Half-price sale on Principles of Unarmed Combat

22 Aug

Turtle press is running a half-price sale this weekend on hardcover editions of my book The Principles of Unarmed Combat. I didn’t even know there was a hardcover edition!



In the News

17 Mar

      Like most other people, I have spent the last 10 days gorging myself on media coverage of the missing Malaysian airplane. While everyone has their theories on what really happened (my own being rather mundane: that the plane went down due to accident right where they first thought in the South China Sea; the original search done by Vietnamese and Malaysian authorities was simply sloppy and missed it; everything since then has been about shoehorning conflicting facts to fit unlikely scenarios) my interest here is on how the story has been reported, particularly by cable news channels.
      Though, as a journalist, I have never been a big fan of cable “news” I will admit there are some things they do well, recent coverage of the situation in Crimea being a case in point. These two stories, the Russian takeover of Crimea and the missing Malaysian plane, are two excellent, contrasting examples of what cable news channels – and to a lesser extent the modern media as a whole – excel at and what they do poorly.
      In the former case, they have a story happening in an exact location with certain specific facts, which may not be readily apparent but which can be gathered by putting reporters on the ground with cameras to film and ask questions. When there is a situation like this, turning your TV to CNN is a useful means for finding out what’s going on in real time. If you ignore the opinions of the on air “experts” and simply watch what’s being reported from the field, you can get a pretty good sense of what’s happening and, in some cases, even be as well informed as people in the government, who often are also watching CNN themselves to find out what’s going on. As they say, it’s not officially a crisis till Anderson Cooper shows up.
      However, when there is a less clearly defined event, and cameras on the ground can not easily depict what the story is, here cable news flounders like a (to use an unfortunate metaphor) sinking airplane. Cable news does not generally do nuance and patient reporting well. There is nothing sexy in a press conference given by a harried and ill-informed Malaysian transportation official. And when there are a lack of facts, let alone people to interview who actually know what the facts are, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are forced to turn to a variety of on air experts, even if those experts have no actual expertise in the topic under discussion. Naturally, each expert likes to advance their own pet opinions, leading to endless on the air speculation over every possible theory, no matter how inane. This can go on for days, to the exclusion of virtually every other story happening in the world, until the next big crisis comes along, at which point the previous story is pretty much forgotten.
      While that may make for good ratings (it does, after all, have me watching) it is not what solid, responsible journalism is about.
      Good journalism is, first and foremost, about getting the major facts of a story correct, and then getting them out to the public in a timely manner. But “timely” in the world of cable news, not to mention the internet age, now means “immediately.” And that means the whole notion of getting major facts correct sometimes takes a back seat. The situation is compounded in the case of the missing airplane because the facts have been so sketchy and conflicting, something that’s caused even an esteemed print journalism organ like the Wall Street Journal to retract some of its own coverage for being inaccurate.
      A prime tenet of responsible journalism, which I don’t think is being followed here, is to try to get multiple sources to confirm significant facts on a story. This is even more important when the sources you do have are unnamed, as many of the Malaysian officials who’ve been providing information are. Of course, this requires much more time and work, not to mention independent research on the part of reporters to understand a lot of intricate technical issues. And that is far tougher, and often far less exciting, than engaging in idle speculation.

Father Time Catches Up With Everyone

6 Mar

      Just did an interview with Ray Longo, the renowned trainer of UFC champions Matt Serra and Chris Weidman. If you want to see what he had to say, you’ll have to read the full story in a future issue of Black Belt Magazine. But our conversation got me thinking about Weidman’s two defeats of Anderson Silva last year.
      One thing that strikes me is just how shocked most people were that Silva, the greatest champion in the history of mixed martial arts, suddenly seemed to have deteriorated into an ordinary fighter. All sorts of explanations have been put forth, from Weidman merely getting “lucky” to Silva suffering from overconfidence. But the one explanation you don’t hear much of is the simple – and most likely true – one, Silva got old.
      Even now, that seems a fantastical and unbelievable explanation to many MMA fans who have been conditioned to seeing modern fighters compete at a championship level well into their 40s. Silva, after all, is only 38. Is that really all that old for a fighter? Well, yes it is.
      In the last 25 years, first in boxing then in MMA, we’ve seen a growing number of athletes who have fought at a very high level into their 40s and this has come to seem like the norm to us. But what people tend to forget is, this last 25 years also corresponds with the rise of performance enhancing drugs as being pretty much commonplace among world class athletes in most sports, including boxing and MMA. While better training techniques may have had something to do with the unusual longevity possessed by fighters of the past quarter century, it would be naive to think that was the only factor enabling them to continue competing successfully well past what was always considered a fighter’s prime – usually in his mid to late 20s, maybe extending into his early 30s for a fighter in the heavier weight classes.
      If you look at boxing, a sport with a much longer history than modern MMA, yet just as good a barometer for the natural life span of a professional athlete, you’ll see up until the past 25 years, nearly every great pugilist was done for as a championship fighter by their late 30s. In the history of modern boxing, from the dawn of the Marquess of Queensberry rules about 125 years ago up to the past 25 years, the legendary light heavyweight champion Archie Moore is virtually the only fighter who competed at a championship level into his 40s. Almost everyone else was pretty much finished by their early to mid 30s. Sugar Ray Robinson, generally regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the history of the sport, won his last championship fight at age 36 and never won another title match after that. Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, won his last title fight at 36 and, even then, was a mere shadow of himself beating a comparatively novice and only moderately talented Leon Spinks.
      Now one might argue that the majority of top flight boxers start competing at a younger age than most mixed martial artists and take more punishment so that is why their careers end more quickly. But that doesn’t really explain why a number of them, like mixed martial artists, have suddenly found a fountain of youth and been able to continue competing successfully past age 40 in recent years. Unless you consider the possibility some of these boxers, just as with some of the elder statesman of MMA, have been taking performance enhancing substances which enable them to continue training and competing like younger men…
      It might seem as if this argument is based on the presumption that Anderson Silva has never taken performance enhancing drugs, himself, while most of his elder contemporaries have. This is not necessarily the case.
      While it’s a well-known fact that a number of MMA’s more senior citizens have taken certain performance enhancing substances like testosterone replacement therapy – a controversial treatment that is considered a “legal” drug with a doctor’s prescription – I have no knowledge of whether Silva has ever taken or not taken any performance enhancing substances over the course of his career. But in his specific case, it may not really matter when it comes to prolonging a career.
      The thing to remember is that performance enhancing drugs will only enhance certain aspects of an athlete’s abilities – primarily their ability to train long and hard in order to increase (or at least maintain) their physical strength and endurance. What they will not do is enhance an athlete’s reflexes and quickness. Those remain, essentially, in the province of youth.
      When you look at the fighters who have competed successfully into their 40s, they are frequently athletes whose games have relied on some combination of strength, endurance and sheer guile to continue winning fights. Those who have relied upon superior speed, reflexes, quickness and agility have always been done at a relatively early age. Even Ali, the “greatest of all time” couldn’t continue at the top level past age 36. Despite his experience and intelligence in the ring, his ability to adjust his style with age, once those magnificent reflexes faded significantly, he was largely finished.
      It is, perhaps, telling that the boxer Silva admired and compared himself to the most – whom he even wanted to fight in a boxing match at one point – was Roy Jones Jr. Like Silva, Jones was a phenom who dominated elite boxers from 160 pounds all the way up to heavyweight with his incredible speed and inhuman reflexes. He could strike opponents with lightning blows seemingly at will and, in turn, almost no one could hit him. Then he abruptly started to look ordinary at age 34. His reflexes, which had enabled him to slip punches by an inch whenever he wanted, had slowed just enough that that one inch margin faded and he was getting hit – and knocked out – by punches he once easily eluded.
      For a fighter like Jones – or Silva – no amount of training, no performance enhancing drugs, no anything is going to recover the lost quickness of youth. Once those reflexes go for a fighter whose career has been built on them, that’s it. They are finished as great fighters even when they don’t break their legs.
      This isn’t to downgrade Chris Weidman’s two victories over Silva. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have beaten the Anderson Silva of 5 years ago? But great fighters rarely meet when both are at their peaks. Usually one is on the upside of their career and the other on the downside. It’s possible we haven’t even seen the best of Chris Weidman yet. And it’s also possible that when he is beaten one day, he will be on the downside and the loss will occur against some youngster on the ascendancy. That is the natural order of the fight game. And people should realize that when trying to understand how a once great fighter like Anderson Silva suddenly looks so mediocre at the “young” age of 38.

The 40 Most Important and Influential People in the History of the Asian Martial Arts, Part 2

12 Feb

Before proceeding to the top 20 on this list of the most important and influential people in martial arts history, a few words about those who didn’t make the list are in order. More astute readers may notice the omission of some big names, the most prominent of which may be the famed samurai Miyamoto Musashi. While he might well make a list of the most well-known martial artists, Musashi does not make our list of the “most important and influential” martial artists simply because his actual impact on the way martial arts have been perceived and practiced around the world is rather small. Few people still practice the style of swordsmanship he founded and while many have read his work, The Book of Five Rings, even fewer can truly say its rather oblique passages have directly influenced their martial arts.

Also absent from the list are a number of notable MMA champions who are likely better known than many of the names included here. Though the sport as a whole has certainly influenced the way martial arts are perceived and practiced nowadays, it can’t really be said a Randy Couture or a Chuck Liddell has, individually, had that great a direct impact upon the entire martial arts world. Additionally, some may feel certain arts such as taekwondo or the Chinese martial arts as a whole, have been under represented on this list. While such arts are certainly prominent around the globe, it is difficult to single out specific practitioners of these styles, save for those already included here, who have had a massive impact upon the martial arts world. Finally, culling such a list out of all the martial artists in history is a difficult process and there are some prominent martial artists who, if this were a top 100 list, would certainly have made the cut. But a line had to be drawn somewhere and, in this case, it was to do a list of only the top 40 martial artists (also a special thanks to Stickgrappler for his input though, sadly, his personal favorite of kung fu film star Donnie Yen did not quite make the list). And now, the top 20…

20. Yang Lu-ch’an – 19th century Chinese martial arts master who first brought the art of tai chi chuan to prominence in China, eventually coming up with his own branch of the system, now known as Yang style tai chi. This laid the foundation for tai chi to become the most widely practiced martial art in China, and possibly the world.

19. Joe Corley – A martial arts promoter who was instrumental in the Professional Karate Association, the first western kickboxing organization, starting in the 1970s. The PKA appeared semi-regularly on television for a number of years and provided an important bridge between the traditional, light contact karate competitions of the 1960s and today’s MMA and muay thai style fights.

18. Robert Mark Kamen – Not to be confused with kickboxer Rob Kaman, Robert Mark Kamen is a karate practitioner and screenwriter who came up with the script for the original Karate Kid movie. The hugely successful 1984 film spawned the next major boom in martial arts popularity following the kung-fu craze of the early 1970s. It’s likely many of today’s current karate masters took up the art due to the influence of Kamen’s movie.

17. Jhoon Rhee – Regarded by many as the father of American taekwondo, he began teaching the Korean martial art in the U.S. in the 1950s. He would go on to produce a number of tournament and PKA champions as well as being among the first martial artists to merge kata with musical accompaniment. Perhaps his most lasting impact was the introduction of the foam safety equipment which would become standard among karate competitors.

16. Chuck Norris – A tang soo do stylist who was among the most successful tournament karate competitors of the 1960s, he went on to open a chain of successful schools producing a number of renowned champions before becoming a film star. One of the most widely viewed martial artists in history, most of his early movies revolved around martial arts and his long-running TV series, Walker, Texas Ranger, included frequent martial arts-themed fight scenes.

15. Jackie Chan – Though a somewhat successful film star in America, Chan has been even more successful outside the U.S., consistently appearing as a top foreign box office draw for much of the past 30 years with his kung fu-themed action/comedies. His long standing, world-wide appeal may make him the most viewed martial artist in history.

14. Joe Lewis – Perhaps the most successful karate competitor of the 1960s, Lewis revolutionized martial arts in the west with his introduction of kickboxing in the early 1970s. His brilliant analysis and innovations in the technical realm influenced a generation of karate and kickboxing competitors.

13. Ed Parker – The founder of American Kenpo, Parker was among the first karate instructors in the U.S. dating back to the 1950s. He went on to spawn one of the most popular and widely practiced martial arts systems in America along the way teaching a host of entertainment industry notables including Elvis Presley and film director Blake Edwards. Bruce Lee first caught the attention of the martial arts world during a demonstration at Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championships, at one time probably the biggest karate tournament in the world.

12. Koizumi Gunji – Founder of the Budokwai, one of the oldest Japanese martial arts schools in Europe and perhaps the first one open to the general public. He’s regarded as the father of British judo and went on to found the European Judo Union, which helped lay the basis for worldwide competitions and the eventual inclusion of judo in the Olympics.

11. Morihei Ueshiba – Known as “O-Sensei” or “great teacher,” he founded aikido, one of the major modern styles of Japanese martial arts which now has numerous offshoots spread around the world.

10. Mas Oyama – Founder of the kyokushinkai style, one of the major systems of Japanese karate. Oyama gave Americans some of their first exposure to karate by touring the U.S. as a professional wrestler in the 1950s. His kyokushinkai introduced “knockdown” competitions which allowed full contact striking except for a prohibition against punches to the face. It spawned a host of spin off styles and served as a foundation for many Japanese and European kickboxers.

9. Run Run Shaw – The guiding force behind the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers film company which produced and distributed most of the classic Hong Kong “chop socky” films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. These films, such as The Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, created a mystique and mythology around the Chinese martial arts which still exists to this day and undoubtedly inspired a great number of people to take up the practice of these arts.

8. Mitoshi Uyehara – The founder and original editor of Black Belt Magazine, probably the first general interest martial arts publication in the western world, in the early 1960s. For several years it was the only regular source of information on martial arts for most practitioners and still remains the U.S.’s largest general interest martial arts magazine. It provided many now well-known martial artists their first media exposure, in particular Bruce Lee, a friend of Uyehara’s whose regular appearance in the magazine undoubtedly contributed to his early reputation.

7. Cheng Man-ch’ing – Possibly the most famous and influential master of tai chi in history. In the 1930s and 1940s, as part of an effort by China’s Kuomintang government, he began modifying traditional Yang style tai chi shortening the forms and concentrating on the health, rather than the martial, aspects of the system. In the 1960s, he immigrated to America and became one of the first instructors to teach Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese. He is, perhaps, most responsible for tai chi now being practiced by millions of people around the world as a form of exercise.

6. Rorion and Royce Gracie – Difficult to distinguish just one of them. Though other family members are credited with creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu or with being better fighters, none had a greater impact than these two men whose combined efforts changed the martial arts landscape. Rorion was the first member of the family to immigrate to the U.S. and begin spreading their unique martial art outside Brazil. When he co-created the Ultimate Fighting Championships in the 1990s to showcase the style, it fell upon Royce to compete and demonstrate the art’s effectiveness. It was his success that launched the grappling boom and the sport of mixed martial arts.

5. Choi Hong Hi – An officer in the Korean military who’s better known for his political rather than technical efforts in the martial arts, he is still considered by many the father of taekwondo, one of the most widely practiced styles in the world. While other co-founders of the system were probably more highly regarded teachers, it was largely due to Choi’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s that modern taekwondo came into being and gained its status as the national sport of Korea.

4. Gichin Funakoshi – Sometimes referred to as the father of modern karate, he was the first Okinawan master to popularize the art in Japan, beginning in 1922. His system, which eventually became known as Shotokan, went on to become probably the most popular karate style in the world. A number of his later students were among the first instructors to teach karate in the west. He also taught several of the Korean instructors who would go on to found taekwondo.

3. Dana White – President of the Ultimate Fighting Championships since 2001 and the driving force behind the company’s soaring popularity. Prior to White, the UFC and mixed martial arts were, at best, a minor sports fad which seemed on its way to extinction. Under his guidance, it has become one of the most successful sports organizations in the world. In the process, he was able to achieve something no one had ever accomplished before him, to turn a martial arts based sport into a financially lucrative major viewing attraction in the U.S., as well as in overseas markets.

2. Jigoro Kano – Not just the founder of judo but could largely be considered the father of modern Japanese martial arts. Much of what we think of as traditional Asian martial arts, from a belt ranking system to standardized uniforms, was created by Kano in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was vital in introducing both judo and kendo to the Japanese public school system. By sending instructors to the United States and Europe, he made judo the first Asian martial art to gain widespread notoriety in the West. As a member of the International Olympic Committee, he paved the way for judo to become an Olympic sport.

1. Bruce Lee – Though I have written elsewhere about the somewhat overrated nature of Lee’s martial arts abilities, there can be no questioning his impact upon the Asian martial arts. If there is one person whose name is synonymous with martial arts among the general public, it is Lee. While he made a number of contributions as the founder of jeet kune do and as an innovator analyzing the technical side of martial arts, it was through his movies he had the greatest influence. His fame and magnetism as a film star probably inspired more people to take up the practice of martial arts than anyone else in history.


The 40 Most Important and Influential People in the History of the Asian Martial Arts, Part 1

1 Feb

(February 12: Major faux pas, forgot to include a title when I originally posted this. I trust people still understood what the post was about)

When you have too much time on your hands, you do a lot of useless things, like coming up with lists. So here I present my own list of the top 40 most important and influential figures in the history of Asian martial arts. A couple of things to note: first, this is not a list of the “best” martial artists, rather it is simply a list of who has had the greatest influence over the way martial arts have been perceived and practiced around the world, which means one doesn’t even necessarily have to be a martial arts practitioner himself to make the list; second, it’s a list having to do with the Asian martial arts, not of all fighting arts and sports. Thus, no one whose influence was exclusively confined to western sports like boxing or wrestling is eligible for consideration. This is, admittedly, a somewhat arbitrary delineation. For example, though both Russian sambo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu have their roots in Japanese judo, BJJ figures were considered for inclusion on this list while, ultimately, sambo figures were not, simply because BJJ somehow seems more directly connected with its roots as an Asian martial art while sambo has become a wholly western sport. Now, without further ado, I bring you part one of the 40 most important and influential figures in martial arts history…

40. Sokon Matsumura – A famed 19th century Okinawan martial arts master sometimes credited with originally coining the term “karate” which, at the time, meant “Chinese hands” though the meaning of the written characters for the word was later re-interpreted as “empty hands.” His shuri-te style laid the basis for many of the modern Okinawan and Japanese karate systems.

39. Curtis LeMay – A U.S. Air Force general who, while in charge of the Strategic Air Command in the early 1950s, instituted what was probably the first widespread U.S. military effort to incorporate Asian martial arts into regular military training, recruiting leading Japanese judo, karate and aikido experts to tour American bases.

38. Honor Blackman – Best known as Bond girl Pussy Galore and the original female lead in TV’s The Avengers, Blackman was among the first female cinematic action heroes and certainly the first one to show women could defend themselves with the aid of martial arts. Though early female champions like judoka Rusty Glickman and kung fu expert Malia Dacascos were far more accomplished, Blackman was the original face of women’s martial arts back in the 1960s.

37. Munenori Yagyu – The 17th century fencing instructor to the Tokugawa shoguns, Yagyu was probably the first Japanese martial arts exponent to write of the connection between martial arts and spirituality, something that has now become a standard facet of the Japanese systems.

36. Bruce Tegner – One of the most prolific writers in the history of martial arts. Prior to the publication of Black Belt magazine in the 1960s, Tegner provided a large percentage of all the written material available on Asian martial arts in the English language.

35. Peter Urban – One of the earliest American karate instructors, he’s best known for breaking away from his Japanese teacher, Gogen Yamaguchi, and creating his own Americanized version of goju karate in the 1960s, thus becoming the first westerner to declare himself the grandmaster of a martial arts style.

34. Gene LeBell – Rising to prominence in the early 1950s as U.S. judo champion, Lebell remains active today as a coach for UFC women’s champion Ronda Rousey. His longevity as an ongoing major contributor to the martial arts world may be unmatched by anyone in history.

33. Donn Draeger – A renowned judoka, martial arts writer and historian, he’s credited with bringing classical Japanese bujutsu styles to prominence outside Japan and turning the study of martial arts history into a serious scholarly pursuit. He also aided a generation of western martial arts enthusiasts in gaining entrance to Japanese dojos starting back in the 1950s.

32. Yip Man – The grandmaster of wing chun kung fu best known as Bruce Lee’s instructor. He taught a plethora of other students besides Lee, who went on to spread Wing Chun around the world making it one of the most widely practiced Chinese styles.

31 Emilio “Mel” Bruno – One of the first Americans to achieve a black belt in judo in the 1930s, he introduced the style to the U.S. Navy during WW II and later became Curtis LeMay’s point man for martial arts, instituting judo training for the air force.

30. Henri Plée – Originally one of the early French judo black belts in the 1940s, Plée eventually took up the study of aikido and karate. He’s considered by some to be the father of the latter art in Europe having taught many of the continent’s leading experts at one time or another.

29. Bill Wallace – Known by his nickname “Superfoot,” Wallace was one of the early kickboxing pioneers in the U. S. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was, perhaps, the most visible martial arts expert in the country, appearing several times defending his middleweight “full contact karate” title on network television. His unique style of throwing multiple kicks off the same leg without putting his foot down inspired a host of imitators.

28. Chojun Miyagi – An Okinawan karate master credited with founding the Goju-ryu style, which has spawned numerous branches. He taught a number of major karate experts throughout the first half of the 20th century.

27. William E. Fairbairn – A former British Royal Marine who later served with the Shanghai police in the early 20th century. While in China, he studied judo, ju-jutsu and Chinese martial arts, reputedly engaging in hundreds of street fights during his police career. Creating his own method of combat, defendu, he taught various elite military units in Britain and the U.S. during WW II becoming one of the first people to incorporate Asian fighting methods into military hand-to-hand combat.

26. Akira Kurosawa – Famed director of Japanese samurai films. Much as John Ford created a good portion of the western cowboy myth through his films, Kurosawa’s movies helped create the modern popular conception of the samurai and Japanese swordplay, particularly as viewed in the west.

25. Jon Bluming – Could largely be considered the father of Dutch martial arts. Having studied judo and karate in Japan in the 1950s, it’s possible no individual has had a greater influence over the martial arts history of a single country than Bluming has had with Holland. Most of the major modern figures in Dutch martial arts, including MMA fighters Bas Rutten and Alistair Overeem, kickboxer Semmy Schilt and Olympic gold medal judoka Willem Ruska can trace at least part of their martial arts lineage to Bluming.

24. Aaron Banks – The first great promoter of martial arts in the U.S. His karate tournaments and tireless courting of the media helped several martial artists, notably Chuck Norris, rise to national prominence in the 1960s. He went on to promote the Oriental World of Self-Defense, a circus-like demonstration of various martial arts, which appeared yearly on ABC television’s Wide World of Sports show in the 1970s and early 1980s.

23. Dan Inosanto – Bruce Lee’s most prominent student and the main purveyor of the jeet kune do system throughout the world. He also helped bring notoriety in America to a number of previously lesser known martial arts like muay Thai. Perhaps most significantly, he was probably the first person to introduce the Filipino martial arts to a wide-scale western audience.

22. Masaaki Hatsumi – The man most responsible for the ninja boom. Though there is much dispute as to whether he actually studied ninjutsu under a legitimate instructor or simply recreated the style from old texts and other martial arts, beginning in the 1960s his promotion of ninjutsu made the concept of the masked, black-clad, ninja assassin a pop culture fixture.

21. David Carradine – Along with Bruce Lee, Carradine is probably most responsible for the first major western boom in martial arts popularity in the early 1970s. The star of the TV series Kung-Fu, the first and still the most successful fictional television series to revolve around martial arts, his portrayal of Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine inspired an interest in martial arts among millions of viewers.

(Stay tuned for the top 20 in Part 2)

Walk on the Dark Side

12 Jan

Been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything new on the site so thought I’d repost this piece about writing that I did a few months back for my semi-regular column over at Indiesunlimited.com.

      I saw on the news where Lou Reed died the other day. If you’re not an alternative rock aficionado or an aging, misanthropic New Yorker, you probably don’t consider that a very great loss. But it is.
      Reed was a seminal figure in rock and roll history, as important, in his own way, as Dylan and Springsteen though he never quite caught on with the public like they did. He didn’t write catchy pop diddies, nor did his songs generally carry messages of hope or love or inspiration. Instead, Reed wrote in a matter-of-fact way about the things he saw on the mean streets of New York, things like drug addiction, male prostitution and child abuse. He was an artist who went to a place most artists either fear or simply ignore, that sometimes dark and often painful side of the human experience which many of us simply call life.
      Too often, writers – whether lyrical or prose – prefer to play it safe. They do not want to explore those dark, depressing corners of existence because they find them too technically difficult to express in words, or because they worry no one wants to read about such things, or because they simply find them too uncomfortable to think about. And those are all legitimate concerns. They are also rather insipid ones. While I’ve always found characterizations of artists as being “brave” for taking some chances in their art entirely overblown (people who run into burning buildings to save someone or charge an enemy machine gun nest are brave; writers are, at best, merely plucky) not taking such chances can probably be called “timid” if not outright cowardly.
      But why should a writer take such chances? Why write about topics he finds uncomfortable and which many of his readers don’t want to hear about? One might equally ask, why ever try anything risky or challenging… like becoming a writer? If you’re going to devote yourself to being good at something, you might as well go all the way and get as much out of it as you can, and that means pushing yourself into areas of the craft that you’re not always comfortable with. To those of us with a more depressive nature, getting such thoughts out in our writing offers – maybe not a therapeutic value – but at least the opportunity to gain a clearer vision of what’s tormenting us. And for readers of such disposition, it’s often a relief to find you are not the only one on earth possessed by these gloomy thoughts. Misery loves company and it’s nice to know there are others just as screwed up as you are when you read their darker works. Of course, not everyone enjoys a good wallow in misery.
      I have a friend who refuses to read books or watch movies where the main character dies at the end. “It’s too dark. I don’t want to watch something depressing,” he constantly says to me. But I’ve always found that attitude shallow in the extreme. Life is as much about suffering and death as it is about joy and living. And to deny one side of it, you almost render the other meaningless. You don’t really know the value of something positive unless you understand the value of something equally negative.
      While I would not recommend writers devote themselves exclusively to such negative subject matter, I would suggest negativity can play an important role in any type of writing, whether high drama, low comedy or genre fiction. Hemingway once wrote, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” Though that may be a rather limiting view, it’s also one many writers might want to keep in mind next time they’re looking to add a bit of veritas to their work.
      To paraphrase the late Mr. Reed, hey babe, take a walk on the dark side.

American Shaolin

5 Dec

      So my friend and fellow author, Matthew Polly, sent out the below (greedy) appeal for people to buy more copies of his book, American Shaolin, (which was already basically a best seller) so he could collect a bonus from the publisher for selling 100,000 copies. Polly’s not content to sell 99,000 books, he has to corner the whole market so none of the rest of us can sell a damn thing! But you should still help the selfish bastard out and grab a copy. Maybe then he’ll have enough money to at least treat me to lunch.
      In all seriousness, American Shaolin is one of the best accounts I’ve ever read of someone’s personal journey through the martial arts world. It’s funny, informative and insightful all at the same time. So I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t read it yet pick up one of the signed copies he’s offering (after buying my books of course, which are all much better).
      Here’s his message:

Dear Friends,
      Thanks to your wonderful support American Shaolin has nearly reached the 100,000 mark. After several years of chugging away, it’s just 624 copies short. It’s very rare that a book ever earns out its original advance, and my publisher owes me a bonus if it does. So… to help nudge this little engine over the last hump (and jump on the Cyber Monday mass email bandwagon), I’m offering signed copies of American Shaolin for $15, including shipping, for the first 50 responders. It’s the perfect holiday gift for that special relative you only vaguely like.
      And feel free to tweet, Facebook, or, you know, forward this to your entire email list. After all, American Shaolin is only 39,900,624 copies behind The Da Vinci Code. (I’ll catch you, Dan Brown!)

