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One of my goals with High Desert Armizare is to be able to provide a complete, holistic martial system. Ideally this system is based on historical arts, both for weapons and empty hand. This is somewhat easy when you start with a holistic art as the base art, for instance Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare or Zach Wylde’s system. Then it’s just a matter of plugging holes so to speak. Of particular interest to me is making sure that what I teach is useful to my students – which means having a robust empty hand curriculum. Contextually, the difficulty in working with historical sources isn’t that their advice & techniques aren’t valid, but rather that the context is different to modern day concerns (there I go sounding like I’m going to start promoting Raid: Shadow Legends again). 

Wylde wrote a nifty, holistic little treatise in 1711 that details the usage of smallsword, broadsword, staff, and wrestling. I can (and probably will) go into detail later about the first three sections, but I want to focus on his wrestling right now. Wylde’s wrestling section shows three main grips, with several lower body locks, trips, and throws (plus a few counters & some fun “Show up Chad at the party” techniques). I won’t go into detail on specifics now but know that it would be classified a loose grip Jacket Wrestling style in modern parlance. You take a grip on the upper body – usually gripping one elbow and then a shoulder or waist grip – then use your legs/hips to make the throws work, working your grips to leverage and off balance your opponent. It has a more familiar analogue in Judo. 

This is a great base to build an empty hand, self defense focused system because it’s simple and most of the time you’ll be able to grab the other person, or they’ve already grabbed you. But was Wylde writing self defense or sport? He doesn’t specify but I argue the answer is (as my students are all too familiar hearing from me) “Yes”. Part of this assumption is because he calls out where a throw can be dangerous – making the opponent land on their head or changing where your shoulder sits to turn it from a throw to an arm break. Part of it is context – in order to be able to Train you need to be able to Do. These were people for whom wrestling was a childhood and adult activity at gatherings. Arguably most of Wylde’s audience would have been familiar with versions of, if not the specific techniques he describes. Sean Mueller has done a lot of really great work drawing connections between Wylde’s plays and those found in the Judo corpus of techniques. So we have the first building block of HDA’s empty hand self defense system – lower body wrestling. Simple, easy to learn, easy to train, and effective at putting people on the ground while you yourself are still standing. So what’s missing?

A perennial argument is the greater martial arts community is Striking vs Grappling. People will argue using examples from MMA, anecdotes, traditional arts, military systems, etc. I will spare you the lengthy arguments and say two things. One, it depends on your preferences as a person. Second, I think grappling is superior to striking. Grappling/wrestling with its body locks, throws, and joint locks, allows for a Use of Force continuum that striking does not. I can use one of Wylde’s throws to gently take someone to the ground, maintaining control of the situation but remaining safe. Or I can use the same throw to slam them into the planet hard. Joint locks (following advice given by another master I’ll talk about later) can range from physical compliance to pain compliance to dislocation to break to throw. I can’t gently punch someone and have it still have an impact on them beyond surprise. If I need a strike to be effective I need to put a lot of force behind it. There is less margin for error and less ability to explain to witnesses/authorities what happened. So what’s missing from our historically based self defense system? Striking.

Here is where we begin to see more consequences of my making choices. There is a plethora of striking based martial arts – traditional, historical, European, etc. I could have chosen any one of them and made a good argument for why I included it. Ultimately, I decided to try and keep things contemporaneous to Wylde. Pugilism (early boxing) was a popular sport, especially in England, during the 18th century. This was what we would call bare-knuckle boxing today – no or minimal hand padding. This is an important fact because gloves change the nature of striking (that “C” word again). Pugilists of this time aimed less for the head than they did specific targets on the face – the nose, the ears, etc. The solar plexus, called “The Mark”, was an especially significant target because if you can’t breathe you can’t fight. These were things I looked specifically for because no one I know walks around with boxing gloves on their hands. Also, this helps with the idea of Hard Object against Soft Targets, Soft Object against Hard Targets. Punching the face full on with a closed fist & no padding is a bad idea – little hand bones meet big face bones and guess which one breaks? Many pugilists were also fencers and we can see this in what people commonly think of when you say “pugilism” or “fisticuffs” – profiled body, one arm outstretched, the other held close, very upright stance, epic mustache – which looks like a fencing stance. While any of these systems would have worked there was an 18th century pugilist who was both maligned and celebrated during his time – Daniel Mendoza. I’ll post a link to his Wikipedia page to spare myself from typing it all out but instead of the aforementioned pugilistic stance, Mendoza opted for a more close quarters style – both arms held up in front of the face, body more square on, hunched over. His system is also appealing because of how simple and effective it is (ideal for self defense) but also because it aligns nicely with Wylde’s principles and general Universal principles. 

