In 2004 John Pellegrini was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Instructor of the Year. Since then, it’s been tough to get in touch with him because his art, combat hapkido, has become one of the most sought-after systems in the world. That means the master is in demand from New York to California, from Afghanistan to Colombia. In this exclusive interview, John Pellegrini talks about the special aspects of his art that make it work so well for military personnel and law-enforcement officers.
Black Belt: Why is combat hapkido so appealing to the military when many traditional martial arts are not?
John Pellegrini: The word “traditional” probably answers the question. In traditional arts, a lot of attention is paid to posture, stance and movement. Everything is done in a way that reflects the traditions and essence of that art. Remember that all martial arts were designed for the battlefield, but it was the battlefield of 300, 500 or 1,000 years ago. There were different weapons and different rules of engagement.
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Since then, warfare has evolved, and the martial arts that accompany the warrior also must evolve to reflect the new terrain, missions, weapons, tactics, strategies and rules of engagement. So we have to evolve, too. In combat hapkido, we’ve stripped away a lot of the traditional trappings—such as the classical stances and positions. We’ve [kept] the core of the art because basically a joint lock is a joint lock; nobody’s going to reinvent it. We’ve stripped it down to emphasize close-quarters conflicts for modern battlefield environments, and we take into account that when [a soldier] strikes, joint-locks or takes somebody down, he’s going to have equipment on.
Black Belt: Is there a lot of individual combat on the battlefield today?
John Pellegrini: There’s still individual combat. However, the advantage soldiers have is that they’re rarely alone. They’re operating in groups. If someone comes out of a house and attacks you with a knife, there are other soldiers to cover, protect and help you. But what if you’re in a group of three out patrolling, and the other two get shot or step on a mine? Now you’re alone. That happens a lot in house clearing—there may be two or three soldiers, and one of them goes down and then a couple of people come out of the house. That’s when the close-quarters fighting begins.
Black Belt: What role does an empty-hand martial art play when so many guns are present?
John Pellegrini: People think that soldiers engage the enemy only with their weapons—that every time something happens, the soldier just fires his M-16 and solves the problem. Many times he does, but the mission of the Army nowadays has changed. They do a lot in an urban environment. It’s started to resemble law-enforcement functions. They walk down the street, patrolling open-air markets, or they go into houses to confiscate weapons. Yes, the weapon is the primary defense, but sometimes you’re at close quarters and the person comes from behind or gets right in your face, and it’s very difficult to use the weapon.
There’s a second problem: You want to use your weapon, but there are women and children around. You have to be careful because of the bad public relations that can be generated for the United States. You have to have some hand-to-hand skills.
I’m not saying that every soldier in the U.S. Army must become a black belt. All I’m saying is that they should get a minimum amount of skill. Take a course in combatives that gives you a few kicks, strikes, controlling techniques and pressure-point techniques so you can take somebody down without the use of your weapon.
Black Belt: What should that “minimum amount of skill” include?
John Pellegrini: I would like to see every troop learn at least a simplified version of what we do. We don’t kick to the head; we don’t jump and spin; we don’t do anything with big, wide circles. Everything is synthesized with a core of techniques that give them a fighting chance when they’re in close quarters.
Black Belt: Which hand-to-hand combat techniques do you focus on for the military?
John Pellegrini: The most important use for the hands is to make sure the attacker doesn’t grab your weapon. The second most important use is close-quarters blade defense. Somebody approaches you, maybe to ask for food or information—or maybe you’re interviewing the person—and all of a sudden he pulls out a knife. That’s why you need trapping techniques, basically redirecting the attack and immediately closing the gap and taking control of him. We teach a combination of techniques, like low-line kicking, strikes with the hands and joint-locking with the possible application of pressure points. That obviously doesn’t work all the time, depending on the clothing and other factors.
We always encourage striking to the head because it contains the computer of the human body. You want to rattle and stun the computer and take away the vision of the attacker so he can’t see what’s going on. Then you can take him down easily.
Black Belt: What if the other person is wearing a helmet or body armor?
John Pellegrini: The people I taught in Afghanistan [said they] seldom encounter that. Even if the bad guys wear a helmet, their eyes and trachea are still available. You can target the face.
