Global Training Report
Hardcore Hapkido Training
in the ROK
By Roberto Pedreira
The Dawn of Man
It is indelibly imprinted in memory, that first encounter with Dr. Lim Smith. He was in the corner table at Ahn's Kettle House on Hooker Hill in the Ville, back to the wall, a habit he may have picked up in Nam, or in the back alleys of Bangkok, or on the mean streets of that "strange and savage land" he hailed from. Two tall OBs stood on the corroded and disintegrating sheet metal table in front of him.
Seated directly across from Dr. Smith was a portly, bearded, bespectacled character who strikingly resembled Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, or Beanstalk from the movie Some Like it Hot. He was twirling a twig between his thumb and third finger, a meditative technique he might have learned on one of his sojourns in the mountain vastness of Tibet. For some reason, he was called "the Colonel".
They were conversing in one of the few languages that I did not understand, possibly an obscure Tibetan dialect.
It turned out to be English. For reasons that have yet to be clarified, I failed to recognize it at the time.
View from Ahn's Kettle House, considerably earlier in the evening.
Shortly after, a quartet of fresh faced US Marines entered. Words were exchanged. The ranking marine glowered menacingly at Dr. Smith and said ominously, "We gonna dance. Oh yeah, we gonna dance". He lunged at the mild mannered doctor, well known as an international man of peace, tolerance, harmony, and understanding. Suddenly Dr. Smith, while still seated, and with cobra like quickness and devastating power, slammed the inner side of his right foot into the marine's skull. The hapless corporal dropped, cold as a milkshake. Dr. Smith hadn't even bothered to put his plastic cup down, nor spilled a drop of the precious OB in it.
"Damn!", I exclaimed. "What the hell was that?"
"That my young friend", the Colonel explained with a chuckle, "was hapkido".
I was both shocked and impressed. I had always associated hapkido with that bogus Billy Jack bullshit that was popular during the 70's or whenever it was. But what I had just witnessed was not Hollywood Hapkido, but the real Korean combat Hapkido. The kind the ROK marines used.
I immediately made up my mind to remain in the ROK to learn this mysterious and devastating art. I ended up staying seven years and I would see a lot of both Dr. Smith and the Colonel over that time, invariably in the same place, Ahn's Kettle House. It seemed like they were there every night, or at least every night I was. Which come to think of it, actually was every night.
Where to Train?
I looked all over Seoul and found many hapkido dojangs (the Korean pronunciation of dojo) and finally settled on Kim's Hapkido, which happened to be close to where I lived at that time. It was located on the forth floor of an old building by the rotary, in Anam-dong, Sungbuk-gu, within walking distance of the famous red light district of Chonnyang-ri in Chegi-dong.
|Cleaning lady at Dr. Smith's "yogwan"|
Since I did not need a teacher who could speak English (because I had already taken the trouble to learn Korean), it was no problem finding authentic hapkido. The real problem was that I was generally familiar with the curriculum and knew that it incorporated a wide variety of flashy but ineffective kicking maneuvers. I had previously studied karate (the goju-ryu type), taekwondo, and Muay Thai so (1) I knew how to kick, and (2) I knew the difference between impressive kicking and effective kicking. I knew that hapkido kicking was basically derivative from taekwondo, which some sports scholars conjecture might possibly have been slightly influenced by Japanese karate. I explained diplomatically to the kwanjang that while I appreciated the subtle beauty of Korean kicking I was primarily interested in learning the sophisticated arts of kwanjolgi. He countered by saying that it would be better to learn the complete curriculum but that he would give me accelerated instruction in kwanjolgi. For everyday I showed up to train, he would teach me five new kwanjol techniques. I showed up six days a week and learned fast. I changed belts approximately every three weeks, and was ready for the black belt test within five months.
Here then is summary of the hapkido curriculum up to the beginning level of black belt (The ranking system is the same as in karate, which was based on the judo system.) The techniques are a mixed bag of almost everything except ground fighting and are arranged in sets consisting of variations on a theme. Some are obviously related: Pal Ch'agi is the kicking set, but it also includes one knee strike. Uiboksul is a set of defensive and counter attacking techniques for when you and / or your assailant have clothes on (which is something you can rely on during winter in Korea). They are structured circularly, so to speak, rather than (as in the karate curriculum) hierarchically. In other words, you do not have to master one set before learning another set. Rather you make progress on several sets simultaneously.
