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Aikido as a Fighting Art - Part Two

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by Mark Tennenhouse

Published Online

Know your enemy, win half your battles. Know your self, win half your battles. Know your enemy and your self, win all your battles.

In part one, I pointed out that aikido could be improved by adding a safe method of sparring. I explained a little about changing the role of the receiver (uke) to be an active one similar to the way that people practice judo, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. If we made such a change, we could learn how to apply our techniques against other martial artists under rules that guaranteed safety while allowing for realistic resistance.

Here in part two, I’ll explain a little of my training history and my experiences with training according to the ideas hinted at in part one. My training history has led me to believe that making several changes in the way we practice aikido can greatly improve the practicality, power and speed of our techniques. Along the way, I’ll explain my background and how I’ve come to these and other conclusions, but please keep in mind that the truth or falsity of a person’s ideas is never dependent on their background. If something is true, it is simply true and has nothing whatsoever to do with who said it. Similarly, if something is false, it doesn’t matter if the world’s greatest expert said it. Truth and falsity are independent of the speaker. So, please try to evaluate the ideas presented here based on what makes sense and on your own experiences in combat. Traditional concepts of combat are usually a very good starting point. However, tradition and the opinion of experts can often get in the way of seeing for oneself what is real and effective.

I grew up with a passion for fighting. Even as a 5-year-old kid, I loved to use headlocks and trips on my friends and my older brother. One of the first books I checked out of a library as a child was a book called Junior judo. As a youth, I met a few friends that studied judo and was amazed at how they could throw with so much force. I loved to wrestle with friends after school and spent many days wrestling and trying to trip and throw my friends as I went through elementary and junior high school. I took up judo at age 18 at the local college. It was very rough, but fun. Because of my experiences as a youth, I could throw people heavier and stronger than me even though I had little training, but life duties called and I started working in a warehouse for a few years. I got into a few fights with some of the larger men and felt in danger because of their size and attitude. I vowed that I would learn how to defend myself against bigger and stronger opponents. Thus, I entered the world of martial arts seeking for practical answers to combat. I wasn’t very interested in philosophy, belts or trophies. I wanted to know how to fight in case I needed it and because I loved it.

At 22, I began studying judo, taking it four times a week at the community college that had one of the best programs in the country. After two years of judo, I also began taking Tomiki Aikido at night, 2-3 times a week and continued for a couple years. For over five years I continued practicing judo formally in class and often stayed after class for several hours with friends to work on wrestling and other techniques. Since this was a community college, several of the guys taking the judo class were excellent high school wrestlers or state champions. I found them very hard to defeat, but as beginners they made the same common mistakes of turning their back or extending their arms. Because of this, I was often able to submit them during mat work.

Eventually, I went with them to practice wrestling at a local club. Fighting wrestlers while I had little wrestling experience and a judo background was quite an enlightening experience for me. I quickly realized that this was a completely different way of fighting. I found the wrestlers almost impossible to throw because of their low stance, lack of a gi and shockingly fast and effective leg tackles. I continued learning to wrestle over the years and learned many things from them about fighting that were completely lacking in judo.

One year before the first UFC, I went to California and took a few classes at the Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu School in Torrance. I was very impressed with the lack of tension that Royce used when I fought him. Both he and his students had groundwork techniques that were of far better quality than what I had learned in judo. I came back and found a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school where I lived. I began practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in formal classes but continued with judo. I tried to apply it during judo mat work and had terrific success.

After a few years of this and many interesting lessons, I grew bored of fighting only on the ground. I went back to learning judo throws and wrestling takedowns. Despite several years in judo, I still didn’t have very strong standing technique. I was accustomed to very rough randori (sparring) and never learned how to setup and throw with ease. So, I decided to focus on drilling my throws until I developed real skill at standing. Unfortunately, without properly conducted sparring, my drilling turned out to be useless. Over and over again, my opponents would ruin my throws in different ways. Something was missing and it wasn’t hard work. No matter how hard I worked at my throws, they seemed to fail or didn’t work easily. Eventually, after many efforts over several years, I concluded that the traditional ideas of off balancing and throwing were incomplete or incorrect. I looked to wrestling tactics to help solve the problem of getting a skillful, stronger opponent to the ground. As it turned out, I started in the right direction, but had a long way to go.

