Wednesday, May 03, 2023


The Immersion Lab Difference

Seminars have become an established feature in the modern martial arts landscape, particularly in the West, and come in a variety of flavors ranging from one-day single instructor courses to all weekend multi-instructor sessions. The purpose of these is generally to expose students to new ideas and techniques without the commitment of time and expense of weeklong camps. Some events are dedicated to one particular style or system and generally cater to those already studying that art and might connect material presented to rank requirements and promotions.

Events presenting multiple styles are more likely to have to limit time available for each presenter. A criticism often raised is that instructors, given the time constraints, cannot focus in depth and so will often focus on flashy techniques or drills which may be short on practicality and are all too often forgotten by participants soon after the event has passed. Two day events alleviate this somewhat by stretching an event over the weekend, but if there are multiple sessions occurring simultaneously, students might have to choose what catches their interest, and this can lead to cliques sticking together with what's familiar rather than experiencing new and different perspectives.

The Immersion Labs, seminar extensions of The Immersion Foundation, take a somewhat different approach. First a word about the Foundation itself. The Immersion Foundation is dedicated to hoplology, the study of weapons and related fighting arts, both historic and current.

The term hoplology was created by Sir Richard Burton in the 19th century, popularized in the 20th century by the late great Donn Draeger, and now reinvigorated in the 21st century by the Immersion Labs.

Donn Draeger was a prolific author and promoter of the martial arts, a WWII U.S. serviceman who lived for many years in post-war Japan and became one of the highest ranking Westerners to train in several of their arts. His goal was to propagate martial arts not only through actual training but to establish an intellectual framework for studying and contrasting arts from different cultures around the world. To this end he organized expeditions every few years to visit various countries, to discover and research martial systems often hidden in obscure byways. In doing so he was a pioneer in establishing connections between living systems of the Far East with audiences in the West.

The Immersion Foundation is the brainchild of Mahipal Lunia, who himself has lived in several countries and holds serious rank in a number of martial arts. Following the example of Draeger, he has organized trips to various countries to find and record indigenous martial arts. To this end he has enlisted traveling companions ranging from martial art masters to university professors and videographers, to record and study the styles encountered on these expeditions. This process of documentation goes on long after the expeditions end, with further collaboration and research geared towards publication. One such research associate is Michael Belzer, who as a junior associate of Donn Draeger in Japan was invited along on a month-long expedition through the jungles of Malaysia and who now, as curator of many of Draeger's original notes and writings, is sharing those archives with the Foundation.

The Labs are the flagship public face of the foundation; starting in 2018, there have been four Labs so far, with a covid-related break in 2021-22. These are three day events, each designed to showcase the chosen arts around a central theme. Stretching 10-12 hours over each day, the 10-12 instructors each get several hours of undivided attention from the limited enrollment of just 25 participants. In keeping with the thematic relationships between these arts, the instructors are also participants in each other's presentations, embracing the sense of cohesion and camaraderie through the weekend.

As perhaps the only person, besides staff, who has been at each of the four Labs (I've been invited as the sole vendor as well as participant) I've witnessed some of the finest presentations by top martial artists from around the world: from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, South Africa, northern Africa, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Spain, Portugal, Italy, as well as representation from legendary academies from Hawaii, Stockton, Los Angeles and more.

Lab 1, Legacy of the Blade, was organized around knife and sword from various countries, with a strong though not exclusive nod to FMA (Filipino martial arts). Lab 2, Stickmata, focused specifically on stick fighting arts. Lab 3, Born of Blood, featured arts from the S.E. Asia archipelago and Pacific islands while Lab 4, Holy Blood, Holy Blade, explored the influence of Spanish sword within many arts from around the world.

With generous time allotments, each teacher is able to begin with an historic overview of their art and its underlying principles, including demonstrating basic concepts, before taking students into hands-on practice. Given the high experience level of most participants, each session tends to move smoothly, and the generous time allotments mean material can be covered with a degree of detail not often found outside of academies.

