Burton’s evolution reads like a recent history of martial arts in the west. Starting at the Kali Academy with Guro Inosanto in the late 70s, Burton was exposed to many of the greatest Chinese, Japanese and South East Asian fighters of the era.
Early on, he was part of the group that started practising full contact stick fighting and that went on to become the hugely influential Dog Brothers organisation. It was experience fighting in Escrima challenge matches that first made Burton aware of the immense gap between being skilled in forms and drills and competence in actual fighting.
This awareness made Burton take up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the 90s. He has trained with many of the biggest names in BJJ, from Carlson Gracie to Marcelo Garcia. He is now a third degree black belt under Egan Inoue. He is also an nstructor in Thai Boxing
Burton’s knowledge and experience has been widely recognised. A Black Belt Magazine hall of famer, he has coached MMA the highest level (including UFC fighters Nate Quarry and Chris Leben). He currently lives in Hawaii and teaches seminars all over the world
What does MMA have to offer the traditional martial artist?
It’s all about honesty. That’s the first thing. You must be honest with your martial arts, honest with yourself, because if you’re not honest with yourself you’ll never find your faults or take care of those faults and make them into strengths. So many traditional martial artists will not step into the realm of MMA or even Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and that’s one thing.
I recently wrote a book on Silat for Black Belt magazine, Silat for the Street, and my whole point is if you’re a Silat person and you want to be a functional martial artist, especially those that do a lot of work on the ground as a lot of Silat systems do, just walk into a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school and try your stuff out. In five minutes of rolling with a blue belt and you’re going to find out a lot of things you’re doing just do not work, and other techniques that may be functional maybe you haven’t developed the skills to use them, because you’ve never gone against someone who’s resisting you.
Isaac Newton came up with two types of reasoning: inductive and deductive. Deductive reasoning is when we say ‘if a is true and b is true and c is true, then d must be true.’ Inductive reasoning is when we test and observe and see what actually happens and make our theory from that. In martial arts we are often remiss to actually try things out. We practice our martial arts, but we are not allowed morally and ethically to actually apply them because we’re going to hurt somebody.
Well imagine if someone playing soccer said I’m never going to actually play a game, I’m just going to do drills, I’ll never have anyone defending the goal, so you are able to do whatever you want. But when you actually get into a game where someone’s trying to take the ball away, it’s a whole different thing.
If someone says ‘Ah, but in Silat we would bite or break or gouge’, I’d say maybe you’re right, how about we try it out? And then of course the response would be ‘I can’t, you don’t want me to actually elbow you in the face?’ I say, I’ll put a helmet on and we’ll see, we’ll give it a try. I was a scientist before I was a martial artist and the scientific method is to have a hypothesis, you go in and design a valid test and then you look at the results. You make sure the test is not biased toward you.
The first thing about a scientist is honesty, the first thing you should say is ‘I don’t know, let’s do a test and see what the test says.’ You shouldn’t start from what you think or hope. When you have the result of the testing, you can make adjustments.
I would tell people in traditional martial arts to try their takedowns against that MMA guy. He’s happy for you to try anything you want to do. Just give it a try. Unfortunately I believe what happens is part ego, but also partly defending the art’s reputation, because somewhere inside there’s a voice that says ‘You know what, this may not go well, so I’m not going to step in there and find out.’ That’s always a shame.
How did you get exposed to MMA and what effect did it have on your training?
Shortly after the UFC started I happened to do a seminar in Hawaii. Egan Inoue was among the people who attended the camp. He was already a very good grappler and to make a long story short, we started training together.
You have to appreciate Egan’s one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever been around. Not only is he an MMA and BJJ pioneer, he was a world champion in racket ball, in the Guinness book of records for the world’s fastest serve. When he went to the University of Hawaii the swim coach offered him a scholarship because his swimming was so phenomenal. Then he switched to martial arts and became a world champion.
When I met him, I was one of the original Dog Brothers. When it started it was just some guys who got together after class at the Inosanto academy. Eric Knauss started it. Eric’s thing was finding out what actually happens in stick fighting when you actually try to hit each other as hard as you can with very little protective equipment.