Matthew Polly

Matt’s website is mattpolly.com and he can be emailed at matthew@mattpolly.com

Fleeting Glory

24 Nov

      How could you do this to me, Giorgio Petrosyan?!
      I went to last night’s Glory 12 New York lightweight kickboxing tournament to write a simple magazine piece on the Armenian/Italian fighter who’s long been regarded as pound for pound the best kickboxer on the planet, despite being virtually unheard of in the United States. Okay, the man nicknamed “the Doctor,” for his alleged surgical precision, has never overly impressed me, maybe because he’s a defensive fighter with lightly regarded power. Still, a record of 78-1-1 is nothing to sneeze at. Best of all, from my perspective, this was a story that wrote itself: Since Petrosyan’s largely unknown here I could just go to Wikipedia for a bit of background which no one is familiar with anyway, give a little technical description of his defensive wizardry, add in a couple of quotes, then describe his tournament victory. Shake, stir and serve. A total of 30 minutes work tops. Only problem is, there was no tournament victory to describe.
      Suriname-born Dutch kickboxer Andy Ristie put to rest the myth of Petrosyan’s invincibility with a pair of left hooks in the third round that left the Doctor and his legend on the floor in need of medical attention. Ristie, who went on to knock out Robin Van Roosmalen in the tournament finals with an even more crushing left hook, was one of those naysayers who also never bought into the Petrosyan hype machine.
      “I like Roosmalen, he comes to fight,” said Ristie. “I don’t like Petrosyan because he runs away.”
      More generously, Petrosyan’s style might better be termed intelligent movement and counter fighting. Besides, he who runs away, lives to fight another day. Except last night, I guess. The evening was not a complete waste, though.
      While I was wholly unimpressed with the previous Glory show in New York back in June – which featured an awful decision and the worst quick stoppage I’ve ever seen – the promotion, now on the Spike Channel, got their act together this time producing a main card that featured some highlight reel knockouts, brutal back and forth battles, and a few shockers. Besides Ristie’s defeat of Petrosyan, local fighter Wayne Barrett, with just three pro bouts to his credit, upset Glory 10 middleweight tournament winner Joe Schilling in a main event “superfight” that lived up to the name. Both men suffered vicious knockdowns but somehow both found it in themselves to finish the bout, which went to Barrett on unanimous decision.
      However, nothing could compare to the shock of seeing Petrosyan flat on his back after all those years of hearing how great he was. You let me down Giorgio. Now I’m actually going to have to put some work in on that magazine story. And there’s nothing writers hate more than that.
      Curse you, Petrosyan!

In Judgment of Judging

17 Nov

      Unfortunately, I was unable to catch last night’s Georges St-Pierre – Johny Hendricks UFC welterweight championship fight so cannot comment on the fairness of what many people are calling a bad decision in St-Pierre’s favor. But I can offer some comment on the quality of judging in mixed martial arts in general… namely, it stinks!
      In part this is because the judges in MMA (not to mention boxing, while we’re at it) are too poorly trained, often know little about the intricacies of the sport they are judging, and rarely have to undergo regular, rigorous review of their performance the way officials in other major professional sports have to. Basically, the main qualification officials in many states have to sit in judgment of fights is that they have a friend on the athletic commission.
      But greatly compounding the problem of poor officials is the inane nature of the rules and standards used for scoring a fight.
      I tend to have a different view on scoring a fight from most people – I score many of the rounds even. Now to some, even rounds are a taboo to be avoided at all costs. I’ve had athletic commission officials tell me that there has to be something that differentiates a round, even if it’s just a fighter landing a single punch more than his opponent. But my response to that is that if an entire fight can end up being a draw, certainly a single round can be a draw. If a round is too close to say one fighter definitively won it, then it’s too close to call. It is even.
      There is no shame in that and if it leads to a draw, then so be it. Better a draw than a bad decision. But some athletic commissions actively discourage judges from scoring even rounds and virtually insist that they declare a winner of each individual stanza. All right, if you must pick a winner in a round go ahead. But this leads to my second problem with the way fights are scored – the improper use of the ten-point must system.
      Both boxing and MMA in most jurisdictions use a system where the winner of a round gets 10 points and the loser gets something less than 10. But for some incomprehensible reason, though judges have 10 points with which to work when scoring a round, they rarely use more than 2 of those points and virtually never use more than 3 of them. Almost all rounds in both boxing and MMA are scored 10-9. Other than penalties, the only exception you ever see is when a fighter is knocked down by a blow, which will usually lead to a 10-8 round (in boxing this is almost automatic if a referee rules a knockdown even if the fighter who went down slipped more than being knocked down by a legitimate punch since, apparently, judges are incapable of thinking for themselves or believing the evidence of their own eyes). Rounds scored 10-7 are pretty much unheard of except if a fighter is both knocked down and then has a point deducted for a penalty in the same round. In my entire life, I have never seen a 10-6 round. Going by this logic, boxing and MMA might as well adopt a 4-point must system, since the rest of those points appear utterly superfluous. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way and, logically, it shouldn’t be.
      If athletic commissions insist that rounds which are essentially even be scored 10-9 in favor of one fighter, fine. But then what do you do with a round where no one has been knocked down yet one fighter was clearly in control and won the round? Surely, you cannot score that with the same 10-9 score you gave someone in a virtually even round? If you’re scoring nearly even rounds 10-9 in one fighter’s favor, then you must logically score a round with a clear-cut winner but no knockdown or great dominance as a 10-8 round. Rounds in which a fighter is legitimately knocked down or otherwise dominated would then have to become 10-7 rounds. And rounds in which a fighter is knocked down multiple times and thoroughly battered throughout the course of the round? That would be your elusive, chimera-like 10-6 round. And a 10-6 round where the losing fighter is also penalized a point? My God, now you have a 10-5 round!
      Athletic commissions and their appointed judges should not continue to have it both ways. Either they need to start scoring even rounds as what they are: even; or they need to start making better use of the 10-point must system. Of course, fight sports being what they are, neither of these things is likely to happen and we will continue to see horrible decisions in fights.

Use Your Head: Part 2

23 Oct

Posting the rest of the pictures and captions which never made it into my recent Black Belt Magazine story, “Use Your Head: Clinch Fighting in Burmese Martial Arts.”

PHOTOS (Courtesy of Michael Stewart, featuring Phil Dunlap and Pat Albani):

figure 3a – In a collar and elbow tie-up, Dunlap keeps his head tight to the opponent’s head to prevent being butted


figure 3b – He then rakes his head to the right, across the opponent’s face


figure 3c – Creating space for himself while maintaining control of the opponent’s head


figure 3d – And then driving his head forward into the opponent’s face


figure 4a – Again in a tight collar and elbow clinch


figure 4b – Dunlap (here on the left) releases his right hand from the opponent’s neck, raising it up


figure 4c – And bringing it down across the opponent’s face in a door knocker strike


figure 4d – With the opponent stunned, Dunlap drives forward with a headbutt


figure 5a – From the collar and elbow clinch


figure 5b – Dunlap (left) drops down so his head is lower than his opponent’s head


figure 5c – He then raises up driving the top of his forehead up into the opponent’s chin


figure 6a – As a counter against the two-handed head clinch, Dunlap (left)


figure 6b – Allows himself to be pulled forward driving the upper part of his forehead into the hollow of his opponent’s cheek below the cheekbone


figure 7a – In a clinch, Dunlap (left) positions himself so his lead leg is located between the opponent’s legs


figure 7b – He then lifts his leg straight up so the instep of his foot is raised up between the opponent’s legs and into his groin


figure 8a – To protect his own groin, Dunlap (here on the right) stands in a relatively narrow stance with his hips turned slightly to the outside


figure 8b – When his opponent attempts to kick at the groin, Dunlap shifts his lead knee inward a small bit and the opponent cannot find space to slip a kick in between Dunlap’s legs


Use Your Head: Part 1

13 Oct

A recent issue of Black Belt Magazine contained a story I wrote on clinch fighting in Burmese martial arts. But due to space considerations, some of the text and most of the pictures had to be cut when it was printed. I thought it might be of interest to some to see the original story and all the accompanying pictures so I’m posting it here in two parts. This part contains the text and the first two sets of pictures. Part 2 will contain the rest of the pictures and should be up in the next week or so…

Use Your Head: Clinch Fighting in Burmese Martial Arts

      As anyone who has watched mixed martial arts can attest, an important – and sometimes overlooked – phase of a fight is the clinch. Frequently, in MMA contests, you will see two fighters locked tightly together, holding on to each other as they trade short strikes or look to execute a takedown from the clinch position.
      The prime influences of this modern MMA clinch game have been muay Thai, a style known for it’s use of knees and elbows in close, and Greco-Roman wrestling, known for it’s clinch positioning and upper body throws. But while highly effective, both of these sports – and modern MMA for that matter – have rules which prohibit the use of headbutts and groin strikes, two very dangerous weapons which may play a vital role in the clinch during a self-defense situation. Certain things encouraged by all three sports might, in fact, leave you more vulnerable to headbutts and groin strikes in the street.
      But there is one sport that does effectively address these concerns: lethwei, a Burmese form of bareknuckle kickboxing.
      Burma (now called Myanmar) sits at a cross roads in Southeast Asia, bordered by India to the west, China to the north and Thailand to the east. Home to various tribes with a history of internal warfare, the region became a breeding ground for effective – and highly brutal – martial arts which are sometimes known by the generic terms “thaing” or “bando.”
      “There are similarities between the martial arts of each region of the country because the various tribes were always fighting each other, so they learned from each other. But each tribal art will often have it’s own particular characteristics. For example, the Mon region is near Thailand and their fighters seem to use more kicks like they do in muay Thai,” said Phil Dunlap, who teaches an art called hkyen, which is native to the Kachin region of the country.
      Bordering on India, the Kachin martial arts appear to have a heavy influence from their neighbor to the West incorporating a good deal of grappling into their style, said Dunlap. Additionally, while the military junta that’s run Myanmar for 50 years has made an effort to standardize the rules of lethwei, in some cases limiting the use of groin strikes and other more dangerous techniques, areas like the Kachin have resisted this effort staying closer to the origins of the sport. Those origins, said Dunlap, may go back more than 1000 years to the Pyu Empire that once ruled parts of Burma.
      “They have reliefs painted on ancient temple walls that show people doing a form of Burmese boxing, so these arts have very deep roots,” he said.
      The ancient forms of thaing appear to have been primarily war arts incorporating the use of striking, grappling and weapons, a tradition styles like hkyen still maintain. Sporting aspects like lethwei and naban (a type of wrestling called gamu hkyen in Jinghpaw, the main language of the Kachin region), eventually came about to be performed at local festivals and as a way of safely practicing arts meant for the battlefield.
      But safety is a relative concept, particularly in the Kachin version of lethwei (known as htwi hkyen in the Kachin state). Besides allowing headbutts and groin strikes, standing submission holds like guillotine chokes are allowed as are any type of throw and even quickly stomping on a downed opponent’s head before the referee breaks the action. Under Kachin-style rules, if a fighter is knocked out, he is allowed a minute to recover and continue fighting. If he is knocked out a second time, he is allowed another minute. It is only on the third knockout that a fight is stopped.
      “The style was developed to prepare you for the battlefield,” said Dunlap, who lived and competed in the Kachin area for several years.
      Among the things that make lethwei technically different from a sport like muay Thai are the use of headbutts which change the spatial relation in a clinch, the use of groin strikes which change the leg and hip placement, the use of full body throws and the bareknuckle aspect of the sport. This last difference allows for certain striking techniques like “the door knocker”, which are not possible with protective gloves. The door knocker is done by using the hand in the same way you would rap your knuckles on a door when knocking. Done over the eye, it can cause cuts. It can, in some cases, even be done directly into the eye.
      When it comes to the use of headbutts and how they change the clinch in a fight, lethwei competitors make less use of the two handed head tie-up, known as “the plum” in muay Thai, often preferring to keep one arm free to defend against headbutts by holding off the opponent. Lethwei competitors, instead, will frequently make use of the collar and elbow tie-up commonly seen in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. But in the Lethwei version of the collar and elbow tie-up, a fighter will typically keep his head pressed in tightly against the side of the opponent’s head so as not to create space for the opponent to butt him.
      Such butting, as with any strike, is meant to be done with very specific parts of the body. The New Jersey-based Dunlap said that if you can imagine your head as a square block, you would look to butt primarily with the edges that run around the top side of the block. For strikes with the front of the head, he looks to hit with the top of the forehead, near the hair line.
      “You never want to hit with the forehead near the eyes because you can cut yourself and the blood will effect your vision,” he said.
      Strikes are also done with the upper side portions of the skull and even with the very top of the skull when looking to ram the top of your head straight into an opponent’s face. Dunlap said the best targets for such attacks are the hollow portions of the face, below the opponent’s cheekbones. You would never want to hit directly against the opponent’s skull since that could hurt you as much as it does them.
      There may still be some negative effect on you, even when you headbutt to a softer part of the opponent’s head. But Dunlap said the effects are generally no worse than getting hit with a good punch and will usually be much more severe for the opponent. He estimates that, in lethwei matches, when someone is caught flush with a headbutt, they are knocked down from the blow about 80% of the time, which should illustrate the potential power such a blow can generate and why it is so important to defend against them properly.
      Defending against groin strikes, too, requires some adjustment in the Kachin version of lethwei. The standard stance most MMA fighters use in a clinch, while effective for throwing powerful rear leg knee strikes or providing a stable base for defending takedowns, frequently has the legs spread apart a bit, making the groin more vulnerable. Lethwei fighters who compete with groin strikes tend to stand with their legs in a more narrow stance and their lead foot centered between their opponent’s legs. They will also turn their hips somewhat to the side. This makes it much more difficult for the opponent to slip a kick or knee up in between your legs and strike your groin. For offensive purposes, your weight can be shifted back and your lead leg kept lightly on the floor, almost like a karate cat stance. This allows you to quickly raise your own lead leg between the opponent’s legs and strike at his groin. Though this can be done as a knee lift into the groin, Dunlap also likes to lift the foot straight up into the groin striking with the top of the instep near the ankle. This is not done as a snapping kick, which would require chambering, but instead as a simple lifting motion where you raise your knee straight up directly in front of the opponent until your instep is lifted up into their groin.
      “I tell my students you may end up hitting with the ankle or the shin. But it doesn’t really matter,” said Dunlap. “As long as you’re catching him in the groin.”
      Though very technical in their own way, the Burmese systems, perhaps because of the realistic way they are practiced, seem to believe the most important thing is making a technique work, rather than making it look picture perfect. This can sometimes give the impression lethwei is a less technical style of fighting than other systems, as can its power oriented approach to striking.
      “Because it was a battlefield art and the idea was to try and take out the enemy right away, they don’t do things like throw quick jabs to set up a power punch,” said Dunlap. “Instead, lethwei fighters will throw a power jab, then a power punch, and maybe follow up with a headbutt. If they miss, this tends to make them look more awkward than other styles.”
      But looks can sometimes be deceiving. Certainly, for anyone seeking to add some self-defense wrinkles to their clinch game, these arts are well worth investigating.

PHOTOS (Courtesy of Michael Stewart, featuring Phil Dunlap and Pat Albani):

figure 1a – Dunlap (right) squares off with his opponent


figure 1b – He steps forward slapping the opponent’s hands down while leading with his head


figure 1c – Striking with the top of his forehead, near the hairline, to the opponent’s face


figure 2a – Against an opponent who attempts to clinch him behind the head with both hands


figure 2b – Dunlap places his right forearm across the front of the opponent’s neck to stop a headbutt


figure 2c – With his hand on the back of the opponent’s shoulder, he straightens his arm crossfacing the opponent to break his clinch.


figure 2d – He then rams his own head forward into the opponent’s face


An Interview With “Judo” Gene LeBell

11 Sep

Recently conducted a rather lengthy interview with legendary grappling master Gene LeBell for Fightline.com which I’m reposting in its entirety below:

“Judo” Gene LeBell is one of the true legends in the martial arts. Literally born into the fight game, his mother, Aileen Eaton, was the main promoter of boxing and wrestling in Los Angeles from the 1940s through the 1970s. LeBell grew up around the best wrestlers and boxers of his era, receiving his first lesson at age 6 from former world wrestling champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He eventually added judo to his repertoire, becoming a two-time national champion in the 1950s before going on to a career as a pro wrestler. He also engaged in what might be considered the first ever televised mixed martial arts contest in 1963, choking out boxer Milo Savage in a judo vs. boxing match. A movie stuntman for more than fifty years, he has possibly appeared on screen more than anyone in history. As a coach, he was worked with former UFC contenders Karo Parisyan and Manny Gamburyan and current women’s champion, Ronda Rousey. He recently sat down for a one on one interview about his career, MMA, Rousey and why he loves being a sadistic bastard.

MJ: So who were some of your main teachers and what can you tell us about them?

GL: There were a lot of them. Lou Thesz, Karl Gotch and Vic Christy all taught me a lot about grappling. When I was training, there were 8 or 10 real shooters (serious catch wrestlers) in the Los Angeles area and when someone wanted to get into that group, they’d beat the crap out of guy and if he came back they knew he was serious and he could work out with them. If he didn’t come back, he wasn’t good enough anyway. I started with these guys when I was a little kid. Christy was one of best of them, though you don’t hear too much about him. I learned a lot of finishing holds from him, arm locks, leg locks back locks, neck locks. From Thesz I learned how to hurt people. He had a little bit of a sadistic side. So did Gotch. Karl told me I’d never be a champion till I learned to be a sadistic bastard. And Larry Coughran was my first judo teacher. He had a judo school and I started there when I was 13. I also trained at the LA Athletic club. But it wasn’t the kind of competition judo you see today where they only allow you a few seconds on the ground.

MJ: You talk quite a bit about having a sadistic side as a fighter. Why is that so important?

GL: If you fight for a living you can’t give a damn about the opponent because they’re trying to take food out of your mouth and your kids’ mouths. Thesz told me life is grappling. You’re in competition with everybody. I tell my grandson if you get an A in school and someone else gets a D, he’s going to be a waiter and you’re going to own the restaurant. The trick is, just don’t let them know you’re competing against them.

MJ: You hear a lot among catch wrestling enthusiasts about Karl Gotch. Some of them say he was the best grappler ever.

GL: Well I won’t argue with them. He showed me a lot of stuff. I saw him get hold of Olympic wrestlers and just gobble them up with front facelocks, choke them out, or break an ankle. He said if a guy gets you in the guard position (what Gotch called foot and leg control) and you can’t break his leg, you should quit wrestling. That’s why I’ve always liked to work a lot of leg locks.

MJ: Then why is it we don’t see more leg locks in mixed martial arts competitions?

GL: Eventually we will see more of it. But really, you have to be able to do everything. When they started the UFC, that Gracie kid (Royce) was a great grappler but he eventually learned you have to work on other stuff like boxing and standing takedowns. When he went against Matt Hughes, Hughes hurt him with punches because he was a better boxer. I’m not knocking anybody – Gracie was the best of his time and Hughes was the best of his time. The same way Thesz and Gotch were the best of their times. But to me, if an Olympic champion was like an 8, Karl was a 10.

MJ: I saw in an interview, Gotch said when he worked with you, he worked on getting you to wrestle without the gi.

GL: It was a learning process for me. I started out doing wrestling but also did a lot of judo where you could choke a guy with your belt – which is technically illegal but who cares – or his collar and that’s a real advantage. So I ended up getting good with the gi and without. Now, in mixed martial arts, they say “rear naked choke.” I was the one who started calling it a rear naked choke in a judo book I wrote back in 1953 to explain the difference between using a gi and no gi, but no one remembers that. They used to just say “choke” before that.

MJ- You fought a boxer named Milo Savage in a judo vs. boxing match. How common were those kind of mixed bouts back then?

GL: Not very common. This was in 1963 and it was the first televised mixed bout ever to my knowledge. Milo was rated number 5 in the world as a boxer. He was really a great fighter. We tried to promote the fight in Los Angeles but the athletic commission wouldn’t allow it because they said it was a duel not a sporting event.

MJ: You trained in catch wrestling, judo and boxing. How common was cross training in different styles back then? Did you see many boxers that learned some wrestling or wrestlers learning some judo?

GL: When guys would get together, sometimes they would exchange information. A few other wrestlers tried judo but most judo guys couldn’t take the wrestling because they got slammed too hard. Someone would pick them up for a double leg, drive them into the ground and bust their shoulder. That was the way Gotch used to do it. I got kicked out of a lot of gyms because if I was at a judo school, I’d tackle them or slap them a little “accidentally.” Or in a boxing gym, if a guy started beating me too bad, I’d suplex him. The only guys really doing cross training back then were a few of the wrestlers. Now MMA has made it profitable to cross train. When you see a karate school nowadays, it says karate and MMA or you see a judo school that has a cage to train in. But who knows how good the teachers are. But my philosophy has always been it’s good to learn everything.

MJ: What was your secret for blending all those styles together?

GL: Everything I did was practical. You have to strip things down and get to the practical stuff.

MJ: How do you compare the level of fighters/martial artists in general from that era to this? Are they better all around fighters nowadays?

GL: There are more good fighters now because of MMA. Also, you never heard of women getting tough before but now there are a lot of really good women who can beat the crap out of some of the men.

MJ: What would you say today’s fighters could learn from the way the old-timers trained?

GL: How to be a sadistic bastard and also how to practice things over and over. Look around at the gym and out of 30 people maybe there are 3 or 4 that are doing a technique over and over. When I teach a group of students, as soon as they practice one hold, most are looking to learn a new one. People think they can take a pill and become a champion. But the harder you work, the luckier you get. You have to work a move hundreds or thousands of times. People don’t do that anymore. When I trained, we’d work out for 6 hours straight, my partner and I would do a hold 100 times back and forth. We’d also work a lot blindfolded so we’d learn to go by feel and know what part of the body we’re going to squash.

MJ: What did you think of the UFC when it first came along?

GL: I loved it. It gave a combination of all the martial arts which is what I always liked to do. If I get you in a leg lock, it’s not legal in judo but it works so who cares? I didn’t like it when they brought more rules in – if I can use your hair or your jamoke as a handle, hey it may not be acceptable but it works – but overall the rules against hitting to the groin or eyes have been a good thing for the sport.

MJ: What’s your opinion of how it’s changed?

GL: There’s more variety now. I think it’s changed for the good. Dana White has really done a great job. He is a hero of mine because he did something I couldn’t do, he made MMA fighting profitable. And a lot of fighters are now earning enough money where they can make a living, buy a house, buy a car because of him.

MJ: It sounds like you’re kissing up to Dana?

GL: Absolutely.

MJ: Who are the best MMA fighters you’ve seen and what do you like about them?

GL: Well of course my favorite is Ronda (Rousey).And I liked Randy Couture because he was a champion wrestler but got to where he could fight on his feet quiet well also. “Bones” Jones is great. He’s very talented. He can punch, kick, wrestle. He does it all. But there are a lot of good fighters, too many to name.

MJ: A lot of people feel Jon Jones is unbeatable right now. How long do you think he can last as champion? Five years? Ten years?

GL: I don’t see anyone being champion for 10 years. There’s always some guy, maybe not as good as you, but he has a good night and you have a bad night and he puts you in retirement.

MJ: You judge MMA matches in California. What do you think of the quality of officiating throughout the sport?

GL: I’ve been a fighter, a referee and a judge but I’m not in charge of hiring officials, it’s not my business. But I think there are a lot of people around the country who shouldn’t be working as officials. You get people who are just fans but they know someone in power and become judges.

MJ: What can be done to improve MMA officiating?

GL: Well, the new head of the California Athletic Commission, Andy Foster, is taking the right steps. He’s the best commissioner I’ve ever seen. In other places people might get their job because they know someone but not with Foster. And a lot of people that used to officiate in California aren’t working anymore because he wants the best. He’s made a lot of the officials here go to John McCarthy, who’s as good a ref as there is, and sign up for his course and they’ve improved. They have to actually learn the sport. A lot of judges maybe have just done boxing or wrestling or muay thai but they don’t know about the other stuff. They don’t really know how much pressure it is on a neck crank or how much a jab can hurt you. If they know some of this stuff, it will make them better officials.

MJ: Let’s talk about Ronda Rousey. Did you coach her mother?

GL: I never coached her mother but was close to her. We’d always see each other at different tournaments and became good friends. Ann Maria was a great champion. She beat everyone back then. She still teaches as a guest instructor at our school occasionally.

MJ: Did you work with Ronda when she was younger?

GL: I worked with her a little bit when she was small. Her mother would come to work out sometimes and Ronda would be there but she was little so it was more like playing games. Then, after she won the bronze medal in the Olympics, I told her she’d win a gold in the next one but she said there’s no money in it. So I introduced her to Darin Harvey, a fight manager who trained with us at my student Gokor’s school (Hayastan MMA), and Darin became her manager.

MJ: What did you tell her about going into MMA?

GL: I just told her three words: “Break an arm.” She’s had 10 matches – 3 amateur and 7 pro – all ended in the first round with an armbar. And she’s busted a few. She has a nice sadistic attitude which is good.

MJ: She sometimes gets criticized for her attitude in interviews but you say she’s a very different person in private.

GL: In pro wrestling, they call the bad guy “a heel” but he’s the one people come to see. Ronda is a heel sometimes, she’ll insult opponents in interviews, so fans don’t always know how nice she really is. But outside the cage she’s a sweetheart.

MJ: What are her strengths and what does she still need to work on?

GL: She does everything. Her boxing is very good now, her wrestling has always been very good. Her judo is good. But now there are a lot of other women who are also very good. Two people will race and one will win by a yard every time. They just have a will to win and they work harder. That’s her big strength.

MJ: What do you think of her upcoming fight with Miesha Tate?

GL: I Just hope it draws money. I want everyone to make money win or lose. It will be tough. This gal, Miesha Tate, is very good.

MJ: Ronda beat her pretty convincingly the first time.

GL: The gal is tough though, she didn’t want to give up when Ronda armbarred her. Miesha said “I’m double jointed.” Well now she’s triple jointed. Ronda is a little sadistic in the cage. She had one match where the other girl was tapping and the referee didn’t stop it. So Ronda rolled her over and broke her arm, which is the right thing to do. There are only two people who can stop a fight, the doctor and the referee. And if the referee doesn’t know what they’re doing, there’s trouble.

MJ: We often see you in Ronda’s corner for fights. What advice do you give her?

GL: I’m in her corner but what I say is a secret. Look, now that she’s a champion, everyone says “I taught her this and I taught her that.” Well her mother taught her that armbar when she was 6. I’m not taking credit for her work, she trains with a lot of good teachers. Let everyone else say it’s them. Meanwhile, Ronda insists I’m in her corner and there’s a reason for it.

MJ: She’s recently begun doing movies. As someone who’s worked in a lot of films, do you think she’ll excel at it?

GL: She’s doing The Expendables 3 and some other stuff. It takes years to be a good actor but her interviews on camera are always great and she’s got a lot of personality.

MJ: Are you worried it will interfere with her training? In general, is it a good idea for fighters to try an acting career while they’re still in the middle of their fight careers?

GL: I think everyone should have five fingers. If three of them get shot off, you still can still pick up your food with the other two. If your MMA or boxing goes down drain, you better have something to keep the wolf away from the door. Ronda was a bartender before she became a successful fighter. What are you going to do, go back to bartending? If she can make it as an actress that’s a good career to have.

MJ: So what’s in the future for Gene LeBell?

GL: I just became partners with Trebla Sports to make a line of martial arts and MMA gear I’m endorsing that includes pads, gis, all sorts of stuff. But I’m 81 years old, I just want to retire and race motorcycles. Motorcycles are like sex to me and I’m not too old for sex.

For more information on Gene LeBell, visit his website, genelebell.com and to order his line of martial arts equipment, visit treblasports.com

The Most Dangerous Profession

22 Aug

Haven’t updated this site in a while so thought I’d repost a column I recently contributed to the Indies Unlimited website on the business of writing…

The Most Dangerous Profession

      Recently the good folks who run the Indies Unlimited website asked me to start contributing a monthly column on the writing profession. They suggested I talk about my experiences and feelings on being a writer. I mentioned that might cause severe depression leading to mass suicide among the site’s followers. But the webmasters don’t care whether you live or die, so here we are.
      Like many people who make their living as writers, I have a love/hate relationship with the craft. While you sometimes love the feeling of turning out a piece of finely phrased prose, unless you are one of the tiny handful of writers who are vastly successful, you pretty much hate everything else about the business. You don’t make much money, frequently have to write on topics that don’t interest you to make any money at all, often have to deal with editors who either don’t have the time or the interest to give your story the attention you feel it deserves, suffer bouts of writer’s block, feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, jealousy, and have to deal with massive amounts of rejection. And that’s all on a good day.
      It’s the last of those, the rejection, that is often the most daunting aspect of the writing business. Everyone in the field, from best-selling authors to people writing blurbs for the local newspaper, has had to suffer through this miserable aspect of the profession. And no matter how much you believe in your work, no matter how confident you are in your own abilities, it hurts. Because the stuff you write, especially the more personal stuff, is a part of you, a reflection of you. So cache it any way you want but a rejection of your writing always feels very personal, like a rejection of you as an individual.
      Then why write? There are a lot of answers to that. The quick, flip one is “I can’t do anything else.” A slightly more thoughtful answer has been espoused by author Richard Bach, who said that he doesn’t like to write, it’s just something he’s compelled to do.
      There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. A lot of people feel compelled to get their thoughts down on paper (or computer screen). Some people even enjoy the process. But it’s when you try to make a living out of this writing compulsion that things start to get hairy for you and you run into that long list of negatives I highlighted above.
      So am I trying to discourage people from becoming professional writers? Not exactly (unless you stink, then you probably shouldn’t). But I am trying to be honest about it.
      As a young man, my father was a drummer. He was moderately successful, even recording a few minor albums with his band before giving it up to actually make money at something. Years later, an older cousin of mine became fascinated with drumming, himself. He wanted nothing more than to become a professional drummer. My father was asked to sit down with him and explain the difficulties of such a career choice. As the story was related to me, he took my cousin aside and told him, “Look, being a professional musician is one of the toughest things you can do. You’ll often be on the road, away from your family, living out of cheap hotel rooms. You won’t make much money, you’ll deal with constant rejection. It’s a miserable life. Now if you can believe everything I’m telling you is the truth and you still want to do it, then go ahead. Otherwise, don’t bother.”
      For anyone seriously considering becoming professional writers, I cannot offer any better advice.

