It was cold yesterday, and the forecast called for clear skies. It was sunny all day. When I went out last night to take the garbage out, it was the right kind of cloud. Bright…the kind you get in the cities when all the streetlights reflect off of the bottom of the clouds, and cast everything with a pink-orange light. I walked back in the house and told Courtney it was going to snow, which was no surprise for either of us, because you could smell it in the air the last few days.

I checked the forecast, and it said it would be partially cloudy later, but still clear. I checked three more weather prediction services and they all said the same thing…clear skies, no snow. So of course, I look out the window this morning and see freezing rain, and facebook reports of snow in the rest of the city. I’ve spent years of my life working outside, maybe a decade all together, and weather reporting is usually good. But sometimes the reports just seem to fly in the face of experience, if not common sense. If I were to guess, I would guess that sometimes the forecasters stick to their prediction models instead of what they can see.

The first serious smugness a martial artist learns is the “That won’t work in real life!” meme. It’s usually something they learn from a more experienced student, who confidently reports that a particular technique has no value on the street, or against robots or werewolves or whatever. Entire martial arts have sprung to popularity based on the notion that they are more “real” than other arts.

We used to practice a lot of spinning attacks. Why not? They were a ton of fun. Then a good friend of mine, who was studying Wing Chun, pointed out that they were a bad idea. He demonstrated how you could do a particular block, and follow up with punches to the back of the head. Made sense to us, we stopped doing them. Made sense to a lot of martial artists…slamming spinning techniques became pretty universal.

Teaching my Palaestrics classes back at Academie Duello, I kept digging around for new things to challenge students with. I found an old-school Muay Thai technique, a spinning dropping elbow. It looked difficult, so I practiced it for a bit to get it down, and grabbed Justin to try it out on with some slow work. It…worked. And very, very well. Shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. We’d been doing extensive work with Bartitsu, La Canne and Savate and had come to appreciate the body of spinning techniques included, but somehow they didn’t feel real. We appreciated their effectiveness, but mostly thought it was a historical thing…modern fighters would not fall for such things. Except we did.

Teaching straight-up Pugilism…Mendoza-style boxing…at Scatha Combat Guild also seemed a little dated, but we had more open eyes now. We knew we could look past the archaic-looking postures and see the value. Students chuckled, but with a little practice and some drills, they started to see the point. And it got tested out…some of us in the class were working as bouncers, and right after learning the techniques one of us got to try to it out for real. On the video, you can see an angry young man (with MMA training) trying to sucker punch a student. Said student was a very accomplished martial artists and experienced bouncer, so he had the presence of mind to decide he could try an experiment. He used the straight out of the book Mendoza counter, leaning back and extending his straight left arm to parry the punch, and then leaning forward to follow up with the right arm. Boom. Knockout. I might post the video if I can get clearance. It’s pretty nifty.

We know you can’t kick a knife out of someone’s hand. And yet I have, in sparring, against people unused to my style of fighting. We know you can’t catch punches…but I and my students have. Spin kicks don’t work, Axe kicks don’t work, the list goes on. With swords, we look at the simple geometric lessons of the manuals and believe them. Stabbing the foot or cutting the leg doesn’t work, because you give up measure and can be stabbed in the head easily. Which is true, except…when you stab someone in the foot during a bout they just look at you funny and ask why you did that. They didn’t even bother to defend because it’s such a silly attack no one would do it.

Martial arts at a certain level is a rock-paper-sword game. One technique can always beat another, and that’s the essential difference between good and bad…common…martial arts training. Rock-paper-sword is what most people learn and do. It works, most of the time. BJJ beats kickboxing. Wrestling beats BJJ. Kickboxing beats wrestling. That’s the first decade or so of the UFC right there. You can’t train any other way in a competitive sport. You must be good at what the other guy is good at, but be better at one thing and hope you get the chance to use it. And once in a while a new thing crops up, like the superman punch. Everyone learns it and uses it, until everyone can counter it. Repeat with everything. The best way to beat a thrust is with a cut, the best way to beat a cut is with a thrust.

Good martial arts is about being able to improvise, being able to really see what is in front of you, stripped of your expectations. You can beat the cut with a thrust, but can you see that the cut is a set-up for a disarm against your thrust, a  la Marozzo? Or are you so committed to having the right response for what you expect to see that you fall right into the trap? There is no physical training for that, no technique you can learn. There is only correct mental training, learning to perceive what is actually in front of you, learning to strip yourself of expectations so you are free to use the appropriate response.

You never know when the forecast might call for clear skies…