Interview with Alex Zhelezniak Chief instructor and founder of A.C.T. – Armed Combat and Tactics.
cunducted by Igor Sucevic, head instructor of CFC –contemporary Fighting Concepts, Serbia.
Q: How long are you involved with martial arts, and which ones did you study?
A: I have been doing martial arts for about 20 years. I have some Judo and boxing training, studied Karate Shotokan, trained in Kendo, fencing, Arnis. I have been doing ACT training for more than 10 years now and, I guess, it is fair to say that I have been training in one aspect of weapon fighting or another every day of the past decade.
Since it is relevant I should mention that a big part of our training is cross training with every possible weapon system including rigorous sparring sessions to understand “what works” and to gain that priceless experience which comes only by crossing blades with a person and seeing for yourself all the “why?” and the “when?” and the “how?”. Combat experience that comes from sparring with Kendo and Arnis, sport fencing and Silat, Kenjutsu and Aikido, Systema and Naginata-jutsu, Jo-do and Ninjutsu, kobudo and Wing chun, Bagua and Dos Manos, Russian knife systems and 19-th century saber fighting styles to mention a few. Of course, the cross training path has taken us to test the skill against boxers, Muai Thai practitioners and other, seemingly non related to weapons arts and sports, which provide an absolutely formidable competition when one factors in their honed skills, sound tactics and ruthless approach for combat. Never disrespect a boxer with the knife!
All of this is to simply explain that while the founders of the A.C.T. are coming from their respective fields, it is the collective combative experience that is most relevant for this question. Fighting a fencer, a boxer , a kendoka and a Russian system knife fighter gave me more in terms of understanding what to do with a weapon than merely practicing that martial art or another. Fighting all these opponents has created a pool of knowledge which is just as important to understanding the realities of combat as rigorous practice of one’s respective art.
Q: Your school is called A.C.T. What does it stands for?
A: A.C.T. stands for Armed Combat & Tactics. That is a deliberately chosen generic name for a school, dedicated to teaching the practical use of both bladed and impact weapons. Our purpose is to improve our fighting skill by practicing an effective fighting system applicable to an extensive arsenal of weapons, as well as to provide a safe ground for the testing of combative weapon skills while staying as close as possible to the realities of combat.
Translation? We teach people how to fight with weapons. Period. We train fighters and we produce fighters. Everything taught is tested through sparring and pressure scenarios and we provide the conditions for these to be as realistic as it gets. Since we teach modern weapons as well as more traditional arsenal and since we combine ideas and concepts from both Asian and western martial arts, we choose to remain simply Armed Combat with no relations to a specific art or origin. The Tactics stands for a very important aspect of weapon fighting so common in such fields as fencing, boxing and kendo and yet often overlooked in weapon training. A tactical view of each bout, every encounter, to look for ways to achieve victory through understanding of an opponent and his capabilities, to have, if you will, a “game plan”, to combine the technical prowess with a sound grasp of mental disposition, physical advantages, ground, surroundings. To know how to control the battle through timing and distance and mental aspects, to disguise intentions through feints and to know when to commit to a finishing attack – all of these would fall in the category of Tactics.
Q: What is the training progression in A.C.T.?
A: A student begins as a fighter. That means that he is going to experience combat (much like learning to drive a car) from the very beginning. Sparring is a necessity to understand the nature of armed confrontation. The basics of movement and proper weapon handling are drilled in but the tactical solutions are being broken down and taught from the very beginning as well so that we may understand “when” to use the material used in addition to “how” from the very start. That way we get a “smart” fighter in addition to a technical fighter in the very early stages. Then we go to more advanced tactical thinking as the understanding of combat evolves, more weapons are taught and more complex and demanding scenarios are introduced, so that the fighter becomes capable of not only automatic response to a given threat but also knows how to prevent that threat in the first place and how to dictate the conditions of confrontation instead of merely responding to the development.
From there of course it is a student’s choice, whether to concentrate on achieving even better results as a fighter (a road, really with no visible ending) or to become a part of the instructor course which will give him the tools to teach the craft to others.
Q: What areas do you teach in A.C.T. (armed, unarmed…)?
A: A.C.T. concentrates on three subjects.
a. Weapon fighting with 7 weapons the system teaches while the context is single combat – 2 skilled opponents fighting each other with matching weapons (knife vs. knife, machete vs. machete, cane vs. cane and so on…)
b. Fighting with weapons and their substitutes in the street confrontation. Knife, tactical baton, kubotan, any improvised weapon (umbrella, pen, cutlery, baseball bat, walking stick, broom stick, flash light, well, you get the idea). Multiple opponents with mismatched weapons fall into this category. As do, naturally, the tactics involved, obtaining and deployment of the weapon.
c. Using the principles and experience from previous fields, providing empty hand solutions for a street confrontation.
Q: What is your view on “sports versus self defense” approach to weapons training?
A: Strangely enough there isn’t either one of these in weapon training. The key word is “weapon”. Self defense with weapon is more often than not an illegal concept and though one should train to be able to resort to it one should be aware of legal ramifications and on a more basic level the legal definitions of self defense in one’s country. I assure you that in majority of cases the term self defense and weapons are not found in the same sentence.
The sports are NOT training you for weapon confrontation for the very simple reason that the tools used for such are different (in some cases in extreme manner) from the weapon in question. And the very nature of the competition dictates the rules, the tactics and the techniques used in a sportive bout, which often leads to a misrepresentation of weapon combat as it is.
That means that A.C.T. doesn’t teach sport applications nor do we specifically design our approach to “self defense” mode, which could be more “compassionate” in it’s attitude toward the opponent. We train for weapon combat looking for the sole purpose of disposing of our opponent, while maximizing the damage dealt to the opponent (doesn’t go too well with the self defense definition of the law) and minimizing the damage dealt to us (often doesn’t go with sports rules where ” mutual kills” occur quite often).
Of course what we teach can be taken (and has been) to the realm of sport, for example an A.C.T. instructor Nathan Shallcross took the first place at 3-d Warrior tribe (2010) bolo competition. Same goes for the self defense. One can adopt our methods and “pacify” them.
However, the strength of A.C.T. lies exactly in the lack of sportive approach or a strictly self defense orientation. We are striving to understand the realities of armed confrontation in all its brutality and abruptness. Dealing with weapon combat on this level gives us ample knowledge of how to deal with it when the time comes (which we all pray doesn’t).
Q: What kind of weapons do you teach?
Medium staff (walking stick/cane/Jo)
Sword (Japanese and its European counterpart)
A wide range of improvised weapons which simulate a knife, a kubotan, a Jo or a baton.
Q: I have tried (and felt the sting from it when you hit me in sparring) several excellent training weapons prototypes, please tell us more about those (which models, prices, where to
A: Well, the idea was to create a simulator (or a trainer) which would give the fighter the realistic feel for weapon combat while trying to minimize (for obvious reasons) the possible consequences of going overboard with such an ambition. We have created trainers which allow us to practice actual combat with minimal protection (extremely important) while maintaining the proper weight, size, balance and the very shape of the simulator with respect to the weapon it represents(hardly debatable point, yet overlooked in so many sports today…).
Our machete looks and feels like a machete and the same goes for a knife and the sword and if you take a hit from it you’ll feel it. Well. But you will not be disabled and you will have known that you have been hit and the very experience will teach you better than some lessons. You will learn to respect the weapon and to not trust the protective gear and to respond properly to a true, non distorted attack (be it because of the sport induced shape discrepancy or a half heartedly faked aggression due to the lack of protective layer on a metal knife simulator). The proper simulator will make you respect the weapon but after enough training to not fear it. You will also know the exact limitations you have as a non armed person trying to fend off an armed assailant when the latter can come after you with everything he’s got and you are NOT wearing protective gear.
So to sum it up – proper simulator in every physical aspect = proper intent = proper learning process!
Q: What is your personal favorite weapon to fight with?
A: Depends, of course, are we talking close range or long, impact or blade…But when all is said and done, at this point, I think a medium staff, Jo, is my weapon of choice. Devastating power, fantastic speed and handling, a wide arsenal of strikes and a great ability to transit from range to range by shifting your hands in the weapon. Absolutely love it and there is something primal in swinging a big stick but in a refined manner. A weapon which can kill or not and it gives you a choice. A weapon which also has a great historical meaning while maintaining its practicality in today’s world.
Q: What is your personal favorite weapon for self defense?
A: I’d have to choose a tactical baton. Less lethal than a knife and has a greater reach. Can be used in close quarters and in a long range engagement, can be used folded or extended or even in both hands. Easy to carry, easy to conceal. Unfortunately, illegal in several countries. But then the very question is “illegal”- “weapon for self defense” is an oxymoron. But semantics and legalities aside, when we are talking protecting your life I prefer it to other tools including the knife. I may teach knife combat but I prefer to have a choice or at least a chance that my assailant will not be killed. Plus I prefer the baton for multiple opponents’ scenario.