Free Book Anthology

2 Aug

Almost forgot to get this up but my colleagues at Indiesunlimted.com have put out an anthology of various authors who contribute to their website, filled with first chapters from their independently published novels. It includes the first few pages of my own book, Pascal’s Wager and is available for free today, Friday, August 2 at:

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00E8RWYXW/
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00E8RWYXW/

How to Kill a Sport

25 Jun

      After attending Saturday night’s Glory 9 New York kickboxing event, which saw Tyrone Spong “defeat” Danyo Ilunga, I have to say it seems Glory is unfortunately on their way to alienating the American public and removing the last vestige of kickboxing interest to be found in the U.S.
      Following on the heels of a fairly exciting developmental tournament held in New York a couple of months ago, Glory, the world’s biggest kickboxing promotion, appeared to be looking to expand their presence here by holding a tournament for the world’s best light heavyweight (209 pound limit) fighters. But despite getting televised on the CBS Sports Network, Glory never seemed to put on the kind of media blitz one would have expected from a major sports outfit trying to break into the American market. There was a notable lack of buzz surrounding the event, held at the Hammerstein Ballroom, a relatively small venue that seats only about 1500.
      The irony of the location, right across the street from the venerable 20,000 seat Madison Square Garden arena, was also noticeable. If this were, say, Japan, it’s likely the Garden would have been the site where the tournament was held and it might well have sold out. As it was, Glory was fortunate to team with New York-promoter Lou Neglia whose use of local fighters on the undercard seemed to draw most of the fans in attendance. A strictly Glory-based show might have left the Hammerstein more than half empty. Even so, the crowd seemed to thin out a little as the tournament progressed, clearly indicating local fans are more interested in seeing their buddies plod through a preliminary bout than viewing the best professional kickboxers in the world go at it.
      Though there was some good action in the “superfights,” particularly heavyweight Daniel Ghita’s sensational one punch knockout of Brice Guidon, the tournament itself proved highly disappointing. Controversy sprang up in the first round when Australian Steve McKinnon dropped a split decision to Filip Verlinden. McKinnon seemed to clearly dominate the last two rounds of the three-round match, yet one judge scored the fight 29-28 for Verlinden and a second judge somehow scored all three rounds for Verlinden provoking the crowd to erupt with boos. (Though I have a slight acquaintance with McKinnon’s father, and thus wanted to see him win, I was not alone in scoring the fight for McKinnon as an informal poll of press row had most reporters giving the fight to the Aussie as well).
      Following the loss, McKinnon’s brother and cornerman, Stuart McKinnon, said he felt the tournament had been set up by Glory for fan favorite Spong to win. Spong, now part of the Blackzilian MMA team, and cornered by former UFC champion Rashad Evans, besides being the best known and most marketable fighter in the tournament, has past ties to the Glory organization. But the assertions of the McKinnon camp could have been chalked up to sour grapes if not for the result of the finals.
      Spong, after winning his first fight over Michael Duut by one round knockout, and his second fight over a depleted Verlinden by decision, faced off with Ilunga for the championship. These were the two odds on favorites of the tournament and should have provided an exciting conclusion to the evening. But instead, when Ilunga gave a slight stumble from Spong’s first punch and quickly covered up, referee Mufadel Elghazaoui inexplicably jumped in and stopped the fight after just 16 seconds. At first, no one was sure what the referee was doing but as it became apparent he was halting the bout and awarding it to Spong, the audience exploded in a chorus of jeers with immediate accusations of “fix” being hurled about. Ilunga, a tough fighter with a good chin, seemed to have trouble with his balance all evening stumbling awkwardly in his earlier fights several times but continually walking through his opponents’ best shots to wear them down. Thus, one moment of being off balance in the opening seconds of a championship fight certainly should not have been enough for the referee to stop the action. While it’s impossible to say if there was any malicious intent on Elghazaoui’s part, if nothing else it was a clear case of total incompetence at the worst possible moment.
      If Glory was looking to sabotage their chances of expanding into the American market and reviving a glimmer of interest in kickboxing here, they succeeded. It’s hard to believe anyone in attendance will be paying to see a repeat performance of another Glory tournament. Which is too bad, since many of the world’s top kickboxers now fight for the organization and the fights – when allowed to continue past 16 seconds – are often entertaining.

Get a Grip

11 Jun

      Surely one of the more esoteric debates within the martial arts world is the argument over how one should hold a knife in combat. The two basic positions under consideration are: the forward grip, in which one would hold the knife with the tip facing forward or upward, as if it were a sword or a hammer (the difference would be in a slight adjusting of the fingers and the angle of the wrist but both are still essentially a “forward” grip); and the reverse, or ice pick grip, in which the tip of the knife points downward (think Norman Bates in the movie Psycho) with the cutting edge of the blade either facing back toward you or outward toward the opponent.
      Both types of grip have their supporters with numerous experts arguing vehemently that one is far superior to the other, though the majority of these “experts” have likely never cut anyone with a knife using either grip. There are certain styles of knife fighting that make use solely of the forward grip and others that make use only of the reverse grip, while a few styles make use of both grips. My own opinion (not at all an expert one since I’ve never actually stuck a knife in anyone either) is that both grips have their advantages and disadvantages and one or the other may be better under certain specific circumstances.
      As for the forward grip, its main advantage is the extra reach you have with the knife when it’s held this way. Depending on the length of the knife, you may get an extra six inches or more of reach when holding a knife in the forward grip as opposed to the reverse grip. Obviously, this extra reach can come in handy, particularly if you and an opponent with a shorter knife (or an opponent holding his knife in the reverse grip) were to stab at each other simultaneously. Other advantages for this grip are an increased dexterity and superior ability to cut and slash with the edge of the blade. Additionally, upward thrusts with the knife are obviously far easier when it’s held in a forward grip than a reverse grip. Though I won’t get into the specific targets on the human body one should aim for (you kids will have to learn that out on the streets like everyone else) suffice to say a couple of the more vital ones require an upward thrust and unless you were going to do some rather odd maneuvering with your arm, a forward grip is simply easier to accomplish this with. While all that may seem to recommend the forward grip over the reverse grip, the latter does have one strong advantage, namely its stabbing power.
      There are obviously two main ways one does damage with a knife: stabbing with the tip, or cutting and slashing with the edge of the blade. Of these two methods, stabbing is believed to be a superior method for doing major damage to an opponent (surgeons studying the results of old sword duels in Europe generally found the thrust to be more lethal than cuts with the edge of a blade). In stabbing someone with the knife in a forward grip, you simply may not have the power to plunge the blade deep enough into an opponent’s body to hit a vital target. But when stabbing – usually straight downward or on a downward diagonal – with the knife in a reverse grip, you will have more force in your thrust and a better ability to drive the blade deeper into your target (I’m not recommending anyone go out and do this, I’m simply going over the technical pros and cons of it). Given that stabs are usually more effective than cuts with the edge of the blade and stabbing with the knife in a reverse grip is usually more powerful than stabbing with it in the forward grip, one might then assume that the reverse grip is, in fact, the superior method for holding a knife in combat. But that assumption may also be wrong.
      As I said above, different grips may be superior under different circumstances. The two main circumstances I’m referring to are the length of the blade you’re using and your specific intentions in using the knife.
      Though many instructors who teach knife fighting techniques teach cuts with the edge of the blade as much or more than stabs with the tip of the knife, what a lot of these instructors fail to understand is that these techniques were originally designed for use with a larger blade like a sword or a machete. But if the blade of your knife is much under ten inches or so, cuts with the edge just may not be fully effective in doing severe damage to an opponent, particularly if he’s wearing some heavy clothing. The blade may not have enough weight behind it to cut deep enough and forcefully enough to stop an attacker. Given that most of the knives people commonly have available are under ten inches, it would seem cuts with the edge of anything short of a Bowie knife may be less practical and one should instead consider holding most of these smaller knives in a reverse grip. However, this advice may not hold if the blade you’re using is less than about four inches. The reason is that many of the vital areas you’d look to attack are buried somewhat deeply in the body, often at least three inches below the surface. Given that you can’t necessarily count on driving a knife all the way up to its hilt – in other words, driving a three-and-a-half inch knife a full three-and-a-half inches into an opponent – a smaller knife may not be as effective in stabbing most of these areas regardless of the grip you’re using. In this case, you might have to make use of stabbing at the few vital targets that are closer to the surface, which can probably be done as effectively with the forward grip as with the reverse grip.
      The other circumstance that will effect what grip you use with a knife is just what your specific intention is when using the knife. While most people would think your intention when using a knife is pretty clear – to stick your opponent – the situation you find yourself in can effect your exact intentions with the knife. For example, if you are merely looking to escape from a group of assailants, you don’t necessarily have to kill them all (besides the fact this may be difficult to accomplish, it may also land you in a great deal of legal trouble unless you can clearly prove your life was in direct jeopardy). Simply jabbing and slashing at an opponent with your knife may be enough to make him keep back and give you an opportunity to flee (keep in mind, even using a knife in this manner, when you are the victim of an attack, can cause legal problems for you if the opponent is unarmed unless, again, you can show your life was in imminent danger). The forward grip, due to its extra reach and dexterity, would likely be more effective for this. But if you were ever in a circumstance where you needed to fully and quickly dispatch an opponent with a knife, such as a soldier in a battlefield melee who’s armed only with his combat knife, the reverse grip may be the superior method for delivering one quick, solid finishing strike with a blade.
      One other circumstance, one that may trump all other considerations, is just how you are restricted in grabbing hold of your knife when you first have to grip it. For example, many folding knives come with clips on them that allow them to attach to the inside of a pocket or waistband from which they can be quickly drawn. But the position the hand will be in when it draws these knives will usually allow only for a quick opening and deployment of the knife in a forward grip. If you are attempting to draw a folding knife while under attack (a very difficult prospect to begin with and one not easily accomplished) trying to then somehow turn the knife so you are gripping it in a reverse grip may be all but impossible given that you may not have the time. And even if you do have a split second to try and reverse the grip of the knife in the middle of a combat situation, you may be so nervous and adrenalized, you risk fumbling the knife and dropping it.
      Of course, a far simpler answer over which grip to use is simply to avoid fighting with a knife whenever possible. Then the grip doesn’t matter so much.

Why I Hate the Olympics

12 May

      Anyone who watched the preliminaries for UFC 159 on the FX channel recently may have noticed the discussion of wrestling being dropped from the Olympic games as of 2020. Now as should have been made clear by some of my previous posts, I am not exactly the world’s biggest fan of the Olympic movement. The decision made several months ago by a secret ballot of the International Olympic Committee to eliminate wrestling gave me just one more reason to despise the international orgy of commercialism, jingoism and ongoing corruption that is the Olympics.
      Forget the fact wrestling is one of the few true Olympic sports, one that was actually included in the original Olympics. Forget that it is, arguably, the world’s oldest sport with mentions made in the old testament of the Bible and other ancient texts dating back thousands of years to the dawn of civilization. Forget that it is done by millions of people in virtually every country on earth, and ask yourself is it really less deserving of inclusion in the world’s largest athletic event than, say… synchronized diving? Or ping-pong? Or the 900 different events they have for swimming? I’m not criticizing these other sports (well actually I am criticizing synchronized diving) but surely there are a few current Olympic events just a little less deserving of inclusion based on both history and number of participants worldwide, than wrestling. Modern pentathlon, a strange mix of running, swimming, shooting, fencing and riding a horse (which I actually do sort of like) had participants from 26 countries in the last Olympics while 71 countries sent wrestlers.
      But this thorough hypocrisy should not come as a complete shock to the wrestling community or the sporting community as a whole. For years, I’ve been told privately by elite wrestlers, as well as top coaches from other unpopular Olympic sports like weightlifting, that the IOC has long been marginalizing these events with an ultimate eye toward completely eliminating them. The reason? They don’t get as many advertising dollars as do other, more telegenic or high brow, Olympic sports like beach volleyball, gymnastics or sailing. Those events either appeal more to a female viewing audience on TV – men, the networks believe, will watch the Olympics no matter what is being shown while women will only watch events that appeal to them – or have better potential for marketing (there are a lot of people who buy bicycles, thus the Olympics continue to hold drug-scandal plagued cycling events while eliminating wrestling since there’s not much money in selling wrestling mats).
      The fact this greed-based decision was made entirely in secret makes the process even more distasteful. Say what you want about American democracy but there is some small degree of transparency and accountability, at least when Congress or the Supreme Court cast their votes on matters. International quasi-governmental organizations like the IOC follow no such standards. They are run by a group of faceless bureaucrats, many of whom come from some of the most corrupt places on earth (and I don’t mean Chicago) where a bit of bakshish to get things done is the normal means of doing business. These are just some of the many reasons why I HATE the Olympics.
      While the Olympic ideal of young people gathering in a peaceful, non-partisan celebration of sportsmanship sounds nice, it has never been anything more than a fantasy ever since the first modern Olympic games were held more than a hundred years ago. They have always been a venue for cheating, crass (and sometimes violent) political displays, and general pettiness. So perhaps it’s time all sports from the United States (and every other rational country) woke up and pulled back from the Olympic movement, at least in it’s current form. All of those sports now have a yearly world championship anyway where their best athletes can compete against each other. So the need for an Olympics is more symbolic than real nowadays.
      Maybe the Olympics doesn’t need wrestling anymore but wrestling should finally realize, they don’t need the Olympics. And neither does anyone else.

New Links

16 Apr

Added a few more links down at the lower right of the screen that some may find good resources for various aspects of the martial arts:

For general martial arts information, you can go to the website of the magazine I regularly write for, Black Belt.

For those interested in kickboxing/muay Thai, check out the website for Muay Thaimes Magazine (have to love their motto “Standup’s most sublime savagery”)

For the latest information on mixed martial arts, my colleague Jim Genia has taken over as editor at Fightline.com

Those with a more traditional bent might want to check out Meik and Diane Skoss’s Koryu.com, probably the internet’s best resource for information on classical Japanese martial arts.

Meanwhile, people seeking information on traditional western arts, specifically classical sword techniques, should take a look at the Martinez Academy of Arms website.

Anyone interested in Filipino martial arts, specifically the pekiti tirsia system, might want to visit Bill McGrath’s pekiti.com

For general information on practical self-defense strategies, visit Marc MacYoung’s No Nonsense Self Defense.

And for some fascinating and unique information on all manner of martial arts, check out Stickgrappler’s Sojourn of Septillion Steps.

Bang Bang

23 Mar

      Though, in the past, I’ve opined on my dislike of tournament formats when it comes to professional combat sports, occasionally such things have a way of working out just right, as they did Friday night for Francois “Bang Bang” Ambang. Ambang won the Road to Glory 170 pound kickboxing tournament at promoter Lou Neglia’s Combat at the Capitale show in New York via a furious second round knockout of Brett Hlavacek in the finals of an eight man single elimination event.
      The two best fighters in the field, Ambang and Hlavacek met in the finals equally rested – or equally exhausted if you like – after both going the full three rounds in their two semi-final match-ups. But Ambang showed himself to be a cut above everyone else. After displaying some vicious body punching in his opening round match-up, and some tough clinch work in his semi-final bout, the muscular Ambang, originally from Cameroon, used devastating leg kicks to soften up Hlavacek. He then hurt him with a kick to the body and opened up with a last violent flurry of punches forcing the referee to step in and stop the fight at 2:53 of the second round.
      Glory, the would-be successor to K-1 as the biggest kickboxing promotion in the world, was using the event to find and groom upcoming talent from the U.S. to step up onto the world stage. But what made the tournament special was that it wasn’t just the best fighter who won, it was that the most deserving guy won.
      Ambang, 26, grew up in the impoverished country of Cameroon starting as a fighter at age fifteen and competing in both boxing and kickboxing. It was while visiting the United States as an amateur boxer five years ago, he saw an opportunity to better his (and his family’s) life by staying here.
      “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he said of leaving his two children and the rest of his family behind in Cameroon.
      Speaking no English, Ambang worked full-time to support himself at various jobs like delivery man while attempting to carry on careers in pro boxing, professional kickboxing and mixed martial arts, all with the goal of being able to build his family a house back in Cameroon.
      Back there, he said he would usually earn $5 for a fight. The most he ever made fighting in Cameroon was $20 for making it to the finals of a 16 man tournament. Friday night, he made $20,000 for his tournament win in the Road to Glory. He said his goal now is to bring his children over here to be with him.
      The right guy won the tournament for a change.

A Couple of Tough Dames

9 Mar

      The week before last I watched a couple of really tough dames throw down. No, I’m not talking about the Ronda Rousey – Liz Carmouche fight. Instead, on the same evening those women headlined UFC 157, I drove up to Connecticut to watch my friend Jody-Lynn Reicher take on Rachel Campbell at an American Kickboxing Federation event.
      Campbell’s opponent for a boxing match had dropped out just five days beforehand so when promoter John Carlo called Reicher’s trainer, Phil Dunlap, and asked if he had any woman who’d be interested in fighting a “hands only” exhibition bout, Reicher jumped at the chance. The fact that she is a mixed martial artist who had never done pure boxing, even in the gym, was no impediment for her. Nor was the fact she’s a 50-year-old mother of two who weighs all of 105 pounds soaking wet, while Campbell has been training exclusively in boxing for six years and weighs 122 pounds, a hindrance.
      Dunlap, who’s trained everyone from pro MMA fighters to navy SEALS, describes Reicher as the toughest person he has ever worked with. That’s not just hyperbole. Reicher joined the Marines at 18 and when she got out of the service, began running marathons. But since that wasn’t enough of a challenge, she started participating in ultra-marathons setting various records in grueling races of 100 miles or more. But after suffering a criminal attack during a training run several years ago, she showed up at Dunlap’s MMA gym looking for self-defense training. Eventually, at age 47, she decided she wanted to compete and, perhaps, even turn professional as an MMA fighter. But since amateur women’s MMA fights at her weight have often been tough to find, she decided to step into the ring with Campbell just to stay sharp.
      I’d never seen her fight live before but one thing I could clearly see upon watching her mix it up with Campbell was that Dunlap had not lied about her being his toughest fighter. Despite giving up a considerable amount of size, she never took a step backwards through the entire three round match constantly pressuring her opponent. For her part, Campbell, who only had one prior fight on her record, boxed well using good movement and a strong jab. And when Reicher cornered her and turned the fight into a brawl, Campbell showed she was equally tough, hanging in the pocket without flinching and firing off hard shots.
      Since it was an exhibition there was no judges’ decision at the end but that would have been superfluous anyway.
      Sports, nowadays, especially combat sports, are often about some combination of money and ego. But watching an event like this one, while it wasn’t necessarily contested with a high level of expertise or in front of a massive audience, reminded me of why I’ve always had a passion for sports, not just combat sports but all sports. Here were two women, ages 38 and 50, literally pouring out everything they had over three rounds for no other reason than they loved what they were doing. With no money or fame on the line, with not even an official W at the end of it all, still both women couldn’t have been happier with the result. There was no posturing or trash talking before the fight and certainly none afterwards. Campbell was not just appreciative of Reicher’s performance but truly grateful to her for stepping in at the last moment and giving her a chance to compete, even expressing her thanks to Reicher for pushing her to fight so hard. If I hadn’t been friends with Jody, I could just as easily have rooted for Rachel, a computer programmer who seemed sincerely polite and enthusiastic.
      In the future, when I’m feeling a little jaded and discouraged by the sports world, I’ll remember to look back at this fight. It will remind me there continue to be a few athletes out there who can conduct themselves with class and grace outside the ring (and still fight like a couple of damn tough dames inside it).

Breaking News: UFC and Bellator Seek MMA Sanctioning Options in New York

20 Feb

      Last week, when the New York State Attorney General’s office apparently allowed for the possibility of professional mixed martial arts events in New York State – where they are currently illegal – if promoters went through certain, approved third party sanctioning organizations, there was a concern among some this could turn New York into the wild west of MMA with various promoter’s staging events under a variety of different regulating authorities. Now it seems as if the land rush to acquire approved sanctioning has begun.
      Sources say the UFC has already been in contact with the World Kickboxing Association over the possibility of sanctioning future events in New York. The WKA, which is entered in New York State’s approved list of third party sanctioning bodies under their old name of the “World Karate Association” has been the prime, and virtually the only, active sanctioning body for professional kickboxing in New York State for the past several years. The organization, which sanctions kickboxing events around the world, has also sanctioned mixed martial arts matches in other states in the past. Calls to the offices of WKA U.S. representative Brian Crenshaw and UFC vice president Marc Ratner for comment were not returned. (*February 21 Update: Reached by telephone, UFC VP Mark Ratner confirms the organization has been in touch with the WKA but said the UFC still remains very hopeful that New York State will pass legislation legalizing MMA and allowing for its direct regulation by the state athletic commission.)
      Other sources also say that Bellator has been in touch with the Professional Karate Association, another sanctioning body on the list of approved martial arts organizations. Bellator had no comment but PKA head Joe Corley said he has been contacted by mixed martial arts groups interested in having his organization sanction their events in New York though he would not say which ones.
      “We have been approached to sanction events but I can’t say who. But news will be imminent at some point,” said Corley.
      The PKA is the first organization to promote and sanction the sport of kickboxing in the United States dating back to the 1970s, when it regularly appeared on network television and was then known as “full contact karate.” But in recent years, the organization has slipped into near dormancy. Corley said they have sanctioned kickboxing matches as recently as last year but the group has never sanctioned MMA before.
      The mysterious “approved list” of martial arts organizations who hold the exclusive right to sanction and regulate martial arts events in New York State dates back to 1997 when the current law prohibiting professional MMA was enacted. The organizations were supposed to regulate all martial arts besides MMA. But how and why these particular organizations were chosen remains a mystery as most of the key figures from the athletic commission during this time, including then state athletic commissioner (and former heavyweight boxing champion) Floyd Patterson are now deceased. The list appears to have been compiled in such a haphazard manner that several of the organizations have their names listed incorrectly while others were not even aware they were on the list to begin with.
      The name “Karate International” appears on the list, though, in all likelihood, the intended group was the “Karate International Council of Kickboxing” a kickboxing organization which has since changed its name to KICK International. When contacted, KICK executive director Frank Babcock said he could not be certain his organization was the Karate International mentioned on the approved list but did confirm his group has sanctioned kickboxing events in New York in the past, though not in recent years. Babcock, whose group does sanction amateur MMA said he did not have interest in sanctioning professional MMA in New York, though if he was approached by a promoter, he would bring the offer to his board of directors.
      While the judo and taekwondo organizations who appear on the approved sanctioning body list also do not seem to have any interest in sanctioning MMA in New York, at least some of the karate organizations are open to the idea.
      The list mentions an “International Kenpo Association” which is almost certainly the International Kenpo Karate Association, a conglomeration of affiliated schools who all practice the same brand of traditional kenpo karate. Gilbert Velez, head instructor of the IKKA said his group has only sanctioned amateur events and has never sanctioned any MMA event but he would be open to considering sanctioning MMA in New York if asked.
      Russell Palanzo, director of the Worldwide Kenpo Karate Association, another karate organization which seems to appear on the list as the “World Wide Kenpo Association” also expressed ignorance of how his organization might have gotten on the list, though he too said they would be willing to sanction MMA in New York.
      While the UFC and Bellator will both presumably maintain their already high standards for regulating the sport if they come to New York, it’s not certain that other promoters – and the sanctioning bodies they might employ – would keep such high standards, especially pertaining to fighter safety.
      By opening the door to third party sanctioning bodies (and having originally compiled such a vague and ill-conceived list, then failing to keep it updated) New York State now seems to have created a free-for-all situation in terms of regulating MMA with no immediate resolution in sight if a new law is not passed regarding MMA regulation this year.

Additional reporting for this story done by Jim Genia of Fightline.com

Breaking News: Pro MMA May Be Coming to New York and Sooner Than You Think (Like in the Month of May)

18 Feb

      From the “this just in” department: New York-based promoter Lou Neglia said he will be the first person to openly promote professional mixed martial arts in New York staging a show in May, probably in Manhattan.
      For those of you who don’t follow such things, you may not be fully aware of the long saga regarding MMA legalization in New York State. Where virtually every other state now has legal MMA, the sport was made illegal in New York 15 years ago and is still, theoretically, banned there. Zuffa, parent company of the UFC, filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2011 to force the state to allow MMA. Several months ago, representatives of the state attorney general’s office admitted in court that while professional MMA was illegal, the state athletic commission had no jurisdiction over amateur MMA. This led to a spate of amateur shows being held in New York recently.
      The Elite Cage Challenge held an amateur show in November in Yonkers, NY just a mile from the New York City limits. Then in January, Aggressive Combat Sports, a major promoter of amateur kickboxing and sport jiu-jitsu events in the region, held the first legal, amateur MMA event in New York City in more than a decade. Finally, this past weekend, the MMA World Expo, a trade show for the MMA industry, held public amateur matches at the Javits Convention Center in the heart of Manhattan.
      This comes on the heels of last week’s stunning about face by the NY attorney general’s office. Fellow MMA journalist Jim Genia reported that during court proceedings involving the UFC lawsuit a lawyer from the attorney general’s office admitted professional MMA might be legal in NY if it was sanctioned by an approved third party organization. The state athletic commission apparently has a list of 12 approved martial arts sanctioning bodies which oversee various sports from judo to taekwondo to kickboxing. Though the list is obscure and out of date with some of the organizations no longer existing and others having their names written into the law incorrectly, at least one, the World Karate Association (now called the World Kickboxing Association) does still exist and has sanctioned MMA in the past. The UFC lawyers said they’d be willing to drop their lawsuit and accept this end run around the current law. The judge ordered the two parties into mediation on March 8 to decide if a deal can be worked out under these guidelines. While the state might still back out of this deal, it seems they have opened the door for promoters to test the legality of promoting professional MMA in New York.
      And that is just what promoters are going to do.
      Neglia, a popular local promoter who has held professional kickboxing matches in New York for years and pro MMA in New Jersey, now says he is determined to be the first one to promote professional MMA in his home state of New York.
      “It’s ridiculous I have to take my business across the river to New Jersey and can’t promote in my home state. I am now going to promote professional MMA in New York in May,” said Neglia, who added he will work with the WKA for sanctioning approval. “I am not defying the law, I am just following the law as it is written. If they want to shut me down, let them see if they can interpret the law any other way than as it is written but I am going ahead and promoting these matches.”
      Stay tuned.

