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.