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4th Degree BJJ Black Belt Burt Richardson on Mastering Multiple Martial Arts

This is part two of a written Q&A with Burt Richardson. Part I Q&As feature his thoughts on Jeet Kune Do and more.

A master in Jeet Kune Do, Burt Richardson has spent his life in pursuit of the mastery of martial arts. Under the tutelage of such greats as Dan Inasantos, Tony Diego, the Machado Brothers, and Carlson Gracie he is on a constant quest for knowledge. He’s an author and teacher working with people from law enforcement to civilians. We are thrilled to reconnect with Black Belt Hall of Fame inductee Burt Richardson.

In this interview, we focused on Burt’s experience in BJJ and Kali.

You were an early adopter to BJJ tell us how that relationship began?

When I was hired as the fight choreographer for the film Kickboxer 4 (in 1993), I needed to bring in martial arts experts from various fields for the fights. I heard that the Machado Brothers (cousins of the Gracies) were elite level BJJ practitioners and that they were easy to work with. I was able to employ Rigan and John Machado and they did great in the fights.

After filming was complete, I started taking lessons from Rigan. That’s how it started and thirty years later I continue training jiu-jitsu several times per week. I also developed and train my BJJ For The Street approach that adds weapons and street tactics to the sport jiu-jitsu base.

You trained BJJ in Brazil. How is that different from here in the states?

I made my first trip in 1995 along with Egan and Enson Inoue. At that time, the rolling was hard and there was a lot of ego on display from many of the students. One very notable difference was that the classes where we trained had no formal instruction. You showed up, a student would look at you and make a hand gesture, then you rolled. If you were lucky, your partner would explain a few things after the roll. Not everyone was so friendly.

I had just gotten my blue belt from Rigan before leaving on the trip. My first day a very experienced Brazilian blue belt motioned to me to roll. He got to an arm bar, extended my arm, and I tapped. He kept extending so I tapped more vigorously. He kept extending until my elbow popped several times. While I tended to my arm, he went back to the wall with a smug look of satisfaction on his face.

I was sporting a metal knee brace at the time due to a meniscus tear. I rolled with an older Black Belt and pointed out the injury so he would protect it. What did he do seconds into the roll? He went for a knee bar on that knee! Thankfully, he didn’t crank it.

We met other very helpful students that helped us a great deal. I don’t know about other gyms, but they played for keeps in that school.

You spent a lot of time in the Philippines, under Grandmaster Antonio Ilustrisimo, Master Tony Diego, and Master Christopher Ricketts. Tell us how you ventured to that part of the world and describe the learning process you went through?

I was doing the fight choreography for an American movie that was shot in Manila early in 1994. Before leaving, I asked my instructor Punong Guro Edgar Sulite, who was one of the 5 pillars of Kalis Ilustrisimo, about training with Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo. He gave me general directions to Luneta Park where Tatang spent most of his days.

Luckily, I did find him and, after telling him I was a student of Guro Dan Inosanto and Sulite, he was happy to teach me. I spent many hours with him that first day.

The second day, Masters Tony Diego and Christopher Ricketts came to meet the visiting Americano. I later found out that they knew of me from my magazine articles. They were all extremely gracious and generous with their teaching, literally spending hours and hours with me each day that first week. I also went to Master Tony’s gym a few times at night.

The next week the filming started so I couldn’t train. After filming was completed, I extended my stay for 2 weeks and trained daily with Tatang, Tony, and Topher. Thanks to all my previous training with Guro Dan and Punong Guro Edgar, I was able to assimilate a great deal of information.

I had done sparring as part of the training, and I already had my Dog Brother Stick Fighting experience behind me. My last day, Master Topher was not his usual jovial self; he was very intense. He made me drill hard and fast and before I knew it, he had stuffed a helmet on my head and told me to fight a young man who was clearly very strong and athletic. I thought I had inadvertently done something wrong and that they were angry with me.

So I began the match tentatively, trying to avoid being disrespectful. After 30 seconds of being defensive, Master Topher stopped the match. He came up and assured me it was okay. He urged me to fight. With Tatang Ilustrisimo as the referee, I went for it and had a good showing. When it was over, everyone clapped and I then learned that the fight was my instructor test. Master Topher explained, “We knew that you were good with the techniques, but I wanted to make sure you could fight!” What a surprise that was.

I returned in 1996 and trained with Tatang, Tony, and Topher for a week. Unfortunately, Tatang passed away the following year. What a privilege it was to be able to train with one of the greatest fighters in the Philippines, a man who prevailed in many life and death sword fights. I am so grateful that I was able to learn from him, Master Tony, and Master Topher, and that they all entrusted me to help carry on the amazing fighting art of Kalis Ilustrisimo.

Their influence is felt everywhere I teach. In order to become a JKD Unlimited instructor, the candidate must pass a fighting test, just like I did in Manila. Having the grueling 7 round (stick sparring, knife sparring, kickboxing , clinch, ground bottom, ground top, and scenario) test as the goal ensures that students are training primarily with fighting proficiency in mind. That guides their training towards the functional.

Is your approach to teaching Kali and Escrima in the USA today different from the training you received?

Concerning all the training I received from Guro Dan and Tatang Ilustrisimo in Manila, It affected everything I do. There are so many vital nuances in technique and strategy. So there is a deep presence.

What I do differently from many FMA systems is that my Battlefield Kali is sparring-based. It’s easy in FMA to focus on techniques and drills and never really test the techniques against a resisting opponent. But this is what all the warriors of old, like Tatang Ilustrisimo, did. The whole point of Battlefield Kali is to become highly skillful at sparring/fighting. Therefore, the techniques that we train are then pressure tested every class in safe sparring. We do isolated sparring rounds where we limit the targets in order to get a lot of time in attacking and defending those targets. So we will do hand only sparring, hand and head only, hand and leg only, head only, etc. Where did I learn to separate the sparring like that? From Guro Dan.

I can’t teach FMA without the influence of Tatang, Tony, and Topher. Building on all that I learned from Guro Dan, Tatang’s fluidity, efficiency, and intent are always with me.

Is there a best style of self defense?

I ascribe to the concept that the proficiency of the individual in any art is the most crucial factor in the effectiveness of the style. That said, there are arts that train in a manner that are more in line with extreme self-defense than others. If you want to do a kickboxing match, you should train to account for the rules of the event and get in lots of sparring under that rule set. The same when training for a grappling tournament or an MMA fight.

If you want to train for extreme self-defense, then you had better be training with resisting partners while including training knives, training pistols, training rifles, and multiple attackers in the rounds. You need to understand that you can end up in the clinch or on the ground (especially from a surprise attack) so you need to be proficient in all ranges with and without weapons. If you don’t train that way, you could find yourself in a position where your skills do not apply.

In JKD Unlimited, my guiding statement is that we must train in all the ranges, with or without weapons, against one or multiple, armed or unarmed attackers, in a variety of environments. That’s what we do and it pretty much sums up the scope of our training. Real combat is fluid and unpredictable. To be prepared, we must consistently practice well in all these scenarios.

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