Do, Jutsu, and Invented History in Japanese Martial Arts

9 Feb

On a discussion forum, I recently tried to clarify some common misunderstandings people have about traditional Japanese martial arts, particularly the difference between older arts – which are often classified with the “jutsu” suffix, i.e. ju-jutsu, kenjutsu, etc. – and more modern arts classified with the “do” suffix such as judo, kendo or karate-do. I thought some might find the information of value (plus I was just too lazy to come up with something original for this blog post). So I’m reposting an edited version here for those who take an interest in martial arts history…

      The old “do”/”jutsu” method of classifying Japanese martial arts has never really been exact. Probably a better method is to refer to “koryu” and modern Japanese martial arts. Koryu arts are essentially “old school” styles, ones that were founded before the late 19th century (some people use the Meiji Restoration of 1868 as a cut off date). There are really only a handful of koryu arts still in existence and almost all Japanese martial arts you see practiced nowadays can be considered “modern” arts. This includes judo, which was based on several koryu ju-jutsu styles but also had some small influence from western wrestling; most ju-jutsu styles, which are often some combination of koryu ju-jutsu, judo, karate and aikido; as well as Japanese karate-do and aikido themselves. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is actually based on judo as taught by a Japanese immigrant named Maeda in the early 20th century, though the terms judo and ju-jutsu were often used interchangeably in the west in those days. Maeda was also a professional wrestler and likely included some catch wrestling techniques in what he taught his Brazilian students. Aikido comes from the older aiki-jutsu, which is usually classified as a form of koryu ju-jutsu though there is much debate as to whether its roots really are that old.
      It should be noted, most of the oldest koryu ju-jutsu styles – ones which go back several hundred years and sometimes went by other names such as yawara – were not usually intended to be done exclusively with bare hands. Rather, they were meant to be used only in emergencies if you lost your weapon or, more likely, as a means of temporarily stunning or restraining an opponent so you could better use a weapon on him. It was only when Japan was united under the Tokugawa shoguns and these arts were no longer being used on the battlefield that purely empty hand styles of ju-jutsu began to become popular. It should also be noted, older, more “combative” arts do not necessarily translate as more effective. While styles that include sporting competition may have removed some of the more dangerous techniques from their repertoire, they also afford the student the opportunity to test the techniques they do learn by going full bore (at least in the case of judo and BJJ) against an uncooperative opponent, which has generally proven to be a more effective means of developing practical skills than static drills.
      As for the terms “jutsu” (often claimed to represent the more combative aspects of Japanese martial arts as personified in the term “bujutsu”) and “do” (supposedly more representative of the spiritual elements of the arts reflected in the more modern term “budo”), as I pointed out, the classifications have never been quite exact. The head of one of the oldest koryu kenjutsu styles of swordsmanship, the Ono Ha Itto Ryu, kept referring to his style as “budo” and talking about spiritual development when I interviewed him (this concept does go back to at least the early 17th century in certain koryu arts). Meanwhile, some arts created in the 20th century, such as the modern Japanese bayonet fighting used in WWII, are clearly battlefield arts with less emphasis placed on spiritual development. As to the whole concept of “budo” this has been a widely misinterpreted facet of the Japanese martial arts.
      The sort of new age, self-actualizing image we have of budo nowadays is really a post-WWII creation. There is an excellent term used by some historians called “invented history” which is now gaining ground among serious martial arts historians. Essentially, most of what we think of as the traditions and history of martial arts have been misconstrued or just made up and passed off as legitimate history (the same could probably be said for many other fields of history as well). Most of the serious modern research seems to indicate that the concept of budo in the Japanese martial arts was first popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Japanese government officials who were interested in turning the country into a modern industrial and military power. They actually based much of budo on 19th century European ideas of physical education in the promotion of nationalism. As such, budo became closely linked with Japanese fascism. But these roots were often forgotten or disregarded, particularly in the west, after WWII.
      Finally, martial arts/methods are about far more than just the Japanese styles. Of course, almost all of these non-Japanese arts have their own invented history as well.


9 Feb

Did a little housekeeping and moved the old introductory post to the bottom of this page. Anyone who wants to find out what Writing, Fighting and Other Stuff is all about, or just wants to read all the posts in chronological order, please scroll down to the bottom. The most recent post is directly below this one.

Weapons and Empty Hand Combat – Does One Size Really Fit All?

26 Jan

      In my book The Principles of Unarmed Combat (which I know you must have purchased by now) I address the question of whether, when you are the victim of a surprise attack, it’s better to adjust your technique to what your opponent is doing in order to use the best possible defense against him, or whether you should have one default technique that you always rely on. The theory behind having just one default technique that you always go to in a sudden, pressure-filled situation is that you will react more quickly and instinctively if you only have one option (which, presumably, you have practiced over and over again).
      Without rehashing what I’ve previously written, I’ll merely state that both theories have some validity. Highly expert martial artists, who are used to fighting in pressure-filled circumstances, can often effectively choose the best possible defense in a given situation. But less expert martial artists may, indeed, be better off simply having one general response that they can use in a wide variety of situations and then practicing just this response, i.e. when looking to defend against a sudden, unexpected punch to the head, rather than practicing blocking, ducking and various other defensive techniques that might depend on the specific type of punch being thrown at you, you may want to practice just one basic defense like covering up your head with both arms.
      But this question of whether to have multiple options or to rely on just one technique in a given situation becomes even trickier when considering weapons styles. On a number of occasions, I’ve heard respected experts in weapon-based styles of martial arts express the opinion that a person who trains with weapons should use the same techniques empty-handed as they do with their weapon. In other words, the way you might swing a sword or stick would be the same way you would swing your fist at an opponent. The way you’d avoid a knife thrust is, essentially, the same way you should avoid a punch.
      While this strategy might sound ludicrous to people who specialize in empty handed martial arts – the idea of throwing a punch in the same manner you swing a sword clearly seems less effective than punching the way a boxer, or even a karateka, might – the reasoning behind this strategy is similar to the theory of why you should have a single default technique you rely on in a surprise attack. The idea is that if you train regularly with a weapon, just as with any martial art, you are attempting to ingrain the techniques you learn with said weapon, to make them instinctual so that if you have to use them (or defend yourself against such a weapon) you will be able to react automatically. According to this belief, if you were to then learn a completely different way of moving, filled with (empty hand) techniques which may be in complete conflict with the techniques you learned as part of your weapons system, this would become a hindrance to you. Not only would you perform less effectively with your weapon but you would be hampered in empty hand fighting by trying to pick between two very different alternatives when attempting to come up with a defense on the spur of the moment. Thus, if you are someone who is learning a weapon-based martial art, you would be better off in employing the techniques of this art, even in empty-hand combat, since they are what you are most familiar with and you may be able to employ them more instinctively. While most weapons experts do not assert that using your empty hands as if you had a weapon in them is the optimum response in an empty handed fight, the belief is that this strategy gives you the best chance to execute the instinctive response you are most expert at, even if it is not the ideal choice of techniques for an empty handed self-defense situation.
      I cannot fully argue against this approach and I have even seen a handful of people who fight effectively by mimicking the motions of their weapon system in empty-handed combat (though these were typically quite large or powerful people). However, I am not fully convinced by the argument, either. The key point that leaves me skeptical of this approach, at least when it comes to basing your empty-handed combat on weapons techniques out of a desire to maintain technical consistency, is the fact many – if not most – people who practice a weapon style use more than one type of weapon. Western sport fencers often learn foil, epee and saber, three different types of swords which make use of different targets and striking patterns. Those who practice classical western swordsmanship often employ an even wider range of weapons and styles for using these weapons. Filipino martial arts practitioners frequently practice with sticks, knives and sometimes swords, all of which are quite different from each other. And while some insist that these are all used the same way, in reality almost everyone varies their techniques somewhat depending on the type of weapon they are using (not to mention the type of weapon they are facing). Thus, it seems the argument in favor of employing empty-hand techniques in the same manner you would employ a weapon loses some validity if the reason is to always keep things simple and consistent for the sake of reacting instinctively. Surely, if one can learn to use different weapons in different ways, one can learn to also use empty hands in a different manner as well?
      However, the one thing that you can, and should, carry over from weapons combat to empty hand combat (or from empty hand combat to weapons combat) is the most vital quality you can have in any combative situation: the psychological/emotional strength that is necessary to win a fight. The legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote that “when you freely beat one man you beat any man in the world. The spirit of defeating a man is the same for ten million men.”
      One might also say that, although the technique may change from weapon to empty hand fighting, the spirit of defeating a man is the same for weapons or the empty hand.

Why I Hate Tournaments

6 Jan

      Watching the Glory kickboxing tournament from Japan on New Year’s eve, I was once more reminded of why I hate tournaments in professional combat sports. Forget the ridiculous rules, including two minute rounds that made the event seem more like amateur fights than pro, the whole concept of a tournament, particularly a same day tournament, in combat sports seems geared toward making less interesting match-ups rather than the best possible fights.
      I know a lot of old school fans of the original UFC tournaments still like the idea of the tournament format but I have never seen the appeal in them. First of all, if you have two great fighters, what is the purpose of making them jump through hoops fighting other people before they have to fight each other? Too many unforseen problems, including injuries and upsets, can occur along the way in a tournament format which end up ruining the match up everyone really wants to see. No better example of this can be found than the ill-fated Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament which seemed to run endlessly through 2011 and 2012.
      The Strikeforce tournament consisted of what was still, arguably, the biggest name in heavyweight mixed martial arts at that time, Fedor Emelianenko, the man who had just beaten Emelianenko in Fabricio Werdum, the reigning Strikeforce heavyweight champion in Alistair Overeem, and the well respected Josh Barnett. Witnessing Emelianenko fight any one of these others is something that most MMA fans were interested in seeing. But instead, he fought Antonio Silva and was upset, forever ruining the chance to see one of these other matches. While Emelianenko was obviously faded, so having him fight one of these other men might not have been as exciting as anticipated, still, seeing a finals match between striking expert Overeem and grappling master Barnett would have been an interesting contest. But instead, after winning a boring fight against Werdum, Overeem fled Strikeforce for the UFC abandoning his spot in the tournament. Eventually, substitute fighter Daniel Cormier beat Barnett in a highly unanticipated – and relatively dull – match up. Bottom line is, a lot of fights that fans were interested in seeing were never made because of the tournament format forcing uninteresting first round match ups on us.
      Even worse, to me, is the single day tournament format. While some people argue it’s a true test of a fighter’s endurance and determination to fight three or even four fights in a single day, it’s also an inherently unfair test. Invariably, the two fighters who make it to the finals of a single day MMA or kickboxing tournament have taken different paths that leave one man fresher than the other. Fighter A might be the best fighter in the tournament and deserving of winning it. But if he has to fight the second and third best fighters along the way, and both match ups go the distance, while his opponent in the final, fighter B, is given a couple of easy match ups that allow him to win quickly and conserve energy, fighter B will have a hugely unfair advantage over fighter A when they meet in the finals. And even in the rare circumstances where both men have an equally difficult path to the championship, in all likelihood both fighters are going to be a little tired and banged up by the time they meet in that final match. Now would you rather see two great fighters who are in nowhere near their best fighting condition stumble through a match against each other or see two great fighters who are fresh go against each other and dazzle the crowd with their absolute best? I know which I prefer to see. And it’s not found in a tournament.

Cain Velasquez, The Once and Future King

30 Dec

      There are beat downs and there are beat downs. And Cain Velasquez put a beat down with a capital “B” on Junior Dos Santos last night to reclaim the UFC heavyweight championship he lost to Dos Santos a year ago. Known for his impressive fitness level, Velasquez came out like a mad dog from the opening bell setting a torrid pace that saw Dos Santos wilting by the end of the first round when Velasquez dropped him with a brutal right hand and then grounded and pounded him till the bell. Amazingly for a 240 pound heavyweight, Velasquez kept up the unrelenting pressure for the rest of the five round fight never giving Dos Santos a chance to recover or regain the momentum. By the end of the match, Dos Santos’s face looked like a jack-o-lantern that someone had carved with a hatchet and a baseball bat leaving Velasquez with a lopsided decision victory.
      Though I had picked Dos Santos to win, I’d always thought Velasquez had a decent chance to take back the title. While most of the MMA polls had dropped his name from the ranks of the pound-for-pound ten best fighters in the sport, I never had him rated lower than the top six or seven spots on that list despite his first round knockout loss to Dos Santos last year. Anyone who had seen him throughout his career and understood what they were watching should have realized just how good Velasquez was and not held a single loss against him. But for those who didn’t know, his manhandling of Dos Santos should serve as a good reminder.
      But what I found surprising about Velasquez’s victory was the way he accomplished it. He simply overwhelmed Dos Santos with pressure, something no other fighter has been able to do. He forced his way in close, trapping the usually elusive Dos Santos against the cage, and scoring a number of takedowns. Moreover, he was able to hold Dos Santos down on several occasions and work some effective ground and pound, which no one has previously come close to doing against Junior. After his loss in their last fight, the first of his career, it seems clear Velasquez was simply a man on a mission and had a determination to regain his title that would not be denied.
      As for Dos Santos, watch as all the “experts,” who had rated him among the top five pound for pound fighters in the sport coming into this fight, suddenly drop his name all the way out of the top 10. But one shouldn’t sleep on Dos Santos any more than they did on Velasquez after his loss. He is still a phenomenally talented fighter and quite capable of coming back from this defeat. While Velasquez may never be able to show the same level of determination and aggression he did in this bout, Dos Santos will still need to improve some facets of his game adding tools he’s never needed up until now if he wants to regain the title.
      A good place to start would be with his clinch game. Velasquez continually roughed him up on the inside and Dos Santos never seemed to have an answer for it allowing himself to be trapped with his back against the cage and offering little in the way of retaliation. Though, on a couple of occasions, he managed to secure a “plum” tie-up, clinching Velasquez behind the head with both hands, he never showed any inclination to capitalize on the position. Clearly, a bit of work on his dirty boxing or his muay Thai knees from the plum position would seem in order. Also, though he’s known as an experienced Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, his entire ground game seemed to consist of looking to stand up every time Velasquez took him down. Though laying on his back in the guard position with a ground and pound monster like Velasquez on top of him may not have been an effective strategy, at least the occasional threat of a submission hold might have slowed Velasquez’s attack on the mat a bit.
      But Dos Santos did display terrific heart in hanging in there and not being stopped despite seeming battered and exhausted by the end of the first round. Now it’s his turn to show the kind of determination Velasquez did in coming back from his first loss. Though there are some other good heavyweights in the mix – notably former Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem – it seems likely these two are destined to meet yet again, perhaps more than once.
      In boxing, top fighters will sometimes meet each other three, four or even more times than that in an ongoing series of battles as long as fans will pay to see it. Legendary middleweights Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake Lamotta fought five memorable bouts against each other during their careers. It’s possible, before all is said and done, you might see Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos meet four or five times before they’re done. They are the two best heavyweights of their era and, quite possibly, the two best heavyweights of any era. The third chapter of what may turn out to be the greatest rivalry in the history of MMA is now waiting to be written.

Reason Number 369 Why I Hate Writing

18 Dec

      Taking a quick glance through some old material posted on this website, I came across that most dread foe of writers, the typo. At least it’s a dread foe of neurotic, obsessive/compulsive writers such as myself who continually read and reread their own work to remove each and every little blunder before publishing it, not out of some faint desire to write the perfect piece but rather from a fear of looking foolish.
      In an entry from May 3, 2012 entitled “The Writing in Fighting” I addressed the dual questions of what were the best fight scenes in literature and what makes a great fight scene on the written page. To my horror, in my recent perusing of the entry, I noticed I had written the following: “The latter questions is, perhaps, the more difficult one to answer.”
      There it is! Did you see it?! You must have noticed the incorrect usage of the plural questions when talking about a single question (don’t bother fact checking the original entry – in true obsessive/compulsive behavior I instantly logged into the page and corrected it). Clearly, I meant to say “The latter question…” not “questions” yet, somehow, that capricious “s” found its way into the sentence. Just how does this happen? Whenever I write a piece, be it long or short, I am continually going through it looking for any small typo, grammatical error or other glitch. Okay, I have pretty much given up on proper punctuation (I’ll never figure out the correct use of the damn comma) but I continue to use the spell check on my computer religiously, then – because I don’t trust it – double check certain words with a dictionary. Yet, still, I am forever finding small errors in what I have written.
      I wish I could say this obsession with continually polishing my work is out of a sense of pride in my craft but, as I mentioned, rather it’s the product of a wish to not be thought of as a complete idiot by readers. What makes me uncomfortable when I find a mistake like the questions/question example is thinking about what goes through a reader’s mind when they catch these errors. Do they realize that such mistakes are really typos and that I do, in fact, know not to mix plural and singular usage in a sentence? Or do they think to themselves “Who is this guy to write about the art of writing? He can’t even write a correct sentence! Any idiot knows it should be ‘question’ and not ‘questions’ in that sentence. This fool needs to go back to high school English class!”
      Unfortunately, as any writer knows, no matter how much you polish your work, there will always be unnoticed errors that creep in (I’ve caught half a dozen so far, just as I write these few short paragraphs, and simply thinking about what else I may have missed is now sending me spiraling toward depression). That is one of the unpleasant realities you live with as a professional writer (along with writer’s block, small paychecks and occasional suicidal thoughts). All writers must deal with these realities in their own way. For me, I will continue to obsess on crafting my work as perfectly as possible, both in terms of content and form, because the alternative is too uncomfortable to contemplate. I was going to post this entry immediately, as soon as I finished a draft. But, on second thought, I think I need to reread it some more and look for errors. The annoying part is, I will not find them all.

Weighty Matters

8 Dec

      One of the more inane practices in the sanctioning of combat sports – specifically boxing and MMA – is the matter of how the competitors’ weights are regulated. Now everyone knows these sports have weight divisions which are supposed to protect the fighters by keeping them from having to go against opponents with a significant size advantage. The problem is, the methods set up to assure this supposedly “fair” competition are utterly ludicrous.
      Years ago, boxing weigh-ins were conducted on the day of the fight, the theory being if you weighed, say, 160 pounds in the morning, you would probably not weigh too much more than that in the evening when you fought and your 160 pound opponent would not be at too much of a competitive disadvantage. Of course, athletes, being who they are, will always look for any advantage they can get. Boxers, who might have walked around as much as 10 pounds over the weight they typically fought at, would dehydrate themselves before the weigh-in in order to shed some extra pounds, then rehydrate and eat a big meal immediately after the weigh-in so as to be closer to their natural weight and thus, hopefully, be a little bigger and stronger than their opponent when they stepped into the ring. Still, the amount of extra weight someone could gain on the day of a fight was never considered significant enough to make that huge a difference in the outcome of matches and the standards of what was a “fair” match-up, in terms of weight, were pretty well established.
      But this changed during the 1980s when, following a series of deaths in boxing matches that some attributed, in part, to fighters dehydrating themselves on the day of the fight to make weight, the rules for weigh-ins were changed. It was deemed safer for weigh-ins to be held the day before the actual fight so that competitors who dehydrated themselves would have sufficient time to properly rehydrate and would be at no extra risk when they fought. However, there were several problems with this scenario.
      First of all, as far as I know, the link between boxing deaths and cutting weight on the day of a fight has never been firmly established through comprehensive scientific study. So just how much safer fighters are, in terms of dehydrating themselves the day before a fight instead of the morning of a fight, remains in question though, admittedly, common sense would seem to indicate that dehydrating yourself on the day you engage in any rigorous athletic event would probably not be a recommended practice.
      Secondly, while fighters may no longer be at risk from dehydration weighing in the day before a fight, this has led to a problem which can threaten fighter safety as much, if not more, than dehydration: namely, extreme size mismatches in fights. For fighters who are experienced in cutting weight, losing 20 or even as much as 30 pounds from their normal walking around weight is not impossible, nor is putting most of that weight back on in the 24+ hours they now have between the weigh-in and the fight. This can lead to an athlete who comes into a fight weighing something like 135 pounds having to compete against an opponent who might weigh as much as 160 pounds. Obviously, this is a ridiculous competitive advantage to allow one fighter, yet it happens all the time. Now I don’t know exactly how bad the risks from dehydration were in the days of same day weigh-ins but I do know there is a definite risk for a 135 pound fighter going against a 160 pound opponent of approximately equal skill. Forcing a competitor to fight an opponent who might be two or even three weight classes above him is not just dangerous, it’s preposterous.
      Though some argue that both fighters have the option to cut large quantities of weight, I would ask, should combat sports be decided by who is the better fighter or by who is better at cutting weight? Besides which, weight cutting is not an accepted practice in all parts of the world. Many foreign fighters are used to competing at something close to their normal, walking around weight and are simply unaccustomed to the practice, common among American combat sport athletes, of cutting huge amounts of weight. Also, in mixed martial arts, where the heavyweight division has an upper limit of 265 pounds, a fighter whose best weight is around 235 pounds, is simply out of luck. It may be impossible for him to cut a full 30 pounds in order to get down to the 205 pound division. Yet he may be matched against an opponent who cuts down to reach 265 but enters the cage around 285 pounds. Even among heavyweights, a 50 pound weight difference is a significant advantage and one that MMA competitors should not be forced to deal with.
      Making the whole situation even more ridiculous – and unjust to athletes looking for a fair fight – is the fact weight limit regulations are typically ignored by promoters and athletic commissions. If two fighters are supposed to weigh in at 170 pounds for a fight, but one of them shows up for the weigh-in the day before the match at 172 pounds unable to cut those last couple of pounds (which means he might actually enter the match weighing around 200 pounds) the 170 pound fighter is usually asked if he is still willing to fight despite his opponent’s failure to make the agreed upon weight. And since most fighters don’t want to back down from a fight (and they will only get paid if they do, in fact, fight) the fighters are put in a position where they’re usually forced to accept the bout against an opponent possessing an unfair weight advantage. And all the athletic commission will typically do to “regulate” this situation is fine the fighter who doesn’t make weight part of his purse, then blithely allow the mismatch to proceed. The argument in favor of doing this is that the athletic commissions don’t want to prevent fighters from making their living or deny fans the opportunity to see the fight they were expecting. But this is essentially an argument in favor of putting money and entertainment ahead of athlete safety, an attitude that should be unsurprising to anyone who regularly follows the fight game.
      There are a couple of fixes for this situation which would seem fairly simple and common sense (which means that no one in the fight world will probably ever try it). The first fix would be to have two weigh-ins: weigh the fighters the day before the fight, then weigh them again 24 hours later on fight day. Now as good as some fighters are at dehydrating and cutting weight, it seems unlikely anyone is going to stay dehydrated for 24 hours in order to make weight. This would force fighters to actually fight at something close to what the contracted weight is supposed to be. Wouldn’t that be a novel idea, if fighters who were supposed to step into a ring or cage weighing 155 pounds actually weighed 155 pounds?
      The second fix is even simpler: if fighters don’t make the agreed upon weight, they don’t fight. Period. This one is even less likely to ever come about since, if a fight card has to be canceled because one of the participants in the main event isn’t allowed to fight, no one makes money including the promoter and the state sanctioning the fight. Still, if fighter safety is really the most important thing, as all the promoters and athletic commissions assure us it is, then fighters should not be allowed to fight if they can’t meet the agreed upon weight limit. Fighters who don’t make that weight should be subject to lengthy suspensions. Though this might seem harsh, when you miss making the agreed upon weight for a fight, you are essentially violating a contract and, in the real world, if you violate a contract, you suffer a penalty.
      Instead, in the modern fight game, it seems that only the athletes who fight at their natural, healthy weight are the ones being penalized.

A Conversation with Author Jim Genia

24 Nov

Just to show it’s not all about me, I thought I’d feature an interview with my friend and colleague, Jim Genia. Jim is one of the most respected mixed martial arts journalists out there and the author of the book Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts, which TV producers are now attempting to turn into a series. Go check out his book or stop by his blog, which is linked under the blogroll to the right.

MJ: How’d you get interested in writing? Was this something you always wanted to do or did it grow out of your interest in mixed martial arts?

JG: I was always interested in writing, even as a child.  However, it wasn’t until law school, that I realized how much I wanted writing in my life.

MJ: When did you first become interested in MMA? What was it that drew you to the sport? Were you a martial arts practitioner before this?

JG: I was a judo and karate dude ever since college, but when the first UFC aired, I was enthralled by the sport.  MMA, it seemed, held the answers to the questions I’d been trying to answer in my martial arts training – namely, “What works?” and “Should I eventually study sumo?”

MJ: How did you first get involved in writing about MMA? What were some of the important things you learned about both writing and MMA that helped you as you became more involved in MMA journalism?

JG: I first got involved with writing about MMA when I started writing for Full Contact Fighter.  The most important thing I learned in my years with the publication – and the thing that helped me the most in both in terms of writing and the sport – is that I should be having fun with it.  Always.

MJ: Who are some of the bigger media outlets you’ve written for over the years?

JG: I’ve written for FCF, Newsday, the New York Press, VICE… a ton of places.

MJ: What are some of the more interesting or bizarre things you’ve seen in your time covering MMA?

JG: Just about every underground show I go to has something interesting and bizarre – whether it’s because a particular fighter is a stone-cold lunatic or because maybe a group of thugs will try to bumrush the show, there’s never a dull moment.

MJ: What is the best thing about being an MMA writer? What is the most difficult thing?

JG: The best thing about being an MMA writer is getting to know a ton of great people.  The most difficult thing is watching them fail, and having to write about it.

MJ: Who were some of your favorite fighters that you’ve covered over the years and what stands out about them?

JG: Kevin Roddy, a local lightweight/featherweight in New Jersey, and one of the nicest, coolest, friendliest guys in the sport.  Over the years, you develop relationships with these fighters – especially since you see them fight for the first time and every time after that when they’re working their way up.  Anyway, Kevin always brings it and tries his hardest, and though he doesn’t always come out on top, he’s able to laugh and joke about whatever happened in the fight afterwards.  Some people can’t do that, maybe ego gets in the way or maybe they’re just really shaken on the inside, but with Kevin… that’s pure love of the sport right there.  Love of the sport.  Kevin gets it.  For that, he stands out.

MJ: What’s your opinion of how the sport has progressed from its early days? You’re a fan of the old “style vs. style” concept. Do you prefer that to the way fighters train nowadays where everyone is doing the same thing by combining styles into a true “mixed” martial art?

JG: MMA has evolved into a sport, and it’s constantly evolving every time two fighters get into the cage and duke it out.  What’s different between now and those earlier days is simply where MMA is on the evolutionary scale.  Do I miss style vs. style?  Sure, but to a degree that’s still out there.  There are still disillusioned people out there who think their expertise in one area will be enough, and of course, there are those out there who are so good at one thing that watching them compete captures some of that style vs. style motif.  For example, when Ronda Rousey fights, I always feel like I’m watching a really, really good judoka against someone who practices MMA – and we all know how good that judo is matching up against that other style.

MJ: How do you compare the fighters you see nowadays to the ones you covered in the early days of the sport?

JG: The fighters nowadays are more advanced earlier on in their careers.  And of course they are, because the fighters of yesterday are the ones training them and passing on the lessons they had learned.

MJ: One of your biggest interests is in the “underground” MMA fights that are held in NY where MMA has been illegal for years. What is it that draws you to the underground MMA scene?

JG: Being able to watch a fight from about 12 inches away from the action, being able to see some of that style vs. style combat, and being able to see vale tudo matches.

MJ: You’ve written a book about the underground fight scene in NY called Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts. How did this come about? How long did it take you to write it?

JG: It took me about nine months to write it, and it came about because I felt I had seen and experienced some very interesting things while covering the underground scene.  There are a lot more stories out their than that of Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, and to me, some of the stories about these lesser-known fighters are more compelling.  And an agent and a publisher agreed!

MJ: This was your first book. Was it difficult to write it? What was the hardest thing? Were you happy with the results?

JG: It wasn’t difficult to write at all.  When writing is something you love and can’t wait to do, it never feels like work.  I am thrilled with the results.

MJ: Do you write about anything else besides MMA? What other projects (MMA or non-MMA) are you working on now?

JG: I’m always working on potential manuscripts, it’s just a question of how hard I’m working on them.  I’ve been slowly putting together a proposal for another MMA book, and in the meantime, I’ve been writing for some MMA sites, reporting the news.

MMA and the Proper Blending of Styles Part 2

13 Nov

      As I discussed in my previous post, there are certain styles of fighting that blend better with other styles of fighting for the purposes of becoming a successful MMA competitor but accomplishing this blending can be an arduous task. To develop a skill set in a completely new fighting art is not a simple endeavor and one which many athletes competing in MMA seem either too stubborn, too lazy, or just too arrogant to do.
      Now fighters who are skilled in any combat sport have worked very hard to develop that skill. A top notch wrestler will have spent hours nearly every single day of their childhood working to perfect their wrestling. But what they may not understand is, if they want to be a truly successful MMA fighter, they’ll need to put the same amount of time and effort into going to, say, a boxing gym. Then they will need to force themselves to apply these new skills in fights.
      Some years ago, I was talking with wrestler Mark Kerr, a successful MMA fighter in the early days of the sport. Kerr was going over to Japan to fight kickboxing champion Branko Cikatic in an MMA match and I recall Kerr telling me how people didn’t respect his striking skills but he had been working very hard on his kicking and was going to shock everyone by throwing a lot of kicks against Cikatic. While I didn’t necessarily think that was the best strategy for a wrestler to execute against a kickboxing champion, I was still curious to see how Kerr’s striking skills had progressed. What I saw when I watched the fight was Kerr throw one high kick that missed and immediately shoot in for a takedown. So much for working on his striking skills. Fortunately for Kerr, he was a superior wrestler and Cikatic wasn’t so Kerr easily dominated the match.
      But while simply being a great wrestler could get you by in MMA at one time, those days have long passed. Nowadays, you need to learn some of those other complimentary skills and, to do that, you need to work as hard on them as you did your original skill set, not just in the gym but in actual matches.
      Frank Shamrock was known, early in his career, as a groundfighting specialist. But after he left the UFC, he began training more seriously in kickboxing and even took a few kickboxing matches to polish his skills. When he returned to MMA, he had a far superior striking game. However, he also seemed to have stumbled into the trap that sometimes hits fighters who suddenly add a new skill to their arsenal: that of becoming so enamored with this new skill they forget what got them there in the first place. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. Though he came into the sport as a sambo champion with an excellent ground game, Emelianenko worked hard on his striking skills and got to the point where he knocked many opponents out with this stand up game. Unfortunately, he fell so much in love with the idea of scoring knockouts, his groundfighting became less and less of a factor until, in his later fights, it appeared to have deteriorated significantly.
      The point being, if you come into MMA from another combat sport, work hard to learn new skills which compliment your old skills for MMA but use them to blend in with those old skills, not substitute for them.

