Its critics slate it as crude barabarism; its defenders call it progressive innovation. Name of the game? Reality-based, freestyle full contact fighting. Our fancy-pants author gets nicotined-up and ready to rumble with South Africa’s new martial artists.
Original publication: SL, 1999.
Say what you like about them, but media photographers have their uses. They don’t bother pulling punches when they sum up a situation, and if shit hits the fan on assignment, they come in handy as human shields. Take this guy Peter, for instance. We’ve hardly met and already we’re whispering conspiratorially, huddled in the wings of a school hall in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, where we and several dozen other people – mums and dads, gooses and wives, tykes and teenyboppers – are witnessing a martial arts tournament of a special kind, one that’s increasingly popular abroad but unique in South Africa.
Peter lowers his camera and shakes his head, transfixed by the action on centre-stage. True to his profession, he has the unflowery words that cut to the heart of the problem confronting us. ‘You better write a nice piece about these okes,’ he chuckles, ‘or we could get fucked up.’
I shoot a look at him. The swine might think this is funny, but in several days’ time I would be joining some of the fighters at a training session to get a close-quarters, bone-crushing appreciation of their discipline. It’s a discipline that’s little known, even though its leading South African practitioners, Ludwig Strydom and Mike Herbig, are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their dojo, the Kyokan Martial Arts School, and claim a membership of over 500 school-going students and around 50 adults, both men and women. The name of the game? Reality-based, freestyle full contact fighting.
A brochure describes free fighting as ‘an holistic method of self-defence, based on reality’. It explains that Ludwig, a third Dan in karate, had become ‘disillusioned with the rigidity of the karate style he had been teaching’ since it ‘didn’t cover nearly enough of what might happen in a real situation’. Instead, he and Mike undertook ‘a journey of experimentation to find out what really worked and what didn’t’. The brochure suggests that disciplines ranging from karate and judo to boxing and wrestling are inherently limited for purposes of self-defence because they specialise in certain activities to the detriment of others – in wrestling, for instance, you may pin opponents down but not punch them, and in boxing you may hit but not grapple.
Kyokan, the brochure claims, ‘teaches you everything’, and this is where ‘full contact’ comes into play: on the streets there are no rules governing what an opponent may and may not do to you. ‘If you’re attacked, you better know what to do,’ the brochure warns, so ‘you need to practise all your options. You can’t fake experience.’ Or, in the more immediate terms Ludwig used when he invited me to a class, ‘If you attend, you will be strangled.’
Cheered by these words, I hover in the background of the hall alongside Peter, watching with detached fatalism as the tournament progresses from the junior to the adult division, with each round of fighting growing longer as the competitors become beefier. The mood of the audience around the blue-matted ring shifts in sync to the pace of the fighting – boisterous when the opponents are initially upright and swinging punches and kicks at each other, silent and intent when they’re entangled in virtually motionless embraces on the ground.
‘Just relax, son! I’m right by you!’ shouts a chap in the audience as two adolescents – the one clad in gladiatorial latex, the other a loping, bare-chested Aryan – squirm on the mat, entwined in full face-to-armpit contact. ‘Interfere with his breathing!’ shouts a second voice. Then another: ‘Walk him around!’ The two referees, Mike and Ludwig, stand patiently beside this human knot – occasionally Ludwig pauses the fight and adjusts an elbow guard or retrieves a mouth guard. It looks as if he’s neatening them up, straightening their ties, but these small attentions are all to do with his stringent concern for safety. At last the fighters tear apart and bounce to their feet, dukes raised. One of them gets globed in the jaw. The refs catch him from falling and the fight instantly ends.
It’s not quite the ritual disembowelment I was hoping for, where losers’ dead bodies are turfed over a wharfside, but the adult division is due to begin, promising more satisfying scenes of excess. Peter sneaks a photo; I mutter into my Dictaphone, recording the slimy bloodstains I notice on the gum guard of a passing fighter. People glance in our direction, smiling or merely quizzical. It’s a family affair at the tournament, but Peter and I are separated from them by a magic circle. Our presence as journalists seems to be regarded as a left-wing interrogation of the event, a question mark placed in its midst.
