Sunday, March 26, 2006

Guro George Brewster, R.I.P.

The FMA community is fairly small. Those of us who participate actively hear about or come in contact with each other from time to time, though it’s hard to keep up with the growth of the art and all the new people who are coming up. The elders in the art, however, are a dwindling group, just as steadily leaving us to make way for the new.

The first thing I learned this morning was of the passing of Guro George Brewster back in Boston, Massachusetts. I never met Mr. Brewster, but about 15 years ago or so we corresponded and talked on the phone a few times. One of my goal in doing Stickman Escrima Products was to create a matrix that would put me in touch with other people doing FMA (this was before the internet was the staple it is today) and Mr. Brewster was the kind of person I was most pleased to get to know, a real gentleman and a pioneer in teaching this art here in the U.S.A.

There were one or two transactions where he bought some sticks from me, but mostly I remember our conversations. I asked a few questions, mostly listened. Guro Brewster taught Lanada Arnis, originally starting in the ‘70’s under Amante Marinas Sr. and then continuing as Grandmaster Lanada’s representative in New England after Marinas formed his own association. Mr. Brewster also knew something of Serrada through both GM Angel Cabales and Master JC Cabiero.

There was an article in the Boston Herald just a month ago, showing him leading a class outdoors in the cold at age 81. He was a tough old guy, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, who would carry a shovel on the bus (along with his training gear) to clear a space in the snow to train in the park with his students.

George passed away quietly in his sleep after a typical day of training hard with his students. It’s good to see he was active so long, sharing what he loved to the end. It’s unfortunate that, like so many instructors, he only had a few dedicated students, and then towards the end there was a sudden upsurge of interest.

It’s funny how some people make a strong impression in just a few moments. I’m sorry I never got to meet him in person, but he is someone I never forgot about over the years. Those who knew and trained with him have lost not just a mentor but also a friend. Train strong and keep his legacy alive. I’m sure that would make him proud.

Update: I just had a long conversation with sensei/guro Peter Freedman, who is the designated successor as head of the Boston Arnis Club. He can be reached through his website for the Ketsugo Jujutsu schools and George Brewster's Arnis in Boston and Weare, New Hampshire.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Footwork angles

Something I’ve been pondering these past few days after viewing fights on the Dog Brothers clips is directness, and in particular how it relates to the male and female triangles. On one level these symbols are a map of efficient movement, though on a practical level they are perhaps better as metaphors for moving to an optimal position, wherever that may be.

For anyone here who is not clear on what these represent, the male triangle has a point in front, on the centerline in the direction one is facing. The female triangle has the triangle pointing towards the rear, so forward movement is angled off the centerline.

Conversely, in retreating the forward triangle moves offline, the female triangle moves in towards the center.

Both directions (forward and backward) are worth considering.

Most FMA schools emphasize the female triangle, yet the prototypical FMA symbol is represented by a male triangle inside a circle. Why this paradox, and what might it meaning?

Watching the Dog Brothers clips, what I noticed was how fights arrive at point of directness. Fighters may circle, looking to time an entry or snipe a peripheral shot on the fly, but at some point the aggressor takes control and goes after his opponent. Subtlety of angle is out; finishing is about taking it right at the other guy. Maybe my perception is skewed, but that’s how it generally appears to me. So how and why do different triangles theories work?

In talking about entries, it’s about setting up the position from where to attack. We can come straight in by defeating defenses or go around them to a less defended point. Theory often stresses the latter, but experience seems to favor the former.

I’ll start with the female triangle, as training it is more familiar to most people. It is useful in several ways. One can evade a direct attack while countering forward; it zones away from the opposite hand (unless one stays inside between the hands and simply opens up the stance, not my favorite concept) and it allows one to get to the opponent’s backside.

The male triangle has a different set of attributes. It can cut the opponent’s balance and energy by bisecting his baseline. Being direct gets point-to-point faster than longer circling, plus it more readily attacks vital targets on the centerline rather than the periphery. Taking the center redirects the opponent’s energy towards the outside of the circle while staying compact, like the hub of the wheel.

