Al McLuckie Interview
Brad Scornavacco: Â Hi everybody this is Brad Scornavacco. I’m the Head of School at Systema Colorado and with me today we have Al McLuckie, fellow Systema instructor and longâ€‘time martial artist. Al has been in various martial arts and Chinese martial arts, Philippine and Indonesian martial arts. He’s actually the person who got me into Systema. And so, we’re going to get started and talk to Al a little about his experience with the martial arts.
So Al, how did you get started in the martial arts in the first place?
Al McLuckie: Â Hi Brad. The initial impetus was the depiction of it in films and TV. I remember at age nine seeing Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto judoâ€‘throwing gangsters. And in the midâ€‘60s, “The Wild Wild West” with Robert Conrad, “The Green Hornet” with Bruce Lee. And then by the time the “Kung Fu” series came out along with the first Bruce Lee films, I really wanted to train. So around ’72 to ’76, I began training in Korean then Japanese and finally Okinawan karate.
Brad: Â Where did you go from there with your training?
Al: Â Basically, in 1976, that was when I began Filipino martial arts training.
Brad: Â OK. And so what was it about the weaponâ€‘based martial arts, like the Filipino martial arts because they’re known for their stickâ€‘andâ€‘knife and sword work. What was it about those arts that appealed to you?
Al: Â Well, actually it wasn’t so much the weaponry. Being a Bruce Lee admirer, I knew that Dan Inosanto was a top student of Lee’s. And Inosanto did Filipino martial arts. At that time there were no videotapes but I did mail order several Super eight films by Dan and also by Grandmaster Angel Cabales in the Serrada system and began looking at those.
What appealed to me, after about five years of karate, was the flow and motion and the rhythmic quality of Inosanto and Cabales.
Brad: Â OK. So it wasn’t necessarily that they did weapons but you liked the flow and the fluidity of the arts?
Al: Â Right.
Brad: Â So what was your Filipino training like?
Al: Â Well, let’s see. The word “brutal” springs to mind. In Fort Wayne, after a few months of studying these films, I met a guy who had just moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana from the west coast who was a student of Cabales and also one of Angel’s top students, Mike Inay. I trained with him in Fort Wayne for a year. Then moved out west with him and my brother and a friend and trained in Mike Inay’s backyard invitationâ€‘only class. Inosanto, who was a friend of Mike’s, would occasionally drop over and worked with us informally.
In my initial conversation with Inay, he said that he appreciated my moving out west to train with him but he needed to know if I had a problem with being injured, which was an inevitability in his class.
He basically said that he felt that you had to have the element of danger present for your training to bring out your warrior spirit.
So, broken knuckles, knocked off thumbnails were common. I remember one guy, he had most of his teeth knocked out in class and the rest having to be pulled. But mostly, just deep contusions from heavy sparring without armor.
We got away with training like that, in large part, I believe, due to the dit da jow that we’d end up rubbing into our injuries for a half hour after every class.
And it was a really good mix and it would take away the pain and heal you up rather quickly. Al Novak, who was the top student of Bruce Lee’s friend James Lee, made and sold it to us by the gallon.
Brad: Â So at some point you started studying Chinese internal martial arts. So, tell us a little bit about that and how that helped you take your training to another level.
Al: Â Yes. I guess it was about 1979, in a [inaudible 4:32] school, I saw and met Tom Bisio, who was the top student of Leo Gaje’s, do a demonstration which was extremely impressive. And then later, in 1981 and 82 in Chicago, Tom and Leo Gaje taught seminars at the Degerberg Academy, which after moving back to Fort Wayne and in 1980 I taught it for about nine years.
I thought Tom was and is in a class all his own. He refereed my first full contact stick tournament and worked with me privately in Chicago. I felt, at the time, that he must have peaked as I simply couldn’t imagine how someone could improve from the level he was at.
Then after about a twoâ€‘andâ€‘aâ€‘half year gap I saw him again. And he was three times better. And he told me that he had begun training in hsing-i kung fu and that the biomechanics trickled down to his Pekiti Tirsia and Doce Pares skillsets.
I began training with Tom in hsing-i. And also with an excellent high level teacher in Chicago, Wai Lun Choi, who Dan Inosanto would work with when he would come to the Windy City. Also, I began training in William Chen’s tai chi biomechanics system.
