“Don’t see dead people; we’re not fighting terrorists today guys”

Emmanuel is fond of the above quote, which he picked up from a fellow instructor at a seminar devoted to knife work. The instructor in question went on to distinguish between practicing knife work and practicing martial arts with a knife. ‘Real’ knife work is dirty work. It involves learning how to kill and maim or otherwise incapacitate your attacker. That sort of training has its place, but you don’t want to be doing it all the time in the gym. That’s how you start to ‘imagine dead people’ while you work, giving in to fear and pride; that’s how things get too serious in martial arts, how people get into absurd, unending arguments over the ‘best’ techniques. YouTube and Black Belt Magazine are replete with such conversations. Systema works instead to normalize the knife, treating it as just another tool, something like a fork, a hammer, or a shovel. We are practicing martial arts and we just happen to be holding a knife while we do so.

Fight Club, despite its name, tries to keep things light. Professionals, Emmanuel often remarks, are playful on the outside but serious on the inside were it counts. He encourages us to play with the knife—the sharp and flat edges, the butt, the hilt, everything. We move it around and over bodies, tracing the space around us, or trace the bodies of others. We move and roll with the knife; throw it away from us and leap to grab it before someone else does; drop it on the ground and pick it up without looking down. We practice being attacked from all angles and on numerous surfaces. Generally, we do not over-worry about being ‘cut’. Our training knives are, in the end, just toys. Human creativity is closely associated with the spirit of play.

This is Emmanuel’s perspective anyway. I happen to share it with him. Having in the past both worked with a real knife and spoken to numerous victims of stabbings, I have come to believe that a real knife requires a steady mind and great mobility to survive. That cold steel is unforgiving. I know that, if faced with a real knife, I would want to do nothing more than get away as fast as I could. Otherwise, I would reasonably have to expect to get cut. Probably very badly. A knife is unpredictable, especially if wielded by a very tense, very nervous individual. Assuming that you even detect it before the attack begins! I’ve heard consistent testimony from and seen video evidence of people who were stabbed multiple times before they even realized that a knife was in play.

If you really want to be safe from a knife, learn how to detect who has one and to keep your distance from such people. Or carry a gun. Otherwise, just practice keeping mobile and calm so that you can increase the probability of your survival in a worst-case scenario.

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