As mentioned, Lab 4 was designed around the influence of Spanish sword on various arts from around the globe, some of which were quite new to most participants. Here are several brief examples from this most recent event, highlighting both the diversity and relationship between arts presented over the weekend:

Adam Myrie opened with an intriguing taste of North African Barbary sword-and-shield, a sophisticated style of combat that helped establish the reputation of Islamic warriors;

Mushtaq Ali book-ended the weekend with an equally esoteric presentation of Moro spear and shield as well as kampilan from Mindanao, which far exceeded anything I'd ever seen regarding use of that latter weapon;

Joaquin Marcelo ran a brilliant session on the influence of Spanish fencing in modern JKD;

Hollywood actor, trainer and stuntman Anthony DeLongis brought a room full of absolute novices to a level of safe competency with bullwhips that few in the room would have imagined.

Mahipal Lunia and Dexter Miksch, for the first time by any of James Keating's students, unveiled techniques for the American bowie knife in a distinctly unique approach that differs from almost anything else presented about that blade.

The entire list of teachers was equally impressive (and I've posted a link below to a more specific review). As different as each was from another, all were able to capture the essence of their respective arts within the common theme.

To summarize the key points:

1) 30-40 hours of training over 3 days, allowing for a deeper dive;

2) Renowned teachers from across the globe coming together to share rare and unusual arts;

3) Limited enrollment for a high teacher-student ratio;

4) Historic and cultural overviews of the arts presented;

50 Hoplology, as to how various weapons evolved within different cultures and environments

Immersion Lab #4: Holy Blood, Holy Blade review on Martial Myths' page

Michael Belzer's review on Facebook

Saturday, February 06, 2021


In the interests of preserving this info, I'm re-posting it again.  I know a number of FMA practictioners who have used this information over the years for their own sticks or even for production.

The article below is one that I posted on the Eskrima Digest sometime in the mid-1990’s.  I’m sure if you do an archive search there for Stickman you will find it.  This information has been posted on other sites over the years, so I didn’t bother posting it myself.  I gave this info out because I was moving away from doing rattan and focusing on developing synthetic sticks.  I was the first person to successfully market those, and it was years before others began cloning my products in those styles.  I still get orders for rattan from time to time, though, and so I keep a hand in doing these. 

I’ve eliminated a step or two along the way, mostly the oven burning.  I’ve got to the point where I can monitor the wood coloration closely enough with just the propane torch that I don’t feel the bake stage is as important.  The danger of over-drying the wood by baking is it will splinter quickly.  I also no longer burn or “candle” the ends because I have a way of cutting the sticks that leaves a hard glazed darkened surface on the ends already, which I think looks even better.  The end burn is cosmetic for those without the equipment and technique to do this.  These days the glaze cut is a signature for my rattan. 

Since the glaze cut is also accurate for a square angle, I don’t need to flatten the end on the disk sander.  Consequently I’m using a bench grinder with a Scotch-brite wheel to round the edges and smooth the nodules.  They’re a lot more expensive than disk sandpaper.  I wish they lasted longer!  The advantage is a nice finish with less chance of gouging out the wood.

BTW, I STILL have and use my two 6’ rattan bo staffs from 1986!  Rattan might blow up from absorbing power in shorter lengths, but it’s a great wood in longer sizes.

Jeff “Stickman” Finder, Feb. 2, 2006


Secrets of Rattan

I got my nickname "Stickman" from supplying rattan to many Stockton escrimadors about 10 years ago. Since I don't make much rattan anymore, I might as well pass along some of my secrets. You can quickly see why making good rattan sticks is labor intensive, but the results will, if done properly, be worth the effort. The steps are simple, but there is a lot of technique in doing it right. A very Zen exercise, actually, as loss of focus at any stage can ruin a "perfect" stick.

First, I cut it to the length I want. I then grind the ends flat on a disk sander, then bevel the edges to eliminate sharp edges and prevent splintering. Next I sand down the nodes until they are smooth, again to prevent splintering. This involves angling the side of the stick against the rim of the sanding disk; an improper angle will gouge into the wood and the stick must be turned constantly to avoid flat spots.

