Fight Club, Russian style


ROB SHAW reports — with bruises

I’ve never stabbed anyone before. But feeling the heft of a Russian bayonet in my hand, I think maybe this will be my first time. After all, the small, sturdy guy keeps taunting me. “Just try to stab me,” he says, standing unarmed in front of me with his hands at his side. I’m the one holding the razor-sharp knife. So I lunge. But he grabs my wrist, bends it backward and painfully redirects the knife — still in my sweaty palm — back toward my gut. Before I know it, the instrument of death is inches from my stomach. I’ve lost the fight, but learned a lesson at East York Fight Club, a different type of martial-arts gym, where there are no white uniforms, no black belts, no kanku katas, or tournament trophies. Just fighting. Lots of it.

Fight Club sits at street level on Coxwell Avenue near Plains Road. Inside, its bright white walls are sparsely decorated. On the fridge, a sign reads: “Gatorade, $2. Water, $1. Ice for bruises, free.”

The club has been open two years and enrolment has almost tripled in the past 12 months. It now boasts more than 50 students who spend hours sparring. Some do it because a friendly fight calms their nerves, others are bouncers and bodyguards looking for an edge. But many want a realistic, hands-on option for self-defence. “You hear the stories in the news nowadays about home invasions,” says Emmanuel Manolakakis, Fight Club’s owner/instructor. “I’m lying on my couch and say somebody breaks in with a knife. I take it from him in a fight, I need to know what to do with it.”

The students are taught systema, an ancient Russian martial art modernized by the Soviet special forces. It has its origins in the medieval ages, when Russia was attacked by Vikings and Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes. The defending peasants and farmers began passing down functional fighting skills to their children. The modern version of systema shows its roots. At Fight Club, students learn how the mighty shovel, sharpened at the edges, can decapitate an opponent.

Instead of practising karate stances or judo throws, students of “the system” — as it’s called around the gym — learn how to disarm a thug with a gun or break someone’s forearm while tossing his body into an oncoming attacker.

In motion, a systema fighter weaves in and out of punches and kicks from all sides, blanketing opponents and turning a careful defence into a deadly offence. The moves are fluid and natural. It almost looks like a dance. “You can use [the training] on the street or in the clubs,” bouncer Rob Sorbera says. “It’s practical.” As keeper of the peace in a downtown nightclub, Mr. Sorbera says the system helps him deal with a particularly unruly customer. “And in case you have to take out nine of his buddies.” But the training also helps him relax. He admits he was “a bit of a hooligan” before joining Fight Club. “Now, I don’t have to prove anything any more,” the 22-year-old Ryerson University business student says.

The system has helped Mr. Manolakakis survive at least two gang fights, one in downtown Toronto and one in Acapulco, where he says he was jumped by a group that swelled to about 30 people. He fought them all off alone, he says, and survived. But Mr. Manolakakis says he tries to weed out students who would use the skills for “hooliganism.” Remarkably, there are few injuries in the class and the fights are friendly, thanks to his watchful eye. He offers a $15, two-class introduction for curious students. After the tease, a membership starts at $490 for six months.

Mr. Manolakakis was a star pupil of Vladimir Vasiliev, who is widely regarded as one of the system’s best. Mr. Vasiliev spent years teaching the Soviet Union’s secretive Spetsnaz agents, best compared to the elite American Delta Force commandos, before moving to Toronto in the early 1990s. He opened Canada’s first systema school in Thornhill in 1993 and Mr. Manolakakis opened Fight Club only after his master gave his blessing.

“I love teaching people, but it’s not just about fighting,” says Mr. Manolakakis, a 35-year-old former Bell Canada manager. “Their life improves. You get to a point you just enjoy the movements.”

That is, if you know what you’re doing. I’ve never punched any one. My idea of combat is wrestling the cork out of a California chardonnay.

And so my legs feel like they’re about to fall off as the Fight Club class begins with a gruelling warm-up of oxygen deprivation. I struggle to finish my 12th squat, and 11th set, on empty lungs. After the final dip, I collapse on the ground. From my prone position, I hear Mr. Manolakakis explain how oxygen deprivation forces students to confront their fears and build confidence by defeating them. If you can control the panic when you’re struggling for breath, you can control the panic of being jumped by a gang of armed ne’er-do-wells.

Exhausted after the warm-up routine, I’m not sure I’ll even have the energy to fight. Mr. Manolakakis keeps asking, “Are you sure you’re okay?” and reminding me to concentrate on my breathing.

He has a warm smile on his face, and his easy-going demeanour keeps the class filled with laughter — until students start fighting. One group practises deflecting a punch into the wall, crunching an opponent’s hand.

In the middle of the room, Mr. Manolakakis demonstrates how a hunting knife can slice vital tendons in the neck, arms and legs.

He also shows how an attacker can slice off much of his own arm out of fear if you deftly place a knife by his elbow. “Don’t carry it ignorantly,” he adds, “the knife can filet you.” We move to a corner, where I get kicked by two male students. I’ve been told to loosen my body, dodge the blows, and keep tight to the attacker so his offence is limited. But mostly I just get kicked. “There’s a lot of fear in this one,” Brent Atkins, a senior student who is putting the boots to me, remarks to Mr. Manolakakis. I’d long ago abandoned the system for a last-resort manoeuvre of my own that was not unlike a Ukrainian folk dance.

I leave my afternoon at Fight Club barely able to stand. For the next week, I have trouble walking normally. Despite throwing my best punches and taking my best stab at knife play, I have yet to become a fighting machine.

Mr. Manolakakis tries to put Fight Club in perspective. Fighting is a last resort, he says, but it’s good to know how to do it in case that’s the only option left.

“A fight is a collective misunderstanding,” he says. “Other martial arts are just about you. But Systema training makes you think about what your kicks and punches do to a person.”


Saturday, October 16, 2004 – Page M1

Fight Club, Russian style – By ROB SHAW


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