Don’t mind the title. I won’t actually be talking about tribbles. My brain just went “The Trouble with…” and my nerd brain supplied the most obvious addition.
This topic was suggested by a good friend of mine as something it might be cathartic to write out. As anybody who knows me already knows, I am an eclectic dabbler in the various arts that make up The Art. This is how I’ve always been and is the fuel for my search for Universal Principles. In any form of artistic expression: martial arts, music, painting, dance, et al. it is vital after a certain period of study to begin cross-training in other aspects of that art. A jazz musician will benefit from music theory classes or spending time focusing on classical music. A contemporary dancer might train ballet once a week to work on their lines. All aspects of an art, really all aspects of the Art, are interconnected in such a way that training one will inevitably help the other. Everyone should engage in multi-disciplinary study, ideally after training to get a solid grounding in one aspect first.
However, to choose (if we really can choose rather than it being chosen for us) to have multi-disciplinary study as your focus is not without its hardships. And I will be honest – it is a fucking hard path to walk.
I started my life-long obsession with martial arts, henceforth to be understood when I use the term “the Art” that I am referencing the entirety of martial arts, so long ago that I don’t even remember what I did first. Probably an introductory TKD lesson that I never returned for. The journey really started in 2004 when I started studying Yang Family Tai Chi at my local community college. Then the next year I discovered HEMA and the art of Fiore dei Liberi became my focus for the next 4 or 5 years. We might have had some cross training nights with other forms of swordplay and I started taking classical Italian foil lessons, but everything came back to Fiore’s holistic art. In some ways, on some days, I wish with all my being that I could just be focused on Fiore again (instead of my hodge-podge of at least 7 different arts that I cycle through). That I could give that wonderfully rich art my complete and total attention. But I can’t. Once I got a taste of the nectar that is over-guiding principles I was hooked and doomed to never focus solely on one art again. Instead, my focus is on the Art. And boy howdy does that capital “A” make a difference. Did I “master” Fiore’s art? No, absolutely not. Did I train it enough to be able to understand the overall principles and how to apply them in ways that weren;t explicitly in the text? Yes I did. And that opened the doors for me to be able to start seeing the connections between arts – I could start “translating” things I was being taught into Fiorean terms so that my body had a better idea of how to do them. I could also translate for others and as I learned more about other arts and other systems my translation abilities grew. As an instructor, that is one of the greatest benefits of multi-disciplinary study – I can walk into almost any martial arts class, learn the Tier 3 vocabulary, and then begin translating and comparing. And this comes in really handy when I have a new student who has experience with another martial art – I know what to tell them in their language to get their body to do what I want.
But there are problems I’ve run into over the years. These may be idiosyncratic to me and my battle with anxiety but I hope you’ll glean something out of here too.
Problem 1 – The Truth or What I Want to be The Truth
There’s a common idiom about “losing sight of the forest for the trees”, in other words focusing so much on individual details that you lose sight of the overall picture. This is not a problem unique to the martial arts world but I haven’t encountered it as bad elsewhere.I kid you not I have had discussions with people about whether a cut that came in at a 45 degree angle, instead of a 33 degree angle, could still be called a fendente. The problem for multi-disciplinary study is that it’s easy to start losing the trees for the forest – to start forgetting (or worse case, ignoring) the details that make arts individual and unique in order to squish them into a vision. When I was first starting to understand the truth about Universal Principles and how they could, and can, appear in most sources, I used to joke that strictly using my Fiorest training, I could pick up a rapier and fight well enough to not die (Rule #1 – Don’t get hit/don’t die). “How could you say that?” (People would never ask but I always hoped someone would.) Fiore has, as an illustration of a Principle within Armizare, two plays called the “Exchange of Thrusts” and the “Break of Thrusts”. Both of these plays are defenses against a thrust. The canonical example for the Exchange of Thrusts has the thrust coming down the centerline at mid chest height. Your defense begins with your sword on your forehand side; as the thrust comes in you parry with your sword, keeping your hands low and point high, while you step offline (removing a residual threat by moving your body out of the way). The Break of Thrusts is the same setup & footwork, but instead of your hands being low, they are high as you cut down into your opponent’s thrust. Boom. Fiore just taught you how to deal with ANY thrust. You either parry with opposition (to use modern fencing terminology to translate) or you use a cutting action to take their thrust completely offline. Now, assume that’s all you know about defending against a thrust and someone hands you a rapier (or a smallsword. They are better after all). You have two responses to thrusts – use opposition to gently guide their point away or do it not so subtly. Go take a look at fundamental defenses in rapier or smallsword. I’ll wait. Go ahead and look.
Back? Great. I don’t actually know if you did what I asked (you little rebel you) but I can almost bet that you found an action where to parry you use opposition to gently guide their point away or do it not so subtly. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that as any rapier or smallsword text will tell you. But this gets at the first problem I encountered – what was truth?
My truth tells me I pick up a smallsword and I start fencing using Fiore’s plays and I’ll be okay. It may not be what’s written in smallsword texts, but hey it helps me fulfill Rule #1 right?
And there’s the rub – when looking at Universal Principles it is easy and tempting to just lump things together in order to make your narrative, your Truth, happen. But is that the actual Truth? If we dropped Fiore into 1700s England, gave him a smallsword, pointed him at some Italian know-it-all and cried out “ROUND 1! FIGHT!” would he actually know what to do with the smallsword or would he be lost? I’ve committed this mistake a few times when I started to look at Zack Wylde’s 18th century system covering smallsword, broadsword, staff, and wrestling. There are, at face value, a lot of similarities to Fiore’s work. Enough so that in a couple places I glossed over while reading and jumped to a conclusion later proven false.
Another example is empty hand striking in Fiore. He mentions that you strike with your hands, he shows Posta Longa (Long Position) which certainly looks like the end of a straight punch (and matches with descriptions of lead straight punches from various arts that have them) and I can (and have) made an argument that that’s what it is – but is that there or am I simply grafting my other knowledge from other areas in order to fit this narrative I have of Universal Principles?
My co-instructor Sean and I have also dealt with this when covering Wylde’s wrestling. Sean has a background in judo and this can color his interpretations of plays just as much as my relative lack of formal grappling schooling colors my interpretations.
The key thing to combat this issue is to remember that Universal Principles are by definition vague. If they are Universal and True they must be because the context (if I say it two more times Matt Easton of Schola Gladiatoria will appear in your mirror to talk about Raid: Shadow Legends) is so different. A longsword is not a rapier. The stances are different with either weapon. But the idea of what to do against a thrust remains remarkably similar. So the Exchange of Thrusts may not exactly be a parry with opposition. Fiore’s Posta Longa might not exactly be a straight palm strike. Wylde’s Out throw might not be Judo’s Hiza-guruma (knee wheel). But all of these serve the same purpose.
Problem 2 – All Dogs are Dogs, but not all Dogs are the Same
We brought up the issue in pursuing multi-disciplinary study that is losing sight of the whole by focusing on the individual parts. But the flip side of that is pretending like all the individual parts are the exact same. While there is the phrase that flys around, and I know I use it often, that there are only so many ways the human body can move so that means that all arts are fundamentally the same right?
Not quite. The key here again is context (oh crap, that’s twice!). There are some universal contestants in the field of martial arts and human interaction – Jim Emmons does a brilliant job of laying them out here – but for physically moving someone else’s body around there are both too many variables to say “They are all the same” but also enough correlation that you can say “They are really, really similar”. Confused yet? Welcome to my brain. As an example, let’s take the armbar (a subset of what Wikipedia calls the “Armlock”. Fiore shows this in a few instances but most commonly we see it as a follow on from a defense against a backhanded dagger strike. They strike, you defend with your right arm (assuming a right handed opponent), you then grasp their right wrist with your right hand, pulling their arm across your body and putting your left hand/forearm right above their elbow, thus hyperextending that joint. This is both a physical restraint, a pain compliance hold, or a dislocation/break depending on how much pressure is applied. For BJJ, the armbar looks quite different. Usually from Mount (on top of your opponent while you both are on the ground) you grab one of your opponent’s wrists, spin yourself to that side, throwing your legs over their neck and torso respectively, then you pull their hand to your chest. Moving your hips allows you to apply more or less pressure against their elbow joint. This is both a physical restraint, a pain compliance hold, or a dislocation/break depending on how much pressure is applied. Oh look at that! The gross mechanical goal – to apply pressure to the elbow joint – is the same as is the outcome – physical hold, pain compliance, or dislocation/breaking the joint. However the con….nope, not gonna do it…the methods and situations in which they are applied are different enough that they are distinct yet close enough that someone cross-training will immediately understand the goal.
To put it another way, I am well trained in Fiore’s system and decently trained in Georgian swordplay, 18th century pugilism & swordplay, and 19th century bastone. I have a solid understanding of the universals Jim pointed out in his above blog post – measure, tempo, judgment, quickness, initiative, & tradecraft. This does not mean that I can enter an amateur MMA competition and win any more than I could walk onto a baseball diamond and hit a major league fastball or win a ballroom dance competition. I haven’t trained for those specific methods of applying the universals. Now, would it take me a shorter amount of time to train up for them because of my background? Quite possibly. So while we can focus on Universal Principles of the Art, we have to remember that what we study is not the same as all the other systems out there. They’re close, but the differences make them exciting.
Problem 3 – This does not Spark Joy
The third problem I constantly encounter is trying to balance the simplicity of the Universal Principles with the sheer amount of varied techniques that exist illustrating those principles. This isn’t some vast conspiracy or trying to rationalize when I don’t understand something – it’s an understanding of the context (shitshitshit! “RAID SHADOW LEGENDS!!!!”) of the arts as they progress from their time of use to their time as pastime and also harsh facts about training that most HEMA folks (myself very much included) struggle to accept.