And all of these radically improved my Filipino base with the training of synchronizing your joint rotations, opening and closing of the rib cage, the opening and closing of the inguinal crease, connection of the core with the external motion and other factors.
That again made all the difference to me. I trained with Tom roughly from, I guess, ’87 to around ’92, maybe ’93. It was definitely a stage that I benefited from.
Brad: Â So, given all of that training and very realistic training that you had, what attracted you to the Russian martial art, Systema?
Al: Â Well, let’s see, I think it was October of ’98, someone gave me a bag of most of Vladimir’s videotapes. I had a pretty good eye for body mechanics. In watching him I felt he was probably the highestâ€‘level martial artist I’ve ever seen. So I studied the early tapes and worked the material for maybe seven or eight months. Then drove to Toronto with a friend of mine and trained for a few days. That’s when I realized Vladimir was far, far better than I gleaned from the tapes, which is often the reverse.
It had to have been a couple of years since I really trained in anything. Nothing I’d seen had really inspired me or motivated me so I guess I was just ready to try something new and really became sold on it.
Brad: Â So I want to talk a little bit about the knife work because there is a lot of knife work in the Filipino martial arts and Systema addresses knife use in defense a great deal as well. So given the fact that you have trained in both systems and both approaches, how would you characterize the differences and the similarities between the Filipino versus the Russian approach to the knife work?
Al: Â I would say that the similarities are in that they both use an opponent’s tension against them. Both of the approaches elicit tension from someone and then completely take advantage of that tension. So I like both approaches although at this point, obviously mostly Systema. But both arts developed from the battlefield and are currently in use on battlefields. One thing I do like from the Filipino martial arts that I don’t see in the Systema is that they have a training method that involves relatively safely speeding full speed, multiple strikes with a live blade at a student, including distractions of your nonâ€‘weapon hand, which is great for psychological toughness.
Although I have to admit I’ve been in the emergency ward six times from live blade training.
On the negative side of the Filipino martial arts, I see a lot of instructors that, once they master a given drill, they’ll often demonstrate it and teach it with their bodies kind of lazily static and using fast isolated arm motions, which is a terrible example for a student to consciously or unconsciously model.
Not unlike the Kenpo syndrome we’ve both talked about over the years. I would say if karate arts could be somewhat like ice, I would say the Filipino arts are absolutely more like water and that the Russian system seems to be more like the vapor.
Brad: Â So circling back a little bit, what benefits, if any, do you see in integrating? The fact that, again, you have these two systems that both have so much to offer in terms of these weapon arts. What benefits do you see in integrating them, or are there areas of the Filipino martial arts that you might recommend Systema students to crossâ€‘train in or at least get exposed to and to see what these guys are doing?
Al: Â Yes. Well, I think one’s previous training as well as every life experience is going to color your expression of Systema, like it or not. There might be things you would want to let go of or try to unlearn like rigid, hard blocks and stances, the slight snow leopardâ€‘monkeyâ€‘snakeâ€‘crane posturing or manufactured aggression and training.
But if you grappled for instance, prior to Systema, some of that is going to come through in the form of fall flowing, for example, with someone on the ground. I think you would recognize opportunity where someone with little or no technical base will simply not see.
You take our mutual friend Martin Wheeler, for example, arguably one of the very top Russian martial arts instructors in many areas, certainly including grappling.
I believe his current skill level is due to, besides his dedication, his tenacity and intelligence and no doubt for the massive amount of oneâ€‘onâ€‘one time he’s spent with Vladimir.
Gut prior to Systema, he trained with some really good, tough, skilled, technical grappling instructors. And he still spars with grapplers and wrestlers regularly.
I can’t imagine anyone thinking, “Gee, think how good Martin would be if he didn’t have his prior background and then he quit all that silly sparring with nonâ€‘Systema guys.”
Now in terms of the Filipino martial arts, if you’ve never played with a truly skilled Filipino martial artist, you should understand a few things.
While it’s highly beneficial to exercise with sticks, to massage yourself in the training part with sticks, learn how to take a shot to the pectoral area or the gut with a stick and not crumble…
Try tapping the bridge of your nose with a 27 to 32â€‘inch hardwood stick, open your mouth and tap your teeth, your temple and your collarbone, your elbow, your wrist, your knuckles, your kneecaps, shins…
You want to understand that a good kaliman’s stick is faster than the fastest jab of the best boxer who ever lived. And he’s going to be targeting those areas with a lot of speed, deception, and accuracy, flexible commitment, along with the rest of his body and the whole of his being.
