Attack of the zombies

Back in about 2007 I met a youngish man at a training seminar over East. He used to train with a particular kung fu school where they practised "deadly" and "invincible" martial arts.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of his former art, during the break he directed some of the other participants and me to a Youtube video. I forget which one it was, but similar ones are featured in the video below (although I hasten to add that while the combination techniques might be similar, I am not suggesting that the persons in the video embedded here are making any of the assertions made by this particular fellow).

Let me summarise what we saw:

The video comprised a series of clips pasted together which revealed a speed and ferocity of response that was truly breathtaking; the sheer number of blows being rained down upon the hapless "attackers" seemed "insurmountable" and "irresistible". It was like being attacked by a hurricane (perhaps an inspiration for Master Ken's "hurticane"!).

The other attendees and I watched in stunned silence until the video ended. Then the fellow closed the browser, clicked in triumph and said (smirk firmly in place): "That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done."

But the real reason we were rendered speechless wasn't the fact that we were over-awed. Yes, the speed and "ferocity" of response was really quite impressive. The skills were, in many respects, highly admirable. I found myself wanting to revisit some of the interesting combinations I was seeing and study them a bit more closely. But we remained silent for a totally different reason. You see, we were all, to a man/woman, martial artists with 30+ years of hard knocks martial experience. And we could see there was no point in discussing the matter any further. Why? For this simple reason:

Yes, the video featured some fast and impressive combinations. But as admirable as these were, they were never once, not in a single instance, demonstrated or applied against a resistant, determined or otherwise realistic attacker. Instead, they were applied against attackers who were, for all intents and purposes, as animated as slow moving zombies from a George Romero movie.

You know the kind of zombies I mean: the kind that walk slowly towards you with arms outstretched (perhaps muttering "Brains" with partly decomposed mouths).

Zombies who might, given half a chance, overwhelm you with numbers in a slow, inexorable crush, but who are individually so glacially slow, so non-responsive, so... well... moribund, that they verge on the catatonic. On their own, the best they can hope to do is place a decomposing limb on your shoulder. Or, at worst, slap you with a floppy arm (even if it might fall off as a consequence).

Okay, I'm being more than a little facetious here. But the principle is more or less the same. What do I mean? Take a look at the video below.

You'll see many truly awe inspiring "defences": hand speeds that seem to defy physics, combinations that are truly innovative and novel. But who are they applying these combinations against? People who either just stand there - or whose attack is so token, so mild and inoffensive, that it might as well be a zombie's exhausted effort at lifting a limb so as to place it on the "defender's" shoulder. Either that, or the zombie has enough (but only just enough) extant musculature to lurch forward slowly and throw a patently ludicrous, doomed attack (usually leading punch in a forward stance - more on this attack another time).

Having exhausted its (diminishing) resources (decomposing flesh is obviously not very energy efficient), the zombie then pauses to rest, permitting all manner of vicious counters to be rained down upon its corpse.

Now, before I get too many complaints about this article let me make something perfectly clear: I understand only too well the need for "kihon kumite" and "ippon kumite" (ie. two-person standing and "one step" drills) in training. While I have previously detailed the limitations of "standing start" drills, I have never sought to describe them as less than useful. Indeed, I consider them to be necessary, particularly when students are first learning a technique or otherwise when they are isolating a concept, analysing a kata/xing/form/pattern or exploring applications.

In other words, such "artificial" drills are essential - not only for beginners but even advanced students. Every time you get try out a new technique or examine a new principle, safety, prudence and common sense necessitate that it be examined slowly and in an environment that removes certain variables.

You might have a "standing start" (to avoid the complicating feature of both parties being in movement along chaotic vectors). You might have (especially at first) a slower execution (to avoid the complicating feature of speed before you've even had a chance to get your bearings with the technique). You might avoid commitment or penetration (for safety, obviously). For this reason you'll see my own videos unashamedly feature techniques demonstrated in such a setting.

So what's with my "zombie comments" then? Well let me make this important distinction:

I don't purport - or even imply - that my own "slow attacker" drills are "realistic". I don't try to impress others by demonstrating "lightning fast" applications against attacks that couldn't possibly be a threat to me.