MMA and the Proper Blending of Styles Part 1

4 Nov

      Mixed martial arts has, in recent years, become a sport unto itself with competitors now coming on the scene with no prior experience in other combat sports leading to athletes who have trained exclusively in nothing but MMA. But this is still the exception, rather than the rule. The majority of highly ranked fighters continue to drift into MMA from other fighting arts like wrestling or muay Thai. Some of these fighters are already extremely skilled in their original style but, as we’ve seen, in modern MMA one needs a certain amount of versatility. No longer do we find someone skilled solely in a single aspect of the game, like groundfighting, able to dominate at the top level and win a UFC championship.
      That’s not to say a fighter has to be an expert in all facets of the game to win a major championship (though it can certainly help). A fighter like UFC heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos, though allegedly possessing a very good Brazilian jiu-jitsu ground game, has never really had to fight anyone on the ground through the course of his UFC career. Dos Santos’s combination of high caliber boxing skills and a very good wrestling defense to stop takedowns has allowed him to dominate virtually every opponent by remaining on his feet and pummeling them with punches. If he had never studied groundfighting, other than how to stand up quickly when taken down, he would likely have been just as successful up to this point in his career. This isn’t to say groundfighting has no importance or that Dos Santos might not have recourse to employ it at some future point. It’s merely a recognition that he has struck upon a winning formula that seems to work very well for someone of his skill set. He worked on building a solid wrestling takedown defense to complement his superlative boxing skills. If you fight Junior Dos Santos, he’s probably going to beat you on your feet but he’s also almost impossible to take down, which leaves you with little choice but to fight him on his feet.
      But unlike the UFC heavyweight champion, many fighters who come into the sport already owning a good skill set in one area of fighting fail to understand what other skills can complement and heighten their existing abilities in order to make them MMA champions. This is not that surprising since, traditionally, there is not that much cross over between serious combat sports. Boxers have little reason to mix with wrestlers or Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitors. Those other sports play no part in boxing so it would be a waste of time for boxers to train in them if their goal is to get good at boxing. The same could be said, to some degree, for the other sports. But that means when a boxer or wrestler or groundfighting expert transitions into MMA, he may have no idea what the key components of these other sports are or how they may subtly differ from each other, say in the way a boxer stands versus how a muay Thai fighter might stand. Each one, after all, is a striking style so on the surface they both may look pretty similar to a wrestler.
      However, for a wrestler going into MMA, there is a vast difference in how a boxer sets himself versus how a muay Thai kickboxer sets himself, just as there is a vast difference in what a wrestler does versus what a Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist does, though both appear to be grappling styles. The key here is that certain styles complement and blend better with certain other styles. For example, boxing and wrestling can make a very potent combination whereas a kickboxing style like muay Thai, when combined with wrestling, can be problematical. Wrestlers are used to taking a wider, more solid stance while kickboxers tend to be more upright. Western style kickboxers will sometimes take a very sideways stance whereas muay Thai kickboxers will often keep all their weight upon their rear leg with very little weight on the front foot. Both of these positions would feel quite uncomfortable for the average wrestler. Too, raising the leg to throw a high kick would be something most wrestlers might find unusual or uncomfortable since it is so foreign to their original training. However, boxers do none of these things. While more upright than a wrestler, still the average boxing stance does not differ to such extremes from the average wrestling stance and a comfortable transition can often be made between the two without a great deal of difficulty. And boxers always keep both feet firmly on the ground concentrating on punches, rather than kicks, something that blends in much better with a wrestler’s style.
      For the boxer, wrestling seems the natural complement. Boxers probably come into MMA with the most limitations of any combat sport athlete having no experience in anything other than punching. For a boxer to start learning not just wrestling but kicks, muay Thai clinch work and a whole arsenal of groundfighting techniques might prove overwhelming. Instead, a boxer might want to concentrate on simply learning wrestling – or, more specifically, wrestling defense – to avoid getting taken down. If he is a high caliber boxer and can keep the fight on his feet, he’ll stand a good chance of winning.
      A muay Thai fighter, on the other hand, takes a more upright stance than a boxer as well as occasionally lifting his leg to throw kicks. Both of these automatically lessen their balance and will prove a hindrance in using wrestling to defend against takedowns. A high level muay Thai fighter will probably always be a little vulnerable to takedowns and, when they do get taken down, will often land on their back. Thus, rather than concentrating their efforts on studying wrestling, the muay Thai fighter may be better served in concentrating the majority of their training in perfecting a ground game, particularly methods of submitting someone from their back. Though this is no easy feat and can take years to develop, such a blending of styles can be tremendously effective. As an example, look no further than the greatest fighter in the history of MMA, Anderson Silva. Silva came into MMA as basically a muay Thai fighter and was submitted earlier in his career. But he worked diligently with top flight jiu-jitsu instructors and became an outstanding ground fighter, particularly from his back. This has left all his opponents with the unpleasant choice of getting battered by his world class stand up skills or going to the ground with him and risking submission.
      For the Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, particularly one who is comfortable fighting off his back, muay Thai often seems the logical compliment for MMA purposes. While they could potentially make boxing work for them, muay Thai is a more versatile and well rounded striking style and the dangers of being taken to the ground are not as much of a concern if they already have a good groundfighting game in place.
      But Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not the only groundfighting style out there, though some competitors coming into MMA often make the mistake of assuming it is the only path to success on the ground. Despite being a highly effective form of groundfighting, BJJ may not always compliment skilled wrestlers all that well. Few high level wrestlers ever get fully comfortable working off their backs in the BJJ guard position and even the most common top positions in BJJ, such as the mount and knee on the stomach, are not as common in wrestling. While many wrestlers, not understanding these distinctions, continue to train in BJJ to develop their groundfighting repertoire for MMA, a better alternative might be styles such as catch wrestling or sambo. Both of these styles seem to emphasize positions that skilled wrestlers might be more comfortable with, such as the side – or crossbody – position, the headlock position and positions where grapplers are grabbing each others legs attempting leg locks. Indeed, the leg locks found in catch wrestling or sambo would seem to blend perfectly with the skill set of a good freestyle wrestler adept in executing leg tackles and controlling his opponent’s legs upon taking him down.
      This is not to say a fighter going into MMA should be too narrow in his outlook and ignore those skills which don’t necessarily blend well with his existing skill set. But rather, they should build upon the base they have initially, working on things that compliment what they can do and then, gradually, adding more skills to broaden that base. Doing this, however, is often easier said than done, as I’ll discuss in my next post.

Book Brief

21 Oct

Once more the great people at Indies Unlimited have been very supportive posting an interview with me and a profile of my novel, Pascal’s Wager, in their “Book Briefs” here http://wp.me/p1WnN1-7mI
If you haven’t already visited, check them out and show them some support.

Bruce Lee – The Most Overrated Underrated Martial Artist Ever

16 Oct

      Anyone who picked up the July issue of Black Belt Magazine a few months back will have noticed that (once again) Bruce Lee was on the cover. If you’re wondering why a magazine regularly puts a man who has been dead for 40 years on its cover, all I can say is those issues are usually Black Belt’s biggest sellers. In fact, that month’s entire magazine was designed as a tribute to the late martial arts film star. My own contribution to the issue was a short piece on the connection between Lee’s jeet kune do style and fencing.
      Without getting into a debate on the merits of consistently featuring a guy who’s been dead now for longer than he was alive in your magazine, I do find it fascinating that Lee still carries that much weight in the martial arts world. Certainly, there are few figures among the living or the dead in martial arts who draw a wider range of opinions. Some ultra-traditional martial artists still loathe him and feel he was more of an actor than a legitimately great martial artist, while those who remain under the sway of Lee’s legend continue to view him as possibly the greatest martial artist in history.
      My opinion is that Lee is simultaneously the most overrated and the most underrated martial artist ever, which I’m sure will get virtually everyone upset with me.
      On the overrated side of the ledger, you simply have to be realistic here. Lee, despite the stories told about him, was not a serious fighter, either competitively or on the streets. The one alleged private match he had against another martial arts master is claimed as a thorough victory for him by his supporters. But this ignores the fact the kung fu “master” he supposedly beat had no real record of competitive success himself plus, after his great victory, Lee was so displeased with his wing chun fighting style, he set about retooling everything he did into what would become his new fighting method, which he christened jeet kune do. It simply seems unlikely one would retool their entire fighting style after an easy win so the stories of his overwhelming success in this match may be somewhat exaggerated.
      Now I’m too young to have ever met Lee or seen him perform in person, so much of my opinion on his fighting abilities necessarily has to rely on what I have heard from people who did know him and work out with him. However, I have always tried to avoid basing my opinions on the impressions of Lee’s primary students for the simple reason that students always tend to think their instructor has phenomenal abilities. Call it the “my daddy is the strongest person on earth” syndrome. But if you want to know how good a martial artist is, don’t talk to his direct students, talk to his peers.
      I once heard someone ask this exact question of the late karate and kickboxing champion, Joe Lewis (not to be confused with the boxer Joe Louis). Lewis trained with Lee a number of times to hone some of his skills for competition but Lee was never his primary teacher and Lewis was already an accomplished martial artist by the time he met Lee, perhaps making him a bit less biased.
      Lewis’s response to the question of how good Lee was went something like this, “He was the best martial artist I ever saw but couldn’t fight worth a damn.”
      When asked to clarify, Lewis explained that Lee’s technique was tremendous but only in demonstrations or in sparring with his own students. He simply was not very good when it came to really fighting with other decent fighters – he was too small and didn’t have the mentality of a fighter.
      While this is just one man’s opinion, I have heard similar words from others. Some time back, I quoted Lewis’s opinion on Lee to Gene LeBell. LeBell is a legendary martial artist who worked out with Lee on a number of occasions and taught Lee some grappling moves. He considered Lee a good friend and has always been careful to say only positive things about him. But when I repeated Lewis’s opinion to LeBell, he conceded that he could not totally disagree with it.
      Simply put, Lee was not the greatest fighter ever. He may not have even been a very good fighter, at least by today’s standards. Furthermore, his personal method of martial arts (Lee never liked to call jeet kune do a “system” or a “style”) while still revered by many, has some holes in it when held up for close observation. Besides the fact it did not have a great deal of wrestling or groundwork incorporated into it – something that most martial artists now understand to be vital to real world fighting capabilities – much of its striking seems too heavily geared toward outpointing an opponent rather than knocking him out (I’m speaking here about the curriculum Lee had left when he died, now sometimes referred to as jun fan jeet kune do, not the more modern “concepts” aspect of JKD which borrows heavily from muay Thai, kali and various other arts).
      In that recent issue of Black Belt, I discuss how Lee, himself, borrowed heavily from traditional western fencing concepts. But what I did not say is that, in my opinion, he overlooked one vitally important thing: that fencing works because… you’re hitting someone with a sword! Simply trying to move the way fencers move, without the benefit of holding a weapon in your hand, will often leave your attacks lacking in power. Fencing relies more heavily on speed than brute force allowing the sharp metal of the sword to do the damage. But without a sword or other weapon in your hands, you simply must generate more power in most of your strikes, other than ones directed toward vital areas like the eyes or groin, which, to be fair, Lee did emphasize. But when looking to strike with a punch to the head, if you’re seeking to do maximum damage as you likely would in a street fight or even many MMA contests, power often trumps speed. Yet with his emphasis on using the lead side to strike with and moving the hand or foot before the body, Lee clearly seemed to stress speed over power.
      After having read a good deal about Lee and having talked with several people who knew and trained with him, I’ve come to the opinion that he developed jeet kune do to defeat the people he viewed as his primary challengers. In other words, he came up with a style that would allow him to get the better of traditional karate and kung fu masters in sparring sessions. And, in that realm, I believe his style was quite efficient. He exploited the immobility, telegraphic techniques and lack of combinations used by most of the so-called masters of his day and came up with something that may well have been superior in sparring sessions, or perhaps even challenge matches. However, this is quite a different realm than that of the street or the octagon. Several years ago, when I broached this theory with a very senior instructor of JKD, he essentially agreed with my outlook.
      So, in my opinion, Bruce Lee and his method of fighting was not the be all and end all of martial arts. But…
      On the underrated side of the ledger, anyone who decries Bruce Lee and feels he wasn’t that significant a martial artist overlooks his vast contributions to the technical side of fighting. There were few figures in the martial arts world, before Lee, who ever attempted to look at the whole body of fighting techniques with the kind of objective and analytical eye Lee brought to the matter. Prior to Lee, the martial arts were bogged down with people who refused to go beyond their own individual styles. Though, from an aesthetic perspective, that approach may have had merit, from a practical perspective it’s an utter failure. True fighters, whether on the battlefield or in the ring, do not ignore what other successful fighters are doing. They consistently borrow and learn from the most successful people in their field. This is how progress is made in virtually every form of human endeavor. But it’s a concept that, even today, many martial artists are reluctant to embrace. Lee was among the first practitioners of Asian martial arts to publically embrace this approach. Further, he went beyond even those martial artists who had previously extolled the merits of borrowing from other styles by exploding the whole notion of styles in the martial arts as being too limiting. It’s ironic that today many practitioners of jeet kune do cling to this “style” when Lee seemed to clearly indicate in his writings that fighters should not be beholden to any style but should strip away such labels in order to get to the heart of what works in combat.
      His analysis of martial arts techniques, particularly his insights into what he called the “angles of attack” (essentially the various basic methods with which any technique can be set up to attack the opponent with) was far ahead of its time. Even today, many martial artists do not fully understand some of the important principles Lee was already propounding back in the 1960s.
      Putting aside the massive contribution he made through his films drawing people into the martial arts, Lee’s contribution to the analytical and technical side of martial arts was so immense (if still often unrecognized by many practitioners of these arts) as to make him a truly significant figure in the history of the field.
      So perhaps it’s time to finally put Bruce Lee into proper perspective. He was not the Superman of martial arts that his many idol worshipers would have you believe, nor was he perfect in all his opinions on martial arts. But he was a brilliant, and by most accounts technically very proficient, martial artist who made some of the most important and profound contributions to the arts that we have ever seen. That may not be enough for some people. But it should be.

Some Thoughts on a Weekend of MMA

7 Oct

      While there was no big pay per view show, this past weekend still saw a lot of interesting televised mixed martial arts. A few thoughts on some of the action:
      Prior to the UFC on FX5 show Friday night, they aired a commercial advertisement which featured some cocky fighter strutting into an MMA arena and then starting his match by prancing across the ring with all these fancy jumping, spinning kicks. His opponent stands there looking bored, then floors the hotdog with one punch and pops open a soda. Perhaps upcoming heavyweight Travis Browne should have watched that commercial before his fight with veteran Antonio “Big Foot” Silva. Browne, an athletic 6’7″ 246 pounder, started the fight by immediately throwing a spinning hook kick which missed. He followed up with a jumping front kick which also missed. Somewhere in there, he seemed to hurt his leg and a couple of minutes later ended up getting knocked out by Silva, an opponent he seemingly could have dominated by employing a basic boxing game, as Daniel Cormier did last year. For a fighter who experts have been touting as a potential title contender, Browne now seems more like the definition of an athlete with a million dollar body and a ten cent head. Meanwhile, Silva is more like the MMA reincarnation of boxer Primo Carnera, a gigantic specimen who somehow manages to get impressive wins on his record despite an apparent lack of talent. Carnera did it through fixed fights while “Big Foot” simply seems to be the luckiest man in the sport. He caught the legendary Fedor Emelianenko when Emelianenko was washed up and now he KOs Browne, who looked like a three legged chair after suffering that injury. I do not see a championship in either man’s future.
      Speaking of undeserving fighters, why did the Bellator promotion put Brett Rogers into their heavyweight tournament on Friday night? Rogers, whose only claim to fame is he managed to hit the aforementioned Emelianenko with a few punches and open a cut on him before getting knocked out (again, when Emelianenko was already on the downside of his career, though no one realized it at the time) has never shown any serious skill other than a hard punch. Yet, somehow, despite only winning two of his previous 7 fights, he found himself in the Bellator tourney. He took advantage of this opportunity by literally doing almost nothing for three rounds against Alexander Volkov. Browne gave more effort on one leg than Rogers did on two, thoroughly embarrassing himself in losing to Volkov. He simply looked like a man who was there to collect a payday and nothing more.
      The same can never be said about long time women’s MMA fighter Tara LaRosa. LaRosa went down to defeat against Brazilian Vanessa Porto in Saturday night’s all female card promoted by Invicta FC. One of the pioneers of women’s MMA, LaRosa was generally regarded as the best female fighter on the planet in the days before Ronda Rousey and Cristiane Santos. I’ve gotten to know her a bit over the years and both like and respect her. She’s always been pleasant and fun to deal with, not to mention a tremendously tough fighter as evidenced by the way she stood up to a severe beating from Porto for three rounds without allowing herself to be stopped. Unfortunately, she looked out of shape and slow. After more than a decade in the sport. LaRosa has had a lot to deal with in both her professional career and her life outside the cage. I wish her well but judging by Saturday’s performance, it may be time for her to think about stepping away from the game.
      The weekend’s best performance was probably turned in by referee Nick Gamst. In the UFC match between Justin Edwards and Josh Neer, Edwards slapped a guillotine choke on Neer and “jumped guard” scissoring his legs around Neer from the front and dragging him down to the ground. Neer had one arm inside of Edwards’ arms trying to fight off the choke but before almost anyone realized it, he went unconscious. But Gamst was instantly aware and stopped the fight. The quality of MMA officiating is often poor with referees not well enough versed in grappling sometimes stopping a match when a fighter being choked is still conscious and defending himself and, at other times, waiting too long and letting a fighter be choked past the point of unconsciousness, which is extremely dangerous. Credit to Gamst for knowing what he was doing and stopping the fight at the exact right moment.

Indies Unlimited Feature

2 Oct

The good folks at Indies Unlimited were nice enough to feature my new novel, A Bittersweet Science, on their website today (many thanks to the great KS Brooks for helping me publicize it and for taking a great cover photo). Go check it out and while you’re there, take a look around. Some useful tools and information for authors.

A Synopsis and Excerpt from A Bittersweet Science

26 Sep

      For those who still haven’t picked up a copy of my recent boxing novel, A Bittersweet Science, (and shame on you) I’m including below a brief synopsis and an excerpt. If you like it, it’s available on Amazon in digital format for $2.99. You can find it by clicking on the book cover at the right side of the screen. And if you don’t like it, it’s still available on Amazon for $2.99.


      From the exploited fighters who bleed for pay to the scurrilous promoters and slick young television executives who make the backroom deals to the sardonic reporters who are there to record it all with a jaded eye, A Bittersweet Science offers a glimpse into a world most will never know.
      It’s the story of “Action” Jackson Hayes, the unbeatable but volatile heavyweight champion who’s suspended from boxing because he’s just too violent and then decides to make his vacation permanent when he discovers Jesus. Enter promoter extraordinaire Abraham “Abby” Lincoln. A former 1960s student protest leader turned boxing mega promoter known for his tie-dye tuxedos and love of Machiavelli, Lincoln needs to appease his money men by bringing some excitement back to a moribund heavyweight division. With the aid of charismatic televangelist Antonio Harper, he lures Hayes out of retirement for a multi-million dollar showdown with young Tommy O’Callahan. That O’Callahan can’t fight very well is negated by the fact he just happens to be a white heavyweight… and his family has a bitter personal history with Hayes.
      Caught at the intersection of it all is brilliant but discontent sports columnist David Goldman, whose disillusion with the amorality of the people he’s tasked to write about is mirrored by his own marital infidelities. But when events take an unexpected turn, Goldman finds himself thrust into the middle of a legal firestorm as both Lincoln and Hayes wind up in court facing off against ambitious prosecutor, Michael Bratkowski. Bratkowski is determined to make a name for himself with this year’s version of the trial of the century. The real fight has just begun but Abby Lincoln is determined to score a knockout over all his foes, even if it means sacrificing his favorite son, Jackson Hayes.

An Excerpt From Chapter 2:

      Never one to be shy in the face of public speaking, Abby Lincoln strolled up to the microphone in that rolling, wide-armed gait that only men long used to carrying substantial girth possessed. He adjusted the microphone down a couple of inches to accommodate his 5 foot 10 inch height and began to speak, not in an oblique, quasi-intellectual fashion or a soul-brother, ghetto jive manner, nor in any of the other Zelig-like tones that, with the proper modulation, allowed him to blend in with the rich, the fashionable, the high, the low, the diverse minorities and many more in the general populace whom he could so successfully put at ease and make believe, if only for a moment, that he was of a consubstantial fabric. Instead, the mercurial promoter began to speak in the quaint, folksy tones of small-town America – not quite the rural inflections of the deep-south, more a mild, neighborly inflection that might have been mistaken for a Twainesque Hannibal, MO drawl or a Northern Virginia-verging-on-Washington twang, or any number of other regional dialects that inhabited those areas of America where next-door southern hospitality came up against more urbane northern intonations speaking in a voice that, in truth, had its origins nearly as far south as one could get in the continental United States, down in the lower regions of Florida, down below Miami at the very hob-nailed toe of the nation amidst the thick palmetto grass and cloying mangrove swamps of Homestead, Florida – someplace anyone who had bothered to read his best-selling autobiography “Livin’ The Dream: My Life As a Humano-American” would have recognized as Lincoln’s long-discarded place of origin.
      But the promoter could readily call on this faint, confidence-inducing vocal timbre of his youth when he felt the need, as he did at this moment. Launching into a melancholy story of his humble beginnings as the son of “po’ folks” (his family had, in reality, been middle class) living in a broken down shack on the edge of the Everglades (modest ranch house in the suburbs) after his father had deserted the family without a penny (died in an Air Force accident; government benefits) forcing him to take work in the fields as a child to support his family (hustled used cars at his grandfather’s dealership during summer vacations) yet all that time knowing he would rise up to achieve some measure of the success this fine country offered to any who had the courage and virtue to…
      Goldman and the other members of the press sat with their small reporter’s steno notebooks and pencils poised, waiting for something of interest to actually be said. They had all heard numerous versions of the “humble beginnings” speech from Lincoln over the years. At one time, the details varied: for example, the first time Goldman heard it, back when Lincoln was just getting started in the boxing business, the would-be promoter informed his audience that his father had been killed in Vietnam, was, in fact, the first U.S. serviceman to die in that terrible conflict way back in 1961, thus leading young Abby to later devote himself wholeheartedly to protesting that horrid blight on the national conscience in order to spare other children the pain he had suffered. At a later telling of the “humble beginnings”, Goldman heard Lincoln inform his listeners that, as a youth, he had to overcome the awful, scarring effects of being deserted by his father, who abandoned Abby and his mother in the late 50s never to be heard from again. As Lincoln’s reputation and position in the boxing world grew, Goldman began to notice other inconsistencies in the “humble beginnings” shtick and finally made it a point to do some research into the promoter’s Rashomonesque background. He eventually reported that nearly all the details Lincoln gave about his life were either wildly exaggerated or outright lies. Nevertheless, a good lie shouted from the mountaintops often enough will almost always overshadow dull truth spoken in sober tones. So most people who were not boxing insiders or devout followers of the sweet science remained convinced by the “humble beginnings” version of Abby Lincoln’s origin. With the publication of his autobiography several years back, the story had finally settled down into a fairly concrete pattern which the promoter retold on appropriate occasions, such as he now deemed this press conference to be.
      Lincoln wove the cloth of his life story into the current garment of this upcoming struggle between two of the greatest boxers on the planet, two men who also knew what it was like to strive and overcome the obstacles life had set in their path. He first called Eddie Roy up to the microphone, allowing the boxer, not a polished speaker when relaxed and now quite uncomfortable in the face of public oratory, to stammer and stumble over several threatening remarks about what he would do to Tucker Smith when he got “that little faggot” in the ring. Despite the champion’s heterosexuality, it was a line sure to draw the ire of various gay rights groups and reaffirm Roy’s position as the bad guy in this showdown.
      For all that, the press had little interest in what Roy had to say. He was basically an afterthought; a mediocrity; a steroid-inflated, iron-pumping ex-con of limited abilities who had never beaten a decent boxer in his life and likely never would. As one wag put it, instead of fighting Tucker Smith for the heavyweight championship, Eddie Roy should have been fighting Ann Margaret for possession of a last name. He was just that poor a boxer.

Superhero Comics, the Neutered Art Form

16 Sep

      Among my more shameless vices is an admitted love of superhero comics. Though I gave up regularly purchasing comics as a teenager, I do confess to still taking the occasional peek at them in order to keep up to date on the latest doings of the capes and cowls set.
      But if this is a guilty pleasure, the guilt stems largely from the fact I realize I’m reading a frequently inferior literary form.
      Now I’m not a snob who feels comics, per se, cannot be true art. Works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus have won awards up to and including the Pulitzer Prize. Certainly, there are many outstanding writer/artists working in what is known, in more effete, adult circles, as the graphic novel, people who have raised this genre to the status of true literature. But in the specific comics sub-genre of superhero stories, such works of genius are few and far between.
      Sure, back in the 1980s there was Alan Moore’s brilliant miniseries/graphic novel, Watchmen, which was justly included among Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels of the last century. But with Watchmen, it appears the superhero genre reached its zenith and has never again even attempted to achieve the heights to which Moore propelled it in his tale of flawed and tormented “heroes” struggling with great philosophical and moral questions. And yes, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman also produced some acclaimed, quality work with superhero comics around the time of Watchmen. But since then, it seems the superhero genre has been on a slow decline.
      Though, in recent years, I’ve looked at samples of many of the major works produced by Marvel and DC comics, the two superhero industry leaders, I can literally count on my fingers the number of stories that I felt approached truly high quality storytelling on the level of a good novel. Maybe the best of them was DC’s Identity Crisis, a miniseries by Brad Meltzer dealing with the consequences of superheroes brainwashing villains in order to protect the heroes’ secret identities and the identities of their loved ones. Meltzer, perhaps not coincidentally, was originally a successful novelist who later began delving into scripting comics. He is by no means alone among “serious” writers who have been recruited to author superhero tales. Respected novelists such as Jodi Picault and Michael Chabon have also taken their turns penning superhero comics. But, if anything, this would seem an indictment of the superhero comics industry, that they need to turn to outside talent to script some of their most acclaimed stories.
      I believe a big part of the internal problem that the industry faces, when attempting to create work that truly rises to the level of literature, is the fact that mainstream superhero comics suffer from a complete lack of real dramatic effect, and this is reflected in the writing of many of its regular authors. In classic superhero comics, it was a given that the hero would always win out by the end of the story – a sign more of melodrama, than true drama. Even when modern comic writers do now attempt to incorporate “drama” into their stories by killing off a major character, this appears to be more a cynical ploy by the editors in charge of the company – rather than a purely artistic decision by a single author – who are more interested in generating buzz and selling comics than in creating a significant work of art. In any case, the “drama” is completely removed from such stories because any regular reader of these titles knows that when Superman or Captain America is killed off, it’s only a matter of time before he is brought back from the dead. Such lack of drama has apparently become almost a farcical cliche within the industry, though it seems only an outsider like the aforementioned Meltzer can risk pointing it out, as he did in Identity Crisis when the superhero Green Arrow speaks to the ghost of his dead friend, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and matter of factly asks him ”So, Hal – when’re you coming back (from the dead)?”
      Superhero comic books at the level of Marvel and DC are, probably more than any other literary art form, a cooperative process and not just in terms of the cooperation between writer and artist. Editors, and even the writers of other books within the line, must often be consulted before any major changes can be made that might effect the overall continuity of the fictional comic universe and its major characters. But as the philosopher Rene Descartes pointed out, there is frequently less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by a single hand. Besides which, no one in charge of a major comic book line is going to allow one of their top, money making characters like Superman to stay dead for long, anyway.
      Moore’s Watchmen, though published by DC comics, worked, in large part, because it took place outside the main DC continuity. It was its own universe and Moore could do anything he wanted with his heroes (except, apparently, keep creative control over them as DC has now published a Watchmen prequel without its creator’s approval). He was able to kill his most compelling character at the end of the story while, essentially, allowing the villain of the piece to triumph. If this were ever done with mainstream heroes like Batman or Superman, the whole story line would have been quickly retconned (comic speak for calling a do over and rewriting history) essentially nullifying any real meaning in the original story. Think about this, just how moving would Romeo and Juliet have been if you knew immediately afterwards Shakespeare came out with Romeo and Juliet II where it turned out doctors had gotten to both young lovers just in time and managed to place them in suspended animation before reviving them and allowing them to live happily ever after?
      This isn’t to say standard superhero comics can’t be entertaining, in the way television sitcoms are entertaining or fast food is enjoyable. But there is a vast difference between something that is merely entertaining and enjoyable versus something that is inspired. Sadly, that uniquely American popular art form, the superhero comic, has for too long been content to settle for the former when they could be reaching for the latter.

