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Dog Brothers Martial Arts Stickgrappling: Kali meets Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
by Crafty Dog
When a martial art leaves its homeland it leaves the environment which created it. How to keep its essence while being responsive to its new environment can easily turn into a Sisyphean effort. In America, the Filipino Martial Arts face a different world than the one of jungle warfare in which they developed. The extraordinary level and sophistication of the training methods of the FMA came about as warriors developed practical ways of training safely with weapons as well as empty hand. Training that left one injured could mean serious injury or death in an environment where one could meet an enemy at any time without warning.
However, as the Art came to America, a different problem was presented. The people coming to the FMA in many cases lacked the “fighter’s understanding” and, although many could do the techniques, drills, and training methods, frankly they still could not fight. It was understandable—for all practical purposes most of them had never even seen a stickfight, let alone been in one. Imagine never having seen a football game and being shown some play diagrams on a chalk board and being told “If you’re ever in a game, this is what you do.” That first game is going to be a real eye-opener.
In contrast, in many parts of the Philippines of years ago stickfights would take place every Friday night after the cockfights. Even those who never had actually fought had at least the understanding that comes from seeing others apply the training in real time. But the student of the FMA outside of the Philippines did not have this, all he had was the stories of “death matches” of legendary stickfighters such as Floro Villabraille as recounted in Dan Inosanto’s seminal book “The Filipino Martial Arts” —not the sort of thing to encourage one to go out and put it to the test! Certainly there were random individuals who tested their skills in backyard contexts, but on the whole as the extraordinarily combative and effective arts of the Philippines left their homeland and took root in the USA they were in danger of being taken up principally by those who skills mostly consisted of stick twirling and disarms.
Around 1986 into this void came a self-described band of “sweaty, smelly psychopaths with sticks” that would later become known as “the Dog Brothers”. At the core of the group were Eric Knaus, Marc Denny and Arlan Sanford; soon to become known as Top Dog, Crafty Dog and Salty Dog respectively. Knaus, as his future sobriquet suggests, was the group’s best fighter. Sanford, hailing from Santa Fe, New Mexico first met Denny and Knaus at a tournament in 1988 where he fought Knaus during Knaus’s winning the national tournament title for the third time. For Knaus and Denny, tournaments were merely a way of trolling for people looking to take things further and in Sanford they found an eager and lively player. “He knocked my thumbnail off the first time we fought” relates Denny.
The saga of the group’s development however is a story for another day. What matters here is that as they fought all out with extremely minimal gear. As Sanford says, “I justed wanted to see if what I was being taught worked or if I was just wasting my time.” The group grew and its fighting evolved. In 1988, well before the BJJ revolution, at Denny’s suggestion grappling was allowed. “We regard what we do as a fight that starts with sticks, not a stickfight.” he explains, “It would have been artificial to rule grappling out when our experience was that it happens. There’s no way around it, it just does. However, for the next couple of years, except for Eric’s discovery of the fang choke, we didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing. Carl Franks, a student of Relson Gracie of Hawaii had fought with us in 1987 and 1989 at the Inosanto Academy, and I had seen what was then underground Gracie footage. So when Chris Hauter introduced me to the Machados (nephews of Carlos Gracie) in the summer of 1990, I was ready to act. As the oldest and the smallest of the three of us at the core of the pack, it seemed to me to be a good idea.”
Without telling the others, Denny, by then known as the “Crafty Dog”, went off and began training with the Machados. In this pre-BJJ era, the results were electrifying. Knaus, the “Top Dog” was impressed and began with the Machados too. (Crafty’s teacher, the legendary Dan Inosanto, began training with the Machados a couple of years later too at Crafty’s insistence and now trains with them 5 days a week.) Sanford, the “Salty Dog”, was bummed. There was no BJJ in Santa Fe New Mexico in 1990. So with the goal of surfing over the grappling wave coming at him he built on his base as an instructor in Muay Thai under Ajarn Chai Sirisuite by going into Krabi Krabong, the military weaponry art from which the sport of Muay Thai is derived. This too was to become an import thread in the group’s fighting. It should be noted that there is “common thread” between the arts, perhaps due to the time when the Southern Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and southeast Asia were once both part of the Majapahit Empire.
