The Historical Basis for Sparring In or In Conjunction With Traditional Martial Art Training

The following is a letter (email) I wrote to several of my hapkido training brothers/sisters on September 1, 2013. I had recently received my hapkido black belt and begun cross-training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a means of adding resistance based grappling to my training regimen. This letter was essentially my attempt to establish a historical precedence for the necessity (and commonality) of resistance based freestyle grappling as a compliment to or an integrated aspect of more so-called ‘traditional’ jujutsu or aikijujutsu practice. It was and still is my belief that Choi Yong-Sul’s hapkido was/is the Korean branch of the Japanese Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, not necessarily in lineage, but in essence.

What follows is a sort of historical record of a major turning point in my martial art career and in my life and attitude toward training. I plan on unpacking and expounding on different aspects of this letter in future writings, but I think this letter, by itself, has a lot of good discussion fodder. Therefore, I left it intact, updated slightly (links, etc.), for your reading and contemplation.

The letter starts here:

For what it’s worth…

In all of my martial arts research, primarily focused on hapkido and Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, I kept coming back to one author/historian/martial artist named Ellis Amdur. It started by reading his article on hapkido’s obvious technical connection to Daito-ryu aikijujutsu entitled A Conversation with Daito-ryu’s Other Child (republished in the book Dueling with O-Sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage). Like researching music, one thing led to another and I was led to and fro from article to book to article, etc. In this research, I came a cross several interesting martial arts discussion forums. Not being overly interested in arguments or the opinions of the uneducated or uninitiated, I sought out the columns/discussions of specific people based on their backgrounds, lineages, and writing style. Anyway, I kept coming back to the writings of Ellis Amdur. He’s a licensed teacher in two classical Japanese arts and is extremely prolific, especially recently, writing in a tone that I find to be refreshing and kindred to my spirit. His experiences and writings (specifically his book Hidden in Plain Sight – Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power) have been instrumental in my new-found belief that a well-rounded martial artist, if one wants to be both effective and powerful, must have a training regimen made up of a sort of “three-legged stool.”

1. Principle-based kata (form) practice

2. Randori (free-style) practice

3. Solo (and paired) “internal strength” practice

It should be noted that, in spite of the commonly held belief that “we don’t spar” or “we don’t compete” in the aiki-arts, Takeda Sokaku, the founder of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, the art that branched off into both hapkido and aikido, participated in “competition” based training in the form of sumo, kenjutsu, and other cross-training. Daito-ryu aikijujutsu was the sum of his training experiences, not the way that he trained in order to get there. In Japan, at the time Takeda was alive, sumo was as ubiquitous as baseball is in America. Everyone did it. Later, judo was born and became as common a physical fitness activity. So, essentially everyone had some kind of body-to-body free-style training.

Enter Choi Yong-Sul. If he indeed spent 30 years in Japan, training with Takeda, he too would have trained sumo (maybe even judo) on a regular basis. Interestingly, all of Choi’s first students in Korea were judo black belts. It’s impossible that judo randori was not happening in his dojang. What’s more, if Choi (and Takeda alike) did not have expert abilities in resistance-based randori, they would have never been able to handle those walking in their doors (or into whose doors they themselves walked).

If we look objectively at our hapkido black belt line-up, we’ll see that the most martially effective/powerful black belts, specifically Joe Sheya and Doug McKnew (my two primary hapkido teachers), spent many years training in other disciplines. Each has had experience in resistance-based sparring in one form or another – likewise, each has trained in solo (and/or paired) internal strength based methods such as qigong, tai-chi, etc – whether it be boxing, wrestling, or even sparring-based karate. Furthermore, each spent many years dealing with “resisting opponents” running security at Red Eye’s Dock Bar (a “competitive” act in itself) – I just happen to hate (with a capital H) corralling drunks. I don’t think that their “outside” training experiences and their efficacy in hapkido are a coincidence – the inverse is also true in their students.

Personally, I don’t want what Takeda Sokaku, Choi Yong-Sul, Joe Sheya, or Doug McKnew offer in the form of the art they taught/teach- I want what they HAD or HAVE in the form of their skills and abilities. Along those lines, I want my line of hapkido, if I have one, to include in its pedagogy such training methods so that we can, hopefully, re-empower the art.*

Here are two excerpts, written by Ellis Amdur, from two separate forum discussions that essentially led me to take the plunge into cross-training in modern resistance-based grappling, specifically in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (my sumo).

1. “Classical Jujutsu Without Freestyle Ain’t Classical Anyway” 21st February 2002

The genius of judo (continued in offshoots like sambo, BJJ, etc.) is the ability to chain and link techniques. “Modern classical jujutsu,” having lost the randori component, lacks the wherewithal to foster this. There is no doubt that sets of kata that focus on use of a weapon while pinning and stabbing are more directly applicable to close combat with edged weapons than judo (et al), as far as the techniques go. BUT – speaking as a practitioner of classical methods who has also studied some level of judo (not enough, sadly) – without a randori component, which most “modern classical jujutsu” now lacks, the classicist is not prepared for the wiggling, thrashing chaos that is, so I am told, real combat – not fights – combat to the death. A combat veteran discusses this in the Winter, 2002 issue of Hoplite, where he describes, among other things, stabbing himself in the process of killing an enemy.

Kano’s genius, in “eliminating the dangerous techniques,” as the cliche goes, was to make a method of training that allows one to really chain techniques and go all out. Variants, such as sambo, and BJJ strive to set up different parameters (called rules) which hopefully bring the training closer (one aspect) of the real thing. There is no doubt that when koryu was “genryu” (“now ryu“), they sparred. The methods were crude. These days, people in both police and separately, in military circles, are trying to make training methods which develop the fluidity and responsiveness needed – with the weapons and clothing etc. required. Judo/BJJ and koryu conceivably both offer components for this – the components in neither would be sufficient alone. One way to think of it is kata is the letters on the page – randori is the ‘white’ – the spaces between the letters. A good combative system must have both. I believe that a genuine koryu system – at least as far as grappling goes – must have a randori component (or the randori practiced elsewhere – sumo, judo, BJJ, etc), or it gets dessicated.

One thing that proved this to me. One line of Yagyu Shingan Ryu was headed by the estimable Muto Maso, and seconded by Fujisada ???. I think Muto got the leadership role, among other things, because he was a few days senior. Muto was a very good weapons man, as was Fujisada. YSR has a strong grappling section, dealing with kumiuchi – “battlefield” grappling. There was no doubt that Fujisada was several major levels above Muto in this area and, also, any area of the ryu that had close contact, with weapons or without. The difference? Muto was a koryu man, exclusively. Fujisada a sixth dan in judo, very old school judo (I became friendly with him, and very much regret family and work responsibilities did not allow me to train judo with him.)

[paragraph removed for continuity]

I’ve probably told this story before, but what the heck. Fooling around, I told a judo instructor friend of mine in Japan that, due to my koryu skill, I was unstranglible. He, of course, challenged me. I lay on my back and he put a cross-collar on me. I can take a good strangle for a few moments, and I used forceful pressure on points in his rib cage with my knuckles, and he shot over my head in agony (note this is a form of hypnosis – I set up conditions whereby, as will be seen, he ‘forgot’ what he could do). He was majorly upset. I was laughing – Kirin beer fuels such whimsey – and I said, “O.K. Let’s do it again. You’re pissed, right? So let’s imagine I just raped your sister. C’mon, bro, get into it. Imagine my judo-defeating hairy gaijin self on your sister. Strangle me again!” See, I really wanted to see if this kyusho pressure stuff worked under real conditions! He jumps on me, slams the cross-choke home, I’m resisting all my might, and I’m already starting to go out. Put on the pressure points hard – NOTHING! Spread my arms wide, knuckles out, and with all my might, slammed them home, right in the prescribed points. (He had bruises for weeks, and I might have slightly cracked his cartilage at one point). Next thing I remember is the revival. We both started laughing and poured another. The point being that a) pressure points, as most people conceive of them, are really are not combative moves they go with the Klingon Death touch. b) the proof of this only comes up in free-style, which includes what happens to the body when you are enraged, and totally committed, and don’t care about pain.

BTW – the other side of the equation is that a REAL kata encodes what actually happens/happened to someone in the heat of battle – passed down as a training method to those of us who, in addition to needing the training, don’t have the real life experience. It’s got incredible depth of info – but it dries up if the practitioner is dried up – which is what happens if kata is ALL you do.

As for the attitude thing – one writer complained about the “attitude” of a couple of BJJ guys. Generally, I’ve found more comfort and trust among men who actually measure themselves – boxers, kick boxers, grapplers – than in the more sterile arts. I recall, in Japan at least, far more incidents severe enough to make the newspaper among Shorinji Kempo and aikido folks than from kick boxing or NHB-type gyms. Gotta watch out for those idealists!

With respect

Ellis Amdur

2. “Koryu Jujutsu & Judo & Bjj (and Maybe Aikido)” 12-23-2005

The oldest schools of grappling extant in Japan are Takenouchi-ryu and Araki-ryu. The kata training (grappling, not longer weapons) focused on iidori – fighting on the knees. This was NOT a simulation of court etiquette. It was a simulation of what happened in the muck. You’d usually be deploying your dagger when you lost your weapon or when you were at grips, both of you hit the ground and continued fighting. There were also techniques on how to kill a downed enemy from your feet. Also mutual standing techniques, but these are stuff like grabbing his collar from behind, yanking him down and stomping on his head.

Originally, there were few “unarmed” kata (even the one just cited – the uke has a blade in his belt to deploy if tori makes a mistake). One of the reasons you don’t see a lot of typical throwing techniques – empty-handed – in older jujutsu schools is that everyone did that anyway – in sumo – which was the main form of male recreation, and was practiced in dojos all the time.

In the Edo period, the older grappling arts became jujutsu, which was more self-defense oriented, and focused more and more on defenses from an “inferior” position. Bit-by-bit, free-style grappling became part of practice. Starting like sumo (often on a wooden floor), hitting the deck and trying to lock, choke or break one’s opponent. There are accounts of these matches from early Meiji, and they were both crude and violent. Throwing an outsider on a nail sticking up from the floor, or thru the doors into the garden, hopefully right on a rock.

Kano Jigoro came along (insert judo history). Most of the classical schools associated with judo first as a kind of umbrella organization. It provided a safe way to compete and to hone skills in fluid situations. Yes, certain techniques in jujutsu are too dangerous, but this is a straw-dog issue. They are not that hard to replace if deleted for competition. But purely kata trained people often cannot deploy the techniques they know (weapons training is rather different – I’m talking body-to-body here).

In the early days of judo, according to an interview with Yamashita – I think – see E.J. Harrison, can’t find the book (one of the four gods of judo) – the strongest guy in East was himself and the strongest in the West was in Takenouchi-ryu. Essentially, what happened next was that younger people lost interest in the kata practicing for dead history situations of a period long ago. Why not just do the shiai training – the judo? The older arts faded. (Enter Takenouchi-ryu young folks in judo shiai now – I’ve seen most of them – and they’d be creamed).

BJJ – one difference between BJJ and judo is this. BJJ has the best, most sensitive and sophisticated transition game on the ground. One doesn’t go for pins – a win in judo. Katame waza in judo have their own value, but because they allow you to win, AND because a lot more techniques are legal in BJJ – there is less subtlety in transitions from one move to another. And the transitional game is the heart and soul of good grappling. I’ve rolled in judo and BJJ and I’ve never felt more helpless, as if in the coils of a snake as I do with good BJJ folks. (In judo I trained at the Kodokan and at Tokai University’s 5th high school – perenial Japan champions).

As for koryu jujutsu – I do it. Araki-ryu. And I require all my students to also train in wrestling, judo or BJJ, or to already be expert at it. I still do my own cross-training now in modern grappling outside my own group. Several of my students are expert in one or another modern grappling systems, and in randori, without weapons, they destroy me. If they attain a teaching level in Araki-ryu, they will be able to teach the randori, empty-handed component in-house. And there will be no need for extra training elsewhere, except for fun and to supplement.

And yes, we do grappling with weapons and that changes everything. There, the old kata have far more relevance – BUT, the gendai grappling is what makes it live for me, as it did for my own teacher.

Most koryu today no longer has a randori component, except for those schools who also train judo (I do know of a few exceptions – like Fusen-ryu, by the way). And even watching embu, one can usually tell which schools still train randori and which one’s don’t.

What randori training does is prepare one to fluidly respond to a counter when someone doesn’t respond according to kata-plan. A koryu jujutsu person today who doesn’t have skills at sumo/judo/wrestling on his feet, and something like BJJ or judo-newaza on the ground is incomplete, unless the equivalent exists in their dojo.

Finally, aikido. It’s good too. Not for grappling. For aikido.


Ellis Amdur

Again… for what it’s worth.



*Note: When Joe Sheya was a live, I began teaching hapkido out of Jon Garfield’s Braziian Jiu-Jitsu academy in Arnold, MD. The group was called Mae Nalgae Kwon Hapkido, meaning “falcon wing school of hapkido,” the falcon being a reference to my family’s name. During this time, at both Ellis Amdur’s and Mike Sigman’s suggestion, I began training with Budd Yuhasz, learning his (Amdur’s) Taikyoku framework and dabbling with his (Sigman’s) internal strength training methods. After Joe passed, I decided to continue my training with Budd and our training brother Jevin Orcutt in what became Taikyoku Budo. This led to my home dojo, Seiya Dojo (written about a little bit HERE), and eventually Kogen Dojo. I’ve written about this in pieces elsewhere, but I plan on writing more about this evolution in the future.

Here are some related articles:

Written by,

Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.