The kicking set is ordered like this: (1) high axe kick, (2) mid side kick, (3) inside crescent kick, (4) outside crescent kick, (5) groin kick, (6) kick to inside of knee joint, (7) kick to outside of knee joint with the heel, (8) low axe kick, (9) low side kick, (10) rising axe kick under the chin (chokkdosuch'yo ch'aolligi), (11) rising axe kick with a thrust, under the chin (choktoch'anoochugi), (12) high side kick. (13) round kick with instep (paldung cchigoch'gi), (14) hook kick with heel (twikgumch'i ch'atolligi), (15) coccyx reverse wrapping kick (migol kupso ch'agi), (16) low crescent kick, (17) knee thrust (murup ch'agi), and (18) back kick.
These kicks tend to look impressive, at least to naive observers. The side kicks could be effective, if you have the hip and knee flex to execute them, and you are real quick. There is a big problem with positioning, obviously. If you miss, and if your target simultaneously steps in, he will effectively be on your back.. We know that isn't good. Side kicks also don't lend themselves to combinations. After a side kick, there are only a few possible follow-ups. One is a spin kick from the opposite side. This is a powerful kick but because it is so predictable, it is relatively easy to defend, merely by stepping in and jamming. The other possibility would be a hook kick with the same leg. But even someone with tremendous flexibility would not be able to generate much power with this kick. Human anatomy doesn't let it happen.
Back fists would also be possible, but as above, they would be predictable and relatively weak (it's hard to put weight beyond a back fist, and weight, combined with speed, is what gives a punch power).
The uiboksul set consists of 56 techniques against grabs, punches, and kicks. All of them work, assuming that you have the set up. But the thing about self defense techniques is that the set up is already there. The initial attack is the set up. In other words, if you have to grab someone's wrist when they don't want you to, or when they are trying to smash your face in, then this can be problematic. But when they are holding on to your sleeve, wrist, collar, or anywhere else, and refuse to let go, then it is not problematic at all. You know precisely where their hand is and where it will be, for at least the next few seconds (and obviously, if they let go then you no longer need to do the technique--but if you want to do it anyway, then it is jiu-jitsu rather than hapkido that you must master). I mention this for the benefit of guys who think these techniques suck because you can't beat Tank or Tito, in the Octagon or in the Cage. I repeat, these techniques are good; they work, if you do them right and when they are indicated. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to rely on them as a first line of defense. Even Ueshiba knew that you have to distract the attacker with a punch or knee before going for the joint. (Traditional aikidoists refer to this set-up as metsubushi--literally, "eye thrust"). Another problem is that the practice partner tends to be too helpful, but in the wrong way, by making it easier for you to execute the technique gracefully. In reality, it will be ugly. The Brazilians tend to practice self defense moves more realistically, with the partner making at least a semblance of a realistic effort to keep you off balance. Since getting and keeping your own base is essential to doing any technique, this is part of what you need to practice.
However, not all the techniques are the wrist locks that hapkido kwanjogi is most noted for. The uiboksul set also includes judo chops to the neck, uppercuts to the chin, kali type grappling techniques (some of which are used in wrestling), dumog techniques, judo throws. and grab reversal locks.
The Panggwonsul kibon makki consists of five blocks against punches. Assuming the opponent throws only one punch at a time, several of these blocks might work, but the rising block wouldn't work in any case, never. (5 techniques)
Panggwonsul Palnopki are techniques for countering a punch with a joint lock. The idea of converting the incoming straight punch into a wide hanging limb is not a bad one. But it wastes the chance to hit. (5 techniques)
Panggwonsul Tapop are blocks followed by strikes. They aren't totally bad, they just aren't as good as they should be. (7 techniques)
Panggwonsul Kwanjogi are counters with joint locks (or using the locked out joint as a handle for a throw or a target for a strike) (7 techniques)
Panggwonsul Donch'gi are counters to strikes by throwing. (5 techniques)
Panggwonsul Palro chumok makgi are defenses against punches using the legs. (5 techniques)
Panggwonsul kibon makki basic blocks (3 techniques)
Pangchoksul Tapop block and hit (7 techniques)
Pangchoksul kwanjogi catch kick and counter (7 techniques)
Pangchoksul donch'gi catch kick and throw (5 techniques)
Pangchoksul Palro palmaki blocking kicks with legs and countering with legs (5 techniques)
Hanpal bokshik two step combination kicks using the same leg (10 combinations)
Yangpal Bokshik two step combination kicks using the both legs (10 combinations)
Suchok Bokshik (10 techniques)
Pangtugi Three 3 step techniques for throwing when opponent is grabbing
Tonch'igi Judo throws (7 techniques)
Defenses against Judo throws (7 techniques)
Sungdan ch'odan kwajong Breathing, stance, nakpop, kicks, kicking sets, (1 and 2 legs), target kicking
Hoshinsul Moves against bearhugs etc (12 techniques)
It seems like a lot, but it really isn't. The hard part was merely remembering the Korean terms and being able to respond instantly to commands like "Uiboksul sheep-pal!", because this is what you had to do to demonstrate your mastery of the technique. Not execute an appropriate and effective technique against an attack, but rather to memorize the terminology.
As excellent as some aspects of hapkido are, most foreigners come not for hapkido, but for taekwondo. One such was the corpulent poet Jules Bamford Rutherford, sole surviving heir to the Rutherford copper fortune (other than his older sister who was confined again for eating broken glass). To celebrate and commemorate his progress at the taekwondo dojang, Jules wrote a special poem and read it to the waitresses and patrons of the Bridge Club. Holding the crumpled paper between his filthy fat ink stained fingers, he recited:
"O Taekwondo, noble art
Dojang, dobok, dolomite
Wrathful wry transducer of
pulchritudinous plentitude purveying
Kicking, punching, blocking
jumping, turning, scowling, spinning
leaping, laughing, grinning, growling
"What do you think", he asked? His waitress companion Nahee ignored his question, instead asking him "nae drink hana do?" "Huh?", he said, confused. Nahee pointed to her empty glass, then to her parched throat. Jules got the message. "Yeah, yeah, ok" he said impatiently while Nahee hurried over to the bar, telling Sunny the bartender,"naekoya" (it's mine). He next turned to Dr. Smith and the Col., seated at the next table with a bevy of lovely gum snapping waitresses and demanded, "What do you think of my poem?"
Nahee, pointing to her parched throat.
The Col. reflected for a moment and then said,
"Ahem, well, uh, it's pretty good, but it doesn't rhyme".
"It's not supposed to rhyme! It's free verse!" the poet shrieked, storming out of the bar.
Not long after that, the poet was deported. ]
Miss Lee and Miss Kim
The Case of the Pitiful Paddles
Raul Goldstein, rotund restaurant critic for the Korea Herald, stopped in and tossed a bar napkin on Dr. Smith's rusty table. "Jones said to give you this" he said, referring to the cigar-chomping, hard-drinking, two-fisted American ex-taekwondo champion and denizen of a slightly classier category of joint, the kind with dart boards, like the Cadillac and Hollywood. The crudely scrawled, misspelled, and unpunctuated message on the napkin said, "YOUR A DEAD MAN SMITH". The ex-taekwondo champion hadn't liked the tone of Dr. Smith's recent Korea Herald guest column, which offered to teach the taekwondists how to improve their kicking practice for street applications. The advice was simply common sense and intended in the spirit of international understanding and friendship but the ex-taekwondo champion didn't seem able to grasp that. (Here is the column. Judge for yourself whether Dr. Smith deserved to die: The Globalization of Taekwondo.)
Readers who click on the link above will notice what the ex-taekwondo champion failed to, specifically that Ｄｒ. Smith didn't assert that taekwondo was utterly without value. Because there are two taekwondos. The kind that is taught on US Army bases and the malls of America, is bogus for sure, but the other kind, sport taekwondo, has the merits of contact and resisting, counter-attacking opponents. Even so, there is plenty of room for improvement, if (and this was the point of Dr. Smith's column) taekwondo is going to be used for self defense rather than sports competition.
I'm afraid that I had some involvement in this pitiful incident, for it was I who placed the bug in Dr. Smith's bonnet. In my hapkido dojang we kicked at little flappers, just like taekwondoists do. Using my common sense knowledge of physics and the anatomy of the human knee joint, I doubted that this was a smart way to practice kicking. I mentioned this to Dr. Smith, who agreed, and based on his own observations and experiences in Thailand, wrote the above mentioned column.
