A few years ago I was doing my BC AST (advanced security training) course. It’s required in order to carry and use handcuffs at work. As part of the course, we were given more thorough lessons on the legalities of correct use of force. With this extra knowledge, we were then assumed able to make use of a different set of self-defense and compliance skills. One of those skills was defense against knife attacks.

Our instructor was a rangy cowboy of a man, with decades of experience as a sheriff and multiple black belts. Tough guy, good instructor. He grabbed a training knife and asked who in the class had martial arts training. I put my hand up. I know how this drill is supposed to go. I’ve done it myself. What you do is pick the cocky tough guy with solid martial arts training, and tell him to defend himself. Then you stab him. You always do, because most martial arts training is complete BS. It’s a good drill to run. It gets the class focused and sober to deal with material that requires full attention.

I was prepared to play my part. I expected to do my best, but fail. I mean, this guy had been dealing with the reality of knife attacks for years. He was gonna be mean and dirty. I had no hope. He didn’t disappoint, coming in vicious, low and fast. At the end of the attack, he paused for a moment. I put his knife back in his hand and apologized. He stood back up, completely baffled, and turned to the rest of the class and quietly said “If you guys want to learn martial arts, train with this guy.”

I had two advantages going into that drill. One was the 5×5 training system I created, and had been drilling non-stop with my assistant instructor, Justin Ring, and my other students. The other was Achille Marozzo. I had just made some breakthroughs in understanding his system, and it all started with Marozzo’s knife defense work.

I back out of my opponents measure, observing. He’s got the knife hand low on his right side, concealed behind his back. He crouches forward, low. I note that my right leg is forward, and he has just come into measure, but has still not made the decision to attack yet. He’s looking for me to reveal something, or relax. I don’t do either. Lesson from Capo Ferro: At the point of measure–attack, retreat…or die. My right leg is forward, so I am going to step with my left foot. I note that his knife has drifted into view, and it’s point forward. He will lunge in to gut me. I step forward with my left foot, and little to the outside. I’ve moved forward, but also offline. I’ve created a safe channel to receive the blade, and my opponent has no choice but to move down that channel. I moved when he did not expect, and he is now moving off of a flinch–autopilot reaction. My left foot hits the ground as his hand darts out. My left hand slaps out, grabs his wrist, as my right foot sweeps behind. I pivot completely off line. My right hand seizes the knife blade, my thumb is strong on the flat of the forte. Between the impact of my left hand and grip on his wrist bones, my right hand easily levers the knife out of his hand. I have the knife and the beginnings of an arm bar, my opponent is still moving forward, unsure of what has happened yet. I put the knife back in his hands before the students notice. I don’t want to ruin the drill.

At the back of Marozzo’s manual is a neat little section of Presas, grappling techniques to be used in self-defense. This section was the one that provided the key to his system for me. It took some years to puzzle it out, but I eventually noticed something simple. The first two techniques involve a step forward with the right leg, the next two techniques involve a step forward with the left leg. First a defense against an icepick style stab from above, second a defense against a prison-style stab from below. Two attacks, four responses. Why?

Put one foot in front of the other. It’s the most basic martial arts stance there is, everything descends from it. Everything we learn as martial artists comes from that first thing: move a foot out, and then do the technique. It’s the first big flaw we find in drills. We start with the wrong foot forward and correct. In the mythological “real life” scenario we are told we won’t know, or be able to depend on such things, and it’s implied that traditional martial arts training fails because of that. But I think Marozzo has done an end-run around that problem.

Implicit within his mention of taking a step forward is that we are predisposed to one side over the other. Taking a step with the left implies to me that the right foot is forward. My understanding of Marozzo is that he is telling us what to do if we arrive at measure with one foot forward. If we arrive with the left forward, we will step with the right, and do the correct technique if the knife is pointed up or down. If we arrive with the right foot forward, we do the other techniques. He even accounts for times when we are caught literally flat-footed. This implies the most important thing for us is to be aware of measure, the opponents intention, and what our own posture allows us to do at the moment we arrive at the critical distance.

This understanding opened the manual for me, allowing me to see the endless lists of guards not as static postures or beginning positions, but rather as potential tactical situations that arise either spontaneously or through intention. After all, fights don’t start with two guys standing in a posture, and then attacking. They start with dynamic motion, posturing, moving back and forth, testing each other til the critical moment is reached. Using Marozzo’s method, we can train ourselves to react to that split second when the opponent has moved to a recognizable posture in measure.

I have no idea if it’s how Marozzo intended us to read his book, but it’s elegant and it works for me.