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:
On Youtube:

Go see Montreal System:
Also, check out my training partner George's site. He is the head coach of The Fitness Arena:

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