So if you’ve never played with someone like that, and you are out there telling yourself you will just proceed and strike at his density or flow with him, it may or may not be adequate.
As with grappling and defending a choke, unless you’ve experienced being choked up by a skilled choker, you’re not going to understand that from the inside out enough to truly deal with it.
Filipino martial arts are one of the few martial arts systems I’ve ever heard Vladimir publicly compliment on more than one occasion.
And for all I know he is about to release a 3â€‘DVD set on short stick work that is completely different from Filipino martial arts. But till that time, I guess I plan to continue floundering around with what I’ve done and running through the filter of Systema.
One thing I would like to mention is that if someone is thinking that they don’t need to train with the 27 to 32 inch stick because they already are handy with the fourâ€‘andâ€‘aâ€‘half foot stick, that’s like thinking that because you can work at saber there’s no need to work knife work. It’s simply not the same and it needs very specific training methods.
Brad: Â Great. So, on to the karambit. This is a knife that’s gotten really popular in the U.S. maybe in the past decade. People coming into my school, already talking about working with it. It’s my guess that through a lot of the Filipino, JKD channels, student instructors, people are really digging this knife.
So what is it and tell me a little bit about where it came from and what’s unique about its uses and things like that?
Al: Â Sure. For its history, I would recommend just someone Google it. But basically it is a Malaysian weapon. I think it’s truly a frightful weapon due to its organic, natural design and capabilities, the concealment potential and traditionally, they’re often poisoned. You can use it to manipulate a person’s body. You can insert it and internally manipulate it with tremendous leverage due to the design of it. And then withdraw it from a body while cutting right through a rib or a spinal cord.
Then again, it’s very hard to disarm due to its design, the ring design of the grip. Again, against a skilled player, a skilled player is not fixating on just his weapon and neglecting the use of the rest of his body in conjunction with it.
I don’t believe in training against morons with weapons any more than I expect an unarmed attacker to only throw a drunken haymaker at me.
I can remember about 15 years ago, a friend of mine who was a cop in LA told me about raiding what turned out to be a recentlyâ€‘abandoned drug house.
And they found among some abandoned knives and training knives, they found a dozen video tapes on Filipino knife fighting. And so, somewhat like the UFC mentality is assimilating in the culture in terms of empty hand fighting, I would say it’s highly likely that Filipino knife fighting, stick fighting, whatever, is slowly assimilating into the culture.
And again, that was about 15 years ago when my friend found the empty drug house that was full of those training tapes.
Brad: Â That definitely helps with the… assuming that the person likes the weapon that they’re using and knows how to use it versus they cannot just take it up at random and all of a sudden they’re attacking you with it.
Al: Â Right.
Brad: Â So, I’m out of questions unless you have anything else you wanted to say in closing. But thanks for taking the time.
Al: Â Oh, I appreciate it, Brad. Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks.
Brad: Â Al will be teaching at Systema Colorado in a couple of weeks. If you guys want to get in on that, you can just go to http://www.SystemaColorado.com. Our phone number is 303 485 5425 just ask for Al about the seminar. And Al is also a very, very…
Al: Â Chicago workshop we’re doing just too in case anyone wants to…
Brad: Â Yeah, we’ll be doing a Chicago workshop, Al and I will be featured at the Academy of Selfâ€‘defense on 95th, between Kedzie and Pulaski on the south side. So we both will be teaching jointly there, coming out this weekend. If you’re in here and want to go there, it’s the Academy of Selfâ€‘defense.
And Al is… also, one thing I wanted to tell everybody is that Al is an amazing oil painter. Pretty sure your website is almcluckie.com, right?
Al: Â Correct.
Brad: Â Here it is. www.AlMcLuckie.com. So try and check that out, or if you just want to contact Al, you can get it through his website.
Al: Â Yes the martial arts I’ve done for the last 40 years is kind of a hobby. I really am an artist at heart.
Brad: Â Definitely check it out and we’ll see you guys next time. Thanks a lot. Bye.
Al: Â Thank you, Brad.