Now, our people wear helmets all the time, and we encourage them to use them as weapons. Head-butting has a whole new meaning when you’re wearing a helmet. Our people also wear Kevlar body armor, but it covers them only up to a point. Their arms are still open, and they contain serious arteries, so they can still get slashed. The neck is somewhat covered, but it’s also open in places. The femoral artery is open, the groin is open—it’s not a complete set of armor like medieval knights wore.
That brings up another point: A lot of military combatives courses are 90-percent ground survival. I’m appalled that some units learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu and are encouraged to fight on the ground. When you look at their training on base, they’re wearing shorts, gym shoes and T-shirts while they roll around and do ankle locks and armbars—and that’s beautiful. But do that on rocky terrain in Afghanistan with the soldier wearing 65 pounds of equipment, and it’s insane.
Do we teach ground survival to the troops? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, several months ago, the 10th Mountain Division sent six of their team leaders here to Phoenix to spend a week with us and get certified as military ground-survival instructors. [They know they] can be pushed to the ground, fall or lose their balance, and if the guy gets on top of them with a knife, there could be a close-quarters struggle. But the idea is to immediately dislodge the person and recover the dominant standing position. It’s not about grappling and rolling on the ground.
Black Belt: What kind of grappling techniques are effective in those situations?
John Pellegrini: If you’re on the ground, you need to immediately strike hard. The head is the main target. Take out the eyes, the breathing apparatus, the throat, the nerve groups. Try to stun the person long enough, or hurt him as much as possible, so you can get up. If you find yourself on the ground, hopefully a couple of buddies will come to your aid, deploy their weapons and grab the person.
Black Belt: Are there techniques you teach for disengaging from someone who may have jumped you from behind or surprised you from a doorway?
John Pellegrini: Yes, they’re mostly sweeps and takedowns using what we call the balance-disruption system, [which is characterized by] taking away their balance, trapping their feet or doing some low-line sweeping. If they come from behind, you can do a hip throw, but it’s not a high throw like you’d see in a tournament.
It’s not that easy to attack soldiers from behind because of what they carry on their backs. So if somebody comes from behind and tries to bear-hug or choke a soldier, there’s a big backpack between the soldier and the attacker. It’s not necessarily a smart move.
Black Belt: Do you teach kicks? Are they restricted to low targets?
John Pellegrini: We teach kicks to the groin—if it’s available at close quarters, you can employ your knee, shinbone or boot. But mostly we do kicks to targets that are even lower. There are several pressure points on the legs and in other areas that can instantly drop an attacker.
We teach only four kicks to the military: the front kick, the side kick, the low-line roundhouse kick to the side of the leg and the scoop kick, which is used when you’re almost in a grappling situation and need to use the inside blade of your boot to rake the shin. With those four, you should be able to take care of any situation.
Obviously, there are a couple of reasons we use only a few kicks and only extremely low-line. One of them is that 65 pounds of equipment. How long do you want to be off-balance on one leg? If you’re already in a clinch, the longer you stay on one leg, the sooner you’ll wind up on the ground.
Our kicks are low-line, fast and directly to the leg area. The bad guys don’t wear armor on their legs. If you give them a hard kick to the leg, you can drop them.
This is not taekwondo or even regular hapkido. The average soldier doesn’t have much flexibility or do stretching exercises every day like you do in the dojang. It’s insane to expect them to kick to the chest or face. The risk of having their leg grabbed and being taken down [is too great].
Black Belt: How do you handle knife and gun defense?
John Pellegrini: Law-enforcement officers often ask us why they need to learn to take away a knife or handgun when they’re already armed and in a deadly-force situation, which means they can shoot the bad guy. The problem is, sometimes you’re in such close quarters and the person manages to close the gap and put a gun to your head. Understand that when the bad guy gets the gun, if he wants to kill you, he’ll pull the trigger. When he points a gun at your face, it means he wants to capture you.
It’s a different environment for a soldier than it is for a civilian or law-enforcement officer. If you’re at close quarters and the person’s got a gun pointed at your face, you’d be insane to try to deploy your weapon. But you can employ your hands from a surrender posture and disarm him.
Black Belt: Why might the military need empty-hand-versus-weapons skills?
John Pellegrini: They’re not always going to have all that equipment and weapons. Just to give you an example, I got a call from the Pentagon about a year ago to train people attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence who were being deployed to Iraq. They were dressed in civilian clothes, and some of them had beards—they weren’t your regular troops, which is why they wanted empty-hand training. They explained that they may go into a village and extract people from their houses, then put them in a cave or a tent and interview them. In those interrogation scenarios, [often] they’re not allowed to carry weapons. So they go in and sit down with a translator.