I was looking for standing skills that would work as easily as my mat work skills against stronger, larger opponents. On the mat, I found I could defeat much larger and stronger opponents because I had developed skill at the ground game. Also, the techniques that were the most effective didn’t require much training. I figured there must be standing techniques that would be as simple to learn and as effective as mat work skills. So far, I had failed to find these skills in judo despite several years of effort at standing judo.

I thought I knew how to wrestle because I had been working out at wrestling clubs over the years. But, wrestling included a very large number of techniques in its arsenal. Most of the techniques looked fairly simple to execute. As a result, these techniques were often learned incompletely and without proper instruction.

In search of proper instruction and answers, I went to train for two weeks at a famous wrestling school in Virginia called Granby System Wrestling. Their system and techniques were legendary in the worlds of high school, collegiate and Olympic wrestling. Their techniques had revolutionized wrestling because they had originated and perfected a series of nearly unstoppable techniques. These techniques eventually were copied and studied by every wrestling coach. They had been teaching wrestling for many years and had developed more than a random group of effective techniques. They had developed a systematic way of teaching people how to wrestle. Unlike other schools, the Granby School taught techniques in a related sequence. Each move was related to another move depending on the reaction of the opponent and the way that the opponent resisted or moved. This idea of learning and practicing a system of related moves is one that I have found extremely important in combat. Their teaching methods helped people learn how to wrestle like a highly experienced wrestler. They had many unique methods, ideas and techniques. I worked alongside the high school and collegiate wrestlers three times a day, for a total of six hours a day. The training was exhausting. But, I acquired a much more complete understanding about teaching and practicing wrestling.

Over the following months, I continued to explore and perfect the new techniques and ideas from the training camp. I was struggling with how to combine my wrestling with my judo tactics. One of the main problems was that wrestling attacks start from a bent over stance while judo starts from a fairly upright stance. Another problem was that competitive wrestling techniques often required landing a knee on the mat repeatedly as part of the lunging tackle motion.

Soon, my body began to complain about the extremely low stances of wrestling. Also, my knees became sore from pounding on the floor during tackles. My back became very tired from the low crouched posture. My body was telling me to start thinking of an easier way to practice. The upright posture of judo and aikido started to make very good sense to me after repeated spinal muscle soreness and minor bone bruising on my knees. Years later, I figured out how to do the same techniques without injuring my knees or back, but that’s later in the story.

I took a break from wrestling for a few weeks and began experimenting with some of the aikido techniques, which I had learned many years ago. Several of the wrestling techniques were unusually similar to techniques I had practiced cooperatively in aikido many years before. I had written off these techniques as unusable after attempting them against my judo partners. I began experimenting more seriously with the aikido techniques and soon found a large number of similarities and practical applications.

Once again, hot on the trail for answers, I began to study aikido at a local well-established and respected club. This time though, I approached aikido from a very different view, that of a more experienced fighter. I had read that Morihei Ueshiba had originally only taught people with a high level of experience in another martial art. I had come to a similar conclusion myself. Basically, the techniques of aikido should not be taken at face value. There was much to the techniques that could not be understood if you lacked certain preparatory knowledge. As time went on, I started to see many things in aikido that were not easily visible to practitioners lacking the proper background.

The Zen concept of emptying one’s cup (of knowledge) on a regular basis is an extremely valuable way of learning new things. The idea of emptying one’s cup has many meanings. One meaning is that it is possible to learn new things by avoiding old opinions. Because of my grappling background, I had certain ideas about what was realistic and effective in combat. These ideas helped me to understand many of the confusing aspects of aikido. I knew of many people that had become confused by many elements in aikido and had concluded that aikido was not an effective art.