We had some very good athletes in Dog Brothers stick fighting, but they didn’t have a wrestling background. There were two basic moves I was pulling off in Dog Brothers stick fighting tournaments: the head tilt and the foot sweep. I’d grab the head, tilting it backwards and pushing down. In fact, I was doing it so often they came up to me and said “Can you stop doing that head tilt because we’re afraid someone’s going to get injured?”
The foot sweeps were working very well too, I’d be able to time it, do the sweep and down they’d go, and sometimes I’d pull off another sweep where you do a twist to the side with your arm out against a front kick. I pulled that off one day against one of the best Dog Brothers guys.
I also had a challenge match in the Philippines and they thrust the stick fight onto me. It turned out he was the current world champion but I was able to take him down with a Silat takedown. I had a lot of success with Silat against Esrima and Kali. Most of what I was using was from Bukti Negara, from Paul de Thouars. The head tilt and the foot sweep was Bukti Negara, but the side step and catch the kick that was Maphilindo, from Herman Suwanda.
Meanwhile I was teaching Egan kickboxing, some Silat and other things, and he’d teach me grappling. But when we’d actually try the stuff out, I wasn’t able to apply my Silat against him, despite the fact that I had the reputation of being able to use Silat in Dog Brothers stick fighting, in tournaments, in sparring. I had been able to use Silat moves pretty effectively, but all of a sudden they weren’t working anymore because Egan had a different base, different balance.
When I tried Silat against Egan, I’d push on his head and it wouldn’t move. His neck was too strong. Stick fighting is kind of upright and a lot of time kick boxers are upright, but Egan was more crouched over. I couldn’t get his spine vertical and head tilted back past the spine to get everything to bind up. The foot sweep wasn’t working at all because he was too rooted. I just couldn’t get his balance off, it wasn’t happening. Then he was using wrestling and taking me down.
Egan’s wrestling and MMA base led you to reassess things?
The truth is, it was such a hard thing for my ego. I was this well known guy. A lot of people said very good things about me. I was living in LA and would teach maybe 40 seminars a year, about three weekends a month I was going out teaching. But then I found out a lot of the stuff I was teaching just didn’t work. At that time I taught all the things that seemed logical. I didn’t restrict what I taught to what I knew worked in sparring. So that was tough, because I felt as an instructor I was letting my students down, because I was showing them things that potentially could get them hurt if they got into an actual situation.
As soon as it became clear to me what was happening, I told all the people I did seminars for I wasn’t going to be teaching what I’d been teaching. I told them ‘I’m only going to teach you guys how to fight and that’s it’. My seminars went down to about six a year, but I had to do that because I could not just go entertain people.
I put Silat aside and went deep into MMA because my primary thing is everything has to work. If you honestly say, I’m just doing this for the cultural aspect, or for the health benefits, that’s OK, but people do martial arts because of the self defence component. I just decided to push Silat and these other things aside because they weren’t working.
What brought you back to Silat?
Years later, 12 years later, I was a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and quite proficient in MMA and coaching in the UFC and I was sparring one day in the clinch with a friend of mine who is good in the clinch and a Silat move popped up. And I was very surprised, like ‘Huh!’ We kept going and the next time we were sparring a different Silat move came up.
What had happened was I had just realised I’d got so deep into the sport I had forsaken a lot of the street techniques. So I told my students and my friends we’re adding back in the groin kicks and the throat grabs and simulated eye gouges and so we did that in sparring and all of a sudden it opened other things up.
I realised eventually that the set ups in MMA or even Judo, you have to get in there and push and pull and do things to get the person to an off balance position where you can then apply say a takedown. But if the person is bigger and stronger than you that doesn’t work too well, which is why there are weight classes. Once you start adding the grabbing to the throat, you can get them up on their toes regardless of how heavy they are, once they’re up on their toes you can move them into position. If you hit someone in the groin and they bend over, now you have options. But you wouldn’t have been able to break their posture just by pulling because they’re going to have such great base.
I realised that with Silat or Kali or any traditional art, we do need those street tactics in there to set things up. But you can still spar them. You can grab someone in the throat without hurting them, you can hit them in the groin if they’re wearing protection, but still get a reaction. Basically I take MMA training methods and techniques, but I blend it with Silat, Kali, JKD technique, from wherever.
If you blend MMA, Greco and Muay Thai clinch work with Silat clinch tactics, you create a very different dynamic. The Silat by itself is very good, the MMA clinch is very good, but if you put them together, you can really affect someone bigger and stronger.
Sometimes those Silat tactics can surprise people who are more skilful in the clinch than you and put them off balance. I was sparring with a Judo black belt in Germany and the guy outweighed me maybe 40 pounds. He was really strong and good at Judo, but I was able to take him down with a Silat move. I grabbed his throat, lifted him up, tapped his lower back and down he went.
And you believe the kind of ‘dirty tactics’ found in traditional arts like Silat have a place in countering MMA?
I do a lot of work with law enforcement and about five years ago they told me things on the street had changed. It used to be if they were about to arrest someone and the guy got combative, he would either run or he might throw some boxing punches and then run. But now they’re shooting for double legs, they’re trying to grapple, they’re doing MMA basically.
Years ago, some of my friends in LA SWAT team had a tip on a drug house. They went in, but someone had been tipped off so there was no one there. When they entered it was surreal. They went into the living room and there was nothing there, not a piece of furniture except mats and a poster of Royce Gracie on the wall. These drug guys had mats in the living room and were training MMA.
It’s definitely true in Hawaii that MMA has influenced street fighting. You just have to google ‘Hawaii street fights’ to see street fights that are MMA matches.
Hawaii has a very strong fighting culture but with clear rules and etiquette. For example, if you sneak up on somebody and sucker punch him when he’s not looking it’s fine. They’re like, ‘Oh, good job. You wanted to knock him out, you knocked him out, good job’. But what’s interesting is that they have what they call ‘up and up’. In a street fight, you’ll hear the people watching the fight saying ‘Come on, up and up, up and up.’ That means those guys are fighting, nobody’s gouging the eyes, usually there are no headbuts and no groin attacks, it’s just MMA. They go to the ground and roll around on the ground and there might be punching on the ground, but they’re really using MMA rules. If someone did a groin kick, everyone’s going to pounce on that guy and beat him up because they have imposed an etiquette.
I’m not suggesting though that eye gouges should not be taken into account. I have a programme called BJJ for the Street, developed over many years. One thing that became very clear was if someone jumps you in the street, you don’t want to take the guy to the ground and grapple with him because his friends may be coming in. You just want to escape.
That’s why the first thing on my programme is I teach escaping from every position, even the mount. You can be on top in a great mount position but we practice escaping there because if the guy grabs you and holds on and his friends come you’re going to get kicked in the head. That is just one situation, what I call ‘dangerous to grapple’. In the ‘dangerous to grapple’ situation, you thumb the eyes, the groin and we make sure our partners are doing that to us to, so we take account of that. We also have the weapon rule, that at any time you can reach in as if you’re pulling a knife or a gun and we are always looking for that so we recognise the draw. We don’t wait for the weapon to come out, we recognise the arm so we can secure it before it comes out.
Then we have the ‘safe to grapple’ situation. This is if your own home or office, there’s just you and a burglar or intruder. You may not want to stand and trade punches with someone who’s bigger and stronger than you, so you can take them down and control them on the ground and choke them unconscious. In the home or office you can also eye gouge, you can hit them in the throat, hit them in the groin.
Then there’s the ‘safe to grapple’ in the street where you’re surrounded by a group of people and they impose etiquette on you. Now if you kick the guy in the groin, everyone mobs you because you’re a dirty fighter. That’s why we can’t rely on eye gouges and groin shots, not to mention the fact that some people aren’t going to feel them because they’re on drugs. But also because there are times when you cannot use them.
