By Alex Waterfield
When Jimmy Higgins boards a plane and sees seatbelts, in-flight magazines and little sachets of salt and pepper, he doesn't see traveling amenities, he sees weapons.
A fifth-degree black belt in a Korean martial art called Tukong Moosul, which means “special combat fighting technique,” Higgins, of Alexandria, Va., can turn almost anything into a makeshift weapon. In his hands, a folded magazine becomes a club, a seatbelt becomes a swinging mace and a mixture of salt and pepper becomes a blinding projectile.
And for $57, he'll spend two hours teaching you the moves, too.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people have struggled to deal with feelings of anxiety, hyper-vigilance and vulnerability. For many, self-defense classes became the answer. But within the diverse world of martial arts, some schools proved to be far more popular than others, prompting a schism between traditional schools and the new breed of “reality-based” combat schools like Higgins’.
Despite this divide, the martial arts industry as a whole enjoyed a surge in enrollment after the attacks—up to 60 percent at some schools—and business has been brisk since.
But not everyone is convinced this new style of combat training is a good thing. Many traditional martial arts instructors accuse the reality-based programs of, at best, profiting off of public anxiety, and at worst, being downright dangerous.
But Higgins, who teaches his self-styled “executive force” class to businessmen who travel frequently, makes no apologies for capitalizing on post-9/11 misgivings. Higgins created the class in the weeks following the attacks, and interest soared. Now, in addition to teaching the class at the American Tukong Martial Arts Academy in Virginia, he runs workshops around the country for several major companies, which he declined to name.
“Everything changed after those planes hit,” Higgins said. “People aren’t interested in learning intricate patterns and choreographed moves anymore--they want to know how to defend themselves, pure and simple.”
Schools with similar offerings have also been gaining prominence since 9/11. Krav Maga, a self-defense technique designed by the Israeli Armed Forces, teaches students how to defend themselves against an assailant by any means necessary, whether by kicking him in the groin, gouging him in the eye, or even breaking his neck. Combat Fighting Systems, based in New York, gives weapons to students after a couple of classes, eschewing what it refers to as “flowery” martial arts techniques.
“We don’t waste time and energy kicking the air or memorizing postures and tactics that have nothing to do with real fighting; we teach you how to survive in a combat situation,” said Emilio Garcia, the head instructor whose in-class demonstrations often end with the line, “then finish him off with a stomp to the head.”
Whether the reality-based combat movement continues to gain popularity remains to be seen. In the meantime, Emilio Garcia of Combat Fighting Systems will continue to teach his classes.
“The world changed after 9/11, and the martial arts industry had to change with it,” Garcia said. “I have nothing but respect for traditional martial arts, but it’s a law of nature, if you can’t evolve, you’re destined for extinction.”