(originally published on September 28th, 2014)
This one is a long time coming and needs to be written. Flame war, engage. But this is about business, not people or personalities.
As many know from the Pramek Radio podcast, I am not a fan of EFO or empty force methods. I have even said publicly for a decade I don’t doubt such things exist, but as a means of defending one’s self…I think it’s something that should not be taught. That being said, I’ve been innundated with FB and email requests asking me to explain a video.
Let me first say I have never trained with Mikhail Ryabko, Vasiliev, or in Systema. My time in the Russian styles, in the US and in Russia, was on the scientific side. After leaving the Russian styles, I focused on creating Pramek to further scientific application and study in the martial arts and how they are taught. But, my lessons from Russian style have never left me like any student honors their teachers by teaching what was good and avoiding what was bad.
I was sent the below link in an email from someone that read:
‘Is this what you studied in Russia???’
I clicked, thinking, ‘Ok, I’m gonna get Rick Rolled.’
A friend of mine was in the kitchen and came running in, confusion on her face as I exclaimed very loudly, ‘What the hell is this shit?’
I think we all have to ask this to keep a system, style, or teacher honest. A lot of other arts (I haven’t even looked at Bullshido or Cage Potato yet) will ask the question of this video, but those who have ties to Russian styles or study this art have to ask the same. These kinds of videos affect us all, as those who see ‘Russia’ or ‘RMA’ in our resume see these things and judge us based on the popularity of Systema as the predominant Russian style.
Like it or not, the general martial art public, having viewed these kinds of videos, see us in this light.
Anger in the past turned to frustration, and eventual embarrassment, when people brought these kinds of videos up to me. It was hard enough explaining the old videos of Mr. Kadochnikov knocking people down without touching them – but those videos are twenty-thirty years old now and explainable as cold-war propaganda, regardless of what the videos were actually demonstrating.
But, what about this video?
In the parlance of our times, it’s the ‘optics’ that count.
First, there is no translation. I have no idea what is being taught. If people can’t hear a translation of what is taught, they figure the worst if it looks bad or weird. I told myself, ‘Maybe he is just demonstrating and the translation is in Japanese talking about tension, or pressure points?’ But that would not explain what we are seeing since we can’t understand the translation. At certain points there is nothing that could be explained without a term like psychic energy or a student willing to go along with the teacher. Perhaps someone who has been hypnotized through either years of training to take falls; self-hypnosis of being so impressed with the teacher he truly believes it is working. Lastly someone else Ms Cleo’d him on the side.
Second, what is happening? When a video has a 2030 shares in social media, a lot of people see it. Systema has forever tried to legitimize itself as a combatives style, with Blackbelt naming Vasiliev as martial artist of the year and asking is Systema the most lethal are in the world. Blackbelt has to be face-palming right now.
It’s demonstration, yes. But of what?
I’m looking for the typical Ryabko ‘flinch manipulation’ to see him swing to the guy’s right and drive him to the hand on the left to throw. It’s not there. Maybe he’s stepping on his foot to trap it and then driving him over…nope. I see some redirection demonstration after 1:39, so that’s what it’s gotta be, but before 1:39 goes beyond legitimacy. At certain points the guy is just falling down without being physically touched. In my mind’s eye I’m trying to figure out when something like this has ever happened to me. Like any student, I have taken falls on joint locks, throws, certain strikes because I know they hurt and for demonstration’s sake I go with it to avoid injury so the teacher can teach and demo.
But nothing like this.
In the end, I can’t explain it other than either a demonstration of redirection of movement and force, no matter how over-exaggerated, or some weird psychic energy.
What bothered me more than those videos was this:
If you are still reading this having not burned a hole in your monitor, you probably are bewildered. The first video looks like legit stuff compared to this.
Watching it hurt my eyes and made me a little sad.
Sad not for the people in the demonstration, or watching, or sharing. Systema is doing just fine and financially very successful, and good for them. It made me saddened for the rest of us. The ROSS guys trying to teach now and the folks who were in ROSS back in the day like I was, but the organization died after not being able to compete with Systema and fell apart as Scott moved into a new direction. For Kadochnikov’s folks who have tried to come to the US and can’t seem to get here. For the sambo guys who talk a lot about Russia and Russian styles of martial art and the three forms of sambo. For the guys who have left Russian style and started our own organizations blending it’s knowledge with our own and other styles.
Some people will say, ‘You’re just jealous Matt, they got 2030 shares.’ I encourage you to read the share remarks and translations – I would prefer not to get 2030 shares if that’s the response it gets.
Some people will say, ‘You have to be there and work with Mikhail, then you’ll feel it.’ Anyone who watches a Pramek Youtube video learns something – videos get people to products and seminars. Sure, whatever, that’s business. From what I have seen over the years, and in that video, I am happy I never went to a Systema seminar during my RMA time because I saw little to learn or a need to go and feel it. Those videos attract a certain demographic of the martial art world – I’m not one of them.
I care about what the rest of the martial art world thinks when they see ‘Russian’ on mine and others resumes. So, I’m writing this to them, on behalf of myself and a lot of other people out there in the same circumstance:
To those judging: First, let me say I don’t want the magic of martial art to disappear – but I want the magic not to be confused with legitimate combatives. We need the magic to keep our imaginations open. I don’t know what that is in the videos and look at it like most of you look at it. Almost every art has it, and I trust you to have the sense to not throw the baby out with the bath water. I used to hear it about bagua, but atleast in bagua there is an explanation beyond qi. There is a reason a lot of us never studied Systema, or left it, and you can probably guess from these videos one of the reasons among others. When you see the videos, just remember that Dillman one touch knock out and that goofy guy teaching EFO have tons of hits…and why do you click on those? To laugh, or show friends, or learn something not to do, or just to kill time between commercials, class, or on break.
Most arts run from this kind of stuff and we are really no different (ie, this post).
And to those who get the ‘treatment’ when people see Russian on your resume, do yourself a favor – point them in this post’s direction. Be forthright and honest on your feelings. If you think it’s BS, say it…if you don’t, say it. We need to stop saying, ‘I have the utmost respect for _____, but…’ to be nice…say what you truly think. It is because we continue to excuse this stuff publicly that we continue to be painted with the unfair brush of these videos. They might not make it to the videos that hold value within Systema so you need to count on that and react accordingly. If they do, trust they will be so confounded at the weirdness they have seen they won’t see things in a positive light.
So be direct, be honest, disassociate what you have done with what they are doing publicly if you dislike it…forget the trolls, forget the hate, forget it all and just be candid.
And to those who love the video – I understand why you are there, you love it, just remember the optics of what is posted. 2030 shares can often be a bad thing and lead to you being marginalized when you don’t want to be. I hope there is something beyond this video and I have to believe there is because I know some great people in Systema. I can’t judge what you study, as it’s your study, your path, and your life. I don’t mean malice or harm by this post but many of us with Russian backgrounds are tarred by this. I wish to distance myself and my history from this as far away in the public eye as I possibly can because it is a dirty paint brush on a clean canvas for most of the martial art world. The Russian styles have many things to hold – I hope you find them.
I had a laugh at these videos, but that is where it ends…and maybe one day, the laughs at the words ‘Russian style’ will end too as many of us push beyond this publicity and work hard to show that somewhere along the line we learned some valuable things at that rest stop on the path.