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Prime Principles: A Private JKD Session with Tim Tackett

JKD Session with Tim Tackett
Black Belt Plus

Tim Tackett used to be a schoolteacher, but he should have been a principal. Why? Because he knows all about principles — as in, the foundational principles of jeet kune do. You can sense that within minutes of starting an interview with him about Bruce Lee’s martial art. You can even sense it when you initiate a discussion about such an interview.

“Lots of articles are based on things like the five kicks of taekwondo,” he said while brainstorming. “JKD is different because it’s more principle-based. The kicks we do are similar to kicks everybody else does. It’s the principles that guide us in the study of Bruce’s art. Let’s do an interview about the principles.”

Your wish is my command, sir! 

JKD Session with Tim Tackett
Principle No. 1: Know the Fighting Measure

“The basic principle of jeet kune do is called the fighting measure. It’s the distance between you and your opponent. Unless he has a projectile weapon, to touch you, he will need to take a step forward with his lead leg. That gives you time to react to his attack. All this, of course, makes the fighting measure very important.

“To maintain the fighting measure, you must have as much mobility as possible, both for the ring and the street. You can think of the fighting measure as the optimum distance for attack and defense because, if you know what you’re doing, you can attack efficiently from there and you can defend effectively.

“Footwork gives you that ability. It can be a boring thing to practice, but it forms the foundation of every good fighter. It allows you not only to dodge and enter for the attack, but also to have the ability to time your counterattacks and place your weight perfectly for the most powerful and well-timed strikes.

“To do this, you have to practice a lot — until you can do it without thinking. You have to be able to measure that distance against any opponent, whether it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Billy Barty. The fighting measure is different for each person, so you have to train to automatically recognize it. You must be able to see somebody and basically determine your safe distance.

“Sometimes you might want to have a little more safe distance. For example, you see some JKD people who stand [with] their front hand a little bit low. If you’re going to do that, you need to be farther away so the per- son can’t finger-slice you before you can move or block. For those who don’t know, the finger slice is an open- hand technique that targets the eyes. When you do it and twist your rear foot, you gain the extra distance you need to make contact.”

Principle No. 2: Use Economy of Motion

“JKD always stresses economy of motion. Another way to think of this is being direct and using the fact that the shortest distance to the target is a straight line. As Bruce Lee used to tell Bob Bremer, one of my teachers, ‘Always take your closest shot.’ Wherever you are, the closest shot is the one that’s most efficient.

“You can learn a bit about this principle by discuss- ing the cleanest, shortest attacks possible in any given situation with your classmates and instructors, but the only real way to understand economy of motion is to spar. This is crucial for all martial artists, not just JKD people, because it can give you an advantage in any fight. The principles of jeet kune do are universal; Bruce just put them down in an organized way. Unfortunately, a lot of that has been lost because these days there’s so much focus on technique.”

Principle No. 3: Train With Emotional Content

“In training, many people get into the habit of just punching at focus pads and heavy bags. What they should be doing is putting emotional content into it so it develops the skills needed in a fight. To prevail, you’ve got to let the beast loose. You have to turn on that attitude.

“Bruce used to say it was like a light switch. You turn it on and then turn it off — it goes off that fast. You have to practice this in a way that works for you. When I do it, I visualize something that really pisses me off — like Hitler’s face on that focus glove.

“It helps to imagine there’s an opponent in front of you. Attack the pads as if you’re defending your loved ones against that opponent. To maximize your versatility, don’t practice this way just against martial artists who use attacks from your own art. That happens way too often — it amounts to practicing against yourself. It’s fine until you run into a grappler and all your stand- up isn’t working. You try to throw a jab, and he goes under it and takes you down.

“These days, it’s easier to find training partners who have skill in other arts. It was much worse back in the 1960s. I had students who would go to tournaments where it was all karate versus karate. That can be limiting for anyone interested in realism. It was Ed Parker who opened it up to all the arts. Of course, we didn’t have much in the way of the grappling arts back then, but we do now. What the Gracies did was a good thing because it added a whole new element that we needed to know about.”

