Kung Fu Tricks & Other Fakery

Breaking stones with heads or hands, tearing phone books, performing amazing feats of strength and the like go waaaaaay back. The earliest accounts of martial art tricks/stunts I recall go back to the days of the Roman gladiators.

Today it’s shaolin monks, less recently “no-touch” knockouts, a couple decades ago it was the “unbendable arm” and other ki tricks; a hundred years ago it was the jujutsu invaders entering the west doing pole-on-neck stunts. Physical culturists performed the same feats and you could find carnies, wrestlers, other martial artists, and strong men (and women) all performing similar feats at different places and times in history. The line between the categories was often blurred with some demonstrators seeming to hit all of those descriptions.

I like the following site because it shows how some of the popular tricks are performed and that there is no mystical basis behind them. Some of these techniques may require strength, but, just like good martial arts, proper technique is a strength magnifier, and they show you the techniques that make the stunts possible.

Included are ways to break bricks, bottles, roll up frying pans, resist multiple people, fake powerful punches, tear phone books and other tricks of the trade. I also like that they include some elements from the CQC/CQB/WWII combatives field, such as putting someone in the grapevine and escaping the grapevine yourself. For those unfamiliar, the grapevine was a method shown by Fairbairn to lock a man to a small tree or pole by arranging his legs in a certain way so that he could not escape unassisted.

The site is Kung Fu Do (formerly Bad Kung Fu) and I urge you to check it out if that’s the sorta thing you’re into. The site wasn’t laid out all that well in the past, and you had to poke around a bit, but it looks easier to navigate these days. As for me, I couldn’t get enough!

Skipping Belt Ranks

There are two threads regarding skipping ranks over on the Convocation of Combat Forum. Rather than wax on over there, I’ll wax off alone over here and then link to it. (Yikes, a Karate Kid and masturbation pun in the second sentence, this is going downhill fast). Anyway, the genesis of the debate arose when a savateuse with seven months training was promoted to white glove after her first testing at a seminar.

Personally, I don’t see the big deal. After all, belt rank (and yes, that includes savate’s glove rank), is a relatively recent practice that can be laid at Jigoro Kano’ s feet. Initiating the practice in 1883, he also initiated the first rank skipping by promoting two judo players directly to shodan (1-dan black belt). Of course, those two were very good and quickly shot through the ranks, with one later skipping 3-dan as well.

Belts generally didn’t catch on at all until the early 1900s and weren’t introduced into karate until the 1920s. The wild intermediate colors seen nowadays didn’t hit the U.S. until the 1950s. Since the 1950s, and likely well before, it has not been uncommon for immigrating instructors to self-promote themselves a couple ranks on the trip over to the U.S.

I’ve personally seen those with field promotions in judo; I knew someone who had obtained a brown belt by defeating stiff competition in a tournament. I probably outweighed the guy by 40 pounds, but he could still run a clinic on me at will. I’ve also been on the receiving end, gaining a promotion that allowed me to enter a kickboxing tournament for which I didn’t have enough rank, so maybe I’m just biased.

I would submit that competition arts where sparring is a significant aspect (whether that’s kickboxing, grappling, or anything else) are less likely to face internal dissension due to rank skipping. There is complete transparency because you know exactly how good someone is because you roll or spar with them on a regular basis. There is no hiding a lack of skill or ability.

Of course, any martial arts organization has its internal politics and it is natural that members do not want to see what they perceive as preferential treatment. In most schools it would certainly be unsettling to see someone in the same organization skip ranks when you yourself never had the same opportunity.

Trust in the instructor is the main commodity of a martial arts school and instructors should be loathe to jeopardize that trust. It is also pervasive but perhaps unavoidable that higher belt promotions (3rd degree and above) are less transparent and often a cause for silent questioning. In the smaller, more cultish insular organizations (e.g., bando in the U.S.), such perceived favoritism can negatively impact the esprit de corps of the group at large.

So, was the rank skipping that began this worthwhile discussion a big deal? Maybe, if it jeopardized the trust placed in the instructor. Seven months does seem to be a brief period, but certainly within the realm of possibility for the creation of a solid white glove. So maybe, maybe not, but without training with the under the instructor or with the folks at the club in question, there’s probably no basis to state a firm opinion. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and give a hearty “congratulations” to all those who were promoted.

Savate in the United States in 1896

Here’s an article describing an attempt at introducing savate to the New York Athletic Club in 1896. To the best of my knowledge, it never gained much of a foothold in the NYAC. After all, Mike Donovan was the boxing instructor for decades and it is unlikely he would have cared to have competing pugilistic instruction at the club. On the other hand, savate was briefly fashionable in the 1890s U.S. and the NYAC did include at least one savate bout in their boxing programs earlier in 1893, so there must have been interest from at least some of the moneyed members of the NYAC.

The movements described in the article are familiar to boxe francaise practitioners today, although the descriptions can be difficult to follow because they are classified by the target area rather than the type of kick. The coup de pied bas, revers, chasse, and foutte all appear to be mentioned or at least listed by intended target.

The history is anachronistic, as savate was almost certainly less than a century old at this time (e.g., see Loudcher’s writings), but it’s still probably more accurate than the history section of most savate clubs websites and popular books. This article was originally printed in the Washington Post, June 14, 1896, p. 18.


