Friday, October 22, 2010


In my blog item of June 17, I wrote about the importance of never relying on just one -- or even two -- defense methods. This is known as having Redundant Defense Systems. Last weekend, during a comprehensive training workshop sponsored by the Academia della Spada in Seattle (see previous item), the few dozen participants who attended got a basic understanding of using disparate combat methodologies in a synergistic manner. (I must mention, however, that the Academia had arranged for this workshop well in advance of my writing the June 17 item.)

As you might expect, the first training module of the workshop focused on reviewing the fundamentals of the Spanish navaja. Although the majority of participants had prior experience in this weapon, the review helped to level the playing field among beginners and "veterans."

The evening training module was for advanced members only, and we worked on removing familiar knife combat parameters in order to heighten their sensitivity to the blade's lethality. Working from an upright stance, with a low guard, and no use of the off-hand (or mano siniestra), the participants gained a personalized appreciation for the elements of distance, timing, reaction time, evasion, and attack ccmmitment.

The following day, the third training session was dedicated to French foot-fighting, However, instead of using traditional Savate, the instruction explored the rudiments of Chausson, the older street kicking art where dirty tricks are considered fair. We moved from the basic low kicks (coup de pied bas, coup de savate, coup direct) to higher body kicks, such as chasse lateral, chasse frontal, and foutte Italienne.

Continuing on to defense techniques and combinations, we integrated the knife work from the previous day by looking at methods for defeating the blade.

The afternoon's training module was centered on French cane fighting, or Canne de Combat. After a cursory review of the variety of cane systems that exist in France, we began with the standard blows codified by Maitre Maurice Sarry; brise, enleve, lateral exterieur, lateral croisse, croisse tete, croisse jambe, and others. The parries for defeating these blows, or Parades, followed. We ended the module by working combination drills intended to sharpen the eyes and the reflexes.

The final training module was, again, for advanced members. Here the participants learned the use of Le Couteau, or the application of the common knife in conjunction with Chausson foot-fighting. Physically and mentally exhausted by this point, the participants nonetheless excelled at not only picking up the basics of this unique system, but also in demonstrating their understanding of it by applying it in a realistic, albeit non-lethal, manner.

My point in describing all this is not to superficially document a weekend of training, but to highlight the need to train in a variety of systems and show how they can be practically and tactically integrated. This provides you with a variety of skill-sets, as well as a realistic understanding of distance, how it varies according to weapon and methodology, and how controlling it can determine the outcome of an encounter. The most important lesson here is to train to fight effectively at every combat interval. You cannot have the luxury of a favorite comfort zone -- the choice of where and how you fight may not be yours to make.

Great job, Academia!
(Photos: S. Zimmerman)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Frequent travel, as I've written previously, is one of the nicer perquisites that come with being a World-Class knife fighter. (That, and never having to put up with other people's stupidity as long as there's a sharp blade within reach, are among the Top Five.) Conducting Acero Sevillano (Sevillian Steel) workshops on the West Coast is always an exciting proposition because of the sharp contrast between the pace and lifestyle there and here, in NYC. Moreover, workshop participants from Arcata and Seattle are very dedicated to their edged weapons skills, approaching their training with the same academic rigor that they approach their livelihoods and professions.

The salle sponsoring the workshop is the Academia della Spada in Seattle, a classical fencing venue where Cane fighting, French dagger, and Pugilism are taught alongside the more historical combat disciplines of Italian rapier, French smallsword, and, of course, Spanish rapier. I first met these fun-loving but hard-working martial fencers through my association with the Martinez Academy of Arms. In recent years, the members of the Academia have become major navaja enthusiasts and, together with the members of the Destreza Pacifica salle in Arcata, are well on the way to becoming responsible representatives of the weapon (navaja sevillana) on our western shore.

The navaja, however, in not the only dish on the menu for this weekend's activities. In keeping with the two salles' focus on historical but practical forms of combat, we will also be conducting training in French savate and chausson. Savate, of course, is the traditional martial art that almost exclusively uses the feet as weapons, with a few punches thrown in (pardon the pun) for good measure. Chausson is the original version of this combat, a quick and dirty style of street fighting practiced around the docks and bars of 18th century Marseille. As this style was gradually introduced to the French capital in the early 19th century, it was cleaned up and dignified in keeping with Parisian sensibilities. Ironically, the request by the west coast students to learn this kicking art is actually quite fitting for savate was often referred to by its documentarians as ... "fencing with the feet."

Friday, October 1, 2010


Brooklyn is New York City's most populous borough with approximately 2.5 million residents, and second largest in area. It is also the westernmost county on Long Island. Since 1896, Brooklyn has had the same boundaries as Kings County, which is now the most populous county in New York City and the second most densely populated county in the United States, after Manhattan.

