Let's take a break from talking about Sickness of the Heart and take a look at Modern Agonistics. This book is a highly readable account of your eponymous collaboration with Chuck Goetz, encompassing every kind of brutal combat you could think of, and most astonishingly, involving other characters who willingly participate in this practice.
My first question has nothing to do with all that. How do you keep records? As you know, I am a big fan of spreadsheets, but I have learned that you are unfamiliar with this marvelous technology. Yet you recount here information from thousands of encounters. How do you do it?
JL: We used small spiral memo pads and recorded our bouts, the first few years we did everything on a 5-point system. You start with five points and call yourself out when you take five points. A blunt hit was 1, a slash or non vital stab 2, and a vital slash or stab 3. So if you slash me once and I stab you twice, you call yourself out, scoring a 0 on defense and a 2 on offense, where I record a 3 on defense and a 5 on offense. We were trying to workout what worked, what happened when two guys just went at it with weapons. After a while, when more people were involved, we only used this for testing and I retired from keeping track of anyone’s record but my own, really as an experiment. I wanted to hit 1,000 stick-fights so that the math would be self-evident and match this up with my injuries, in order to determine how safe it was.
LL: James, the motto of Modern Agonistics is "As real as you want it." It seems like a core value of this endeavor is genuine, full contact, competitive combat. How do you find people to do this with? When you are training a fighter how soon can you tell if he will be willing to go the distance in this way?
JL: Chuck came up with that motto and he was my first recruit. I asked athletes, martial artists and assorted weirdos if they would like to try it. Roughly 90% of the martial artists recoiled in horror, perhaps 70% of the athletes did the same, and about half of the strange eggs, said, “Why not?” I found hockey and lacrosse players most amicable to fighting with weapons.
LL: One aspect I enjoyed, particularly through Evolutions 1.3 - 1.5 and beyond, is that you experienced a form of arms race, almost as though you worked your way through the development of weapons and armor through history, including crafting weapons and armor yourselves, as you and your training partners advanced and gained experience and skill. How much of this was a conscious decision to expand your armory, versus a natural progression?
JL: We wanted to try different weapons. It was gross act of morbid curiosity in many cases. The evolutionary aspect was just that, not planned. At first we added armor, then we took it away as we got better and narrowed the weapon set. If you are only dealing with one type of weapon you can minimize your armor, unless it is a pole axe or some other crushing extension weapon. We eventually settled for what most primitive warriors have settled with, using a round flexible stick to train, spar and compete with, as this generalizes to many other skills. We did not start out looking at it from an escrima point of view, but did end up using an escrima weapon set, stick and knife with limited machete.
LL: How did you come up with the idea to chain the opponent's weapons together? Has this ever been tried by anyone else?
JL: We didn’t chain the weapons together but held the chain between us, which gives the option to quit, by dropping it and keeps the encounter tense for spectators and does not allow resting. This was Hollywood inspired, I am afraid to say. I don’t have any historical basis for this. Gladiators were forced into close contact by a lanista armed with a prodding weapon. The chain was a way to replicate that forced proximity without getting extra people involved. We had enough trouble getting fighters, let alone officials. Besides, if there are officials for a new sport it can come under fire from the state athletic commission. Realizing this, we decided that taking responsibility for your safety and your opponent’s safety—by breaking off when the other guy is in trouble—was realistic practice for defending oneself on the street. This jived with the fact that more and more of our participants saw this as a type of reality based survival practice.
LL: This book has a lot of informative pictures, particularly in a yellow-walled, red-carpeted dungeon of punishment, as well as detailed instructions on stick fighting drills and techniques. Anyone who enjoyed Sean's recent videos (featuring James LaFond in a red t-shirt, and Sean Glass occasionally sans shirt) will get a lot out of Modern Agonistics, the book. How much do you think a fighter can advance through books and video?
