The Laboratory For Stickfighters
written by Burton Richardson
The Dog Brothers have taken theoretical stickfighting and thrown it right into the laboratory using themselves as the guinea pigs.
Science is a fine discipline. The quest for truth guides the scientist to look for new ideas that can tackle old problems. Years of schooling in the basics give the researcher the necessary knowledge to delve deep into his subject and produce new theories. Many martial artists take this same approach toward their respective arts. We train in the basics and eventually reach a level where new combinations, attacks, or defenses are discovered. In the realm of stickfighting, this has been happening for hundreds of years.
There are so many variables that come into play in stickfighting that the possibilities are endless. The stick can move at great speed while maintaining the ability to change direction in a milliseco
nd. The force generated is considerable-definitely in the bone-breaking category. Besides wielding the weapon, the combatant’s fists, elbows, knees and feet still work effectively against an unprotected target. Combining these elements leads to a vast array of techniques that range from the very simple to the extremely complex.
Through practice and play, stickfighters have discovered so many ways of defending against an opponent that it would literally take many lifetimes to get through most of the possibilities. These techniques have been developed just as the scientist develops a possible solution to an aeronautical problem. Unfortunately, there is one major difference that separates the scientist from most martial artists. The researcher must take each theory into the lab and test it to determine its validity. Most stickfighters or martial artists in general don’t try out their new ideas under combat conditions before passing them on to students. The theory is often just presented as fact. This is not a scientific approach.
Frantic first flight
Imagine that you were boarding a brand new jet that is sitting on a runway under stormy skies. You click on your brand new seat belt and ready yourself for the safety announcement. The captain’s voice comes on the intercom, and he tells you of the great features of this new plane: “Every new innovation to save fuel is on this airship. Lighter material for the wings, a new wing and body shape to minimize drag and maximize lift, along with a new type of landing gear which uses less wheels. The engines are a radical new design, and the fuel is a different mixture. Oh, and by the way, this will be the first time this type of plane has ever actually flown.” Does your heart go up in your throat? Is it fear that is making you start to sweat? The thought of going into a life-threatening situation without any prior testing is a little unnerving, but this is exactly what occurs in most martial arts. The willingness to test is what makes the merry band of happy-go-lucky martial artists known as “The Dog Brothers” unique. They have taken theoretical stickfighting and thrown it right into the laboratory using themselves as guinea pigs.
Dog Brother stickfighting rules are simple. Each person gets to check the other combatant’s weapon to make sure that it is all right for the experiment at hand. The sticks are usually made of rattan and are about three-fourths to five-fourths of an inch in diameter and 28- to-32 inches in length. A formidable weapon to be sure. Other weapons are sometimes used such as a hardwood octagonal nunchuku, three-scetion staff, chain, tonfas, staff, sickle, or bokken. The fighters then don fencing masks and light protective gloves. An occasional elbow or kneepad is allowed as well.
The only real “rules” are covered in a short speech by Marc Denny prior to the fighting. He says, “We’re a corporation, so you can’t sue us personally. Besides, there is no sing for nothing, no how, no way. There are no judges, no referees, and no trophies. Protect yourself at all times and be sure that you end the match as friends.” This last “rule” implies that no shots meant to permanently injure a vulnerable opponent will be delivered. For example, if a fighter gets behind another, no strikes to the exposed base of the skull will be delivered.
Other than that, it’s an all-out free for all. Full power strikes to any part of the body are allowed. Those strikes can be with the stick, fist, elbow, knee, or foot. Sweeps, trips, throws, trapping, and grappling are all allowed as well. This is a rough environment that closely simulates street conditions. The experience is invaluable in understanding real stickfighting. Guess what happens when a person who is trained with the stick gets into the lab for the first time? Well, usually it results in that person going home and working on the basics harder than ever. They have jumped into the fire and experience just how hot it really is. No amount of description can explain what it is like to stickfight at this level. People watching for the first time are amazed to see men taking full-power shots to the legs, arms, and ribs with seemingly little effect. Why the amazement? Because theories that are taken as fact are often disproved in the Dog Brothers’ laboratory.
There are many misconceptions in the world of stickfighting that have been waylaid by Eric Knauss, Marc Denny, Arlan Sanford, and other first-tier fighters in the group. The first assumption put to rest is that the stick has some kind of magical power, and that anyone being touched on the body with a stick will be instantly incapacitated. You will find this to be a fallacy about 20 seconds into your first match. The human body, especially an athletically trained body, can withstand a tremendous amount of punishment.
For example, some stickfighting techniques rely on a slash to the ribs to disable an opponent. As this technique is handed down, it can be assumed that good whack to the midsection will drop an opponent. While this may have been true with a bladed weapon, in the stickfighting lab we have seen different results. Strong rib shots are fairly common occurrences that rarely end a fight. Fighters will often take the blow while delivering a counter of their own. The same is observed with strikes to the arms, thighs, knees, shins, and back. Blows that would theoretically end a fight prove to merely leave welts and some pain. Nobody wants to take a hit and you will definitely feel the wrath of that rattan. Still, the fact is that when adrenaline is flowing, it takes an exceptional blow with superb placement to stop a determined opponent.
Another point that is made very clear in the lab concerns the checking hand. If you hold your stick in the right hand, your left is referred to as the checking hand. For those who have never stepped into the lab, take it from me that the checking hand is very difficult to use when the stick is moving at full speed and power. It isn’t impossible, but it is very difficult. The opponent’s hand is simply moving too fast apply a proper check. Your best bet is to use it in conjunction with a roof block (holding the stick horizontally over your head for protection) while rushing the opponent’s forehand slash. There is a good chance that your left forearm will make contact with his right, thus enabling you to secure a hold on his arm. When blocking with your stick in a vertical position, obstructing the opponent’s hand is quite difficult. Here you must learn how to block full-power blows without the aid of the checking hand. If you assume that you will get your checking hand on his stick hand to lessen the blow, you will probably be in for a rough fight. It is important to realize that the checking hand comes into play most effectively when the opponent’s stick has been slowed considerably. Your opponent’s hand will then move slowly enough to allow you to control it. This can occur because of fatigue, the disabling of an opponent, or when the fight goes to ground. This brings up another discovery that has become important in the Dog Brother matches.
The grappling connection
Grappling does occur in stickfights. Inexperienced stickfighters often assume that the fight will never make it to the ground because it will be finished before the opponent can close the distance. In the lab we found another story. Although the entries are different from the unarmed variety, grappling does happen. Let me emphasize that we know wearing fencing masks along with light-hand protection does make a difference. It is not the same as going without the gear. However, videotapes of the fights show that in most cases, grappling occurred before the opponent could deliver a blow to the head or hands. This leads us to believe that in a real situation, even against a skilled opponent, you can get to the grappling range without taking severe abuse. If both fighters choose to clash, then it is almost a certainty that the fight will end in the grappling range. This revelation has led to a beautiful blending of the Filipino stickfight arts with the Machado brand of Brazilian jiu jitsu.
The Dog Brothers have greatly benefited from the tutelage of the Machado Brothers. The first to find the Machados was Marc Denny, co-founder of the Dog Brothers, and Head Teacher/Founder of Dog Brothers Martial Arts. Denny was amazed to find that, after only a few months of training with the Machados, he could rather easily subdue the stickfighters who weren’t versed on the ground. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu progression of techniques is so practical that a little training can go a long way against someone who doesn’t understand grappling. It should be noted that the Machados have gone out their way to help our group with their fantastic skills and teaching ability. Their influence has changed the scope of real contact stickfighting for years to come. We now know that grappling does occur in stickfights, and that the Brazilian jiu jitsu works like a charm when you hit the ground, especially when you know how to use the stick while in grappling range.
Other innovations have included entering techniques, footwork concepts, and deceptive striking methods. These have developed out of necessity as the real contact stickfighting evolved to higher levels. Another unexpected development is the sense of camaraderie that permeates the group. Everyone respects each other for his fighting spirit and his willingness to put his skills on the line. There is also the feeling of humility and openness that goes hand in hand with the constant search for the truth.
If we thought we knew everything, there would be no reason to continue the research. Every fight brings new insights and often greater humility. Nobody can hide behind his ego, pretending to be the best thing that ever happened to the martial arts. We actually get out there and fight. Sometimes we get hit and sometimes we hit our opponent. Nobody is invincible and nobody pretends to be so. Even the Dog Brother stickfighting itself is not looked upon as the ultimate test; we see it as a realistic training method to help us better understand the dynamics of a real fight. A real fight has no protective equipment, is not necessarily one-on-one, and may use bladed weapons or extremely heavy impact weapons. Our goal is to prepare ourselves to the best of our ability for just such an occurrence while gleaning a greater understanding of ourselves in the process. The motto of the Dog Brothers is “Higher consciousness through harder contact.” It is not just about seeing how hard you can hit someone with a stick. Psychological battles are waged internally when contemplating whether or not to fight under these extreme conditions. Overcoming the fear of stepping into the Dog Brothers arena is one of the greatest benefits of all. If you are looking for the truth and you want to learn more about yourself, then the Dog Brothers may have just the method you are seeking. Stickfighting under the Dog Brother rules is a great way to train if you want to know how you and your theories stand up when they clash with reality. -Burton Richardson