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Bow to Reality

To me at least, it seems that far too many martial arts and their practitioners have a superiority complex. Just take a quick visit to say, any Wing Chun or Karate class, you’ll see tutors and students walking that art, talking that art, and truly believing their version of combat is the single source of truth, and by doing it, you’ll have access to an arsenal of responses to any combative scenario. And to level with you, in the past, I’ve been as guilty of this conviction as much as the next Daniel San.

While the goal is noble, and the pursuit of physical and mental fortitude is always beneficial, the point at which a single traditional martial art meets the street is at best, lost in translation. At worst, it becomes an opportunity to dine through a straw while the odour of plaster of Paris gently wafts from snapped limbs.

Yes, arguably there are more practical forms of self-defence: step forward Muay Thai, Boxing, BJJ, and MMA. Yes, years drilling the Buakaw out of certain single moves might stand you in reasonable stead, but sooner or later you must wake up and smell the asphalt – fighting doesn’t fit into neat katas or 16-ounce gloves, nor is it executed in freshly washed Gi’s on matted dojos or bound within the ropes where respect, empathy and rules are massaged into every session. It’s real. Visceral. Primal. More to the point, it’s ‘unfair’. And it’s something that I’m about to come to terms with.

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Even with several years of Muay Thai and boxing in the can, practical and street-translatable disciplines – if I was truly honest with myself - were absent from my game. If it came to anything beyond a gloved and gum-shielded spar where generally, I could hold my own, I was likely to get lost somewhere amid the sucker punches, terrace-honed kicks or an unseen weapon or improvised takedown. As someone who (rightly or wrongly) respects these rules of engagement and people in general, if it came to someone on the street shouting with intent and offering me a complimentary facelift or to ‘rip me a new one’, well, simply put, even after attempts to talk them down, if it went south, I wasn’t convinced my traditional training, and the mental conditioning that goes with it, could handle it.

Given where you’re reading this, it’s no surprise to learn that my training journey has led me here to train with Tom Flint and team at Kinetic Combatives. So, with waffly preamble behind us, let’s get to my experience over the first three months encapsulated in a few pivotal lessons.

Week 1. Month 1. Reality check

I’m in a primary school dinner hall in South Croydon. There are some motivational words dangling from the walls to inspire the kids who but a few hours ago were lunching on baked beans and chips and discussing the finer points of Pokémon and Peppa Pig. The hall is cold, and I’m doing my best to keep ‘first-class of a new place nerves’ firmly under wraps with a warmup.

Immediately, Tom takes the lead. It’s clear this really isn’t a place to smuggle an ego into. We’ve all loosened up with footwork, mirror drills and shadow boxing with an emphasis on the pivot: ‘opening the gate’. While a seemingly small and simple detail, it’s used as a principle that becomes increasingly relevant as we travel through the session. We’re stand-up grappling; going through under-hooks and over-hooks and opening the gate to deliver knees using Muay Thai influenced technique kneeing ‘through’ our partner at hip level. It’s explained pragmatically: there is no nonsense here and we work in the importance of pivoting to flank our opponent. Before long we’re onto kneeing through crash pads at full force. It’s already becoming more realistic as I feel my partner for the day (for anonymity’s sake, let’s just call him ‘Arnold’), take a firm grip of my head and neck and let his considerable power plough through the crash pad and I hit the deck – this won’t be the first time. We’ve already dialled in the pivot combining stand-up grappling, opening the gate and follow-up knees.

We move onto pad work to palm strikes, applying boxing and Muay Thai principles driving through hips, with Tom coming round to tweak form for maximum effect. He drills home the tenets of ‘hard weapon, soft target’ and vice versa and we incorporate elbows. In between the transitions it’s clear there are more than techniques in the mix, and he goes into the psychology of predatory body language and starts layering the mental rationale behind these physical responses.

There is a contagiously high work-rate in the team. The room no longer feels cold and it’s clear that this is more hands-on than the usual Muay Thai ‘bash the pads’ session. We finish with expansions on stand-up grappling using the pivot we began the session with. I’m sweaty, a bit roughed-up and have endorphins coursing through my system.

Week 4. Month 1. Workshop

This is a six-hour Saturday session. The first part covered a thoroughly-researched presentation, with videos, schematics, and key points of street violence – even touching upon the legal side and defining reasonable force, and the importance of avoidance of confrontation. It’s clear that this has been gleaned from real-life experience, interrogating data, and clinical questioning of traditional beliefs around the many guises of assault.

We move to the practical. Warm up, striking pads, emphasising the dropping of weight through the torso, and generally leathering the cow out of the pads. Clinching, lateral movement and chin-rips follow – everyone gets a taste of how it feels. After sprawling and grappling drills on the mats, we’re ready to pair up and spar. While not mandatory, ultimately, it’s what it’s all about so everyone is up for the challenge.

Padded up, the fast and intense sessions ‘until someone quits’ begins. It’s soon evident this isn’t the rehearsal studio of the Bolshoi Ballet. We face our opponent standing up, immediately employing whatever means we prefer - boxing, kickboxing, before invariably, ground fighting. This is pressure testing at its best. While we fight hard and know that cuts and bruises will appear, there is a respect between the crew. Tom martials, motivates and refs and we all share our respect after our bouts, happy that we pushed each other a little further. From the intellectual to the physical, it’s clear that this is the complete package.

Month 2. Week 3. Knife drills

Reality check number 3. I’ve done knife drills way back in some JKD days, and more recently at the odd Krav session, and to be frank, this is an ice-bucket over all previous theories and practices.

We look at realistic responses – which Tom neatly explains – is likely to be initially, ‘Fuck.’ It begins with identifying and nullifying weapons before they see the light of day, actions during the drawing of the weapon, and techniques when they’re brandished (or let’s face it, being sewing machined into your torso). Based on more instinctive responses including flinches and gross motor reactions, we’re drilled to look at the problem differently – from minimising likely injuries while entering with a crash elbow to ‘turning the machine off at the plug’ rather than focus entirely on the weapon, to ranges, responses and mentality needed. It continues through everyone’s most likely and instinctive response of grabbing the knife hand and pushing forward straight-armed and using the head to inflict damage, through to underhooks and knees. The principle of ‘opening the gate’ is once again in effect – a movement that is now more hardwired into my system, a call-back to day one. It’s obvious that there’s considerable ‘method in the melee’ as Tom reiterates the principles he’s crafted, and are now sinking into my tendons, muscles, and mind – same tenets, different application.

Of course, we’re using training knives, but the bruises I gain along the way are real enough – a very small price to pay for the knowledge, satisfaction and practice gained from the session.

Rising to the challenge

Counter-intuitively, across all the classes I’ve attended, the primary response Kinetic Combatives drills into everybody is ‘walk away’ before it kicks off. How to not be there in the first place, how to escape, and if that fails, how to use appropriate force commensurate with the perceived threat. It's also worth noting that at every point, there was no official week 1 start for me, it’s just where I joined the crew, fortunate enough to be one of the team mopping up knowledge and detoxing from half-baked notions of what self-defence would realistically look and feel like.

As Tom says himself, there’s always a ‘But what about this?’ to every martial arts encounter, or he’ll notice a smug ‘What he should have done was…’ in a street fight post-mortem by

those who’re a hundred miles away from the encounter. Indeed, the world’s full of armchair philosophers and bar room Cus D’Amato’s about all forms of combat. What I found at Kinetic Combatives is a brutally pragmatic set of principles promulgated by someone who, in layman’s terms, not only ‘Knows their shit’ better than anyone I’ve ever trained under, but who also is in the business of leading by example, with lived, real-life experience. To be able to share the knowledge and get me to act on it, and key in what’s natural to me, then that’s a true wake-up call and a reality check I’ll happily repeat.

- William Hogan, 2023

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