The fundamental thing is situational awareness. If you have situational awareness, you can avoid the situation in the first place. Or if something comes up, hopefully you can dissuade the person or talk them down to avoid it. But then if it happens you need to know the environment you’re in. ‘Am I in an environment where I can grapple? Great, let’s use my grappling to control this bigger, stronger guy who hits really hard.’
What do you say to people who argue that BJJ is vulnerable to ‘dirty tactics’ like gouging and groin shots?
You have to feel Brazilian Jiu Jitsu yourself. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’d just punch him in the groin’, but when someone who knows how to use the guard grabs you, breaks your posture, sweeps you, gets on top, or they triangle or arm bar you so fast you can’t even recognise that it’s coming, that’s a whole other thing.
That’s why I encourage people to just go try it out. Find some nice guys that like to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and say ‘Hey let’s move around and I’ll try to get you hit you in the groin lightly and you try to do your thing and let’s see what happens’.
I’ve had students who doubted the practicality of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in reality. I said let’s just try. So I arm barred them or went to their back and choked them. It’s a whole different thing when someone who knows what they’re doing is pushing and pulling you. Do it over and over again if it doesn’t go well the first time.
But this is what we have to get over, the attachment to being the expert. People often go into martial arts with low self esteem and martial arts can be a way to build that up, to make us feel better about ourselves. So I build my self esteem up through this particular art and I associate my worth as a human being with being an expert in the art. Then somebody shows me I don’t really know how to use the art, or there are portions of the art I’ve been emphasizing that are not functional and don’t actually work. Well now not only have I found out that I have some work to do, my whole self esteem is crushed again, so I’m back to zero.
If we rely on our martial arts for our self esteem, now that we’ve worked hard and become good at something, then when someone shows us a truth, often people will just ignore the truth, and chose to keep with that false sense of self esteem, because it’s too hard to go back to zero.
What was fortunate for me was, my yearning for the truth was stronger than my need to uphold my reputation. I’d much rather say ‘You know, I was wrong about all these things, I just have to go after this.’ If I’d not taken this path and started again with these different combat sports, I’d be living a lie every single day.
We talk about humility all the time in martial arts, but if you’re not going to try this stuff out, I would say you’re actually not humble. When you train with resistance, when you’re competing with your classmates and friends consistently, you find out you don’t win all the time, you do not succeed all the time and it forces humility.
If you live in the real world, then you should be humble, because we don’t have control over everything, things don’t go the way we want all the time. Then once you’re humbled it’s easier to accept other points of view, to take input from others because you don’t have a position to defend anymore.
One of my students just last night was saying he’s been fighting for 20 years. He started doing Escrima, he’s been doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with me for four years. He was saying how people talk about this and that technique in martial arts, but when they talk about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu they say it changed their life. I believe it’s because of the struggle. When you go in you have to struggle. Every single time you go and train, you struggle. You make mistakes or someone imposes something on you that you didn’t want them to, but they just imposed it. And you couldn’t do anything about it, they were just better. It forces you to realise you don’t know everything, you’re not perfect and even when it looks like you’re doing well and it looks easy from the outside, it’s a struggle still. So actually going in with that struggle is so important for character development.
“Higher consciousness through harder contact,” as the Dog Brothers say. And yet that idea has died out a bit, even in some JKD schools…
Let’s think back to the 1964 international karate tournament when Bruce Lee was first thrust on the world stage. Bruce did a demonstration. Imagine, this is your big chance: you’re going to demonstrate in front of the best martial artists in the world and you may be able to make a name for yourself. So what are you going to demonstrate? You’re going to show your moves, some high kicking, some flash stuff. But Bruce did his one inch punch and some one finger push ups and whatever, but he also put on the gear and sparred. Why did he need to spar? He wanted to show how important it was to apply it in real time was.
After Bruce passed away, the sparring remained, but after a while the sparring kind of just fell off to the point where there wasn’t much sparring in any of the JKD. Almost all JKD schools went towards techniques which is the natural thing to do because that’s what most people are interested in.
