Interview – Tony Blauer – It’s Not Who’s Right, it’s Who’s Left
By Matthew Sylvester, Features Editor, COMBAT Magazine UK
Combat magazine has a well-deserved reputation for speaking to market-leaders and finding out they have not only devised the system they teach, but also why they devised the systems.
Tony Blauer is one such market-leader and is the founder of the world-famous S.P.E.A.R. System™, as well as the inventor of the HIGH GEAR™ suit. Both the S.P.E.A.R. System™ and the HIGH GEAR™ suit are revolutionizing the world of martial arts.
The S.P.E.A.R. System™ is the most scientific self-protection system in the world and the HIGH GEAR™ suit is the most advanced form of body armor specifically designed with self-protection in mind, but is also taking the MMA world by storm, as top athletes such as UFC veteran B.J. Penn realize just how valuable it can be in training.
What is your original martial arts background?
I always answer that two ways. My original official martial art was ‘the Green Hornet’ – watching Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet when I was just a youngster and messing around with that stuff as an athlete.
Officially, I started with Taekwondo. Prior to that I had wrestled extensively at school and competitively, but it wasn’t until the UFC made grappling popular that I even considered that wrestling was some sort of martial art or part of my background.
You can see this on my DVD “Forging a Fighting System” where I’ve compiled training clips of my evolution over 20 years of training, drills and fighting. A training partner and I were sparring outside and had a video camera set up. He sucker punches me and there’s a quick exchange – we go into a truly primal clinch where we’re just bashing each other. I wrap him up and take him down, squish him and stack him on the ground whilst threatening to punch his head into the pavement. It’s all good fun – he’s bleeding and I’m stunned, but it was that clinch grappling take down that stopped the fight.
Why did you start martial arts?
Well, I was always thinking about fighting on a logical and emotional level and always thinking about the self defense side of martial arts. I always had a lot of fear about what I would I do there, what would I do here. I interpreted this ‘thinking about fighting’ as ‘fear of fighting’ and I just delved into these fear and fighting concepts in all their aspects. At the same time, I was watching the ‘Green Hornet’ and I was just infatuated with Bruce Lee; infatuated with the old ‘Wild, Wild West’ shows with Robert Conrad. Anytime there was a fight scene, I’d go into zombie mode in front of the TV!
The philosophical answer is that if I look at my career, now at age 47, the things that I’ve participated in, some of the changes that I believe my research has helped inspire in combative, reality-based training and self-defense, mean that clearly this was the path I was supposed to be on.
At what point did you realize that traditional martial arts weren’t offering you what you needed, rather than what you wanted?
I was always strongly inspired by Bruce Lee, I was always eclectic. I went to TKD because it was the only school in my community, growing up as a teenager. I converted my basement into a gym and as a 13 year-old I would crank out 100 push-ups, abs, do kicks, punches, even before I brushed my teeth. I was pretty much a fanatic. I went to school, came home from school, worked out and then went to TKD class. I was always kicking and punching and doing whatever. When I was 15, I started boxing as well, because, of course, we all know that TKD is a kicking-based system so I wanted to work my hands more. Between the wrestling, boxing and kicking, I pretty much had most of the ranges covered.
The thing that really changed – and this was in 1979/80 – was when I started teaching and I would get all sorts of questions about “what would you do if this happened?” and “what should I do here?” and I really started looking at more specific self-defense models but still trained in that conventional modality – we would talk about self-defense and then we would go spar.
The big change happened when one of my students got his ass kicked in a self-defense situation. He came to a private lesson looking all dejected. I asked what happened and he had this bully situation at school. But when I asked him what happened he told me that another kid had tripped him in school and, finally having had enough of this bully, my student grabbed him, pushed him against the locker bank and held him there out of frustration and said, “I don’t even know you, why are you bugging me? Just leave me alone!”
I asked what happened next and he said “he hit me with a left hook”. I asked him why he didn’t block it or jam it or bob and weave. He paused and said, “well because I was holding my school books.”
That’s when I had this big light bulb moment and thought “Oh my God – we completely teach self-defense the wrong way.” These clichéd complex motor-skill based answers – “Here’s where you disarm a knife, here’s how you get out of a choke, here’s how you throw a guy” then we spar or we grapple but wait – real self-defense starts with an emotional psychological confrontation that affects how you think and how you feel. Both of those things affect the way you move and hence your tactics.