The release of the group’s videos with Panther Productions in 1992-93, done with a philosphy of “If you see it taught, you see it fought.” was quite an eye-opener for most people. Some questioned the fencing masks and the street hockey gloves. For most viewers however, massive hematomas, knockouts, broken bones and splurting blood made these questions seem like quibbles.
But one of the most controversial parts of the series was the fifth tape wherein fights going to grappling and being concluded there were shown. Within the Filipino Martial Art community some regarded the presence of grappling as proof that the fencing masks and street hockey gloves prevented the “real art” from coming out. The broken bones and the knockouts were not enough. It seemed as if only a “death match” would please them.
But from the Crafty Dog’s perspective these complaints were wide of the mark in some ways. “What do they want? In its heyday the UFC approached us about fighting in a special weapons event to go between the semi-finals the finals. But after they saw what we do they turned us down in writing for being “just too extreme”! We’re about life, not death. The point is to grow in the art, not to kill and maim people. Of course in some cases grappling comes about by virtue of the gear and the intermediate skills of some of the fighters! We know that! But a man skilled in the art of closing can do it with suprising consistency against most opponents without getting hit at all. If you understand the ranges outside of largo and have worked the skills of closing, it can be done quite technically.
“I think part of the resistance on the part of some FMA people on this point is not dissimilar to what the BJJ revolution ran into where many people had an emotional attachment to standup striking and said they “just wouldn’t let the grapple happen” no matter how much the facts showed otherwise. Yes of course this is different because of the weapon. But the facts show that grappling happens some of the time. Yes there are people against whom you can’t close—Salty Dog comes to mind. But unless you have the experience of going up a good closer, you are most probably not one of them. And likewise if you haven’t devloped the skill of closing against sticks you may well get dropped.”
Another criticism sometimes aimed at the Dog Brothers is that all this “rolling around on the ground” as one disgruntled letter writer to one of the magazines put it, was not “real” FMA. For the Crafty Dog, the answer has two parts, “First, so what? Our interest is truth! Secondly, the FMA do have grappling, usually known as “dumog” and sometimes as “buno”. We continue to search it out, but unfortunately very little of it has made it to the USA. When I trained with Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje (the teacher of Top Dog and Sled Dog) in the Philippines this past summer I had my first exposure to it. But the real question is what are we to do? Ignore BJJ because it is not Filipino? Where would the Brazilians be today if Carlos and Helio Gracie had that attitude 70 years ago about Japanese Jiu Jitsu not being Brazilian? FMA people in Manila are taking BJJ now; why shouldn’t we? If someone discovers the wheel am I going to stay with my sled, or am I going to take that wheel, make it my own, and discover ball bearings for it? This is what the FMA have always done and it is an important reason why they are so good. The FMA have always been open to “foreign” influences. For example the espada y daga (sword and dagger) strand of the art was heavily influenced by the Spaniards. So while I recognize the validity of the question “Is-it-still-real-FMA-if-you-bring-in-BJJ?” I feel that it is if you do so in a way that builds upon the core understandings of the art. If you don’t, well, then the purists are right.”
Since the first video series ( a second is in the works) the fighting has continued to evolve with the Crafty Dog in the forefront of the Dog Brother stickgrappling evolution. In his opinion, stickgrappling is an advanced skill. As pre-requisites you need good closing skills, as well as good media range and corto skills from the FMA, preferably ambidextrous, and at least blue belt skills or equivalent in grappling. (Crafty, a two-time senior division Blue Belt Pan American gold mealist, is a purple with the Machado Brothers, as is Top Dog) “Its like pinball when the machine releases three balls at once. You have to diffuse your awareness because if you focus too much on one ball, the others will go down the tube. In stickgrappling you use the kali to make your opponent make a jiu jitsu mistake that you finalize with stickgrappling. Or conversely, you use jiu jitsu to make him make a kali mistake. Its very exciting and a good game for an older fighter like me (he’s 47! editor) to have in his bag of tricks.”
Lets take a look at some sequences from the curriculum of Dog Brothers Martial Arts, of which Crafty is the Head Instructor:
Example of closing technique:
example of standing grapple:
example of stickgrappling from within guard:
example of stickgrappling from guard:
Fotos of these techniques in action: