Thursday, December 04, 2008

Easier said than done

One of the most commonly suggested tactics regarding defending against a knife attack is to gain control of the weapon and retain that control. That makes sense and is in fact sound advice. It’s a common knife defense strategy for many martial arts. But that strategy does not reveal the complexity and reality of being empty handed and defending against someone with a knife. It’s somewhat like being advised to avoid hitting the ground at high velocity when you find yourself thrown out of a plane without a parachute. Good advice nonetheless but hardly provides a suitable solution.

Getting hold of the hand or arm holding the knife is much easier said than done against a knife attack. It presumes that the attacker isn’t trained to use that weapon efficiently or he will allow you to get hold of his weapon hand. Never assume that the attack doesn’t know what he’s doing. Making such a false assumption against a knife attacker is fatal.

Someone trained to use a knife already knows that the defender will try to control the knife. If he’s properly trained and highly skilled, he may even use the hand holding the weapon as bait to cause the attacker to lunge or commit to grabbing it, leading him to a trap that ends with multiple slashes and stabs on the defender. Even the untrained know that his weapon gives him the advantage over the empty handed and you will literally have to take the knife out of his cold and dead finger to get full and final control of the weapon. Just by watching a few videos of prison stabbings will make one realize that the rapid and repeated thrusts to the head and neck by the average inmate will be difficult to stop if the strategy is to simply grab the weapon hand and control it.

I’ve seen a number of videos of realistic knife defense training done by different systems that don’t practice using the knife realistically. The result is almost the same every time; the defender tries to grab the weapon hand right away and apply a lock to disarm or to restrain the attacker. The defender gets cuts and stabbed as the single-mindedly focuses on going for the weapon, mesmerized by the thought of controlling the weapon.

One common misconception is that stab or slash to the forearm is an acceptable and bearable injury in a knife attack. Some even advocate leading with one forearm out as a “shield”, allowing the limb to be attacked as the defender closes the gap, and attempt to grapple with the attacker. This is a dangerous assumption. Even a short reflexive slash with a small folding knife will create large and gaping wounds, on a forearm or on anything that’s in the way of the edge. Paul Vunak demonstrated this in one of his videos, where he slashed a hanging slab of beef with a knife. The resulting deep cuts should be enough to convince anyone that it’s not a good idea to lead with a limb.

I do respect those who try to go out of the box, for practicing their system outside of its usual set forms and dealing with realistic knife attacks, but the problem is more strategic rather than technical. Controlling the weapon indeed works but only after you’ve made it possible to get hold of it without getting yourself badly cut and stabbed while doing so. Chasing after the knife in the hands of someone trained to use it won’t work because the knife will always be in motion. No one attacks and leaves the knife out in midair, for the defender to deftly grab and apply a wrist lock on to. In reality the knife will be zipping from one slash and stab to another, too fast for the defender to track and follow and if he tried to do that, he will have already been stabbed and cut to shreds without actually getting full control of the weapon.

The attacker’s other hand is not going to be motionless and paralyzed either; it will be grabbing the defender when the opportunity presents itself, parrying defenses in the path of the weapon or even applying hand or elbow strikes when the opportunity presents itself. When blocked or deflected, the trained knife attacker will redirect his attack immediately, either moving from a stab to slash or vice versa, with his other hand clearing obstacles for the weapon to finally land on its target. This reality of knife attack will only dawn on most martial artists after they themselves learn to use the knife effectively.

Most people will argue that it’s illegal to carry a knife in their city or country, so training to use one is impractical. That’s a valid point, but in my opinion one that only considers half of the benefits of knife training. Learning to use the weapon teaches the weapon’s capabilities from the point of view of the user and that insight will help immensely with forming a realistic knife defense strategy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A visitor's guide to learning FMA in the Philippines


It really warms my heart to see foreigners coming over to learn my country's fighting systems. I'm not just talking about Pekiti Tirsia but Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) in general. The Internet has triggered a "rebirth" of sorts in FMA, making information available to more people and getting students to visit the country to learn it at its source. Of course the Internet has also brought its own set of irritants to the martial arts in general and to FMA.

