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Vladimir Vasiliev Discusses Why Systema Is the Ultimate Self-Defense Combat Style

Updated: Jun 5

elite combat explained
Black Belt Plus

Unlike the general public, Black Belt readers know a thing or two about systema. In large part, that’s because of the never-ending efforts of one Vladimir Vasiliev, the most visible systema teacher in the West. Vasiliev has appeared in Black Belt numerous times, and in 2013 he was the maga- zine’s Instructor of the Year. In this exclusive Q&A, the Russian martial arts master talks about the essential components of his self-defense system and how it differs from the traditional martial arts and combat sports.

Where are you from, and what is your background?

I’m from Russia, born in the city Tver. When I was a little bit more than 30, I came to Canada. I met my wife, and now I’m here.

You studied both competitive and military-style martial arts, is that correct?

Yes. I was 13 when I started to box. And in the army, we studied hand-to-hand combat. It was more [for] military applications. Then I did a karate competition — I was fourth in Russia, but now some people tell me I was third. (laughs) I forgot already. Then I met Mikhail [Ryabko] and started to study systema.

Was Mikhail Ryabko your primary systema teacher?

I had some other guys, but I dealt with Mikhail primarily.

What drew you to the reality-based martial arts? Was it simply because it was required in the military, or did you feel some other motivation to switch from karate?

When I studied boxing [and] karate, I felt some limitation with movement. [They’re] good, of course, but they teach you specific things and you’re not free in your movement. That bothered me. In boxing, I had to work just with my hands, but I like to work with legs, [too]. But they [did] not allow me to do this.

When we started boxing, our teacher always told us, “If you want to [test] yourself, you have to go outside — fight in the street a little bit to see who you are inside yourself.” As we know, sometimes [people] do very well in the ring or in the gym but go outside and have problems. There were lots of street fights, so that’s [how I tested] myself all the time.

Then you moved to Canada. How have Canadian and American martial artists — and the other people from all over the world who come to Toronto to train at your headquarters — reacted to systema?

Of course, some people try to [test me] and are suspicious. [They’re] like me when I saw Mikhail — I didn’t believe he could work like that. (laughs) That’s why I understand the people who come to me. But most of the time, it is positive [even though] systema is at the other end of the martial arts, the complete opposite [of what] other people teach.

elite combat explained

Opposite how?

For example, some people teach you how to be tense. They speak about relaxation but how they teach, how they move, how they work — I can see it’s pure tension, physically and psychologically. In systema, we try to avoid this. We try, from the beginning, to remove that tension inside and be quiet and reasonable.

You’re known for teaching the self-defense system of systema, which is in contrast to sport- based
martial arts. Is there any kind of sporting competition in systema?

Like all humans, yes, we sometimes fight with each other. Some people touch you, you don’t like it, so you hit him back — it’s always like that. But we don’t teach people to compete with each other because it creates weaknesses and problems. For me, I [tested] myself in boxing and karate. I remem- ber when I studied systema and karate together, I understood how weak I was in karate. Systema actually helped me fight better because I would relax and allow people to hit me, and I was OK.

If somebody hasn’t studied systema — maybe he or she has studied another martial art for a long time — will that person start to embody some systema principles over time? For example, starting to relax more?

Yeah, it’s natural. If you’re stupid, you’ll die anyway, and [it won’t] matter, right? (laughs) But if you’re OK, you’ll start to look inside yourself. For example, if you have an injury, you cannot fight anyway, right? So you need to study how to avoid this. Systema gives you good [ways to do this].

It’s often said, “It’s not self-defense if you beat yourself up first.”

Yeah, why do you need to destroy yourself? What’s the point?

If you watch a sport martial artist work out, can you tell if that person has skills that will transfer to a real fight?

It’s quite obvious. By watching [video], by watch- ing their teacher training, they [introduce] them- selves very well. They show who they are, how they talk, how they sit. When people ask me about this, I say, “Those people are extremely good. They’re strong.” But it’s like they show everybody that they have a belt. Dangerous peo- ple, you don’t see them. When I don’t see people, that’s what scares me.

Fundamentally, how does a self-defense art differ from a competition art?

Sport is good, and self-defense is good. It just depends on what people like to do. Because you could study something to protect yourself and do physical work anyway: push-ups, sit-ups or something.

When you’re young, of course you want to compete, you want to [test] yourself. Some people push it. Sometimes you don’t fight for yourself; you fight for your friends, for your country. Some- times you need to do this, but sometimes people push you toward the fight.