It was at that moment that I completely shifted and changed how I taught self-defense. Everything from then was scenario-based and included a pre-contact verbal build-up with emotional and verbal distractions and happened at a distance that was entirely unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but where all fights start.
You say the S.P.E.A.R. System™ is ‘genetically wired and behaviorally inspired’ but how did you examine the instinctive actions of people? Did you just have people react?
There’s a long list of things and the answer is probably longer than your magazine! It was a body of work. It’s not a single piece of research. We are the only self-defense training company that has had medical reviews on its work. I think that that is a huge thing. In the UK, we had to have one of the leading medical research doctors sit in on our courses because our program is deeply integrated into the UK’s Law Enforcement safety program. The UK, being very professional in what they will embrace and what they will integrate, did years and years of evaluation on our methods before eventually integrating what we do. We’ve also had doctors in Canada and the U.S. evaluate the S.P.E.A.R. System™ and their findings are available to anyone who wants to see them.
When you started out you were developing the S.P.E.A.R. System™ as a civilian system. When did you realize that the S.P.E.A.R. System™ has major implications for Law Enforcement Officers?
The interesting thing is that I was always just doing my own thing. I never pushed it to anyone. It was more of a Field of Dreams – “build it and they will come.” It was what I wanted to do, and even today I’m coming up with new stuff. Last month I had some new drills. I don’t know of many companies who continually refine and innovate like this. In the beginning my team around me, which has grown and grown, didn’t understand how we would get together every couple of months and I’d have changed a lesson plan, added a couple of drills and so on.
They would get frustrated saying: “Why’s he checking up on us?” That wasn’t the case – there was always room for improvement, always room for evolution, always a better way to explain something. We truly evolved, we’re not teaching some secret scroll stuff from the old days, we’re looking at current trends in violence and urban criminology, the body’s physiology and psychology and figuring out from there what best to do to enhance survivability.
What was the reception like in those days?
Ironically the response is still the same from some people today! Back then no-one had heard about us so it was like “who do you think you are, Bruce Lee?” We used to get that a lot because people didn’t look at the body of the work or what the intention was, they just looked at the label. The label was ‘new style, new system’ and when you ask anyone in this century about who invented a new system they say Bruce Lee but in reality, all ‘traditional systems’ have been invented at some point, and continue to be reinvented today.
It was my students and myself that co-developed the S.P.E.A.R. System™ into what it has become. For example, if I had always been teaching the Vulcan neck pinch and all of my students were able to grab the Trapezius muscle like Spock did in Star Trek and stop and subdue everybody, we wouldn’t be doing this interview because the work would have been completed.
You see, many people are looking for that secret “one move” that will work 100% of the time. Well, we like to tell people that “everything works once – it won’t work twice” in the sense that, if there was just one move that worked, then somebody would have found it by now and the martial arts world would have gravitated towards it, and stopped! So we did confrontations and scenarios that evolved our work and, being a deliberately philosophical and introspective scientist of sorts, I would always look at things deeply and I’m a voracious reader. Before we did anything I’d always say “let’s think about this, what could also happen, what would be the Murphy Moment here, wouldn’t it suck if this happened” or “okay, that’s great, in a vacuum we’ll do this but real life doesn’t function in a vacuum.”
This wasn’t for everybody, we had people leaving the school and there were people at seminars who would get upset – I’d talk for 3.5 hours and drill for 15 minutes and some people would come up and say “that blew my mind, I learned more in this afternoon than I have in 10 years”. Someone else would say “you didn’t do anything, you suck,” because I was really about the stream of consciousness and trying to say “listen you, don’t need to pay me to do jumping jacks, we all know how to do jumping jacks, everyone knows how to practice a sidekick or to do a jab, without being facetious there’s kenesiological, physiological and psychological education required in order to know where to hit and how to move your body properly but you could practice that by yourself. My whole seminar and teaching system took on more of a self-exploration, mentorship, personally and amongst my students – it is a very cerebral approach.
Do you think that you’ve gained more than you initially thought you would?
Absolutely, its changed my life several times. It put me in situations, confrontations and meetings. If you’d asked me when I was 15/16 whether I would be opening the world’s largest combatives training premises in the U.S. and our clients would include the U.S. Department of Defense, I probably would have said “yeah that sounds cool”, because I had that attitude anyway, that whatever’s supposed to happen will happen.