I won't go through the details on the usually travel tips on coming over and staying in the country. You can get that from Lonely Planet and countless other sources. Instead, I'll give info on what those source don't tell you about coming to the Philippines to study Filipino Martial Arts.

First, let's get a myth out of the way. Filipino Martial Arts is not available at every street corner over here. The systems are still a bit underground, mostly unappreciated by the general public and one has to know precisely where to look for it. Tae Kwon Do and other foreign arts are more accessible to the average Filipino than their own martial arts. That's sad but it's the unvarnished truth. For many Filipinos, the only exposure that they have had to FMA is probably a class or two in high school or college and that may have perpetuated the myth that FMA is only practiced with sticks. So going around Manila looking for FMA by asking cab drivers is not the most efficient way to get the training you're looking for. The cabbie may know a school or two, but the quality of training will be up to you to determine. It may be different in Cebu though but I'm not sure. Strangely, I've traveled all over this country and the one city I haven't visited is Cebu. I should though; it's a hotbed for FMA and I hear the food is delicious.

I suggest you visit some online FMA sites to get contact details. The internet is full of FMA messageboards and there are hardly any systems nowadays without a website of their organization or style.

If you're already studying a particular system, contact the national organization for your style and they can give you contact information of clubs and teachers here. If you're a new to FMA and want to learn it here, I suggest you do research on what system interests you and then plan your visit. Arriving in Manila looking for something to learn is not a plan I would recommend.


For training the best time to visit, weather-wise, is around January to March. That's among the coolest months of the year and is right before the brutally hot summer months of April and May. The monsoon or rainy season is from July to November and can be uncomfortable if your not use to tropical downpours and high humidity.

If you use a stick longer than 28 inches, I suggest you bring your own training weapons. Getting good quality sticks at custom lengths here is not going to be easy. Ironically really good quality sticks are already somewhat hard to come by so I suggest you bring your own. As you practice here you'll find the sources of suitable sticks and you can always hoard a batch for your return flight. If you're new to FMA, the school can refer you to their source of sticks.

Obviously you need to check in your FMA weapons for the flight but call the airline first to make sure there won't be any problems. For God's sake do not travel with edged weapons, especially balisongs. If your instructor tells you to bring one, make sure you're not breaking any laws by traveling with them. For that, I suggest you call the Philippine embassy or consulate in your country.

Humility is an absolute requirement. Don't come over and try to impress the locals with what you know, what you do, what you've done or who you've train with. I've seen that from some visitors and it irritates me and it's safe to assume other Filipino FMA practitioners find it annoying as well. Instead, visit with a willingness to experience FMA from a different perspective, to learn it from the land that created it. A know-it-all attitude will just make you unwelcome to the people you train with, at the very least.

Relax and don't live by a rigid schedule. We Filipinos have an often irritating habit of not being too particular about time, schedules and plans. The same applies to bus and ferry schedules, travel agendas and yes even FMA. If your instructor decides to be a little late to class or changes the training curriculum without prior notice, don't be offended and alarmed. I for one don't tolerate "Filipino Time" i.e. failure to understand the concept of punctuality. But I do understand it as part of how we are and so should you. So kick back and let things slide a bit.

We Filipinos are a social bunch so take time to socialize with your fellow students after class. A few drinks, a little karaoke and some strange food made from animal parts you never considered edible will go a long way toward moving from "visiting foreigner" to "one of the guys". Avoid getting stinking drunk but always be willing to lose some dignity by singing some cheesy tunes. More Filipinos have gotten beaten, shot and stabbed after drunkenly crooning "My Way" than many other causes of death so avoid that little ditty.

One popular method of drinking here is the infamous "tagay". Everyone drinks from the same glass, which is refilled continuously and passed around to be emptied by everyone involved. It guarantees that everyone gets totally hammered at the same time and helps break the ice between you and your fellow students. San Miguel beer in its many forms is popular in the cities and large towns but in the provinces and in smaller towns gin and rum are their preferred intoxicants.