Joe Lewis 1944-2012

5 Sep

      Joe Lewis died last week.
      That’s a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to most younger martial arts practitioners. But to those who know the history of American martial arts, Lewis was an immense figure whose influence was as far reaching as almost anyone.
      A United States Marine, Lewis was stationed in Okinawa in the early 1960s where he began training in karate and was reputed to have earned his black belt in just seven months. Upon returning to the United States, he became the most successful tournament karate competitor of the 1960s. Continually seeking to expand his fighting skills in a time when most martial artists were content to stick with one traditional style, Lewis was among the first major martial arts figures to train extensively with leading boxers and would go on to work, for a brief period, with Bruce Lee.
      Dissatisfied with the unrealistic nature of tournament karate competition, Lewis is credited with inventing the sport of kickboxing – later referred to as full-contact karate – in America in 1970. Though muay Thai style bouts had been held in parts of Asia for many years, this was the first time legitimate, sanctioned, full-contact fights including both kicks and punches were held in the U.S.
      But beyond his role as the father of American kickboxing, Lewis had an outstanding and innovative mind for martial arts. Having trained with him on several occasions over the years and having viewed a number of his instructional videos, I can say he was one of the few true geniuses I have ever met when it comes to understanding and analyzing the technical and strategic side of martial arts. His knowledge of the kicking and punching phases of standing combat may have been unsurpassed.
      For all that, Lewis never quite achieved the kind of recognition or legacy that many of his peers did. Though he had an undeniable charisma about him and starred in a couple of B movies, he never attained the film success of his old tournament rival, Chuck Norris. Nor did his Joe Lewis Fighting System ever gain the following that Lee’s jeet kune do did. This is, perhaps, unsurprising since Lewis was a mercurial man, often not easy to get along with. He had an arrogant bluntness about him which might lead him to tell a group of traditional karate or taekwondo students, who had paid to bring him in for a seminar, that their style was useless. He was equally arrogant about his own skills, occasionally boasting of his wrestling and grappling prowess, though from having watched him work with good grapplers in private, I would say his ability in this area was marginal at best.
      Al Tracy, the founder of the first nationally franchised chain of martial arts schools, who at one point brought Lewis in to supervise the training of his fighters throughout the chain, once mentioned how Lewis’s brashness was a means of hiding his own feelings of insecurity stemming from a difficult childhood with a demanding father. Lewis, himself, admitted in an interview that, deep down, he was basically a very shy individual.
      Personality aside, Lewis was truly one of the most significant figures in the history of American martial arts. From his early advocacy of boxing to his creation of kickboxing to his deep analysis of key fighting principles like critical distance and the angles of attack, his influence was vast and his passing is a loss to the martial arts world.

On Media Bias and Other Bugaboos

30 Aug

      As someone who was worked in journalism for a number of years, I’m frequently amused by claims of “media bias” and the alleged “agendas” that journalists supposedly possess.
      Now, while certain media companies may have an agenda that effects how their employees do their job, most decent, individual journalists are not driven by a desire to inflict their own particular points of view upon the public. What they are looking for is to report on stories that are deemed “newsworthy,” particularly by their editors or producers. If there is any bias going on among most mainstream reporters, it’s in what constitutes being “newsworthy.”
      To give an example of how most professional journalists think and operate, I’ll go back 20 years to when I was in school studying journalism. It was during a summer session that I, along with my classmates, were tasked by the instructor to venture out across the campus and conduct some interviews. The Democratic presidential convention was going on at this time and they had just nominated Al Gore as the vice presidential candidate to Bill Clinton (for those of you too young to remember him, Al Gore is the man who invented the internet and discovered global warming; he was later revealed to actually be a cyborg with no visible trace of human personality).
      In any case, the class’s assignment was to go around the school, interview at least three people for their opinions on Gore’s nomination, then come back and write up a story about what the reaction was to this news on campus. Since this was summer and the school was somewhat sparsely populated, my classmates and I all drifted down to the student center where the greatest number of people were likely to have congregated.
      Walking inside the student center, I grabbed the first person I passed and asked him what he thought of Al Gore’s nomination for vice president. His reply was “Who?” I got similar reactions from the next two people I talked to. They either didn’t know who Al Gore was or they simply didn’t care. Looking around, I could see by the confused, somewhat distressed looks on the faces of my fellow journalism students, that they were getting similar responses from everybody they had stopped to interview. But being eager and dedicated young journalists in training, this did not sit well with them as they continued to interview person after person hoping for better responses. I, however, being a lazy, shiftless, degenerate, quit after the requisite three people I was supposed to interview and immediately went back to the classroom and wrote up my story, which basically said: “The people around here don’t know nothin’ and they don’t care about nothin’.”
      But the interesting thing was, my fellow journalism students stayed around the student center continuing to interview people – some for up to an hour after I had left – until they finally each found three people who had some kind of opinion on Al Gore. They did not care if the person being interviewed loved Gore or hated him. They just wanted to find someone who could speak semi-intelligently about him so they could write how people around the university had these strong opinions.
      They all finally got what they needed and came back to write the standard reaction piece that I’m sure you’ve been reading ever since the Republicans recently nominated Paul Ryan as their vice presidential candidate for this year’s election… “So and so thinks the VP nominee will be a valuable addition to the ticket but such and such says that the VP nominee is terrible and will hurt the ticket, etc. etc…”
      The point is, my fellow would-be journalists did not care that much what view was being expressed about Al Gore. What they did care about was that someone express some kind of strong view because that was what was expected in such a reaction piece. Now, technically, what these other students wrote was just as factual as what I wrote, they hadn’t made up anything. But it was also less accurate. It gave a false impression about just how engaged the average person on campus was when it came to politics.
      The truth is that most of the people interviewed were college students and, like most college students, they probably spent most of their four years of higher education drunk, dumb and disinterested in the world at large (come to think of it, not all that bad a way to spend four years). But writing something like that is not what editors really want to see when they send you out to get reaction on a political story, even if it’s the truth. It’s probably not even what most readers want to see because it may remind them they’re drunk, dumb and disinterested as well and what do you need a newspaper to tell you that for?
      So, in the end, most professional journalists I’ve come across are not motivated by any great bias to influence people one way or the other. But they are often motivated by a kind of cramped, conventional thinking that determines what is “newsworthy” by standard expectations. Information that doesn’t meet with these expectations, even if it’s true and maybe even important, often gets discarded because it simply doesn’t fit into comfortable notions of what the news is supposed to be.
      And that may prove to be a more noxious problem than media bias ever was.

New Book Release: A Bittersweet Science

16 Aug

Happy to announce the release of my new novel (actually wrote it several years ago but, hey, I’ve been busy) A Bittersweet Science. Lengthier and a bit more serious than my previous novel, Pascal’s Wager, A Bitter Sweet Science is an epic look into the world of big-time boxing from the perspectives of the many individuals who make up this frequently brutal, yet often entrancing sport. But more than just a boxing story, it examines the profound philosophical question of whether the ends really do justify the means in a world without objective morality. If you want to see more, you can go to Amazon here:


You can purchase the book now, which is much appreciated, but I will be having a giveaway day on Amazon SUNDAY, AUGUST 19, 2012, when the book can be downloaded for FREE. If you do not have an e-reading device, Amazon will download a free ereader to your computer. So I’d encourage everyone to go pick up a copy at some point this Sunday and let me know what you think.

Below is the cover photo. A special thanks to:

Photographer K.S. Brooks http://www.ksbrooks.com
Cover Model Dave Courchaine
Cover Designer Todd Rice
And Adam Smith and the School of Boxing and MMA in Spokane, WA.

On the Decline of U.S. Olympic Wrestling

14 Aug

      So the United States took only four wrestling medals in this year’s Olympic games (props to men’s freestyle gold medalists Jordan Ernest Burroughs and Jacob Stephen Varner, bronze medalist Coleman Scott and women’s bronze medalist Clarissa Kyoko Mei Ling Chun) just one more than its disappointing three medal performance from 2008 when two American men and one woman medaled. Back in 2004, the U.S. nabbed six medals (four by male wrestlers, two by females) and in 2000, America took a total of seven medals just among male wrestlers before there were any women’s divisions to add to our count. So what has happened to America in a sport we once stood at the top of?
      There are probably a number of factors involved in the decline of U.S. Olympic wrestling but one that cannot be ignored has to be the emergence of mixed martial arts. Prior to the Ultimate Fighting Championships, American amateur wrestlers had no way of making money with their skills, save possibly going into professional wrestling, which most were loathe to do given the circus-like and prearranged nature of that game. So their only competitive outlet was to continue on in amateur wrestling.
      Even in the early days of the UFC, elite wrestlers like Mark Coleman and Randy Couture only entered into MMA after they were already on the downside of their wrestling careers. There was simply not enough incentive for good young wrestlers to give MMA a try. Wrestlers work their whole life to go to the Olympics and the combination of time spent training for a different sport and the potential for injuries made MMA an afterthought for those who had a shot at an Olympic medal. But that was when MMA was a minor sport and even the top competitors were only being paid a few thousands dollars – hardly enough to risk an Olympic dream for.
      But over the past ten years, MMA in general and the UFC in particular have grown exponentially in terms of popularity… and pay checks. Top UFC fighters can now earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, champions can earn millions. It has become the one outlet where a skilled amateur wrestler can employ his skills to make a decent living. So is it any wonder many top collegiate wrestlers say they look forward not to the Olympics but to becoming a UFC fighter?
      While this has been a boon to the sport of MMA, it appears to have become a severe drain on U.S. Olympic wrestling. Some cases in point:
      Ben Askren, once the top collegiate wrestler in the U.S. and someone who came close to medaling in 2008 in his first trip to the Olympics, probably would have been a favorite to medal – perhaps even win a gold – in this year’s games. Instead, he abandoned wrestling to make a living competing in MMA for the Bellator promotion.
      Johny Hendricks was a two-time NCAA champion who, instead of taking a shot at international wrestling when he graduated college in 2007, went directly into MMA. Though he’s now a top contender for the UFC welterweight crown, it’s also possible you might have been seeing him on the medal stand in London this year if things had gone differently.
      Jon Jones, though he was only a junior college wrestling champion, likely had the talent to be successful on a much larger wrestling stage. Once slated to wrestle for Iowa State (one of the major collegiate wrestling programs in the country) before he got sidetracked, Jones ended up as the UFC lightheavyweight champion and is seemingly on his way to becoming one of the greatest fighters in the history of MMA. But his natural athleticism (two brothers currently in the NFL) and his uncanny wrestling skill (he has easily outwrestled former NCAA All-Americans like Ryan Bader inside the Octagon) perhaps would have given him a chance to medal in the Olympics if his career had gone down a different path.
      While I love MMA and am not unhappy to see great athletes such as these adding to the sport’s talent pool, it’s unfortunate that MMA’s gain has to come at the expense of another sport, particularly one in which America has had such a rich tradition over the years.
      There don’t appear to be any easy solutions here. Though, after the failures of 2008, a program was instituted to guarantee American wrestlers $250,000 if they won a gold medal, that does not help them pay the bills while they’re training for that medal. And given that a gold medal is such a long shot, even for top wrestlers, the incentive this provides would appear to be minimal when compared to the immediate possibility of a pay day in MMA.
      The idea of attempting to do both sports seems even more far fetched. Former Greco-Roman wrestling world champion Joe Warren, after moving to MMA and achieving some moderate success with Bellator, faired poorly when he tried to go back to wrestling this year in a vain attempt to qualify for the Olympics. Both sports are specialties that require complete dedication. To try and take time from one to compete part time in the other will likely only lead to failure in both (Warren also lost his Bellator title by knockout this year, as well).
      Short of someone coming forward to pay big bucks to American wrestlers simply to stay in that sport and compete internationally, perhaps the one hope for a reascendancy of U.S. wrestling on the international scene is an increased international growth of MMA. When wrestlers in Russia and other countries see they, too, can make a lot of money by dropping out of wrestling and entering MMA, then the playing field may start to level off. But until MMA becomes a worldwide phenomenon, not just among fans but among those wanting to compete in it, it seems U.S. Olympic wrestling may well continue to decline.

A Few Random Thoughts on the Olympics

6 Aug

A 16 year old girl made history as the first woman to ever compete for Saudi Arabia when she entered the London games’ judo competition. While it was nice to see Saudi Arabia come into – if not the 21st century then at least – the 20th century, she had apparently never before competed in any sort of judo competition and only had two years of training. She lost her first match in 82 seconds. Good to see Olympic judo maintaining their high qualifying standards. Also good to see she had the support of her open minded countrymen, some of whom referred to her online as “the Olympic prostitute.” I love how the Olympics brings people together.

Watching Paul McCartney at the opening ceremonies made me believe euthanasia for the elderly might not be that bad an idea.

Last year the (Amateur) International Boxing Association was accused of accepting a ten million dollar bribe from Azerbaijan in return for making sure that country won a couple of gold medals. The AIBA investigated itself and concluded it hadn’t done anything wrong, which is kind of like when O.J. Simpson went on his hunt to find the real killer of his ex-wife. An Azerbaijani boxer was then put down five times in the last round of his match against a Japanese boxer the other day, yet somehow still managed to “earn” the decision from the judges. I’m sure it was just a coincidence. The decision was actually overturned after a popular outcry. I wonder if the Azerbaijanis can get a refund?

They should have had the queen really jump out of a helicopter.

Kayla Harrison became the first American to ever win a gold medal in judo. I looked around on four different TV channels that were broadcasting coverage during that day to see if they were playing her match. But they seemed too busy showing beach volleyball. Hey, I like watching girls in bikinis jump around as much as anyone but come on, show some “unpopular” sports for a change. And to add insult to injury, the beach volleyball players were wearing long pants! What is this, Saudi Arabia?

Am I alone is questioning why synchronized diving and trampoline gymnastics need to be in the Olympics?

The U.S. men’s basketball team displayed the true Olympic ideals in beating Nigeria by 83 points. I’m sure they could have won by a hundred but didn’t want to embarrass the Nigerians.

India has over a billion people but, the last time I checked, had only earned two medals. At least they still have that national spelling bee thing going for them.

The archery competition would be more interesting if they shot apples off each other’s heads.

The Olympics represent the worst aspects of modern commercialism and corrupt internationalism. They are a blight upon the sports landscape (unless we end up winning the medal count).

Getting to the Point (Of Bladed Combat)

30 Jul

      Had some questions addressed to me recently on an author’s forum regarding writing sword fighting scenes. It’s a good excuse, here, to get into a brief discussion of combat with bladed weapons in general.
      First of all, I’ll point out that it’s extremely rare to see any sort of combat situation in America (or most other places) where two or more combatants have bladed weapons drawn and are fighting with them. That is simply not the way real world combat situations occur. If someone pulls out a knife, they’re not going to wait for you to pull out your knife (assuming you even have one). They are likely going to stab you before you ever have a chance to get to your weapon. But the realities of knife self-defense are a topic for another time. Instead, I’m simply going to address the (unlikely) circumstance that both participants have pulled out bladed weapons and are preparing to engage in combat with them.
      From a technical perspective, this leads to the interesting question of whether you should attack or counterattack (Note, most fighting arts which specialize in combat with bladed weapons do not like to use the terms “defend” or “defense” believing these phrases connote too passive a mind set. They instead refer to defending against an opponent’s attack as being “counter offensive,” meaning the other person would attack before you do but you somehow prevent his attack from cutting you while immediately attacking him with your own weapon. This is essentially a semantic argument over terminology and not really that vital to the discussion at hand).
      Many modern martial arts specializing in self-defense or military combatives, when addressing close quarters combat, prefer the first option recommending that you always seize the initiative and attack first, before the opponent. There is a great deal of merit in this approach given that a person reacting to an attack will always be a split second behind the person initiating the attack which, in theory, means the person who strikes first will always have the advantage, both physically and psychologically. However, when bladed weapons are being used by both combatants, the optimal strategy becomes a little less clear.
      You would think, if you attack first with a sword or knife against someone similarly armed, you should have the advantage as they will have to first recognize your attack and then move quickly enough, after the attack is already underway, to somehow stop your blade from cutting them before they can even think about counter attacking you. This can be accomplished, on their part, in a number of ways: by avoiding your blade; by blocking your blade with their blade; by blocking your weapon arm with one of their arms; or by actually cutting at your weapon arm with their weapon. All of those defensive measures would, theoretically, be followed up by a counterattack with their own weapon against a vital target on your body.
      These are fairly logical means of defending against a bladed weapon attack which not only trained people would use but most rational, intelligent people would employ in such circumstances, even if untrained. However, it’s also an approach which would seem to give some small advantage to the person who initiates the attack.
      But one problem may arise when you are initiating an attack against an untrained individual who is not rational or intelligent. Say you stab at someone with your weapon. Now any half-way reasonable person, even if they have a weapon of their own, knows this is dangerous and is going to try and not get stabbed before they look to stab you. But if you are dealing with a crazy person, someone under the influence of drugs, or just a complete idiot, there is the possibility he may ignore your attack and simply step forward and try to stab you. While you will likely be successful in stabbing them with your attack, there is also a good chance that, a fraction of a second after you stab them, they will successfully stab you.
      This is not what you want in a fight with knives or swords.
      This is one reason why many fighting arts which specialize in combat with bladed weapons recommend generally taking a more counter-offensive approach. The theory is that by waiting for your opponent to initiate the attack, he will both create an opening in his defense which you can exploit and he will commit his weapon, which will allow you to know where it is going and thus (hopefully) take the appropriate action to prevent getting cut by it. This type of counter offensive approach is something I have heard propounded in both Filipino martial arts and classical Western fencing styles. While I am not totally convinced by the arguments in favor of this approach (there is simply too little empirical evidence to go by as few living people have ever witnessed two individuals actually battling with real bladed weapons) I do believe they make a strong, logical case for the counter-offensive method.
      However, one other thing to consider is that most current weapon arts, even the ones that claim to be designed for the battlefield, are largely based on dueling. There is a significant difference between the one-on-one dynamics involved in a duel and what you might encounter on a military battlefield. On a battlefield, you would likely not have the time or luxury to wait for an opponent to make the first move and expose himself to counterattack. You may well be dealing with multiple opponents and if you start waiting around for the person in front of you to commit himself to an attack, the person to your left or right might suddenly stab you. Thus, in a battlefield situation, the optimum strategy might well be to take the initiative going straight for the nearest opponent and cutting him down as quickly as possible before going on to the next opponent and attempting to dispatch him as quickly as possible. Against multiple opponents you simply would not have as much time to wait and look for openings as you would in a one-on-one duel.
      In a self-defense situation on the street, either of these situations might come into play. You might be confronted with a single, knife wielding foe with no one else nearby; you might be confronted by several armed foes; or you might be confronted by one person but with several other people nearby about whom you are uncertain of whether they are threats.
      From a purely technical perspective, the idea of counterattacking, rather than attacking first, may have some merit in bladed combat. But, as with most other things in combat, it would have to be employed at the appropriate time and place.

Buy A Book, Save an Orphan

17 Jul

For all you non techies without a Kindle, Nook or iPad (like me) my detective novel, Pascal’s Wager, is now available in paperback. Just click on the book cover here:

Also still available for just $0.99 as an ebook in all digital formats at these sites:




All proceeds will go to support a village of blind, one legged orphans in Ethiopia (unless I blow it playing online poker, first).

The Best Ever

5 Jul

      Anyone who follows mixed martial arts knows this weekend will see one of the most anticipated match-ups the sport has ever witnessed as UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva once again defends his title against Chael Sonnen. Their first battle, two years ago, was considered a classic as Sonnen used his world class wrestling skills to take down and control Silva for four and a half rounds. The champion, who had dominated all his previous opponents in the UFC and had never come close to even being pushed in a fight, proved his metal by pulling off a submission from his back in the last two minutes of the bout in order to save his title.
      Though it wouldn’t completely shock me if Sonnen scored an upset Saturday given his strong performance in their first match, the pick here has to be Silva. His history has been to turn in spectacular performances in fights where he is really motivated. After taking severe criticism for a lackluster showing against Thales Leites in 2009, Silva answered his critics by giving one of the most incredible athletic displays I’ve ever witnessed in person when he took just two minutes to obliterate Forrest Griffin in his next bout (he knocked out Griffin while moving backwards with just a jab, something that you’re simply not supposed to be able to do). Then, in 2011, in his all-Brazilian grudge match with Vitor Belfort, Silva pulled off a UFC first by knocking out his challenger with a front kick to the face in the opening round. Given that Sonnen’s trash talk has sparked the normally subdued Silva to say he will break all the challenger’s teeth, break both his arms and both his legs, I’m guessing the champion is motivated.
      Of course, that can cut both ways. It’s possible Silva may be so angry, he loses his composure and makes some stupid mistakes. But win or lose, Silva’s legacy as the greatest fighter in the history of MMA is secure.
      As I wrote for Black Belt Magazine back in 2009 after the Griffin fight, Silva’s skills are the epitome of what most people dream about when they enter the martial arts. He actualizes the ideal of one strike knockouts and effortless technique while usually managing to take little punishment in return. He possesses the ability that most people aspire to when they first see martial arts performed in the movies: he can end a fight with a single blow from either hand or either foot. And if it goes to the ground, he can beat you there with ease as well. He is, simply put, the best the sport has ever seen.

A Synopsis and Excerpt From Pascal’s Wager

23 Jun

      Anyone who has bothered to glance over at the right side of the screen will notice the cover photos and links to my detective novel, Pascal’s Wager. Thought I’d let people know a little bit more about it. It’s got a little martial arts, a little poker and a little philosophy in it. Something for everyone…


      Destined for a brilliant career in academia, Pascal Silver instead decides to be a risk taker. Packing up his unfinished philosophy dissertation he moves to Las Vegas to pursue his dual goals of winning the World Series of Poker and the only slightly less daunting task of finding the meaning to existence.
      Low on cash, Pascal is forced to take a part-time job at a private detective agency. Now, with his boss out of town, into his life walks the gorgeous Allegra LaPierre. She asks Pascal to find out who murdered her father, casino owner “Houston Phil” LaPierre.
      Using his uncanny poker skills, Pascal can tell everyone involved with Houston Phil has something to hide, including his ex-stripper widow, his knucklehead son, Bruce, and his old business partner, Fat Johnny, who’s in debt to a local gangster. Complicating matters, Bruce LaPierre is suddenly found dead in his office and the number one suspect is Allegra. Though all the evidence points to his client’s guilt, Pascal falls back on the famous wager of faith put forth by his illustrious namesake. He chooses to have faith in Allegra, not just because he’s gone head over heels for her, but because it’s a good bet.
      But when representatives of the Chicago mob show up and tell him to drop the case, Pascal has to take his greatest gamble yet. With Allegra’s life hanging in the balance, he’ll need to pull off the biggest bluff he’s ever attempted to get her back alive. Even if he does, he’s still left with the question “Who killed Phil?” a question only he is shrewd enough to answer.

An Excerpt From Chapter 5:

      After about a minute, I dragged myself to my feet. Someone came running over and asked what happened.
      “Lovers’ quarrel,” I said, hobbling to the elevator.
      The ringing had cleared from my head and I didn’t think I had a concussion or any other serious damage. But my ribs sure hurt like hell. I stepped inside the elevator and pressed the button for the casino.
      There was a mirror in the elevator and I finally got a look at myself. It wasn’t pretty.
      My shirt was dirty and torn, a trickle of blood was streaming from my left ear and my left eye was a little swollen and turning an ugly blue/black color.
      The elevator door opened and I stepped out. Fortunately, the poker room was not far, just on the other side of the sports book. Despite my condition, there were only a few odd glances cast at me. The disheveled, down and out are not an uncommon sight in casinos.
      I went into the high stakes poker area and looked around for Blackie White but didn’t see him so I strolled over to the table that usually hosted the 300-600 game.
      Jack McGee set eyes on me and said, “Christ, Pascal, you look even worse than usual. What happened?”
      “Your wife was over-enthusiastic,” I said. “Have you seen Blackie White around?”
      “No. Ask Joe – he’s over there,” McGee answered, pointing with his chin toward a table in the rear of the room.
      I headed to the back of the poker room and saw Nevada Joe Smith sitting alone at a table reading the Daily Racing Form. In front of him he had three racks of pink chips. Pink was the color the Mediterranean used for its thousand dollar chip. Joe had three full racks of all pink in front of him. Three hundred thousand dollars.
      “Hey, Joe,” I said.
      Smith glanced up from his racing form and said, “Jeez, you look like you wandered in front of the starting gate at Churchill Downs.”
      “Yeah, you should see the other guy,” I answered. “Look, I need to talk with Blackie. Do you know where he is?”
      Joe folded his racing form and put it down on the table next to the chips.
      “That old bastard doesn’t know when to quit. I told him to take it easy, he doesn’t have the stamina he used to have. But he gets in a good game and he just won’t listen.”
      “What happened?”
      “Right after you left the other day, some Chinaman comes in with a wad of cash. Sits down in the 300-600 game and starts to go off for all his money. Then he rebuys and loses that, too. Then he rebuys again. I’m telling you, it was like Christmas come early. Everyone got well. Blackie, he played all through the night and into yesterday morning – must have won sixty thousand. But when I talked to him a little while ago, he still couldn’t get out of bed. Crazy old bastard.”
      “That’s too bad.”
      “You left at just the wrong time, Pascal. You could have had a big score.”
      “Story of my life,” I said.
      “What did you want with Blackie, anyhow?”
      “I needed some information. I thought he might be able to tell me a little about Houston Phil LaPierre.”
      “Houston Phil? What do you want to know about him for?”
      “I got hired to investigate his murder.”
      “Well, Blackie would be the right person to ask. Him and Phil go all the way back to Texas. He knew him out here for years before even I did.”
      “You knew Phil?”
      “Hell yeah. Time was, every poker player in this town knew Philly. When I first came out here, over forty years ago, the Lonestar had the biggest poker room in town. That was where we played.”
      “What can you tell me about him?”
      Joe shrugged and said, “He had a good poker room.”
      “I was looking for a bit more depth than that, Joe.”
      “Well, he was a tough sonuvabitch, I’ll tell you that. Killed a couple of fellas down in Texas. Ran some rackets down there, I think. Then came here and opened the Lonestar.”
      “Did he have mob connections?”
      “I couldn’t say for sure. Those fellas were always around back then but the Lonestar had a reputation as about the cleanest place in town. Somehow, Phil managed to keep those guys out of his business.”
      “I don’t know.”
      “The name Vincent Molinaro mean anything to you?”
      “Little Vinny Molinaro? Sure, I knew him well. His old man used to run the whole mob in Chicago and was one of the biggest investors in Vegas, if you get my drift. Little Vinny used to come out here, sometimes to look after his old man’s business interests but mostly to have fun. He used to come by and play poker at the Lonestar… terrible card player. Then he’d go off for a big number at the dice tables and Phil would comp him to a room just to keep him around so he’d lose some more money.”
      “What’s he doing, now?”
      Smith looked at me like the kick in the head I had received must have relieved me of my senses.
      “Don’t you know? Vincent Molinaro? He took over for his old man maybe 20 years ago. He runs the whole Chicago mob.”
      “Oh, that Vincent Molinaro,” I said.
      “Now you listen to me, Pascal. You got alligator blood in you, sure enough, but you still don’t want no truck with Vincent Molinaro. The desert around here is filled with holes from folks that pissed off those fellas over the years so whatever you’re doing with Molinaro, stop it right now before you end up in one.”
      “Sure. I was just asking because the name happened to come up.”
      Smith gave me a look like he had just caught me in the most horrible of bluffs but said nothing.
      “What about Johnny Beckett,” I asked. “You know anything about him?”
      “‘Fat Johnny’? Sure, everybody knows Fat Johnny in this town. Or at least they used to. He was a worse gambler than Vinny Molinaro. Johnny would go to a craps table and put down every dollar he had on eight the hard way, miss, go to his bank, take out all his money, then come back and do it again. Never saw a bigger addict than him or a fella with worse luck. Johnny must have gone through three, four million dollars over the years, easy.”
      “How come I didn’t know about this? I know most of the big players in town.”
      “He doesn’t play as much any more. Occasionally, but not as often.”
      “How come?”
      “Same reason as everyone else – he ran out of money.”
      I nodded, taking in what Smith had told me.
      Finally, I said, “Okay, Joe. Thanks for the information. If you see Blackie around, let him know I still want to talk with him.”
      “Alright. But hey, Pascal, seriously, you are gonna stay away from Vinny Molinaro, aren’t you?”
      “Come on, Joe. You know me.”
      “I do. That’s what worries me,” he said.
      Smith stood up from his chair and took me by the arm leading me into a private corner of the room. He left the three hundred thousand sitting there at the table without a backwards glance. It was one of the unrealities of the poker life that high stakes professionals left hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting at the tables with no second thought. And it was always there when they got back.
      “Listen, son, it’s like with your poker. You’re a great card player but you got to learn to rein it in. Like when you were down to the last ten players at the World Series a couple of years ago. You had the second most chips at the table and could have coasted into one of the top spots, been sure to make yourself at least a million dollars. So what do you do? You get yourself involved in a big pot with the chip leader, the only player at the table that can bust you. And that’s just what happened.”
      “It was a bad beat,” I said, quietly.
      “The worst. You should have won the whole damn tournament that day. But that’s not the point. The point is, you got some gamble in you which is good. But you got to learn where the line is between risky and just plain crazy.”
      I nodded, understanding Joe’s lesson.
      “Thank you, Obi-wan,” I said.
      Smith snorted at me.
      “What are all the pinks for?” I finally asked, indicating the fortune in chips he had sitting on the table.
      “The Greek’s in town,” he answered.
      “The Greek” was a Greek shipping tycoon who came to Vegas two or three times a year looking to play high stakes poker. He had millions and, best of all, couldn’t play cards to save his life.
      “He’s looking to play high,” said Smith. “We’re playing 3,000-6,000 in a few minutes. Do you want to get in? I’ll stake you. I take all the risk and you can have ten percent of whatever you win.”
      It felt good that someone of Nevada Joe Smith’s stature was willing to stake me with their own money in such a big game. Normally, I would have jumped at the chance to play for those kind of stakes against the very best players in the world. With the Greek in the game, I could easily win $100,000 if things went well. The ten percent would cover my entry fee into the next World Series. But I also knew I was nowhere near right, mentally or physically, to play in a game like that. If it had just been my money, I might have played anyway. But risking a friend’s money was different. Besides, I had a few pressing matters that needed tending too.
      I thanked Joe for the offer but explained why I had to turn him down.
      “Okay, Pascal. Good luck. And remember what I said.”
      “I will,” I assured him.
      He stared at me a long moment, then sighed and said, “No, you won’t. You got too much gamble in you. I just hope you’re good enough to back it up.”
      “Yeah, me too.”