Have I grown personally? Of course, I’ve travelled around the world numerous times and met some really cool people, some of the best fighters, interviewed people who have been in the most challenging and horrific situations and survived them and shared their insights with me.
Because I’ve had to present to audiences from departments of psychology at major hospitals to closed door briefs for military professionals I couldn’t be winging it or making shit up. We’ve done stuff from the Department of Defense to Gavin de Becker to Victoria Hospital in Montreal which has a very well-known psychology department. If you look at those different fields, I’d be wearing a suit on one day and ACUs in another meeting, a pair of slacks in another meeting, jeans somewhere else, so very often I stop and I look back and I’m invigorated by the things I’ve done.
There are a lot of systems that require students to train for a long time before they can use it, how long with S.P.E.A.R. SYSTEM™?
The S.P.E.A.R. System™ is the only system that fits around our physiology, that means that everybody turns up to a seminar or a class with the hard wiring for the program already built-in, so part of the training they already know how to do!
This is what’s confusing to a lot of people who read an article and look at a picture and go “why would you want to flinch in a fight?” I always tell them that if they’d bothered to explore the next level, “you don’t want to flinch but your body flinches when you are surprised and the most dangerous moment in a fight is of course a violently surprising moment and that’s going to trigger a flinch” – that’s applicable to a pro-MMA fighter, a soldier, a cop or a citizen going about their daily life.
Part of our research is the conversion of the flinch and not the flinch itself. It’s a big area of confusion. You usually get that confusion from people who have an unconscious or conscious investment in how they look, not how they do. If you look at the PDF files on our website for the new training centre the slogan is “It’s not who’s right, it’s who’s left.”
Can you tell us about the unique training methods of the S.P.E.A.R. System™?
S.P.E.A.R. System™ stands for Spontaneous – Protection – Enabling – Accelerated – Response. What we’ve done is create, based on classical and Pavlovian conditioning models, conditioning drills based on over a decade of research analyzing how attacks happen.
We use what we call Primary Initiation Attacks, where we look at how different sectors and segments of a fight must transpond – because we’re dealing with humans. It’s almost like how you would build body armor. You would analyze what type of rounds the enemy has, where they are going to try and shoot you and how to stop that. So part of the research is “can we predict if two guys are standing in a bar in Scotland, having a fight, if they’re at this distance then the person can use their beer glass, their headbutt or a knee. But if they move past that, they can’t headbutt or knee but they might push and use their beer glass or throw a punch.”
In other words there are certain distances and basically how do you create probability in a confrontation. You break that down to “well if the person is standing left side forward, with their weight on their left leg and gesturing with their left hand they’re not going to kick you with their left leg. At the end of the day you can’t guarantee anything but you can predict movements and if the movement is sudden and aggressive we can predict that we’re going to flinch.
Now with the flinch response there’s two or three that we focus on from physiological research, but then the field opens because there’s a certain ‘black box’ concept determining what response is made. The black box is a metaphor that I stole from Coach Greg Glassman of CrossFit™ – it is the unknowable, it’s the magic. It’s when you look at a phenomenon happening, and you know it’s happening, but we don’t know why, can’t explain why this happens but we think we may know why.
What we’ve noticed in studies with Law Enforcement scientists, specifically forensics, is that there’s almost always trauma on the hands and forearms in front of an initial assault, so there could be a gunshot wound, a knife wound or even somebody going through a window in a car – there’s always trauma on the forearms. So what we’ve done through deductive logic is said that the first one and a half things that hit this person (from a bullet to a knife to windscreen-glass) is blocked by either their forearms or their hands because of the flinch mechanism.
That’s the black box – how awesomely fast is your flinch system if, before you can hit the glass on the window if your car has just hit another car, you’ve got your hands up that fast to protect the head. How fast is it if a guy’s moving in with a knife? Whether or not you lost the fight, there’s always trauma to the front of your forearms and your hands. That trauma had to happen before you turned your back or were killed… correct?
When you look at that what we’ve done is spend a lot of time analyzing that and looking at videos of people flinching and then doing drills that generate our own flinches. We don’t ‘teach’ people how to flinch but say “trust the flinch, your body’s going to flinch away from danger and depending on the proximity of the attack your hands are going to come up to protect your head” – what we call the ‘command center’ in the system. Somehow the black box, the survival system, does its best to get those hands going to intercept the incoming [attack] from hitting your command center.
With regard to the attacks do you look at a pattern of attacks or have a general set?
No, like everything we do, it’s based on the scenario and we reverse engineer everything from the scenario. If I was teaching taxi drivers, the primary scenario that a taxi driver is going to have is someone wanting to steal their cab, a carjacking whilst they’re sitting in their car or it’ll be a mugging from behind their seat in their car, but the key realization is that, sitting in their car, they’re not likely to get into a kickboxing match.
We look at people, look at the scenarios they’re likely to find themselves in and try to prioritize them and then look at the probability of attack in that scenario.
Martial artists who are focused on self-defense in general practice altogether too many different techniques. I’m a big fan of B.J. Penn and was just in his camp in Hawaii, helping him prepare for his match with Sean Sherk. B.J. uses our HIGH GEAR™ impact reduction suit and they brought me out to work on the ground and pound phase. So here’s a guy that’s a Jujitsu wizard. His nickname is the Prodigy, but the bottom line is that he could be in a fight with George St. Pierre or Matt Hughes and you won’t see the 500 different things he knows.
You’ll see a guard, you’ll see an attempt at chokes and arm bars and triangles. There’s a handful of things and so I guess what I’m getting at is that if we start from the scenario instead of “I want to master Jujitsu”, it should be “I want to master ground fighting in the context of an MMA event”, maybe I only need to practice 6 things and get really good at them.
That’s how we approach self-defense, it’s not that we’re going to practice 500 moves and then we’ll start doing realistic self-defense which is how a lot of schools operate. In my school it was interesting, as all of my students had to do three months of serious scenario-based self-defense before they could go to a grappling class, a kickboxing class or a boxing class. In other words, we did everything in reverse order. We said “you came here to learn to defend yourself. First we’re going to teach you how to stun and run and protect yourself because if you don’t win your fight, you’re not going to show up at classes again are you?” We’ve always done stuff differently.
The flinch conversion happens on two levels. First of all what we do is, one, the psychological and, two, kenesiological, anatomical and physiological. So there’s a part of the startle flinch conversion that is done through classical Pavlovian conditioning, where we do stuff in the air, through a field of resistance meaning slight to moderate tension with a role-play partner. Then we do things at speed through our Ballistic Micro- Fight™ model. Everything is done the same way where we’re replicating the targets and the intensity in what we’re doing and we’re conditioning responses but what we pioneered is working on the primal and the protective phase of self-defense, not just the tactical or the most effective.
But in the S.P.E.A.R. System™, we talk about primal, protective and tactical versions of all of the possible responses, acknowledging that emotional, psychological, perception and awareness factors will impact your actual response in a real, sudden assault.
Why do you use HIGH GEAR™, how did you progress things to the point where you needed to actually wear this gear during scenario-training?
What we’ve done that is very different from all of the gear out there is that we’ve built it with an impact reduction property, so that you can actually feel what’s going on. You can get knocked out in our gear, you can get winded and worse if you’re not using it properly. What we did was realize that in terms of street self-defense there’s a lot you can’t practice if you don’t have the equipment on. What we did was build something – basically we tell people that if they’re practicing “pulling their shots” or “not hitting” that they’re not practicing.
What the High Gear™ allows you to do is to make contact to targets that are really moving. You can do stuff in a bar, you can do stuff in a bed, you can do stuff at an ATM. You can go into real-world environments and run training – you can really create a scenario at a level that no-one could achieve before.
Obviously you’ve reached a stage where you’re happy with the HIGH GEAR™ design, can you see yourself developing it further?
Yeah, we’re working on all sorts of new things. We’ve developed a special fire retardant training-projectile hood for the LEO and military community so that they can practice their live fire with training munitions.
We’re coming up with four or five design concepts in the works that will help isolate certain skill concepts, [and] we’re always looking at new foams and fabrics to make the suit lighter and more dynamic. Right now it’s pretty awesome. Last week I was out with BJ Penn. These MMA guys are using the suit, they’re rolling around with it just going “oh my God this is awesome”.
How did you find the people to actually help you develop such a suit?