I had found certain techniques within aikido that could be shown to be highly effective regardless of the opponent’s size, power or resistance. It simply didn’t make sense that aikido would have a few techniques that worked powerfully, and that the rest of it was completely unrealistic. It seemed more likely to me that, as with many things in life, people had simply misunderstood the techniques or the principles. For this reason, I needed to view aikido with healthy skepticism and an inquiring mind. A naïve, so-called open mind, accepts anything it is shown, and has no capacity for separating the realistic from the unrealistic. A more experienced mind can separate what is true from what is false and can find ways to make use of new knowledge.

It happened that learning aikido techniques from this different point of view led me to a very different way of understanding and practicing aikido. Instead of relying on other people’s knowledge or opinions about aikido, I was able to look at it in my own way. From my time spent in other arts, I knew that beginners experience and see things very differently than people with several years of experience in an art. I had seen that the biggest gains in skill often came not from practice, but came from a change in perception. The largest improvements very often came from seeing and understanding a technique in a new way. In the fields of sport, the greatest champions are often the people that found a new way of combining techniques or using a technique that had been overlooked or forgotten. So, by emptying the cup filled with traditional aikido knowledge, I avoided the traditional way of thinking about aikido. As a result, I found many new things.

My first experiences in aikido were a few months with Ueshiba style aikido when I was around 21 years old. At the time, I was (and still am) amazed at the smoothness and power of the techniques. Then when I was 24, I took a few years of Tomiki Aikido and continued practicing it informally with friends in various situations. But, over the years, as I practiced other combat arts, like judo and wrestling, I began to question what I had learned in aikido.

Questions have always been an important way for me to make sense of things. Honest and sincere questions support physical training. Questions do not interfere with learning unless they are used incorrectly. The intellect should not be turned off when learning. The emptying of one’s teacup does not require the abandonment of common sense.

Many foreign martial arts have cultural attitudes that promote the domination of students by creating an unequal status between the student and teacher. These traditions typically refuse to answer hard questions or they create environments that don’t allow the teachings and techniques to be questioned. Hopefully we live in an age and country where sincere questioning is understood as an aid to training. In judo and wrestling, the teaching environment supported questions and allowed students to test out new ideas and alternate methods. In aikido, the traditionalism of the art often hinders the free exploration of the techniques. I’ve always preferred a looser atmosphere that encourages experimentation and individualism.

Many questions filled my mind as I tried to make sense of what I was being shown.

  • Why practice from a single handhold if fighters don’t commonly grab the wrist and hold it?
  • Why practice overhead and slanting strikes in a predictable way when strikers don’t practice this way?
  • Will my aikido techniques work against someone trying to punch me?
  • Why doesn’t the receiver resist and counterattack like in the other arts?
  • Will my throws and arm lock techniques work against another person that resists?
  • Why don’t we practice chokeholds, leg grabs, headlocks and body holds like wrestlers and judo fighters?
  • In the other grappling arts, they use a lot more power and speed. How will I be able to use my techniques if I don’t try them out against other fighters?
  • Why don’t we practice ground fighting and submission holds?

As it turns out, these and many other questions have simple answers as will be made clear shortly.

As time passed, the questions began to become more insistent to me. I began to find realistic and practical answers to these and other “aikido problems” in a very unlikely place. My first answers came not from aikido, but from wrestling practice. In wrestling, the players use powerful, fast shoving and grabbing motions. I was shocked when I first realized that the tie-up techniques of wrestling such as the bicep, collar and wrist grips could be effectively countered with aikido techniques. Wrestling, which is widely regarded as highly effective in realistic fights, uses wrist grabs. Aha! Question one answered. What a surprise. I would never have discovered this unless I tried my aikido while working against a resisting, powerful opponent at short-range. Once I learned how to handle wrist grabs using aikido techniques from a clinch, I went on to learning how to handle chest shoves and bicep grips using aikido techniques. I continued experimenting and figured out how to handle many other grips and kinds of attacks. I was hooked on a new concept and approach that held great promise. Short range aikido.