We’re not the only outsiders. One or two representatives from the more conventional martial arts had accepted Kyokan’s invitation to enter, but even a novice like me could see they were pissing in the wind. After being pinned on the floor and pummelled on the chest and face, one of them nearly had his head wrenched from his fucking shoulders. Christ alive, how I laughed! It was as if his head were being worked loose like a champagne cork. Yet the freestyle fighters were magnanimous in victory, and he grinningly received an ovation for participating.
Shaun M., Kyokan’s marketing man, sidles up to me during the fight. ‘Martial arts? I call it martial ballet,’ he says of the traditional fighting styles: ‘It’s a beautiful art, they look great, they can’t fight for spit.’ Putting it mildly, the relationship between free fighting and mainstream disciplines is an uneasy one. Shaun concedes that although he’s Kyokan’s ‘loudmouth’ – ‘I’m proud of what we do’ – he and fellow fighters are willing to take a constructive beating from other martial arts schools in order to improve their skills, but hardly any outsiders have responded to Kyokan’s overtures.
Shaun’s particularly scathing about hypocrisy. ‘Martial arts people tell you how they’re learning to defend themselves. Fine. We’re learning the same thing. But if you ask 75% of our adults why they do it, it’s not for protection, nor do we go to bars and cause shit – we like fighting and enjoy the challenge. The adrenaline rush is unbelievable. As for self-defence, there are better ways of protecting yourself: buy a gun.’
Present in the audience is 18-year-old college student Anne M., an instructor and one of a dozen-or-so female free fighters at Kyokan. When she was 12 Anne quit ballet to take up freestyle combat, and she’s more emphatic than Shaun about its self-defence benefits.
‘I think every woman in South Africa should be doing this,’ she claims, dismissing standard kick-him-in-the-crotch classes as ‘rubbish’. Once again, personal experience of a fighting situation is crucial. ‘If someone attacks you, you stiffen up, your awareness collapses’. However, thanks to having fought in both women-on-women and men-on-women classes, Anne believes she would know how to control her panic and escape from under a real-life assailant – or even strangle him. At the very least a potential attacker would quickly realise she’s no pushover.
Male newcomers initially hold back when battling her in class, but older opponents fight her as hard as she fights them. ‘I don’t have an easy time,’ she admits, ‘and size counts in a big way. But I know what to do because in classes I’ve had the experience of huge, fat sweaty guys lying on top of me.’
Quite an image, and looking at the mat I get a better impression of what she means. Two barrel-shaped men wearing what appear to be old-fashioned swimming suits are locked in a copulatory embrace on the floor, every so often punching and headbutting each other. The bloke flat on his back has clamped his thighs around his opponent’s waist; the one on top is straining at the other guy’s groin, squeezing through this leglock so that he can saddle himself on his rival’s gut and commit an atrocity that dare not speak its name. It’s the Kama Sutra of combat, but where’s it going?
‘The idea is either to knock your opponent out completely or make him submit by tapping you,’ Shaun explains. ‘If you’re in an armlock you have two choices: submit or have your arm broken. If you’re in a choke hold, you start seeing stars because you’re running out of oxygen. And if there’s a lot of blood the judges stop the fight. The aim isn’t to kill each other – it’s to see who’s the better fighter.’
Referring to the fighters’ protective gear and the referees’ concerns for safety, Shaun describes the tournament as ‘a controlled environment’, adding that the ‘contact’ isn’t ‘yet as full as we could go. To go as full as we want we’d put two guys in a ring and let them do what they want. Minimum rules would be no biting, groin attacks, eye-gouging, or fish-hooking, where you stick your fingers in the guy’s nose and rip it off. That’s as close as you can get to a street fight without abandoning every shred of morality.’
In theory if not in practice, the logic of free fighting seems to trace an almost ineluctable trajectory, as though you were propelling yourself towards a limit-experience, the better to enhance your capacities before drawing back. As Shaun reflects, ‘You want to be able to experience the fighting as real as possible but live to do it again.’
Historically, that trajectory begins with Carlos Gracie in Brazil in the 1920s and, moving through a line of descendants, currently ends with Rickson Gracie, undefeated world champion in no-holds-barred fighting. Carlos set out to modify the classical jiu jitsu he learned as a teenager to match the reality of street fighting, and made a standing challenge that he would take on anybody who wanted to fuck with him. One newspaper ad read: ‘If you want your face smashed, your ass kicked, and your arms broken, contact Carlos Gracie at this address …’
Obviously as much a raging bull in the sack as on the street, he sired 21 children, who passed his fighting wisdom down the generations. Rickson is his most famous descendant, and in a video documentary detailing the build-up to a freestyle tournament in Japan, he comports himself like a modern-day sage. Strong as an ox, supple as an eel, Rickson has the good looks of a movie action hero and speaks with the serenity of a New Age family man. On the big night, his wife reveals her fear: Rickson will never submit, even if he’s strangled into unconsciousness or death itself.
Moments before the fight, disaster strikes in the locker room. ‘Dammit,’ says Rickson. ‘I need the toilet. To shit.’ Panic-stricken go-fers steer him down a corridor. Cut to the fight, where he wades into his luckless foe, then literally flings him out the ring into the auditorium. He’s in a tetchy mood. Perhaps he couldn’t have that shit. I know how it goes: I get the same way.
Others are less sympathetic to Rickson and free fighting. Trevor Tockar serves on the International Karate Organisation’s committee for Southern and Central Africa and is a sixth Dan with thirty years’ experience in kyokushinkai karate, which he believes is ‘the most severe form of fighting that exists in the bounds of normality’. Tockar has seen the same Rickson video. While praising Rickson’s athleticism and ‘fighting heart’, he describes the style itself as ‘crude barbarism’.
‘With karate,’ he asserts, ‘fighting’s an integral part of something much bigger, where you’re trying to improve yourself as a human being. Take away the Buddha philosophy of the martial arts and you’re left with people trying to beat the hell out of each other … I prefer to believe there’s some substance in the years of tried-and-tested wisdom gathered by people who’ve come before one.’
Referring to South Africa’s free fighters, Tockar comments: ‘I’m sure they have many dedicated and sincere people, but as a general principle when I look at what they’re doing and what more conventional people offer, I think the odds are stacked in our favour.’
Ludwig Strydom, founder of the Kyokan school and the country’s free fighting pioneer, is unperturbed by the criticism. ‘Fighting’s my vocation,’ he says. It was this sense of a calling, of answering a summons, that led him along a path of innovation.
‘In evolutionary terms, species survive because of their adaptability,’ he says. ‘So there’s no progress if you keep doing what your forebears did. There are enough people dedicated to tradition, so I’ll go for change all the time – if a thing doesn’t work, try something else … In karate you fight at a pre-arranged distance and the moment you get too close the fight’s stopped and the distance is re-established. It teaches you to fight in 5% of real situations. Mike Herbig and I said: Right, let’s start from scratch and see what works [in reality].’
The process was revelatory – ‘like floodgates opening’ – and in 1997 he went to Los Angeles to train under Rickson Gracie. While some regard Gracie and his methods as a barbaric, Ludwig asserts the opposite. ‘What we teach is worthwhile as it’s based on reality.’ So convinced is he that much of his time is devoted to teaching small children, who are encouraged to explore their natural physicality in playful tussles, provided they obey the main rule: no hurting. He maintains that this not only enhances their self-esteem but also teaches compassion, since each child gets a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Kyokan’s techniques.