JL: The “dungeon of punishment” was Sifu Edgar Livingston’s Tai-Chi school. He was aligned with Saint Jude’s Children’s hospital, the only honest charity we were able to find. We even got ripped off by the Maryland Diabetes Associate, who refused to credit us with the $260 donation we made because they said they only filled out paperwork on $1000 or more and the meathead I sent down with the money believed the thieves in their office.
Book learning combat depends on the person. In order to learn from books you need relevant experience and a partner. You cannot use a book alone unless you are an experienced fighter with some self-coaching ability. Realistically, books that I write as instructionals are reference works for trainers and coaches and for people who are being or have been trained and coached in similar activities.
Videos, on the other hand, are almost identical to the instruction had in the martial arts setting, which is a fair learning environment. The gym setting is better than learning via the ‘monkey see, monkey do” martial arts method. In boxing your goal is to be able to verbally coach a fighter who is looking at the guy that he is fighting while listening to you. In this sense the boxing and stick fighting books are much more useful for the coach than for the fighter. The videos are better for the fighter, especially the novice. Some fighters, with a governor on their ego and an ability to conduct an analysis of their body mechanics, have successfully become formidable combatants through books and videos. One of the ways this self-critique and self-coaching ability can be cultivated is by retooling your skill set in slow motion while you are injured.
LL: James, you cover scoring quite a bit here, including the importance of self scoring and the rationale behind determining when a fighter has been eliminated from competition. How does this fit in with your gaming writing? Do you have any active gaming projects right now?
JL: Once, when I was fighting Don Plot in 2006, with 10-inch polypropylene dagas I had him dialed in with the knife. He was just a stick-fighter and every time he advanced I stabbed him in the throat or face and the four corner judges saw no point. He looks at me, and says, “You better do it again.”
We move around and I stick him again and he chuckled. “I guess you’ll have to rip my head off before they notice.”
What I did was lifted my foot for the next stab and made a theatrical kill and they called the point. This points up the ridiculousness of judges scoring any fight with blades. I am the most experienced knife and machete fighter in the United States [though certainly not the best] and I cannot watch two guys that I have trained go at it and know what happened. In many cases a fighter does not know that he hit another fighter, especially when they are amped up. Calling yourself out is the only way. This was essentially how bare knuckle boxing worked.
I used my role playing game designing projects to bridge the reality fiction gap for others. I did three, with none of them, including the last, being playable by video game paced minds. In order to accurately pursue a combat simulation on paper it needs to be conducted at a pace that is at least 100 times slower than the action being simulated. What I used these role playing designs for Tribes, Fights and Triumph for was transferring my combat experience into a form that made a combat scenario builder for writing fiction. Although I don’t write that way—I don’t plot fights—someone else who does plot action scenes could use it like that.
I have yet to convert my 200 page Tribes sourcebook into fiction. I am in possession of over 20 excellent illustrations for the World of Oth and, as soon as I finish Drink Deep of Night, Seven Moons Deep, The Spiral Case and Yusef of the Dusk, I intend to begin publishing pocket-sized paperback novelettes of about 700-800 words, with Richard and Joseph’s fine art work as covers.
LL: Readers, this book has a ton of highly amusing anecdotes, pictures of men trying to hurt each other while wearing gladiator gear, valuable and detailed instructions and more. We know from Winter of a Fighting Life what this book cost James to write. I think there is nothing out there like Modern Agonistics, and strongly encourage you to pick up a hard copy or Kindle edition.
JL: One final word, Lynn. When I was promoting events for charity, I made sure that I stocked the front row with a few blood-thirsty babes, to whom I gave free tickets to and it worked like charm—with those meatheads fighting like savages for female approval. Thanks, Lynn, for reminding me of the good old days. I hope some young guys out there have some of their own to look forward to.
PS: Don't miss this video of James and Damien (a prominent figure in Modern Agonistics) fighting. James is using a sword and shield, and Damien is using a pole flail. More videos are available at James's main site, under the Modern Agonistics link.
(c) James LaFond & Lynn Lockhart