So, nine days ago the Mixed Martial Arts program my wife and I had been training in was canceled, and we’ve been shopping for a new school in our area. We’re serious students, twenty years deep in empty-hand and weapons, so the general run of strip-mall karate and TKD joints just isn’t going to do it for us. We require a school with high-quality instruction that can teach us stuff we haven’t seen before.
Fortunately, the area where we live (Chester County in southeastern Pennsylvania) an affluent section of the Boswash metroplex and thus probably nearly as good as it gets in the U.S. for choice. Internet searches turned up two strong possibilities, in addition to the third which is to stick with our current dojo and switch to Tang Soo Do.
We’ve now been to do evaluation classes at both. This is an after-action report likely to be of interest to martial artists of any description, and I’m hoping that the process of writing will help me clarify my thoughts about an interesting trilemma.
A bit of digging with Google actually turned up three possibilities that looked interesting. One place called “Mr. Stuart’s Martial Arts” in West Chester, about 15 munutes from here, teaching MMA and boxing and a system called Haganah F.I.G.H.T that appears to be a variant or close relative of Krav Maga. Another: a local branch of “Steve DeMasco’s Shaolin Studios” 15 minutes in the opposite direction. A third was a location in West Pikeland, about 20 minutes away, teaching Systema.
Alas, the Systema teacher is probably out as a place for steady training. Small school, one class a week on Tuesday nights, conflicts with Cathy’s twice-monthly Borough Council meetings. We’re going to go audit one class, though, in case he schedules more time slots. Haven’t been there yet.
We went to Mr. Stuart’s first to check out Haganah F.I.G.H.T. The place is a converted garage in the poorest end of West Chester – actually, the bit just north of it is a rougher neighborhood than I knew the town even had before I went there. (West Chester is both the county seat and a college town, prosperous and tidy and middle-class – full of red-brick Federal architecture and shade trees.) Inside the place has something of the atmosphere of an old-time boxing gym, including a regulation sized platform ring and a lot of hard-used punching bags.
The students are an interesting mix. A large contingent of college kids and twentysomething white-collar workers (good number of these female), a slightly smaller contingent of shaven-headed would-be hard guys with a lot of ‘tude who aren’t nearly as intimidating as they’d probably like to think they are, and a smallish group with no ‘tude at all who you can spot as the serious martial artists by the way they move and their complete disinterest in looking obviously badass.
Mr. Stuart himself turned out to look like one of the tattooed would-be hard guys, but in his case I don’t think that’s writing any check he can’t cash. Likes to loudly simulate being an asshole, but there’s a twinkle in his eye and all his students are in on the joke. Cathy and I both liked him instantly; I suspect he has that effect on a lot of people.
The training was interesting. Certainly matched the descriptions I’ve read of Krav Maga; close fighting with a lot of brutal soft-tissue strikes (crotch kicks, fingernail rakes, ear smashes, eye gouges). No kicks above waist level (good news for me; with my palsy issues I suck at high-kicking). The style rewards aggression and upper-body power, making it a good match for me both physically and psychologically.
Whether by chance or design, I ended up paired for combat drills with three assistant instructors and a woman who’s obviously a long-term student. All four were impressively capable – smooth moves, excellent physical control, excellent awareness and analytical eye (all four quickly made me as someone who’d been around the track a few times). The three I had opportunity to make the request of cheerfully honored my wish to spar to light contact, and showed no hesitation at all about taking light strikes from me (even the woman mixed it up with me at breath-on-the-cheek range and seemed to enjoy same). An excellent time was had by all.
Cathy and I left feeling like we’d be respected and welcomed by the core group there. Reasonably so, as they probably don’t get walk-ins with our experience level very often; still, it was a nice feeling. And it says a lot about Mr. Stuart, all of it good, that his assistant instructors are so capable.
Nor did I mind having Mr. Stuart publicly tease me about my Asian stances and guard reflexes (“You’ve been studying way too much martial arts – that shit’ll get you killed.”). I got the point; for various functional reasons, fighters in this style guard more like Western boxers, and don’t want to do anything that telegraphs them as martial artists until they actually have to go in and take out an opponent. I actually think a boxing-style close guard is a gloves-induced adaptation that’s a mistake when fighting bare-knuckled, but my first class in a new style isn’t the right time to have that argument with anybody.
