I’ve often written “The differences are just as important than the similarities.” It is a core principle of how I view martial arts, how I train to keep on improving and teach others to do the same. I don’t think I ever really explained where I got that from, so here goes.
About twenty years ago, there was a discussion on Marc MacYoung’s email list. I forgot the exact topic but I think it was about Filipino martial arts. One of the members, Randy, said something fundamental that I have to give you some background on first:
In many Filipino systems (Kali, Arnis, etc.) you learn weapons before learning unarmed techniques. Often, the stick is the weapon you start with (though lately it seems the knife is used a lot as well) and when you are proficient with it, then you learn the same techniques with other weapons and also how they translate into unarmed techniques. The idea is that you have the same movements in all of your techniques, regardless of which weapon you find yourself with, or when you lose your weapon.
There is a lot of validity to this approach. It makes for a structured and consistent learning experience, which speeds up your progress immensely. It also tends to avoid conflicts between the different parts of your brain when you are under adrenal stress, because you basically do the same thing all the time. So that’s the good news.
The bad news is that there is an inherent trap in this method.
You can avoid it if you train correctly and your teacher drills this into you, but Randy noticed this was getting lost. What he explained was that the stick is used as a “universal weapon” as it has the most similarities with the other weapons in the Filipino systems, like knife, machete, sword, axe, etc. You can indeed quickly learn to wield all of them by focusing on the similarities they share with the stick. As the stick is easier to control and more tolerant of mistakes, it makes sense to train with it first. However…
Randy then wrote what I use every day in my own training:
The differences between those weapons are just as important as the similarities.
This was an eye-opener for me and I’ve been working for decades to increase my understanding of how this concept applies to almost everything. Let’s first look closer at Filipino arts and then expand from there. Here is a picture of the kind of stick typically used in those arts:
Here’s a compilation of other weapons used in the Filipino styles:
One of the ways in which Filipino systems teach is by using numbered angles of attack. I covered that in part in my video on knife basics. If you practice those angles with a stick at first, you can quickly develop clean lines of attack. When you then transition to the small knife, things overall remain the same, but some aspects do change:
- You now have a point that penetrates the opponent’s body when stabbing with it.
- You have an edge that can cut both you and your opponent.
- Your range is shorter than with the stick.
These are the main differences I want to focus on, though there are others. So let’s look at them in more detail.
- You can stab with a stick and it can hurt, but that’s nothing compared to using a knife that way. One knife stab to a vital target can end the fight quickly; not so much with a stick. Suddenly, stabbing becomes just as important as slashing and perhaps even more so. Remember that even as far back as the Romans it was already said: use the edge to wound and the point to kill.
- A stick is primarily an impact weapon, so you need to develop striking power for your techniques to be effective. With a sharp knife, you don’t need the same amount of power; the blade only needs to touch the target with comparatively little power to cut. With a bit of precision, you don’t even have to cut deep to deliver a lethal wound. So speed and precision tend to be more useful with the knife than raw striking power.
- A second consideration is that the knife can cut you too. How you retract it, how you use your live hand (the empty one) is now slightly different than with stick techniques.
- You can “play tag” from a relatively long distance with a stick. Using a knife, you have to come closer, mostly into the striking range of your opponent. Yes, I know about Largo Mano, but humor me: my point holds when you compare it to the stick, which is the whole reason I’m writing this article.
Here’s the thing: despite these points, the techniques largely look the same. There are still more similarities than there are differences. But those differences are just as important to use each individual weapon correctly and most effectively.
Randy’s Law, as I like to call it, applies in more ways than this. For instance, when you fight stick against stick, you can pretty much hit any way you like because sticks are usually round and bounce off each other on impact. When you have a stick but your opponent has a machete or sword, there are still mostly similarities between both weapons. There is one huge difference though: a metal edge will “bite” into wood.
If you block an angle #1 strike from a machete with your stick the way you block one from another stick, it can lead to a disarm. The blade can bite deeply enough into your stick so you can’t retract it quickly enough, or he can twist it out of your hand. If your opponent also has a stick, those techniques aren’t possible and you can ignore them.
The only way you know about this difference is if your teacher tells you or if you try it out.
Most practitioners don’t try it, so that’s not a realistic option. If your teacher doesn’t show you the relevance, it can get lost and leave the system. This creates a set of blind spots in your training you won’t address until it’s either too late or somebody else points it out to you. Given as we’re talking about using lethal force (fighting against a machete qualifies as such), I’d say this is kind of important information…
It gets worse though.
Just because you know about it, doesn’t mean you understand all the implications of this difference between a machete and a stick. Nor how to compensate for them with the many subtleties you don’t learn when using only the stick. The best way to truly get this understanding and the skill that goes with it is to practice. Which is a can of worms because you need somebody skillful and trustworthy, along with strict limitations on how to train or you’ll end up dead or mutilated. All of a sudden, some of the very codified training you sometimes see in weapon arts starts making sense… Not only does it allows you to practice full-speed and full-power with many techniques, it forces you to incorporate those differences I mentioned above because they are part of a strictly regulated form (kata, taolu, juru, use whatever terminology you like.)
