Black Belt

TRADITION COMPETITIO­N PROTECTION

What 20 Years of Police Work Taught Damon Gilbert About Kajukenbo, Tournament Fighting and the Street.

- BY ROBERT W. YOUNG

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.”

Mixing

“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.”

Functionin­g

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.

 ??  ?? 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...
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...
 ??  ?? 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...
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...
 ??  ?? 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...
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...
 ??  ?? 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...
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...
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? 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...
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...

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States