Eric “Top Dog” Knaus


Top Dog here, for this once delurking to set the record straight concerning the claim, which pops up from time to time, that Pekiti Tirsia fighting in the 1970’s was the same as Dog Brothers fighting today. To state matters gently, this claim is an overstatement. Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Be warned! In order to work in some names I feel deserve recognition, I may be pretty lengthy.

Most of the fighting done in PT from 1976 through ‘ 81 on the east coast was done with Tuhon Leo Gaje in Jamaica, Queens in an alley behind the building that Leo lived in at the time. Tom Bisio and I would take the subway there and train all day Saturday and then return for more of the same on Sunday. Our fights at that time were with the heavy Kendo masks which were all that we had available at the time, and what I would consider LIGHT rattan sticks.

On the surface, it sounds similar to what is being done today ….. The only thing I would like to see brought back from those “good old days” of is that we did not wear any hand protection, and in that vein for the last couple of years I have been wearing only some baseball batting gloves that Marc gave me. They offer no protection at all from stick hits, but do mostly protect my hands being grated by my opponent’s mask when the fight closes. And it should be noted that Arlan goes gloveless sometimes. I would also point out that in my opinion, given the weight of the sticks used today and the lightness of the brand of street hockey gloves worn by Marc, and some of the others, at least equals what we were doing in the 70s with regard to hand gear.

I loved the fighting part of training and Leo made a point of separating out students according to their aptitude – I was singled out by him to be a fighter. Tom was by far a better technician. He had superb body control and stick movement. He was my original instructor (as I was his original student) and to this day I still do the footwork drills and stick warm-ups that we practiced in Morningside Park so many years ago. Tom and I had a certain blood lust for the Truth in what we were doing and the drills that Leo showed him (I did not start training directly with Leo until after being with Tom for about 6 months) we in turn dissected, digested and then either adapted or modified to fit our own evolution.

Our favorite drill was knife sparring which we did with long (12″) wooden knifes with points (another thing I would like to see brought back) that could and occasionally did impale the fencing masks right through to the eye. That was a blast! These masks, however, were never a regular part of Leo’s equipment when we stick sparred. In fact, there were several times when we would have to wear full body armor (which I hated!) for “safety reasons”.

The way the fencing masks came about was that Tom had originally trained in a part of the gym of Columbia University where the fencing team had their practice sessions. Tom noticed these old beat up masks that the fencing guys used for target abuse and either asked (or didn’t ask, I never asked) if he could use them for his stick training. The original gloves were another design of Tom’s and they consisted of a gardener’s glove with a piece of surgical tubing over the index finger and thumb. Occasionally, we would bring out a pair of Kendo gloves but they had simply too much padding and made quick movements difficult. Besides, everybody in the group wanted to feel the real deal and wearing all that protection was considered a detachment from the “Source”.

There were roughly 12 of us that formed the original core group and of that, Tom was the leading man whereas I was roughly 5th or 6th in line. Billy came along about a month or two after, and while I was around was more of a student of Eddie Jafree’s than Leo’s – but that changed when Eddie went back to Indonesia and Leo took him in.

If anyone exemplified PT at that time in terms of fighting, toughness, skill and grace it was Tom – by far. And it was with Tom that I took the first steps towards what we would eventually call “Real Contact”. One of the first major show case moments for the PT group on the east coast back then was the Playboy Tournament in Great Gorge, N.Y. This is where I met the legendary (even then!) Dan Inosanto for the first time and it was the first of many matches he would referee for me over the next several years. There are some good stories to tell some day.

The protocol in the tournaments of this era was very similar to what WEKAF and other tournament-oriented styles do today – lots of body protection, no grappling and the emphasis on striking a la Fred Flintstone with not too much concern for blocking or other defense. Even though all the fighters were encouraged to show technique, everyone knew that the more you hit, the more points you would get and the better the odds to advance to the next round. I don’t remember the judges ever giving much weight to realistic defensive skills and every one knew it and the fighting showed it. Other subsequent tournaments had their nuances in terms of rules and armor but for the most part they were the same and remained so for almost all of the 80’s and into the early 90’s. Marc has shown me some footage of Alan Sacetti’s tournament and I would say that it is a definite advancement over previous tournaments.