It is a known statement within the martial arts community that “the simpler a technique the more ‘street’ it is”. And while this is quite dumb at face value, it’s not far from the truth. One thing the martial arts community tends to forget is that the arts we practice, especially those with living lineages, constantly pick up little barnacles along the way – societal changes, drills meant to train one very specific thing, sporting ruleset changes, etc. – that can change the face of the art. This is conflicted with the drive in the community to get the arts “back to their combat roots” – leading to things like the rise of Reality Based Self Defense arts, etc. And there’s the rub – unless we are actively using these arts in life and death situations we will never return to those “roots”. There are a small handful of people in the world who are forced to, or choose to, be placed in situations where this needs to happen but most martial artists will maybe encounter life or death situations a handful of times over their training lives. Even combat sports like MMA, BJJ, judo, boxing, etc. have their own artifacts that effect how we train and fight. I’m not saying these artifacts are all bad, nor that they can’t be overcome in the moment, but the truth is that if we as martial artists truly wanted to become effective fighters we would practice a small group of techniques until we were very VERY proficient at them. And gee, look at what those who participate in combat sports do.
Any art has a few layers of techniques – Basics, Low Risk, High Risk, & Once-In-A-Lifetime1. Basics are the simplest techniques in your system – your basic set of strikes, throws, cuts, thrusts, etc. combined with body mechanics. They are the bread and butter of your art and should comprise 90% of your training time. To paraphrase classical Italian fencing Maestro William Gaugler, high level competitions are won by basic level techniques being performed at high levels of skill. Or in a quote attributed to Bruce Lee, “I fear not the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks but the man who has practiced one kick 1,000 times”. This is also the most boring stuff to work on. But it instills conditioning and discipline and should never be forgotten entirely.
Next up is the Low Risk techniques. Slightly fancier than the Basics but often just riffs off them. Think of a counterattack in tempo instead of a parry-riposte. You’re really just riffing off the Basics and amping them up. This is also the area where you start seeing combinations of Basic techniques.
High Risk takes Low Risk and amps them up even more. These are your Inquartata thrusts, your one-handed longsword thrusts, that sweet off-hand parry while thrusting, etc. The plays that make everyone in the training hall go “Oooooooooohhhhhhh!” and applaud. This is the fun stuff.
Finally, Once-In-A-Lifetime is exactly what it sounds like – it’s such a crazy technique that it happens maybe once spontaneously. Think of things like that Superman punch for a knockout at the beginning of a round, the behind the back smallsword thrust, shoving someone’s arm between their own legs before stepping behind them and flipping them over. These are your “I have the high ground!” moments that will get seared into your memory, your opponents, memory, the memory of everyone who witnessed it, and the memory of those in a 5 mile radius by the sheer awesomeness.
So do we abandon the Low Risk, High Risk, and Once-In-A-Lifetime techniques? No. We train them. Just in case. But that Once-In-A-Lifetime play does not make the system the system. That honor lies with the Basics and Low Risk techniques. The High Risk and Once-In-A-Lifetime techniques are there to train specific body movements, train for specific encounters, or just show what is possible. So when we are looking at arts to study, to possibly bring into our own practice, remember that the really cool flashy stuff is just that – cool flashy stuff.
This can be especially difficult in the HEMA community as most of the manuals we have were written not just as instructional books, but as advertising (especially the earlier works). They aren’t necessarily showing you what you need to survive, but showing you what they as an instructor are capable of. Fiore shows pages upon pages on plays for defending yourself with a sword, but the majority of bouts come down to the first two plays of the 2nd master of Gioco Largo.
When looking for commonalities we sometimes have to “throw out” the flashy stuff in order to see the connections.
Problem 4 – What Have I Become?
This one. This is the one that keeps me up at night. The realization that in training across multiple systems and combining things according to Universal Principles, you are no longer practicing that version of the art. You are creating your own version of the art. No; your own expression of The Art. And this hits me right in the Ego – who in the seven hells am I to be creating a martial art? There are perfectly viable arts to study that are effective, or sporting, or healthy, whatever my end goal is. Why do I need to make my own?
For me the answer is that I don’t know why. I am a Synthesizer – my brain just naturally creates connections between disparate systems of martial arts and physical movement. Am I potentially bucking years of tradition by including Mendoza’s boxing in my study of Wylde? Possibly. But most of the time I just don’t care because it makes sense to me to have a truly holistic system of study and if my study is missing something I will go looking to plug that hole. To make it worse, there are lots of people throughout time who have done so – Fiore says he traveled and trained with many masters, Bruce Lee famously created his martial philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, Edwin Barton-Wright created Bartitsu out of disparate arts from at least four different countries. That is both comforting and terrifying to me. But hey, I have anxiety.
My reference and reverence for what I call the Art, encompassing all martial arts, may sound quasi-religious. And I guess it is. I have practiced several different religions in my lifetime and gee, I found something I liked in each of them. But one constant has been martial arts. So really, The Mandalorian says it best:
1. This was originally explained to me (I forget by whom and so I apologize) as:
- Low Risk, Low Reward
- Low Risk, High Reward
- High Risk, Low Reward
- High Risk, High Reward
And the idea was that bouts should begin and mostly include the first two, with the later being brought out either as surprise attacks or when your opponent has proven quite formidable.