill on the floor and said to the guys “Anyone who can break away from any of these arm locks, blocks, kicks or whatever can have the $20. Beer money boys”. Amazingly after that not one woman there could stop her attacker. I said to them,” Now the boys had something to gain and it was only beer money. The attacker on the street has his freedom to lose and 10 years with Bubba in a jail cell; think how motivated he is not to lose”. I wasn’t doing this to be a jerk but to remove the unrealistic view they had of their training. I view it as an absolute necessity that they know how difficult and violent real situations are.
Life on the street is serious, there is a lot at stake. Please realize this my friends and make sure you can actually defend yourself as you think you can. It can save your life.
*not his real name, I did not want to salt anyone’s wounds retelling this
I ended this year with a great night with some of the legends of martial arts, men I truly like and respect. I’ve spent over four decades with this practice and the last three years traveling with the martial arts fights and fifteen years with the boxing crews. I’ve met a lot of great trainers and fighters and learned quite a bit in the process. I’ve met brutes and great gentlemen and everything in between. On a few occasions I’ve been stunned by the knowledge some individuals have had not only of the universe of martial arts but the more profound and subtle aspects of Eastern Philosophy. Their interests have been wide and varied and they cannot be pigeon holed. I am thrilled and honored to know them and to be friends with them and hope to continue to learn and associate with them.
I am happy and honored for those around me who have stuck it out in this art. I am happy for their critical minds and inquisitive nature and taking nothing for granted. I appreciate those who can challenge what they are taught and either support or discard it as useful. I consider the folks around me as friends and equals and hold no rank or title over them. We can all learn and practice together as we always have. I am thankful to know you and appreciate your kindness and support. Happy New Year to all!
OBTW- note from the alternate martial universe
If I were to write about my encounters the way many other mantis people write today on their sites it would go like this:
Spent another great night with Bas and Renzo! They were so impressed with my abilities they both asked to privately teach them the hands and dim mak. They couldn’t believe what I can do and said they’ve never seen anything like it. I am too humble to brag about it though and declined their requests.
Now for reality: I would never say such a thing or brag for several reasons. First, it’s a damn lie and secondly I have nothing but respect and admiration for these truly kind, generous and humble fellows who could wrap me up and discard me like a chewing gum wrapper. Also I can't out run them when I see them again! I’ve never heard them brag in any manner and they are kind and welcoming to anyone who approaches them. Secondly lying on the web will eventually catch up with you in one form or another whether it’s braggadocio, out right lying or plagiarism. Unfortunately the web is full of guys who make extraordinary and impossible claims, mastering ten arts while fending off an army with their dim mak, a tooth pick and other such Bullshido. It’s obvious to anyone with a clear mind which is truth and which are lies on the web so don’t think you’re fooling anyone but yourself.
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