Try to finalize your training fees and other details before coming over. Expect to pay more than the locals. You may find that unfair but realize that you're coming over to train may mean being personally taught by the club's instructor or have changes done to the club's practice to accommodate you. It's up to you to determine if the training fee is fair or worth what you paid for.

Be smart about staying healthy. The Philippines is a third world Asian country so prepare for the nasties. Only drink bottled water and only have drinks with ice when dining at decent restaurants. Get all your shots and get ready for mosquitoes. Street food is delicious and popular with a lot of FMA practitioners I know but be aware that double dipping in the sauces exposes you to the risk of diseases. If you want to try street food, choose the vendors that serve them on little cardboard trays. Usually they have the sauces in jars with spoons and discourage dipping the food in them. What exactly is this street food? Let me put it to you this way: not a single part of a chicken is thrown away in this country as garbage.

But don’t let me discourage you. Eating is an important part of our culture and you’ll discover that we have a delicious culinary tradition to match. Try the local food in restaurants and you’ll discover the delights of traditional Filipino cooking. I recommend “kare kare” and “crispy pata”.

There’s no other way around this next tip so here goes..


Bathe and bathe often, once in the morning and again before sleeping. It may be ludicrous and insulting for me to advise you on personal hygiene but there’s a good reason for it. Caucasians and “Westerners” (Americans, Europeans, etc.) in general have a reputation among Filipinos for body odor and that reputation is not completely unfounded. I’m not saying that all foreigners will start to smell halfway through a class – I’ve trained with a few Caucasians and only one or two were “ripe” - but it’s happened often enough to become a familiar problem for Filipinos who have trained with foreigners.

You may be offended by this insinuation if you think you don’t smell but Filipinos have learned the hard way that Westerner men and women often exude an…interesting…odor regardless of race, gender, nationality, body weight or any other physical attribute once they arrive here. It’s probably the humidity, and which is probably why we Filipinos have this obsession with bathing.

Take it from me, unless you prefer to practice alone, bath as often as possible, don’t wear the same training clothes twice in a row without washing them and use deodorant. If your practice partners advise you to bathe with “tawas” (alum), they’re telling you something you need to deal with.

As with all cities, Metropolitan Manila has safe areas and places which you must avoid. Your fellow students can tell you the parts of town you should stay away from. If your school happens to be in those parts, then I suggest you make it a habit to travel to and from the training venue with your fellow students, as many of you as possible. Strength in numbers, I always say. Most probably the school is known in the area and the local thugs will leave you alone.

If you do travel to the provinces to train or just to see the sights, I suggest you don’t wear anything remotely military looking like olive drab cargo pants. Trust me, you don’t want your jeepney stopped by a rebel checkpoint while heading out to see an obscure style in the middle of nowhere and have to explain that you’re a tourist and not an American military agent.

Metropolitan Manila is a city of 11 million people and covers 636 square kilometers. Depending on where you’ll be staying, the experience of staying in this metropolis can range from thrilling to ghastly, which is why I suggest you take time out to travel outside of the city to see the best of the country. Don’t take a trip to the countryside to seek out more FMA styles, but rather just to take in the essence of our culture and understand it. Be a tourist but see it from the eyes of someone who already studies a part of the culture, a part that remains hidden and misunderstood by many Filipinos. Go off the beaten path and see the rest of the country that isn’t in the tourist maps. For example, experience village life among the mountain tribes of the Cordillera. Or take a boat ride around Northern Palawan, and chose an island to explore. Watch how they gather tuba (coconut wine) and taste it fresh from the tree. Attend a town fiesta and discover why we are known for our hospitality and home cooking.