Anyway, I knew I was born to fight and pursued the “bleeding edge” of fighting technology as much as possible with Tom – he had a remarkably open architecture to martial arts in general and a “let’s-find-out” approach to anything that seemed far fetched. Tom was lightning quick, and his body type was quite different from mine – while I am long and lanky, he was much shorter, had long orangutan arms, a long body and relatively short yet very athletic legs (to which I attribute his precise footwork) and a mind that was constantly searching and absorbing anything it came in contact with when it came to training tips, body movement, power – you name it. Its no surprise to me that his path has taken him into other arts, including healing. The healing path, I should point out, is that part of his evolution that I admire most particularly in how it retrofits to one’s fighting art and ultimately one’s life. My healing art is hand reading – it’s different from Tom’s but integrates in the same way.

The common ground was that we wanted to know what would really work under fire and what would not.. This, of course, led to a lot of experimentation and the development of drills that would isolate a certain aspect of movement. “Fighting” with Tom (not that we actually fought that much, and in fact, we never faced each other in a tournament) was not the “brutal action” that many have seen the Dog Brothers Real Contact tapes but much more of a dance, a match of high speed and precise chess movements where few pieces are exchanged. It was much more of a carenza, beautiful to watch and even more beautiful to do. Curiously, not once did any type of grappling enter the scene. We had assumed that if you wanted to stop a grappler, you would simply whack him either in the head or hand as he entered. It wasn’t until I moved to California and began to really escalate the fighting, did I find out how naive this was.

After Tom won the big tournament in the Philippines, we continued to train together regularly. Fortunately, we both attended the same college, Columbia, where he was one year ahead of me. And after his graduation, we lived less than a block apart for several months before I decided to move to California.


Upon arriving to California I first went to Dan Inosanto’s “Kali Academy”, which he had with Richard Bustillo in Torrance. I was expecting to encounter the Mecca of FMA in Southern California and hoped that I could continue exploring the fighting path that I had started in NY. Dan, of course, was The Man and all roads led to and through him. Even as JKD people were criticizing him for training in the FMA, FMA people were criticizing him for his choices with whom to train within FMA, most certainly including one Leo Gaje. But Dan, as always, just followed his own path.

I enjoyed Dan’s classes very much and liked the open architecture of his thinking just as I had liked that quality in Tom Bisio. I also found the school heavily “cliqued”, and everyone thought I was nuts when I brought up the notion of fighting full bore with just fencing masks and light gloves. There were frowns and looks of incredulity when I explained that it wasn’t that bad and after all isn’t this what we were ultimately training for? Needless to say, I did not get any takers and in fact several of the senior students would make back handed comments regarding the crudeness of PT and, ipso facto, me.

Fortunately, I found out that under my very nose at work was a guy, Rod Kuratomi, who was at that time the top weapons practitioner of his school in Japanese Karate as taught by Master Kubota (I don’t think the spelling is right but he’s the guy who for years advertised in Black Belt showing him hitting the back of his hand with a hammer and his shins with a bat for tempering purposes – now that’s nuts!). Rod’s specialties were the tonfas and the shinai and he turned out the be at a similar point in his training as I was with mine – he wanted to go forward but had no one to do it with. Now at the time, the party line within the FMA Community was that the Japanese styles were too stiff and lacked the flow that the more nimble FMA’s were known for. I remember hearing from several of my constituents, PT’ers included, that the staff, bo stick or the samurai sword was “really easy to fight. Gee, all you have to do is X block and hit the hands.” And in the case of the tonfas, all you had to do was keep them at long range and take pot shots, or so it was believed. Conversely, according to Rod, the Japanese regarded anything that was not Japanese as inferior and easy to defeat, plain and simple. But he, as I, could not find anyone within his own group who could say that they had actually sparred/fought against a “foreign” weapon outside of their tribe.

