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Amateur vs. Pro Knifers
Cost of Knife Use
Dueling vs. Survival
Lies About Knife Fighting
Fighting Fantasies
Knife fighting?
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What If Monkeys

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A typical ... expert, like experts in other fields is prone to sound exceedingly sure of himself. An 'expert' doesn't so much argue the various sides of an issue as plant his flag firmly on one side. That's because an expert whose argument reeks of restraint or nuance doesn't get much attention. An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into conventional wisdom. His best chance of doing so is to engage the public's emotion, for emotion is the enemy of rational argument. And as emotions go, one of them -- fear  -- is more potent than the rest. The super-predator, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, mad-cow, crib death: how can we fail to heed the expert's advice  on these horrors when, like that mean uncle telling too scary stories to too young children, he has reduced us to quivers?
                                                          Steven Levitt
                                                             Stephen Dubner

Knife fighting instructors

On this page:
Backstabbing 101 | It's your ass Cochise | Piece of the pie | So who do I recommend? | That "something else" that hooks 'em in

I am often asked what I think about other "knife fighting instructors." More specifically,  people  ask me if they think they should go study with a particular individual..

My answer is "Yes."

Just don't believe that anybody has sole possession of the TRUTH (tm) about knife work. Such nonsense will only make them money and get you killed. Realistically it is more likely to result in you being raped in prison if you  accept what they are teaching at face value and use it without having looked into the legalities of lethal force use. Unlike fire arms instructors, most so-called "knife fighting" experts have not familiarized themselves with -- the not unreasonable -- requirements of lethal force. This is not to say that what they are teaching won't work. The problem is that it DOES work! In fact it works too damned well if you decide to go off on someone who is not offering you sufficient threat to justify lethal force.

The reason for the quote on the top of the page is simple. People who know the legal standards of lethal force in a civilian context will take one look at most of what is being taught as knife fighting and proceed to have kittens. What is being taught as is anything but self-defense.

And yes, I am one of those less than famous experts whose arguments reek of restraint and nuance. That's because I advocate BEFORE you take any knife training that you get training in Judicious use of Lethal Force. THEN proceed with knife training so you can separate what will work to save you from what will get you thrown in prison.

This will also help you learn how to be an aware consumer. If your goal is to learn a weapons based martial art, that's one thing. And quite frankly, this is why I say "Yes" to studying with various instructors. But if your goal is self-defense, why pay for something that will result in you being afraid to pick up the soap?

Backstabbing 101 - a look into the knife fighting "business"
To begin with recognize that there is a difference between a weapon-based martial art, knife fighting and defending yourself with a knife. Forget, any idea of one stop shopping. You're not going to get everything that you need in one place.

With this in mind, I can state that most of the "name" knife fighting instructors are making their living selling you a fantasy. And it is a fantasy based on what *you* the customer thinks that knife fighting is. You go in and you are taught mastery in the skills that you assume are involved in knife fighting. What you are generally being taught is a weapon-based martial art.

It doesn't matter  whether this is pure Filipino martial arts (or some obscure and ancient blade art) being taught as war-proven fighting skills, "modernized" knife fighting (read FMA stripped down and renamed and called "street effective"), World War II combat systems or Western fencing that has been adapted and modified. What matters is that you realize that these people are making their living off having people believe that they know the "truth" about knife fighting.

And in such a small market, you don't stay in business by sending customers to other people. Nor do you stay in business by teaching something that is simple, effective and can be taught in a few days.

Instead you stay in business keeping people coming to your school or seminars. You stay in business by selling "accessories" ... the ultimate fighting knife, the advanced courses DVDs, the t-shirts and gym bags. In short, you stay in business by keeping people handing you money. One of the better ways of doing this is to establish an organization based around your teachings and to extend this organization as far and wide as possible. The participants in this organization (often, franchised instructors) pay yearly dues, for instructional materials and for whatever "new" material comes out. These regional instructors host the head of the organization for workshops.

So far this is simple business and advertising, and there is nothing wrong with that.