Sometimes the detainees go nuts or try to escape or overcome the interrogator. They don’t care if they die in the process because that was the idea to begin with—which is why we have suicide bombers. I was explaining to them what happens if the guy’s hiding a knife somewhere or if he grabs a pencil or rock. Isn’t it better if the soldier has some techniques to defend himself? He needs to put his hands up, deflect the attack, take the guy down quickly and be done with it. Granted, help will arrive within seconds, but at least he didn’t get killed or maimed.
Black Belt: Are there any secret moves that you teach the military that you can’t reveal to civilians?
John Pellegrini: Yes, but I don’t call them “secret.” There are no secrets. Everything has already been invented and shown.
I refuse to teach certain techniques to civilians because they’re direct-kill techniques. I don’t think that civilians need to see them. You say, “Wait a minute, civilians can be in deadly situations, too.” Yes, and we teach as much as possible so they can defend themselves and escape. But what I’m talking about here is direct kill. That means that the technique is designed to do nothing else but kill the person by destroying the airway, the spine or a couple of other things. You’re going directly into a kill mode because maybe you’re faced with multiple attackers or weapons. You do your threat analysis and decide that you have to eliminate this person; you cannot just push him to the side, kick or punch him, or take him to the ground and put him in a joint lock. You need to eliminate him so you can face the next threat. It’s not that the techniques are different; they’re different in application.
Black Belt: You were recently in Colombia, South America. What were you teaching there?
John Pellegrini: Colombia has faced two problems for the past 30 years. One is the Marxist guerrilla movement. They do a lot of kidnappings and bombings, and they attack troops, police officers and civilians. The other problem is the drug cartels. Both of them engage the troops and the police.
The guerrilla operations often take place in a jungle or a mountainous environment. They use different tactics, but once you start looking at the threats they face, you see that the threats aren’t much different from what our troops are facing in Afghanistan and Iraq. You employ your weapons first, but what happens if you’re in close quarters or an urban environment where women and children are running around? It’s good to know some hand-to-hand techniques.
So, when we were asked to teach a counterterrorism unit of the Colombian air force, we taught them basically the same stuff we teach our military. They also needed to know how to [handle] political demonstrations when the crowd gets out of control. Obviously, they’re not going to fire an M-16 into the crowd.
The second group we did there—policemen who worked in plain clothes—was interesting. They carry sidearms and provide security for diplomatic personnel. When the American ambassador or a visiting dignitary goes out, the first layer of protection is provided by the FBI, Secret Service and our own people, but there’s an outer circle of security provided by the Colombian police. These people have received little if any empty-hand training. They’ve been taught to shoot and do defensive driving, they take courses in executive protection and they’re good at their job, but during their training, close-quarters hand-to-hand combat wasn’t emphasized. They were extremely grateful that we taught them some good stuff. We did it at the American Embassy, one of the most well-protected in the world.
Black Belt: In terms of brutality, how different is what you teach the military from what you teach law enforcement and civilians?
John Pellegrini: When our troops are in a theater of operation, they’re at war and people are trying to kill them. It’s not like a bar fight or a street fight in which a juvenile tries to snatch your wallet. There are lethal situations in civilian life and certainly with police officers, but the brutality that war brings to the equation is different. It’s employed by the enemy; therefore, we have to respond with the same kind of brutality.
On the battlefield, even if your life isn’t in danger, you’re struggling with somebody trying to hurt or capture you. You must use that brutality. You have a weapon, and you can hit him in the face with it. Imagine a police officer pistol-whipping somebody in a civilian setting; it wouldn’t go over very well.
Even so, we live in a 24-hour news environment, and our soldiers have to limit the degree of brutality they use. Think about how hard that is: They have to be in survival mode every second, yet they also have to be aware of the possibility of doing something that will come back to haunt them. When you fight people who don’t wear uniforms—in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bad guys don’t have uniforms—you never know who’s who and who’s going to do what.
That’s why, in the final analysis, what we do with our combat-hapkido training is simply give them one more tool for survival. We’re not trying to create super invincible warriors. We’re not trying to make them into martial arts experts and black belts. It’s an additional tool that might save a life and might prevent charges of brutality if a soldier can take the person down and control him instead of shooting him.