Sunday, March 30, 2014

Systema: Montreal Systema: Montreal, QC

Background: My original impression of Systema was very much like my impression Jeet Kune Do. Just like Jeet Kune Do was the mysterious art of Bruce Lee, Systema was the mysterious art of the Russian Spetnaz. My exposure to Systema as a Martial Art had been incredibly limited and come mostly through the medium of television and Youtube. Shows like “Deadliest Warrior” showcased Systema and I had seen some neat demos on the web but nothing is as concrete as actually experiencing an art. My only “hands on” experience was to see people joke about Systema. Coming from a Russian Sambo background it was natural to make jests at the expense of a close cousin. You will see this dynamic played out in all sectors of Martial Arts. Judo and Ju Jitsu will make fun of the other. Jeet Kune Do and Wing Chun perpetually make jokes at the others expense. Truly, the comparisons are endless.

For my part, I wanted to see past the good natured jokes and really dive into Systema. What was this Martial Art and what would like be like to train with them? Montreal Systema leapt out at me the same way that so many of the places that I visit do, via Google. If there is any lesson that I could impart on Martial Arts instructors it is to make sure you can be found on the web. The importance of finding new and experienced students is paramount. Needless to say, Montreal Systema does this well and jumped off the screen at me.
Even warming up with Systema is pure aggression.

Kevin Secours is the head coach and is one of the most confident instructors I have “never met.” This turn of phrase will likely surprise many of the people that read this article. After all, the focus of this blog is to chronicle the interaction I have with various Martial Artists around the globe and the lessons I learn. It would seem self-defeating to write about someone that I have only exchanged a quick phone call with and a couple of short emails.  What lessons are there to learn from a man that you “never met?”

When I reached out to Mr. Secours he told me that he wasn't going to be in Montreal when I would be available to film. Naturally you can imagine my disappointment at this news. However, without missing a beat he told me that I could go to the class anyway and film with his assistant Instructor Danny. This speaks volumes about a Martial Artist. In a single sentence Mr. Secours expressed confidence in his Martial Art and moreover in his people. He didn't need to be there because he knew his class was rock solid and wouldn't let him down. You know you have done an exceptional job teaching when trust your whole class to represent you, your school and your Martial Art. Truth be told, he was completely right to have placed that level of faith in his crew because they were great.
Instructor Danny goes over some of the sensitivity drills Systema trains with.

What did I learn: Where to begin? Because I am restricted by a self-imposed word limit on these articles I want to focus on two areas . The first is the knife-fighting sensitivity drills that we did. Something I find very interesting is that so many “Reality Based Self-Defence” systems focus on using instincts as a basis for their theories. Systema strives to break down those instincts and build a much more functional set of behaviours. For example, the normal human reaction when you get pushed is to put a foot down and push back. Systema will train against this reflex and instead roll with the force.
Danny and George showing me how to roll and retrain myself.

In the context of Systema’s development this makes perfect sense. It is a self-defence program that is designed to give soldiers a weapon system to deploy against other soldiers. Therefore regardless of your physical training you run a risk of engaging other soldiers who should be in peak physical condition and might be substantially larger. You can’t out muscle someone in a scenario like that and worse they may be armed. Push against a knife all day with your body if you want, however, I grantee you will lose. By retraining your body’s reactions you become infinitely more likely to survive the encounter. Now it is important to note that never at any point did anyone in the class advocate that you would be able to roll away from a knife at the point of contact. Minimizing damage verse completely avoid damage are two very different things.
George throws me to the ground and locks up my arm. 

The other thing I learned was actually a lesson I don’t see applied enough. I use this segment sometimes as a reminder of things we know but fail to apply. During the ground work session we strapped on our gloves and worked on some ground & pound escapes. Classes very often follow a distinct layout. You have striking classes where you work on all things stand up and grappling classes where you work on ground work and never the two shall meet.

Montreal Systema goes above and beyond by linking these two areas together. Once we had the basic drill down we put on our gloves and began throwing punches. This amped up the pressure enormously and really made us work. For a system that I rarely see on the MMA circuit these guys were doing drills that most MMA schools leave out of their training. 
 George straddles me and rains down hits.

What was similar: One of the biggest mysteries of Systema is the striking. I have heard it referred to as “ballistic striking” by Mikhail Ryabko and Val Riazanov on Youtube. When Danny and George demoed the striking to me I realised it was shockingly close to the striking I have done with while practising Piqua and Baji with my Sifu John Hum and Sifu Jason Tsou. Of course upon further reflection this made perfect sense. Baji and Piqua can trace their roots to the Hebei province in Northern China. In case geography isn’t your thing the Hebei province is quite close to (about 1000km) to the Russian Border. For my American readers this is about as far as New York is to Indianapolis. If Google is to be believed this is about 23 days of walking so we can assume a reasonable exchange of culture and ideas over the years.

When Danny hit me the first time he struck down and dragged his fist across my body. Instead of punching in a straight line through me he made contact from just below my collar bone to my lower pectoral. He didn't hit me with any undo force but it hurt like the devil. In Kung Fu we refer to this as “bringing pain to the surface.” For anyone that hasn't experienced striking in this manner the closest thing I can relate it too is the “5 star slap” you will see young men give each other. A “5 Star” is where you slap someone on their bare back and it leaves a stinging imprint of your palm. This is of course a vast over simplification of ballistic striking but it should give you an idea. 
Danny demonstrates Systema's striking on me. 

This striking is powerful and heavy. What I like about "bringing pain to the surface" is that it hurts way more than regular striking. Because of the surface area effected it gives the impression that you are hurt much more than you in fact are. This "illusion of damage: is a wonderful way to convince people that they don't want to continue fighting. Should they desire to keep fighting the ballistic strikes are still heavy, brutal hits that will bring and adversary down. Systema brings effective striking with psychological dominance to the table.  

Conclusion: As I prepared to leave Montreal Systema I saw them sparring. There was a group that had stayed late to grapple and kickbox and they were pushing hard. Montreal Systema is not for the faint of heart. They drill hard and cover a vast array of topics. However, if you decide you are interested in being more than a casual student of Martial Arts they are a great place to train. I opened this article stating I knew Systema through the joking of Sambo, yet, I have concluded that the guys at Montreal Systema are no joke and know their craft. 
A great night with Montreal Systema. 

Best regards and keep training,

Martin "Travelling Ronin" Fransham 

If you are interested in training together I would love to get together with you. Drop me a line on facebook and we can connect. I would love to learn from you. On Facebook:
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Go see Montreal System:
Also, check out my training partner George's site. He is the head coach of The Fitness Arena:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jeet Kune Do: Focus JKD Nashville: Nashville, TN

Background: When you ask most people what Jeet Kune Do is they will tell you, “It’s Bruce Lee’s Martial Art.” Now ask someone to elaborate what “Bruce Lee’s Martial Art” is and you will receive a series of non-committal answers. I was the same way. JKD had always been a mystery to me until earlier this year. It is rare to see JKD fighters on the tournament circuit and so my exposure to them was reasonably shallow.

In late 2013 I meet a gentleman by the name of Nik Farooqui who runs the Xtreme Training Academy out of Chicago, Illinois. His conceptualization of JKD is a program that he calls Ballistic Fighting Methods. He opened my eyes to what JKD is and how it could be applied in a real world environment. With this taste I decided that I really wanted to learn more about it. Via the powers of Youtube I got turned onto Focus JKD. After watching an interview by Dominick Izzo with Mike VanBeek I liked what I saw and hammered “Focus Jeet Kune Do” into Google and actually came up with the Nashville branch.
Kevin slips my jab and comes over the top with a cross.

As a frequent traveller to the Nashville area I saw this as a great opportunity and reached out to them. I was immediately welcomed by Kevin Collier and Langston Glass to come get a deeper feeling of what Focus JKD was. If you look at Focus JKD’s winter training facility you will find a compact little building that is utilitarian and spartan. There is no real d├ęcor and everything has a place and purpose as it should in a small area.