Overall, I like the style. It suits me, I think I suit it. I think I’d pick it up quickly and effectively, and it may well be the most brutally practical art I’ve ever seen. The only detail I can complain about is that the place has no changing rooms, which will complicate our logistics a bit if we continue there.
Our second visit was to the Shaolin studio, on Route 30 in Berwyn, which means too upscale to have strip malls; the building looked like a converted dance studio.
It appears they teach very traditional five-animal-style kung fu – again, nothing surprising to me; I’ve seen a lot of the moves before though not done them. Dan Simmons the instructor made a point of telling us he doesn’t teach in the traditional hard-ass style, though, and it was pretty obvious why; the students are mostly suburban upper-middle-class kids who’d be yanked by their parents in a heartbeat if anybody went all old-school on them. Less…gritty…than the crowd at Mr. Stuart’s; I couldn’t imagine any of the would-be hard boys from West Chester walking in here, or even wanting to. Perhaps the most serious knock on the place is that they don’t spar to contact in regular classes – you have to go to the Saturday sparring class for that.
Still, these people weren’t just dancing. Shaolin is a beautiful art that is obviously lethal in the hands of a skilled practitioner – more obviously than, say, wing chun (which I’ve trained in before). You could see some of that deadly elegance starting to manifest in the more advanced students.
I learned a new move, the “crane strike” – same body dynamics as a tae kwon do ridge hand, but hitting with the forearm bone. I also noticed that the moves I found most natural were tiger form – palm hand and rake, especially. I’m pretty sure that’s going to turn out to be “my” animal if I work this style.
The drills include a fair amount of kicking (often well above the waist) which is unfortunate for me. And I’m dubious about the style being as practical as Krav Maga. The instructor asserts confidently that it is, but such claims always need to be taken with several grains of salt. Still…what fun it would be!
I mean, if what you want to do is your classic impressive-as-hell chop-sockey moves with nifty exotic names, Shaolin has got your satisfaction right here. Pure crack for anybody who digs on wuxia movies and has been harboring a sneaking desire to be Kwai-Chang Caine since, like, 1972. Which category, I blushingly admit, includes me.
Not as much depth on the instructor bench as Mr. Stuart’s, which is a consideration (this is a smaller and younger school). Also, there’s a changing room, but just one, and it’s barely bigger than a phone booth. Which creates certain problems at beginning and end of class, though the students are cheerful about it. I’m beginning to think maybe I’ve been unaware of a certain degree of luxury at my previous schools.
Our third alternative is to stay where we are at Iron Circle, a convenient seven minutes from home (with changing rooms!) and do Tang Soo Do. We know and trust Master George Maybroda (the chief of school there) and the other instructors; we’ve seen enough of those classes to know what we’d be getting.
And that’s the problem, really. Cathy and I earned tae kwon do black belts at a school that was pretty good – enough so that the two times I went to Korea and sought out martial-arts demonstrations I didn’t see many people at all who were trained up to our standard. And tang soo do is not very different – a bit softer and more circular, maybe, emphasizing speed a bit more and power a bit less.
We could do Tang Soo Do. I asked, and the chief instructor (who knows us quite well and likes us) agrees that starting us at white belts would bore the crap out of us and waste everybody’s time. Likely we’d test in at some mid-belt level and then, alas, I fear we’d squeeze the available juice out of the style in eighteen months to two years. I’d like to be wrong about this, but the structure and the people to take us much past first dan just don’t seem to be in place here.
Thus our trilemma. Each of the choices available to us maximizes something; what we need to do is decide what we want. If it’s just to maintain the skills we already have and stay fit in a setting that is maximally convenient, Iron Circle. For practical combat training, Mr. Stuart’s probably has the edge. For nifty exotic variations and mad-fun wuxia badassery, neither of the other places could touch the Shaolin studio.
I’m a bit amused with myself, really. My head says “Go do Haganah F.I.G.H.T.”, because my personal threat model still includes a way-outside chance of Iranian assassins, and being able to take out a crazed jihadi hand-to-hand is more or less exactly what that style was designed for. My heart says “Fool, that’s why you carry a gun. Go act out your wuxia fantasies at that Shaolin place. You know you want to.” Then some other random organ whispers that Iron Circle is so conveeenient…
Cathy’s having trouble with this too. She’s less drawn by the Shaolin studio than I (though obviously willing to do it if I really want to) and perhaps a bit more swayed by the advantages of not having to change schools and drive further. But she liked Mr. Stuart’s, a lot, too.
How to choose? This will take some meditation.