Instead, if my attacker "attacks" slowly, I respond slowly. If he/she "attacks" quickly, I respond quickly. Because to do otherwise is plainly misleading - if not dishonest (although I am certainly not suggesting that anyone shown in this article is being dishonest - they are merely highlighted as demonstrating fast combinations).

Why would it be dishonest to imply "realism" in the context of such a drill? Because the drill focuses your attention on the "defender" and his/her "impressiveness" - while completely ignoring the insipid attack. The attacker might as well be a zombie - or even a dummy.

Now I have a lot of time for "dummy drills". Here's a great one by Zoran Sevic.

I love this guy's stuff. But note carefully that he isn't promising that it is "real fighting". He explains very clearly that it is a drill designed to teach speed, power and accuracy in hitting targets. It does not comprise a literal fighting method.

On the other hand, the fellow whom I mention at the start of this essay went a step further - as I think did his school's video. That video was carefully edited (specifically, by almost totally editing out anything preceding the "defence") to imply exactly what the fellow was saying to us; that the techniques demonstrated were literal fighting methods. And that they were "invincible". How could they not be? Look how "fast and furious" they were! How could one deny their efficacy?

I had another young man come up to me at a similar seminar at the start of this year. He told me that fast and furious chain punches (à la wing chun) were "unbeatable". At my invitation, he proceeded to demonstrate them into my face (pulling the punches, of course). He then said: "I have yet to see anyone answer that sort of attack." So I invited him to repeat the attack; only this time, I occupied the centreline as soon as he started to punch. I used a fist to do so, but the principle was same as that employed in this fuk sau video:

"Miraculously", each of his chain punches was deflected off target. My one fist extended towards him on the centreline ensured that every chain punch slipped harmlessly away. Now I want to be clear: I am not saying this to illustrate that I had effected an "unbeatable defence"; rather, I want to illustrate that his "attack" could be very easily thwarted via this simple principle:

A "train" of techniques can be derailed by one single obstacle.

And that is why you don't see chain/train/string punches in resistant fighting - be it surveillance footage of attacks against civilians or in MMA (and you should; there is nothing preventing them being used in the latter environment - despite what people, including your's truly, say about MMA not being "real fighting").

As I've previously noted, there are simply too many variables, too many predictive uncertainties, too many possible permutations, for a string of techniques to be executed against a resistant opponent. Instead, I believe the following is self evident:

You can only realistically execute string attacks once your opponent has is "on the ropes", "on the canvas" or similarly incapacitated.

Otherwise chaos theory ensures that even one "spanner" will jam up the works. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why every single one of these demonstrations of "donner und blitzen" combinations (loosely called "defences") are always (and I mean always) demonstrated against an "attacker" who is indistinguishable from a dummy (at worst) or a zombie (at best).

Now, once again, I don't want to imply that practising such combinations isn't useful. Combinations are always useful to the martial artist, as is speed practice. As Zoran notes, you want speed, you want "power" and you want accuracy. Practising such drills can help hone these attributes so that if you should ever need to effect a defence, at least one effective blow will find its mark.

But here's the operative word: defence.

As I've previously discussed, civilian defence involves much, much more than hitting things (or people). Instead you have to deal with the fact that your opponent is:

(a) trying to hit you; and
(b) not letting you hit him/her!

As to the first point, the fact that your attacker is trying to hit you necessitates defence skills, as I note in my articles "Attack, attack, attack" and "That first punch: can you block it?" (among others).

Yet for all their "impressiveness" in raining counters down upon their "attackers", the responses in the first video do not contain even one defensive skill: not one deflection, not one evasion, not one "negation" of any other kind. Instead, there is an underlying assumption that the "attack" (such as it is) is not worth being concerned about (and in truth, in most of these drills it isn't!).

The most you usually get is a token "block" (for a punch that is out range and lacking any speed or commitment anyway). Alternatively, you get a mere "entry" - an aggressive push into the "attacker's" guard (which is fine, but it isn't a defence; it is an attack).