Brooklyn has played a major role in various aspects of American culture including literature, cinema and theater as well as being home to the world renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music and the second largest public art collection in the United States is housed in the Brooklyn Museum.
  • Walt Whitman wrote of the Brooklyn waterfront in his classic poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
  • Francis Guy painted multiple views of Brooklyn in the late 1810s in a very precise and topographic manner.
  • Betty Smith's 1943 book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the 1945 film based on it, are among the best-known early works about life in Brooklyn.
  • William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice is set in Flatbush, just off Prospect Park, during the summer of 1947.
  • Arthur Miller's 1955 play A View From the Bridge is set in Brooklyn.
  • Paule Marshall's 1959 novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, about Barbadian immigrants during the Depression and World War II is also set in Brooklyn.
  • Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta was set in Bay Ridge, an Italian neighborhood in southern Brooklyn.
  • Neil Simon's 1983 play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, is set in 1937 Brooklyn.
Many Brooklyn neighborhoods are ethnic enclaves where particular ethnic groups and cultures predominate. The Brooklyn accent is often portrayed as 'typical New York' in American television and film.

Brooklyn is my “hometown” (not that you could ever call Brooklyn a town.) It is where I grew up, where I trained in ninjutsu before it was a household word, where I later established my martial arts studios (the New York Ninpokai and the Raven Arts Institute), and the starting point for all my globe-spanning travels. It is also where fellow sensei Chai Eun Hillmann prematurely lost his life yesterday.

According to the New York Times, a dispute began early Thursday over two dogs tied too closely to the other outside a bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Hillmann was fatally stabbed while trying to untangle his dog’s leash from another’s. It was the type of minor skirmish common enough on the crowded sidewalks of New York, reported NYT staffer Colin Moynihan, but as the owners of the dogs separated them, things quickly escalated. By the time it was over, two employees of the Branded Saloon, on Vanderbilt Avenue, had been stabbed.

Chai Eun Hillmann, an aspiring actor and a martial arts expert, was stabbed twice in the torso and killed. Hillmann, 41, worked as a bartender at the Branded, but was not working when he stopped by with his dog to see friends and participate in a charity poker game in the basement. At some point, the dogs became uncomfortably entangled and Hillmann and the other dog owner, Mrs. Pagan, both moved to unravel the leashes. An argument ensued, with Mr. Pagan confronting Hillmann.

“Hillmann put his hand on Mrs. Pagan’s arm, indicating he could handle it,” Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York Police Department, said in a statement. “When Daniel Pagan saw Hillmann touch his wife, a fight between the two men erupted. Pagan produced a knife and stabbed Hillmann and another man.” Hillmann staggered back into the Branded, witnesses said, where friends tried to give him first aid and called 911. The police have arrested Daniel Pagan, who had served time for manslaughter, and charged him with murder.

Mr. Hillmann was born in Korea but grew up in the United States. He studied martial arts and in the mid-1990s was the sensei of Chai Karate in Ardsley, in Westchester County. In an interview in 1996 in The New York Times, he described martial arts as a means of self defense, saying of its practitioners: “They won’t be victims,” and adding, “They can choose whether to continue confrontation or get out of it and flee.”

As a life-long Brooklyn resident, it disturbs me that another human being has senselessly lost his life because such things continue to happen in my borough.
As an instructor of traditional Andalucian knife-fighting arts, it angers me that people with Spanish surnames continue to perpetuate the negative stereotypes that have, unfortunately, long existed regarding “Hispanics and knives.”
But it is as a martial arts instructor of over 30 years that I am most disturbed. We train our minds to be constantly alert, recognizing that awareness is the best defense. We maintain a good attitude and a patient demeanor to (hopefully) elicit good will and rational behavior from others. We train our bodies to respond skillfully with lightning reflexes when avoidance is not possible. And despite all these extra efforts, some unthinking sociopath still blithely draws a knife over the harmless mischief that two pets get into!

We cannot make sense of the killer’s senseless actions, nor can we second guess the victim’s reactions, whatever those may have been. All we can constructively do is to keep this tragic incident foremost in our minds and remember that such things happen, even to trained martial arts practitioners, and even in Brooklyn. If you already train, you must train even harder, expand your awareness, and realize that it is better to be over-cautious than overly trusting. If you don’t already train, or if you’re among those who smugly laugh at our incessant practice, you need to finally look in the mirror and honestly ask yourself – not only if this could happen to you – but what you would do if it did. You’d better make some hard decisions: stay away from people and bars, start training, or purchase a handgun.

And until you decide, you’d better forget about walking around with a sissy dog.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


If it is true that we can only fight as well as we train, then the equipment we use in training takes on a special significance as well. Although I have read accounts of individuals who have even used popsicle sticks to train with -- and I find that commendable -- I also believe that training weapons should, as much as possible, resemble the weapons you expect to defend yourself with. I designed the above Carraca trainers with that in mind. They are modeled after the large carraca "sevillanas" manufactured by the cutlery firm of J.J. Martinez in Santa Cruz de Mudela, Spain.

The Carraca is the most recent design in a series of navaja trainers developed for use in our Acero Sevillano training. (Acero sevillano, or Sevillian steel, is the Andalucian art of defending oneself with the variety of edged weapons that evolved in the southernmost province of Spain.) Other navaja trainers include the Santolio and the Salvavirgo, a small knife carried by Andalucian women in a garter on their right legs.

The first few dozen Carracas that I received from my manufacturer sold out as soon as I arrived in Spain for this summer's Andalucian workshop (see the May 24 blog entry, below.) Recently I received a new delivery. The trainers, for those of you unfamiliar with them, measure 14.5 inches in length, 2.5 inches at the widest part of the belly, and come beautifully wrapped in navy blue para cord. Although it is very probable that you will buy other trainers that appeal to you in the future, you really would never have to get another navaja trainer after purchasing one of these. (And while the Carracas lack quillons, their size and weight make these trainers equally excellent for bowie knife practice.) Orders can be placed by visiting, and sending us an e-mail from the contact page. Happy Training!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


At the Raven Arts Institute, we have an annual tradition of commemorating 911 by training in Military Combatives for the entire month of September. While not directly related to the navaja or Spanish culture, Combatives is a western martial art that blends easily and effectively with other western fighting systems. Our particular focus this year was on the Combatives system of John Styers, author of the classic manual, COLD STEEL. For those not familiar with it, Cold Steel is a unique repository of fundamental -- and lethal -- methods of unarmed and armed combat: knife, baton, bayonet, and empty hands.
The knife Styers uses in the book is the iconic Marine Corps Ka-Bar, but the techniques he demonstrates are equally applicable with the navaja, the bowie, or any other blade-heavy knife.
Styers begins his knife chapter by reviewtng the proper stance and its tactical advantages, then quickly proceeds to the basics of using the Ka-Bar:
- the Thrust
- the Vertical Cut
- the Horizontal Cut
- the Hand Cut
From there, Styers moves on to demonstrate defensive actions with the knife, including the classic In Quartata, Passata Sotto, and the tactical use of distance. He then ends his knife instruction with a hierarchy of targets to be attacked with the knife, listing:
- the Hand
- the Heart
- the Throat
- the Chest, and
- the Back, between the scapulae.
While the Ka-Bar was the official knife issued to the Marines, the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger was the designated knife for our OSS, England's SOE, and the British Commandos. We train with both weapons, as they each have different designs which in turn offer different defensive/offensive attributes. Nonetheless, despite their different configurations, the two types of edged weapons handle quite intuitively.
In fact, the secret to efficiently using Combatives -- whether unarmed or armed -- is relying on your gross motor skills. This is what makes Combatives so teachable and so easily learned. So, if you don't yet train, 911 should be a great motivation for you to start. And if you already train, consider adding Military Combatives to whatever methods you already practice. Fortune favors the prepared!

Sunday, July 11, 2010


This weekend's training session turned out to be a breakthrough event for me as well as for the session's participants. After three full hours of kenjutsu suburi, we switched gears and picked up tanto knives. The purpose in the change in weapons from Japanese swords to Japanese knives was not, as you might expect, to explore how to apply sword techniques with a shorter blade -- we've already done that extensively in the past. The purpose was to counterbalance the theoretical training with the sword with practical training with the knife!

We began, as all innovations begin, by changing the rules.

As a prelude we discussed how fighting arts devolve from artistic systems to near neanderthal applications once they enter the competitive arena. We've all witnessed this. The beautiful, sharp, and crisp movements of the karate dojo fall by the wayside when the exponent enters the ring and faces a liked-trained opponent. The reptile brain takes over, gross motor skills negate the sophisticated movements of the dojo, and the combat ends up looking like a slugfest with two fighters relying on just two or three techniques to repel or defeat the other. What happened to the dozens of other moves they learned in the years of training? Hmmm!

The same often happens in the western martial arts. Modern fencers are a good example of this. With the focus moving from self-defense to sport competition, fencing sophistication is sacrificed to the quickest attacks that can be used to merely touch the opponent. It, like the karate match, becomes a primitive and desperate game of Tag between the participants.
The phenomenon is now known as Adrenal Stress Syndrome (or by other similar terms) and has been researched and documented ad nauseum by contemporary martial academics. We know it happens and you can pick up books by Bill Kipp or Peyton Quinn to understand why. Our point, however, is that IT HAPPENS.

Predicatably, the Filipino knife-fighting arts of eskrima and kali also exhibit the tendency to play Tag in their competitions. These devolved ways of applying karate, fencing, and knife-fighting result in points and tournament winners but -- and of this you can be certain -- they will definitively not save your gluteus maximus on the street!