Dr. Smith vanished soon after this strange episode, never to be seen or heard from again. Knowing of his fondness for sunny beaches and bosomy wasp-waisted go-go dancers, I'd wager that he might be found somewhere in Thailand or even Brazil--if in fact he is not embedded in the concrete foundation of a Korean apartment complex or in the piles of a new bridge spanning the Han River in Seoul, Korea, where taekwondists have still not, as far as I know, adopted his eminently sane training suggestions.
Hapkido Training Methods
Hapkidoists' use of those little taekwondo paddles leaves a lot to be desired, but for all of their unrealistic, unpractical, and counterproductive training methods, they do do one form of training that is quite worthy of emulation. It is called daeryon hoshinsul. This is the hapkido equivalent of jiu-jitsu "rolling", and judo "randori". In daeryon hoshinsul, you try to throw your opponent, and if you can manage it, you try to apply any kind of authorized locking technique as well. Unlike in aikido however, your partner does not cooperate but on the contrary tries both to avoid your techniques and to execute his own. In fact, I didn't see too many people doing this form of training, but on many afternoons I was the only person training and the kwanjang would invite me to do daeryon hoshinsul with him. Doing 30 minutes of this kind of training every day, you get pretty good at applying and avoiding locks and counterlocks. On a few occasions he suggested we add kicking too. Punches (too dangerous, he said), and low kicks (too easy, he said) weren't on the menu. This made the sparring look a lot like taekwondo and I didn't find it entertaining or educational. I kicked him once accidentally in the face and suggested that we go back to the regular no-kick daeryon hoshinsul.
Now if hapkido revised its curriculum a little, replacing the taekwondo leg techniques with Muay Thai leg techniques, and the karate arm techniques with boxing and Muay Thai arm techniques, it would have an excellent stand-up system (the judo that it already incorporates is basic but probably enough for any opponent who isn't also good at judo). Maybe they could add a basic double leg and sprawl from wrestling too. The key obviously is the training method, and hapkido has two. One is not very good (kicking paddles, fully extending kicks, contacting with fragile bones, punching air, locking out punches, non-resisting opponents, etc.). The other is excellent: training against a prepared and resisting opponent.
The Bogus Letter Incident
Dr. Smith was not the only one whose life was in peril.
Former All Army wrestling champion and manager of one of the base weight rooms, Big Lou, was looking for someone to terminate. Not just somone but somone in particular, although he didn't know who that someone was (the old problem of meaning and reference in a real world context). Because an unknown "someone" had written a letter to the editor of the Korea Times, fraudulently claiming to be Big Lou. In the bogus letter, the writer made a stirring plea for tolerance for gays in the military and seemed to be implying that he himself was gay, which everyone knew was impossible, for he frequently, lengthily, and in great detail told of his prolific conquests of the fairer sex. In any event, he was not someone you'd want to go out of your way to give him a reason to want to break your legs. The fact that he lost his job on post as a probable result of the letter didn't improve his mood. (The Times of course never verifies that letter writers are who they say they are, but they did print an apology later--which didn't help at all).
Over in the corner, Nigel Fairwhether, prolific drama critic for the Times, was trying to look inconspicuous. An attractive young lady caught the eye of the now unemployed former All Army champion, and as though pulled by a powerful magnet, he scurried down the Hill.
"Whoever wrote that letter", smirked Bob Burzeg, from his table near the door, "was a certified genius." Big Lou himself couldn't have done it, since he was an illiterate moron, according to Bob, and he was qualified to judge, because he was a professor of English at a local university, and also an expert on all things pertaining to Korea, reasonably enough, for he had been there ever since getting kicked out of the US Army for excessive black marketing, ten years before. Under the circumstances, he had several impressive diplomas printed up, one a B.S. in nuclear physics from The University of Harvard, another a Ph.D. in English Conversation from MIT. Those two sham sheep skins, combined with his manifest ability to speak English and a pathological talent for dissimulation, landed him a job as a college professor in Seoul. "I'll retire rich before I'm 40", he often predicted, if only he could endure Korea that long. It would be difficult, because he hated Koreans, and the Korean language, and everything about the country, except Kimpo Airport, which was conveniently close to Itaewon, where everyone speaks some form of English. He had managed to learn almost one new Korean word for every year he had been in country. Which was actually more than he wanted to know. "If they want to talk to me, they can learn English", he said, arguing that in the USA you don't have to learn monkey language before you can go to a zoo, so why should anyone be expected to learn a foreign language merely because they had been living and working in the country for ten years?
Prof. Burzeg had dabbled a bit in the Korean martial arts, like many other guys on one base or another, but found them unpractical. Spoons were his weapon of choice--you can scoop out a man's eyeball before he knows what happened, the professor confidently claimed. Of course, he wouldn't be relying on spoons when he moved back to upstate New York to the country estate he was buying with his professor's salary. Hunting rifles, large knives, and anti-personnel mines would be needed to protect his property against marauding minorities, immigrants, gays, Koreans, Jews, Catholics, Arabs, Latinos...well, everyone other than fellow members of the Aryan Nation.
Self Defense Reality
His constant companion, the free-lance consultant Ron Broccoli, concurred that martial arts training was a waste of valuable time. Why spend that time in a gym when you could be busy "pulling birds" (attempting to seduce young Korean girls)? When you are uneducated, middle-aged, fat, and bald, and even after ten years in country, can't conduct a basic conversation in Korean, like Bob and Ron, you really do need to invest a lot of time and energy, if you hope to successfully "pull a bird". You need to know a lot of tricks and smooth moves (taking them on post for fried chicken sometimes worked, and promising to marry them and take them stateside sometimes also worked, if they didn't run away screaming instead--which also sometimes happened).
Martial arts training is for grade z morons, they contended. For effective self defense, you need brain power more than physical skills. No one is going to give you any shit if they know that reprisals will be terrible and certain, but will come at unexpected times in unexpected places, perhaps long after the original insult had faded from memory. Why else would fat mob bosses with names like Tony and Guido be feared? You don't have to be in good shape, you simply have to be able to afford to hire guys who are willing to ambush your enemies for you. If it works for organized crime, they reasoned, it must be effective. "If someone fucked with me", the free-lance consultant explained, I'd just wait until he made his next trip to the Philippines. You can order a hit for less than 50 dollars." The only kink in their strategy was that they were too cheap to spend money on anything, including their own drinks, if it could possibly be avoided, and they knew many ways to avoid it. I couldn't see either one of them spending 50 dollars to avenge an insult.
The best feature of this self defense method was that it allowed you to smoke 2-3 packs a day, eat all the fried chicken and onion rings your heart desired, and get drunk every night. As an extra advantage, it would preserve your self-esteem by keeping you out of gyms where you might not be able to avoid comparing yourself with the guys who train and therefore are probably not fat slobs.
Tiger on the Mountain Trail
Not long after, martial arts instructor Darren "Grasshopper" Johnson, strolled by. Grasshopper was a former medic in Nam, and a legendary street fighter and martial arts expert. Like his hero, TV's Master Po, he was known for his terseness. He refused to talk about his background, though he had many potential disciples, eager to hear and learn. All he would say was "yeah, I know a little", cite a fragment of a parable about a tiger on a mountain trail, or something like that, and leave the rest to imagination.
The first UFC happened at just about that time. Who in the hell are these weird Brazilians, most people thought. What kind of martial art is that supposed to be? The unemployed ex-wrestling champion was open minded. It's crude, but these guys fight, and that was the key for him. His room-mate had a taekwondo black belt (earned in 9 months on the Yongsan army base, at a cost of $270, not including rank testing fees). "A joke", he said. "After you've had 50 matches, then maybe you can do something. Until then, you're just whacking off". Grasshopper's analysis was more to the point. The Brazilian guy won because his opponents were chumps. They let themselves get tackled and then when the Brazilian got on top, they didn't just bench press him off, which would obviously be easy for anyone who hits the weights religiously, like Grasshopper did.
Some guy just over from stateside had a copy of Royce and Rorion Gracie's first instructional tape. Someone suggested trying the moves out. Darren said, "you chumps go ahead, I don't need it. Because I don't go down."
Grasshopper had great confidence in the lethal effectiveness of his eye jabs and side kicks.
Two of the guys who did try the moves out were and none other than GTR's own Roberto Pedreira, passing through Korea on his way from Thailand to Brazil. The rest is history.
Above. Some shots of Itaewon ca. 1991, courtesy of Col. Jake Jacobs III.
(c) 2001-2003, R. A. Pedreira. All rights reserved.
Revised November 11, 2009.