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

1 2

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

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