Q: Do you teach empty hand defense against weapons, and what are the most important principles of it?
A: Yes I do teach it; however, since we are talking about armed combat (A.C.T. remember?) we prefer to concentrate on the armed option when I have at least a pen in my hand. After all to be prepared is half victory and you rarely leave your house without your keys. Also to carry a pen is hardly illegal is it? A magic marker? I mean everything can be used as a weapon. Approaching a possible confrontation from this angle is something that we specialize in but it is not exclusive, so of course there is an empty hand curriculum against an assault.
One of the most important principles in A.C.T. is the sincerity of the assailant. That doesn’t mean he is stupid, far from it. But if you want to know how to fight a street thug or a knife expert you better know HOW they operate and that means training with full intent. And playing with the format of the attack a lot! But that is for training. For fighting itself…I guess the ONLY principles that matter and are worth working on are these:
a. Recognition of the attack and it’s categorizing (armed/unarmed, left side/right side, multiple opponents/single attacker, confined space and so on).
b. Knowing your options – retreating if possible, be it through surrendering your belongings or through fast talk and even faster flight; and of course knowing when to stand your ground.
c. If attacking first – be decisive about it, don’t dwell on it.
d. If attacked first – intercept, shut down the next attack and inflict maximum damage to the opponent while clearing the way to a safe rout to retreat.
e. If attacked first by several opponents: MOVE and strike and MOVE and strike and then MOVE some more.
Q: How many instructors are there in A.C.T. and in which countries?
A: There are 10 full instructors and A.C.T. is currently operating (groups) in Israel, UK and Japan.
Q: Do you think that using minimum protective gear is essential in learning to really fight with weapons?
A: Oh yes, absolutely. To name a few aspects directly affected by this approach are:
a. The ability to correctly judge distance
b. Definite improvement in the reflex of closing one’s eyes while being attacked to the face and, of course, while one attacks to the face (quite a common condition)
c. The oh so necessary understanding of consequences to an ill timed strike or a “kamikaze” rush when all you get yourself is a ” glorious” double kill
d. The clear ability to distinct a glancing blow which would only graze you to a knock out strike which you disregard on the account of being protected by a mask, vest or hockey gloves.
e. The clear improvement in mental ability to look in the eyes of the assailant which swings a club at you and to not be intimidated but rather to response the way you have been trained.
f. And, of course, the getting used to be struck, the pain factor. Although I prefer to get used to not being struck and let my opponent to train on that one, if you don’t mind.
Q: What kind of gear do you use at A.C.T.?
A: For all types of blade – goggles only. One of the principles of A.C.T. is to go for the eyes and facial strikes in blade combat whenever possible. The idea is to inflict immediate shock, pain and possible impaired eye vision. The goggles give us the opportunity to strike that target with no damage to the eyes while maintaining the combat integrity when anything goes in combat (strikes to the face included, of course). The masks however distort the feeling of the cut to the face and while they are better then nothing they give (again in blade combat) a false feeling of protection which makes the fighter oblivious to certain danger to his ability to work as a model. Same goes for the gloves – I believe a lot of strikes to the fingers and wrists would finish a bout with a solid chop by a machete or a heavy duty knife, but hey, it’s just my opinion. Of course not in all cases a fight would be over, but one would definitely have an advantage.
So for a knife, a machete, a sword and any type of blade we put goggles ONLY, but that is a choice of the student at the end of the day. Fortunately our simulators sting (like you said) but don’t break bones and bruises are not counted, right?
For a Jo fight we gear up with the masks. There is no escape here, we don’t want to rearrange the training partner’s face and so mask is on.
Q: What are the A.C.T. rules for weapons sparring?
A: The idea is to keep the understanding of the realities of weapon combat to the maximum.
So the rules (if one can call them that) fall under the B.A.S.E. principle:
B.A. – Basic Anatomy. Certain strikes are good to finish the fight and some aren’t. Know your weapon and know the types of damage that weapon deals. Certain strikes are better than the others given the context. Like a strike on the thigh with a staff hurts a lot but surely is not equivalent to a simultaneous full swing to the head. You get the idea. The strike that removes couple of fingers from the left hand of the right handed knife fighter can stop a fight. It really can. But the question is whether he was not rushing at the same time to run his knife through your throat or gut. Then that cut to the fingers doesn’t look so hot anymore does it? Sometimes it just so happens that the ONLY option to counter an attack with the knife is to put your arm in front. Not because you want to. You were outfought. But you CAN and SHOULD try to make the best of it and while you know that you are going to the hospital you can try to send your opponent to the morgue by simultaneously ramming the knife in his throat. So every strike or exchange is looked at from the timing/damage point of view.