Now it’s easy, now that we’re a company people actually call us. Back in the day it was like “who the hell are we going to get to make this?”
There was a seminar out in Memphis Tennessee. We were doing Frankenstein gear at the time. We had the Supersafe helmets from Japan, baseball arm guards, hockey gauntlets, Taekwondo chest guards and one of my students said “wouldn’t it be cool if we had just our own suit and didn’t have to do a mishmash?” I was like “yeah, but how do you make a suit?”.
If things are meant to happen you get certain signs that are put in front of you. One day I had the idea in my head, I had sketched it and then I bumped into some guy who knew a company that was designing a new Taekwondo chest guard and it was a really different design. They were working with different plastics and moulds so I told them about my idea and they built the first chest guard and head gear. I kept it for posterity as it would never have worked but we had our first non-functioning prototypes. About a year later one of my student’s fathers was President of CCM. I used to live in Montreal and CCM makes all the professional hockey gear.
We went in and had a professional engineer in the meeting and had these guys come up with some prototypes. Through them I met some other people, CCM ended up having to pull away from the job due to other business. I was left with a functional prototype and to cut a long story short, one of the guys I was introduced to who used to make hockey gloves through CCM had a guy in his shop named Jaque Bourgoise, who he said was a master of the R&D side and I told him what was wrong with the suit and he built by hand, a functioning prototype that we tested and I’ve been with him for over a decade now.
What are your goals with regard to building the PDR team?
The PDR program is basically a philosophical approach to teaching self-defense. As pioneers in the emotional, psychological, and behavioral aspects of self-defense, what we’ve recognized is what unites all human beings on the planet is the physiological side of things.
I can have in a course, soldiers, cops, police trainers, martial arts instructors, people from the PDR group and the rest from an eclectic group of people who all come together and were all able to do every single drill without interference because the PDR (Personal Defense Readiness) is about just that, Personal Defense Readiness. Philosophically, you’re not your style when you’re being attacked. Whether it’s a mugging, a home invasion, an attempted rape, you’re not a Taekwondo subject getting attacked, you’re not a Jujitsu subject getting attacked – your style may or may not enhance your survivability. At that moment you’ve got to weather the ambush, you’ve got to orient on the attack, you’ve got to have psychological tools to get through it and then and only then maybe your system is going to have an application.
I think that the UFC and the MMA have shown that most fighting systems don’t have an application in a real fight and maybe it is the mental toughness and the tenacity that one learns through a good martial arts system…but it is rarely the 500 moves you were practicing that gets you through the fight.
More usually, it is you saying “no way is this happening now” – it’s about will, not skill. That’s the PDR philosophy, what we’ve then done with the PDR team is try to find likeminded instructors who have a conscience and accountability, who recognize that they’re there to help the citizens in their community and some of those citizens may or may not be martial artists. It’s about embracing the research and seeing that this system is rooted in true behavioral and physiological reality.
We make a joke with people who argue about our stuff because we have people who say “my instructor says the flinch is this”, we say “okay no worries, this research on human beings doesn’t apply to X-Men and some martial artists.” For these people to think that physiology or neurology or brain stem function and so on doesn’t apply to them is quite outlandish.
We’re not here trying to get people to wear our uniform and buy our Karate Kid headbands – we’re just saying, “Look, we happen to be the company that started this and we pioneered a lot of this research and it’s an open source. You can get this information on our website, you can go to any of our PDR affiliate workshops and get varying degrees of this knowledge, based on their experience with us, but it’s all based on behavior and genetics.”
We’re just trying to help the world become safer. That might seem grandiose to some people. What’s important is that we’re not trying to get people to stop going to martial arts schools. I just did this interview at the Arnold Schwarzenegger event. I was talking in front of hundreds of people doing a demo saying “you need to go to a martial arts school to learn certain tools and the style that you pick should resonate with your personality, but that doesn’t mean that you’re learning pure realistic street self-defense.”
The joke I always make is that you can go and study traditional and classic dancing, Ballet, Jazz and Freestyle, Samba and Waltz, but being a specialist in those dances doesn’t mean that you can go out to a club with your girlfriend and dance to a U2 song. [If] you start doing ballet in a rock club, you’re going to get thrown out on your head, especially if you’re a guy. That’s the issue here, and with the PDR program, we’re making the planet a safer place one person, one instructor at a time.
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