I first went to the Kali Jun Fan Academy in 1979, but started class in 1980. At that point there were about 40 people in the class when it started. We went a couple of months, always 30 some people in the class. Then they said, ‘Ok, you’ve got to buy boxing gloves and a mouthpiece and we’re going to spar’. All 35 people showed up, did the sparring. The next class there were six people. Thirty five down to six after just one night of sparring.
Of course, with sparring, it’s better to bring students along slowly and introduce them to sparring over time. I do it in the very first class, but we go light with the open hand. You don’t do people any good if you make them quit. No matter what art or aspect of JKD I’m teaching, I make sure we spar in every class. If it’s a private lesson I spar with them so they experience the resistance and learn how to apply their techniques against someone who’s resisting them.
Originally JKD was a very viable martial art where you experienced fighting through sparring but that portion went away and it became like most traditional martial arts. It became focused on techniques and drills rather than application against a resisting opponent. When you’re not testing your stuff that’s when you start going off on tangents.
It’s like in Silat. If you’re familiar with fighting, when you see some Silat moves and you just say ‘Wow, not only is it unbelievably unlikely that someone could pull that off, but you’re putting yourself in a terrible position when you do it.’ For example, there’s a move where you start off standing, but then you tumble around through his legs and end up with him standing over you and then you do a takedown. It just makes no sense at all from a fighting perspective. That’s what happens when you move away from live sparring.
Guro Inosanto often told us how important sparring was and he would emphasise that to us. It’s my responsibility that I didn’t listen to that advice, because when I practiced outside of class, I never sparred. All my practice at that time was doing drills and techniques and the fancier, the better. So Dan gave me all the information but I did not follow his advice as I should have.
The human being’s proclivity is always to go towards the cool looking stuff. After I changed I had a small school in Hermosa Beach California. After eight months or so, I thought I’d show my students a little bit of trapping, so if they ran into a JKD person they’d know what it was about. I showed a very simple trap and hit: they block that, you grab the hand and you hit again, a very simple move. Pak sao, lap sao. And then I got them sparring and said, ‘Try it’, but of course, nobody could do it in sparring because it takes a very high level of fighting skill. That took about 10 minutes of the class and then we continued with other things. After class was over, I went into the office to do whatever. I came back out and everybody is still there after class. And guess what they’re all practising? They’re all trapping. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. Something we did for a few minutes, and something I showed was very difficult to apply. And all they wanted to do after class was that. I was like, ‘OK, I can’t be showing them these things’. So now I don’t show them stuff like that until they’ve sparred at a very high level, because once you do spar at a very high level you can pull things off.
I hosted Sifu Richard Bustillo, Bruce Lee’s student and Guro Dan Inosanto’s partner, over here for a seminar in Hawaii. He’s a boxer, that’s his main root art besides JKD. I told him how I’d been able to pull off pak sao and lop sao against a boxer in sparring. He gives me a sideways look, and says, ‘Well yeah, you already know how to fight’. Once you really know how to fight, then you can find when to apply those things. But they’re so cool looking people tend to take those as their primary strategy, when they shouldn’t be primary.
They become trapped in drills….
To sell their art people feel they need to find something that is distinctive about their art that nobody else does. ‘Nobody does this, so this makes us the best.’ For example in Kali, all the limb destructions, hitting the bicep and elbow, back hand to the bicep…other people don’t do that. Well the reason they don’t is because it’s very difficult to do and sometimes put you in a bad position. But it’s distinctive and flashy, so they carry on doing it.
In Wing Chun, which I’ve done a lot of, the one little problem from my perspective is there’s an artificial distance. You stay at an artificial distance, because if you close the gap or back up, there’s no more chi sao.
Years ago I was assisting Guro Dan, Pendekar Paul De Thouars and Master Chai Sirisute at the Smokey Mountain Camp. There were some Wing Chun people there. One of the Wing Chun guys was talking about how my chi sao was no good. I went and talked to him about what he’d said. Anyway, I said ‘How about we do some freeflow chi sao?’ So, we touched hands, I dropped down and double legged him. I said ‘We were going to do freeflow right?’ It was a silly thing, but the point being you can become so stuck in a drill because that’s the distinctive thing in your style that it ends up limiting and hurting you.