‘The fact that we live in a dangerous society is not the be-all and end-all of why I’m doing this,’ Ludwig says. ‘I started this for my personal growth – if you want to grow, you have to change, and fighting’s a powerful motivator for change. If a guy catches me, I have to change or he’ll do it again. In my heart I knew that the closer you can get to reality while it’s still safe, the faster you’re gonna learn.’
Does closer to reality mean ‘closer to danger’ – to an adrenalising brush with death? ‘Not at all. I’m not a guy who’ll jump from aeroplane and see how long I can go before I pull the ripcord.’ Instead, he says, it’s about developing yourself by testing your self-control. ‘You might say you can control yourself, but if you step onto the mat, you must prove it and control your fear. Fighting is the place where reality is real: there you can’t just talk about it.’
Ludwig’s certainly going to have to control his fear because by now I’m nicotined-up and ready to rumble. He and I, along with Shaun May and two high school boys, have gathered on the mats for a grappling class. First up are warm-up exercises, which turn out to have fighting applications as well: the bridge, the prawn, the lizard … At school, when the other kiddies went to judo classes, I was repelled by the odour of all those bare feet that had been stewing in their Bata Toughees the livelong day, and just as I’m beginning to unlearn some of this, I see two teenage girls giggling in the wings at my klutzing about. Oh Christ, will my schooldays never end?
I butch it out. Soon enough we get partnered up for a fight, but before unleashing me on his pupils, Ludwig wants to test my prowess himself. He also wants to give me a sense of what fighting’s like so that later I can understand the relevance of the various techniques. He assures me I’ll only get given as hard as I give, and that I need simply tap his shoulder to end the fight.
We bob about playfully. It’s like moving into the nursery waters of a deep sea, feeling the tug of the tide towards a space where there’s miles of emptiness underfoot – hypothetically, this could go very far very quickly. Pretty soon I’m pinned down and Ludwig’s manoeuvred his chest over my face.
The aim is to suffocate or strangle your assailant until he blacks out or submits, and Ludwig considers this a more humane strategy than breaking his limbs. After regaining consciousness, your enemy merely feels foolish, but a fractured arm stays with him for months.
Conversely, it’s important for you to maintain correct breathing, since this affects your level of awareness. In a car accident, Ludwig says, things can seem to happen in an instant or very slowly. In the first case, your awareness shrinks; in the second, it expands, and this is the state of mind fighters seek – a calmness where opportunities present themselves. ‘If I collapse my awareness, yours expands to fill that space,’ he explains. ‘If I push mine out, it closes yours down. Fighting’s a clash of awareness.’
Ludwig gives me a chance to get ‘into the mount’, that is, to straddle his torso with my legs and inflict damage. I accidentally bump his head: sorry. He laughs. ‘Stop apologising and start fighting!’ What can I do? I tickle his beard. He laughs again and enjoins me to thrust my upper body over his head, which I do. ‘How much do you weigh?’ 88kg, I say. ‘Same as me, but I can’t feel you. Let me feel you!’ I force myself down. ‘That’s better!’
A curious bit of dialogue perhaps, but after spending an hour grappling with Ludwig, Shaun, and a 15-year-old boy (he trashed me, but of out noblesse oblige I let him), I had a better sense of the fellowship antagonists experience after a fight. I thought I’d be so resentful of them I’d be waiting in the car park afterwards to gun them down. Instead I felt as if they were old pals I’d grown up with since Grade 1. ‘Normally you meet people at a distance,’ Ludwig says. ‘In training, life-and-death situations bring you together.’
The moment of truth came when Ludwig demonstrated a stranglehold on me and told me to reciprocate. ‘Tighter!’ he urged through clenched jaws. ‘You’ve got the power. Use it!’ I stopped. Sorry, I lack the killer instinct, I have nothing against you. The logic of free fighting traces a trajectory: but what do you need to drive yourself and someone else towards that dark star on its horizon? I stopped; however, these are early days. ‘Others won’t hesitate to do it to you,’ Shaun says. ‘Then you won’t hold back anymore either.’
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