TRADITION COMPETITION PROTECTION
What 20 Years of Police Work Taught Damon Gilbert About Kajukenbo, Tournament Fighting and the Street.
Damon Gilbert has served the citizens of Oakland, California, as a police officer for more than two decades. Unlike many of his law-enforcement peers across the country, who often gravitate toward self-defense systems with reputations for being “hard core” or “close-combat oriented” — think krav
maga, military combatives or even MMA — Gilbert trains in and teaches what could be regarded as a traditional martial art (inasmuch as “traditional” refers to anything that predates the UFC).
Even more shocking in the eyes of many, Gilbert enjoyed a stellar career in point karate until he recently retired. In fact, he used to be a fighter on Team Paul Mitchell, the über-successful sponsored team coached by
Black Belt Hall of Famer Don Rodrigues. All that adds up to an amazingly deep understanding of self-defense, sport karate, street violence, stress inoculation and a host of other hot topics in our world. And it makes for essential reading for all martial artists. Competing Gilbert began his formal martial arts training in 1980 under a man who would shape the course of his life: Tommy Gilbert, aka Dad. “I always wanted to become a martial artist like my father,” Damon said. “He did point fighting in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He did some kickboxing, too, but he made his name in point fighting. He fought Steve ‘Nasty’ Anderson, did an exhibition fight with Bill Wallace, and competed against Alvin Prouder and Keith Vitali. I would read Black Belt and every other publication there was to see if my dad’s name was mentioned. I never thought I could pass him up in martial arts, but at least I wanted to be like him.”
Tommy Gilbert threw his son into competition while he was still a white belt. “I was 5 or 6 years old at the time,” Damon said. Little did he know that the experiences he acquired and the skills he honed over the ensuing years would wind up saving his life and the lives of others many times when he was an adult. One thing he’s always been sure about, however, is that part of the secret of his success was the art in which he was schooled.
“In 1991 I earned my black belt under my father,” he said. “It was in kajukenbo. The name refers to karate, judo,
jujitsu, kenpo and Chinese boxing, making it one of the first mixed martial arts, one that dates back to 1947.”
Using the skills that took him to black belt, Gilbert bagged an impressive 14 world titles between 1992 and 2008, mostly in the heavyweight and super-heavyweight categories, where they hit hard. “I had the opportunity to be featured on ESPN2 as the winner of the U.S. Open, I was on two U.S. teams, one of which went to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2008, when I was the team captain,” he said. “I was able to win two gold medals there. I think I’ve had a good martial arts career.” Serving In 1997 Gilbert took another step along the path his father had followed in life: He became an Oakland police officer. At first, he just worked patrol, but then the higher-ups noticed his martial arts abilities. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, his superiors tasked him with teaching defensive tactics at the Oakland Police Academy, whose population averages 800 officers-in-training at any given time.
“For 18 of my 20 years there, I’ve been an academy instructor for weaponless defense — in other words, selfdefense,” Gilbert said. “As the lead instructor now, I’m responsible for helping write our policy, helping write our training orders for self-defense, and providing expert testimony as it pertains to weaponless defense and the use of force. I’m right on the cutting edge of making sure our officers are doing the right thing and, if an altercation becomes physical, making sure they’re in a position
to be successful while not doing too much to those they shouldn’t be doing it to.”
Sadly, in the run-up to 2009, Gilbert’s martial arts career and law-enforcement vocation were dealt a setback. “That was the year I had major neck surgery — a laminectomy, where they fused C3 to T1,” he said. “Right now, I have 10 screws and two titanium rods in the back of my neck. It’s because of work as well as years of martial arts plus a genetic disorder. Combined, they took a toll.”
The procedure prompted him to “retire” from competition, as well as from Team Paul Mitchell’s roster of fighters, which was a bitter pill to swallow. Nevertheless, Gilbert followed doctor’s orders and avoided tournaments. “Then the World Police and Fire Games came to Los Angeles this year, and I begged my wife to do one more,” he said. “I hadn’t fought since 2008, but I got back out there in August, and it felt good to sweat and bring back a gold medal. I think I was the only American to win gold in fighting, so it was really exciting. It was WKF rules: point karate with small gloves, no headgear and solid contact. Techniques had to come off the rear leg or rear side to score. Takedowns were allowed. I felt like I was home! But I’m done; I have no more magic left.”
Finished with competition, Gilbert is looking ahead six years to the time he’ll retire from Oakland PD. That will enable him to spend more time coaching the Paul Mitchell team, he said. “I also want to focus on the school full time, which is something I have never been able to do because of my job at the academy.”
“Everybody talks about mixed martial arts, the sport — and I’m a huge MMA fan, which my cable bill backs up — but the mixed martial art I’m most familiar with is kajukenbo,” said Gilbert, now an eighth-degree black belt. “It’s geared not toward competition but toward protecting yourself against grappling, punching, kicking, edged weapons, clubs, multiple attackers and so on.
“Kajukenbo is really practical, which makes it good for me and for teaching law enforcement in general. I’m able to pull from this background to make sure the training we’re giving officers keeps them safe. It also gives me the opportunity to continue to increase my own knowledge base — for example, by studying more jujitsu or more karate, which are in our stable. Kajukenbo is a system without a system that’s constantly evolving.”
The birthplace of Gilbert’s preferred martial art is, of course, Hawaii. Being a cultural melting pot, the state also served as a martial arts melting pot that led to the formation of kajukenbo. People from all over the Far East immigrated to Hawaii and brought their martial arts with them, Gilbert said. “There were also a lot of American military personnel stationed there, and they imported skills they had learned while stationed in different parts of Asia. Plus, the Palama Settlement where it started was a very tough area. If you were there, you’d better know how to protect yourself.”
Such was the fire that forged kajukenbo, a hybrid designed for pure self-defense, he added. “A lot of our hard-style techniques — blocks, punches, elbows, knees, kicks, stances and movements — come from traditional karate. When we’re in that punching and kicking range, you can really see the influence that karate brought to the kajukenbo base.
“When you move into grappling range, whether on the ground or standing up, that’s where you can see the influence jujitsu had on kajukenbo. You see it in the locks and submissions. You see it in the throws and takedowns that are jujitsu- and judo-based.”
Kenpo’s influence can be witnessed in the strikes of kajukenbo, Gilbert said. “It’s the rapid hand attacks and the flow you see in our combinations. The Chinese boxing we do is similarly fluid and often uses the other person’s energy against him, especially in the form of deflections.”
That final -bo in the art’s name, at least at Damon Gilbert’s Best in the West gym in San Leandro, California, also stands for Western boxing. “Any kajukenbo practitioner who says he wasn’t influenced by Western boxing would be lying,” he said. “A lot of us do it in class all the time for countering street techniques, as well as for cardio. We really respect Western boxing, in part because Floyd Mayweather made people respect the defensive side of it.”
These days, fad followers like to claim traditional martial arts like kajukenbo don’t work in a real fight. Surprisingly, Gilbert doesn’t believe the notion is totally without merit. No doubt his opinion stems from his 20 years in law enforcement.
“It all depends on the training that goes on at the traditional martial arts establishment,” he said. “First off, people need to understand that just because they see it
on TV doesn’t mean it’s real combat. People now equate MMA with real fighting. No, that’s a sport, just like boxing, kickboxing and point fighting are. It’s a sport because it has rules. Until you practice a style that includes protecting yourself when there are no rules, it’s a sport.
“None of the fights I’ve been in on the job have taken place on a mat. There’s never been a referee, a cage or a timekeeper. Real fights take place in backyards, in the streets, in back alleys, and there’s nothing but you, your impulse and your instincts against the other guy.”
That shouldn’t be interpreted to mean Gilbert thinks traditional martial arts can’t be beneficial for self-defense purposes. One of the primary pluses of both forms of training is stress inoculation, the name given to getting
the body and mind accustomed to functioning under pressure, Gilbert said.
“If all a martial arts school is doing is kata and techniques in the air, breaking boards and engaging in the mental aspects of martial arts, there’s no stress inoculation, so it won’t be very effective for self-defense,” he said. “Should you practice kata? Sure, but it should be a tool. It shouldn’t be exclusive because you have to also work on distance and range, as well as dealing with the human body. But if your traditional martial art covers cardio, flexibility, self-defense techniques for every range of attack, using everything you could be attacked with, then it’s absolutely good for self-defense.”
It’s all about the training, Gilbert said. “Just because you’re an MMA practitioner doesn’t mean what you’re doing is practical for self-defense. It’s the same with a great muay
Thai practitioner; he might not know what to do if someone pulls a knife on him. Likewise, you could be a fantastic grappler or college wrestler, but you might not know what to do if someone gets close and puts a gun to your head. If your art doesn’t address today’s threats, that’s a problem.”
Here’s where competition enters the picture: “I believe it can enhance your ability in self-defense if you’re using it for stress inoculation, for cardio and for technique development — and you have to be coached to maintain your awareness while you’re doing it,” Gilbert said. “You have to remember, though, that just because you’re a good competitor doesn’t mean you know what happens when the gloves aren’t on, when the referee isn’t there, when the rules don’t exist. The will to win isn’t the same as the will to survive.”
Another quality you acquire from competition is selfconfidence, and that can spill over into self-defense, Gilbert said. “I think competition is one of the best ways to develop confidence in your skills, but I don’t believe it’s the end-all because competition has a security blanket.
“Here’s the real value: When you’re a kid at a tournament and the official calls out your name and the name of your opponent, you see that person for the first time. Your legs are shaking, you want to use the restroom, you can barely balance — and the next thing you know, you’re fighting!
“Exposure to that stress can prepare you to deal with the stress of a real fight. In a real fight, most of the time you don’t know who you’re going to face or when it’s
going to be. But it gets easier the more you get exposed to that feeling, even if it’s in competition. I know it’s helped me as a police officer, but I know that competition by itself won’t get you there.
“That kind of confidence is big in a fight, but when you’re in a situation you can’t control, the ability to function under stress is even bigger. That’s the hard part. It goes back to your mindset and your skills. Confidence is a byproduct of skill, so you also have to think about how many repetitions you’ll need to function in a stressful situation, whether in competition or in self-defense.”
That’s where dojo training comes in, and it’s why you need to view your martial art as a lifelong commitment, he said. “Otherwise, it’s a perishable skill.”
ABOUT THE EXPERT: Damon Gilbert was Black Belt’s 2017 Competitor of the Year. He would like to thank his martial arts instructors — Ted Sotelo, Dan Endaya, Mike Nakamura, Dave Bliss, Sam Faleafine, Rener Gracie and Ryron Gracie — for all they have given him. For more information about Gilbert, visit bitwmma.com.
PUBLIC AGGRESSION: As a prelude to attack, the opponent grabs Damon Gilbert’s lapels (1). Gilbert steps in and shoots his right arm upward between the man’s arms (2). He extends his limb and turns his body (3), then wraps the arm around the opponent’s neck for a judo throw (4). First bending and then extending his legs (5), Gilbert tosses him to the ground (6). With his arm trapped, the aggressor is in the perfect position for a punch to the jaw (7). 3 4 567
LAW ENFORCEMENT: Damon Gilbert (left) faces his opponent (1). He closes the gap while using his left hand to protect his head and his right hand to seize the man’s wrist (2). Next, Gilbert increases the control he has on the limb by gripping it with his left hand, too (3). He follows up with a knee thrust to the thigh (4). With the pain serving as a distraction, he secures a shoulder lock (5-6). Gilbert then grabs the man’s clavicle (7) and maneuvers him (8) into a takedown (9). Once he’s on the ground, Gilbert effects a wrist lock and orders him to spread his arms and legs until he can put on handcuffs or until backup arrives (10). 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 10 9 8
4 8 5 1 9 6 2 10 7 3
GENTLER SIDE: Damon Gilbert is mounted by an assailant who’s choking him (1). The kajukenbo instructor immediately traps the PDQŚV ULJKW DUP ƋUVW ZLWK KLV ULJKW KDQG (2) and then with his left (3). Before the assailant’s punch can land, Gilbert bridges (4) and rolls (5). Now on top, he holds the opponent’s biceps to prevent a punch (6). He then posts on the man’s body (7) and scrambles to his feet (8). Controlling the opponent’s knees to prevent a kick while he regains his footing (9), Gilbert disengages and assumes a ready stance (10).
CHARGING AHEAD: Kajukenbo master Damon Gilbert (left) and his opponent square off (1). Using his forearms to shield his face from the incoming punch, Gilbert closes the gap (2) and immediately locks his arms around the man’s torso (3). Pulling with his arms and pushing with his head to attack the opponent’s balance (4), Gilbert sweeps the leg (5) and takes him down (6). From the mount (7), he executes a palm strike to the chin (8) DQG D KDPPHUƋVW WR WKH IDFH (9). 1 2 3 4 568 9 7
MODERN ATTACK: In response to his adversary’s takedown attempt, Damon Gilbert underhooks his arms (1-2) and sprawls (3). While the man is still reeling from having Gilbert’s weight slam down on him, the kajukenbo stylist keeps him pinned as he gets up (4) and takes his back (5). From that position, Gilbert effects an elbow smash (6) and an eye gouge (7). 1 4 2 5 6 3 7