Interview: Matthew Apsokardu on Traditional Martial Arts and Self Defence


Do Traditional Martial Artists have their head in the sand when it comes to self defence?

Some do, no doubt, but some do not. This interview is an example of one who most definitely does not.

Traditional Martial Arts are not just focused on self defence. Students are also studying an art. Some students practising Traditional Martial Arts are learning self defence skills they would never have been exposed to otherwise. Some would never have sought out a self defence class or course. So this exposure is a great thing for people. Traditional Martial Arts is how I began on the path.

I asked Matthew Apsokardu to do this interview as I know him from his blog (and you probably will too), Ikigai Way. Matt has been studying the martial arts for 16 years and has acquired the rank of 4th Dan Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo of the Nakamura Shigeru, Odo Seikichi, Bruce Heilman lineage. He is a good guy who always offers some straight up commentary on matters I raise here on this site about violent behaviour such as knife attacks. He has also written some very interesting posts on his site as well that make for interesting reading. He is very experienced and knowledgable in the martial arts world yet still very humble.

I wanted to ask Matt from a Traditional (and Classical) Martial Arts background his opinions on matters relating to self defence. I want people to see what he responds with. His answers demonstrate that not all Traditional Martial Artists have an unrealistic perception of real violent behaviour and violent attacks. A good Traditional Martial Artist understands his arts strengths and weaknesses and is not blinded by his involvement.

Let's begin.

Matt, can you give us a short brief of your background and about how you got involved in martial arts and what led you to become such an expert?

I wouldn’t use the word expert anywhere around me, but I’d be happy to share a bit about my background.

I started my training in Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo when I was about 11 years old. I didn’t really know what Okinawa Kenpo was or how it was different than other martial arts, but it seemed like a fun and engaging activity.

Lucky for me, an individual named Bruce Heilman had been bringing his instructor, Odo Seikichi, to the U.S. for some time and was based around Reading, PA, not far from where I lived. I started at one of Heilman Sensei’s branch schools, but ultimately came to study under him directly.

Over the years I’ve gotten to study with many of Heilman Sensei’s contemporaries and friends, all of whom are respected instructors in their particular fields.

About 8 years ago I also began formal study of the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu style of swordsmanship, although I am not a direct lineage student.

Who or what was one of the biggest helps / lessons /reference points etc. in steering you down the path in your earlier days?

Multiple times a year Heilman Sensei arranged training gatherings with martial artists from all over that he knew to be of high quality in both character and martial content (a habit which he continues to this day).

Seeing those senior artists come together and operate at a high level always inspired me, and ingrained a sense of openness about traditional arts.

I later came to learn that Heilman Sensei was carrying on a long Okinawa Kenpo tradition of sharing, started by Nakamura Shigeru as he built his Okinawa Kenpo Renmei with individuals such as Shimabukuro Zenryo and Uehara Seikichi.

What do you feel are the 3 best aspects of traditional martial arts that directly improve ones self defence skills and/or ability?

I’d like to take a temporary semantic detour. In my mind, there is a significant difference between classical martial arts and traditional martial arts, the exact differentiation points of which are debatable.

I generally think of classical martial arts as those that developed prior to the influence of World War II. Traditional arts are those that developed during the lead up to the war, during the conflict, and as a result afterward.

The focus of classical arts and traditional arts as I have defined them were, and continue to be, very different.

My personal training straddles the fence between the two, as certain aspects of Okinawa Kenpo have been affected by Nakamura Shigeru’s time in the “karate school system” as well as his later life as he reached back deeper into the art’s core essence via instructors like Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Furthermore, my direct instructors come from a varying amount of experience in both classical and traditional worlds.

One of the biggest fundamental differences between classical and traditional is the focus on sport and regimentation. Classical karate was an intriguing intermingling of experience and resources (Okinawa being a highly utilized crossroads for trade and travel). As such, The Okinawans were concerned with effectiveness in their techniques and how efficiently they could ward off very real threats from Wako (pirates), intruders, and each other.

As WWII began to ramp up, Japanese influence caused karate to skew in the direction of physical fitness and mental readiness for military obedience. After the war, the bad taste of those efforts caused karate and other arts to keep the physical fitness aspects but move in a more benign sport direction, losing a lot of lethality in the process.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest three aspects that traditional training still offers of value:

1. Muscle memory through rote repetition of kata and kihon. The simpler, the better, hence an overarching love of naihanchi kata once it is understood (although it performs terribly at tournaments).

2. Increased impact tolerance and reduction of conflict fear through the use of sparring drills.

3. Increased sense of self confidence and lowering of “victim behavior” through posture, eye contact, demeanor, etc.

What are the two biggest shortcomings of traditional martial arts that affect peoples self defence skills and/or ability?

Continuing with the discussion of traditional:

1. Lack of training in realistic conflict drills, stemming from an over-reliance on sparring “games” and kata repetition.

2. Often as a result of #1 - a false sense of confidence and ability that results in serious injury or mental shutdown during real self defense encounters.

What areas of traditional martial arts are likely to evolve in the future?

The evolution of traditional martial arts is going to be highly influenced by the continued impact of MMA and the tournament circuit.

More and more ground/clinch fighting is likely to be introduced into traditional schools that didn’t have any of those aspects built into their systems.

Alternatively, the effectiveness of other styles will continue to dwindle as they focus primarily on competitive aspects of martial sport.

What is one (or more) of the best drills used in traditional martial arts that are relevant for developing self defence skills?

Kata is certainly the most important weapon in a traditionalist’s arsenal when it comes to developing skill. That being said, kata can also be used as a cover-up for laziness in drill creativity.

One drill I happen to like a lot is the “turn around attacker”. In this drill, all the students in a class make a single file line in front of one of their classmates. The lone classmate (Tori) then turns his back on the would-be attackers (Uke).

One at a time the attackers walk up behind Tori, and as Tori either hears or feels them coming, he/she turns around. As Tori turns around, Uke attacks in an unpredictable fashion (sucker punch to the face, grabbing at the shirt, grabbing the arm, etc).

It is then Tori’s job to utilize his/her flinch response to avoid/evade/intercept the initial aggression and conduct an effective response to eliminate the threat. Tori is not to stop until Uke is clearly handled. Strikes are done to vulnerable targets but are not conducted with full contact.

This drill doesn’t address noticing pre-attack indicators, but there are other drills for that. This one is highly valuable for getting past that moment of initial aggression.

Fundamentally, cases of assault and muggings are quite different to each other with different mind sets, goals etc., What type of attack do traditional martial arts mostly concentrate on?

A lot of traditional schools address both. They utilize sparring environments to simulate an assault scenario where precursors provide a level of preparedness and indication that violence is on the way. Also, sparring is rarely lethal (which fits into the alpha male category of assault violence).

Self defense repetition drills usually do the job of preparing people for mugging scenarios. This is where you’ll frequently hear action-response explanations, i.e. “if an attacker points a gun like this, you do this. Ok now try it”.

I’m not suggesting these separate methods are entirely effective, especially when left unintegrated into a more complete whole, but that’s what you’ll see.

Will someone be proficient at dealing with most likely self defence situations after becoming a black belt in a traditional martial art?

Acquiring a black belt is definitely not a guarantee that an individual will be prepared for self defense environments. I can tell you, looking back at myself when I was a Shodan, I still had plenty of gaps in my understanding and ability.

On the flipside, I’ve met some green and brown belts who could more than adequately handle themselves in self defense situations. The belt color doesn’t translate universally for all martial artists; personal aptitude and quality of training are much more important factors.

What is the best attitude/perspective etc. for a traditional martial artist to have, to help them along the path to effective self defence?

To me, love for a traditional art is expressed when you are the most unyielding skeptic about what you do. If you aren’t aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your style then you are trying to protect what it represents rather than what it was originally built for.

Good traditional/classical styles will hold up to scrutiny, but they won’t appear flawless. That can be scary for some individuals, especially after they spend 20,30,40 years training in it.