I get asked why I will bounce between types of facilities. Some people equate size with the quality of a Martial Art and as such a bigger facility must be better. In my experience this is not the case. Great Martial Artists can be found in all areas and their skill is not reflective of their facility. Focus JKD is not a commercial operation and as such they have dedicated a huge amount of personal resources to their school. They train indoors and outside, on mats and in mud, and if you have never tried your techniques outside your dojo you should. Does what you do work outside when it is wet? Can you fight in a tight space with multiple partners bearing in on you? The guys at Focus JKD know.
Langston thrusts at me with a stick while working on weapon defence.

What did I learn: You never know where you will pick techniques up and there is always something to learn at another school, even during the warm up. I was introduced to the pivot bag which is essentially a speed bag inverted on top of a metal pole. The bottom of the pole is attached to a swivel with springs to pull it back up. The pivot bag is wonderful for building striking mechanics because of the movement it simulates. If your punches have any loop to them then the bag begins to sway back and forth making it very hard to hit. This swaying represents an opponent bobbing and weaving in a fight working your timing and coordination. Finally if you want to maintain a high volume of hits you need to be right on top of the bag and actively engaging it rather than waiting for it to return to its original position. It is a great tool to develop good technique, proper timing and aggression.
 Kevin shows me how to use the pivot bag while making sure to keep up aggression. 

Another great lesson was how to use “destructions” in combat. A destruction is very simply aligning a hard point on your body with an incoming strike in order to inflict pain on the attacker. The most current example is Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva in which Silva snapped his leg against Weidman’s knee. Focus JKD taught me the basics of how to setup a proper destruction. First you learn to block. A destruction does you no good if you are knocked out by the first punch. The second step is to learn how to avoid a punch by slipping. You just move out of the way allowing the punch to slide past you. This trains your reflexes and timing. Finally, as the attack comes in you slide out of the way and replace your opponent’s target with something hard.
I throw up an elbow to intercept Kevin's hook with a destruction.

As you put together these steps you began to have a great idea how all the pieces fit. You weren't trying to block punches with your elbow. This is how I had always interpreted destructions in the past and I was sceptical of their effectiveness. After all, if you are minimizing your blocking area in favour of a harder surface you run a much higher risk of being knocked out. The way that Focus JKD teaches you makes much more sense. Because they either block or slip out of the way the destruction changes from being a necessary technique to survive into a functional technique that doesn't endanger you. In short, if you miss a punch with your elbow it doesn't matter. The punch will sail past or glance off a block and you are free to continue engaging your opponent. I really enjoyed the focus on assuring your personal safety before concentrating on an offence.

What was similar: “We don’t need to be the best, we just need to be good enough to cheat.” This was a comment that Langston told me as we were training and it rings true. When I gave an interview with Dominick Izzo on his Youtube Channel I talked about how the biggest difference between sport fighting and the street was the ability of the sport fighter to prepare ruthlessly in advance of the fight. However, things are a little different for the “street fighter.” One of the gentleman* I trained with told me once that on the street “you don’t have to win you just have to avoid losing.”
I throw up a hand to intercept a knife thrust. 
Not technically what you are supposed to do, however, I was backed into a corner and panicked. 

This was exactly the mentality of Focus JKD. They aren't training to be the next Floyd Mayweather Jr. or to fight George St. Pierre. They don’t need to win a knife fighting tournament or weapons competition. Instead they are the great generalists of Martial Arts. When I call Focus JKD generalists it pertains to the way they conduct their training. They won’t out box a kickboxer, rather, they now enough to bring the kickboxer into an area where he is not comfortable like ground or weapons fighting. This “Jack of all trades” approach to training is perfect for the street where there are no fixed scenarios and adaptability is more valuable than specialization.
A great night training with Focus JKD Nashville. I learned a lot and made some great friends.

Conclusion: Focus JKD is a great place to go if you are looking for combat training that you can apply in your everyday life. If you want to experiment and test yourself in a wide range of scenarios than this is the place for you.

Best regards and keep training,

Martin "Travelling Ronin" Fransham 

*I can't remember the gentleman that left me the quote “you don’t have to win you just have to avoid losing.” 

If you are interested in training together I would love to get together with you. Drop me a line on facebook and we can connect. I would love to learn from you. On Facebook:
On Youtube:
Focus JKD Nashville: