“So a kung Fu master, a Jewish boxer, an Italian noble, and a middle class Englishman walk into a bar….” isn’t the start of a bad joke, it’s a concise way to describe the four primary sources that have influenced my approach to empty hand fighting skills. To be more specific than the joke, these sources are:
- Xing Yi Quan
- Daniel Mendoza’s boxing
- Fiore dei Liberi’s wrestling & dagger defense
- Zach Wylde’s wrestling
These aren’t the only sources but they are the primary ones. Let’s delve into each source and how the pieces combine with my drive for Universal Principles to create what my friend Jim Emmons has dubbed “Spreier Dirty Boxing”.
Xing Yi Quan
Xing Yi (alternately written as “Hsing-I”) is considered one of China’s Internal martial arts. I’ve written on it before here on the blog. I won’t rehash the basics here but the main lesson we take from Xing Yi is how to generate power. Specifically in the Five Element Fists, you learn to generate on upwards, downwards, forward, inside, and outside lines. You also learn to focus on applying spiraling force in a straight line.
Daniel Mendoza was a prominent boxer in England in the late 1700s. His book (there are two versions, one published in 1789 the other in 1790) tends to stump some people because Mendoza lays out some general rules and principles but distills everything into Six Lessons. He also, interestingly, never describes how to punch. His style is focused on defense and he lays out clearly how that is to happen – your left hand defends against their right and your right hand defends against their left. This is primarily through the use of the forearms & upper arms as “bars” or solid blocks. Being that at the time he fought boxing rounds ended when one fighter hit the ground there are also a few throws and even a grapple included. Where Xing Yi gives us our power generation, Mendoza gives us our defensive framework.
Abrazare & Dagger
Fiore’s Getty manuscript begins in the introduction by stating that wrestling is the basis of his art. This is true in that manuscript which starts with a relatively short abrazare, “wrestling” or “grappling” (lit. “embracing”) followed by his dagger defense section; the largest single section in the manuscript. Fiore starts off giving four guards, or poste, to fight from. Both abrazare and dagger are largely focused on shoulder locks/binds and breaks, with some strikes, throws, and other miscellaneous techniques. Fiore’s throws use pressure against the shoulder and/or head to begin to unbalance the opponent, with the legs coming in at the last minute. This makes sense in terms of Fiore’s context – armoured and unarmoured play. Fiore provides us with our upper body wrestling.
My friend and former co-instructor Sean Mueller once called Wylde’s wrestling section “Wing Chun Judo” and boy does that image stick. Basically Wylde’s wrestling is a jacket wrestling system in that the arms are given holds on the opponent but your attacks use the legs to execute throws and trips; just like judo. But unlike judo’s awesomely huge corpus of throws, this short, concise section of Wylde’s book gives a toolbox of six throws that can be combined and flow as needed, as well as counters and a few more special throws/techniques. So, as opposed to Fiore’s upper body wrestling, Wylde gives us our lower body wrestling.
Synthesis & Making it “Dirty”
Okay, so I’ve laid out my four main sources and even explained what each of them bring to the table – power mechanics, defensive strategy, upper body wrestling/locks, and lower body wrestling/throws. I wish I had a more detailed or esoteric sounding method of combining all of them, but literally just imagine throwing all those things in the blender and turning it on. My emphasis is on making sure that the art is effective. Effective, to me, is a funny term though. No one comes to learning sword-fighting with the idea that they are going to use sword-fighting “for real” at some point in their life. To extend that to empty hand, which arguably has a lot more potential to be used, it still isn’t likely to be used. So what do we mean by effective? Here I will give the standard disclaimer that situational awareness and deescalation are far better skills to avoid conflict than any physical skill. But when it has to come to physical skills, those skills need to be simple, high percentage techniques. Simple does not mean simplistic; it just means “not extravagant or fancy”. Don’t get me wrong, those flashy techniques are wonderful. Training them can serve as “medicine for the body”. And I think that too many people in the martial arts community, both traditional and HEMA, want to jump straight into training those fancy techniques because, let’s be honest here, they look sexy! I don’t want on inundate you with quotes about martial arts, but I do need to throw two at you:
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” ~Bruce Lee
“High level competitions are won by basic level techniques performed at a high level of skill” ~ Maestro William Gaugler
Those two right there show my approach – simple ideas, simple principles, simple techniques performed to a high level of skill and recall. That to me is the core of the Art. So I’ve mined these four sources to find the common ideas, the common principles, the common techniques that I can train and teach.
As to turning this primordial martial soup into “Spreier Dirty Boxing” there’s a lot there and it gets split into two camps: training myself and training others.
Training myself is simple – I just do what I’ve talked about earlier. I use Xing Yi forms to train power generation and meditation. I use Mendoza to train basic striking and defense. Fiore is my base art so most of my body mechanics, my ideas of looking at situations, still tend to stem from there. And Wylde has been one of my newer focuses – I love grappling but haven’t done a lot of fixed grip style jacket wrestling. My training is to find out what works for me; to find my individual expression of the Art.
Training others is more complicated with this mindset. Because the focus is on figuring out individual expressions of these simple techniques, I can’t just train them to fight like me. Because they aren’t me – body type wise, mentality wise, etc. I am a middle-aged, 6 foot, 300 pound, bald, bearded, White dude. I fight like a crocodile or a bear – slow moving, close in-fighting, emphasis on setting up and finding my One Good Shot. Most of my students are not that – physically they are smaller and lighter. Mentally, as some are femme presenting and/or AFAB, they are constantly bombarded with daily stresses that I simply don’t have to think about. So how do I best train them?
I focus on the simple – their straight punch and my straight punch don’t need to look or be used the same. A recent example with a student came when they tend to throw jabs from extreme edge of measure because they are young and fast. Great! The fact that I don’t isn’t their problem. My job is to teach them the techniques and let them find their individual expressions. A forehand descending cut is a forehand descending cut and there are certain requirements that make it a forehand descending cut. But how we use it is the individual expression.
And part of the rub here is that if I do my job right then “Spreier Dirty Boxing”, the way I do it, will die with me. The principles, the mindset, etc can continue on through my students (hopefully), but my individual expression of the Art is just that.
- I take a lot of inspiration from Judo and other various folk wrestling traditions because I am a firm believer that wrestling/grappling is the proper foundation upon which all other martial skills rest.
- This is true for two of the four known Fiore manuscripts. Opinion is divided on whether this shows growth in Fiore’s ideas or the whims of those who commissioned the works.
- A paraphrase of a quote from my friend Jim Emmons when discussing fencing training.