Training in a codified way also helps you avoid debilitating injuries, as even a small mistake with a practice weapon can have lasting consequences. So, all in all, it’s a very effective and useful method of training, but it has been criticized a lot in the last few decades, mostly by people who don’t understand it. Sometimes rightfully so, but in those cases, it is often an issue of the system losing the relevant information for such codified training. Once that information is lost, the students practice an empty tradition: they do it because they always did it that way, not because they know why it is done as such.
My Kuntao teacher, the late Bob Orlando, made an excellent point about that:
There is nothing wrong with tradition, as long as it is a living tradition in which the reasons why you do certain things are explained to you correctly.
Specific details are there for a reason and the goal is that you shouldn’t have to discover those from scratch by going out and fighting. You’re supposed to use the knowledge of those who survived previous battles so you don’t get killed before you can learn them. Then you have to find a way to drill and ingrain them safely without injuring or killing yourself or your partner (codified training). Eventually, you get to the point where you can work more freely and perhaps spar.
What Randy pointed out is that in many Kali schools, those details were getting lost. The result was that practitioners tended to be very impressive in training, but had trouble using their techniques in an actual fight or when sparring all out. They no longer knew the differences and focused too much on the similarities.
A group that tried to address this in part is the Dog Brothers. Their motto, “higher consciousness through harder contact” guided them to full contact sparring with numerous weapons, testing what worked and what did not. They left out bladed weapons of course, so what they found is not exactly what was originally there, but I would definitely recommend checking them out.
There’s still more…
Another aspect is how different weapons can trigger different biomechanics, even if you don’t want to. For instance, there is a technique called “abanico”, which is a fan like movement. The way this instructor does it, it works great with a stick.
But imagine doing that with one of the heavier swords or axes pictured earlier: the leverage would be all wrong and it would be very difficult to pull off even once.
Now look at what this instructor explains. His body mechanics are radically different and more apt to move a weapon around that has more weight and a different balance than a wooden stick.
Unless you train with both weapons, you can get away with what the first instructor does and feel good about your technique. If nobody corrects your form, you will never be able to move like the second instructor, which means you won’t be able to use abanico well with a (relatively) heavy weapon.
This is one example of how focusing too much on the stick as a universal weapon, costs you knowledge and stops you from improving your martial arts skill.
I’ve talked mostly about Filipino systems to explain my point, but Randy’s law applies to other styles as well.
In the Tai Chi Chuan style I teach, we have both sabre and sword techniques. The sabre is heavy and is often used to chop, which means you have to develop mechanics that use the entire body instead of just your arm. If you don’t, you have a weak strike and fatigue quickly in a fight because your arm will cramp up. Despite me saying this explicitly and repeatedly, students still mess it up when we practice techniques with wooden sabers for safety. Those are lighter, which means they can get away with using their arm and wrist for power.
I clearly tell them not to, and they still do it.
Often without intending to, because the lightness of the wooden sabre allows them to do so. As a result, they tweak the technique because they can do it faster than with a real weapon. This ingrains bad habits that fail once they have that real weapon in hand.
So just because your teacher tells you this kind of stuff, doesn’t mean you are safe from making these mistakes…
I often get a comment on a technique in one of my videos along the lines of “That looks like X from style Y.” or “We have that too in our style.” Invariably, I’m reminded of Randy’s law when I read those. People usually mean well, but they focus on the similarities and then are done with it. They file away the technique as “I already know this” and move on. If they had looked more closely at the differences, there would have been an opportunity to learn something new by contrasting their version with the technique in the video. Every time you see a technique you “know” expressed in a different art, it’s a chance to keep on learning more about your own art.
I firmly believe that compare and contrast is a powerful method, as long as you do the contrasting well. What’s more, I’d dare to say that true learning is all too often only found in the contrasting differences.
So as you practice, read and study, try to keep Randy’s Law in mind: look at the differences and figure out why they are there. Ask the teacher if you don’t know right away or if it isn’t clear. But do try to look deeper than the surface, you’ll be amazed what you can find. In the end, you’ll follow the advice a Chinese martial arts teacher once gave when asked about learning different syles:
Don’t learn the same thing twice.
Understanding the differences helps you do just that.
P.S.: This article originally appeared in my Patreon Newsletter last year. I edited it slightly for improved reading and context.
If you want to see all this in action, here’s an excellent demonstration by Dan Inosanto:
Long version, one hour.
Short version, 5min.
I never gave Randy’s full name, because he is no longer on that email list and I hadn’t been in touch with him for years. Recently, he commented on this publicly so I can know acknowledge Randy Brannan in full for his contribution to my life. And it’s not just me…
Like I said, Randy’s Law is applicable in all fields. Here’s a comment one of my Patrons wrote.