I will not go through the entire lesson from yesterday but we determined that to keep knife-fighting practical, as was the purpose of the session, we had to change how we typically practiced it in sparring. Ergo, the changing of "the rules." What was the breakthrough? We revised the standard as follows:

  • Change the beginning distance in combat from long to extreme close quarters
  • Change the guard from a traditional one to an upright one, with feet only twelve to 18 inches apart
  • Chamber the knife on the lead thigh instead of the lead hip
  • Avoid using the off-hand by tucking it behind the waist, inside the belt
  • Avoid all counter-cutting or "defanging the snake"; substitute partial or full body evasions as the only means of defense
  • Make only committed attacks against the opponent, and only when you have a clear, undefensed line of approach
  • Remain relaxed, fighting from a state of mushin, rather than from "active alertness."

As I'd predicted, there were no winners at the end of the session. Each participant "killed" his opponent at some point, only to "be killed" later by the same training partner. That was actually a perfect result since it showed that, regardless of any disparate levels of skill, this kind of realistic fighting levels the playing field.

We conducted an "after action report" (AAR) following the knife-fighting session to explore the findings that participants experienced. Each articulated the different epiphanies he had from fighting at extreme close quarters with a minimal use of traditional tactics. The one discovery they had in common was that all assumptions going in as to who was better were shattered by disregarding the rules, and the ultimate realization that you must fight for your life very differently than you fight for a trophy.

[Note: The above photo is not from the session described.]

Monday, June 28, 2010


Nineteenth century literary accounts left to us by British and American travelers invariably record Albacete as the source city for navajas, sheath knives, and daggers. Although the city's reputation was based on the quality of its fighting steel, it was by no means the only venue that focused on the manufacture of navajas. The first chapter of the Manual del Baratero, in fact, lists the many other cities throughout Spain that were similarly dedicated to the production of small edged weapons. Today, Albacete's industry is primarily rivaled by knife manufacturing from Andujar and Santa Cruz, both of which also produce decent fare.

One could argue, however, that the premiere cutlers still reside in Albacete. Since I was going to stay there for a while. I decided to search out a cutler by the name of Sarrion. Sarrion's name is legend, even in the US, among connosieurs of fine navajas. I first heard of him ten years ago from Maestro Ramon Martinez. The Maestro had visited Albacete a decade or so prior and -- though not being a navaja stylist per se -- sought out Sarrion and acquired one of his formidable weapons. Maestro Martinez suggested that if I ever found myself in Albacete -- which is not at all near to my usual haunts in Andalucia -- I look up Sarrion and consider his wares. I said I would.

While everyone in Albacete seemed to have heard of Sarrion, the maestro cuchillero, very few knew if he still produced knives or was even alive. It was only the fact that the citizens of Albacete are very friendly and helpful that hept me undaunted in my search for this legendary knife artisan. In time, my persistence was rewarded.

At number 20 Albarderos Street, located two blocks from the cathedral, I found the Fabrica de Cuchillos Bienvenido, or the Bienvenido knife factory. [Yes, Bienvenido does mean "welcome" but it is also a common first name; and no, it was not an actual factory on a main street, but a factory outlet. The Spanish don't distinguish.] The proprietors, Bienvenido Gonzalez and his father, were very helpful in providing an extensive background on the current state of affairs.

As it turned out, Bienvenido has Sarrion as a neighbor. He informed me that while Sarrion is still alive, he recently retired due to advanced age and personal health complications that I cannot expand on in this post. Sarrion has two sons but neither is interested in carrying on the famiily tradition.

Bienvenido happened to have two remaining Sarrion navajas, which he was willing to sell me as part of a larger navaja purchase that I was making. The navajas, which I couldn't pass up, bear Sarrion's name engraved on the left side of their blades.

When I asked Bienvenido what the best way was to get back to the historical parador where I was staying, he smiled and told me that Sarrion's old storefront was right on the thoroughfare I would take to get back, the Avenida de Murcia. I could see it on the way.

Ten minutes later and halfway back, I found the place, now locked and neglected after years cutlery service to navaja aficionados. Its yellow sign, however, was still resplendent against the clear evening sky, persistent in letting the world know where it was that the retired cutler had once plied his time-honored trade. The Universe does indeed provide...

Friday, June 25, 2010


Below is an old verse I originally composed in 2006. I've included here for those of you who have not yet seen it. It's not a sophisticated poem, but then neither is its subject...

I use a simple knife
Without fancy locks or Kraton© scales
It doesn’t have a space-age blade
That chops through cars or cuts through nails

I use a simple knife
It requires no special gadgets to hone
I use two hands to open it
But it did not cost me a fortune to own

I use a simple knife
It’s razor-sharp and locks with a clasp
Its looks won’t win high-tech awards
But its touch will make a strong man gasp

I use a simple knife
One called a navaja throughout Spain and France
It’s made from humble wood and steel
But when it strikes … you’ll have no second chance.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


As human beings we are multi-dimensional. There are many facets to us, and within those facets we can also express many temperaments. We are also different things to different people: husband to one; brother to another; instructor to one; student to another. In the same manner, it is vital that our martial skills be similarly multi-dimesional.