But self-defense — it’s all you. You need to see how you can survive in different situations to pro- tect yourself, your family, even your country. For me, I want to see what surrounds me and what’s happening, why I got in that situation. I want to do everything to prepare myself for a fight, [but I don’t want to fight] because [maybe] it’s two, three, four guys giving me a problem.

It seems like that for civilians because you’d rather avoid the conflict, but sometimes if you’re in the military or law enforcement, you have to initiate. Is systema training different for people who are learning for self-defense versus professionals?

It’s quite hard to explain. When you study sys- tema from the beginning, they teach you how to relax and feel comfortable in any position. You know how to breathe, how to relax, you’re OK. And in this situation, less aggressiveness comes inside you. You can control yourself and other people much more. It means you don’t show how good you are like you do when you study sport.

When we train in a military situation, for exam- ple, we teach them to be healthy, to be strong, to be brave — not to be egotistical [like in a] Rambo movie. In a movie, a person can stand up and shoot other people, and the people shoot toward him but nobody [hits] him. In reality, no. Doing that would just provoke the other people to put a grenade there or shoot you. What Mikhail explained [to me] and what we now understand is in everything that we do, we [must] be invisible. The best way to stay invisible is to escape, but it’s so hard to do [when you train in a sport-based system] because you have your own ego and weakness and, of course, when you start to argue with people, you want to punch them.

elite combat explained

Is it beneficial to do some sport along with reality-based martial arts?

I think so. You need to come to martial arts to [test yourself]. That’s why we hit each other a little bit, just to see how our body reacts, if we can protect ourselves not with our legs but with our own body. I like to move, I like to spar, I like to do these things. But if I see ego come in, that makes me worry because it’s not good.

There’s a lot of emphasis on conditioning in systema, but the emphasis is different. In sport- based martial arts, most of the conditioning is aerobic training. How important is fitness to a person who’s doing a self-defense art?

Of course, some fitness is important. Sometimes people train, train, train, and then after one round, they’re dead. They cannot move. I don’t know how they trained if, after three minutes, they already cannot move.

Basically, endurance is very important for athletes and for self-defense. And even though fights don’t last very long, usually just a few seconds, endurance stabilizes your psyche, and that is the most important component. So a self-defense person who has good endurance won’t panic and won’t freeze.

These days, people like to do what they call functional fitness. They have realized that free- dom of movement is as important as strength, as are stability and mobility.

[Get] as much variety as possible — different movements, different muscle groups, different workloads, different settings. Work in the field, in the forest, on uneven terrain, in the water, in the middle of the night. The more variety and challenge for the body, the mind and the psyche, the better. And skill grows much faster. That’s why we do our systema camps over six days, which is probably equivalent to three months of regular training in the gym.

So training and endurance are important for students of self-defense and students of combat sports. Does it matter how you build that endur- ance?

Yeah, but not that many people explain it. That’s what I like about Mikhail Ryabko: He’s an incredibly wise person. He explains so many different things, and it makes sense. For example, I’m 60 now, and I feel in some ways better than when I was 30. I’m more relaxed now. My body can move. The body is actually more and more light, not heavy.

Systema seems very sustainable in that it grows with you. You can keep your body healthy and strong, and you can adjust the way you move as you get older.

For sure.

Sometimes martial artists from other styles see systema clips on YouTube and comment that everything looks too relaxed, that people aren’t trying hard enough or training aggressively enough. What do you say to that?

First, they see that we are relaxed. Why be tense? I don’t understand that — if you’re relaxed, they think, Why isn’t the person tense? Why isn’t he afraid?

In a fight on the street, one person relaxes and smiles and then suddenly punches you and you are out — because you didn’t see that. If a per- son starts to be tense, you can start to prepare yourself. So why be tense? Tension creates tunnel vision. You don’t see people around you. You can- not scream, you cannot do anything. 

Second, if you’re a normal person, when you don’t know something, you start to work a little bit slower. For example, if you’re in a dark room, you don’t run through the room. You walk slowly and try to understand what’s in front of you.

So the training makes you cautious?

Yeah. Many times, I saw brave people, very high level, train. Mikhail always tells people, “Don’t rush, please. You cannot protect yourself. Why run full speed into the wall? That’s stupid. Certain movements I can control, but in certain situations, it will be the end for you.”

I saw one guy grab Mikhail — he was a sambo practitioner — and he turned Mikhail like he wanted to throw him over his hips. Mikhail put his hand on his ribs and the ribs popped out because of his own movement. Mikhail just put his arm there. It [happened] in front of me.