However, there are many pitfalls where it can turn into something else, something much worse. One of these points is when instructors decide to build themselves up by tearing other instructors down. Or encouraging their students to do the same. If you look at it from a purely business sense you might be able to understand the idea trying to divert customers from the other person and keep them coming back to you. However, that is not how business is done legally. There is a distinct line between "advertising" on one side, and "libel" and "slander" on the other.

The next time you hear a self-proclaimed "master knife fighter" saying that another instructor "doesn't know shit" or "is a fake from the biker bar from hell" recognize that you are listening to that person setting himself up to be sued for illegal business practices. That is no longer advertising, that is slander. This is especially true if the person does not have first hand experience with the other person's program. Such a person is actively  and deceitfully trying to drive business away from another establishment and is setting himself up for  punitive damages for slander, libel and illegal business practices. Right off the bat the person is engaging in  illegal and unethical practices. And as the old saying goes "people are seldom dishonest in only one aspect of their lives."

So if the person is willing to lie about someone else to get your money, what makes you think that he isn't willing to lie to you to get your money?

You might want to take a little jaunt over to the Lethal Force and Psychological hubs and see if -- in all this great training you're getting -- these very real and problematic issues about using violence are ever mentioned. These are issues you will have to deal with if you use a knife on another human being.

Getting back to badmouthing, a very important to realize that most of these people have *never* seen the people that they are "dissin" teach. There is no first hand experience about the other person's actual skill or system. This is why you don't get specific critiques of "he teaches this, which doesn't work because of A, B, C and D" but rather vague and generalized attacks on the whole system or ad homenum attacks on the person. (i.e. "he doesn't know shit," or "is a fake"). If there is a legitimate critique, then it should be able to be precisely explained and not just generalized allegations of other people's dishonesty and vague accusations of incompetence.(1)

Furthermore -- without requiring you to attack in a specific way and against multiple  full speed attack -- the person should be able to demonstrate why his way of doing it is superior. Superiority should be easily demonstrated, repeatedly and against all comers. If that person's way of doing it is superior, then it should have a significantly higher success rate than the technique he is criticizing. While I won't go so far to suggest he face a sharpened blade in the hands of someone not his student, that would be a live-fire test of his superiority in the subject.

Nah, usually it is easier just to bad mouth someone else with generalized contempt and dismissal.

In short, if you see someone engaging in this behavior it tells you more about them and what kind of things they will do to get your money than it does about the person he is talking about. And that should concern you...especially in regard to what he is teaching you about something that could cost you your life. Return to top of page

It's your ass, Cochise
When it comes to learning about surviving against a knife, there is no issue more important for you to understand than it is your ass on the line. It's not about the instructor, it's about you -- and what you can do after you walk out of training.

The bottomline it doesn't matter what kind of grand master, guru, streetfighter, super cop, S.E.A.L. special operative, innovator, warlord,  master or arms or some title that sounds  like a cat coughing up a fur-ball someone claims to be... what matters is that what he is teaching you -- not only works -- but does so now.

Note the idea that you can do it *now!*  It is critical.

I am dead serious about it not being about what he can do, but what he can show you that you can use to stay alive against someone coming at you in a dark and lonely place with the intent of killing you. I'm not talking what a rattlesnake on speed you'll be after five years of studying with him. I'm talking about what  you can do it as you head out the door. As I said elsewhere:

If it works now, five years of training will make it work better,
if it doesn't work now, odds are it still won't work five years from now.

I cannot stress enough that it isn't what he can do, it isn't about lineage, it isn't about how combat proven a style is, or if the founder of the style had  "blood on the bolo" (big deal, when it comes to knifework, there isn't just blood on the knife, it's on the floor, walls, you, him and the furniture too). It is about what he can show you that works for you. You are the one who is going to need to be able to use it. And if it doesn't meet this basic criteria, then it really isn't going to be any use to you in the parking lot tonight, now will it?