What Happened to Boxing?

15 Jun

(The following piece was written more than a week ago, prior to last Saturday night’s controversial decision in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight. If anything, the result of that fight serves to underscore some of the points made below.)

      Thirty years back, when I was just a kid, my favorite sport to watch was professional boxing. As a youth, no one was a bigger fan than I was. I’d watch every fight that came on TV, read boxing magazines like The Ring voraciously and generally study up on everything there was to know about the sweet science. It was a great era for the sport – Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns, Alexis Arguello and Larry Holmes. These were the sporting idols of my youth.
      So when I tell you I’ve lost much of my interest in boxing, you know the sport is in trouble.
      Once upon a time, the two major professional sports in the United States were baseball and boxing. But while the national pastime continues to sell out stadiums every day of the summer, boxing has fallen into that nether realm of second tier athletic events somewhere between tennis and the lingerie football league. How did this happen to a sport that once gripped the national consciousness to such a degree that it’s major champions, men like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, became not just significant figures in sporting history but significant figures in American history as a whole? To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel “Where have you gone Joe Louis?”
      While it’s tempting for some to blame the rise of mixed martial arts and the UFC as causing the downfall of boxing, the reality is that MMA has probably had little to do with the decline of interest in pugilism. The truth of the situation is that boxing simply shot itself in the foot. And if MMA has succeeded where boxing has failed, its largely because they have avoided these sort of self-inflicted wounds.
      Probably the three major factors in the slow death-by-foot-infection that is boxing are television, titles and integrity… and how boxing screwed up all three.
      The first, and arguably biggest, of these factors is lack of quality boxing on free TV. All those great fighters I mentioned earlier? The Leonards and Haglers and Durans? They all fought title fights on network TV at some point in their careers. Sure, some of their biggest bouts were on pay-per-view broadcasts (Or, back then, closed circuit broadcasts where you had to go to an arena to watch it on a big screen). But at least some of their fights were offered for free on CBS or ABC.
      What a novel idea. If you’re going to charge me $49.99 to watch a boxer fight, at least let me see him for free once or twice so I know if he’s any good. But in recent years, every top flight young boxer goes directly to premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime. Then, as soon as they get to a championship level, they go right to PPV where their fights cost anywhere from twenty to sixty dollars to watch. So, if you’re like me and don’t have HBO, you’re being asked to shell out money to watch on television a couple of fighters you may have never actually seen before. Um… No thanks? Contrast that to the UFC who offered a heavyweight championship bout between the champion and the number one contender for free on the Fox channel last year.
      The second factor causing an ever diminishing interest in boxing is the preponderance of weight divisions and champions. When boxing first became an organized and significant sport more than a hundred years ago, there were only eight weight divisions – heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, featherweight, bantamweight and flyweight – and, for the most part, one recognized champion per division. Then someone came up with the bright idea to add a few extra divisions: junior middleweight, junior welterweight, junior lightweight. Okay, still not too terrible, only eleven weight divisions. Then there came the dueling sanctioning bodies, each with their own champions. Then additional weight divisions… And more sanctioning bodies…
      The last time I checked, there were 17 weight divisions and 4 major sanctioning bodies, each with their own set of “world champions.” That’s a total of 68 world championship titles in professional boxing. Compare that to MMA, which currently has 8 recognized weight divisions and where the UFC champion is pretty much regarded as the true world champion by almost everyone who follows the sport. Sixty-eight “world champions” versus eight champions. Where does a title hold more prestige?
      It’s not just a matter of prestige but all those weight divisions and champions have an even greater negative impact on the sport of boxing through the fact that now, good fighters no longer have to ever fight each other.
      Take the case of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Generally regarded as the two best boxers in the world, Mayweather and Pacquiao happen to be about the same weight so you’d think they’d be fighting each other to decide just who is the world’s greatest boxer. Unh-unh, not in boxing. With the plethora of championships to choose from, Mayweather and Pacquiao have been able to pluck titles out of thin air for years, all the while referring to themselves as the world champ and not having to prove it against the other man in the ring. Now if there were a sane number of weight divisions and only one champion per division, there would be much more pressure on these two men to meet as viewers tend to have more interest in, and pay more money to see, fights that have a “championship” on the line. So if you’re a boxer and there can only be one champion out there, you’re probably going to want to fight the guy who has it. But with 68 titles available, it’s almost to the point where a good boxer can pick up a championship anywhere. And when everyone is a champion, really, it’s like no one is a champion, which is not something that creates fan interest.
      The third factor I mentioned is integrity, meaning a lack of integrity that pervades the game. This is more a personal factor that contributed to my own loss of interest in the sport as boxing, despite its endemic corruption, seemed to go on fine for decades before I came along. But if this eventually killed my interest in the sport, I can only assume it did the same to others.
      For me, the turning point in my love affair with boxing came 13 years ago watching the first fight between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. I was with a couple of friends watching Lewis completely dominate the PPV match. When it was over, one of my friends started to leave and I said, “Hey, aren’t you going to stay for the decision?”
      He replied there was no need, it was a clear cut win for Lewis (punch stats showed Lewis landed nearly three times as many punches over the course of the fight). I told him not to be so sure. This was, after all, boxing.
      After he had gone, the second friend asked me if I really believed they could somehow give the decision to Holyfield. I thought about it a moment, then replied, “No, but they might call it a draw.”
      He looked at me as if I were crazy and, indeed, there was no logical way any impartial observer could not have picked Lewis as the winner. But then the ring announcer started to read the judges’ scorecards.
      If you’ve watched enough boxing and listened to enough ring announcers over the years, you get familiar with the verbal tells they have when they start to announce a decision. You will usually know, as soon as he starts speaking into the microphone, if the announcer is going to say they have a unanimous decision or a split decision. In the case of Lewis and Holyfield, as soon as the ring announcer opened his mouth, I could tell he was going to say they had a split decision.
      Instantly, I turned to my remaining friend and said, “It’s a draw.”
      And I was right, the fight ended up being called a draw. My friend stared at me and asked how I could have known that with so much certainty, like I was a psychic. But it was no precognitive powers, rather an unfortunate acquaintance with the shady side of boxing. Because as soon as the announcer started to say it was a split decision, I flashed back to another fight several years earlier between Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez, probably the two premier boxers of the early 1990s. Unlike nowadays, these two men at least met each other in the ring, where Whitaker dominated the entire fight. But Whitaker was promoted by the Duva family while Chavez was promoted by Don King. Besides having a reputation as the most scurrilous promoter in the game, King was also the most influential promoter of that time. Thus, it was no surprise that “somehow” the judges called the fight a draw and preserved Chavez’s unbeaten record and his title.
      Flash forward five-and-a-half years to Lewis-Holyfield. Both men had a piece of the heavyweight title and the winner would be recognized as clearly the best heavyweight on the planet. Lewis was promoted by the Duva family while Holyfield, once a Duva fighter, was now promoted by Don King. The parallel jumped out at me when it came time to read the judges’ scores and I knew they would do the exact same thing they did in the Whitaker-Chavez fight – call it a draw and allow Don King’s champion to keep his title a little longer.
      I never payed for another PPV boxing match again. When you know the outcome ahead of time, it becomes silly to pay money to see the fight. Now say what you want about the poor quality of judging in mixed martial arts but one thing you rarely hear, at least in UFC bouts, is that it is corrupt. Unfortunately, that is something you regularly hear about boxing judges.
      So that is why I have given up hope for boxing. Sure, I’ll still take a look if they show a replay of a Pacquiao or Mayweather fight on free TV (months, or even years, after the fight originally aired on PPV). I continue to workout in boxing gyms and even write about boxing. But I don’t pay to watch it anymore. The powers that be have simply killed much of my enthusiasm for the sport. And while MMA has not yet fallen into the trap boxing set for itself, I can, sadly, see a day, years down the road, when they will start making the same mistakes as well. Greed eventually ruins everything.
      At that point, I’ll have to drop down the sporting ladder and start watching that lingerie football league. At least that’s a sport which will still have its integrity.

The Top Five “Super” Martial Artists of All Time

8 Jun

      Since the Avengers movie is such a hot commodity right now (though I have, so far, refused to go see it since I know I’ll just be pissed off over its deviations from the beloved comicbook of my youth) I thought this might be an appropriate time to produce the definitive list of the five greatest superhero martial arts experts…

Number 5: Karate Kid
      No, not that Karate Kid. This one was a member of DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes, a team of young, 31st century crimefighters (apparently, even in the 31st century, karate experts will still be wearing gi-like uniforms). He only ranks number five on the list due to inexperience. After all, he is just… a kid. Maybe when he becomes Karate Man, he will move up on the list.

Number 4: Iron Fist
      A Marvel Comics creation who has the ability to focus all of his chi energy into his fist, which apparently makes for a pretty hard punch. But his most impressive technique is that, while he died years ago, he seems to be back now, better than ever. Hah! Take that Bruce Lee!

Number 3: Shang Chi, Master of Kung-Fu
      Speaking of Bruce Lee, who can forget Marvel Comics’ answer to the late cinematic martial arts icon, a character created at the height of the kung-fu craze in the early 1970s. He could kick through brick walls while spouting fortune cookie philosophy (My personal favorite was when he tried to cross the street against a red light and a policeman stopped him. Shang Chi argued there was no traffic on the street and the cop said it didn’t matter, he still had to obey the light, to which Shang Chi replied by asking the cop, does that mean if the light is green I should still cross even if traffic is coming? And then chiding the policeman that if not for this nuisance, he would be a block down the street now and further upon his journey of life). And you know he had to be good at kung-fu, it says right there in his title he’s a master.

Number 2: Captain America
      You didn’t really think I’d have a kung-fu guy ahead of Captain America did you? I mean, come on, he’s Captain America! And I’m not talking Randy Couture, here. This Marvel Comics super solider supposedly trained in every form of combat known to man when he became the army’s answer to the Ultimate Fighter in World War II. And besides, he’s Captain America! How could he not be on a list of the greatest anything?

Number 1: Batman
      As much as you have to love Captain America, the nod here has to go to DC’s caped crusader. It comes down to a big experience advantage for Batman over Cap. Batman got started crimefighting in the 1930s, a few years before Captain America came along in WWII. And then Captain America was frozen in suspended animation at the end of the war for a couple of decades. You know that kind of layoff has to erode your skills a little. Meanwhile, Batman was still out there training every day. How good is this guy? Even Superman comes to him for help on occasion. If you need further proof, check out the old Adam West television show. In the infamous Batman and Robin meet the Green Hornet and Kato cross-over episode, Bruce Lee couldn’t even take Robin in a fight. So just how do you think he would have done against Batman? Think about it. Forget Bruce, Chuck, Carradine, Couture, Silva or any of them. Hands down, best martial artist ever, Batman. Nuff said.

Getting it Wrong: Some Common Mistakes in Fight Literature

31 May

The fine folks at www.indiesunlimited.com enjoyed my recent post on what makes a great literary fight scene. They wanted to repost it on their site, then asked if I could write a follow-up for their “Getting it Right” column. So I came up with the following piece on some mistakes that authors make when writing fictional fight scenes, which is being run simultaneously on my site and their site. Even if you read it here, go check them out, anyway. Anyone interested in independent authors or picking up some tips on writing will find some interesting stuff there…

      Having previously written about what makes a good literary fight scene, I thought an appropriate follow up might be to examine some mistakes that can potentially ruin the action in a novel.
      Now, if you’re like me, nothing can grab your attention in a book like a nicely portrayed bit of violence. Indeed, the climax to many an action/adventure novel is often some sort of life and death brawl between hero and villain. A fight scene can be a graphic example of a hero’s innate superiority or a chance to put him or her into a bit of peril. It can offer the reward of giving an annoying antagonist his comeuppance or just be used to keep the reader engaged during an otherwise slow section of the story. Unfortunately, when it comes to portraying these scenes, most writers are not fighters and don’t know the difference between throwing a right and throwing some write.
      Of course, the average reader also may not be all that well versed in the intricacies of combat and, therefore, any mistakes or inaccuracies found in a literary fight scene may simply pass by them unnoticed. But for someone who does know a little about how violence goes down in the real world, poorly written or inaccurate action scenes can leave you shaking your head saying “That could never happen.” In extreme cases, such as a novel purported to be gritty and realistic, it can ruin the whole tenor of the story.
      As someone who has done martial arts most of their life, who has written extensively for various martial arts publications, and who did a fair amount of scientific research on the subject while composing the book, The Principles of Unarmed Combat, I’m one of those people who gets annoyed by poorly written or inaccurate fight scenes.
      Now clearly, there are different levels of realism that can be involved in a fictional action sequence. A battle between superheroes or jedi knights does not have to be bound by the same laws of realism that a fight between mere normal humans would be. And even in a fight between humans, there can be stylistic flashes (think Errol Flynn dueling in Robin Hood) which would never happen in real life but are – strictly speaking – not wholly impossible.
      But where many literary action sequences go wrong is when they stray, not into the realm of the improbable but rather, into that realm of physical impossibility. There are certain things writers will sometimes describe in combative scenes which are just plain, factually wrong. And as a knowledgeable reader, this kills any believability I might have in the scene.
      The writer is not completely to blame for this. There is a good deal of inaccurate information floating around out there on martial arts and fighting techniques. And much of this information comes not from writers but from alleged “experts” in the martial arts. But people need to keep in mind, martial arts are not like the medical or legal professions. There is no AMA or bar association to certify the credentials of martial arts masters. So anything you hear from martial artists – particularly regarding the scientific and medical aspects of various fighting techniques – has to be taken with a grain of salt. Just because somebody can beat you up, doesn’t mean he can explain how he does it.
      Probably the most egregious mistakes that get made in the course of depicting a fictional fight scene are the various medical consequences attributed to different techniques. Often, the damage that can supposedly be inflicted as the result of various martial arts blows is widely exaggerated or completely false.
      The biggest offender in this category are the “death blows.”
      Though it’s possible a single barehanded blow that lands near any vital organ, particularly a blow to the head that may effect the brain, can kill someone, this is extremely rare. Even top professional fighters do not kill people on command with a strike. Among the more fallacious “death blows” out there is the old strike to the nose that drives the nose bone back into the brain. No less a figure than Stephen King dragged this one out in his book Firestarter when his expert hitman, John Rainbird, contemplates killing someone by sending fragments of broken nose into a victim’s brain. The only problem is, it’s impossible. The nose is largely made of cartilage, which will generally just sort of smoosh when it gets hit hard enough. Besides which, there’s a wall of bone behind the nose area that would prevent any shards from actually entering the brain. While, again, any powerful blow to the head can theoretically cause death (though often such deaths are the result of a person losing consciousness and hitting their head on the ground after being struck), a blow to the nose is no more likely to do this than any other blow to the head.
      Another fallacy is that a trained martial artist can kill an opponent with a single blow to the heart. Though I’ve previously written about my enjoyment of the martial arts action/adventure novels by author Eric Van Lustbader, and have even praised some of his written fight scenes, when he starts describing the deadly “heart kite” strike, he strays into the realm of fantasy. Yes, in rare instances, people do die from blows to the chest that interrupt the heart rhythm – it’s occasionally happened in little league baseball games when fielders are hit with a line drive – but this is essentially a million to one shot that could never be done intentionally by a fighter.
      Even more ludicrous is the concept of a “delayed death touch,” a strike that can be timed to kill a person at a later date. Again, a person might receive an injury during the course of a fight that later causes him to fall over dead but this is sheer bad luck and not something anyone can intentionally do to another person.
      Besides technique fallacies, the second major category of mistakes seen in this area are the simple informational/factual errors that authors commonly make when writing about the martial arts. Years ago, it was common to refer to “the judo chop.” But anyone who bothers to do a little bit of research will quickly discover judo is a wrestling style and has no “chop.” That is a karate technique, where it is more commonly known as a “knifehand” or, in Japanese, as a “shuto.”
      Speaking of judo and karate, authors frequently toss such terms around without really knowing what they are talking about.
      Though James Clavell’s Shogun was an excellent piece of fiction, it left a lot to be desired as a piece of history. Clavell has some of his 16th century Japanese samurai doing judo and karate. He would have saved himself a bit of embarrassment if he did a little more research and learned that judo is a modern art only dating back to the late 19th century and karate originated in Okinawa and didn’t come to Japan until the early 20th century. And don’t even get me started on ninjutsu…
      The bottom line is, literary fight scenes and other depictions of martial arts and general violence do not have to be completely realistic but they should not be totally inaccurate. With a little bit of effort, writers can get their basic facts straight. And if they can’t come up with the hard facts they need for a fully realistic portrayal, they can always leave some of the action shrouded in mystery. A brilliant example of this latter technique comes in the novel Shibumi, in which the author, Trevanian, describes his master assassin, Nicholai Hel, as an expert in the esoteric Japanese martial art of “hoda korosu” or “naked/kill” which makes uses of common everyday items to kill people with. To the best of my knowledge, there is no specific martial art like this but Trevanian gets around this problem by including a footnote explaining it would be irresponsibly dangerous to describe the exact nature of this art or its techniques since some readers might misuse them. Not only does he brilliantly get to avoid describing the techniques in detail but he creates a sense of awe and wonder in the reader (Wow! That sounds so dangerous, I’d love to be able to do it!).
      And this, as much as anything, is what a good writer should strive to accomplish with his action scenes. Just don’t make too many mistakes to distract from that awe and wonder.

Keep Your Distance

22 May

      Watching Josh Barnett’s dismal performance against Daniel Cormier in their MMA fight this weekend, I was reminded of Cain Velasquez’s losing effort against Junior Dos Santos in their own UFC title bout last year.
      Now Barnett at least managed to survive the five rounds in his Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament final (where Velasquez got KO’d by punches in one round) but he also managed to make Cormier, better known as an Olympic wrestler who came in with only nine MMA fights under his belt, look like a master boxer. The thing that I found similar about both fights was that there was a game plan both men should have followed which would’ve given them their best opportunity for victory… and both men completely failed to follow that plan. Instead, each fighter ended up standing within punching range of their opponent and, not surprisingly, they got punched.
      Simply put, both men should have stayed way on the outside against their opponent and kicked like hell. While this may not have assured either one of them victory, it definitely would have been a better option than trying to trade punches with fighters that everyone knew were better boxers than they were.
      Velasquez does have fairly good kicking skill for a heavyweight who was originally a wrestler, whereas Dos Santos has never shown much inclination to kick. And Velasquez did seem to understand kicking would be to his benefit as he started their fight attempting to throw the roundhouse kick. But then he unwisely stood there in front of his opponent, right within Dos Santos’s punching range, and got himself quickly knocked out.
      Barnett’s mistakes seemed even more blatant. As he entered the cage, Saturday night, the announcers assured everyone he had been working on his kicks with savate experts (savate being a French form of kickboxing) yet once the match started, he began jabbing and looking to outbox Cormier. He barely threw any kicks and essentially spent the first half of the fight trading punches with Cormier. Given that the biggest weakness in Barnett’s game has always been his boxing defense – and Cormier was coming off an impressive performance where he outboxed and knocked out Antonio Silva – all I could think of as I watched this fight was “what the hell is he doing?”
      Though I’ve written in my book, the Principles of Unarmed Combat, that the idea of ranges in combat is something of an artificial construct (for example, you can’t really say “punching range” since some people are capable of kicking from close in) one can still generalize about the distance between two fighters. In both the cases of Velasquez and Barnett, they each should have stayed at very long distance looking to kick their opponent and move away from him any time that opponent sought to close, or they should have been at very close distance looking to clinch with their foe. What they each should not have done (yet what both men did do) is stand there in that middle sort of distance where their opponent could hit them with punches without having to chase after them.
      The idea for both men should have been to use a lot of movement attempting to keep outside the reach of their foes’ punches while firing off the occasional kick – preferably low kicks since they don’t take as long to throw allowing you to put your foot back on the floor more quickly and continue moving away from the opponent. Besides the low roundhouse kick, low sidekicks into the opponent’s knee or shin might have proven useful in keeping their respective opponents at bay. This is particularly true in Barnett’s case as he came in with a considerable height and reach advantage. Though Cormier showed he could kick, himself, actually landing a couple of high roundhouse kicks on Barnett, he is still basically a wrestler and wrestlers rarely show a strong ability to defend against leg kicks. They’re too used to placing their weight on their lead leg and coming forward.
      In Velasqeuz’s case, his own extensive wrestling background may have ended up being his undoing. In wrestling, where competitors are encouraged to come forward and always be aggressive, moving away from your opponent is penalized. So it’s not surprising he might have had trouble adjusting to a style that would have called for him to constantly keep away from an opponent. Barnett, on the other hand, has simply shown a stubborn streak at various times over the course of his career which has cost him. Several of his previous losses came when he ended up standing and striking with superior kickboxers who he might have been able to take down and control. But since it was unlikely he was going to take down a wrestler of Cormier’s caliber, his next best option was to use constant motion and a lot of kicking to try and keep the fight at a distance. Either a failure on the part of Barnett and his corner to understand this proper distancing, or an inability on Barnett’s part to execute such a fight plan, cost him. Now in his mid 30s, after having spent more than a decade competing at the top level of the sport, it may be too late for him to retool his game and recapture his past glory as UFC heavyweight champion.
      Velasquez is a different case. Only 29, with less than a dozen fights under his belt, he still has the potential to improve and, perhaps, get another crack at the title he lost to Dos Santos. He fights again this weekend – against the same Antonio Silva that Cormier knocked out last year – and we’ll see what adjustments he’s made. Interestingly, Velasquez and Cormier come from the same fight team, the AKA gym. Hopefully, for Velesquez’s sake, he paid close attention to his stablemate’s fight with Barnett and learned a lesson for himself in what to do – and what not to do – when it comes to distance.

An Excerpt From The Principles of Unarmed Combat

14 May

Since a few people have mentioned they would like to see some more information on the actual technical aspects of martial arts presented here, I’m posting an excerpt from my book The Principles of Unarmed Combat, available from Turtle Press (just click the book cover on the upper right side of the screen to be whisked right to it). At the risk of sounding immodest, I feel the book is truly unique in the realm of martial arts literature. Not sure I’d go as far as MMA writer Jim Genia did in proclaiming “Bruce Lee’s The Tao of Jeet Kune Do ain’t got nothing on Mark Jacobs and the Principles of Unarmed Combat” (oh, who am I kidding, of course I would) but seriously, I’m fairly certain there is no book on the market that addresses the empty hand aspects of combat as comprehensively as this book does or is as heavily researched and based in scientific and medical fact as this book. While I do include a number of specific techniques in the book, it primarily deals with the underlying principles that make martial arts work (or not work). Below is a brief excerpt from Chapter 11, Combining Upper and Lower Body Postures…

Blending the Upper and Lower Body

      As with all other techniques, blending the positions of the lower body, the upper body and the hands into one useful fighting posture must take into account your strengths and weaknesses, your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and the circumstances of the combat. If these three factors dictate a wrestling-oriented approach, then holding your hands as a wrestler would while shifting your weight forward in a wrestling-style stance would be a logical combination of upper and lower body positions. By the same token, if the factors dictated a kickboxing-oriented approach, the hands would likely be kept somewhat higher and closer to the body while the stance would be narrower and weight distributed more evenly. Obviously, this blending of upper and lower body postures becomes more confusing in something liked an MMA format where punching, kicking and wrestling are all allowed. Now, elements from different stance and upper body postures must be incorporated together but they must be done so in a modified manner.
      In modern mixed martial arts competitions, it’s rare to see fighters using the techniques of exclusively one style as they once did. You generally won’t see a combatant in the UFC assuming a purely wrestling position with both his upper and lower body, nor will you see him assume a purely Muay Thai position. Instead, they will incorporate elements of various upper and lower body postures but in a much more modified form than what we previously described. Rather than having the hands extended too far away from the body or at a medium height, even grapplers engaging in MMA will now tend to keep the hands somewhat closer in and higher to defend against strikes to the head. Their hands may still be in position to execute a grab and takedown but they are also better able to block punches and kicks. Though such a hand position would be less efficient in either a purely wrestling or a purely striking form of combat, it’s better suited for a mixed form of combat. Similarly, rather than keeping a true Muay Thai stance with the great majority of weight on the back leg and the front foot placed lightly on the ground, a mixed martial arts fighter may keep his weight somewhat more even so they can lift their front foot to defend a leg kick when necessary or shift their weight forward to shoot in for a wrestling takedown.
      Even when squaring up and coming forward in a more classic wrestling stance into close quarters, the MMA fighter might still opt to hold his hands high and closer to his head in more of a boxing position because he knows a certain opponent who is a decent boxer and wrestler but not a good kicker may attempt to slow him down with punches. But this is a successful blending of two seemingly conflicting postures (a wrestler’s stance and a boxer’s hand position) using sound principles. The offensive goal is to get close to an opponent to turn the fight into a close quarters or grappling situation, the defensive goal is to avoid getting punched in the head. By understanding how and why certain techniques work, and then factoring in your strengths, your opponent’s strengths and the circumstances of the fight, you can successfully blend seemingly contradictory upper and lower body postures.

The Fighting in Writing

3 May

      After recently participating in a thread on a book discussion group regarding great literary action scenes, it got me to thinking of what are the best written fight scenes in literature and just what it is that makes a great fight scene on the written page.
      The latter question is, perhaps, the more difficult one to answer. A sense of knowledgeability on the part of the author leading to some realism in the scene is obviously helpful. A great example of a writer who has “walked the walk” is Thom Jones. A former U.S. Marine and amateur boxer, Jones has written some brilliant short fiction, a few revolving around the dark places of human experience that combat can lead to. His story, The Pugilist at Rest, contains a short but memorable description of what it’s like to engage in a boxing match you’re not quite prepared for:

“He put me down almost immediately, and when I got up I was terribly afraid. I was tight and I could not breath. It felt like he was hitting me in the face with a ball-peen hammer. It felt like he was busting light bulbs in my face.”

      Unfortunately, most authors are not known for their pugilistic skills. As a group, they often tend to be observers and thinkers, rather than doers and brawlers (Besides Jones, there are a few other odd exceptions to this rule. Hemingway was known to step into the ring on occasion but, sadly, “Papa” did not depict that many fight scenes in his work). Consequently, most written fight scenes, at least to the expert observer, lack a sense of veritas. However, there are exceptions to the rule in which even unrealistic fight scenes have been portrayed in gripping passages.
      An example of this comes from William Goldman. Better known to many as the man who penned the hit movie, The Princess Bride, years earlier Goldman wrote the outstanding suspense-thriller novel, Marathon Man, which also became a successful film. Here, Goldman gives us a memorable match up of master assassins Scylla and Chen. Though he doesn’t seem to know very much about real close quarter combat, Goldman makes the scene exciting and accessible to the reader by relating it to another physical activity: basketball. When Chen has Scylla in trouble, strangling him from behind with a wire, Goldman draws an analogy to an epic match-up on the basketball court between Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, the NBA’s two premiere guards of the early 1970s:

“He had seen it done. Once. On a basketball court. The nonpareil Monroe matched against the genius Frazier. The ultimate in offense against the greatest defender… He faked right and went right, around Frazier, who could only stand there, watching the score. Scylla faked right and went right…”

      Detail, even if it’s not of the most expert variety, is also something that can make a fight scene a thrilling part of a story. Making the action graphically come alive so the reader can visualize it, as if he is watching it happen, is always a plus. For this, you often can’t beat a journalistic take on fighting. Sports writers, at least good ones, are used to observing real fights and describing them for an audience in detailed terms. Few have ever done it with more literary flare than A.J. Liebling in his classic series of essays on boxing, The Sweet Science. In discussing Ezzard Charles’ efforts in his losing battle against heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, Liebling wrote:

“His face – rather narrow, with a high, curved nose – changed in shape to a squatty rectangle as we watched; it was as though he had run into a nest of wild bees or fallen victim to instantaneous mumps. He moved, hung on, twisted his body, rolled his head on his columnar neck, which was now a cable between aching body and addling brain. He broke to his right, away from Marciano’s swinging rights, but he didn’t run. He even punched – straight but without power…”

      Good examples of detail and graphic observation, in fictional settings, are frequently seen in the detective novels of the late author, Robert Parker. Parker’s fictional hero, Spenser, is a former pro boxer who typically gets his fists dirty at some point in the course of each story. Probably the best fight scene in the more than thirty novels Spenser appears in – and, for my money, the best literary fight scene you will ever read – takes place in Parker’s first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript. In its climactic scene, an injured Spenser has to take on a towering, gun-wielding hitman. Parker gives a perfect description of a rear naked choke as Spenser strangles his opponent to death (keep in mind, this was more than 20 years before anyone had first heard of the UFC or Brazilian jiu-jitsu):

“The blood pounded in my ears from the effort and I couldn’t see anything but a dance of dust motes where my face stayed pressed against his shoulder. Phil made a noise like a crow cawing, turned very slowly in a complete turn, and fell over backward on top of me… I kept squeezing , unable to see with his back pressed against my face, unable to feel anything but the strain of my arm against his neck. I squeezed. I don’t know how long I squeezed, but it was surely for a long time after it made any difference.”

      Of course, even detail is no assurance of writing a classic fight scene. Conversely, a lack of detail is not even always a hindrance to penning a great fight scene. Author Eric Van Lustbader has written a number of martial arts themed action novels, the most famous of which is The Ninja. Though Van Lustbader’s knowledge of legitimate Japanese martial arts seems marginal, he does strategically make use of martial arts with some cryptic references that have you thinking of esoteric Asian fighting techniques, even if you’re not quite sure what those techniques involve:

“Nicholas was in the classic first position of yoroi kumiuchi, originally grappling in armor but today used quite effectively when one was dressed in encumbering western street clothes… At the point of Frank’s attack, Nicholas moved almost languidly, separating the deadly hands. To Tompkins, watching interestedly from the sidelines, it appeared as if he had not moved at all, merely pushed his elbows into Frank’s ribcage almost gently. Frank collapsed onto the concrete floor…”

      Now I’ve been doing martial arts most of my life and I still have no idea what’s going on in most of Van Lustbader’s fight scenes. But nonetheless, I enjoy them. Which is really the key to writing a great literary fight scene. It can be detailed or mysterious, quick and neat or long and brutal. But it has to be something the reader enjoys reading, something that gives him a bit of a visceral thrill. That is what makes a great literary fight scene.

The Juice And Nothing But The Juice

25 Apr

      It came as a shock to almost no one who follows mixed martial arts when UFC heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem failed a drug test given by the Nevada State Athletic Commission a few weeks ago (equally unsurprising, to me, was the wishy-washy “punishment” the commission handed down, yesterday).
      Overeem, who once fought as a rangy, moderately successful, 205 pound light heavyweight, suddenly put on nearly fifty pounds of muscle a few years ago and turned into a dominating heavyweight good enough to not just earn a crack at the UFC title, but to win the K-1 World Grand Prix, the most prestigious event in heavyweight kickboxing. Now, with a positive test for too much testosterone in his system (Overeem asserts it was the accidental result of taking medicine prescribed by a doctor) the MMA world is not just once again questioning Overeem’s legitimacy, but the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs in sports speak) across the game.
      Last July, well before this positive drug test, I had the opportunity to ask Overeem in person about the use of PEDs. I was writing a cover story on him for Black Belt Magazine and they had set up a private photo shoot and interview with the fighter in Manhattan. When Black Belt executive editor, Robert Young, had asked me to do the story, the first thing I said to him was that we would have to, somehow, address the rumors of Overeem’s PED use.
      Now this is something no reporter enjoys doing – engaging a subject, who is not necessarily a terrible person, in a discussion over something they may be doing wrong but which they obviously don’t want to talk about. As a journalist, you have the ethical obligation to ask the question, even though you know the interview subject will deny it. Lacking any tangible proof, you’re only choices are to accept the subject’s denial and move on or to basically call them a liar. Given that Overeem is a 250-pound behemoth and one of the most skilled fighters in the world, option two did not seem like a promising idea. Young, ever solicitous of his writers’ safety, suggested I might want to save the PED question for the end of the interview. That way, I would at least have enough material to write the cover story from my hospital bed if Overeem took offense.
      Photographer Peter Leuders and I were scheduled to meet Overeem at a local boxing gym where Peter could take the photos while I could ask my questions and, perhaps, offer some suggestions for interesting technique sequences that might look good in the magazine. The latter part of this plan was quickly scrubbed as one of the first things Overeem said to us when he arrived was “I don’t talk about techniques.” Though most fighters are a bit more open about their training methods, there are a handful that subscribe to the belief you give away nothing. Overeem was clearly from this latter school.
      Overeem is from Holland and the photographer, Peter, was originally from Germany. He tried to loosen up the fighter by speaking a little bit of German, commenting that German and the Dutch language have a lot of similarities, don’t they? Overeem told him not that much and we stuck to English (though interestingly, when Peter’s very attractive female assistant, who is also from Germany, arrived later on, Overeem’s grasp of German became much more fluent as he chatted with her in the language).
      Anyway, with the discussion of techniques off the table, it wasn’t long before I turned the conversation to the PED question feeling it best to just get it out of the way quickly. I asked him about the rumors and he said, flat out, he had never taken a performance enhancing drug and had passed every drug test athletic commissions had ever administered to him. Without calling him a liar, let’s say I still had my reservations. And given that he’d been asked the same question a million times before by a million different reporters, I don’t know if he had any illusions I was totally convinced by his denials. But we were trapped in playing a standard game of mandatory question and answer.
      There was not much I could say to contradict him at the time so I moved on to other, less controversial, topics and found Overeem to be a pleasant and engaging individual. Afterwards, I gave him a ride back to his hotel and we chatted in a friendly fashion. For the most part, I liked him but I still had the obligation to be honest in what I wrote.
      Now Black Belt is not known for a vicious brand of attack journalism. It is, after all, a magazine for martial artists and martial arts fans who want to be inspired, not depressed, and aren’t expecting the kind of aggressive reporting you’d get in the New York Times. And given that I had no evidence, beyond innuendo, regarding Overeem’s PED use, all I could legitimately say was that there had long been questions surrounding him and then print his denial. But I did go a step beyond that in writing that “in a sport where an alarming number of top competitors have been linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs, Overeem’s real sin in the eyes of some fans has simply been not fighting often enough in MMA”. The former part of this statement, that an alarming number of top competitors have been linked to PED use, was later edited out of the version that appeared in the magazine. But I feel the entire statement is an important one and offers a comment on not just Overeem but on the state of the sport – and its fans – as a whole.
      It is no secret among many in the MMA industry that a fair number of competitors take some form of performance enhancing substance, and I don’t mean simple vitamins and protein supplements. Testosterone is often joined by things like steroids, amphetamines and pain killers as an almost normal and accepted part of the sport in some circles. Apologists for MMA, both among promoters, fans and even many journalists, would prefer to bury their heads in the sand and say it’s really a relatively small number of athletes doing this sort of thing. But if you ever attend a major professional event and stand near some of the top fighters so you can observe them up close, it should be clear many of these men (and some women too) are simply carrying an unnatural amount of muscle on their bodies.
      “Experts” will say you cannot tell if someone is taking performance enhancing drugs simply by looking at them. And while, overall, this may be true, there are some things that stand out (greatly enlarged heads come to mind) as a sign of PED abuse. Besides writing for Black Belt and having engaged in athletics most of my life, I’ve covered professional sports for newspapers and written a good deal for magazines like Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health and Muscle and Fitness. I’ve dealt with top conditioning trainers and professional bodybuilders. I used to work out in a gym that was home to Olympic weightlifters. So I would say I’m familiar with what normal athletes’ bodies look like (and what abnormal athletes bodies look like) and I can state that the bodies you see on many of the top MMA fighters are not completely normal. Yes, you might be able to get physiques like some of these athletes display through natural methods if you did nothing but weight train. But when you consider the vast amounts of aerobic exercise that elite MMA fighters have to go through, it simply seems unlikely most of them would be able to keep that level of musculature on their frames by normal means, particularly the ones who have barely any body fat.
      Not everyone in the industry denies this sort of PED use, though. Some choose simply to not care.
      Keep in mind, MMA is a new sport, primarily watched by a new generation. It is not baseball with its rich tradition and its rapidly aging fan base. MMA afficionados are generally young and often not encumbered with the sentimental morality of older generations. I’ve talked with a number of fans and journalists that cover MMA who simply don’t care that fighters may be taking performance enhancing drugs, even if those drugs are illegal. And if the fans and journalists don’t care, certainly the promoters who put on the events and employ the athletes have little incentive to clean up the sport, except for the embarrassment of having one of your top draws like Alistair Overeem test positive and end up having to pull out of a major fight.
      And why should the people who run the UFC, Bellator or any other promotion care if their fighters are juiced to the gills? Having fighters with superhero physiques who can do nearly superhuman things with their bodies is definitively good for business. Flashback 14 years to when Major League Baseball’s popularity was at a nadir following yet another work stoppage that cancelled the World Series back in 1994. What revived interest in the national pastime? The race to break the single season home run record between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both men ended up breaking that seemingly unbreakable record in thrilling fashion, thus renewing interest in the sport… and both men later were directly linked to PED use. Sure, baseball had to suffer through scandal, Congressional hearings and some embarrassment. But there’s no question that the sport’s attendance and viewership got a huge boost from McGwire and Sosa’s drug inflated home run numbers.
      So why should the UFC or other promoters care about drug use in their sport? After all, even the threat of having fighters like Overeem test positive and have to pull out of major bouts in the future may be lessening. Though Overeem lost his upcoming title shot against Junior Dos Santos, the Nevada State Athletic Commission showed their ambivalence on the issue yesterday by leaving the door open for him to again fight in Nevada before the end of the year. And Nevada is frequently lauded as one of the best athletic commissions in the country.
      Most state athletic commissions are simply in financial trouble and don’t have the resources to do the kind of testing necessary to really clean up the sport, in any case. Not that the type of urine-based drug tests these commissions typically issue (often immediately after a fight when competitors may have already flushed all the drugs out of their system) are always that great a deterrent. Blood tests – done on a completely random basis where testers can just show up at your house unannounced – are a surer means of catching PED abusers. But this is even more expensive than the kind of testing that is already in place and unlikely to ever take hold.
      Basically, the only arguments in favor of attempting to clean up the sport are ethical ones: if you take a PED, you are breaking the rules and gaining an unfair advantage over an opponent who chooses not to break the rules. You are a cheat (as a side note, there is a distressing gray area that has sprung up in recent years called “testosterone replacement therapy” or TRT. Essentially, with a note from a doctor, fighters – such as top UFC contender Dan Henderson – have been able to legally boost their testosterone levels through medical treatments. TRT is generally a therapy that is applied to undersized adolescent boys or to elderly males with sexual dysfunctions. For the most part, the only medical use grown men in their 30s and 40s could have for it is to try and turn back the hands of time and continue an athletic career that should have already ended due to age, a rather dubious medical usage for such therapy).
      Certainly, the argument can be made that if the use of performance enhancing drugs is so commonplace in the sport, that it’s not really gaining an unfair advantage since everyone is using it. But what if everyone does not want to use it? This, more than anything else, may be the key argument against PEDs.
      If you have the ability to be an elite fighter – say someone good enough to be ranked in the top five in your weight class in the UFC – and are, more or less, at an equal skill level with the other fighters in the top five, what do you do if, all of a sudden, the other four fighters in the top five suddenly start taking PEDs? If these fighters are able to gain a 10 percent advantage through PED use, how do you ever catch up to them?
      Fighters who do test positive for PEDs often like to play the victim saying how it’s not PEDs that got them to the top but hard work and people are trying to credit the drugs instead of all the hours they put into training. But this is a clearly ludicrous argument seeing as how PEDs, by themselves, do nothing. You don’t just pop a steroid and get muscular. What many of these drugs do is allow you to train longer and harder, to recover more quickly from your workouts and get back in the gym to do additional work. No one is questioning the work ethic of fighters suspected of taking PEDs, just how they are humanly able to do that much work without their bodies breaking down.
      So if you are an elite fighter who doesn’t take PEDs, you can only train for so long in the gym before your body starts to deteriorate from the stress you’re placing on it. But fighters who do take PEDs can simply put in more time in the gym than you are physically capable of. Now you are left with a choice: do you want to do the ethically correct thing by staying clean, knowing you will never be as good as your rivals; or do you take the drugs and maybe become a champion? This is not an easy question to answer since, beyond ego, a good deal of money is at stake here and the difference between a UFC champion and a number 5 contender can be the difference between being financially set for life and having to go back to a blue collar job after a few years of fighting, when maybe you have a bum knee and a bad back.
      Fighters should simply not have to be put into this position, where they have to choose between their conscience (not to mention the possible long term health risks that go with PED use) and the one chance to succeed at their lifelong dream.
      This is certainly not new to sports nor is MMA the only sport where this same story plays out. But unlike MLB, the NFL or other sports which, if they haven’t eliminated PED abuse (and they haven’t) have at least managed to make themselves marginally cleaner, MMA is not under one jurisdiction or governing body. It is the wild west of sports where you can get away with almost anything.
      If a state like Nevada decides to not license a fighter who tests positive for PEDs, that fighter can simply go to another state to get licensed and fight there. Even if other states with athletic commissions decide to honor a ban placed upon a fighter in another state, there are still states that do not have athletic commissions, not to mention Indian reservations which may or may not be well regulated. And should every jurisdiction in the United States decide to ban a fighter, an organization like the UFC could simply put him in an overseas show and circumvent the ban that way. And if the UFC does the right thing by honoring local bans in the U.S., or even goes a step beyond that to institute their own comprehensive policy for PED testing and then cuts any fighter who tests positive from their roster… so what?
      Yes, the UFC is the big dog on the block in MMA and that is where fighters can still make the most money. But if you are cut by the UFC for PED use, there are many smaller promotions willing to take you on. While, right now, this is a pretty severe penalty since no other organization can afford to pay fighters as much as the UFC does, what if the UFC began a comprehensive testing policy and caught a dozen of its top fighters testing positive? If they cut all of them and the majority of those fighters go to the same organization, suddenly you’ve created a significant rival to your promotion. So the UFC’s incentive for catching everyone in their employ who takes PEDs will simply never be that great.
      Unfortunately, there is no real answer to this problem in MMA. There will always be a segment of athletes willing to cheat to gain a competitive advantage. And there will always be the rest of the athletes who then feel pressured to do likewise in order to keep up. And there will never be enough resources – or desire – on the part of the people who run the sport to stop the cheating. It’s a bad situation all around and not likely to ever really get better.

The Difference Between “Hurt” and “Injure”

17 Apr

     Anyone who has followed the NFL scandal involving the New Orleans Saints’ program to offer “bounty” payments for knocking opposing players out of the game has heard a lot of talk about football players trying to hurt other players. There has been a good deal of outrage over the idea of players trying to intentionally hurt each other on the field, as if this were somehow not a normal part of the sport. But much of that outrage has come from media types who have never, themselves, been football players.
     Those who have been seriously involved in hardcore combat sports (and I think you can loosely classify football as a combat sport) may have a slightly different take on the legitimacy of trying to “hurt” an opponent. By definition, what you are doing as part of a boxing match, an MMA contest, or a football game (at least in the case of a defensive player trying to hit an offensive player) is to hurt them. You cannot hit someone with full force and expect not to hurt them. Being punched in the face, slammed on the ground or run into at full speed by a 250 pound linebacker hurts! There is no way around it. And no one executes such movements in the course of a fight or football game simply for the sake of doing them. Every time you execute such a move, you would like it to be decisive and finish off your opponent for the day.
     This may sound callous and brutal but it is the nature of combat sports. No boxer or MMA fighter goes into a match saying “I want to win but I don’t actually want to knock my opponent out or cause him pain”. You generally can’t win a fight without attempting to do such things. The problem observers who are not intimately involved as participants in these sports seem to have is a lack of clarity on the difference between hurting someone and seriously injuring someone.
     Naturally, any time you hit someone hard enough to knock them out, you are causing them an injury. And concussions are certainly not to be taken lightly. But experienced competitors in combat sports come to accept this possibility as part of their job. It’s something they deal with on a regular basis. So the idea of doing this to someone else is not a moral taboo to such athletes. In fact, it’s often a benchmark of success. Most people who have seriously engaged in combat sports at a high level are well familiar with the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from dropping an opponent with a hard punch or slapping on a perfect submission hold that makes someone squeal in pain. These are signs that you have performed correctly. Even in the gym, when practicing with friends, serious fighters will still feel a sense of proper accomplishment when they put some hurt on their training partner. When your punches aren’t hurting anyone or when your submission holds aren’t causing people pain, you know you’re doing something wrong and will, likely, feel a sense of disappointment.
     However, the thing to keep in mind here is that almost none of the professional athletes in question want to permanently hurt their opponent. This may seem like a fine distinction but it is an important one. A fighter may want to knock an opponent out. In some cases, where there’s a legitimate sense of bad blood, he may even take some satisfaction in seeing that opponent carried out of the ring or cage. But in all my time as a fan, a competitor and a reporter covering combat sports, I have never seen a professional athlete who I thought truly wanted to end the career of another competitor. Sure, many of them talk tough before fights and say all the terrible things they want to do to an opponent. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that, deep down in his heart, would not have felt badly if he did cause serious, permanent injury to an opponent in the course of a match. This is evidenced by how, in almost all cases, when a fight is concluded, even the bitterest of rivals will hug it out. There is a mutual respect present and, beyond that, a general sense of humanity present in almost all normal human beings in such circumstances. Studies of American soldiers done following WW II showed that the vast majority of soldiers who had been in combat actually claimed to have never killed anyone. Supposedly, they would intentionally miss the enemy with their gun shots because they could not bring themselves to kill another human being.
     Athletes in combat sports are no less human beings and, on a certain level, they can empathize even with the most hated of opponents. Thus, a football player might want to knock a player out of a game, might even take some measure of satisfaction in sending him to the hospital. But very few of them want to end that player’s career. They know that, just as they do, their opponents have bills to pay, families to support and lives to lead beyond the game.
     Obviously, taking it to the level of causing severe, career threatening injuries to an opponent is crossing a line in most combat sports and any New Orleans Saints coaches or players who intentionally crossed that line should be held accountable. But don’t confuse trying to injure someone with trying to hurt them. After all, as Mike Tyson once famously said about boxing, this is “the hurt business.”

Lessons Learned

10 Apr

     The recent flap over Florida Marlins baseball manager Ozzie Guillen’s comments about Fidel Castro got me to recalling an incident that occurred when I lived in Miami. For those unfamiliar, Guillen said in a magazine story how much he admired the Cuban dictator’s staying power, which infuriated South Florida’s Cuban-American population in the extreme.
     Though I said in my initial post on this site that, as a general rule, I would not be commenting on politics, this is really more a story about the vagaries of the writing life and the kind of interesting situations and personalities you come across as a free-lance journalist, as well as some small insight into the inner workings of Black Belt Magazine.
     In any case, way back when I was an undergraduate in college, I was caught between declaring my major in journalism or in East Asian studies (the decision was finally made when, at the end of my senior year, an advisor pointed out I had more credits in political science and history courses, hence my bachelor of arts now reads “Asian Studies”). Still unsure of my path during the second semester of that last year, I took a class in free-lance journalism. The final project involved writing an article on anything we wanted and then selling it to a professional publication of our choice.
     The choice of publication, for me, was easy. I’d been reading martial arts magazines since I was 12-years-old so I decided to try and sell a story to Black Belt. The only question left was what the focus of such a story should be.
     At this point in college, one of the pastimes I and my friends would occasionally engage in was going out in the woods on weekends and playing what was then called “The Survival Game” but is now commonly known as paintball warfare. Simply, two teams of players, armed with air guns which fired large, brightly colored balls of paint, would chase each other around like kids and try to shoot the hell out of the opposing players. One of my best friends at the time was Kevin, a karate black belt who regularly played the survival game with us and whose karate teacher home in Pennsylvania actually ran a paintball warfare business.
     Back in this period, Black Belt had published a number of articles on various “unorthodox” training methods a martial artist might use to improve his skills. So it occurred to me a story on the lessons a martial artist could learn from paintball warfare would be appealing to the magazine (I think the main lesson the story imparted was, that when somebody starts shooting at you, duck). I interviewed Kevin and his teacher and sent the story in to Black Belt. Though I didn’t hear back from them, I did, at least, manage to pass the free-lance journalism class.
     Flash forward more than four years to Miami, Florida. After finding there was not a huge, waiting job market for East Asian studies majors, I had finally decided to go to graduate school for a master’s degree in journalism and moved to Florida to attend the University of Miami’s journalism program. One day, out of the blue, a letter from Black Belt Magazine was forwarded to me from my old home. It said they wanted to run my story.
     After nearly ten minutes, I finally recalled what story they were talking about. It had been well over four years since I submitted the survival game article to them and, frankly, I hadn’t given it another thought after the first few months, assuming they just had no interest in it. And, in retrospect, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had permanently ignored the story as it was sort of a silly piece. But like I said, Black Belt, during this period, was given to running “unorthodox” stories. I happened to be training, around this time, with Bart Vale, a local Miami instructor in a style called Shootfighting – a precursor of modern MMA – and was out fishing with him one day as he complained over how Black Belt was printing garbage stories, such as a recent article on how to tie your karate belt (this was actually shortly after my survival game story had already been printed). Laughingly, he suggested we should write a story about how fishing could improve your martial arts training. Amused, I went home and wrote an article entitled “Zen and the Art of Fishing” propounding the merits of fishing for martial artists and containing a lot of satirical references to famous martial arts practitioners and their secret fishing techniques. As a joke, I actually sent it in to Black Belt. But the joke was on us when I received a letter from then editor, Jim Coleman, informing me he was interested in printing the story. I don’t think it ever actually was printed and, these days, the current editorial staff does a far better job of running information germane to serious martial arts students (How is that for shameless ass-kissing of my bosses at Black Belt?)
     Back to the main point at hand: though I had, since originally sending Black Belt my story on the survival game four years earlier, made a couple of professional sales to local, South Florida publications through the U of M journalism program, this was to be the first free-lance sale accomplished entirely on my own initiative. Moreover, it was to a magazine I had grown up reading, which meant it was particularly satisfying. But one problem remained – Black Belt wanted photos to go with the story.
     Of course, I was not a photographer nor did I even own a camera. This is something that has come up numerous times over the years in my career in journalism and I still find it baffling when a magazine not only asks but expects me to provide quality photos when they know I am a writer, not a photographer (note to anyone considering a career in free-lance journalism, buy a digital camera and take a photography class at a local community college). At the time, I didn’t even know what kind of pictures would go with a story like this.
     Fortunately, I was in the midst of a journalism school so it was not difficult to find a willing photojournalism student who would take pictures in return for receiving his name mentioned in the story’s photo credits. I also corralled a friend at the university, who was a martial artist and owned a bunch of different martial arts weapons, to participate in a photo shoot. Finally, someone put me in touch with a local martial arts instructor who also happened to own a paintball warfare supply business. This was a real break since he was willing to not just supply some paintball guns for the photo shoot but convinced several of his friends – who all happened to be of Cuban descent – to participate in the shoot as well. The following weekend, we all trudged out to a jungle-like piece of terrain on the edge of the Florida Everglades to take some pictures contrasting paintball warfare and martial arts.
     My friend from the University of Miami had brought along a huge Chinese broadsword, which looked like a meat cleaver on steroids, to pose with vs. a paintball gun wielding opponent. As we were setting up the photo shoot, one of the Cuban-American paintball afficionados picked up the broadsword and started swiping at the local foliage with it.
     Turning to his friends, he gestured violently with the sword and said in a heavy Spanish accent, “Man, I like to catch Fidel out in the sugar cane with one of these!” to which his friends all heartily agreed.
     I stood there thinking to myself, “Boy, these guys really don’t like Fidel.”
     Anyway, the photo shoot came off fine and the story ran a few months later, which is how I got my first published piece in Black Belt Magazine. It’s also how I learned, unlike Ozzie Guillen, to never say anything nice about Fidel Castro in South Florida.

Stuff about Writing, Fighting and Other Stuff

9 Apr

     If you’ve found your way here to Writing, Fighting and Other Stuff, you probably saw the site mentioned in Black Belt Magazine and are looking for information about martial arts or you came across an online mention on a book website and have a passion for some type of literature. Or you just couldn’t find anything to watch on TV. Whatever the reason, hopefully you’ll find something of interest here.
     For the martial artists out there, the site will contain a mixture of sports-related news (MMA, boxing, kickboxing, grappling, etc) self-defense information, looks at unique styles and martial artists, and some in depth scientific analysis on martial arts techniques. The latter will largely draw upon my book, The Principles of Unarmed Combat, of which espn.com said, “If ever there was a comprehensive look at just about every scenario possible in hand-to-hand combat, whether it’s attack or defense, it’s covered here.” (Who am I to argue with espn.com?) I’ll also be posting my own commentaries on various topics of interest in the martial arts world and perhaps some interviews with popular figures in the arts.
     For the more literarily inclined, I’ll be featuring some reviews and opinions on writing and a number of books from classics to modern genre fiction, often as they relate to one of my areas of expertise, namely martial arts, journalism, Asian culture, sports, poker, philosophy and necrophilia (I just tossed that last one in to see if you were paying attention). And, of course, there will be information on and excerpts from my current novel, Pascal’s Wager, and upcoming works like the soon to be released novel, A Bittersweet Science, as well as some other essays, short fiction and whatever else happens to fall out of my computer.
     What I won’t be doing is offering commentary or uninformed opinions on areas that I don’t have a fair amount of expertise and experience in. Nothing is more pernicious than the modern, web-induced belief that everyone has something important to say on every topic. So, as a general rule, you will find no blogging about the state of society, politics, the economy or what I fed my dog this morning (though it is possible I may eventually start publishing my manifesto for world-domination here). Anyway, take a look around, read, enjoy and stop back occasionally to see what’s new. (One other note: though this is the first post for the website, all posts listed below are in reverse chronological order with the newest posts appearing first so if you want to start with the older posts, please scroll to the bottom of the screen)