After the sanding is done, I use a propane torch to bring the oils to the surface of the wood. Again, the stick must be kept in motion to avoid burning it, and hot pads are used because the stick can get very hot and retain the heat a long time. I will usually bring the oils up on one half of a stick, then put on my burn pattern, before switching ends and doing the other half. I like a "leopard spot" pattern, which involves darkening patches of the wood. It is imperative to keep the stick moving, and as soon as coloration begins, to get off the spot. One can see poor burn technique on most commercial sticks. In the burnt area there will be little blisters or holes in the skin where the oils popped from the heat. These weaken the wood from over-drying. A little color is better than too much. One trick for burnt areas, also good for the sanded nodes, is to rub the oil from your nose onto the wood (you can use your fingers; this is as fine a grade of natural oil as sperm whale oil, the finest grade sought by old-time whalers. Also good for repairing scratches in furniture, musical instruments etc., or defogging your glasses).

During this stage, I also like to burn the ends of the stick. I will basically light the end like a candle, then keep turning it to prevent deep burns, finally blowng it out.

Another burn pattern, called "tiger stripes", can be done by rolling the sticks across an electric stove element. I learned this one from Sonny Umpad. Some Hawaiian escrimadors I trained with would throw their sticks on the bbq after cooking their meat, to bake the wood and get their patterns off the grill. Reversing the stick angle can give a cross hatch pattern).

After this stage, I bake the sticks in an oven at about 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes. It is important to monitor the sticks constantly, so they don't over-bake. During this process, steam will come out of the end of the stick (you may see some of this with the torch as well). As soon as the steam stops, the stick is done! Sometimes one end will finish before the other; let the dry end stick out of the oven. I like to pull the sticks out and tap the ends on tile. A wet sound means "not finished". As soon as it has a crisp click, it's ready. By constant monitoring, the sticks get moved and turned, so they don't overbake on one side or one end.

If a stick is crooked, straighten it out while still hot. I just lay it on the floor and bend the other end up (using hot pads). As it cools, the stick will retain the adjustment. A properly heat treated stick is essentially hollow; you can blow on one end and feel warm breath come out the other end! The again, an over-dry stick will do the same . . .

Finally, when the stick is warm, I rub it down with the bone. You can hear little crackles as parts of the wood or skin compress. Finally, I buff the stick out on a buffing wheel. This gives it a good shine, spreads the natural oils evenly, and improves the adhesion of the grip. It feels much nicer than lacquer and will give off the familiar "burning" smell during training.

These, then, are my 7 steps: cut, sand, burn, bake, bend, bone, buff. Using this process, I've had some rattan last for years, such as my bo staffs made in 1986, which I still use for contact drills, with no splintering. The biggest problem is over-drying; that'll kill a stick quickly. A "perfect" stick is rare; I usually can spot my blemishes, but done right, these will last as well as can be expected for rattan.

BTW, one reason to train with power is to get used to handling it, a point well emphasized by the Dog Bros. I can finesse lots of my students, but when a big strong guy comes along, I either handle it or not, and that is experience. I'm not saying power is necessary to deal with power, but if you haven't felt it (or haven't worked with it recently) it can be a rude surprise. Again, really well prepared rattan should handle power, though obviously not as well as other materials such as certain hardwoods, plastics or metals.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Espada y Daga positions

The late Decuerdas GM Art Gonzalez used to talk about the emotional value of different positions – defensive, offensive, etc. In that vein, I’m again thinking of espada y daga, especially if one is confronted by multiple opponents.

In a typical right-hand, right lead position, a stick or primary weapon would be in that front hand, a knife or backup weapon in the left, guarding closer to the body. The purpose of the longer lead weapon is to maintain distance and keep opponents at bay, while the purpose of the retracted secondary weapon is to punish anyone who gets inside that perimeter. As such, this is a more defensive posture (as in mindset, not a static pose).

A left lead, on the other hand, is more aggressive. That brings the shorter weapon into a more active countering range, where it and the lead hand have overlapping reach and the ability to coordinate and cover each other more effectively. The attitude there is “come in if you dare”, as an opponent will be facing both fangs at once, not as much sequentially. A savvy opponent will note such thing, but which can change in a split second. Footwork can fix many problems such as distance and angle, as well as hide intention and probe to set up an opponent.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Lefty vs Righty

Training left-handed fighters in a predominantly right-handed world is a topic of endless conversation, particularly when it comes to weaponry.  My teacher, grandmaster Angel Cabales, said to just teach lefties with the stick in the right hand to keep things simple.  I've had many left-handed students over the years, and what I tell them is the weaker right hand will gain strength and coordination while their strong left hand will become proficient in checking, joint locking, disarming, etc., and for the most part that works.  As Angel put it, each hand develops specialized skills, so neither is ignored.  On the other hand, his son Vincent (and some other instructors in Serrada) teach left-handed students to use the weapon in their stronger hand, which may be simpler for them at the beginning but creates complications down the line.  This debate is as old as military formations, where one person in line who is not in conformity with the rest not only stands out like a sore thumb, but in the old days of shield lines could create a dangerous gap for the enemy to break through. Even today in rifle drills and marching formations, everyone is expected to be on the same page. 