This is only for the forward direction of these triangles. Moving away from an opponent the qualities are reversed. The yin triangle pulls in towards the center, the male triangle steps outwards. People typically backpedal in a straight line when charged, as can be seen frequently in the Dog Brothers clips. It takes a bit more awareness to move offline effectively, a task made more difficult because a forward fast moving attacker may overwhelm one’s response, or be able to adapt so quickly as to re-align on his target.

This is a point frequently made by Marc “Animal” MacYoung in his seminars, where he demonstrates a realistic street attack as opposed to the kind of squared-off dueling practiced in many martial art schools. In the face of something that intense, shifting off the line of attack can be critical, and not everybody can do it well.

Is there a difference in a self-defense situation compared to a ring fight, even one as open as the Dog Brothers? Perhaps. In self-defense one may have an element of surprise on the part of either party. An attack could be a surprise, or perhaps the counter catches the attacker unawares. It is less likely that both parties are equally primed to fight or armed with similar weaponry. Thus there can be variable mismatches to overcome.

Ultimately the value of any footwork is positioning. Whether the goal is to get to an opponent’s weak spot or prevent him from finding yours, one has to have an awareness of these as prerequisite to any plan or strategy. The purpose of tactics is simply a means to an end, and as such it is limiting to think only of them in terms of a single triangle. I think it better to see them as a continuum within larger forms.

Consider that the angles of a triangle must add up to 180º. Many people step at a 45º angle on the female triangle, which works for largo counters at longer distance (mostly towards the limbs) but may veer too wide for deeper strikes or grapples. Entering from greater distance decreases deflective angle and vice versa. The tighter 60º angles of the FMA logo might be a more accurate roadmap for many applications. At closer range, one may need more angle of deflection, but then the counter angle back towards the center is a sharper turn.

A common training aid is to cross two lines in an “x”, creating both male and female triangles. Along with the lines, however, one can step to the quadrants thus formed, and those steps are like a “+”. This creates the “eight directions” which is a popular strategy of direction in Japanese and Korean martial arts, among others. Draw lines connecting the tips of the “x” and “+” shapes to form a square and diamond, and overlaid together these form an 8-pointed star, a common motif in Moslem art.

If you look at the inside lines, triangles are but half squares or rectangles. In this shape each triangle is a 90º angle and two 45º angles. Compare it to the 60º angles of the FMA logo above. That triangle, overlaid in male/female duality, creates a six pointed star, which creates a different pattern of movement. You can lay tape on the ground to practice stepping; each has it’s own logic and lessons to teach.

Don’t you wish geometry had been this interesting in high school?

Monday, March 20, 2006

My shortest blog

Something I read today that resonated; simple and elegant:

Learning is taking on...mastery is letting go.
- Anon.

Low Strikes

This weekend I browsed the excellent Dog Brothers website to view their video clips. I get asked questions about things people see on there from time to time, so I thought I should refresh my memory and see what is new. For anyone who is not familiar with the Dog Brothers, they promote a highly realistic version full-contact stick fighting, the closest thing to street reality that can be practiced. Under the direction of Marc Denny, they have developed a very comprehensive format of training that incorporates elements from many martial arts, ranging from FMA to Silat, Muay Thai/Krabi Krabong and Brazilian Jujitsu.

The initial reason I was viewing clips was to look at knee shots. My first FMA training was back around 1978, from a guy named Bob Flores who grew up with Leo Gaje on Negros, Philippines. He taught me a Pekiti Tirsia drill that included a knee strike. When I first got to Stockton in 1985, I showed this to a couple of advanced students who scoffed at the attack, even though we have our low angles (#9 and #11) in Serrada. Their reasoning was that they would take the hit to the knee in exchange for delivering one to the head; better to crawl away from your downed opponent than vice versa.

I’ve since encountered that response many times, and while it has the ring of truism, I’ve always felt it a bit glib. It depreciates the value of timing and deception. Any technique can succeed if done right, or fail if done inappropriately. It also looks past the value of a strike – any strike - to be effective.