Well, we started rediscovering territory for both our groups with each evening of fights we had. We found that the tonfa’s were limited in range but could easily knock the wind out of you or break a rib, jaw or anything it hit IF it could survive bridging the gap. He used a very heavy set of tonfas (later I found out that they were of his own design and not standard issue) and consequently I used a matching stick. For the most part, the stick held serve due to it’s offensive fire power – although the reality is, you will get very few pot shots in – and some adroit footwork. As a result of fighting this weapon I REALLY began to appreciate the side stepping drills that Tuhon Leo and Tom had taught me. The shinai and short staff, however, were a different story. Let me tell you, forget X-blocking for anything other than a last ditch effort to give you just enough time to get your ass out of the way of the next furious swing. I found myself cursing everyone within PT, FMA, JKD – you name it – for their audacity to think they could espouse the virtues – and supremacy – of the stick versus all weapons without ever having done so themselves. It was a real eye opener, one I recommend for anyone who wants to know the truth about their stick and their grit.

The moral of that episode was to not take anyone else’s word for it but your own. It was clear to me that NO ONE in the various MA circles I was in – P.T. included – had come much closer than lip service (with the exception of Tom) when it came to knowing how to really deal with this type of movement and force. I have fought several other weapons since but the truth is , a long, sharp, pointed weapon in the hands of someone with good formal training is tough to beat – especially when it’s longer, sharper and more pointed than the one you’re using – no matter what magical style you, your cohorts or instructor(s) may practice. Yes, the stick(s) can do well against something like a shinai or longer weapon, but what everyone was missing was that you had to go against it to understand what the drills and the manongs who HAVE worked against it are trying to tell you.

Even more than one’s art, the willingness to put one’s self to the test is the defining moment of a martial artist who is really looking for the core reason as to why he is there in the first place. Without this willingness – curiosity if you will – there is no growth, no evolution and like any organism, one’s interest will run a short course and then abandon the mission for a less resistant path.

I used to bring Rod to the Kali Academy on the weekends and fight to illustrate the point that you can’t just take someone else’s word for it, our path is one of constant exploration. Although there were no takers in those days (1981-82) , after a few sessions I had fewer detractors and my reputation as a fighter, for good or bad, was starting to grow. On the flip side, Rod was not able to return the favor (i.e. of going to his dojo) I think because they were much more closed to outsiders than they are now – I think. Rod received the highest promotion he could get for weapons at his school and eventually enrolled in the LA Police Department (he spoke Japanese as a 2nd language and was recruited for their Asian Community liaison program) where he is to this day.

But returning to the Kali Academy, it was there one night that I met David Wink– a student of Leo’s who had done some sparring, and Paul Vunak. Typically, it was crafty Leo who had gotten me there by saying, “I’m doing late training with Danny and have someone there who wants to fight you.” Coincidentally, this involved my picking him up at the airport. While there, David Wink arrived and we caravanned down to the Kali Academy and there met Danny, who had Paul Vunak with him. As we were about the same size , Leo paired up David and I first, but as I was putting on my fencing mask Leo whispered in ear, “Go easy, its his first fight” which was not what I had understood when Leo lured me into being there. “Sure” I replied, and then began to hit David in the head.

In a moment like this, you get a deep read on what someone is made of and David was made of the right stuff. After those first three hits to the head, he caught on real fast. Neither of us were wearing gloves, and the sticks we used were closer to what is used today than what had been used on the east coast. It was later determined that I broke his thumb and my middle right knuckle is different to this day. It was a great fight. Tuhon Leo was pleased. After two or three rounds, we took a break. While I was doing a Harlem Globetrotter thing in the corner with my stick, David went over to Paul and asked him for a go. But Paul said he wasn’t feeling well and so David and I went on for several more vigorous rounds, it was the beginning of a great friendship.

David, Rod & I went through a period where we got together a lot to fight. David learned what Jack London in “The Call of the Wild” called the “law of the club and fang”. He had started by believing what he had been taught about defeating the shinai, but after getting cracked and speared by it a couple of times, changed his mind, after all. What do you do when the facts prove you wrong? I change my mind and so did he!

Leo had asked Danny to give me a key to the Kali Academy, and David and I would often go there and have at it. I would date this as the time when David and I became ostracized by east coast PT for going off the deep end. I confess that this irked me a bit. At one point, Tom Bisio came out and joined in the merriment, and was impressed with David’s level. This was around the time that Tom was beginning to explore other things, including his healing. Speaking of healing, David and I, who were fighting 3-4 times a week at this point, noticed that the more we fought, the quicker we healed. Interesting.

The logistics of the rest of David’s life brought this period to a close and I entered my “ronin” years. The core point here is that was necessary because I could not find anyone with whom to play, from either the PT crowd, or the Kali Academy. So I began to roam the southern California martial art countryside looking for like-minded people. I was in sales at the time and delved into my sales skills to encourage people into having a go at it. If I was to have any chance of success at this, fencing masks were out of the question and so I built a pair of hard helmets that could withstand a baseball bat and I tolerated heavy gloves on my playmates. Rarely did I fight a stick- rather it was a litany of various martial arts weapons; a lot of nunchuks, sai (yes, the metal ones!) tonfas, three section staffs, bokken swords, etc. Most of these sessions were well short of fighting, but were valuable in helping further my path. Many little stories here, but none relevant to the point at hand.

Through serendipitous events I met Chris Markus of the Kali Academy and Paul Vunak’s group down at UC Irvine one day and he and his training partner Bill Gaye came to play. Bill and Chris said that Paul had discouraged them from sparring with me, but they came anyway. Around their third or fourth time they brought Marc Denny along, who was also training with Paul at the time. Marc had seen the bruises on Bill legs from one of our sessions and was intrigued that he was not dead.

I sensed there was some competitiveness between Marc and Chris so I felt it my duty to throw them together in the cage, shake it up and see what would happen (I tell this story in DB1 in the section about the cavemen strike BTW). Marc, who’s skill level was behind Chris’s at the time, promptly jettisoned the fancy stuff and went with raw, deal-with-it power. This was my first memory of Marc—Caveman/redondo/repeat.

Marc and I hit it off. Oddly enough, we were both Columbia University alumnae, and he picked up some handreading from me as a vehicle to pick up girls. One evening when I was doing one of my periodic rants about nobody to play with, he suggested that I come up to the Inosanto Academy (Danny had opened his own place by this time) with him where he was training. Paula Inosanto let us stay after classes were over and have at it. This was the beginning of what came to be called the “After Midnight Group”. For whatever reason, it was unlike the Kali Academy (certainly less clique-ish, Tony DeLongiss helped me with the whip for example) in that I began to regularly find people to play with. Mark Sanden (the future Puppy Dog), Mark Lawson (future Shark Dog) Mark Balluff (future Mongrel), Tom Meadows, Carl Franks of Hawaii (our first exposure to BJJ), and sundry guests made appearances. It was during this phase that we began to return to the fencing MASKS.

The result was on Memorial Day Weekend, 1989 we fought for three days (actually Arlan, Mark Sanden and I sneaked in an extra day of fighting the day before against Marc’s direct orders not to get dinged up before the shoot!) to have fight footage for the instructional series now known as “The Dog Brothers videos”. These three days, which we call the “Rumble at Ramblas” after the park in San Clemente where they took place, were when all of us began using the lighter fencing masks except Burt, who was beginning to look for movie work and was worried about looking dinged up in advance of a big audition he had coming up so he wore a hard helmet. This is why I was willing to step on his head in our fight as seen in DB1.

Which brings us to the point of this whole meandering reminiscence. The starting point, while undeniably was with PT, had evolved far beyond where I would have gone had I stayed strictly within that discipline. What began at Rambles was the change from sparring to fighting and the birth of the pack. Fighting non-stop for three days was for all there a transformational experience.

