Martial arts, for me at least, have been particularly humbling.
I’d done a couple years of tae kwon do in my twenties and made it to green belt in the system, and then I started writing and devoted every waking minute to it. But I always wanted to get back into martial arts, just not in a formal wear-the-uniform, bow-to-the-flag-and-teacher kind of way.
Then I fell in love at first sight with a butterfly knife. The highly illegal (in New York) Filipino balisong, with the handles that swing out with the blade in truly menacing fashion. I was able to open it and close it without cutting myself, but could never do any of the fancy flips and twirls.
Probably 15 years ago now I found a teacher in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)—Pekiti Tirsia Kali, to be specific–Simon Burgess. A genius. British. As he said the other day—again—“You are the true test of my patience.”
Some people pick everything up naturally and quickly. Not me. To this day I’m uncomfortable in class. It takes me back to flunking out in high school for never understanding anything. And the perpetual frustration of having everyone start out with me showing them the basics, then a few weeks later, they’re showing me the baiscs. This has been going on for probably 15 years at least.
I think of this now looking back at Tuesday’s session at Five Points Academy—Simon’s martial arts gym, which specializes in Muay Thai kickboxing, of which he’s also a teacher–when I practiced the knife-draw techniques we started working on last week. It’s something I’ve never worked on much—a conceivably fatal mistake, and one that I came close to making a few years ago.
So I was practicing drawing a folding training knife with my right hand out of my waistband, opening it and then going into a thrusting attack mode—and cut the index finger on my left hand.
It was a small laceration, a quarter-inch or so, probably done when I was transitioning from a “No. 3” right-to-left hooking horizontal thrust into a straight-ahead rolling jab and scraped the knife—not necessarily the dulled but still potent edge—against the finger, the rolling left hand not having properly cleared the jabbing knife.
No one saw it, but it was still pretty embarrassing. I knew it would bleed—not drip or run or flow, but that in a minute or so, blood would appear in the crease of the cut and smear my shirt when I slapped the back of my left hand against my armpit whenever I jabbed or thrusted, which is what you’re trained to do, since you’re leaving your armpit exposed when you thrust or jab, and the armpit protects a major artery that presents a kill-shot opportunity for your opponent.
But the key, of course, is to deploy your knife, that is, get it out from concealment and open it in the first place.
Compounding my problem is that I suffer from basal thumb arthritis in both hands, meaning that the cartilage is pretty much gone at the base of the thumbs, from overuse. Too many space bars.
At times it’s been quite painful, but arthritis or no, I’m just not very nimble when it comes to opening a tactical, that is, fighting folding knife that isn’t spring-assisted, like a switchblade. These knives usually have a hole or groove or lug for your thumb to fit in or on and push against in swinging the blade out and snapping it into place.
Tactical folders, and many utility pocket knives, also have a clip for attaching to your front pants pocket or waistband, in fact, Spyderco knives, famous for introducing the thumb-hole, are often called “clipits.” I probably had one clipped in such a manner as I walked down 11th Avenue around 12:30 a.m. If I’d have kept it there, there’s no telling what awful things might have happened.
I got to 47th Street and saw three guys urinating on the corner of a building undergoing reconstruction, long since the headquarters for Ogilvy & Mather. I was two blocks from home and didn’t think much of it, but enough, at least to take out the knife and have it ready, thumb in the groove.
This part of 11th Avenue was pretty dead then. Now it’s much nicer, with a fancy Japanese hotel a block or two up and across the street. But back then there was no one up to any good there that time of night.
I turned the corner at 45th. My building isn’t even halfway to 10th. Twenty feet from the door I heard footsteps behind me, getting quicker and louder. I whirled around and there were those three guys—whom I’d already forgotten about–almost on top of me. I immediately did the most important thing a trained martial artist can do.
I tried to run.
Tried, I said, because here I found out a sobering fact about myself. At my age—61 now, early-to-mid 50s then, the top half of my body is faster than the lower half. In other words, instead of running, I toppled over!
“Fuck!” I said to myself, facing the realization that I was about to be killed 20 feet from my apartment.