The footwork of aikido (tenkan and irimi) never made much sense to me when practiced at a distance against strikes. I had done some training in boxing. It just didn’t seem possible or practical to pivot around while defending against strikes. The footwork seemed very impractical. It was very unusual when compared to the footwork in boxing and judo, but one day while fighting up close and working against shoves and grabs, the footwork suddenly started becoming practical and realistic. By fighting up close, I could more easily feel the pressure from my partner. I was able to feel where I needed to put my feet to use my strength most efficiently. Instead of practicing against strikes that required precise timing combined with perfectly timed footwork, I spent my time practicing against the firm pressure of shoves and grabs. The pressure taught my body to give way and use the aikido footwork and hand motions correctly. I could feel for myself how to move instead of relying on a teacher or on other people’s opinions. The people that I later taught said the same thing. They too could finally make sense of the aikido principles and techniques once the practice method was changed to include short-range fighting. They were quickly able to make sense of how to use aikido for handling rough shoving tactics like what is seen in wrestling, sumo and at the beginning of many street fights.

By using the aikido footwork as a base for nearly all my movements, I had established a foundation for the rest of my techniques. I had the footwork down for redirecting the force of realistic shoves and biceps grabs. Next, I started working on the problem of fighting for control of the opponent’s arms.

The core of the problem is that fighting at short-range requires some kind of grip. As any judo player will tell you, at short-range, a stronger opponent can use muscular power and stiffness to prevent the application of any technique. In both wrestling and boxing, the hands are used in many different ways to control the opponent’s arms to prevent him from striking or from launching a tackle, yet in aikido the hands and forearms are used in a very interesting manner resembling the use of a sword. Because of my time in judo, I had learned to deal with much stronger opponents that used grips so strong it was hard to even move much less attempt to throw them. Then later in wrestling, I came across the same problem of grip fighting but had to learn about how wrestlers used grips that didn’t require a uniform.

I needed techniques that would work against opponents with very long arms and that held so strongly you couldn’t even get close to them. I had fought many such people in judo. They would grab the gi and shove you away so firmly with their long powerful arms that you couldn’t even get close to them. Others were so strong that they would just grab your gi and shove your head sideways until you were forced off balance.

Then, in wrestling, I encountered several grips that were never used in judo but which were extremely powerful techniques. For example, one simple technique is called the collar tie and it has many uses. The wrestlers would clamp onto the back of my neck using the collar tie, and pull forward and downward on the back of my neck repeatedly until I was off balance. They would then dive in for a leg tackle if I straightened up, or snap me even lower into a front headlock.

By studying both arts, I realized that a large percentage of the attacks of wrestling and judo are based on controlling or setting up the opponent through a strong grip. I was looking for ways of defeating the grip instead of worrying about countering the technique that came after the grip. If the opponent cannot control you through a grip, he cannot overpower you or apply his technique. The idea is somewhat like fighting a man with no arms. Without hands or arms, people can’t do much harm. If you can beat a person’s arms, you’ve won most of the fight.

Fighting at short-range requires that you understand how to overcome an opponent with greater strength. This most important of lessons is often not taught in a practical usable way in any martial art. I found the technical side of the answers to my questions about grip fighting in both wrestling and aikido. In most aikido schools, techniques are practiced from the wrist grip. By contrast, in wrestling practice, most grips are split up fairly evenly between the wrist, biceps and shoulder.

One extremely interesting thing about grip fighting that I found from wrestling is that a technique can be performed in almost the exact same way from the wrist, biceps, shoulder, or collar grip. I found that it works exactly the same way in aikido. I tested this principle out and added it to the many things that I practice in short-range aikido. Next, I found simple ways of using aikido sword hand movements to break an opponent’s balance and grip at the same time. It all fit together so well with my newly found footwork that I knew I was onto something correct.

I began exploring other concepts and techniques from wrestling that had been used and proven effective in countless matches over many years. These techniques often resembled aikido movements or principles. One of the most important techniques from wrestling that I applied to aikido is that of elbow control. Once uke’s lead elbow is grasped, he cannot strike at the body or face of tori without leaving a wide opening for irimi nage and other techniques. This simple yet powerful technique is used in a large number of ways in wrestling. Also, there are very many ways to lead uke into giving tori this grip. Once acquired, it can be used to turn uke away, slip underneath uke’s armpit or force uke to give you rear control. The technique has much in common with what we try to achieve in aikido. The difference is that the wrestling version of the technique is used against world-class athletes that have trained hard to counter it yet the technique still works.

Against shoves and grabs, using these techniques, I was able to force people off balance with a short deflection and then spin around my opponents. I could either gain control or move into an aikido throw. It was all so smooth and fast it was silly. Aikido was finally starting to become something real to me. I no longer had to lower my head to the waist and dive at my opponent’s legs as in wrestling. I no longer had to stand on one leg and sweep my opponents legs as in judo. Instead, I could slip under an arm or around behind them. I was proving for myself that aikido was real by fighting against other wrestlers and grapplers.

My short-range aikido approach had many benefits. By practicing aikido as a short-range grappling art, I had answered many of the key questions about aikido. I’ll list here what is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg since there is truly much more that could be explained. I had struck upon a way to safely test out aikido techniques in a realistic manner against skilled fighters. I had answered the question of how to train traditional aikido techniques to be useful against other combative sports and arts. I had answered the question of why we practice from a single or double wrist hold. I had answered the question of what distance is needed for realistic application of technique. I had answered questions about why we use our special footwork. I had answered questions about how to handle realistic and unpredictable strikes. I had answered the questions about how to add resistance and competitiveness to traditional practice. I had answered the questions about how to handle powerful grips and stiffness. In brief, I had hit upon a way of practicing that took traditional “cooperative” aikido and turned it into an art that could be used for fighting against other combat arts on an equal basis.

In terms of combat effectiveness, various forms of sparring are absolutely essential in a martial art. Personal preferences for or against competition have nothing whatsoever to do with questions of effectiveness. I’ve included a wide variety of sparring methods in my practice that are a mixture of cooperativeness and competitiveness. I took my ideas for sparring from my experiences in wrestling, judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In these other grappling arts, there is not very much time spent in full sparring. Most of the time is spent working on specific skills through realistic drills with resistance added, which is called situational sparring. I’ve taken this idea and made it a large part of my practice.

Situational sparring is a way of learning how to fight from specific situations. Most grappling styles of combat understand that there are certain positions or holds, which are so powerful that they will end or almost end a fight. For this reason, it is important to be skilled at using these holds/positions and defending against other people that use these holds against you. For example, the rear chokehold on the mat takes little skill or time to acquire yet is a finishing position regardless of how big your opponent may be. The front headlock position or guillotine hold is another situation that takes very little skill to learn yet it will defeat even the strongest and largest of opponents when used correctly. The rear body hold or bear hug is another strong position that can be used to control a larger stronger opponent. Situational sparring is a kind of game in which both people try to win but the game has clear limits on what is allowed. It can be played lightly where uke cooperates completely for a beginner. It can be played with half resistance or partial cooperation for learning purposes. Or it can be played fast and strongly for fun or serious training. In all the cases, situational sparring teaches many important lessons that cannot be learned through cooperative kata like practice. It is one of the main practices that allow for fighters in the other grappling arts to acquire and test practical skills without needing to go through full sparring.

Practicing with situational sparring in aikido, we could have uke grab tori in a tight rear bear hug and try to lift him, hold him or trip him to the ground. So, uke’s role is an active one that requires effort. Tori’s goal would be to escape from this realistic powerful hold. He would be limited to using specific aikido techniques in various combinations according to uke’s movements. These kinds of mini-games are a perfect blend of competition and cooperativeness. They allow an aikidoka to apply and test out his techniques against real resistance according to his level of skill. They teach important skills of real practical use and much more could be said about them.

As I stated earlier, I’ve never been interested in trophies, belts or competition. My idea of adding competitiveness to aikido is for the purpose of testing out techniques and making it more like a fun game where both people are trying to win. Organized competition isn’t really a bad thing though. It’s just not something with which most people are comfortable. Few people like to be under intense pressure or end up as the loser. I’ve always preferred simpler forms of competition where you let the person get a few points and both people are playing more for the skill or fun of the game, so situational sparring can add many elements to aikido while avoiding the problems of too much competitiveness.

By fighting at short-range, I was able to actually feel why aikido emphasized taking control and leading an attack at the moment of contact. However, my manner of using this principle is slightly different than the traditional aikido concept of maintaining distance and avoiding contact.

I found that short-range fighting as a whole was based around the idea of applying a quick harmonious deflection to the opponent’s force be it a shove, grab or strike. The core of the aikido concept is correct and corresponds to the idea in wrestling. The idea is that when fighting up close, there is no time to think about what to do. This is the exact opposite of ground fighting where there is plenty of time to fake, shift around, and plan out your attacks. By contrast, in short-range fighting, once the opponent starts shoving or grabbing it is essential to have a trained reaction ready to respond to the energy of the shove or grab. If you don’t have a trained reaction, you will be knocked off balance, yanked around or struck. If you wait more than a moment or two to respond, the aikido or wrestling technique will fail because the opponent has time to change his attack or energy.

Because I had learned how to use controlling tie up techniques from wrestling, I didn’t have to apply a full technique to every attack from my opponent. The techniques I had learned in wrestling allowed me to remain close to my opponent and still use deflecting hand and body motions until I was ready to apply my real technique. I had found a way to apply the aikido principal of handling an attack at the moment it occurs, while still practicing what I knew to be realistic. From my own experiences and from viewing contests like the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, I knew that realistic combat included a large amount of standing clinch fighting. I had found a way to reconcile this with aikido’s principles, but I found the aikido belief in avoiding close up fighting to be incorrect. In fact, close up fighting made it far easier to feel what was needed and to control the opponent. Distance was much more dangerous because the opponent could continue striking.

There is a commonly held belief in aikido about the importance of maintaining distance and avoiding contact, but my experiences showed me that I didn’t have to move at the first touch or attack. On the contrary, I found the pressure created at short-range to be of great value in helping to prevent further strikes and attacks. Wrestling tactics included many ways to deflect force while remaining at short-range. I could control my opponent until I got the reaction I wanted. By feeling and creating pressure against my opponent through fakes, shoves, grabs and tie-ups, I could choose when to apply my technique and none of these techniques required strength, speed or great coordination.

I found that the aikido principle of leading works best when it is based on first creating pressure and then giving way and leading the opponent’s force. The concept of creating pressure and then giving way is a common principle at the core of judo, sumo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and other arts, but it is not typically expressed in exactly this manner. Most aikidoka never get to understand and experience how to create and manipulate pressure on an opponent. Typical aikido practice doesn’t include the kind of fighting and short-range drills that are practiced by wrestlers and other grapplers. Lacking these experiences, the aikido technique of leading an opponent is very difficult to understand and apply. Once a person repeatedly feels how even large and stiff opponents can be forced into extending their arm and stumbling slightly, it becomes very easy for people to learn how to lead their opponents into an aikido technique.

On the other hand, practicing against strikes from a distance requires far more timing. Receiving a strike using traditional aikido methods requires fast footwork and the ability to predict what kind of strike is coming. The extension of the arms often leaves the face and head unprotected against secondary strikes. Moving the arms around also leaves the face unprotected in the case of opponents that use fake attacks and rapid jabbing attacks and hooks.

Also, working with a lack of close contact and pressure doesn’t give a person a chance to feel what is the easiest, most natural way to move. Aikido techniques became much harder to practice and understand without practicing at short-range against pressure.

I noticed that aikido lacks the concept of setups. Wrestling had a large number of clearly defined techniques for forcing a predictable reaction from the opponent, yet I found almost no setup techniques in ordinary aikido practice that was probably due to the lack of competitiveness. I started experimenting with various ways to force the opponent to extend his arms or defend his body against grabs and strikes. I started learning how to force my opponents to give me the kind of reactions I needed to apply my aikido techniques.

I found that one of the best techniques for learning about how to control a standing fighter is the arm drag from wrestling. In wrestling, what is called gaining rear control is nearly the same as the idea of the blind spot in aikido, but in aikido, the technique is used in a smoother manner. The arm drag bears a huge resemblance to the entry techniques for irimi nage. I found I could control my opponents once I slipped to their rear with far less effort than the typical tactics I had used in wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I didn’t have to pick them up and slam them from behind like a wrestler or judo player. I didn’t have to fall to the ground and pull them down in a back trip like in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. With a practical version of irimi nage based around a variation on the arm drag, I could spin behind my opponents and control their arms. By staying a little ahead of them, I could control their spin and hit them with irimi nage when they tried to face me.

Before any of these new perceptions and lessons in what I came to call short-range aikido happened, I went through a long period of great frustration. I tried out my traditional aikido techniques on my practice partners in judo and wrestling for months with no luck. Absolutely nothing seemed to work! Every time I tried to grab an arm they would shove me away with the other arm or stiffen up and jerk away. If I went for their head like in kaiten nage or irimi nage, they would turn or duck and shove away.

In judo, I tried my traditional aikido techniques out but the problem was even worse. The gi made getting close enough to grab them nearly impossible. The power of their shoving arms forced me away. I was completely unable to get close enough to apply an aikido technique while they were able to push and pull me off balance using the gi.

When I tried traditional aikido against my friends who were using striking attacks, the situation really become ridiculous. The jabs and hooks were way too fast and dangerous to grab. Only blocking and parrying seemed possible. Each time I tried deflecting and using an arm lock, they would smack me with their free arm. Something was definitely missing.

As the years passed, I improved in my striking and grappling skills but I stuck to my ideas of finding the easy smooth way to win. I did learn how to overcome the straight stiff fighters in judo by using judo tactics and the fast unpredictable boxing strikes using boxing defenses.

I then went further and figured out how to use aikido to throw and counter these attacks. Originally, the judo fighters (especially beginners) would create so much space that nothing worked. I eventually learned how to turn and step directly beside them while slipping alongside their straight arms. This technique, called kokyu, is taught to every beginner in aikido as a drill. But learning how to apply it against a resisting partner skilled in wrestling or judo required many changes to my understanding and practice of aikido. There were so many changes and improvements to my aikido that I now consider it a different style, which I call short-range aikido. It’s definitely aikido but there are quite a few differences. The funny part is that people with a strong foundation in aikido pick it up far faster than people trained in judo, wrestling or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu yet the principles of the techniques are easier to explain in wrestling terms than in aikido terms.

Over time, I began practicing my aikido against other fighting situations found in wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and judo. I worked out ways to defeat the headlocks, body locks and rear holds from wrestling. I worked out ways to handle the powerful chokeholds applied on the mat from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and judo. I knew how to counter these techniques in traditional ways from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and wrestling but I wanted different, smoother answers that weren’t so rough. I found answers each time in aikido. In each technique of aikido, I found answers and applications for the rougher tactics that are applied in wrestling and judo. So, practicing lightly started to make some sense because it allowed me to examine and notice what was happening instead of worrying about straining to make it work.

I’ve even found simple ways to use aikido standing arm locks, and pins. The funny part is that the standing techniques will also work against skilled groundwork fighters. The pins of aikido can be made to work against experienced fighters if a few important positional principles are borrowed from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, judo and wrestling. The arm locks of aikido seem like easy techniques at first but in reality, they are very difficult to understand. The way that arm locks are traditionally taught doesn’t often work against experienced grapplers. The problem is that people rarely leave their arms stiff and straight long enough to apply an arm lock while standing or on the mat.