This was just the beginning. As you will see in the second series, in the 10 years of fighting since then the fighting has grown. The volume of fights on the part of the regular players is considerable. Arlan, Marc and I one time tried to figure out how many fights it has been. Our best guess is that Marc is somewhere around 125, Arlan at least twice that, and we were unable to guess how many I’ve had.

Certainly PT is always a hot bed of fighting spirit and a fecund source for the Dog Brother tribe (myself, Sled Dog, Dog Loki, for example), but so is Inosanto Blend, and so is DBMA—and so can be any style. One can be PT or Inosanto Blend, or DBMA or any other system/style and become a Dog Brother.. And certainly we do not claim to be the first or only to have ever played at this level. Let this be clear! The art was created by men who went further than us. Of course there have been those in their backyards have truly aired it out—although the number of these is probably far less than the number of those who claim to be such.

The people within the PT group of the 1970s were explorers to point (you had to be at that time because sticks were so unknown) but more into taking pot shots at any other martial art that may have threatened or otherwise challenged their “superiority”. The mentality was much akin to a first year practicioner of any art (i.e. “my art/instructor can kick any one’s ass, therefore what I practice is the best… etc”). Had I stayed in that vein without pushing the envelope, I seriously doubt real contact – as it was rediscovered and made somewhat socially acceptable by Dog Brothers – would have happened and FMA in the US today, with the exception of a true handful (Danny speaks of Narrie Babao of San Diego for example) would mostly still be a group of loosely associated fiefdoms without a realistic sense of what they are doing and more importantly, why they are doing it.

Specifically what are some of the differences between the old east coast PT days and the DBs of today?

There is a much larger tribe committed to exploration of truth at a more consistently intense level. Even when compared to the handful who fought without gloves in the old PT days, a hand shot today hurts more because the sticks are heavier and the power level of the fighters is greater. And, by the way, Arlan sometimes fights without gloves, and I would say that my baseball batting gloves qualify as such too—their purpose is only to protect my hands from being scraped bloody when I punch someone through the fencing mask—they offer NO protection from impact. Overall, the gear is less, and the quality of the fighters, visitors included, is higher – in great part by virtue of having seen us do it.

More weapons make their appearance. In the old PT days, it was ONLY single and double stick. In DB Gatherings we have staffs, (including hardwood) nunchuks, whips, tapado, bokken (hardwood, edged and pointed) tonfas, three section staffs—all of which were seen in the first series and in the second series you will also see chains, (one of those ninja ones with a weight on the end) and sickle (!) as well. Quite a difference! Grappling is part of the fighting. When weapons are not bladed, grappling can happen and it doesn’t care whether you like it or not. And this is not just Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Marc has led the way here, not only in introducing grappling and in introducing BJJ, but in the development of a distinctive DB approach that draws upon both BJJ, the FMA and even some Bando Python.

The state of mind is different. Billy McGrath is right when he describes the old days as sparring, and wrong when he applies the term to what we do today. Even though there are “No judges, no referees, no trophies” © the fighters today seek victory. Don’t let that “Higher Consciousness through Harder Contact” © fool you—you can get unconscious too. It may not be a death match, but the UFC and the World Combat Championship did not turn us down for “sparring”—they turned us down for being “just too extreme”.

My opinion and experience is that what we did in PT in the old days was sparring. Certainly the hits by the better players sometimes were plenty hard, and certainly there were injuries, and certainly the few who played could fight and no doubt still can, but there was a level where it did not yet go. This is not to say that PT does not produce people who are capable of stepping onto the DB field and doing well, quite the contrary, Pekiti Tirsia certainly does. Tuhon Leo Gaje made me, and he has made others.

I have ignored the gossip by some that my seguidas are not done right. However, what gets my hackles up, what I will not ignore, and what has triggered this most long-winded diatribe is the mumbled claim from the back rows of PT that reaches my ears from time to time that what the Dog Brothers do is no more than what PT did in the old days. I was there and I am here. It is not true.

The Dog Brothers put it out there in plain sight in an open forum and we have been doing so for 10 years. There is no claim of invincibility. All of us lose sometimes- including myself. But we’re still at it and we let it speak for itself.

Top Dog

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