The county has so much to over, so many facets to experience. If you’re already studying Filipino Martial Arts, consider yourself lucky. You’re already seeing our culture from a perspective many of us do not understand.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A tool for edge awareness

A few months ago one of the Force Recon Marines who makes training weapons dropped by our club with some plastic ginuntings. I got two of them right away.
Each one is 60 cm long and weighs about 250 grams. I’m not sure what plastic it’s made from, but I can tell you its extremely tough. Tuhon Gaje used my pair in a class at our club recently, when he demonstrated florete with lots of weapon to weapon contact. Needless to say, if it can take getting whacked against each other by the heavy hands of Tuhon Gaje, its tough enough for me.
I instantly realized the training potential this tool presents, despite its light weight. I’ve long suspected that practicing with an edged training tool will make me more precise with my strikes and it has done that. The difference between using this and a stick is that when I practice with a stick I have to continuously remind myself how the weapon will contact the target and how I need to keep it aligned, edge-wise, toward it to make a hack or slash. This problem is most pronounced in panastas (upward slash), because I have to twist my wrist to get the “edge” of the stick to face forward, perpendicularly to the target. With the training ginunting, I know exactly how I need to position the weapon to get the edge forward. The training ginunting also gives me feedback as to how the weapon is tracking throughout the strike.
I for one don’t mind the light weight. I’m going to develop a dulled ginunting for training anyway and this plastic practice weapon already serves its purpose, as a tool for developing edge awareness. I’ve had my share of tendonitis after training with pipes early in my PTK education and I’m a little wary of making the same mistake, of going crazy with heavy sticks and pipes in training. So for now, this is the tool of choice of getting edge aware for blade use.



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Defanging the snake

The concept of “defanging the snake” - striking the arm of the attacker to disable it and make him drop the weapon – is found all over the Filipino Martial Arts. It’s been described as a merciful strategy of sparing the opponent’s life, but it is also a brutal tactic which quickly ends the fight and leaves the victim helpless to the coup de grace that will surely follow.

At largo and media range in PTK it’s called “non weapon contact”, a direct strike to the opponent’s body, which at those ranges will be the opponent’s arms. Lately the defanging the snake concept has also taken a bit of beating (pun intended) from by those who can’t appreciate its practicality. The skepticism of the concept often originates from the viewpoint of MMA or the grappling systems. In that light, defanging the snake seems to be just another traditional martial art concept or myth that has been disproven under the grounding and pounding of octagon matches. Ironically the concept does exist in MMA; probably the best example of defanging the snake for them would be leg kicks, a tactic derived from Muay Thai. In the context of empty handed combat, it has been argued that defanging the snake is not practical or worthwhile, since the body and all the points to hit on it are within easy reach.

Personally I think that defanging the snake makes perfect sense with the use of weapons, particularly in FMA. Keeping out of range of the attack is a wise strategy in edged weapon combat. As the gap between opponents is strategically bridged in combat, the first body parts that will most probably come into range of the weapons first are the arms. It’s easier to cut an arm at a distance than to close in and try for a neck or head strike, and having to contend with the opponent’s response in the process. The arms are vulnerable to fight-finishing cuts, if tendons and nerves are shredded and arteries are sliced open.

Applying the concept to empty handed combat, particularly for hand strikes, can be tricky to do but not at all impossible to pull off. A well directed strike to a nerve point can numb an arm enough to make it unusable. Recently during practice I was hit on my right hand by my partner's stick and it went completely numb. The strike wasn’t particularly powerful or fast, but it obviously hit the right spot. I could barely hold the stick and if it was a fight to the death, I know I would be in deep trouble. That same spot is easily accessible in a fight, either by accident or by design.

Defanging the snake is self evident when practicing with knives. An oft quoted bit of wisdom concerning knife dueling is that one gets badly hurt and the other dies. Practice with knives long enough and you’ll realize that the arms will be the first to be nicked and cut, and in so many gruesome angles. It’s not because of some exotic knife design or technique, but rather simple proximity: the arm extending the weapon to attack will the closest in range to the opposing weapon. With blades zipping all over the place, it’s not difficult to understand that the arm holding the weapon will be a target.

This is a simple enough concept and one that was surely arrived at by other cultures. To dismiss the concept in light of the current popularity of controlled empty handed combat is myopic at best or worse, extremely dangerous. An empty handed defender will be expecting a direct attack to the body and will fail to consider defending his arms from the blade. A devastating slash to key tendons or an artery will mean death to the defender. With edged weapons, one cannot make slight mistakes.