S – Striking. It must be done properly. Edge alignment. No strikes with the flat of the edge (the proper simulators really help here, won’t you agree?), no light tapping. A cut or a thrust must be delivered with proper force.
E – Everything goes. That means all is fair in combat. You want to strike at any target. NO limitations. Face, eyes, fingers, legs, torso, head, back etc. No sportive limitations. Grappling is encouraged, but, please, before you start your clinch work , remember that the other guy has a knife and can stab you while you are lining up for the hip throw. And to be stabbed from the guard is just as dangerous as if you were standing up. All is allowed when you are fighting with a short range weapon as well as the long one. BUT! We do strive to keep the fighters safe. So we know how to “show” kicks to the groin and empty hand strikes to the face and throat. Everything goes doesn’t mean that “anything” goes. Control while fighting is important. That said when someone wants to have a go, we have a go. One learns from it. The contact with a weapon is full. Period. But if I can show an opponent that he is “dead” I don’t have to always take his head off. Fight with a weapon and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
B.A.S.E. = basic principles of weapon engagement.
Q: Do you plan on writing a book, or filming a DVD about weapons?
A: Absolutely. There has been stuff brewing inside for a while and it is not a bad meal. We are working currently on both. The idea is to go through the material learned in a decade of experience of every day weapon fighting and to share the ideas and conclusions with the readers/viewers.
Q: Do you have any advice for people in Serbia who are interested in learning to fight with weapons?
A: Those who wish to learn how to fight with weapons should do precisely that. Fight with weapons. Learn from your own experience as well as from what you are being taught.
To fight with weapons means to understand armed combat and as such become more proficient when facing an armed assailant even empty handed.
Make your training as realistic as possible. An “uke” (a training partner simulating the attack) which is performing a half hearted attack is doing his partner a great disservice by instilling improper habits. The attacks should be with full intent (not to be confused with full power). For example an attack with a knife on the straight line is not going to happen with a full step like so many times practiced but rather from close distance and with les power then people think to allow a quick “reload” and a repeated attack.
The attacker (in practice) should NOT be stupid. He can act out a crazed, enraged and aggressive assailant, but he is NOT to be stupid about it. Even in total state of rage basic motoric skills and some rudimentary tactics are there even when totally committed to the attack. The attacker will still be able to grab you and to change angles of attack and to repeat his attacks. He might be fierce and he might be oblivious to the damage to himself (yet another very important mode of training!!), but he will not be stupid. Crazy, yes. There is nothing stupid about approaching someone with the knife. Just the opposite, the most “stupid” attack might get you.
The attacker (the real one) will use stealth and psychology in order to get closer to you so use that in your training. The attack is going to be abrupt and almost always a surprise, so choose what you train on bearing in mind that without martial context the technique is lacking. You need to feel when just as you need to know what and how.
In weapon combat for the skilled fighters and not merely a street assault one should pay extra attention on the “don’t get killed” factor. Means to get your opponent is ultra important but, PLEASE, not by sacrificing yourself. Try to think one step beyond your attack and see whether your opponent can still deliver a “post mortem” blow. Don’t be too sportive about it but try to not become too much of a “brute”. A weapon fighter is always a smart fighter.
Diversify. Learn to fight against tall as well as small opponents. Left- handed and right handed. Aggressive and cunning. Any style, any weapon. You should know how to fight with weapons, no matter where the opponent comes from.
Test and challenge everything.
Last notion I’d like to leave you with. In the times long past a master was considered a fighter that arrived to a strange place and won a challenge against three kinds of opponents: a local expert (best fighter), a local thug and a local drunk. One should know how to deal not only with a specialist, but also with a less refined adversary which just “goes for it” and often doesn’t even understand what you are doing but most importantly just wants to hurt you and goes all out. Brute force, if you will, but not dumb and NOT inexperienced in fighting, far from it. A dirty fighter. And of course to fight a drunk, means that he just might keep coming at you when you think he is done if only because he feels less pain. Fighting him is also difficult because he fights “weird”.
Train for those and you will be all right. Respect the weapon. Respect the fighter. Respect your craft. And remember to have fun. Cause it is!
Head of Armed Combat & Tactics school
the interview first apeared here: http://borilacki-klub.com/blogovi/intervju-sa-aleksom-zeleznijakom-i-deo/