So is there a place for scaling up speed and intensity in systema? Is that something that’s reserved for more experienced practitioners, or should everyone work at speed right away?

It’s up to you. Some people will speed up anyway. You can tell them to work slowly, but for them, slowly is one speed, and for you, it’s another speed. Everybody has their own speed. 

How do you prevent sparring in a self-defense class from becoming just another type of com- petition?When you do the proper exercises — for example, breathing or slow push-ups, slow movements — they remove tension inside you, [remove] the fear because you start to view yourself a little bit differently. And then when the people fight with each other — right away, they do the group attack, fight inside the crowd — everybody starts to understand they’re nobody.

[We have] 20 people or 100 people in the gym sometimes — that shows how good you are. They destroy you anyway because when you hit one person, the other people hit you from the back. But that’s good [because it reveals] weakness [and makes you] want to investigate yourself.

So one of the best ways to train for self-defense is to use multiple attackers and try not to lock in on one person?

The best way to train is to have variety. What bothers me is when people teach you, for exam- ple, to always run away from a knife. Sometimes you cannot run away. [If you try], they can stab you or grab you. When people teach martial arts nowadays, they move away from reality. These days, everybody has a knife or a stick. Not that many people do bare-knuckle fighting. But they forget about this and when they tell you to run away, it makes sense for them because all their training was developed for sport. 

One of your knife-mastery DVDs was insightful. You said that even if you want to run away from a knife, people might not know how to run away. If they don’t practice seeing and moving, they’ll freeze when they see a real weapon.

It’s a personal situation. Sometimes you’re in the dark and you turn and hit a tree. That’s why military guys train a lot, with explosives and every- thing, to see how the body reacts, how to not destroy yourself. Of course, it’s good to run away, there’s no doubt. But please try it. 

At our camp when we practice knife confrontations, people in the huge open field have plenty of room to run. The attacker comes with a knife, [but] people can’t run away. People hesitate and stumble and can’t run properly.

There’s a famous quote by Mike Tyson: “Every- body has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So you can work on your boxing combinations and hit the bag for months and you’re in great condition — and then somebody punches you and all your ideas go out of your head because you’re not used to getting hit. In systema, you allow yourselves to be hit quite hard by partners. Do you feel it’s essential for reality- based martial artists to get hit a lot in training?

Everything you said is correct. [However], when we trained in Russia, Mikhail didn’t hit us a lot. Now, most of the time, we play with open hands. We pull people, rotate them, move them because we create better distance.

Before we start studying striking, we have to teach our body to receive strikes. This is the foun- dation. If you don’t know how to absorb the strike with your body and your breathing, it’s going to be a destruction very quickly. [First it’s about] practicing how to stop your partner, then how to push and then how to strike. So there’s a progres- sion that makes it a good solid skill. If a person wants to stop the guy but his movement is like he wants to hit him — that’s how fights start.

Systema is one of the only styles that ask what you want to achieve by hitting the guy. If you just practice striking the air or the heavy bag, the motivation might be to always hit the guy as hard as you can to do damage. But in systema, you often think, Do I want to break his structure? Do I want to remove his will to keep fighting? Do I want to stop his fighting spirit? Or do I want to just maneuver him so I can do something else?

You’re completely right.

Some martial arts schools emphasize learning how to defend yourself from other people. In systema, you do this but you also teach students how to defend themselves from other threats like stress, anxiety and improper breathing.

People live in stress all the time, so it’s important to remove that and not escalate it. We say a good warrior is a healthy warrior. So it has to be both the body healthy and the psyche, the mind, peace of mind, light heart. All these good things have to be there.

Judging from the state of the world, is real self-defense more important than ever or less important?

It’s more important. When you do sport, it’s one thing, but when you do proper training, when people teach you how to see, [it’s different]. If a car suddenly moves strangely, you need to pay attention, not sit inside yourself, not think how good you are or how bad you are. [You need] to do. You have to look around because suddenly people can attack you.

To be well-rounded, competent and effective in self-defense, what are the three most important things to work on?

Our systema slogan is, “Strength, courage, humility.” That’s what you need to develop. That’s what I believe. Because of all the survival threats, there is a great need to study martial arts and self- defense. A superhero will not fly in to help you. You need to save yourself.

Our goal in training is to relax people around us and ourselves. It’s like [facing] an angry dog. You don’t go aggressively against it because it will attack you even more. Every professional, when he’s dealing with an aggressive criminal, wants to calm him down, not aggravate him. Only as a last resort do you get into a fight.

For information about Vladimir Vasiliev’s products, courses and training camps, visit

This article originally appeared in a 2020 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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