The Dog Brothers

from Men’s Fitness, by Marc Jacobs

Iron John? Big wuss. Real me, say the Dog Brothers, beat the crap out of each other with 30-inch clubs.

Underdog is flailing away at Dog Steve with a pair of 30-inch sticks before the watchful eye of the Crafty Dog and his canine cohorts. “Stop backing up!” Top Dog orders as Dog Steve charges forward, slashing his club at Underdog, who is backpedaling furiously in an attempt to avoid massive head trauma, broken bones or a kidney-popping thrust into his bare body.

“Swing harder!” Crafty Dog barks as the two fighters crash together – Underdog attempting to dig the end of his stick into his foe’s exposed leg even as Dog Steve tries to crush Underdog’s larynx in a chokehold.

Imposing rattan sticks clack together, African drums beat a primal counterpoint in the background, and the assembled crowd of 200 dog lovers woofs its approval. We’re in the middle of a public park on a delightfully sunny California afternoon, watching two combatants trying to cave in each other’s skulls. What could be better?

One man’s cruelty to animals, after all, is another man’s extreme sport. And things don’t get much more extreme than Real Contact Stick-fighting, brought to you courtesy of the mangy Dog Brothers, a grassroots martial arts group whose biannual semipublic gatherings follow a Robert Bly kind of philosophy, bringing men together to rediscover their male energy through combat.
Except, as Crafty Dog puts it, “Bly was pussy-whipped. There isn’t enough testosterone in his stuff.” Testosterone isn’t a problem when fighting Dog Brothers-style, except when you take a stick to the groin.

Sticking it out

In the bizarre melange of the martial arts world, stickfighting occupies a particularly esoteric niche. For decades, it was practiced largely by Filipinos, who originated and evolved the sport from their country’s traditional tribal warfare techniques. As any Filipino martial artist would be proud to tell you, it was a stickfighter who offed Magellan when the explorer made the mistake of visiting their islands on his world cruise.

But impaling people on sticks is a hard tourism sell. So in recent years the Filipinos have modified their methods. The last public “death match” was held in Hawaii in 1948. Since then, attempts have been made to turn stickfighting into an internationally accepted martial art. Rules were drawn up for competition, and the sport has gained a certain amount of acceptance in the United States, particularly in California. But tournament competition requires that fighters be heavily padded to prevent injury.

And if you’re a Dog Brother, that just isn’t any fun.

Years of the dog

The group’s pedigree goes back to New York in the late 1970s, when a young student named Eric Knauss discovered Filipino stickfighting between classes at Columbia University. At 6[feet] 4[inches] and 215 pounds, Knauss had the size and instinct for combat. His instructors (Leo Gaje and Tom Bisio) trained him in hardcore stickfighting techniques and turned him loose. Knauss eventually moved to the West Coast, where he won numerous tournament championships and gained a reputation for insanity throughout California martial arts schools.

During what he calls his ronin, or wandering samurai phase, Knauss would visit schools at random, humbly asking if they trained with weapons and whether they’d like to do a little friendly sparring. Of course, his idea of friendly sparring was to wear no protection save a light head guard, and to go at it until one man surrendered or was rendered senseless.

“I only had a few takers,” Knauss says, still slightly surprised. “But there were four or five who thought like I did in terms of getting to the core of what really works in a fight. It wasn’t until I met Marc Denny and he took me to meet his teacher [the legendary Dan Inosanto] that we were really able to take root. That’s how the Dog Brothers started.”

But things didn’t really get off the ground until 1988. Needing footage for their first instructional video, a half-dozen combatants met for three days of nonstop stickfighting in San Clemente, California’s Rambless Park. Denny, a former attorney, showed up wearing cleats for traction on the grassy surface. Someone commented on what a crafty dog he was.

“I went home that night and picked up a Conan the Barbarian comic book,” Denny says. “Conan was leading his band of mercenaries into battle, yelling, ‘Come on, ye band of dog brothers!’ It seemed like a natural name for us.”

Denny, himself an Ivy League graduate and the group’s guiding force, remained the Crafty Dog. Knauss, the best fighter, was dubbed the Top Dog. There were Salty Dogs, Shark Dogs, Sled Dogs … a whole litter of stickfighting crazies who gained an underground cult following within the martial arts world, though they avoided publicity for obvious legal and practical reasons.

“Our mission has been to stay off the authorities’ radar screens so we don’t get shut down,” Denny says.

Despite this, the Dog Brothers’ videos, released through Panther Productions, the world’s largest distributor of martial arts videos, have been wildly successful. The tapes blend instruction and fight footage and have risen to No. 3 on the distributor’s sales charts, mainly through word of mouth.

And the word is that the Dog Brothers are some sick puppies.

Unchained melee

They have no rules in their matches except that fighters should remain friends at the end of the day. Oh, yeah, and one more: Try not to put your opponents in the hospital.

The result of these “rules” is friendly, but rabidly intense, combat.

The scraps take place in a wide circle of grass in a quiet suburban park within view of the ocean. The crowd is low-key and wildly diverse, a mix of tatted-up gangster lookalikes, a few groupies, serious martial artists, yuppies young and old, towheaded little kids and their dogs. Stickfighting the Dog Brothers way mixes grappling with technical stickwork; almost every match ends with both parties rolling around on the ground, looking to lock on a submission hold or rip off an opponent’s protective mask and pound his face into Alpo.