When I taught ninjutsu for Duncan-sensei at the Queens Village Pistol and Rifle Club, I believed I was multi-dimensional because I taught students the use of traditional weapons (tanto, hanbo, kusari, jo, and bo) in addition to various approaches to unarmed combat. I was, however, rudely awakened by Sensei when he unceremoniously informed me that I'd also better get skilled in the use of firearms -- and soon! (See prior post.)

At the time I was smug in my ability to effectively engage in defensive unarmed combat. The handgunners at the Club were smug in their ability to shoot us at 35 feet (if they ever had to.)

I quickly got over my smugness when I undertook extensive firearms training and eventually became certified as an NRA Pistol Instructor. (Regrettably, the Club's handgunners never saw the wisdom of becoming trained in unarmed combat skills. Perhaps they wore their guns in the shower.)

The point is, never rely on only one -- or even two -- defense systems. One or two systems are not enough. Understand that thugs and felons are allowed to practice martial arts in the prisons, so they're criminally-motivated and they're combatively-trained. Your Tae-Bo or Cardio-Kickboxing workouts are not going to save you.

Navaja students must learn to integrate unarmed combat into their knifework. Savate works very nicely. My fencing friends should also study knife or cane arts in addition to their epee, saber, and smallsword disciplines. Traditional martial artists should also explore boxing or military combatives, the use of chemical sprays, and expandable batons.

And everyone -- political leanings notwithstanding -- should have a fundamental working understanding of firearms use.

Don't become complacent with your current skills, no matter how masterfully you perform them -- and don't neglect to develop The Other Side of the Coin!


At a very young age during my tutelage under him, Shihan Ronald Duncan finished instructing a lesson on some obscure ninjutsu weapon and. turning to face us, emphatically revealed, "Hands and feet are not enough."

This seemed to me to be a remarkably obvious thing to say, given that I was there to study ninjutsu which, almost by definition, focuses on a wide array of exotic Japanese weaponry. Hmm?

A few years later, as I became a candidate for my first black belt, Sensei informed me that I would have to apply for and acquire a NYC Pistol Permit as well. Huh? Throughout my entire time training, the handgun had always been held by the student in the attacker's role, the uke who represented "the Bad Guy."

The defender, tori, was the Good Guy. We were all there to be Good Guys, capable of using ancient Japanese arts to defend ourselves. Why did I need to acquire a gun permit to qualify for my black belt evaluation? Guns, I reminded Sensei, were the purview of the bad guys, the guys we learned many disarms to defend against!

In an uncharacteristically patient manner, Sensei explained:

"The ninja was a master of all the weapons of his time; to become a master of weapons you must learn to master all of weapons of your time. Of course it's great that you can use a katana, a tanto, and a hanbo expertly, but you'll rarely face those in the street. Today's cowards will use a handgun, so you must know how they work in order to contend against them.
"Nor is your knowledge of disarms enough. You must learn how to load a handgun, how to unload it, how to take it apart, and how to put it back together. Now go and apply for that permit or you'll remain a brown belt for the rest of your life!"

This was my second encounter with "The Other Side of the Coin."
At this point, readers who are navaja aficionados may be asking, "What has all this Eastern arts stuff have to with the art of la navaja?" Well, effective combat strategies know no ethnic borders!


In 1968, when we demonstrated at Madison Square Garden for The Oriental World of Self Defense, Shihan Ronald Duncan amazed the audience by taking a pair of nunchaku from his tunic, twirling them around in blurring movements, and taking out six or seven attacking students. [The students were not permanently hurt and, yes, we knew that the nunchaku is not a ninjutsu weapon.] The audience sat stupefied.

In 1969, when we again demonstrated at Madison Square Garden, Duncan-sensei amazed the audience by disarming an attacker -- portrayed by one of us -- who was whipping and twirling a nunchaku against him at full speed. Not having advanced knowledge of Sensei's plans, even we were stupefied by his incredible degree of skill at not being struck while taking the thrashing weapon from a trained dojo-mate.

Afterwards, back at the dojo, the other students and I were equally amazed and conflicted by the demonstration we ourselves had been part of at the Garden. The lead black belt expressed to Sensei the confusion we were all feeling.

"Sensei, we had begun to believe that the lethal weapons we train in were the epitome of our skill at personal protection and dominance over our opponents. We work relentlessly to keep those weapon skills honed and polished, as we would a lethal katana. Yet today you seemed to negate our armed skills while being completely unarmed. Is our weapons training then a waste of time?"

"Never become complacent," Sensei somberly told us that day. "Your audience during a demonstration is like your enemy: surprise them and you can likewise surprise an actual opponent. But become complacent and predictable, and even your opponent will know the depth of your skill."

He paused to let us process that, then continued. "Right now you are all capable of surprising a bigger and stronger opponent when, as he makes a move on you, you reveal and use a concealed ninjutsu weapon against him. He doesn't expect it, and perhaps doesn't even know what it is. That momentary confusion is your advantage."

