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.