If you walk into a seminar and what is being taught doesn't work for you, fine, throw it away for matter how good the person claims it to be. Consider it a study of movement and drills to instill potentially useful movement patterns, it is NOT, however something you can use to survive a life threatening attack. A complex system will only get you killed and really isn't applicable to the average person and the situations you will find yourself in. This is especially true if the seminar focuses on training for long-drawn-out knife-to-knife conflicts. This is often referred to as "Dueling" by critics of such training. (Critics, who BTW, often have first-hand experience about the difference between FMA and how knives are actually used by criminals and military personnel. They've seen the difference and know why this kind of training won't work out there.) 

I have a very simple standard: If the "basics" can't be learned in a short time and made to work against a wide spectrum of attacks then it isn't going to work in the street. In light of the fact that it will be you laying in an alley bleeding to death if you try to use something else, you might want to adopt this standard too.

And not to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the odds are greater that any knife assault you face will be at the hands of a criminal, not a trained Filipino martial artist. That means the nature of the attack is going to be significantly different. Don't believe anyone who tells you other wise. These differences can and will kill you. The physics of an attack are radically different when your attacker has no fear of you because you are unarmed vs. someone who is concerned of the danger you pose because you too are armed (dueling). Often when I say this I am met with people in these systems who claim "Well, we train for both armed and unarmed situations." Right, and if pigs could fly there'd be pork in the treetops by morning.

I have a little game you can play to test this if you really are being trained in the different physics, it's called put your money where your mouth is. If you are willing to bet your life on the effectiveness of this kind of training, then you should have no hesitation to put up say, $200. Here's the deal, you don't have a knife, he does -- with lipstick or chalk on it so you can count the hits. Square off and for every cut or stab he lands, you pay him $20. Figure you'd be dead after 10 hits so you can realistically limit it to $200. Put the money on the table and see what happens.

Until that time, don't believe that you're being trained to handle a knife attack.

Having said this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with studying a weapons based martial art or learning complex movement patterns in the perfection of one's art. That is a legitimate focus of training. However, do not confuse that with knife fighting. Training is not doing. This is especially true when you can die during the doing. Return to top of page

Piece of the pie
So what is the truth about knife work?

The truth is this, nobody has the whole truth. It's too big of a subject for any one person to be the "ultimate expert" on the subject. That is because the topic is so big, vast and complicated that no one person can master all the aspects of it in one life time.

This leaves you with a situation where while no one is ultimately "right." Each person has "a slice of the pie." Each of them has valid information -- as far as they go. Where that information will fall down is when they try to extend it past the localized area of truth and pass it off as the whole. There is nothing wrong with having an area of specialization or admitting that what you do only goes so far. That is there is nothing wrong with it except if you are losing income to people who claim to be the ultimate expert on the subject. And then quite frankly, it is only "wrong" to the individual who isn't getting that money.

The truth is there are countless "experts" in specific martial arts who do not make their living off teaching. And often the quality of the information is far superior to the watered-down commercialized versions. The caliber of information you can get in someone's garage is often outstanding and the politics in large organizations is far less. Some will teach you art, others will teach you how to "git-r-done." While all of them are important to know, none of them are entirely right -- or wrong -- on the subject.

What I am trying to say is that you cannot predict how you will be attacked with a knife. There are literally thousands of ways that someone can attack you. And each "art" will cover a few of them, but no art/person will cover all of them. Therefore it is incumbent on you to go out and learn as much as you can about not only the different kinds of attack, but what you can do to counter each of them...and which types of moves work best for you. Return to top of page

So who do I recommend?

Because nobody holds the ultimate truth, I recommend you become a seminar junkie. Go out and learn about all the different "truths" there are about knife survival. Each instructor will have something different to offer to you and you can use these different elements to become as well informed as possible about the subject, rather than a "true believer" of one particular system or instructor.

Yes there are people out there who have "seen the elephant" and what they teach is going to be different than someone who has only studied the subject as an art. Both have their value. And neither is all encompassing. Therefore, know going in what you are learning and what the person's qualifications and intentions are. From that you extrapolate what works for you and an awareness of different ways of doing things.