Classic Pugilism Stance

Mendoza (right) & an alternate Pugilism stance (left)

Mendoza outlines a very simple system of boxing. He details three types of blows – straight, round, and chopping. He doesn’t break straight down into jab or cross like we do today. A straight blow is simply any blow that takes a straight path to it’s target. A round, I hope you can extrapolate, takes a circular path. The chopping blows are exemplified by a blow called “The Chopper” which is a descending backfist where you strike the opponent’s nose with your knuckles. While Mendoza does say that round blows tend to be used by those untutored in art, he does say, rather pragmatically, that one should not prefer one over the other but use whatever blow allows you to strike the target. Speaking of targets, while several specific ones are listed, you can generally break targets into head and body, reached either by straight or round blows. For defense Mendoza makes life very simple – if the blow is coming from your left (your opponent’s right arm) use your left arm for defense. If the blow is coming from your right (your opponent’s left arm) use your right arm for defense. Use forearms for straights, elbows/upper arms for rounds. Done. There is an exception – using your left to defend against their left but that’s to set up a kidney shot. In temperament this is very similar to Wylde’s concept of Place with the sword – your arms move very little from their guard position and never so much as to leave you unguarded. Because throws were a part of boxing at this time (a round concluded when a part of a boxer other than the feet touched the ground rather than by clock) Mendoza does include a section about throws – trips are easily defeated by straight punches, and the cross-buttock (featured in Wylde) is preferred. Mendoza also includes a nasty little grapple which allows you to strike a person at will before throwing them backwards over your leg. So now our little system has lower body grappling and striking. It’s all done right? Right?

I first began my study (I feel like I say this every post & worry I’m just killing Batman’s parents over and over) with Fiore’s Armizare. A complete system for it’s day it covers empty hand up through weapons in armour on horseback. But there are things that, to the modern eye, are “missing” from the empty hand section – Fiore mentions empty hand striking but doesn’t explicitly detail any strikes, there is no ground grappling, while there are a lot of shoulder locks the wrist joint is ignored, and there are limited options for using your lower body to execute throws. Context is that Fiore was writing for seasoned warriors – people who grew up wrestling and boxing as part of their childhood. Not to mention the effect of armour on techniques. Fiore did not write a complete system of grappling. What he wrote was a succinct system of Upper Body Grappling, specifically a good system of shoulder locks/breaks/throws. Which is the only thing missing from our little system we are creating out of historical sources. Adding in Fiore’s system of shoulder locks, as well as his knee strikes and low kicks, we now have a complete system on empty hand self defense.

But why have I been saying that this system must have this balance between grappling and striking? I mentioned above that grappling gives a better Force Continuum than striking so why include striking at all? I don’t view this as a black and white, grappling and striking, issue. Like the classic Yin Yang symbol, grappling and striking coexist and interplay with each other. To paraphrase a friend, striking sets up grapples and grapples set up strikes. If I’m going for a throw and my opponent is resisting, a quick shot to the flank could distract them enough for me to get the throw in. Likewise, throwing a straight, if it misses, can get me into a position to grab their shoulder/neck. Like two dragons flying through the air, grapples and strikes intertwine seamlessly. 

So there you have it – my rationale for HDA’s mostly 18th century system of empty hand self defense. Following Bruce Lee’s philosophy these are just a foundation for HDA’s practitioners. They are free to adapt and add based on their own experiences, training, and physical abilities. 

Sources & Research:

  • English Master of Defense – a reprint of Zach Wylde’s 18th century text on smallsword, broadsword, staff, and wrestling.
  • The Art of Boxing – Google Books scans of Daniel Mendoza’s treatise on boxing
  • Armizare – The book on Fiore dei Liberi’s 15th century Armizare by Bob Charrette that highlights Fiore’s dagger section (which is closely intertwined with his grappling).
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