"Today I probably surprised the lot of you because you, too, did not know my intention, nor the depth of my small skills -- much like the audience -- or like an enemy. You're conflicted because you believe up till now that weapons were superior to unarmed hands and feet. I demonstrated otherwise."

"So Sensei, which is it," I cautiously asked. "Weapons or empty hands?" I was very impatient at 16.

"It's knowing both," said a dojo-mate who thought he was smart.

"No, it's using whatever you have at the time-- weapon or empty hands, " said another dojo-mate who thought he was smarter."

"No," said Sensei. "It's knowing that there is always another approach to what you think you already know. It's never becoming overconfident or complacent. It's knowing that every coin has two sides!"

That was my first exposure to the philosophical tenet we call: "The Other Side of the Coin."

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Two exhausting weeks ago I arrived in Spain in the company of Maestri Ramon Martinez and Jeannette Acosta-Martinez and over two dozen instructors and students from Europe and the US -- all of there to participate in one way or another in a well-planned workshop on the historical edged weapons of Spain. I will leave the descriptions of the maestri's training sessions to those more qualified to speak of them articulately, and will limit the reporting on my own sessions to a superficial overview. (There were far too many notable elements during our stay and our training to attempt to justly describe them in their entirety.)

The venue for our training, as I mentioned in my first Ravenblade post, was a rural hacienda called El Tesorillo II in the Andalucian city of Arcos de la Frontera. Although more landlocked than I am used to from my prior visits to Andalucia (Malaga, Sevilla, Marbella, etc.), the Arcos region is renown for its tasty jerez, soulful flamenco, and Arabian steeds. The maestri and I were there to re-introduce to it their own once-formidable but now-forgotten arts of handling naked steel; in my case, the Andalucian clasp-knife known as the navaja.

Was this arrogance on our part? One might think so, but No! Could it have been accomplished more capably by any other instructors in or out of Spain? Absolutely not!

The vast majority of the participants who'd traveled to El Tesorillo had trained with us at previous workshops in France, Italy, or the US. Their experience in arms dictated that the training we provided be of a more advanced level -- and, of course, this suited us just fine. It's a rare joy for an instructor to impart the higher levels of his craft without having to first inculcate his pupils with the base fundamentals. This fact alone made my instruction all the more enjoyable to me.

The first two days of training were focused on the Baratero style of using the navaja. This covered grips, guards, footwork, and the essentials of attack and defense. Drills were used to quickly familiarize newbies with the variety of thrusts and slashes that are used to defend against an opponent's attack.

On days Three and Four we delved into the Gitano, or Gypsy, style of navaja-handling. The Spanish Gypsy incorporated the use of tricks and deception into the art of knifeplay, making the Gypsies very formidable opponents for their skill in preventing you from seeing the knife or anticipating their tactics. We worked diligently on floreos, the deceptive brandishing movements used to confuse the opponent, as well as on cambios, the dexterous methods for invisibly passing the knife from one hand to the other before the opponent could see what was happening.

Days Five and Six addressed the Sevillano style of navaja, one which most approximated the tenets of Spanish fencing while using the shorter blade. I rarely offer instruction in Sevillano as it requires that the pupil have solid experience in the prior, less sophisticated, styles. However, instructing this group was never a problem because they were either instructors or accomplished fencers with significant experience in blade exchanges.

Throughout the six days I also dedicated time to the use of the cape in knife dueling. This was by design, as both the fencing maestri and I felt that the cape was a vital combat element common to both the sword and the knife. It was also an area where detailed instruction is either rare or totally lacking.

It was not only a pleasure for me to interact with these talented participants, but also to work yet again with my close friends and colleagues, the Martinezes. Whenever and wherever we co-instruct -- be it in Italy, France, Spain, or the US -- it is not so much collaborating with other professionals as it is interacting with family. Their constant camaraderie alone makes the less glamorous aspects of training -- the lesson plans, the preparations, the travel logistics, and the grueling travel itself -- nonetheless well worth the effort.

It was a further treat to work with Mr. Anthony DeLongis and wife, Mary, a highly-skilled couple recognizable to anyone familiar the Highlander television series, as well as the recent Deadliest Warrior and Extreme Marksmen programs. Mr. DeLongis became an immedeate fan of the navaja, as well as of the flexible faja, the waist sash in which the knife was historically carried. As thirsty for new knowledge as they are skilled, Anthony and Mary trained untiringly in every weapon area that was covered over the week-long workshop.

The couple was also kind enough to provide us with an impromptu display of their exceptional abilities in handling the bullwhip, a skill which they have successfully taught to Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeifer, Halle Berry, and Ellen Barkin, among others.

They, along with all the other participants, have my respect for the long hours they endured under the merciless Andalucian sun, absorbing with the 100-degree heat the rigorous instruction the maestri and I were so happy to share.

Now that I am back home, I will take a few weeks to re-acclimate to life in NYC before starting to plan the next workshops and the next training venues. In time, I will head in whatever direction my navaja points, doing what little I can to help hone the skills of those who, by choice, travel Life on the edge.

