Thursday, August 6, 2009
Kostas Fights At Dog Brothers Euro Gathering
Kostas Tountas, our fellow Dojo Rat from Greece has recently returned from fighting at The Dog Brothers Euro Gathering in Switzerland. For those who don't know, This tournament mixes stick fighting with other martial arts. There are very few rules and only light padding for protection.
I will let Kostas describe the event without further meddling by me, except to say Kostas should be very proud to have competed, done so well, and pushed the envelope of his training to a new level. Congratulations Kostas!
Where to begin? The Dog Brothers 2009 European Gathering was held in Bern Switzerland; a historic and beautiful city, which I did not find time to see . I was focused entirely on The Gathering. Though I am not competitive, and though The Gathering has no judges, no trophies, no winners, no losers; I did want to do well. Rarely in my life had I ever wanted to do well, as much as I did then. I felt as though 30 years in the arts had come down to this. Though many of the people I would be facing had had specialized training in stick fighting over the last several years, and though all but one or two had been to a Gathering before (and knew what to expect) I wanted to do well - really really wanted this.
I was not anxious about the people I would face, nor about getting hit, nor about fighting, nor about how my groundwork was not up to par. None of that bothered me, nor kept me awake at night. But nonetheless, I could feel the excitement as the days approached, as the plane lifted off, as I arrived at the campground where everybody was staying.
I did not know anybody. Many people who attend The Gathering for the first time, do so in the company of someone who has been there before. I was completely on my own. I did not know whether the thick hockey gloves I had brought with me were acceptable to fight in (they were not - lightly padded gloves only). I did not know whether I should be using the heavier 1 1/8-inch diameter sticks, or the 1-inch ones.
I found Guro Benjamin "Lonely Dog" Rittiner quickly enough. On first sight, my impression of him was that of a wolf who paces back and forth in his cage. Simply in the way he walked, he exudes restless energy. Of average height, 40-ish, good muscle definition, tattoos, this was the fellow whom his peers consider a prodigy in stick fighting. He made full Dog Brother in only five Gatherings - the only person who has done so to date. My first question (after introducing myself) was "Can I fight on both days?" Normally, as a non-tribe member, I am only allowed to fight on the 2nd day. He said yes.
So I located the fellow with whom I would be sharing a room. Simon, a pub owner from Britain. Simon helped me prepare, gave me advice on how to get a better grip on my stick, and lent me a pair of gloves that were acceptable for fighting in. Within two hours, we were walking though a wooded bicycle path, by the river Aare, on the way to the gym.
Entering the large gymnasium, I noticed a number of fighters were already present and in the process of warming up. One could feel the excitement, and I told myself "this is why you came here". At that moment, I did not want to be anywhere else. Indeed, this is what I had come for.
After a few minutes, Guro Lonely asked the fighters to sit in a half-circle around him, and read out the magic words:
"No judges, no referees, no trophies. One rule only: Be friends at the end of the day. This means our goal is that no one spends the night in the hospital. Our goal is that everyone leaves with the IQ with which they came. No suing no one for no reason for nothing no how no way! Real Contact Stick Fighting is dangerous, and only you are responsible for you, so protect yourself at all times..."
The environment of the Dog Brothers Gatherings is one of the closest I can imagine, to a "real" one-on-one fight. Guro Nick "Raw Dog" Sacoulas described it as "MMA with sticks". In 1995, the UFC decided NOT to include this type of fighting, deeming it "..too extreme for the UFC format at this time" (See the UFC letter on the Dog Brothers site).
Minimal protection is used, so people don't feel immune to pain. The most solid piece is the head protection. But this is a lightweight fencing helmet - not a heavy Kendo one. Knee and elbow pads are allowed, but no hard plastic. A groin protector is recommended.
All strikes, sweeps, take downs, locks, are allowed, unless they risk serious and lasting damage. For example, if someone loses their helmet, protocol has it that you do not strike them full in the face with your stick, but even if someone loses a helmet or weapon, the fight continues. On several occasions, fingers were broken in just this way, when the weaponless fighter tried to protect themselves from the stick blows savagely raining down on them.
Matches sometimes end up on the ground, where they continue, till time runs out (2 minutes) or someone taps out.
To fight in a Dog Brothers Gathering is an adrenaline-inducing experience. Furthermore, one can't always imagine how small details can throw your game off: You most likely will not have slept well; when you are in the lineup, waiting to fight, other fighters around you are also taking deep breaths so there may be a lack of oxygen. They are all feeling the adrenaline high, and that too can start to wear you down, as time drags on while you wait for your turn. Just before going out to fight, I could feel my adrenaline level steadily rising. And then we are called forward, and all thought stops. No time for it. We tap sticks twice, and then...nothing...only the moments exist. There is nothing else.
I fought twice on each of the two days. I feel I did well, and several people told me so. To the best of my knowledge, my opponents were by and large less experienced than I, in years of practice, but more experienced in terms of having had recent intensive training in stick-fighting. Some had just come out of a week-long summer camp by Guro Lonely himself.
Nevertheless, in all of my matches save the last, I was on the offensive. I didn't care if I got hit. My desire to do well and my experience, drove me. In my 2nd fight, it went to the ground. In the third fight, I fought an experienced martial arts practitioner who switched between right and left hands. In my last fight, from the middle on, I was in trouble - my stick hand got hit so hard, my middle finger swelled up and was in pain. I could barely lift the stick to ward off the blows, but I somehow managed, weathering some vicious barrages, till time ran out.
There were a few frighteningly good fighters there - that could generate explosive combinations from out of a relaxed flow. Some had Muay Thai and/or Jiu-Jitsu experience. There were also a few fights with other weapons - one with a three-section staff that had the audience scattering anywhere within a three-meter radius.
On Sunday, after two days of fighting, Guro Lonely gave a seminar. He had said he would focus on the Thai military art of Krabi Krabong, but he ended up showing us some of the stick fighting strategies he himself uses. I have to say, that he impressed me as the type of instructor who has the gift of helping people become effective fighters in short order. Few other instructors, have made that impression on me.
However, apart from the fighting, I was overwhelmed by how people who fought each other so hard, were so helpful and supportive of one another. On many occasions, I was helped out as if I was already a member of the tribe - which I am not. It takes at least two Gatherings (if not more) before one is awarded the lowest rank - which is "Dog" (then it is "Candidate Dog Brother", then "Full Dog Brother").
The camaraderie was excellent. Barbecue and beers in the evening - put on by Guro Lonely - he and his wife worked hard to ensure all went smoothly.
As for the tribe members - a surprising number were over 40 - several had many years of martial arts experience - including some not-so-well-known arts (Germanic sword-fighting), using replicas of medieval weapons. One couple from Britain brought their four-month old baby, alternately taking turns to fight and mind the little boy - yes, both husband and wife fought - the women fight amongst themselves, but are quite capable. There were other inspiring stories there as well. Simon (who I was sharing a room with) had had four fingers broken, at his first Gathering last year, but instead of quitting, he trained harder, and came back this year to fight again. All-in-all, a fascinating group of individuals.
Already, I am looking forward to the next one, and hopefully I will bring at least one other person from Greece to fight. It seems like a long way away, too long...
Kostas Tountas with the Areos Park Kali Group