Filipino martial arts and Counterpoint Tactical System, in particular, are the martial arts that I’m most passionate about. Their approach to self-defense and training make the most sense to me. Master Zach Whitson has set up his system such that his teachings are simplified so that “it has to be so closely related to sparring that you can almost not tell them apart.” (Listen to the video below for the exact quote.) This training model is philosophically pleasing to me because it takes a scientific approach to martial. The twin pillars of science are hypothesis and experiment. Hypothesis is an unproven idea that leads to study. Experiment is a test to determine an outcome that either supports or nullifies a hypothesis. In martial art terms, technique and drills are the hypothesis, and sparring is the laboratory. FMA adhere to these principles. But they aren’t where I first ran into this idea. Grappling introduced me to this approach to the martial arts and, ultimately, led me to Counterpoint Tactical System.
Join me in the wayback machine as we travel to the Fall of 1997. I was a sophomore at Eastern Illinois University. Freedom such as small town me had never known was suddenly mine with all the associated bad decisions and tough lessons that came home to roost during my second year. I had taken a campus self-defense workshop with my girlfriend at the time and met Jim Theobald. Jim was a mixed martial arts fighter from Chicago. Still an underground sport, MMA wasn’t local to Charleston, IL. Jim fought in Chicago, Belleville, Carbondale, and some places in Indiana. I took the workshop twice with a friend, and we were eventually invited to the Saturday Sessions as I called them. This was three to four hours of training followed by a big meal with everyone who showed. We trained everything. While we trained striking, grappling was the focus.
Theobald wore a white judo gi with a white belt wrapped around his waist, and he crushed us. I never got a clear answer to who he trained with up in Chicago. It was a Jeet Kune Do school with some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I think. If you can’t tell, this was pre-Google, and my internet-fu was non-existent. What we did wasn’t strictly BJJ, though. It was submission grappling with a focus on MMA. Jim was the only one of us that wore a gi, and we focused as much on takedowns and wrestling as the ground game. Striking on the ground was as important as a finish; though, our sparring sessions were heavily geared towards grappling only. If you didn’t have a grappling background, which at the time meant judo or wrestling, it was difficult to get invited. Occasionally, we’d get someone wanting to test their skills, and those were fun.
We, the students, would answer the challenge, which was never as serious as the Gracie Challenge. Only once did I ever participate, and it was pretty tame. A judoka had heard about what we did, and he wanted to come see our grappling for himself; striking was off the table. I was 205 or 210 at the time, and he was a solid 200 lbs. So, we matched up, shook hands, and I went for a ride. I’m told it was a beautiful throw. But I had expected that and knew how to fall; so, when I hit the ground, it was time to get to work. Upon landing, I wasn’t in a good spot. I regained guard and was setting up a scissor sweep when the guy tapped. There was no submission, no injury, no pain, just a tap because he didn’t want to be on the ground. Jim and the guy’s friends talked to him but to no avail. He didn’t want to continue. He wanted to do judo only, and since I didn’t know judo, I was not a challenge to him. The lessons I learned from that man has stuck with me ever since. The first, that even though he was light years ahead of me in terms of clinching and takedowns, when we hit the ground, he was out of his depths, and – for him – QUITTING was easier than learning. This was baffling because I got my ego squashed every single Saturday. The next lesson was that his claims – great balance, couldn’t be swept – meant completely different things to me. The final lesson was that nothing was resolved except that he was better at judo than I was, which we’d both known before the throw. I got the tap, but I didn’t win because I didn’t test anything but my ability to fall. It shook me because I was so used to knowing how my skills stacked up against my training partners because I faced resisting opponents at least once a week.
That following summer, I entered the wild, wild world of Filipino martial arts. Due to only being able to train FMA during summer breaks, I never got far in the FMAs but was hooked anyway. That training ended up being an adjustment because I was so used to classes being run according to a simple model: learn technique, drill technique, and then spar. My FMA classes weren’t like that, and it was obvious why. Still, the change took some philosophical adjustment for me. When I went to college, I met Tim Rivera and continued studying FMA with him. He had way more experience than me and, like me, thought of sparring as the lab. We tried to figure out how to spar FMAs, and while we had fun, we were trying to reinvent the wheel. Tim found Garimot arnis and continued his exploration; I moved to the suburbs of Detroit and left martial arts training altogether for various reasons.
During this time, I followed the UFC. Not really an MMA fan, I just watched the UFC only including the Ultimate Fighter. Those lessons that Jim and the one, awful match I had never left me. When I got back into martial arts as a way to make friends, it was those lessons that came up again. It wasn’t until my first Iron Mountain camp – 2010 for those following along at home – that I saw the combination of the art that I was passionate about with the training methods that had proved themselves to me in the past. I had found the art for me.
During the testing portion of Iron Mountain camp, I had to work pangamot, which is an empty hand versus stick drill. It is clearly a drill, but the complexity level clearly depends on your experience and the skill of your training partner. Advanced pangamot practitioners can escalate the drill until it would look like sparring from the outside. Seeing that type of drill – even if I didn’t comprehend what was going on – in all other levels up to the first degree black belt exam was the tipping point for me. At the end of each test was sparring, and I saw that people were sparring the techniques over which they had tested. The students were testing their knowledge against a fully resisting opponent. Finally, philosophy and training methodology had met in an art that held my interest.
The lessons from my only challenge match apply to CTS as well. Quitting is easier than learning because there is no self-examination involved in quitting. Quitting is defense of the ego, and it is the end of improvement. My instructor continues to learn, and if he does, shouldn’t I? The martial artists that I look up to are still training. They are still confronting ego and improving. The next lesson was that just because you’re speaking the same language doesn’t mean your goals are the same, and Master Whitson has created a transparent system. The curriculum is the same regardless of school you visit; the criteria for rank testing is consistent across belt levels; and rank testing is skill based and not shrouded in politics. The final lesson is the most important in my mind, though. Without a resisting opponent, we can’t accurately judge our skills. How do I know what to improve if I’m not testing my weaknesses?
Grappling taught me that active resistance was the best way to gauge my skill, and my time in CTS has only deepened and expanded that conviction. The lessons that I learned in grappling are ingrained in the fabric of CTS from white belt up to the head of the system. Lucky for me, I found the martial art that I was looking for. A superficial view of CTS is that Master Whitson is trying to teach a set of skills, but in reality, CTS imparts a training method. CTS is teaching us how to make hypothesis and how to set up the experiment to test it. We’re learning what questions to ask and how to find the answer.