Put simply, learning to "donner und blitz" your opponent does not answer the question: "How will you address/negate your attacker's own 'donner und blitzen'?" After all, your attacker is likely to be attacking at least as fast and hard as you plan to respond. You can't ignore this issue; as I have often noted (see my article "Surviving the surprise attack", for example) it isn't swept away by focusing all your attention on how fast and hard you can hit things.

So you need to learn defence. You won't learn or practise defence if you only ever face "dummies" or "zombies" in class. You won't even learn counter attack.!

Someone whose videos are often referred to me. This one's titled "How to defend yourself against an attacker" - which is all very "nice". But where is the "attacker"? Am I the only one to notice that the "defender" is the only one doing any "attacking?" I think the video is better titled "How to be an attacker" (although even that is not a good title, since the video assumes your "target" is "inanimate" and will let you punch here, twist there etc.).

Which leads me to the second point above: the fact that your attacker is trying actively thwart each and every one of your counters necessitates more advanced counter attack skills; skills that are far more advanced than simply hitting a dummy, as I note in my articles "Boards don't hit back" Parts 1 and 2 (among others).

Yet, once again, for all the impressiveness of the "donner und blitzen" attacks showcased in the first video, I can't see one single tactic that deals with an opponent who is actively resisting your counters - thwarting them as best as he or she can. Even if an attacker has ceased trying to hit you, you'd be surprised how just a single punch thrown on the centre line can "derail" your own counter attack plans (as I demonstrated to that young man at the beginning of the year).

Accordingly, for a drill to be "impressive" in its "realism", it needs more than just a ferocious response on the part of the "defender". It needs to be pitched against a ferocious attack - and an on-going strident resistance to any and all of your counters.

But this issue is skillfully avoided by many proponents of the "donner und blitzen" method of civilian defence. The whole question of "defence" and "resistance" is ignored. Like any "mentalism", recourse is made to distraction:

"Where's the realistic attack - and the resistance to your counters?"
"Don't worry about that. Look here! Look at my handspeed! Look at how I pummel this fellow until he turns to jelly! Impressive huh? Can you see yourself resisting that? I bet you can't!"

And so on. This is either self-deception or it is deception of others. Either way, it is misleading and inaccurate. And it is the oldest trick in the "mentalist's" book: "Look at this hand so you don't see what I'm doing with the other." Except in this case it's: "Look at the 'defender', so you don't notice how pathetic the 'attacker' is." The more brutally spectacular the "defender", the greater the distraction and the less the paucity of attack realism is noticed.

Now, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that the people in the video embedded above were/are trying to mislead anyone. I haven't watched their full videos to see what it is they are demonstrating. Perhaps (and very likely) they have adopted Zoran's approach:

"Here are some drills for developing fast, powerful and accurate combinations."

That is fine. But equally, I do know of people (like the fellow I mentioned at the start of the article) who are clearly under a false impression as to the "completeness" of skills taught by these sorts of drills. And the school to which they belong clearly gave them that impression.

If you are from a school that specialises in fast hand combinations, then all credit to you: you have very good combination skills: skills I'd love to learn.

But, if you have any doubts after reading this article, ask yourself - in all honesty - whether you are accurately reflecting what is being gained from such drills. If you are implying (or simply allowing your students and others to assume) that these skills obviate the need for proper defensive and counter-resistance tactics, then you're doing these people a disservice.

Because we're not living in a zombie apocalypse, nor are we ever likely to. Real attackers are far more proactive. They want to take you out, and stack the odds in their favour as much as possible. This means striking first, striking hard, striking fast and striking last. It doesn't mean lurching forward with outstretched arms, or pausing for you to effect an elaborate "counter" plan.

And if you do manage to get a shot in, your attackers aren't just going to "stand there and take it". They're going to try to block/evade/avoid/stifle/thwart your endeavours as best they can.

If you're serious about civilian defence drills, remember this rule of thumb: the attacker's speed and force should match the defenders and vice versa. If you're both going "soft and slow" that's okay. If you're both going hard and fast, that's also okay. If one is going "soft and slow" and the other is going "hard and fast" something is desperately wrong. Because this sort of thing only happens in zombie movies.

A taekwondo instructor friend of mine likes to say: "You can try to fool yourself, but don't try to fool the rest of us." Zombies don't exist. Real attackers do.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic