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The Art of Kicking and Punching and The Science of Defence.

English Martial Arts students come from a variety of martial backgrounds. 3rd Dan Black Belt in Kukkiwon Taekwondo and English Martial Arts Free Scholler, James Danson tells his martial arts story and explores parallels he’s noticed between the two arts.

My journey in the martial arts began in 1982, at the tender age of eleven. Although a ‘born Australian’, I had recently re-emigrated with my parents to Perth, Western Australia, (arriving in late 1980) having spent most of the first decade of my life in the United Kingdom. To say that the readjustment to life in Australia was difficult is employment of the great British art of understatement. Simply put I was the only English kid in Liwara Catholic Primary school and being a ‘Pommie kid’ in 1980’s Australia was certainly no fun. Poms or Pommies rated in the minds of the very parochial and (to our eyes) somewhat backwards Australians, as only slightly higher in importance than amoeba and about as welcome as a fungal infection. 

Consequently, I was picked on every day and got into a fight at least once a week. My first fight was with a cocky kid with a bad mullet haircut and a mocking, shit-eating grin. Hs name was Justin Langer and he would later go on to captain the Australian cricket team. I remember also that I won this particular skirmish.  When, after weeks of taunting about my accent and appearance, I sharply kneed him in groin and then (grabbing him by his rather silly haircut) brought my knee repeatedly up into his face. 

The problem was I hadn’t won in ‘the right way’, in so much as I hadn’t fought under the unwritten rules of the Aussie school yard…fists fine, wrestling o.k. …but apparently feet and knees…not so much. Some older boys intervened, saving Justin from what might have been a nasty kicking and I very quickly became public enemy number one. Furthermore, I could expect very little help from the teachers, many of whom wore the prejudice and obvious dislike for ‘the Poms’ on their sleeve. Whereas others considered it ‘character building’ and ‘boys being boys’. I was on my own. 

This was something of a new experience for me as my two much older (and very protective) sisters had chosen not to emigrate with my parents (one remaining in the UK with her new boyfriend and the other emigrating to the Middle East with her new husband). It was a lonely and frightening experience for a skinny, awkward English kid from Bournemouth, as both my parents were busy trying to build a new life and establish themselves in both business and society. 

After nearly two years of this treatment and with the school doing precious little in response (and in truth, what little they did do was not only ineffectual but actually exacerbated the situation), my mother decided that I needed to learn to fight back and fight back hard…bollocks to the school, bollocks to the backwards, bigoted Aussies and bollocks to the pre-conceived notions about a ‘fair fight’. This notion of a ‘fair fight’ often resulted in me getting battered by often larger, stronger, older Aussie kids (having been put up one year on arrival at the school as I was also brighter than most of them). Thus my Mum in her wisdom enrolled me in ‘Tae Kwon Do’ classes at the local recreation centre. 

 

Enter Siang Kooi Quah, a Chinese Malay gentleman who is perhaps one of the most important male figures in my formative development next to my own father. 

Known to me as a child as simply Mr Quah (not Chosu, Sensei, Master or any other imperious title) and later in life as simply S.K. This quiet, humble, normally smiling and generally affable man was quite literally my saviour and I have often since wondered what might have become of me if he had not entered my life when he did. 

He could be however (and often was) a stern and demanding instructor. His usual refrain being, in his at the time limited and broken English… “No! No! Zhames do it again!”

 

I must have been a frustrating student to teach having the grace and co-ordination of a baby goat (with learning difficulties) and being about as flexible as a broomstick. Fortunately S.K. was endlessly patient and slowly (painfully slowly as he will no doubt attest) I began to pick it up and begin to get more flexible. Perhaps as a consequence we became (and still are) quite close.

 

The training was hard…really hard. In a way that many modern students of Taekwondo would struggle to understand. The hall in which trained had hard and often dusty wooden floors, which were both slippery underfoot and unyielding when you fell or were often knocked down. There was no air conditioning and in Summer we trained in 30 degree plus heat to the point of exhaustion and often near collapse.

 

This was a ‘deep science’ and a deadly serious combat art…the authentic old school, hard style, martial art of Taekwondo. Nothing like the middle-class gentrified and somewhat superficial combat sport it has now largely become. 

This was the Taekwondo of the 60’s and 70’s, born in the harsh environment of post war Korea. Today it is called Siljeon (or real combat) Taekwondo, but back then it was all ‘just Taekwondo’. 

All parts of our body were conditioned and trained to be used as weapons. Fists, knees, palms, both edges of  the hand, the head and of course the feet, with kicks being delivered using the ball of the foot, shin, heel and edge of the foot, rather than simply the instep as is so common today. We also learned throws, sweeps, takedowns, joint twisting and locking (often to the point of near injury) and vicious open hand techniques such as the spear hand and arc hand strike to soft and vulnerable targets. We learned techniques that were both direct and by today’s standards rather simple, but we drilled them endlessly until we could deliver them with crippling power if ever used in anger. We also learned combative principles such as the ‘theory of power’ and to attack, attack, attack…being the best ‘self-defence’.

Recently a great man said to me ‘techniques fail but principles do not’ and I once asked S.K. what he felt was the most important principle to understand in Taekwondo. His response was typically direct and succinct… “Can you knock him down? If you no knock him down …your Taekwondo no good!”

Hence, in order for my Taekwondo to be ‘any good’ a sound understanding of power and how it is both generated and effectively delivered was vital.

The Taekwondo Theory of Power is based on an understanding of biomechanics and Newtonian physics (which also underpin English Martial arts) as well as concepts taken originally from both Japanese and Chinese martial arts. For example, the power of a strike increases quadratically with the speed of the strike, but increases only linearly with the mass of the striking object. In other words, speed is more important than size in terms of generating power. This principle was incorporated into the early design of Taekwondo and is still used today.

Also, the smaller the impact area of the striking weapon the greater its penetration and all kicks and strikes should be delivered to the centre line (an imaginary line running through the centre of the body). Judgement of distance is thus vital.  Too close and the kick or strike is a push, to far away the force is dissipated and the strike/kick is ineffectual. Somewhere in between is the optimum range to deliver disruptive force into the target, possibly knocking out your opponent or causing internal damage and at the very least stunning or incapacitating them. Taekwondo is hard style and much like English Boxing and the Science of Defence you must be able to swiftly deliver serious stopping power in order for it to be effective. 

This corresponds to two of the most important principles in English Martial Arts, the principle ‘grounds’ of judgement and distance. In English Martial Arts we are taught that with judgement you keep correct distance and with correct distance you get time to find place…but in Taekwondo this judgement of distance also places you at the optimum range to deliver maximum power.

Some of the other key components of the Theory of Power include: 

  • Reaction Force – the principle that as the striking limb is brought forward, other parts of the body should be brought backwards in order to provide more power to the striking limb. As an example, if the right leg is brought forward in a roundhouse/turning kick, the right arm is brought backwards to provide the reaction force.
  • Concentration – the principle of bringing as many muscles as possible to bear on a strike, concentrating the area of impact into as small an area as possible (as alluded to earlier).
  • Equilibrium – maintaining a correct centre-of-balance throughout a technique.
  • Breath Control – the idea that during a strike one should exhale, with the exhalation concluding at the moment of impact.
  • Mass – the principle of bringing as much of the body to bear on a strike as possible; again using the turning kick as an example, the idea would be to rotate the hip as well as the leg during the kick in order to take advantage of the hip’s additional mass in terms of providing power to the kick.
  • Speed – as previously noted, the speed of execution of a technique in Taekwondo is deemed to be even more important than mass in terms of providing power.

 

Nor is this where similarities between the Art of Kicking and Punching and the Noble Science of Defence end.

In Taekwondo we stand ‘side on’ to our opponent, to present less of a target. We also ‘step offline’ to 45 degrees rather than meeting an attack head on, thereby being able to counterattack the assailant’s exposed and vulnerable areas (ideally with a kick) whilst avoiding their attack.

This is similar to the principle of wide and narrow spaces in English Martial Arts. This principle revolves around the idea of how much your body is exposed to attacks by your opponent. If you are ‘narrow spaced’, you are also standing ‘side on’ to your opponent and are consequently less exposed. Conversely, if you are wide spaced you are standing square to your opponent and thus exposing more of your body to an attack.

The ‘magic angle’ for English pugilists and swordsman was 30 degrees, which not only placed you offline, but allowed you close enough to strike your enemy whilst placing your opponent at an angle and in a position that they could not strike at you without again stepping forward. 

Both old school Taekwondo and the English Science of Defence were (as the name of the latter indicates) ‘hard styles’ using scientific principles for the purpose of self protection. It should come as no surprise then that they share so much in common, both in terms of techniques and the principles on which they are based.

 

When I first encountered the English Martial Arts (through Maister Frank Docherty) back in 2009, I instantly recognised these similarities and it was apparent that English Martial Arts were also a ‘deep science’. Whilst the techniques often seemed simple, direct and brutally pragmatic this belied a sophisticated and complex fighting art informed by scientific principles and ‘combative truths’ that are both universal and perennial.

Perhaps best exemplified in the person of our founder – ‘Ancient Maister’ Terry Brown.

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