This incident took place when I was 14 years of age.
I grew up in Tver, a fairly tough industrial city, 2 hours North of Moscow. I lived at home only on weekends, as for all 5 weekdays, I had to stay at a boarding school full of orphans and very rough kids from seriously troubled families. Naturally, martial arts were among our key interests. Out of 13 boys in my class, 12 trained in Boxing and one did Sambo Wrestling. Of course, I was quite skeptical about that one boy and had a much higher opinion of Boxing. Using fists seemed more decisive and to the point – just 2 or 3 good punches and either you are a winner or you can bravely run away (easily because you were up on your feet anyway).
Our Boxing instructor, a certified Candidate-Master, came right to the boarding school to teach us and talked a lot about “the importance of real life experience”, so we tried to apply our fists to work whenever and wherever possible. His method of teaching was based on his size and mass – about 6’4″ and 230 pounds. To us, the excited youth, he seemed to be a giant capable of knocking out a horse. We tried to copy his manner of fighting of a European heavy-weight – slow, collected and very powerful punches. The only problem was that we all skinny and agile trying to fight as if we were big and massive. It must have been very funny to watch. I realized that later, when I entered my first competition and saw other boxers, I was amazed that there were so many other ways of fighting.
Street fights were a very common occurrence; they were quick, often bloody and involving many participants. I have never seen pure locks and chokes applied on the ground. All grappling techniques were mixed with kicking and punching, use of numerous weapons, including rocks, sticks, and chains. As we were all teens, fights would only last less than a minute until the first shout: “Police!” Then it was time to run as quickly as possible. The ones who were caught on the fight scene were indiscriminately blamed and ended up in detention. Moreover, walking off a grappling scene with ripped clothing, dirt and blood all over – would also mean getting arrested. Thus, boxing tactics were much preferred, especially a strong powerful punch that settled the argument – that was our goal and the ultimate masterpiece.
There was a joke around. One guy asked a boxer how was his match. The boxer replied: “If only they did not turn off the lights in the gym – I would totally destroy my opponent…”
To me it showed how magnificent a punch should be – that the person would get so wiped out that he would not even realize that he was knocked out.
Having said all that, I’d like to share with you an experience that is memorable for the total mix of martial arts, nasty weather, age and size discrepancy and emotional drama. One day when I was home on a weekend, I saw that a good friend from my apartment building had a lot of bruises on him. When I asked him why, reluctantly he said that his drunken step-father had beaten up his mom, my friend tried to protect her and the step-father had beaten him up as well. That made me very angry and I went ahead to set things right with his step-father right there and then.
I must tell you that at that age, I was a very skinny entity, weighing about 100 pounds, while the step-father was around 40 years old and a huge man of over 200 pounds. The action took place at the side of our building by a fence. It was autumn, late evening, almost dark outside, with light rain turning into endless drizzle. A square yard area was being prepared for a skating ring and for now, fully covered with extreme dirt and mud.
The step-father, big, brutal and drunk, like an angry monster, was walking through the mud and I determinedly emerged right in front of him…
Full of indignation, I moved towards him shouting why he had done such a horrible thing and demanding for him to never do it again. He stared back at me with disbelief. His rage was building up as he began to raise his hands to either push me away or hit me. My one year of boxing practice didn’t go in vain, the words of my Boxing teacher popped up in my mind: “with your weight and speed – hit first” and I landed a mighty hook into his jaw… He fell onto his knees and I was truly amazed and pleased with my power. A moment later, I realized that the true reason he fell was that he was drunk and slipped in the mud. He wasn’t the only one falling; I was quickly slipping and falling myself right next to him. He got to his knees and tried to hold me down. That’s when I started to regret my skepticism about wrestling and my total absence of ground fighting knowledge. Unbelievably, I found some “hollow areas” where his pressure was less crushing and slid through those areas making my way through the mud underneath. While he was on his hands and knees, I kicked him. He grabbed my leg and easily pulled me sliding down into the mud. Fear of death and desire to live played a big part in the speed with which I was jumping up to my feet. I stood up and hit him once more. He fell. Again it was not because of the particular power of my strikes but because he was drunk and the ground was incredibly slippery.
I was then able to kick him as hard as I could. (Now I know that emotional kicking is very unwise in a fight, you have to calculate your force based on the situation.) I didn’t know it then and my fervent kick made me slide and fall flat on my back. It was a kick in the ribs, presumably a painful one, because now his intention to kill me escalated into total growling rage. As I attempted to get up, he grabbed the top part of my sweater like a mad animal. I could tell by his face that he was about to finish me off right now and that made me do something out of the ordinary…
His grip was so powerful, his face was so furious and I was so desperate that I slid out of my sweater like a snake leaving its skin behind. I slipped out without even feeling his hands on me. And then I was saved…
We both heard the familiar shouting: “Call the police!!!” The man’s wife was apparently there. Obviously, when police would arrive she would testify totally against me. So as he stopped for a moment, I ran like never before, concluding this fight on the usual note. I had no shirt underneath that sweater and was drenched in dirt from top to bottom, so I had to avoid all well-lit areas on the run home.
All this time, I was wondering why my friend, who stood near by wasn’t helping my fight. Later I realized that the whole battle only took less than 30 seconds. Another thing that upset me was the loss of my sweater. I had so few in my possession that loosing any one was a significant adversity.
For weeks and months afterwards, this man kept trying to shoot me with his hunting rifle, but that’s another story.
It really was a memorable fight for me. Having been pretty successful in street fights up to that point, it made me look at life more seriously. I faced something new – a man much older than me, he was a different entity of movements and force, psychology and completeness. It gave me plenty of questions to analyze later. None of the other combat arts that I encountered in the years to come gave me satisfactory answers. Only when I have practiced Systema for a while, I understood the keys to success: staying calm, recognizing how every single situation gives different options to act, continuous movement, moving the body without the use of arms and legs, and futility of trying to overpower an opponent who is bigger, heavier and more experienced. I also saw a common mistake in many fights – people “getting stuck on clothing” – when the opponent grabs their clothing they put all the efforts into trying to rip it out of his hand.
What’s more, numerous times I observed how a stance and preparation for a strike makes you visible, tangible and thus vulnerable. I noticed that in confrontations if you take upon an obligation to help a friend he may not necessarily feel committed to helping you, so it is good to have friends on both sides. And finally, while the core to survival is not to succumb to fear, I found that there is a type of ‘brave emotional’ fear that makes us swiftly move and thus survive, but still does not provide us with full control that we get from Systema training. Enjoy yourself!
This article was published on July 04, 2007.