The violence is incredible, but rarely personal. Fighters hug at the end of their matches, and when one martial artist loses his composure and begins smashing his prone opponent with excessive vigor, several Dogs jump in to separate the two.

Restraint doesn’t mean nonviolent, though. At the end of the group’s May gathering, the 20 participating fighters are covered with “stick hickeys” – ugly red welts caused by rattan whacking flesh. Serious injuries have occurred at past gatherings – a huge stick shot split one fighter’s kneecap in half in 1996 – but for the most part, fighters control themselves well enough to prevent anyone from spending the night in the hospital.

When serious injuries occur, they’re unusual and deeply regretted. Mike Florimini, the Rain Dog, is still fighting despite his guilt over kneecapping an opponent. “I was pretty upset by it,” he says, “but we all agree, it’s what we can be in for.”

Aggression lesson

As author Tom Wolfe observed about modern art, a martial art must have a “persuasive theory,” a raison d’etre. In pursuit of a reason for stickfighting’s being, Denny incorporates a wide range of existential justification into what could be construed as felonious assault with a deadly weapon.

At the beginning of each gathering, he lectures the combatants on the philosophical and anthropological implications of Real Contact Stickfighting, quoting Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz on the nature of aggression.

“Any animal that has friendship has intraspecies aggression. The two go hand-in-hand,” Denny says. “Lorenz observed that there’s an instinctual need to discharge this aggression. We do it in a ritual way.”

Denny propounds the importance of this need for a form of ritual energy discharge as he rails against the loss of traditional male-initiation rites in modern American society. This could easily sound pompous, but the Dogs’ sense of humor keeps things light. Consider their intellectual credo: “Higher consciousness through harder contact.”

“In a way, all we are is a bunch of kids meeting in the treehouse with our nicknames and secret handshakes,” Denny says. “Too many people in martial arts take themselves too seriously, anyway.”

Ultimate dog fighting?

But others in the martial arts world take the Dog Brothers quite seriously. Art Davie, former promoter of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, heard about the group in 1995 and was interested in including a match on one of his pay-per-view bloodfests. He went to the Dogs and watched some fights.

The baron of barbarism’s reaction? “I thought these guys were stone crazy. They’re beating each other with sticks!” What could be more telegenic?

“When I offered it to some cable outlets, they said, ‘You want to show what?”‘ Davie recalls. “I wanted to put it on TV, but we have enough trouble with bare-knuckle fights. All we need is to show 30 seconds of Eric Knauss beating on a guy like he’s Rodney King and they’d run me out of town on a rail.”

If the UFC is seen by some as a barbaric reversion to the age of Roman gladiators, the Dog Brothers regress still further. Standing in a clearing watching two men with sticks circle each other, a nearby percussionist pounding out riffs on an African djembe drum, seems to transport you back in time: For a fleeting instant, you know what it was like 10,000 years ago, when sticks were the only weapon and the clan gathered to watch two warriors battle for land, a woman or tribal status.

Of course, the Dog Brothers could be seen as a bunch of macho lunatics – and they certainly are – but that perception would overlook something more vital. When they talk about stickfighting being a male-initiation rite in the traditional sense, a truly transforming experience, it’s not some New Age con. The courage required to stand up to a 30-inch club (or sometimes two) whizzing at your head is a special commodity in modern society, where computer workstations are a bigger physical threat than a raiding tribe.

As the whipped author and poet Robert Bly pointed out in his book Iron John, the contemporary male seems to have lost contact with that sense of an inner wildman which keeps him strong yet avoids the pitfalls of macho cruelty. Though stickfighting probably isn’t the most enlightened way of establishing inner strength, it’s revealing that while stickfighting abides by neither rules nor referees, there are also no winners declared and no trophies awarded. Fighters show up merely to test themselves. For example, the Underdog is actually a 50-year-old, 145-pound supplicant named John Salter.

Salter, who was once owner of a medical-management company, picked up the sticks just three years ago without ever having been in a fistfight. Now, he’s a combat fanatic.

“The idea is not to hurt people, but to prepare yourself on many levels. It takes over your life, and it’s a higher-quality life than I used to be living. I will lose if I don’t keep doing this,” he says.

It’s also telling that most of the crowd at the Dog Brothers’ melees seems able to connect with the group’s philosophy. Like the fighters, the audience doesn’t lust for blood – only for well-executed combat. In part to preserve this respectful atmosphere, the group is comfortable to stay underground.

“I think we’ve found our proper level,” Denny says. “It would have been an experience to fight in the UFC, but the way we do it now feels right. If we fought in a competition, it would be hard to remain friends at the end of the day.”

But for the voyeur, violence is often a drug. As people become inured to the bare-knuckle action of the UFC and its ilk, they’ll eventually require a stronger fix. Despite the resistance his tamer event has met from cable providers, Davie insists that we’ll eventually be able to tune in and see weapons duels on television. One bare-knuckle television tournament, the now-defunct World Combat Championships, wanted the Dog Brothers to compete and actually asked if they would fight without their head protection.

“I talked it over with Top Dog and Salty Dog,” Denny says. “We said, ‘If you can find the three of us opponents and meet our price, we’ll do it. But it’s going to be gory.’”

Ultimately, the WCC decided to pass, perhaps sensing that this was one idea best left to the dogs.

Writer Dog Mark Jacobs is a frequent contributor to Men’s Fitness.

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