I've seen similar debates when it comes to things like teaching guitar.  There is no particular reason a left-handed guitarist needs to flip the instrument upside down, usually requiring modification of the instrument's bridge and restringing.  One hand simply learns the fingerboard, the other how to strum or pluck; simple.  It's exceptionally rare to find someone like Jimi Hendrix who could truly play ambidextrously regardless of how the guitar was strung.

Now in many FMA styles such as Serrada, there are drills such as lock-and-block or numerado where one training partner feeds strikes with either hand while the other practices counters, as well as double stick sinawallis which ostensibly train us to deal with an attack to either side of our body.  That's all fine and good, but when it comes to sparring with weapons, it gets more complicated.  Many are familiar with what the Inosanto/IMB folks call the "box drill" or sumbrada, a counter-for-counter exercise which, as far as I know, was introduced in western FMA practice by Angel Cabales.  It is a symmetrical flow drill where each partner essentially is doing the same pattern, albeit 180 degrees out of sync.  This teaches the shortest, most efficient counter to certain basic strikes, though at more advanced levels it becomes free flowing and any counter can be used.  However, if one partner is left-handed and the other right-handed, this symmetry no longer exists and the pattern is irrevocably broken.  As far as I can tell, there is no easy way to reconcile the two opposing sides, though it is possible to create and practice it as an asymmetrical exercise.

Recently two new students began training with me.  One of them was born without a right hand, while the other is decidedly right-handed.  This introduces the complexity of opposite handedness right at their fundamental level of training.  While I can certainly go lefty myself to teach that individual, it is certainly more difficult for them to learn to practice together, especially as the right-handed one will have to learn twice as much as usual in the earliest stages.  We're a long way from introducing them to counter-for-counter sparring, but I've already put some time into figuring out how that will work.  Frankly, it's harder than the basic symmetrical drill, and will certainly create extra challenges if and when they reach that point in training. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cross-stepping in Serrada Escrima?

Serrada Escrima, as taught by GM Angel Cabales, emphasizes simple, direct movement. This is especially seen in the footwork, which focuses on linear heel-toe alignment with an opponent’s centerline. Angel eschewed things like cross-steps or twisted body positions, though in fact examples of these can be found within the system. His “punch block” for angle #3 is an example of the latter. Cross-stepping, however, was not formally taught, at least in my experience. However, as with kicking, which Angel used sparingly and with just a couple of simple variants, he would tell students with experience in other systems to use what they knew from there too. While the basic concept taught is to learn to hold your ground with that linear alignment, in fact Angel understood movement, sometimes saying we weren’t born where we stood, so we knew how to move already. In practice, it isn’t always practical or possible to remain directly in front of someone, in their line of fire, and so lateral movement is necessary to find more advantageous positioning. Of course the first technique usually taught is the outside block for angle #1, which involves moving off-line without a cross-step, but are there times when the cross-step is a valid or even necessary option? I would argue yes. For instance, in backpedaling in a circular manner vs. a #2 (high strike to one’s right side), as opposed to the classic technique of facing the attack in place, one has the option to step ito the outside first with the lead right foot, which opens one’s centerline, or with the rear left foot, which will be a cross step. Of course either option is a brief transition, as we typically re-align into the linear centerline alignment. One clear example of cross-stepping from Angel himself, as captured on video, was a powerful #1 slash (high downward diagonal right forehand) while cross-stepping back to the left with the lead right foot. It’s a finishing type power blow, but as Serrada teaches constant vigilance against a persistent opponent, we don’t pose in that posture but continue to step through to re-establish our “spot”. Now on a personal level, given my background from Kenpo, Aikido, and especially Sonny Umpad’s “Visayan Style Corto Kadena”, I will sometimes in free flow carenza (form) utilize more cross-stepping and low stances compared to classic Serrada. Sometimes I’ll use these as well in sparring. After all, Serrada wasn’t designed to fight other Serrada fighters, but to deal with any style, and so I will simulate other methods as a way to give students or training partners a different look, as well as do practice deceptive ways to move in and out of range. Ultimately combat is free-flowing and unpredictable, as Bruce Lee famously preached, and so exploring various methods has value. In this I like to quote the famous artist Pablo Picasso, who said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Monday, September 11, 2017