The best attitude for a traditionalist is one of balance. It’s important to preserve the cultural traditions, kata, and philosophical underpinnings of an art while not being frozen into complacency by them.

Can you provide some real world examples of some traditional martial arts students (or instructors) who have applied what they learnt in real self defence situations?

I’m happy to say that I train with some truly impressive individuals. I thank all of my instructors and influences for their pragmatic approaches. They manage to preserve what their teachers shared with them while also grounding their methods in reality. Just a few specific examples:

• Major Bill Hayes of Shobayashi Ryu is a rare classical martial artist who truly embodies the spirit of Okinawa. He took karate with him on his second tour of duty in Vietnam and was also one of the founding developers of MCMAP, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

• Jody Paul is a direct student of Toma Shian and Uehara Seikichi (Seidokan and Motobu Udundi, respectively). He was also a member of the initial Navy Seals team. His training revolved around small team operations conflict.

• Miguel Ibarra is an instructor of Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu and also a probation officer in Bronx, New York. He has an extensive knowledge on the effectiveness of techniques and the varying uses of pain compliance vs mechanical debilitation.

What are some of the common problems that traditional martial artists experience in real self defence situations?

A common problem for traditionalists is the chaotic and tight nature of real conflict.

Too much sparring set at an intermediate distance can create great intermediate technique, but sacrifices the ability to shift range. The mind can easily lose its focus and fluidity if a habitual distance is altered and conflict gets messy.

Furthermore, an over-reliance on scripted yakusoku kumite (prearranged block-punch encounters) can provide a false sense of technique improvement, as the issue of assessing unknown attack indicators is completely ignored.

If you had to give away one secret about self defence, what would it be?

Don’t underestimate the impact of your eyes. Where you look leading up to conflict and during conflict can have drastic effects on how matters develop.

Leading up to an altercation, the eyes can be used to dominate and subdue an opponent of lesser spirit. However, they can also cause an alpha male to feel threatened and move more quickly toward violence.

Similarly, eye contact with a potential predator can invite them to latch onto you or begin a conversation, while glancing sheepishly away will spark their innate instinct to search for weakness.

During conflict, the eyes should not become fixated on anything in particular. Personally, I prefer to avoid staring directly into an opponent’s eyes as it can cause wayward trains of thought, reducing reaction time and flow. A broad gaze based around the center of the chest tends to allow for optimal viewing and reduces intimidation and personalization.

In swordsmanship, an opponent is simply a recipient of your technique, nothing more.

What is one thing traditional martial artists can take away right now to enhance their self defence skills?

Put yourself in situations where you might not look like a polished expert of all things violence. In exchange you get a chance to test your abilities to handle chaotic attacks and self defense situations.

There is a pervasive idea that in the dojo (or dojang) every block should work and every strike should be a one-hit-kill. These are lofty ideals, and something worth working towards, but it also inspires people to hide from failure.

I enjoy the times when my abilities break down or when a technique thuds with resounding ineffectiveness. It’s a reality check, and an opportunity to discover where I need to improve.

Where can people find more information about you and your thoughts on traditional martial arts?

I write over at my martial arts blog entitled Ikigai Way. The topics include thoughts on classical training in karate, kobudo, swordsmanship, and general matters like self defense and martial philosophy.

I also have an interviews section where you can learn more about some of the people I mentioned above and other important folk in the classical/traditional community.

For anyone interested in more about how classical karate can translate into modern day conflict, they may want to check out this project: Natural Karate.

Matthew, thanks very much for your comprehensive answers.

It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. I hope you, the reader, have found the interview interesting reading.

Although I generally recommend people to avoid Traditional Martial Arts purely in a self defence context as there are better options out there, I still believe they can be very valuable and fulfilling for peoples lives. They can be beneficial for self defence and for developing other areas of themselves.

What are your thoughts on this interview? I personally found Matt's responses very interesting and insightful. Share your thoughts below in the comments section.


Header image via Miguel Tejada-Flores