Distinguishing ‘Training Methodology’ from ‘Fighting Style’

(As with a number of my previous posts this piece is excerpted from a chapter of a book I hope to publish later this year – I hope you enjoy it, and whether or not you agree with it,  do please to comment on it; there isn’t a writer or teacher alive who doesn’t need feedback!)

Training Methodology and Fighting Style – are they the same thing?

Well, the obvious answer to this is, ‘Yes, they ought to be’, but in many of the mass-taught mainstream arts even the assertion that they should be synonymous is dubious.  Let me explain what I mean…


Training Method –

For our purposes the easiest definition of the term, ‘training methodology’ – as opposed to that used to break down the opponent’s defences and defeat him, which could almost be all you need to define ‘style’ – is the process by which you acquire the skills and attributes of the fighting system you are studying to the point of being able to apply these in the real world.

So in effect ‘style’ encompasses preferred strategy, tactics, weapons and typical applications of all these, whereas ‘training methodology’ is a developmental path bestowing the wherewithal to apply the ‘style’.  Also, it’s worth being aware of the fact that a ‘style’ can never be perfectly emulated by anyone other than the founder – unless the student can perfectly match the attributes set of the originator – whereas a ‘training methodology’, while aiming to produce a student who is able to do what the creator of the art is able to do, will still produce a skilful practitioner, though not a clone.

Style –

Now, I recognise that I am applying a very strict definition of ‘style’, so let’s try to amend that to be a little more practicable.  By broadening out the definition we allow the strategic element to come to the fore, rather than the idiosyncrasies of the founder’s way of moving.

Styles arise, develop or are created for a number of reasons, but the two most common are:

▪    Individual insight

▪    Contextual factors forcing adaptation

Dealing with the first, an individual finds that the style they originally studied either works less than perfectly for them, or they believe they have an insight that can provide a sufficiently radical improvement that it warrants distinguishing it from the original.  There are many examples of this in martial arts history, with all the many animal-based fighting systems providing the most populous paradigm.

There is a third which combines the first two, and I can think of three instances in particular that offer excellent illustrations of how this synergy works.


Morehei Ueshiba, the founder of modern Aikido, studied under the head of the Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu school, Takeda Sokaku.  Ever since the beginning of the Meiji Restoration* in 1867/68 there was a decline in the fortunes and respectability of martial arts schools. Takeda sensei was renowned for both his irascible nature and his skill, particularly in his specialist weapons, sword and spear.

It is apparent when studying Aikido that it is an empty hand version of Japanese sword-play.  Although practising with and against the sword (katana/daito) – or more commonly the wooden facsimile, the bokken, dagger (tanto) and the four-foot staff (Jo) has always been part of Aikido training, and remains emphasised by some of the off-shoots developed and maintained by various teachers who broke away from Ueshiba over the years, O Sensei placed an emphasis upon the empty-hand applications of the overall art.

This was at least partially driven by a need to democratise the art and socialise the tradition within the cultural context of a new Japan, and it led to a subtle, but definite evolution in form and application.  The Samurai caste no longer had a right to carry their swords in public, and Ueshiba sensei had the opportunity to attract a much larger, more diverse student body.

As Ueshiba sensei grew older his art continued to develop, becoming Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (‘Aikido with mind and body unified’, commonly called ‘Ki Aikido’) in his final years.  This was not merely a progressively more spiritual art, though this was undoubtedly more suited to an increasingly orderly, modern, extremely law-abiding society such as Japan became; it was also ‘softer’ in the sense of being more efficient, and requiring less and less physical force in application as the founder grew older, though no less vigorous.

Ueshiba sensei became more spiritually focussed the older he got, and with that the shape and feel of the art altered.  The aim of the art became to neutralise the opponent – preferably occasioning little or no injury to the attacker – by being irresistible mechanically and by the use of the application of ‘ki’ (internal energy).  Make no mistake however, if you do oppose an Aikido technique performed by a competent Aikido exponent, your own resistance will pretty much guarantee some broken joints, as the techniques are founded upon sound anatomical principles quite apart from any reliance on the esoteric.

Kalis Ilustrisimo

Antonio Ilustrisimo was perhaps the most famous and feared eskrimador (a practitioner of the weapon-based arts of the Philippines) of the 20th century. ‘Tatang’ (a term of great respect) Ilustrisimo survived hundreds of death matches – more than any other known master – and had many real-life deadly encounters well into his old age.  ‘Tatang’ was from a famous eskrima family in Cebu, but his art was hugely influenced when he stowed away aboard a steamer when not yet in his teens believing himself to be heading to America.

Instead, he found himself on Mindanao in the southern Philippines.  The man who found him took him to his friend, the local Sultan – this part of the Philippine archipelago has never been conquered or successfully occupied due to the skill and fierce fighting spirit of the Moros (a corruption of ‘Moors’ or ‘Moorish’), the local people so named due to their Islamic faith.  The Moros’ bladed arts have never been bettered in the Philippines and Antonio Ilustrisimo, adopted into the Sultan’s family and with privileged access to the best teachers was able to add their techniques and tactics to his own blood family’s combative arsenal.

‘Tatang’ was still only in his teens when he killed a man in a fight and had to return to Manila to escape prison.  He became a merchant seaman and was often challenged, but never beaten.  He could fight equally well at extremely close-quarters (corto) as at long-range (de campo) – quite probably a result of the need to defend oneself in the overcrowded conditions to be found on-board ship and in the extremely densely populated city of Manila.  He was highly reluctant to teach, and it was only due to the sheer persistence of Antonio Diego, his successor that the style exists today.  ‘Tatang’ went so far as to effectively pierce his feet (which fails entirely to do justice to the size of the holes) between the tendons and bones separating his big toes and the next largest.  This was to allow a peg to be driven through into the ground in practise forcing him to pivot effectively, a key ability in defending against multiple attackers.

Kalis Ilustrisimo (the sword art of Ilustrisimo) is one of the few arts still to maintain its focus on bladed weapons – although practitioners utilise rattan sticks for training part of the time – remaining a cutting art rather than a striking art.  It is so effective due to the intensive practical fighting experience of its founder, the intensity of the commitment required to engage in bladed combat, and the simple fact that to use poor tactics or even to execute excellent tactics incompetently resulted in death.  The cleverness and skill of the founder, his utter unwillingness to back away from a fight in an era and a place where ‘face’ meant everything, including survival, drove his quest for excellence.  His combative intelligence assured that the lessons he learned were able to be transmitted to his successor, Antonio Diego, whose own analytical insight made it possible to pass on the art systematically.

The physical environment and social context of the first half of the 20th century in the Philippines drove the development of his art.  Having to operate as an eskrimador in Mindanao with its highly sophisticated bladed arts, and in the central Philippines in Luzon and Cebu where the arts had become more impact oriented, but where the poverty and population pressure guaranteed more occasions to fight, honed his skills and tactical appreciation, while his travels as a merchant seaman exposed him to many fighting styles and the need to find effective counters to them.

Small Circle Ju-jitsu and Judo

Professor Wally Jay, the founder of Small Circle Ju-jitsu originally studied Professor Okazaki’s Kodenkan Ju-jitsu style and his development of his own system was driven by two key events.  Taking his blue-belt grading, he was unable to perform one particular body-throw to his own satisfaction, and he determined to refuse the rank when he found he had passed the test.  Ken Kawachi, the legendary all-Hawaiian Judo champion advised him to accept the rank, promising to make him a highly competent thrower if he did.  Kawachi sensei then taught Prof. Wally his own unique wrist action which became one of the keys to the Small Circle system later.

When the Professor moved to San Francisco he concentrated at first on developing his Judo team, but coming up against mainland Americans who were generally larger and stronger, his team lost consistently in competition for that first year.  Being ridiculed by other Judo sensei only made Prof. Wally determined to improve his team by making radical departures from the normal approach.  After a year-long hiatus from competition his team re-entered the tournament circuit and began winning in a big way, and Small Circle Judo was born, the precursor to the Ju-jitsu system of the same name.


You may have noticed that I termed Small Circle (Komaru Ryu) Ju-jitsu a system, as opposed to a style, whereas more usually we would speak of Ju-jitsu (Ju-jutsu) as the system, and denote Small Circle, and any other ryu, a style; there is a reason for this.  Small Circle is both a style and a system, in that it is plainly a style of Ju-jitsu having  the same range of techniques one would associate with the comprehensive ju-jitsu approach to fighting, including: body throws; limb and wrist locks; ground-work; chokes and immobilisations; break-falling; strikes and kicks.  Where Small Circle qualifies – both in Judo and Ju-jitsu – as a system in its own right, is because although Professor Wally added actual techniques from the many other arts that he studied – a practice his son and successor, Leon Jay has continued – he also introduced innovative training methods and significantly different body mechanics in his drive to develop a more effective system.  Attending what had been intended as his 95th Birthday celebrations (Professor Wally sadly passed away in May 2011), and what was instead a genuinely uplifting celebration of an enormously creative life, the degree of innovation he applied to his art was forcefully brought home in a couple of ways.

The first of these was the way in which martial artists from many other styles and systems had absorbed certain key principles and techniques from Small Circle, and then applied them to their own arts with impressive results.  Many very senior teachers of great reputation attended and demonstrated some of what they had acquired from their interaction with the Professor.

Brad Burgo and Dave Quinonez, two of Prof. Wally’s outstanding Judo students, provided demonstrations of the many radical departures from conventional Judo training methods.  The use of hand-based kozushi (off-balancing) techniques and entry footwork, all performed with an admirably erect posture, which bears no resemblance to the jigatai crouching posture adopted by most judo-ka while trying to deny their opponents an entry clearly illustrated the difference from conventional Kodokan Judo.  Quinonez sensei – a particularly technical teacher – was able to articulate a very different training method that develops the ability to enter in this way.  I was amazed to see what I recognised as the ‘butterfly step’ from the Tango applied combatively.  These teachers, and their champion students carry the flag of Small Circle Judo forward into the future, with the blessing and endorsement of Prof. Leon Jay and the admiration of everyone who sees them work.

Historical Notes:

*Historians differ as to whether the commencement of the Meiji era should be termed a ‘restoration’ – the Emperor Meiji came to the throne and, more importantly, to some actual power – as opposed to a ‘coup’ – the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end and was supplanted, just as the shogunates** had supplanted the Imperial rule  – or even a ‘revolution’, due to the radical changes which Japan underwent; not least of which was an end to feudal organisation and a rapid industrialisation with strong Western influences attending it.  By the turn of the 19th into the 20th century martial arts schools began to be seen as emblematic of the old feudal regimes, with unfortunate connotations of thuggish behaviour to the point where very few jujutsu ryu still existed with each having only a handful of students.  It was this decline in reputation that led Jigoro Kano – who held Menkyo Kaiden (a Master’s teaching licence) in the Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu – to develop modern Kodokan Judo in such a way that it could be introduced into the school curriculum throughout Japan a few years later.

**Shogunate – a period of rule under a Shogun, a general or literally ‘a commander of a military force’.  The Shoguns of various dynasties were the military dictators of Japan, ruling from 1192 – 1867, who were nominally appointed by the Emperor of their day while being the de facto rulers of the country.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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