Hasta la proxima, to all!


The city of Albacete, located in the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, has been the cutlery capital of the country for more than three centuries. While Toledo may be acknowledged as the birthplace of the aristocratic sword, Albacete is the source from which the navaja -- the weapon and tool of the common man -- emanated.

I recently stayed in Albacete after conducting a week-long workshop on the Art of the Navaja in the southernmost province of Andalucia, in the city of Arcos de la Frontera. Albacete no longer relies on its dwindling cutlery trade, depending instead on the various commonplace industries that abound in all modern cities in the 21st century. Vestiges of its former livelihood, however, can still be found throughout the city if one is willing to look. The best place to start is at the cutlery museum.

Manoly, the young woman behind the reception desk at the Parador de Albacete where we stayed, was helpful in setting up an appointment for me with the staff at the Museo Municipal de la Cuchilleria Albacete. She relayed my interests and background to the museum representative and by the time I arrived thirty minutes later the rep, Alicia, had visited my website, read up on my two navaja-related books, and had questions of her own she wanted to pose.

Another perquisite of being a World-Class knife fighter is that you often afforded entry into otherwise restricted venues. Alicia informed me that the museum's curator was in Madrid for the day but had indicated that I should be assisted in any way I might ask. The restrictions against photography were waived and -- declining a personally-guided tour -- I was allowed to wander about and explore the various salas of navajas, cuchillos, tijeras, and punales throughout the museum. The fact that the museum was empty during my visit made it easy from my to take my time reading the exhibit's narratives, setting up my shots, and revelling in the design and craftsmanship of the ancient Albacete cuchilleros.

When I finally returned the the museum's reception area I was ready to peruse the dozens of navaja-related publications and select those that would complement my own extensive collection. In addition to the many museum-generated books and publications that the staff generously gifted me, I spent another 200+ euros on books from other publishers, all of them unavailable in the US. As I left, Alicia informed me that their curator, Mariana de Pascual Lopez, would be back from Madrid the following day, and would appreciate my returning then to meet with her.

The next day I met with Ms. de Pascual, who spoke with me of the museum's history, mission, and efforts to protect and preseve the legacy of Albacete's master craftsmen. One of the museum's publications, Navaja, Temido Acero [Navaja, The Feared Steel] outlines how the navaja has become stigmatized as a dreaded weapon of the criminal class. This stigma has been perpetuated by modern media and Spain's modern politically correct society to the point that sales of artesanal navajas have plummeted, centuries-old cutlery shops have closed, and an entire population of craftsmen have had to seek employment elsewhere. The navaja, once carried proudly by every Spaniard as the protector of his home and family, is now perceived as a despicable relic of Spain's lawless past.

Spain, the nation that first brought the concept of honor and self-sufficiency to the New World has now, it appears, become influenced by our New World "values" and adopted our emasculating fear of "anything that might potentially hurt us."

How ironic and sad! Having once taught us what it means to have a sense of cultural pride, the Spanish now tragically emulate our lack of it!

[Visit the museum's website at:]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The value of a person’s insight is inevitably limited by his or her level of real-world experience. On a few occasions, spectators at my public demonstrations of Acero Sevillano, or Andalusian edged weapons arts, have smugly remarked that our techniques resembled Filipino knife-fighting. The implication has been that what we are demonstrating are Filipino knife arts. Hmmm!

Obvious novices to the martial arts, perhaps these undiscriminating spectators have yet to embrace Bruce Lee’s maxim that, “The value of a cup is in its emptiness.”

Nor do they seem to be familiar with his parable of how five different martial artists once observed the same street fight and later described it with completely discrepant perspectives. To paraphrase Lee’s teaching anecdote, the boxer witnessing the fight mostly noted the punches he saw used. The karate-ka noticed the kicks that were used. The wrestler described the fight in terms of the grappling techniques he observed being applied, and so on. The point that Lee, a pioneer in the martial arts, was making is that most people see only what they gets filtered through their personal frame of reference.

This, of course, is much more than just a convenient teaching parable, however. It actually underscores a phenomenon that has been researched and documented by sociologists for decades: that is, we cannot accurately see or interpret things that exist outside of our frame of reference. To make sense of such unfamiliar things, we re-frame them as something that we are familiar with, even if means calling apples "oranges" (because we have never seen an apple.)

The phenomenon is so well-known that many ways have been developed to address and correct it. For example, there is the classic tale of the six blind men attempting to describe an elephant. While there exist myriad versions of this story, the essence of it goes as follows:

A king once gathered six blind men together and asked them to examine and describe an elephant. When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each one and asked: 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is it?"

The blind man who felt the animal’s torso described the elephant as a wall;
The blind man who felt the ear described the elephant as a fan;
The blind man who felt the tusk described the elephant as a plow;
The blind man who felt the trunk described the elephant as a water spout;
The blind man who felt the leg described the elephant as a pillar;
The blind man who felt the tip of the tail described the elephant as a brush.

