Trying to Get Real

Realistic Hapkido

Many martial arts include techniques that look elegant but are ineffective. I’m not saying the entire art is ineffective, but many of the techniques are either uselessly pretty, or they are effective but barely accessible because they’re surrounded by classical stances, blocks and striking methods that have no bearing on modern fighting.

I have little use for such arts. I’ve spent enough time in them to know that they only frustrate me.

This unfortunate reality is true for many traditional Karate and Kung Fu styles, particularly the way they are taught today. It is also true for one of the most popular arts in the world: Olympic style Taekwondo.

It is less true perhaps for Wing Chun Kung Fu, which was created by a woman for self-defense against larger opponents; or Jeet Kune Do, which Bruce Lee developed out of Wing Chun; and even less so for the Southeast Asian martial arts (Muay Thai, Silat, Escrima, Kali), which until very recently continued to be used in tribal warfare and wars of independence.

As far as MMA techniques, they are highly effective within their milieu, which is the ring. Put two fighters in a fenced-in octagon with a long list stating what they can and cannot do, and nothing beats the standard MMA approach. And yes, after years of field testing there has arisen a standard set of techniques – based on a synthesis of Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and wrestling – that are effective within the ring.

Rule of Thumb

There’s a rule of thumb that the closer an art remains to the battlefield, the more effective it is. As a civilization moves away from hand-to-hand battlefield combat, the more their martial arts become stylized and elegant, focusing more on the “art” than the martial. Or their arts become sports with rules and referees.

So the Japanese, who have abolished their military and pride themselves on their harmonious and nonviolent society, have tended to evolve their ancient arts in nonviolent directions, focusing on the aesthetics and traditions of the arts. Aikido is an obvious example.

The Americans, who fight very high-tech wars that don’t involve hand-to-hand combat, and who live in cities that can be quite dangerous, have developed MMA, maybe more as an outlet than anything else. Think Roman Coliseum without swords and lions.

On the other hand, Israel, which for 60 years has occupied the lands of a people who continue to fight back desperately (the Palestinians), has been forced to develop a very simple, practical and effective martial art (Krav Maga).

Powerful but Difficult to Learn Martial Arts

In other arts, the techniques are effective only with many years of diligent practice. This is true in particular for joint locking techniques and judo-style throws (and yes, there are many uselessly pretty joint locks as well). Although these effective techniques take constant, ongoing practice to master, they are powerful. Some people can take a punch and keep on coming, but break an elbow, dislocate a shoulder or knee, or shatter an ankle, and your enemy will be severely handicapped and probably unable to fight effectively.

In the meantime, what about the average martial arts student who attends class twice a week? What if she needs to defend herself but has not mastered the complex joint techniques and throws of an art like Jujitsu or Hapkido?

Beginning students need to be given simple, brutal striking techniques that they can learn with minimal practice, regardless of physical conditioning. These techniques should be easily acquired, and highly effective in a fight.

Head and Arm Series

That’s why I’ve developed a series that I call “Head and Arm”. It’s based on Hapkido, Silat and Kenpo striking techniques. The Head and Arm series involves covering and closing to close-quarters, then using headbutts, elbow strikes, head twists, knee strikes and low kicks. After entering and striking, the defender controls the attackers head and underhooks and lifts one arm (similar to a “puter kepala” entry in Silat), and shifts her own weight to the side. From there she can deliver knee strikes to the thigh or face, palm strikes to the ear, a descending hammerfist (or descending elbow) to the back of the neck, or can kick out a knee.

All this can be learned in one day.

From there, more complex options can be added in as the student progresses. These would include leg reaps or sweeps, throws, and joint techniques on the trapped arm.

The Head and Arm series is not particularly elegant. Some martial artists might dismiss it as something akin to street fighting. But isn’t there something wrong when a fighting technique is looked down on because it’s simple and effective? Isn’t that what good martial arts are supposed to be?

I’m trying to get real, to teach fighting techniques that actually work in a situation where you might be unprepared, adrenalized, and facing someone big and mean. I don’t ever want a student to be in a situation where he has to defend himself, and to try some “classical mess” that I have taught, only to be badly injured or killed.

I’ll be continuing to develop the Head and Arm series in the next few years. I’m proud of it and I only wish someone had taught me such straightforward fighting techniques when I first began martial arts training thirty two years ago.

Wael Abdelgawad
Fresno, California


  1. Very true, if you ever do a class on the weekend let me know I’m still interested, I have kajukenbo experience that’s a good start for Kempo….

  2. I don´t know if you do it already but certainly it is an excellent idea the weekend class to share the head-arm series, sounds pretty good for people that just want to know what to do in danger, and if they like it they may stick to the long term programm. Certainly, I hope you have the time and the energy to develop the series at its best, it will be a big source of responsibility before, during and after, but only you know the “weight” you are able to lift without damaging yourself or others.


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