I wanted to be able to apply my short-range aikido techniques in fairly realistic situations. These situations would include sport matches in wrestling and judo where people are fighting with resistance. I had to re-think and re-evaluate how this group of techniques could be applied because it runs counter to what occurs in most contest situations. The answer to finding ways to apply standing arm locks first came to me when I was working on head lock counters. Basically, arm locks depend on elbow position and a slightly extended arm. As I said earlier, experienced fighters won’t give you an extended arm with a raised elbow. The trick to creating that situation against experienced fighters is what I found in wrestling. There are two techniques, which are perfect setups for arm locks and are called the elbow pop and the arm throw-by. Once you have the correct position or situation created by these two techniques, the aikido arm locks work like magic, even against experienced strong fighters. Without understanding how to setup the proper off balanced position, traditional aikido arm locks are extremely difficult to apply against a resistant opponent.

The boxing attacks were really tough for me to handle at first. Like most aikidoka, I had learned to accept the concept of deflecting or catching a strike and applying a technique immediately afterwards. I tested this approach over and over with no real success. In time I decided that this approach is extremely unrealistic and difficult to apply. Instead, I opted for using tactics like the clinch and tie-ups to handle boxers. Even highly experienced boxers rely on using the clinch and just covering up and moving in close when they get in trouble. Wrestlers and Muay Thai fighters in the mixed martial arts contests were also using the clinch and tie-ups to counter boxing. I realized that it is safer and easier to force a clinch and then use my aikido from close range.

Years ago, my first question was, “Does aikido work?” My first answer was, “I tried it many times and I don’t see how it can ever work. No way, not a chance!” Now after several years of experimenting and testing things out slowly and carefully, I have a very different outlook. I have found that aikido really does work against skilled resistant fighters. But, it requires a different kind of training and background to learn how to apply it. I’ve literally spent years trying to test and fit together techniques of wrestling, judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and aikido. I had always read that aikido is an art that works like glue binding seemingly separate things together. Who would believe it was true?

My techniques and understanding of aikido are very different from that of a traditional aikidoka. I haven’t accepted any techniques at face value because they are part of a tradition. Instead, I have spent time testing and proving each of my techniques against resistance and in realistic combative situations. My aikido techniques are based on traditional aikido techniques but have been expanded and modified to include many other situations found in wrestling, boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Also, I’ve added setups, techniques, combination attacks, counter-attacks and other elements from wrestling. My revised questions about aikido are now as follows:

  • How can I make this technique work in a sport or self-defense situation?
  • What will be my opponent’s reaction and defense to this technique in a sport and self-defense situation?
  • Is there a way to use the normal reactions and combative counters of a skilled fighter to lead them into one of my aikido techniques?

In other words, I’ve gone from “Does aikido work?” to “How can I make aikido work?” I started off amazed at the beauty of aikido, then I practiced a while and had very serious doubts about aikido as a fighting art. At the time, it wouldn’t work realistically for me or anyone else that I knew. Then I practiced other arts for several years. I got sore and tired and began to slowly re-think what I had learned in aikido, wrestling and judo. I began to think about aikido from a new perspective, from the idea of the clinch, or short-range fighting. Because of this approach, I’ve found ways to make aikido work for real against boxing, wrestling and ground fighters. I’ve found ways to safely test out and prove every piece of every technique against resisting, skilled fighters.

Aikido will inevitably change and grow into something different from what it is now. Today, aikido is most commonly practiced in a cooperative manner unlike the other grappling and striking arts, but perhaps there is plenty of room for adding new approaches and new techniques to aikido. If new ideas are added to aikido, it can continue to grow and become stronger over time instead of weaker. One of my goals is to make aikido more practical as a combat art. Another of my goals is to make aikido more fun and easier to learn for other people and for myself.