It is not uncommon in martial arts, and I include boxing, to see a seemingly innocuous blow end a fight, while powerfully delivered shots are absorbed with little effect. A blow can be delivered with full intent and strength but be off by a tiny margin in target, timing or angle, while I’ve heard Cacoy Canete talk of incidental taps in training that caused injuries. These bring to mind Yoda’s saying to young Luke Skywalker: “No try; DO!” Hard shots often are too contrived whereas something thrown naturally and un-self-consciously might engage one’s innate resources more fully.

Whatever the case, though, a good shot is a good shot, and anything that can hurt enough is a respectable target. A strategy I learned from Samoan fighters is to strike to the feet. This may not be a fight-stopper by itself, but it is useful for slowing down big, fast, powerful guys and expands the field of target opportunity by making them defend more space, akin to throwing a long pass in football to stretch the field underneath. Sonny Umpad is another source who’s taught me about this strategy.

Limb destruction is a cornerstone of FMA, and the armbar is a staple in every martial art not playing by restricted rules. The knee might not be as common a target for hand/weapon oriented arts, but conversely it is more vulnerable by element of surprise, and perhaps not as well defended by one not well versed in low strikes or street kicking arts.

There are a couple of good examples of effective knee shots on the Dog Brothers clips. In “Dogzilla’s First Day” he takes a nerve strike from Marc Denny to the back of the leg. The effect is instantaneous. On the “Dog Brothers Promo Clip” a guy gets his kneecap split; fight over. In neither case did the person delivering the strike take a significant hit back. Both got in cleanly, and getting out was simplified by the fact that the person hit was reacting to a new reality.

I’ve experienced firsthand the numbing effect of a hit to the nerves in the back of the knee, and in the course of life I’ve had a couple of painful bruises to the kneecap. While the degree to which individuals react to pain may vary, one cannot dismiss something just because you think it will not work on you, a dangerous illusion in which to indulge. Often our blind spots work two ways; what we can’t do, we think can’t be done. If you don’t think it can work, you won’t learn how, reinforcing the belief it isn’t useful.

Interestingly, it seems to work well to hit someone with what he uses against you. Our choice of targeting is a window to what we believe to be effective. If we think it will work on someone else, that is an internalized belief. On some level we respect that target because we wouldn’t want to be hit there ourselves.

Examples of psychological reversal happen in all sports. In the recent NCAA basketball postseason, Cal hit a big shot but North Carolina nailed their own similar 3 pointer 12 seconds later. Both sides described this as the turning point in the game. Cal thought it had momentum but was deflated immediately, shifting the flow of energy to the other team.

In the movie “Game of Death,” the opening of the fight between Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto provides a classic of this strategy. Dan hits Bruce with a surprise shot, and while he’s boasting, Bruce smacks him back with the same thing, silencing him with not just the action but also the attitude behind it.

It’s surprising to me how many of the younger generation of martial artists have never taken the time to watch Bruce Lee’s films. I think this is a shame because he was such a dynamic presence and a phenomenal martial artist. Even if his film work was exaggerated for the camera, they are teaching vehicles for the arts, demonstrating values on a multitude of levels.

Some of this lack of awareness of Bruce’s work is perhaps due to the passage of time; these are older films and the hype is gone. There are other issues at work as well, so for those of you who have not seen Bruce Lee movies, hie thee to whatever video emporium still carries them and watch while you still can. They ain’t classics for nuthin’.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Some thoughts on unity

Since the gathering in Sacramento two weeks ago, there’s been a lot of positive chatter about both the event and the possibility of some sort of unification within Serrada. While it’s certainly premature to make any forecasts, the buzz alone is noteworthy, if for no other reason than to bring this topic up once again on the radar screens of those involved in this art.

I suspect those in leadership positions are monitoring the pulse of things. In politics this would be called taking a poll. While there is no electorate to satisfy here, the big guys have their own desires and agendas, and many have an appreciation of both the advantages of working in unity and the downside that the schism within the Serrada family has had in terms of general public view of this art. While controversy might be music to the sales departments of magazines, in the boots-on-the-ground world of teaching martial arts, it probably turns away more students than are attracted by it.