Principle No. 4: Train Realistically

“When I was studying to be a teacher in the 1960s, I had to go through a number of education courses. They never taught me anything useful — except for a lesson I learned from a man named Neil Postman. He said everyone needs to have a built-in BS detector. This applies as much to martial arts as it does to education.

“In JKD, we always went out of our way to find out if what we thought would work actually did work. If it didn’t, why were we practicing it? You should do the same.

“I once gave a seminar in New York. I spent the first day teaching the progressive indirect attack and a bunch of other stuff. The students really got into it. I would throw a hand strike, and they would block it. Then I would throw another hand. If they moved, I would do a hook kick, and so on. They worked on it all and got good.

“Then, on the second day, I told them to do what they had learned. When they tried, I did a leg obstruction and blew the whole thing away. (laughs) I said, ‘What you learned was good, but actually maybe it’s not.’ I was trying to teach them the concept that realistic training means being ready for anything.”

Principle No. 5: Follow a Realistic Training Progression

“I think it was Chris Kent who came up with the triangle as a symbol for this principle. Basically, you start at the bottom of the triangle with stance and footwork. Then in the second phase, you learn tool development. Let’s say it’s the lead-hand punch. You practice the punch, doing it on a focus glove. You learn three things: attack, counterattack and defense. How do you attack with the punch? How do you defend against the punch? How do you counterattack with the punch? The third part is focusing on tactics and strategy: when to use it and how to use it while sparring.

“So with one technique — in this case, the lead-hand punch — it might take a year to get through the training. Then you move on to the backfist, combinations and so on. What you should be dealing with is principles and training methods. It’s not techniques; any art can do techniques.

“The thing is, this requires patience. That’s why there are so few people who can do JKD well. But once you get it, it becomes really easy. But to get it, it’s really difficult. (laughs)

“Once you learn all the tactics and strategy, you have to start throwing things away. Think of a daily decrease instead of a daily increase. Your goal is to have a few things you can do very well.

“I’ve got all of Bruce’s notes from when I was part of the Bruce Lee Educational Foundation. When he would work out, it was 500 finger jabs, 500 hook kicks, 500 this and 500 that — not too many techniques, but he wanted to do those things well. That’s how you develop yourself.

“On the subject of throwing things away, some people wonder if you can throw away too much. Of course. If you leave yourself with just the finger jab, for instance, it probably won’t be enough for you to use in self- defense all the time. If you’re Bruce, it might be, but who has that skill level?

“For most people, you have to cover your bases. Let’s say I want to learn something. The first thing I do is try to learn it. Then I learn what I’m leaving open when I do it and how I can defend against it. Do I even have a defense against it? This is what it means to look at something in a realistic manner.

“You want to look for openings and weaknesses. I used to train with a great grappler named Lloyd Kennedy. He would say, ‘Look, I’m going to show you some things. If there’s anything that you can find a counter to or a weakness in, please let me know because I’d rather learn it here than on the street.’

“A big part of following a realistic progression is learning to take what’s offered. If your opponent is offer- ing you something — and [no one] can attack [another person] without leaving an opening — you should take it. That’s the whole key to intercepting. Know that the body is always going to be open when somebody attacks you. He can’t extend a limb to touch you without leaving an opening. So you intercept it. That’s the mean- ing of jeet kune do.

Tim Tackett began training in the martial arts in 1962 when he was stationed in Taipei, Taiwan, while in the U.S. Air Force. When he returned to California several years later, he opened a kung fu school. After seeing Bruce Lee in 1967 at Ed Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championships, Tackett decided to take up jeet kune do. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to begin JKD training until after Lee’s Chinatown school had closed. To fill the void, in 1971 he joined the class Dan Inosanto was running in his backyard. Tackett continued to refine his skills with first-generation JKD student Bob Bremer. He was named Black Belt’s 2017 Instructor of the Year. 

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