by Martin Wheeler
Over the recent years I have read with interest on the internet back and forth as to the validity of training in Systema by observers who have only viewed experts in the art on YouTube or video. Usually a comparison is made to the most visual of fighting arts, mixed martial arts. The same types of questions are posted over and over again, “Why do they train slowly? Why does this look way too easy? Why did that guy fall over and seem unable to get back up?”
And I read with equal interest the various ways in which the art is defended by practitioners of Systema. Not that they are not valid questions, they definitely are, it is just I rarely hear these same questions from anyone in seminars, classes, or in sparring sessions, no matter what their background or what speed they work at.
Just for the sake of balance, I began in the martial arts at a tender age and have studied in many full contact environments from boxing systems to grappling systems, to clever weapons based and ‘street-fighting’ arts, and have enjoyed sparring, fighting and training for the last thirty years with anyone who’s paths I have crossed from beginners to world-class full contact fighters. I was a bouncer for ten years and I am currently contracted to share my views on close-quarter-combatives with professionals from elite security services around the world, as-well-as MMA fighters, Systema practitioners, traditional martial artists and civilians.
So why, if I have studied all these other full contact systems with relative success, would I choose Systema?
For me that is easy to answer. It’s because I have tried it. I am just one of many who brought whatever I had in my little bag of tricks to test Vladimir Vasiliev, or heaven forbid, Mikhail Ryabko, when I first met them. And I have yet to see anyone who did not come out the other end of the experience the same as I did, that is to say, confused, in pain but with a profound insight into the fact that something fundamental had changed.
To put it mildly, there is a lot more going on with Systema than meets the eye. And if there were not, if you could really just see what was happening by watching it on YouTube, then it would not be very good Systema.
Mixed martial arts are dramatic, fast and superbly visual. The best method for two pugilistic grapplers to go at it since the gladiators of old Rome. You can see what is happening and the results are self evident. It hosts some of the best conditioned and most versatile athletes.
I love to watch it, I love to train in it and always enjoy working with anyone from that world. And in my opinion, anyone who trains in MMA who is even half decent, a man or woman, is to be taken very seriously.
So I hear you ask: Well, if Systema is so good why isn’t it in the UFC? And I think that is an excellent question.
But I might ask: Well, if the UFC was any good why don’t they throw a knife in the cage?
As unrealistic as that is, maybe you get my point? The dynamic of a fight would change immediately if a knife were indeed tossed into the cage. You would see two highly trained fighters having to immediately adapt to a completely new set of rules or die almost instantaneously.
I think anyone would agree that eating jabs from a skilled fighter, possibly the least lethal of MMA striking attacks, sucks, but by comparison is quite pleasant compared to a single knife wound.
When I first trained with Vladimir he stopped me in the middle of a sparring session and said in his own inimitable way, ‘Martin, I know men that you would take to pieces in the ring’. Of course, stupidly beaming with pride I thought he was complimenting me, until he turned away to attend another student and added flatly… ‘But they would kill you.’
And there’s the rub. Almost every visible strategy, philosophy and motion that is great in an MMA sport environment is useful in the street and even on the battlefield. But only useful. Whereas everything in Systema is purposely designed for both of the later environments, is not visual, and has been proven as effective in those arenas as MMA has in the cage. Systema’s structure is intentionally designed to appear structureless, and the speed of the action although registering as slow to the eye is actually a highly developed relational timing, deceptive due to the Systema practitioner remaining calm.
Recently I was invited to introduce the concept of Systema to an overseas Special Operations Unit. While there, I was shown a video of various instructors that had been invited to train their operators and show what they had to offer. Among them was a top MMA coach from Pride. I asked what they thought of his training. ‘Excellent’ the Colonel said ‘but for us, virtually useless.’
This is in no way disparaging to the Pride coach, he was obviously excellent. But the fact remains, what is good in one arena is not necessarily good for another. Systema is not designed primarily for a sport environment or a sport mentality anymore than MMA is primarily designed for a battlefield environment or a combat mentality.
One could train for twenty years in Jujitsu, for example, and be an amazing grappler. But if you were to introduce just one more opponent into the fight you would not be doing Jujitsu anymore. It is simply not designed for fighting two opponents efficiently at the same time, even on the ground. It is primarily structured to fight one opponent at a time.
I am not saying the Jujitsu fighter would not prevail, I am merely suggesting that if he had to fight two or more possibly armed opponents at the same time on a daily basis then his training might soon start to look, at least from the outside, like Systema. And then armed with that knowledge, the way he worked against a single opponent again would also dramatically change. After ten years or so it would look as alien to another Jujitsu practitioner observing it from the outside as Systema does now after centuries of refinement.
Systema, as a martial art, in the form it exists now is primarily designed for real life application, it works for unpredictable situations (such as multiple opponents, various weapons, uneven terrains, poor lighting, confined space, etc.) for professionals in the military, law enforcement and security, for someone who’s got to fight while injured or wounded or has to protect a woman or child, for someone who is older or in a poor physical condition. Training and fighting in Systema is designed to avoid injuries, and even heal your old ones. And that requires a very different bag of tricks, look and feel to a sport fighting art.
Although, as Vladimir once remarked with that casual profound quietness ‘Systema just happens to be a martial art’. And to have any understanding of that gem, one cannot merely observe it from the outside…
About the author.
Martin Wheeler is a Senior U.S. Systema Instructor certified under Vladimir Vasiliev. Martin is teaching regular Systema classes at Los Angeles School of Russian Martial Art. He has trained in the martial arts for over thirty years ranging from Boxing, Grappling, Weapons fighting, Kenpo Karate and for 10 years in Systema. He is contracted to teach SWAT teams and Special Operations Units and is also produced Hollywood screen writer.