Like anything in the world of politics, a lot happens behind the scenes to set the stage for the main actors to appear. Whether or not the various heads of organizations are talking to each other privately or not, those of us on second and third level tiers are kicking around ideas, and it sounds like a lot of similar views are coming up. Hopefully this kind of thing filters up to loftier elevations, or perhaps like the Hundredth Monkey theorem, if enough people begin to believe a change will happen, eventually it will become part of the consciousness of the group through morphic resonance.

The following is essentially a repost of a response I made on a Serrada newsletter. All this may come to naught, but for what it’s worth, here’s one possible way to go about things. This is essentially the same advice I (and others) have been giving (usually unsolicited) for the past 15 years.


I don't necessarily envision a Serrada unification as a single entity, but rather an association of related organizations. A model for this might be Kajukenbo, which despite differences retains an umbrella identity. Within Kajukenbo are several formally recognized and distinct styles that have evolved, and within each of them are member organizations consisting of businesses started and run by entrepreneurial teachers, each with their own following of students.

If Serrada were to try to organize into a larger body, I certainly don't see the present organizations dissolving themselves. The model I'd envision would base itself on a board of directors consisting of heads of various member bodies and perhaps others elected at large according to a charter. This isn't unlike corporations whose boards are populated by representatives of other businesses that hold large blocks of voting shares.

Under such an arrangement, Vincent could operate like the president or chairman of the board. The CEO does all the real work of running the business, so someone who is motivated to be involved in that capacity could help move things forward. In fact, many countries run like this too, with a President at the head for ceremonial purposes and a Prime Minister to carry out policies and to maintain coalitions of political parties.

What benefits might come from such an arrangement?

First and foremost is the question of qualifications for ranking both instructors and students. An association can set standards by which members of different participating organizations would be recognized. This alone would alleviate a sticking point within the art. Testing could take place within schools for student ranks, much like is done now on whatever basis the head instructor chooses, but if a formal structure is used, teachers from other schools could be invited to sit as witnesses on promotion boards.

A larger organization can draw on the energy of membership to host a variety of events through the course of the year. For instance, there could be a commemorative tournament on Angel’s birthday and an awards banquet on the anniversary of his passing. Testing boards could convene periodically for those seeking teaching rank, in conjunction with seminars for the benefit of all instructors.

There are other possibilities that could eventually come up as part of the growth of an art, such as reworking a ranking system. For instance, the 12 angles in Serrada are each promotions within the art, but these are akin to kyu ranks in karate. Any diligent student can learn the angles. What takes place beyond that, though? Not all who graduate will teach. Some great fighters are temperamentally not qualified to teach or simply have no interest, and not all great teachers are the best fighters. Nevertheless, our society is a meritocracy where people expect to be rewarded for time and effort. There could be separate recognition for both teaching and non-teaching members, rewarding skill and dedication for those who are committed to the art. Few who train will become masters, but there should be a way to acknowledge the difference between a teenager who has just graduated from the 12 angles and a teacher who has decades of experience.

Right now such a proposal sounds controversial, especially since there is no precedent within Serrada for these things, and nobody would recognize such innovations outside the school that did this. Nevertheless, if there were an organizational body, changes such as these could help expand the art. What works well for a small academy might not be the right model for creating a network of schools across the country or the globe. Many small businesses in all fields have learned that it takes different skills to operate on a larger scale.

Perhaps this isn’t the right direction for Serrada. Maybe this is an art that will stay close to home, or spread underground organically, beneath the radar of public awareness. There are those who think it should stay this way, held secretively in private. There are other possibilities, however. This is a beautiful and exciting art with the potential to move out in the world. Angel didn’t promote guros and masters just to have Serrada go back into hiding; he was proud of his art and his students and encouraged those of us with the desire to continue to propagate it. How we do so is up to us, whether each by our own designs or by working together towards larger goals.


A quick aside to those who might think I’m yearning for the good old days yet to come. I am not a fan of big schools, organizations, or even big parties. I’ve done the bulk of my training in martial arts in small schools, often one-to-one with the instructor. I generally teach small classes, much the way I learned. Escrima is an art that is generally taught in a highly intensive manner like this, using direct transmission of experience from teacher to student. As much as I enjoy this, however, I realize that it takes a lot of students to develop one expert. Many teachers only find one or two willing and able to achieve true success. Angel was lucky. He had the reputation to attract many who were already successful in martial arts. For those of us still in mid-career, it’s a numbers game to find those student gems. Remember the old daffy-nition of overnight success: twenty years of hard work!

OK, I promise I’m working on a blog about the art itself. Too much politics is bad for the digestion anyway. Ask any politician who’s been on the “rubber chicken” banquet circuit!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Images from Sacramento Gathering

The pictures speak for themselves ....

Group Photo (partial)

Vincent Cabales, Darren Tibon and Anthony Davis

Vincent and Anthony

Gelmar, Jerry Preciado, Vincent Jr., Darren, Vincent, Anthony

Gelmar Cabales and Vincent Cabales Jr.

Ronnie Saturno and Jojo Soribel

Carlito Bonjoc, Wade Williams, Jeff Finder

Elrik Jundis and crew

An Historic Moment In Serrada

Something remarkable happened in the world of Serrada today. There was a gathering of historic proportions, and everybody got along! Those who were there will testify to what transpired, and hopefully that energy will touch those who could not attend.

Friday, March 3, was the 15th anniversary of grandmaster Angel Cabales’ passing. To commemorate this Anthony Davis organized and hosted a seminar up in Sacramento by Darren Tibon and his organization, Angel’s Disciples, who put on an exciting demo followed by a short but excellent training session.

Through most of this event four of Angel’s old students were present: Darren Tibon, Jerry Preciado, Anthony Davis and myself. I hadn’t seen Jerry during the past 15 years and at first didn’t even recognize the muscular figure from the skinny kid I’d known. Also present were Angel’s widow Tess and Angel’s two youngest, Marigel and Gelmar, who are children no more.

If that had been the extent of things, it would have been a good event. I had a handful of students present, as did Anthony, and Darren had enough students to provide assistance to every pair of attendees training in the room. Elrik Jundis showed up from the Bay Area with several associates. He and I touched sticks years ago and it was great to see him again.

There were some folks missing, though, that we’d hoped to see, and so it was electrifying when during Anthony’s closing remarks in walked Carlito Bonjoc, Ronnie Saturno and Wade Williams! (An apology to any whose name I cannot recall, particularly this late at night!)

Then something completely unexpected happened. As we were finishing greetings with this group, in walked Vincent Cabales with a contingent that included his son and a number of guros who train with him. For a second there was a huge pause as the significance of his appearance sank in, but whatever tension existed dissipated almost instantly with the recognition of the historic perspective of what was taking place. As Vincent stated simply and eloquently, he was there to honor his father, and we in turn were all honored that he joined us in this event.

This was probably the most significant gathering of the Serrada clan since Angel passed away. The wake after his funeral and the tournament held in his honor shortly thereafter also brought a lot of people together, but back then there was a lot of tension in the air, uncertainty as to the directions the art and its various proponents would take. Time has passed and people have grown in their lives and careers, raising families and expanding the Serrada lineage through their diligence and hard work. The energy now was quite different, a coming together from volition rather than the confusion of necessity.

What was apparent to me, and I believe to all who were there, was that for all the alleged animosity that has existed between people, there is a love for Serrada, and for Angel, that transcends all the conflicts of personality. All I felt in that room was a genuine spirit of aloha, as people who hadn’t spoken directly in years broke the ice with warm greetings. There were so many people in that room with whom I haven’t trained in years, it is hard to even recall all of them, but there was a glow of recognition in familiar faces.

I sincerely hope that this proves to be a watershed in improved relationships between the various Serrada groups and associations. We truly share more in common than whatever differences have been perceived. I recall the words of Gilbert Tenio at Angel’s wake, where he talked about the arts as a way to survive adversity through unity. Though the old manongs didn’t always see eye to eye either, they knew that there were common interests that transcended their differences. I think such understanding is finally settling into the generation that has succeeded them; this is a blessing to us all.

Here is a belated link to some photos I just received from a student who was there.