Kick Ass Like a Russian Spy

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Why you should care

Because an ancient Russian way of life could be a paradigm shift for the martial arts world.

There’s a knife in my hand, and I’m going in for the kill. I lunge, quickly and confidently. But Martin Wheeler quickly darts to the side, controlling my wrist with his left hand, twisting my arm to throw me off balance and snapping my neck with his other hand. Now it’s his turn for the kill, as he takes my knife. Lucky for me, the blade is fake. Wheeler sometimes trains with real knives.

“If you’re tense and afraid, you’ll get stabbed,” he tells students, a smorgasbord of ex-cops and plumbers, at his martial arts school in Beverly Hills, California. “So you have to relax completely,” he instructs, so calmly that it’s almost a whisper.

There’s a new way to kick ass, and you can thank the Russians for it. It’s called Systema (Russian for “the system”) and it takes a very Zen — but effective — approach, with a lot of deep breathing and spontaneity. Because, let’s face it, the real world is never predictable. Exported from Russia’s elite military ranks to martial arts schools around the world, Systema has become a favorite among Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other American special operations soldiers, not to mention normal folks. From Baghdad to Burbank, more than 250 schools are training mere mortals like us, spawning more than 100,000 budding warriors, twice as many as five years ago.

Do you want to know what it feels like to really get punched?


All this is pretty impressive considering that, to many, Systema looks more like Broadway acting than fighting. When struck with a punch, Wheeler reacts like a jellyfish, allowing the force to move him any which way. His punches, kicks and disorienting pushes flurry together.

Effortlessness via controlled breathing is at the core of the martial art, says Vladimir Vasiliev, one of the founders of modern Systema; he also founded its first international school, in Toronto. “By eliminating fear in the body, you can eliminate not just injury, but aggression as well,” Vasiliev says, via his wife, Valerie, who is also his translator.

It’s worked magic for me.

Dan Inosanto, martial arts legend and former pupil of Bruce Lee

Martial arts purists say this oddball discipline wouldn’t hold up in a real fight, because it emphasizes fighting “humanely.” It doesn’t help that Systema practitioners don’t compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the major event for mixed martial arts fighters to prove themselves. But others say who cares about the cage or the ring when the street is what matters most. Just listen to Dan Inosanto, none other than Bruce Lee’s principal pupil and a martial arts legend: “It’s worked magic for me,” he tells OZY.

Some say it could work for the police, too. After all, post-Ferguson, many cops want to deal with aggression without lethal force or huge scenes — the very gospel Systema preaches. Nate Morrison, a 20-year special ops veteran and an instructor for police and military, has worked with police forces in Colorado, Arizona and other states, and expects more will sign up. From a purely public relations standpoint, Morrison says, it could do wonders for the police.

Spreading Systema to the masses wasn’t what Vasiliev had in mind during a Christmas visit with friends in Toronto in 1991. Nor was falling in love — until he met Valerie and moved to Canada, bringing with him a little something he learned in the military. Friends were soon clamoring for a permanent school where they could learn Systema.

Systema was originally developed about 10 centuries ago by Russian warriors defending their homeland. Communism nearly stamped out the ancient practice, but it persisted among a handful of military men living near Moscow, including Master Teacher Mikhail Ryabko and his top pupil, Vasiliev.

Despite its war-hardened roots, practicing Systema feels more like tai chi or meditation. Wheeler’s academy, where students pay $200 per month for a dozen sessions, looks more like a sanctuary; it’s tucked inconspicuously away from L.A.’s loud roads, with uncluttered white and gray walls extending from dull floor mats. During the two-hour class, instead of the noise of thumping rock or hip-hop, there’s an almost unsettling silence, broken only by the sounds of deep, emphatic breathing and Wheeler’s soft instruction.

Don’t let his understated demeanor fool you. A longtime bouncer and a fourth-degree black belt in Kenpo karate, an American martial art, Wheeler likes to drop lines like this one: “Do you want to know what it feels like to really get punched?”

“Uh, sure,” I reply hesitantly, glancing at my cameraman. He demonstrates three types of strikes. The first one hits the surface, throwing me off balance; another targets a muscle, stunning it momentarily. And then there’s his final hit, called an “organ strike.” This seemingly innocent punch from Wheeler, standing only a few inches away, makes me reel — and despite his advice, I close my eyes in agony. It feels like I’ve swallowed a bowling ball.

Interestingly, Systema’s founders have been reluctant to advertise or brand themselves aggressively, almost going out of their way to stay out of the spotlight. But Wheeler believes the discipline is on the verge of a breakthrough. The catalyst? A hit film that features Systema center stage, like Bruce Lee’s movies did for kung fu. Which is fitting, because Wheeler moonlights as a screenwriter and fight choreographer; most recently, he worked on The Double. And, yeah, the Hollywood dweller is working on a script.

Video by Tom Gorman.


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