The sightless men could not agree with one another and eventually came to blows over the question of what an elephant is really like. This delighed the king.

The story compares the six blind men to scholars and preachers who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”

The Buddha then speaks the following verse:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
In quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing

There is also the old saw, To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. How true; some opinionated spectators seem to be as intellectually dense as hammers. Clearly, those spectators at my demonstration were only familiar with the fighting arts of Eskrima and Kali and therefore blind to the fine points of other, non-Filipino, knife arts. They are victims of what one friend describes as “perceptual naiveté resulting from an absence of a referential basis.”

Although I have been active in the martial arts since 1967 I, too, am nonetheless susceptible to this phenomenon when viewing activities outside of my own frame of reference. When I visit another martial arts pioneer, Maestro Ramon Martinez, my students initially view the fencing taking place on the piste and see it only as “sword-fighting.” Yet, Maestro Martinez will later sit with us and identify that this “sword-fighting” is Spanish saber, and describe the many subtleties and nuances that distinguish it from Italian rapier or French small-sword.

Today, I believe I can appreciate and articulate the differences between Spanish, Italian, and French fencing. Still, I have yet to learn the distinctions between these styles in the different time periods during which they evolved. I don’t know these yet, but I am confident in the fact that I at least will not confuse them – as some of my spectators have – with Filipino knife-fighting.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Mention the carrying of a knife, and people snicker as if it's only Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne who have the wherewithal to use a knife for personal protection. Mention that there are non-fictional individuals who carry knives on a regular basis, and the same people will look to make some "witty" and disparaging remark on the matter, e.g. "What neighborhood do they live in?"

If you mistake these folks for open-minded people and mention that you sometimes prefer to go armed, you won't hear any commentary at all ... but they'll suddenly recall that they have somwhere else to be, e.g. "Excuse me but my teenage daughter is being fitted for a diaphragm today. Gotta be there to make sure it stays in place."

Where does this pathological blade phobia come from? There was a blade present at your birth. There was a blade present at your circumcision. There was a blade present at your first -- and subsequent -- haircuts. You use a blade to eat, shave, cut paper, and groom your nails. A doctor will use a blade in the most basic types of surgery, and the embalmer will ... well, you get the idea. Why then, does society seek to be so disconnected from something that is so fundamentally inextricable from our lives? Possibly because in this, as in many other areas, it is a disconnected society. Ironically, it is a society that is cut off from reality.

Some day, when it's much too late, these people will realize -- as many among them already do -- that it's better to have a knife and not need it than to ...

Keep your friends sharp, and stay away from the dull-witted.

Monday, May 24, 2010


One of the obvious perks of being a World-Class knife-fighter is that you get paid to travel the globe, associate with other internationally-known individuals, train them and, if you are so moved (and why wouldn’t you be), learn from them as well. Apart from defensive tactics instructors in other lands who seek advanced training, there are innumerable members of the professional military, diplomatic corps, intelligence community, and “corporate expediters” who recognize that physical prowess is always limited and that firearms are unreliable within 21 feet.

Yet another perk of being an edged weapons training professional is that you do not have to put up with gawky tourists, snobby locals, or even embarrassing American liberals who travel unkempt, dress in Birkenstock sandals, Acorn T-shirts, and otherwise give us cosmopolitan New Yorkers a bad name. (Then again, for us that’s not so much a perk as it is a necessity.) Never underestimate the versatile and lasting value of our sharp and pointy companions.

Visiting the Mediterranean countries is especially gratifying because, while they now have very repressive knife laws in place, as a culture they nonetheless foster a knowing appreciation for the edged weapon. This is not only true in Spain, but throughout Portugal, Italy, France, Turkey, and Greece.

(Northern countries such as Britain and Germany tend to be significantly more – what’s the technical term – tight-assed when it comes to anything that might cut them (eek, eek), but this is slowly changing as martial artists continue to discover the importance of including edged weapons in their self-defense curricula. For the record, I’m not casting stones across the Pond; Americans too are quite pussified, that is, terrified, when one begins discussing the relative merits of edged and impact weapons – unless, of course, they’re being wielded by Matt Damon.)

In part, it was this innate Mediterranean appreciation for historical cut-and-thrust-arms that led Maestro Ramon Martinez, Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, and me to begin leading intensive workshops in Europe in 2006. For one week in June of that year we traveled to the Loire Valley, in the company of 25 other fencers, and held daily training from dawn till noon. Foil, epee, saber, smallsword, and navaja were covered in exhaustive detail.

The 2008 workshop took place in Sicily where, appropriately, the long dueling stiletto was added to the curriculum.

And so, we will now be traveling to Arcos de la Frontera, one of the beautiful Pueblos Blancos on the Andalusian coast, bringing back to them the gentlemanly arts of Spanish steel that originated here centuries ago but which – like too many other venerable and once-indispensable pursuits – have been largely abandoned by the sedentary video-driven generations.

Tune back in; there's more to come…