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Bridging from Weapon to Empty Hand
Tips on Contact Weaponry Evolutions
Kick Him in the Throat!
I was sparring with a young karate brown-belt. We were switching from stick to knife to stick again. She had been doing well. But, she was not beating me. From a contact weaponry perspective it is hard for us to imagine that it would be an easy thing, or even a reasonable immediate goal, for this teenage female to ‘defeat’ [in sparring no less] a man with over 400 wins in stick fights and over a 100 wins in machete duels. Although we were using a competitive format, this was an instructional sparring session during which I hoped to increase her weapons sensitivity, and break her away from just viewing a lethal weapon as a bridge to use her sub-lethal empty hand techniques.
We were making progress; she was retaining her stick, avoiding disarms, got a kill with the knife, and was starting to work combinations. Then her instructor walked in. What he saw, was a brown-belt being schooled by a no-belt. He immediately began encouraging her to kick and punch and grapple with the knife. She listened and began walking into kill shot after kill shot. All was not lost though. She was recognizing the ‘kills’ and the ‘maims’. Her sensitivity was breaking out of her empty hand shell and she at least knew when she was being ‘cut’, or dinged to the helmet with a lateral stick stroke.
However, the 8th Dan crazed karate instructor continued to pressure her to make it a karate versus boxing fight, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we had weapons. This is understandable. Empty hand people do not understand weapons. Weapons at a karate tournament are mere flowers in the arrangement, while the empty hand sparring is combat. Also, weapons, even in firearms heavy action movies, are depicted as something easily knocked aside or taken away by the unarmed martial artist.
The sparring ended on a good note, and, after the master had left, I was able to talk rationally about weaponry to the young lady and her mother. I also counseled her, that since adult male martial arts masters have consistently been unable to kick me [a lowly, small, aging, former mediocre amateur boxer] into extinction in the stick-fighting arena, and that I consistently ‘execute’ high level martial artists in blunt knife duels, that she should not be reasonably expected to dominate me, despite the color of her belt.
The only stick-fights that I have lost to kicks [two out of 153 losses] are those that I lost to men that I was barely able to compete with in a pure FMA style stick encounter. They were just getting brutally fancy, laying on the icing of victory with some shoe-leather. I explained that conversely, I have defeated many men with a stick who had kicked me, and were totally superior to me in an empty hand context. My point was: weapons change the rules. That is why they were invented in the first place, and why arms races continue.
Much of what we discussed is outlined below.
The Empty Hand to Weaponry Transition
This was easy for me back in 1998 because my empty hand art is boxing, which is not thought by anyone, including me, to be the least bit useful against an armed opponent. However, most Asian-based empty-hand systems have been falsely marketed as equal in lethality to weapons. The entire martial arts fantasy complex that claims black belts have their hands registered as deadly weapons in a law enforcement data base, and that one karate punch is as deadly as the slug from a handgun or the stab of a butcher knife, lives on. The two huge issues that any martial artist converting to contact weaponry must face are:
1. The hand as a target. The notion that the hand is an invulnerable weapon takes 1 to 6 hours of sparring to beat out of empty hand practitioners.
2. The notion that the hand is as deadly as the knife, is a fantasy that is harder to dispense with because stabbing people with real knives does not result in a learning curve, but a converging medical and legal one, and is therefore frowned upon as a training method, even amongst my friends. Unless you are an elite prize-fighter your fists and feet are not reasonably expected to be lethal. Any child with a machine gun is lethal. Any child with a butcher knife is lethal. Point two must be made with an appeal to reason. In most cases you might as well spit into the wind.
The Bridging Rule
The stick is one weapon that favors bridging to empty hand, since it is only lethal to the head. The stick is not a good floor-fighting tool. Unless your sparring partner or opponent is someone who has trained clinch defenses and dedicates themselves to dynamic largo mano [long hand] stick-fighting, you should be able to take a shot or two and get into a clinch with them and turn it into a ground fight. This factor is the greatest contributor to the fact that good stick-fighters [particularly Dog Brothers style stick-fighters] are terrible blade fighters.
With a stick, you can usually use your weapon to bridge against anyone below your skill level, most of those near your skill level, and some above your skill level.
With a blade you can only reasonably expect a successful bridge to empty hand against opponents that are less skilled and less athletic.
Some Suggested Weapon Evolutions
Getting hit with a power kick is far more painful and dangerous than getting stabbed with a rattan or dull plastic blunt. I have only failed once in tens of thousands of blunt knife sparring sessions to cut or stab my kicker. Kicking commits the kicker to a position for a moment, and that is all someone with a knife within kicking range needs to score a lethal stroke, since the blade does not require leverage to generate lethal force. In knife sparring permit light kicks for position. Power kicks should be relegated to competition with steel blunts, which are just as dangerous as the kicks, and can still penetrate the torso and defeat head and hand gear. Have fun with that Mister Muay Thai.
Try some ‘stick fencing’ before you transition from stick to blade. This will help develop your largo mano sensitivity.
Focus on ‘stick boxing’ with the stick, permitting clinch work, back fists and hammer fists with the butt of the stick, and aggressive empty hand, foot and body checking. Stop the action when it goes to the ground. When it goes down it is a grappling match not a stick fight. It is fun working with a stick on the floor, but it is now just a leverage device like a gi, not a striking weapon.
When one opponent goes down, keep sparring. Make them fight their way up off the floor. Eventually progress to floor-fighting with the stick.
With women, children and youths I like to finish each weapon set by having them armed defensively against an empty hand attack by an adult male sparring partner. It does not take long for the kids and women to start turning the empty-hand against the knife attacks into executions. Conversely, empty handed adult man against a child or women with a stick usually amounts to a quick disarm.
Once your young or female stick-fighter is reminded how easy it is for a larger stronger person to strip them of a blunt extension weapon, use that scenario as a coaching point on mobility. I end with evasive integrated footwork drills done at half-speed [usually reverse triangles and shifts with stiff-arm assists] and broken down into a solo drill for them to practice between sparring sessions. After they progress we get into full-blown ‘Goon Surfing’ and they eventually become survivable mixed-weight submission stick-fighters.
Conclusion
Keep in mind that until these small, young or female fighters demonstrate extremely good grip and mobility, expecting them to prevail against an aggressive man with a blunt extension weapon is unrealistic. As with boxing there are weight-classes in stick-fighting for a reason. There are no weight-classes in fencing, just age, gender and skill subdivisions.
I have fought some very highly skilled weapon fighters that have been able to bridge to empty hand occasionally for disarms, kicks and clinching. Once you have developed your weapon skill beyond that of the people you are dealing with it becomes a reasonable option. But even then, it should be an option, not doctrine. The easiest people to deal with in weapon sparring or competition are those who are only using the weapon as a bridge to empty hand. This may be because no one who uses a weapon this way has yet mastered the weapon, or even become proficient with it. Or, perhaps, it is because those who manage to master the weapon come to understand the inherent forensic advantage of weaponry over empty hands. After all, this is the very same fact that elevated mankind above the beasts.
Please let’s leave the ‘hand is as deadly as the sword’ fantasy to the action movie directors. If human beings possessed lethal natural weapons karate would have been invented a million years ago to kill lions, rather than the spear.
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