Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Star newspaper article

The secret’s out


The Russian martial art called Systema is slowly making its way to Malaysia.

THE motley group of 50, including children, huddled around while Andrey Karimov, a martial arts exponent from Russia, stood in the centre trying to coax people to fight him.

“Bring on the knives, the sticks and whatever weapons,” he challenged.

He was going to demonstrate how one could defend oneself using Systema, a Russian martial art.

There’s no escaping the speed and precision of Andrey Karimov (in combat duds) as he brings down Matthew T. Nekvapil. — GLENN GUAN/The Star

No one budged. Instead, they shuffled closer to the walls.

“Come on guys, he won’t hurt you!” called out businessman Matthew T. Nekvapil.

Still there were no takers. Amused, Karimov grinned and flashed his silver-crowned front teeth, looking even more menacing! Finally Nekvapil himself charged forward only to be repeatedly flung down by the burly Karimov — all in one or two moves. Slowly, the ice broke as more people got up and used their might, clumsily perhaps, to bring the Russian on his back.

One eventually succeeded, and the cheers rang out.

“If you are not frightened, you can defend yourself. In Systema, all you need is one or two movements to unarm the attacker. Among the vulnerable points are below the belt, upper back, face, chest and cheeks because there are a lot of nerves,” explained Karimov through translator Rustam Nabiullin.

Systema or “the system”, has no real history although it is acknowledged as a Russian martial art that uses drills and sparring. It may look simple but the moves can be potent and better yet, even girls can practise it without much difficulty. Karimov was in town last weekend to conduct a three-day Systema seminar and hold a preview for martial arts enthusiasts.

“Systema teaches you to be responsible for your actions and makes you capable of being a good citizen,” said Karimov.

At the seminar here, he pointed out that locals were not as resistant to punches as the Russians, maybe due to the humidity levels. Still, they were quick learners and picked up movements fast.

Andrey Karimov brings down another hapless volunteer. — GLENN GUAN/The Star

“I beat and punch the Russians harder!” he said breaking into laughter,

Explaining his interest in martial arts, Karimov said he grew up in Yekaterinburg, a dangerous city in central Russia. Bandits were rampant and thugs would attack people for no reason. It was a game for them to see which gangster group could attack the most number of civilians. Consequently, most people had to arm themselves with hammers for protection.

“I was only 14 then and didn’t know how to use knives. So my father, who was a wrestler, taught me how to knock someone down with a hammer. Now, my brother, who is 21 years older, carried a knife all the time,” revealed Karimov.

Yes, he’s been whacked many times, and the time came when he realised hammers were inadequate to fend off attackers.

Karimov enrolled in Sambo (another kind of Russian martial art) classes at 16, and when he moved to St Petersburg to study ethnography in college, he also registered in a street fighting school.

A friend told him about Systema and showed him some moves. Though a muscular fellow, Karimov was struck down by a single blow by his friend whose movement was too fast for him.

He decided he wanted to find out all about Systema. However, Systema was being taught illegally only to the police and special forces, so Karimov used a pseudonym and pretended to be a policeman.

“I was plain lucky. I was young and had a beard but since all policemen must be clean-shaven, I had to follow suit and managed to sneak in with my friend. The training was intensive and, for three years, I studied with the police before taking seminars from various teachers,” he divulged.

While honing his skills in Systema, Karimov started teaching Sambo at a school gym and that was when some parents requested he teach their children in Moscow. Karimov relocated and continued his Systema studies under Mikhail Ryabko, who has since devised his own system of training.

Later Karimov moved to Omsk, a city located in southwestern Siberia. For a while, he worked as a security guard and was constantly attacked with axes, pistols, sticks and metals.

“Once I caught a drug addict and put him in a room so that I could take him to the police station the next day. I fell asleep and somehow, the addict managed to free himself and attacked me with a pair of scissors.

The fight lasted 15 minutes but it seemed like two hours. I broke his arm and several other bones. I thought I had killed him when he laid still — until he pleaded with me to send him home,” Karimov recalled, showing me his scars from the tussle.

Karimov claimed to have caught 60 criminals during his two-month stint as a guard but he had had enough by then.

“I didn’t join the KGB because you can’t have prominent facial features and I wasn’t interested in the police force. Teaching is more interesting,” he said.

The next best thing? Open a school. Over the years, Karimov refined his technique and combined all his martial arts knowledge to start his own Siberian Cossack School in Omsk.

To date it has 160 students ranging in age from 1½ to 74, who learn all kinds of martial arts, including shooting and how to fight on a horse. Riders are taught how to use the horse’s hoofs against armed criminals. Occasionally, music is used for Systema so that the students can get into the rhythm of the movement.

“There are no exams but a council of elderly instructors decide whether the students can become warriors or instructors,” Karimov said.

Curious, I asked about his glistening teeth, and Karimov cackled.

“No, I didn’t lose it from fighting. I was 12 and fell off the ladder so I had to get replacement teeth.”

According to Nekvapil, who teachers Systema locally, the moves look simple but the strikes can be devastating. Nekvapil, 30, who holds a black belt in karate, first saw the art on telly and thought it looked cool. But he couldn’t find teachers in Malaysia so he flew to Japan, took a three-day seminar and was blown away.

“There is nothing fancy, but it’s all based on our natural movements and the body’s bio-mechanics. There are no grading, tests or levels to pass. It’s all about practice. In the classes, no one gets hurt as the falls are soft. The world is not a safe place anymore so it’s good if people can learn Systema and stay calm in a situation.”

Upon returning, Nekvapil set up a blog and immediately, people started enquiring about classes.

In July, he decided to start Systema Malaysia and offered free classes to grow the art. Training sessions focus on how to take and absorb a strike, how to control multiple attackers, techniques of moving, and how to defend yourself confidently against attackers with weapons.

Later, Nekvapil felt he needed someone senior to teach at a higher level and found Karimov through Facebook. The seminar was attended by 20 participants who were struck, whipped and hurled to the ground but they all emerged smiling and equipped with better fighting skills.

Japanese tutor Luce Look, 29, who is trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai, flew in from Hong Kong just to attend the seminar and picked up plenty of pointers.

“In Muay Thai, you try to rebuild your body but in Systema, you learn about your body and do the moves naturally. It’s nothing to do with being physically strong,” he said.

Look leads the Systema training group in his country and hoped to impart his knowledge to others once he goes home.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to fight in real life yet!” he said.

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