Just don't believe anybody who insists that his system is better than anybody else's. That's a decision that you can only make for yourself. And by this I mean that no system is "categorically better" than another, but rather that it is better for you. That doesn't however, mean it is good for the guy next to you. He may do things differently and in doing that, he will attack differently.

And you need to at least be familiar with that kind of attack and how to handle it. Therefore, do exactly what Bruce Lee recommended "Absorb what is useful."

Remember, "It's your ass Cochise."
Return to top of page

That "something else" that hooks 'em
Having recommended that you learn from as many people as you can,  however, I do feel it is important to point out to you that if you do take this course of action you will be beset by "true believers." Depending on who you encounter, this can take many forms: from attempting to recruit you to their "clique," to verbally attack you for listening to anyone other than their messiah,  to embarrassing you by showing how much better than you they are or being just flat-out rude and snotty with a superiority trip straight out of high school

We have a saying, "You may come to the martial arts to learn self-defense, but you stay for other reasons."

Believe it or not, it is very difficult to make a living teaching just self-defense. It is not something that has a wide scale appeal. At least not enough to stay in business and keep the doors open. Therefore the "successful" instructors will add in "something else" to create appeal to a wider spectrum of people. If you walk by a typical martial arts school, you will often see them stressing ideas like confidence, self-discipline, perseverance, health benefits, etc., and somewhere in the list is self-defense too. These attributes make the school appealing for parents to put their kids into the programs -- and like it or not, kids are the bread and butter of most martial arts schools. Another common attempt at mass appeal is a school claiming to teach several different arts at once. A glance in the phone book or at the window of many martial arts schools will prove this statement. Still another is the "health club" approach. Having spoken to members of the board of directors of the organization that invented "cardio-karate" they freely admit that it is a "cash cow" program. One that was designed to relieve the financial demands on the instructor so he wouldn't have to debase his martial art to stay in business. All of these are ways to get more people in the door and keep them there paying you money.

As is either blatantly claiming or insinuating to be able to make you a knife fighter, streetfighter, kung fu commando and/or certified bad ass. That  is another kind of hook.

So is the appeal of learning the "ultimate" martial art system; whether it was created by or is now taught by  the grandmaster/grand poo bah/ messiah on earth of the subject. The same applies to any system based on the fact that the instructor is a certified bad ass/ killer commando/ streetfighter. That isn't self-defense any more, it is marketing. And it is a very effective marketing form too, because it gives people what they want -- whether they admit it to themselves or not.

As stated, it is a smart business move to develop an organization that guarantees a steady source of income. However, many of the people who are attracted to such groups have other agendas and bring with them personal politics and dysfunctions -- not the least of which is seeking for their own "personal Jesus" (i.e. an all knowing messiah that they bask in his glory and wisdom...while looking down at others for not recognizing "the truth"). Certain people develop very a nearly religious fervor about individuals who feed this want inside of them.

While personally I am uncomfortable with the idea of someone thinking that I am a all-knowing guru, some people apparently like it and encourage it. What I do know for sure, is that they may not be better self-defense teachers than me, but  they are more financially successful for allowing that dynamic to develop. The ones who are the most successful are the ones who actively encourage it among their followers. And like churches, these groups often develop "personalities" and are actively hostile towards similar groups.

Thing is, the group dynamic, while being presented as having everything to do with the quality and applicability of what is being taught for self-defense, has nothing to do with self-defense. It is all about feeding people's egos and fantasies. Unfortunately, this underlying dynamic  is not always immediately obvious.

Recognize that there is a good possibility that you will be walking into exactly that situation if you decide to go study with someone. It's less evident at seminars, but it can be there too. This can make walking into a such a place a rather unpleasant experience. If you find yourself growing uncomfortable with either the teaching or the group, take a look and see if this has something to do with why you are feeling uncomfortable.

It is better to know about this  going in so you can avoid stepping in it...or being bit by it.

Return to top of page

1) There is a very strange game these instructors play, they watch video tapes of these other instructors then claim that they have seen the other person teach. When you press them them about the extent of their research they base their condemnation on they tend to get vague. In other words their research is as shallow as their condemnations are generalized Return to text

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