Relationship of Serrada's lock position with Wing Chun's chi sao

Many martial artists have at least some glancing knowledge, if even only from YouTube, of Wing Chun’s chi sao exercise where partners face each other and interlock hands, each with one in a palm up position (tan sao) and the other in a downward hooking position (fook sao) … and hopefully I recalled those correctly. The hands are then rotated back and forth between these positions in the basic form of the exercise.

Less well known is the “lock-and-block” position used in Serrada Escrima, and perhaps some other FMA (Filipino Martial Art) systems as well – GM Hortensio Navales’ system from Panay comes to mind. In this position, the main weapon, be it a stick or blade, is in the primary hand, which generally and for this description we’ll assume to be the right. The hand is palm down (pronate), with the weapon basically parallel to the front of the body, pointed at a downward diagonal angle towards the left. In this manner it essentially can cover the torso defensively from about the right armpit to the left hip. The other (left) hand, holding a shorter weapon, generally a knife or dagger (daga), is basically on the same level as the right hand, so that it is above the longer primary weapon, but held back closer to the body, in reserve, and also so as not to impede any upward movement of the primary weapon. The shorter weapon generally points forward towards the opponent, so that the two weapons essentially form an x and y axis, or two sides of a box (your torso being a third side).

Now, take away the weapons, and what you see looks like one position from Wing Chun’s chi sao, with the left in tan sao and the right in fook sao. Conversely, put those weapons in the hands of a Wing Chun practitioner doing that and you pretty much can’t miss the similarity!

Whereas Wing Chun rolls the hands between these positions, Serrada does not …. but it can and sometimes should. Why? The lock-and-block position is designed for the primary weapon to jam and trap the opponent’s arm, allowing the opposite hand to strike targets. That sets up perfectly if you are outside of the right arm, or even inside of the left, but other positions can be trickier and possibly force you to have to cross yourself in less optimal manner. However, using that Wing Chun chi sao roll, we’ve now reversed the position of the weapons, where the short weapon takes on the role of checking while the primary weapon in the right hand does the dirty work.

So which position do we use? The right hand in the lock position, as first described above, is the main and most common position. One of our primary concepts, however, is directness, and so in checking, we try to utilize the hand closest to the limb being checked as it can orient more quickly and efficiently. This means there are times when we’ll need to check with the off-hand, which is where this rolling switch comes into play. GM Angel Cabales utilized this daga checking from time to time, though it wasn’t stressed in the curriculum and he always finished back in the primary position. That being said, we always want to have versatile options that meet the needs of a given situation.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

It is with great sadness I learned this morning of the passing of my friend, grandmaster Ron Harris, who died suddenly yesterday of heart failure. Ronald was an amazing person, a university professor who championed conservative values while promoting the economic success of black Americans. As a martial artist, he trained with the best, from Dan Inosanto to Leo Gaje, with whom he traveled to many seminars. Ron held a 7th Dan in Kajukenbo and was once tapped by Sijo Emperado to create an escrima system specific to that art, though it never caught on due to lack of qualified instructors at the time. He taught "Classic Eskrima", as well as Muay Thai, Boxe Francaise/Savate and Taekwondo. He contributed articles to Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu and other publications, and sponsored seminars around the country, first coming to my attention with tournaments he threw in San Diego in the 1990's. He was well-versed in BJJ, and his younger brother Russ trained the first American to beat the Brazilians in the Octagon. Ron trained Marines in hand-to-hand over the years (he currently has a son at Annapolis) and just this summer I designed a training dagger for his program, which I was showing to folks at the MACE seminar just two days ago. Through Ron I've met some amazing martial artists, like Jan Miernyk and Dan Medina. I'm still in shock over this news, and I'm sure he will be missed by many.