Knowledge of Savate as a New Prize Ring Accomplishment


It Provides Unique Combinations of Feet and Hands and Is Especially Effective in Rough an Tumble Fighting-The Primary Rule In Learning Savate for Offensive and Defensive Purposes-Tripping the Kicker Up-The Coup de Flanc Kick

New York, June 12.

IF CERTAIN members of the swell New York Athletic Club have their way the fighter of the future will not only give upper cuts with his hands, but he will deliver straight jabs, half swings, cross counters, and knockout blows with this feet. These men who set the fashion in amateur athletics have lately taken up the French style of fighting, which, if not as deadly as the present prize-ring method, is much more picturesque and requires double the amount of agility for scientific work.

In Paris there are numerous academies where this science is taught. The art is known as “Savate,” which literally means old shoe. A century or two ago a ball or dance held by the lower classes usually wound up in a row. The same state of affairs exists today, but unlike the present custom of throwing beer glasses, empty beer kegs, or using blackjacks, knives, and revolvers, the French brawlers made use of their wooden shoes. A hearty kick delivered in the right place by a strong man booted with one of these wooden shoes did tremendous damage.

The efficacy of this kind of warfare was speedily discerned and it became part of the young Frenchman’s education to use his feet well. No self-respecting young lady would think of attending a dance with a young man who could not put up a good fight with his feet; otherwise she might be insulted and further humiliated by the fact that her escort had failed to kick the life out of her traducer. Naturally, there were some who excelled in the art to such an extent that they became instructors, and later on professors.

Useful Against Street Ruffians

Today there are scores upon scores of these professors in Paris and several of them in this city. The young American regards a kick in a fight as the rankest kind of foul play, but a Frenchman argues on the theory that when a man is attacked he should be qualified to use each and all of the weapons given him by nature without any show of partiality. The average Frenchman acquires a knowledge of the savate for the single purpose of defending himself against attack by street ruffians. He does not expect to make use of it on his friends or acquaintances, as that would be vulgar. The duello code covers that contingency.

There are six times as many blows in the French styles as there are in the accepted form of fighting. Many unique combinations are made with the feet and hands, and for rough and tumble fighting it affords a system which is not to be beaten easily. A clever man at the savate can disable an adversary in short order. His leg can be broke, his neck dislocated, or his face smashed in at the will of a man of science.

The primary rule in learning savate and one of the most difficult to remember in the heat of combat is that the weight of the body must always rest on the foot furthest away from the opponent. The foot in front must be entirely free of all weight or other hindrance so that it can wave about in all directions like a flag in a gale of wind.

This rule is necessary both for offensive and defensive reasons. If the front foot is hampered by weight it cannot deliver a speedy kick. Moreover, as soon as the man you are fighting with sees that you are resting your weight on your forward foot he kicks it from under you and your countenance collides with the floor. This is necessarily sad. As the rapidity of the contest keeps the two men dancing about sometimes with one foot in front and just as often with the other foot forward it behooves the fighter to do a lot of thinking to always sustain his weight on the rear foot. When a beginner has thoroughly learned this rule half of the art has been acquired.

Raps Your Opponent’s Shins

The first kick to learn is the cow kick. This is simply a rap on the shin of your opponent as near to the knee as possible. Cleverly administered by a man of science, it will dislocate the joint and end then and there. More often it simply lames the leg. It is called the coup de savate, and is made with the toe aiming downward and outward. The parry for this kick is to raise the forward foot and bringing it back to the knee of the rear foot. Another way is to counter the kick by springing forward and getting inside the extended leg, and at the same time smash your opponent on the point of the jaw. Still another way is to spring back and endeavor to catch the extended foot with the hand, and then turn the luckless one upside down, so that his head will smash into the floor.

The coup de flanc is the next kick, and it is quite a fancy one. This kick should be so delivered that the heel will land on the human target instead of the toe. This is either a high or low kick, the point of attack being the face, chest, or side. It is a dangerous kick for a beginner to attempt, for in the event of a miscarriage it gives the other a splendid chance to end the combat. The kick is made by suddenly drawing up the knee of the fighting foot and then shooting it out in a half swing. The parry for the chest kick is to bring down both hands on the extended foot and endeavor to throw the kicker down. When the kick is aimed at the face, the parry is the reverse. The body is drawn back, and an effort is made with the hands to throw up the floor, so that the kicker will fall on the back of his head. For the side kick the parry is to throw the extended foot either to the left or the right with the arms.

Kicks Meant for the Face

The cross kick is capable of doing a lot of injury. The kicker makes a full half swing, usually with his left foot, and lands the heel of his shoe on the side of his opponent. The parry is to draw in the body, and bring both hands on the foot. Of course, a good grip on the kicker’s foot means that he is in for a nasty tumbler. There is a kick for the top of the head, a backward side-face kick, belt kick, a high body kick, the front side-face kick, and numerous others, all elaborations of the three principal kicks, that is the one for the shins, the one for the body, and the other for the head.

The professors of the art practice all day long kicking at imaginary things. Their accuracy is remarkable. With a side kick, as high as the head, they can knock the ashes off a cigar without injuring the fire. They never seem to lose their equilibrium, and always land with the weight of the rear foot, with the front foot swinging and ready for immediate action.