Did traditional arts spar?
Actually, I believe all traditional martial arts sparred. Traditional arts were all about preparing for battle so they all practised sparring. To me the real traditional approach is to have sparring as an integral part of it.
If you look at Filipino martial arts, those guys sparred all the time, but it hurt. They were using rattan sticks for sparring instead of the sword, banging each other on the knuckles, whacking each other on the ribs and the whole thing. That was the traditional way.
But when the war was over you didn’t need to be so hardcore. The people that still offered the old, more hardcore way only had a couple of students and the lighter version got more students. So over time it just propagates that way. You have one guy with 100 students who develops 10 instructors. You have another guy with two students and neither of them want to teach. Well, in one generation, that system is gone and that method is gone and we have what we now call traditional which eschews sparring.
How do you mix traditional arts into sport sparring?
In a lot of traditional martial arts, the premise is that the initial attack is a really committed, deep attack from an angry person coming in as hard as they can at you. That makes it easy to enter and counter. Whereas someone who’s more measured, a kick boxer or an MMA person, might stay on the outside and avoid those entries. Therefore you need kickboxing tactics to deal with a kickboxer like that.
So for sparring we’ll do some outfighting, but then use a lot of Silat in the clinch. Last night for example in my class we were working in the clinch, but the emphasis of the drill was about trying to grab each other’s throats. I can try to get a body lock, I can try to get in position for an underhook or whatever, but the emphasis is to grab the throat. We were working our defence against that and working to go to a more vulnerable target right away. Then you can do your takedowns because you’ve off balanced him.
Certain takedowns are dangerous, so we just get into position for the takedown, we don’t follow through with it, we don’t want to injure anybody. But we use varying degrees of resistance. Often when people think of sparring, they think it’s 100 per cent all out fighting. But that’s not how it’s done. If you watch Thai boxing, which is a derivative of Silat, they tend to spar about 50% because they can’t go into the ring injured. They spar lightly, working on technique. Then they go hard on the pads and hard in the ring.
You see links between Muay Thai and Silat?
There are some strong links between Muay Thai and Silat. Before the fight, you dance the Wai Khru. The punching and kicking no longer looks like Silat, but if you watch the takedowns, you can really see it’s Silat.
Modern Muay Thai has a lot of takedowns. For whatever reason in Western culture when people are doing Thai boxing they always just emphasize punching, kicking, elbowing and kneeing. They don’t use the takedowns. But if you watch the top Thai guys fighting, they are doing all kinds of takedowns. Knee bumps and throwing over the thigh, and dropping with the forearm to take people down. Foot sweeps, it’s all in there.
I use Muay Thai as the outfighting aspect of Silat, but with kicking to the groin instead of just emphasizing leg kicks. That’s the difference: most of our kicks are to the groin. It’s JKD, Muay Thai, Savate. Savate is a great art. Instead of using the point of the shoe to the inner thigh you put it into the groin. We use whatever we can find that helps us perform better.
What do you say to people who criticise Silat – in particular Harimau – for the way it goes to the ground?
Yes, there are some low percentage moves. Antonio Illustrisimo, grandmaster of Illustrisimo Escrima, had a very interesting point of view. He had many sword fights, including sword matches with no armour if you can imagine that. He said there was no differentiation between basics and advanced techniques because the most efficient moves depended on where you happened to be with the situation you were in. Your art might have a move that looks pretty fancy, but then at a certain time you find your blade is out of position and the only option you have is that fancy move. At that point in time that’s the only thing you do. Sometimes with these exotic moves, there are times when that is the only move to use.
If you’re standing in a kickboxing stance you might not chose to drop down and dive on your opponent’s leg, but if you’re already down there and the person’s standing over you, that’s the move. These things can be valuable.
I asked my students recently, from all the things we do, what do you think I would say is the most practical? And they said Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or knife fighting. My answer was double stick drills, moving the sticks in the air and all that, because that keeps you healthy and keeps your body moving well for your whole life.
We may never get into a fight but that is so practical to be able to continue to move your body well. You look at all these Filipino masters, they live a very long time with high levels of body function and I believe it’s because of all that movement.
Silat has that kind of movement on the ground. Capoeira, how wonderful is that for your body? There are times when you may be in a position where you can pull off a move that it seems a little extravagant but that’s the right thing to do.
So you see some value in Silat ground fighting?
The Silat book contains a whole discussion on Silat ground fighting, comparing it to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It emphasizes that if you like Silat ground fighting you should really go train with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu people and see how you can apply it. If you have the attributes of balance, the base, you’re not getting swept. If you understand the movements in the groundwork of what he’s going to do, then you should be able to apply quite a bit of it. But if you don’t understand these things you might look great against someone who’s just standing there and not resisting. But then you against a grappler, and you’ll be like, ‘Oh that’s not a good move at all is it’?
In fact, the first time I was able to take Egan down, was when BJ Penn was training Egan for a fight. BJ said ‘Ok Burton, we’re going to tagteam on Egan doing takedowns’. I got to a single leg on Egan and was trying to take him down and I couldn’t. So I switched to a Silat armweave and down he went. Egan liked the technique and I haven’t taken him down since!
There are a lot of very functional things in Silat, it’s just knowing when to go to them. If you look at the basic moves of Silat, they’re very functional. When people see my book, they’re going to say ‘You just took wrestling and you called it Silat.’ But if you look at the village matches in Indonesia, a lot of times it looks like wrestling because it’s people grabbing and lifting each other and throwing them down. It’s the same thing again: people tend to fixate on the cool, signature moves that make a system special, but in that way they limit themselves.
Meanwhile we regularly see supposedly impractical ‘traditional’ techniques surfacing in MMA…
MMA is such a young art. In the beginning, no one threw high kicks because they were afraid of being taken down. Then Pete Williams knocked out Mark Coleman with a kick to the face and Maurice Smith started kicking people in the head. So it was like high kicks are back!
Little by little more and more techniques come up. There’s a technique I learned from Guro Dan Inosanto in the 80s: someone comes in with their hands up, you double trap. It’s basically a Wing Chun/ Kali thing. Everybody does it: you trap both wrists down with your hands and follow with an elbow. Now there are a couple of guys in the UFC using that. They didn’t use it two years ago, now they are.
More and more I see techniques I can use in my sparring that I know eventually people in the UFC will be using as well. As Richard Bustillo said, if you really know how to fight, you can find the proper timing to apply these kind of things.
Do you still coach UFC fighters?
Not any more. Coaching UFC fighters is a chore, it takes so much time. I enjoy it, but my emphasis is really on helping ‘normal’ people defend themselves. All the fighters I know in the UFC are not normal. Every once in a while I’ll get together with someone I know in the UFC and share some things, but as far as being a full time coach, that’s really not what I want to do.
I was Chris Leben’s head coach for three straight years and we had great success and I’m very pleased he was able to change his career direction, improve his technique and get some huge wins. Even though he looks rough, he was applying technique that we worked on and that was really satisfying, but I prefer filling my free time with my family and practising.
But the whole MMA experience is very valuable. Anybody in traditional arts, if you go into the MMA realm you’ll learn so much. It will make your traditional art so much better. Humble yourself and go in, say ‘I’ll do it for three years, I don’t care what happens, I don’t care how bad I look, I’m going to do it for three years’. I guarantee you’ll come out the other end so much better in your original art, you’ll understand it and how you can apply it.
People get the wrong impression of MMA, they think it’s all meatheads. But most of the champions are quite cerebral, and the coaches even more so. You can have amazing discussions on philosophy, of martial arts, life, with martial artists and MMA fighters and coaches. Chris for example, he looks like an ogre. He goes in there and if he gets hit hard his MO is to drop his hands, put his head forward and just trade punches. But this guy, actually although he didn’t get much schooling growing up, he is very intelligent. He is so smart: you want to talk philosophy, you want to talk martial strategy, not just MMA but Sun Tzu, Art of War, talk to Chris. He’s really bright, which is why he did so well. You can’t get to the highest level in MMA without being a good thinker.
What’s the main difference between an MMA fight and a street fight?
Urgency. One of the main differences between MMA and a street situation is a sense of urgency. If you watch amateur MMA fights you see the sense of urgency: they go out and start swinging at each other. But the guys who become more experienced, they realise they have to save their gas tank. They have to be able to still perform towards the end of the third round. They become measured in their approach, very tactical and use their sense of distance and footwork.
But in a streetfight, it’s generally an onslaught that you have to deal with. You have to be able to deal with that pressure. But what happens is bang! You clash, and then there is a separation. Yes, you need the outside range as well, you need to know what to do. But that sense of urgency means there’s a huge difference.
On the other hand, traditional martial artists often assume if you hit the guy he’ll go down. If you watch an MMA match, these guys are professional athletes punching each other with their hands wrapped and taped and a hard glove. They’re cracking each other and nobody’s going down. It can take quite a while to knock somebody out.
You’re not necessarily going to hit somebody and they’re just going to drop. Being committed is just an attitude. Take American baseball. Let’s say I work on my attitude and I say ‘I am going to have the best attitude, I am going to be committed, absolutely focused, use all those mental attributes contribute to success.’ Now you hand me a baseball bat and you get the best pitcher in the world and you throw a ball coming in at 95mph. Am I going to be able to hit it? No.
My attitude helps me deliver my skill set. But I need to work on that skill set. My attitude helps me practice correctly to do that. Not quitting and overcoming adversity. And then when I need to apply my skill set I apply that winning attitude. But without the skill set, sorry, nothing’s happening.
The danger with the traditionalist attitude is they are so sure they’re going to win the fight that when it doesn’t go their way, a total short circuit happens. They’re not used to overcoming adversity. That’s the beautiful thing about training well: you learn how to deal with adversity and flow through it. You learn how to handle your fear. The fear is still there, but you really learn how to manage that fear and keep it from affecting you so you can continue to do what you need to do. And we get results from the actions we take, cause and effect.
I learned from adversity with Egan and in the stick fighting competitions. I drove eight hours to get to my first stick fighting competition. I slept a few hours in my car. Mine happened to be the very first match of the whole day, there were hundreds of competitors. I’d never competed before, but I knew hundreds of techniques. The guy pulled back and swung this big old backhand at me and whacked me right in the head. I didn’t even move. OK, one point. Then we reset. We started moving around and ok, I’m ready. He does the same thing, reared back with this giant totally telegraphed back hand. I hit his hand but I didn’t move my head, so he still smacked me in the head and got another point. Then he hit me again, and I was out for the day.
To deal with that kind of adversity you have to have the will to continue and put yourself in that sort of situation. Over time you really learn how to deal with it, and that’s the beautiful thing about martial arts, you take that and apply that to your everyday life. Those are the benefits, because adversity is coming. There’s no doubt about that.
Do you do any health practices, like qigong?
For me, my qigong would be moving the double sticks or stick and dagger, whatever, but I tend to use double sticks because they’re balanced. I do that almost every day, out by myself, moving the sticks, moving my body, going into low stances. As I’m doing it, I’m working different patterns, experimenting with different patterns so my brain is working. It’s just really so valuable. As we get older we understand more the value of those things. In our 30s we don’t see how important that is, then in our 50s we realise how important it is. When we get into our 70s and 80s that benefit will still be there.
I might do some Kembangan too sometimes, because I like it, it’s beautiful and it’s really good for the body to be that supple and the movement is really good for you. There was a time when I was so disappointed by my poor performances in actual sparring and just feeling that I had really gone down the wrong path for functionality that I put all that aside too. But at this point, I feel if you do your sparring and really know what you can do and can’t do in a fight and you’re working on your fighting skills, then these other things are really good adjuncts to make you a better martial artist. It makes you flexible and helps heal your body.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think gratitude is perhaps the ultimate health practice. I’d therefore like to give my sincere thanks to all my instructors, especially Guro Dan Inosanto. He has given to me and others so generously for so long. He is the example to emulate.