As I went down I tossed the keys in my left hand to the ground, same with my gym bag. I broke the fall with my left hand and elbow, scraping both. I had nothing when I got back up, nothing except the knife in my right hand—which I’d had the foresight to pull out and hang on to back on 47th and 11th, then promptly forgot about. Adrenalin pumping, I managed to get the blade out with my thumb just barely enough to flick the rest of it open.
Now there really is something about the click-sound of a folding knife blade being flicked and banged into locked position. It carries an announcement: “Hey, motherfuckers! You want me? Fucking come and get me!”
One of them yelled, “He’s got a knife!” and they all backed up. This bought me a moment, which I used to grab my gym bag and dash to my apartment door. Luckily it was unlocked. Unluckily, the vestibule door was—and in the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten to pick up my keys!
If they followed me into the vestibule I was likely dead. At least I had the presence of mind to call 911. I waited two minutes for the cops and then got real stupid: I went out to get my keys—hoping they were still there.
They were. The attackers were gone. I lucked out.
The cops got there two minutes later. They were very nice. I didn’t mind at all telling them the truth, that I had a knife and I flashed it. They understood.
I did mind that I tumbled the way I did. That I scratched a finger, elbow and knee. And to this day I have no idea what I would have done had they not backed off, pulled out their own knives—or guns—and followed me into the vestibule.
I called Simon the next day and confessed how lame I was.
“What are you talking about?” he said, so sensibly as always, ever looking at the positive. “You didn’t get hurt [by the attackers]. You didn’t hand over your money. You did fine.”
Next time at Five Points he and Steve, co-owner of the gym and another Muay Thai teacher, applauded as I walked in. I still feel stupid about it, and the story has since been handed up and down the system as a shining example.
But the reality remains: I dropped like a fucking bowling pin.
When I first started with Simon, he saw the trouble I was having in opening a folder singlehandedly. He said to just use both hands, that is, use my left hand to pull the blade away from the handle.
There’s a lesson here, an important one: If you can’t do something, do something else.
Yes, the optimal way to open a folder with a thumb hole/lug/groove is with the thumb hole/lug/groove. But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Do what you can do. As Bruce Lee said so famously, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
Of course, this didn’t stop me from trying to do it the proper way, and once again, Simon, some 15 years later, had to tell me to use both hands.
The true test of his patience.
A couple weeks ago I hung out with Tom Bisio. Tom’s a legend in martial arts, especially Pekiti-Tirsia, though he got out of it years ago and became an equally renowned practitioner of Chinese martial arts and medicine.
I got to know Tom, not through martial arts—he was out of Pikiti by the time I got in—but through his wife Valerie Ghent, longtime programmer/backup singer for Ashford & Simpson and now Valerie Simpson. I was at their apartment partying after a great Ghent solo show, and engaged Tom in martial arts conversation—including if he’d ever played with a butterfly.
Of course he had—we all have—but he never really used one. He explained how once he was in a training exercise and tried to deploy it and dropped it—and that’s the whole point right there: Unless you’re really adept at something that requires a technical skill, when it comes time to do it for real and the pressure’s on, you’re liable to fuck it up.
Tom knew he wasn’t good enough with a balisong to deploy it under pressure. Simon knows I’m too old and arthritic (“You’re wrists are fucked up!”) to deploy a one-hand opening folder effectively with one hand under pressure.
And of course, I know it, too.
Epilogue: I went to class yesterday and before it began, was talking with Coach Emily, a professional Muay Thai fighter who was teaching a Muay Thai class.
“I’m glad you didn’t see me cut myself the other day,” I told her. “But I’m really glad Simon didn’t see it.”
I might as well have asked her outright to tell him, Emily being nothing if not mischievous.
“Did you know Jim cut himself the other day?” she chirped gleefully as Simon approached.
“How did you do that?” he asked, sternly.
“I was practicing the knife draw we were working on last week,” I said.
“Not with a live [real] blade…,” Simon said, gobsmacked, as they say in England.
“No, of course not,” I said.
“You can’t cut yourself with a training blade!” he contended emphatically.
I assured him that you could indeed. He was neither impressed nor amused.
Coach Emily laughed.
Here’s Simon with his teacher Tim Waid: