I found Systema just after I finished University. When I was attending York University I had access to a facility where they used to train olympic level athletes. I attended University in 1987-88, and if you remember 1988 was the olympics with Ben Johnson, oliver McCall, and Michael Smith (a decathlete); all these athletes were training at the facility that I was at, and it was amazing to attend University and train in an environment where you were side by side with olympic level athletes. So it was a phenomenal time for me. It changed working out, particularly, and just how athletes train. to watch it firsthand was a treat. I learned a tremendous amount on what hard work and dedication actually meant, when you watch some of these athletes training six hours, seven, eight hours a day. It was pretty impressive.
After I finished University, unfortunately I didn’t have access to this facility- so I asked myself, “oK, What do I want to do?” You know, I hadn’t taken martial arts for some time, and I said, “You know what, maybe for a change I’ll try getting back into it.”
I didn’t want to get back into the belts, and katas, and routines of those kinds of martial arts, so I kind of stayed away from it for a little while and was in limbo for about six months. then I read in article in the toronto paper that talked about a school of Russian martial arts, and it was located in an area of toronto that was very close to where I lived with my parents.
So I said, “Well, let me go check this out.” What initially caught me was the fact that there’s no belts, no katas, just real practical and exciting training. So I said, “Let’s go have a look and see what this is all about.” I walked into this gym in northern toronto, and was greeted by what was going to be my instructor, Vladimir Vasiliev. he spoke a little English, it was broken at best, with a nice smile, and he said, “Come on in, try a couple of classes, and see how you like it.”
I walked into the gym, there were a handful of people there, and the training began. After taking one class, I knew right away that I wanted to stay with this art for a long time. Right away, I was hooked as a student, immediately.
What drew me to the art was, one, how hands on the training was. You walked in there, and I mean, you were thrown in immediately into situation like “oK, somebody grabs you and figure out how to get out of it.” The instructor wasn’t spewing out a technique, or he wasn’t showing you ABCD, he was just saying, “here’s a problem. Solve it.” I mean, in Toronto, in the early 90’s, say 1992-93, to be safe, there were No schools doing this. Not when you walked in off the street, there wasn’t. So it was very refreshing, I was like, “Wow, this is hands on!” Somebody just grabs somebody and figures out how to get out of it- that was really a shock, to be honest with you. But it was a pleasant shock to say the least.
Another thing that impressed me a lot was the fact that the head instructor, who was Vladimir, was not just walking around, but he was actually involved, and he was working with everybody, and he was coming around to all the students and working with us. In my previous experience with instructors, martial arts instructors that is, the high level instructor usually just walks around, doesn’t pay much attention to the new students, you know it’s a very respectful thing, he’s like an icon more than he is a person in most clubs. Whereas Vladimir was very personable, he walked up to everybody and worked with everybody, and had hands on with the head instructor, which is just amazing. When you can walk around and walk up to the head instructor, and ask him a question, have him demonstrate it on you, and be so hands on, it was amazing. So I really enjoyed how hands on Vladimir was, in those days, for sure.
The other thing that attracted me as well, in that first class, was the variety of topics we’d covered. Grabbing, punching, kicking, wrestling, knife work- and this was all in the first class! I mean, it was incredible what we covered in an hour and a half. I seemed a little chaotic, especially the first day, but you could see that there was a method to this. It was incredible the amount of topics we covered. other martial arts I had done, you walked in, there was 10-15 minutes of stretching,
10-15 minutes of calisthenics, there were some katas, and then you got maybe a little sparring, or maybe a topic covered and that’s it. We covered everything, and not just covered everything, but you worked with a lot of different people, so that was also impressive. You didn’t work with somebody just your own size, you worked with somebody smaller, shorter, fatter, taller, you worked with everybody, and I thought that was a really good training approach as well because that’s how it is on the street. You’re going to see a lot of different people, different sizes and shapes, so the variety of topics covered, and the variety of people worked with within that same class was just amazing. that’s not what I had experienced at other martial arts. At other martial arts, you got paired up with somebody, about your size, and usually stayed with them all class. this was a totally different experience.
the other thing that struck me, along those same lines, you know, you had senior students, and new students, working together. You had new students and new students, senior students and senior students, all these combinations, you switched partners all the time. Every 10, 15 minutes you got a new partner. And it was incredibly refreshing- you learned from everybody. Somebody showed you something all the time, and it was a really good approach to learning, to be honest with you, where it’s more of a community feel where everyone is teaching everyone, and that responsibility doesn’t just fall on the instructor, the head instructor. It’s like everybody can show something or explain something, so you have all these mini instructors, or micro instructors, all over the class, as well as the head instructor, so that was a really nice touch that I enjoyed a lot, too.
the last thing, it’s an overlying premise that I picked up from the first day was, that Vladimir, when he walked in, he didn’t assume you didn’t know how to defend yourself. he assumed that you did know, and if you didn’t or had trouble with something, he would explain it or show you. that’s very important because I had done quite a few martial arts and I know how to take care of myself. You walk into some places, and they right
away assume you don’t know how to do something because you don’t do it their way. Vlad, or that school, definitely did not assume that. They assumed “Here’s a problem, and let’s see what you can do.” And if you did a good job and you got out of it, then that was fine. In other words, they were focused much more on the end result than on the technique. they were always open to showing you something that worked better, or easier, but they never assumed that you didn’t know, and that overlaying concept, I think, is powerful. Because I do think that people know how to protect themselves, it’s just a matter of being awakened to the possibilities. So those things are what really impressed me within the first couple of classes of studying Systema and Russian martial arts.
I think what else helped me, and I’ll digress a little bit, but… we are made up of personal experiences. Martial arts, obviously, molds us, but our personal experiences also mold us. And they make us the people were are, as well as the fighters and martial artists that we are.
Just to give you a little bit of background about my, I’ll say, real life experience: I’m not a military person. I’ve trained a lot of military people, but I’m not a military person, so I can’t attest to that, but I will attest to my real life experiences. I’ve worked, and I’ve been active in the bar and nightclub scene in toronto for over 10 years, so I had seen my share of fights, as well as participated in my share of fights. You could only imagine how many. It’s not a weekly thing, it’s a daily thing when you’re involved in the bar scene with drunks and testosterone and women. You get all kinds of problems that occur. So I had a lot of experience to pull on working in the bars and nightclubs for 10 years. I’ve also done bodyguarding for three years, not as a full time thing, but definitely as a part time thing, so I had also seen my share of encounters through bodyguarding, as well as just talking to people that have been victims of violence in those years. Countless sports that I played involved a lot of unfortunate fights. Rugby in particular. there were quite a few problems in rugby and some fights, more fisticuff things during the game. It was a violent sport to say the least. A beautiful sport, but it could be violent, especially in the North American version. those three things: working the bars, as well as being a professional part time bodyguard, and as well just being a sportsman, and seeing the fights that come in a result of the combative sports, has given me a lot
of my experiences and shaped me in many ways. they provided me with the kind of glue that made me and makes me believe that Systema is such a powerful thing, and not just a kind of a… it is definitely very powerful. And these experiences have given me belief in it.
At the core of Systema- there are a lot of core principles- but at the core of it, what I enjoy and what I like a lot are that it considers the individual. In other words, it allows for somebody to interpret it their own way, and that is profound and powerful. think of a teacher, if you will, at the top of a classroom, and he or she is explaining how to write the letters of the alphabet. No matter how hard the teacher tries to explain this is how an “A” is made, and this is how a B is made, and this is how a C is made, every student will come up with their own style of writing that letter, and that character. It will look similar, but they’ll never be exactly alike, for any student, no two students can copy that exactly. So martial arts is the same, and Systema is the same, even though an idea or a technique is shown to you, the way somebody does it is going to be unique. So Systema accepts that, and embraces it. there is power in our individuality, and our creativity. So it really embraces the fact that I interpret Systema one way, and another person might interpret it another way. Somebody might like the wrestling aspects more than somebody else, somebody might like the weapons applications more than me. Everybody has a flavor, or everybody has a like, or has a preference. That’s life, that’s not just fighting, and that’s not just martial arts, that’s life. So Systema embraces that, and really allows for a lot of personal interpretation. obviously following the principles and general ideas, but there is a lot of room for the individual to exist. I think that’s amazingly powerful. So anything that I tell you now, and anything that I’m telling you, is my interpretation of Systema, and it’s my interpretation of Russian martial arts. I like the fact that it accepts the individual.
What else I like about Systema, and it helped me, especially working in the bars, is that it develops survival skills much more than the competitive ones. they are two separate sets of skills, in that certain skills are great for
competition fighting and competitions in general, and other sets of skills are just amazing for survival. this is a big difference, when you really look at Systema’s history, it’s more of a military art. In the military, in combat, it’s not about competing, it’s about surviving. there’s an old adage that people say, “Soldiers don’t hate what’s in front of them, they just love what’s behind them.” I don’t know who said that, or where I heard the quote- I do remember it, and that struck me exactly how it is: You’re in fear of your own life. You don’t really care about the person in front of you, you just want to make it through that situation alive, or in one piece. So it develops the survival skills by not letting competition exist. there’s no tournaments that Systema goes to. It really tries to focus a lot more on survival skills, in many different ways, and we can talk about thousands of them, but it’s good enough to realize that the focus is a lot more on survival than competition. And I have seen many a good martial artist, when I was working the bars, fight in bar fights. And they didn’t do that well, because it’s not like a competition. the rules, and the mindset, and the psychological development, is all different for competition than it is for survival or streetfights. It’s quite different. So it really develops survival skills.
Systema training deals quite a bit with multiple attackers. Meaning, there is one on one training, where one guy hits or punches or grabs or kicks, or stabs, against one person. But there’s a large focus on multiple attackers, 3, 4, 5 people attacking one person. And when you train like that, you realize that it is about survival, and that type of training is not done just once a week, multiple attacker training can happen anytime. You’re sitting there, you’re wrestling with one guy and all of a sudden, you get in groups of threes or fours and start to wrestle in groups of threes and fours. And it changes everything. the dynamic is completely changed. It’s incredible by just adding another person how much it changes. I’ve seen it firsthand at my school, and I’ve seen it firsthand at my instructor’s school: two people wrestling, and you see one person dominating another person. All of a sudden, you add a third person into the mix, and you’re not sure who’s dominating who. Again, competition skills, compared to survival skills. You take three guys on the
ground that are wrestling and now throw in a knife. All of a sudden, again the dynamic changes.
this is what it’s like in combat, this is what it’s like in streetfighting, the variable change quickly, there are no rules in that respect. If somebody wants to train for those kinds of situations, then your training has to be like that. I hope that makes sense.
“Systema training deals quite a bit with multiple attackers.”
Another thing that I enjoy, that Systema does, is that it focuses a lot on the internal development of students. I’m sure other martial arts do as well, but from my experience, even in sports, as well as other martial arts, I’ve never seen anything that even comes close to the internal development. It’s very common in a Systema class to talk about fear, and to hear them talk about the ego, and to hear them talk about pride when they’re working. And these are traits that people have that are important to understand. But what Systema really does is put people in a position to see their own fear, to see their ego, to see their pride. Understand it. they’re very soft things: how do you talk to somebody about their ego, how do you talk to somebody about their pride, or talk to somebody about their fear? But these aspects are incredibly powerful when it comes to fighting. The ego, you know, is really bad. Last time I heard when somebody say, “Oh, you’re full of ego,” that’s not a compliment. So having pride is fine, having some ego is fine, and having some fear is fine as well. All these are good, but what
happens is most people don’t understand how much of a role these elements, or other elements can play. Systema really tries to put the students in an environment where they can see these elements play out. they’ll have a student, and you’ll see some of the clips of people hitting each other in the stomach. hitting each other so deep that they might be winded or they might be worried if they see the panic coming of taking a deep punch. When they see this, they have to look at fear straight in the face. And you are not trying to overcome it, as much as understand it.
I don’t think anybody wants to get rid of fear. A good amount of fear can help you in a fight, even a good amount of ego might be able to help you in a fight, as well as pride might be able to help you in a fight. The problem is, you have to understand them first. Most people don’t understand them, they just develop it and they don’t understand the role it plays. too much fear will overwhelm you and you won’t be able to react properly. Same with ego, same with pride. So these topics, these kind of internal soft topics, kind of heebie-geebie topics, are really talked about quite a bit in Systema. And they’re not talked about four or five years into training, they’re talked about right away. I mean, you’re exposed to them, in any literature you’ll see they’ll mention it. It is a big deal. So I enjoy the fact that it talks about those things. Again, going back to working the bars, and the night clubs, and the fights we got into in sports: that’s all I ever saw.
What did I see? I saw fear in people. I saw people’s pride get the better of them. I saw somebody with so much ego they got stabbed. I saw multiple attackers. one guy’s ready to square off with another guy and all of a sudden four of his buddies jump him. I saw a guy throwing these beautiful roundhouse kicks in the air trying to scare a guy off, you know, trying to show him his competition skills. then all of a sudden the guy just looks at him, a guy half his size, just looks at him and lunges forward and grabs the guy’s throat and pulls him to the ground. Again, survival vs. competition. Multiple attackers vs. one on one. Ego, fear, pride, all these things
playing out, as much as the punches and kicks. this is a big thing that martial artists struggle with: it’s not about the punches and kicks, it’s not about the armbars, it’s not about the ankle lock. It’s about you. how good do you understand yourself?
If you understand how your body works, if you understand your weaknesses, if you understand your fear, if you understand the situation, how serious it is, if you understand psychology: all these things play out in an instant in a fight. And that’s what it’s about. It’s not about the punches and kicks. the punches and kicks are semantics. there’s tons that goes on behind the scenes, before a fight, during a fight, after a fight. There’s a million things that go on. this is, again, working those bars, doing the bodyguarding, seeing those fights in those sporting events. All this stuff involved all the things I just talked to you about. All of it. It involved everything. I mean, in the bars, I rarely saw one on one fights, and if it did start one on one, it quickly became a mass thing. I saw so many people that would not back down from a fight because their girlfriend was there. Because of the pride, and the ego. “I can’t back down because my girlfriend is here.” You know, I saw people get into fights just because their friend got into it, ‘cause they feel an obligation, because my friend is fighting now I have to fight, even though the reason is stupid. So all this stuff played out in bodyguarding. I had to protect a couple of women from deranged husbands. Why? Because the husband’s pride was ruffled. The woman had fear, the husband had pride. “how dare my wife leave me. I’ll show her!”
I saw another guy at a bar, and a woman threw a drink in his face. It wasn’t the fact that he got wet. It was the fact that he was embarrassed, not by anybody else but a woman. there’s nothing worse for a man than to be embarrassed in public by a woman. It’s really bad, and he got so mad he started a fight. He couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t handle his pride and his ego, it took the better of him. he couldn’t admit that at that moment, he made a mistake. he said a wrong comment to a woman, and deserved a drink in the face. But he wouldn’t admit it to himself at that time. his pride was hurt. So these things
played out, and every time I would see it so clearly. I never saw this in other martial arts. they never talked about it like this.
All of these experiences I had, this is all in the training of Systema. they teach you how to see fear, they teach you how to look at ego, they teach you what your pride looks like, and they force you to work with these internal things. And then, to top it all off, you go to training, and there’s tons of multiple attacker training, there’s tons of it to prepare yourself. And there’s tons of focus on the survival skills so that when you’re out, and a fight happens, you’re not sitting there trying to compete with the guy. You’re trying to survive and see the next day or be able to walk away from the situation. that’s not to say that a lot of competition doesn’t go on, or people don’t compete in other capacities, at other sports that practice Systema. they realize that there’s certain training, if you’re studying a martial art, it’s better to train for survival. If it’s real survival skills you want, it’s better to train that way. there’s nothing wrong with competition, I loved it, I wrestled, I boxed, and those were wonderful sports, and I had tons of fun with it, but even I had to contest after some training in Systema, “Wow, you know what? Survival skills for streetfighting and for real application are definitely the way to go,” and I think that anybody would admit that in hindsight.
the last thing that I really liked was the Systema attitude is very forward thinking. It is forward thinking and result oriented, meaning that Systema, it’s true belief is that it is in motion. In other words, it evolves. how Systema was when I first started, in 93, is different now in 2007. It’s different because time moves on. Different people have come to the school, different people bring different energy, different people bring different thoughts, different people bring different experiences. And all that accumulates, and consequently changes. So Systema is not grounded, it’s not set, that’s the real belief.
New students coming to Systema are the ones that bring the club forward, it’s not the senior students. New students coming into Systema bring their ideas. they know how to punch, or they know how to kick in a different way, or
maybe they grab in a different way. Just think of it for a second, there’s a new person coming off the street, coming in to train at my club. I love working with these people. Senior students love working with new people because that’s their time to see if their stuff really works. that new person is going to punch, kick, grab, stab, shoot, whatever the training is that day, the way they know how. Nobody punches and kicks like on the street. Everybody is different. So senior students see the new student come into school and they want to work with them right away, they want to test if the stuff they learned and the stuff they know works against somebody right off the street.
“Nobody punches and kicks like on the street. Everybody is different.”
What’s the point of black belts training with black belts? they know the same things, they’ve learned the same things, they punch and kick alike, but on the street nobody punches and kicks alike. So it’s important for new people, when they come, those are the people that help validate everything. they validate what you’re learning, and they validate how it works. And at the same time, it allows the Systema school to be in direct relation with what’s on the streets of toronto now, or on the streets of anywhere. that person coming through the door is going to punch and kick you the way they know how, so it’s the truest reflection of what’s going on in society. And that’s another thing I really liked about Systema, it wasn’t black belts just working with black belts. Everybody works with everybody, and everybody learns something from that. that’s really powerful. Because of that kind of thinking, it’s simple. the principles that they follow are geared a lot more towards results. If somebody grabbed you, and what you did got the guy to the ground in an effective way, that didn’t compromise your safety, that controlled the situation- great for you. It doesn’t require more than that.
there was a funny thing somebody once said to me at a seminar. they said, “Martial arts is complicated. Self defense is simple.” I agree with their statement. So I always try to remember that and preach it to students. think of
what you would do. think of how you would react. Do those things. that way, it works for you at the time that you need it. this is also what I enjoyed about, and still enjoy about Systema, how it’s always willing to adapt and change as life goes on. Because life definitely goes on. People look at this world and say “You know, I swear to God it’s standing still.” It’s not standing still- we know the earth moves. And you look at a person who seems to be standing still, but they’re not standing still. they have thoughts going through their head, blood pumping through their veins, the heart is working, and the organs are definitely moving, even though you could swear that person is sitting still. So Systema embraces that and does have room to go and move with society and adapt. So these are very powerful things as well.
“Think of what you would do. Think of how you would react. Do those things.”
My club came about in two ways: First, in 2002 and 2003, I had moved from Northern toronto to downtown toronto, at which point traveling to my instructor’s school was difficult just because of traffic and logistics, the time being in a car was like 2 hours to get there. So I decided to start a small training group so I could work out a couple times a week in the city and then travel to my instructors here and there whenever I was able to. What started as a little training group kept going as the months went on, to the point where it embraced a part time thing for me, so I was at the club teaching 3 or 4 nights a week. And then it just kept growing, to now as of 2 years ago, it was a full time thing for me with all kinds of classes- day, night, weekend classes, and a school that has well over 100 students.
I chose the name Fightclub because I remember when I saw the movie, what struck me and what caught me was incredible. take away the blood and gore, the hollywood stuff. In general, that’s what training is like at the Fightclub and in Systema. It’s hands on. What I liked about the movie was, and I don’t know how many people got it, but here were men, fighting, and after they fought, they were better workers, they were happier, and
it’s almost like men have this natural combative, natural primal, aggressive thing that they want to get out. And you know what? they feel great after they do.
What I got out of the movie is that a lot of men, and I can only say men because I’m not a woman, a lot of men walk around with pent up aggression, a lot of pent up feelings, and our society doesn’t allow for that to come out. It’s not the same on a punching bag. I saw these men fighting, and after the fights, they went back to their wives, went back to their jobs, went back to their careers, and they were better, they were stronger, and they were happier. that’s what training at my club, at the Fightclub, is like. People go, they come in, they wrestle, they punch, they kick each other, not like the movie where everybody is bloodied up, obviously there is more control than that, but not far off from that. We don’t wear any padding, no headgear, no mouthguards, no groin protection, there’s no gloves. We just walk in there and learn how to hit, punch, takes punches, take a grab, wrestle, multiple attackers, knife. Everything is covered in class. And the classes are always different. that’s not just my club, that’s Systema training in general. It’s very diverse. Classes are not pidgeoned out- every Wednesday is sparring, and every Tuesday knife fighting. You come to class, and you’re going to learn something about self defense that day. It varies from day to day and people love that. That’s how life is. That’s how fighting is. You wake up in the morning, go grab a coffee from the corner store, and all of a sudden, some guy wants to fight. You have no time to plan. Life goes and happens. So this is my idea, and why I came up with the Fightclub. I believe that physical contact and combat, in a good way, with good nature and good spirit, will really make a person stronger.
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