Death by Disarm

One of our ongoing R&D initiatives is to explore the design space around aikido-based techniques and training methods to respond to a knife attack (tanto-dori). Tanto-dori has been an integral, but not heavily emphasized component of Aikido since since the early days of the art. It’s not a major focus for most aikido practitioners. No martial art can excel at everything and each style (and dojo) has its areas of specialization.

In light of the technical challenge of seeking effective aikido based responses to more realistic and sophisticated knife attacks and the pervasive nature of knives in today’s society, we’ve been excited to explore this niche area in greater detail.  Especially since we have the privilege of being able to learn from some of the world’s finest knife technicians.

One such individual is Jeff Imada, a martial artist master that has trained directly under Guro (Sensei) Dan Inosanto for over four decades. Jeff has trained in a wide range of martial arts, but has deep specialization in Filipino arts that have very mature knife and dual weapon wielding systems. Jeff’s attacks and offensive tactics look nothing like what we’ve all seen in traditional aikido-based knife practice.

If you don’t have time read this entire post, you must at least watch this video. You’ll see how a basic aikido-based disarm works against a skilled knife fighter. It doesn’t end well for me.

Keep in mind that Jeff Imada is a legendary martial arts master with over 45 of experience. The average knife wielder won’t move like this, but the video reveals a stunning display of what the weapon can do.

It’s too early in our research to have any kind of well-formulated aikido-based techniques or training methods to share. However, we do feel confident outlining some general principles that may provide valuable context for tanto-dori practice in the dojo and may save your life if you ever find yourself facing a real attacker with a knife.

Thoughts on Traditional Aikido Knife Defenses

Traditional aikido knife disarms are usually based on attacks that would symbolize a samurai using a tanto to penetrate an opponent’s armor. In these training forms, the attacker generally makes a single committed cut or thrust along one of three lines of attack – a shomenuchi cut, a yokomenuchi cut, or a thrust. After a single attack that conforms to one of these three lines of attack, the nage (defender) will usually move off the line and transition directly into a joint lock based disarm or throw, like kotegaeshi or gokyo.

We believe these training exercises are useful and do have value. They teach timing and entry angles and build the skill to transition smoothly into a range of techniques. These exercises also enhance our empty handed movements. However, expecting a real knife attack to conform to these attack patterns can lead to highly undesirable outcomes – whether from a skilled or unskilled opponent.

Here are four general principles to be mindful of for aikidoka seeking a deeper understanding of the nature of the short blade:

1. Escape is the Best Option

A knife is a very difficult weapon to defend against. It’s elusive and deadly. Those who have deep experience with the weapon always highlight the risk of a knife encounter and tell defenders they can expect to be cut.

It’s important to realize the controlled and engineered nature of our knife disarm practice methods. These training methods have value in the context of our overall development as aikidoka, but don’t be overconfident in your ability to get a disarm to work against an active opponent. If the option is available, running is almost always the best choice.

2. Don’t Force a Disarm

When defending against a knife, don’t focus on a disarm. Disarms are high risk and low priority. Higher priority objectives are to isolate the weapon away from your vital areas and to gain initiative over the opponent via atemi (vital point strike) and / or kuzushi (balance breaking). Disarms should be attempted only when an opportunity presents itself, in the flow of the engagement.

“Don’t chase after something that’s not there.” – Jeff Imada

Josh gets to a successful disarm position after using hand movements to clear two prior attacks.

Josh gets to a successful disarm position after using hand movements to clear two prior attacks.

3. Don’t Fixate on the Weapon

A common mistake when facing an armed opponent is fixation on the weapon. Having tunnel vision and focusing exclusively on a weapon causes one to lose sight of other threats (like a grab or strike) and to compromise their situational awareness.

At higher levels as aikidoka, we practice tachi-dori – sword disarms. From this practice, we know that fixation on the blade can cause positioning and timing errors. The issue is even more magnified with a knife because it’s a one-handed weapon. The attacker’s other arm is free to attack, defend, or pro-actively shut down your defensive responses.

While awareness of the weapon is imperative, it’s just as important to track the opponent’s entire body. This insight brought about a paradigm shift for me.

With both of Josh's hands fixated on the knife, Jeff uses his free arm to apply an ikkyo control that shuts down the disarm attempt.

With both of Josh’s hands fixated on the knife, Jeff uses his free arm to apply an ikkyo style control that shuts down the disarm attempt.

4. Expect Non-Standard Lines of Attack

If you’re only trained to defend against an overhead strike or a 45 degree angle or straight thrust, you may have problems dealing with an untrained attacker’s wild strikes or a trained attacker that has fluency with 12 or more lines of attack – some of which create very surprising attack vectors.

Our Raw Research Material

In an effort to promote knowledge exchange, we’ve decided to begin making some of our raw research material available in The Lab, a new section of Ikazuchi.TV  One of the pieces of source material we’re now contributing to The Lab is a video with Jeff Imada sharing kali-based insights and principles of knife disarms.

We extend our most sincere respect and gratitude to Jeff Imada and the Inosanto Academy for their openness and generosity.

Group photo at Jeff Imada's "show and tell" session at Ikazuchi Dojo.

Group photo at Jeff Imada’s “show and tell” session at Ikazuchi Dojo.

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41 Comments On “Death by Disarm”

  1. Excellent advice and video on knife attack

    Reply

  2. This is really important and relevant research. As mentioned by Josh, knives as offensive weapons are unfortunately prevalent and a deadly threat to even the most experienced martial artist. A reliance on kata based attacks and defences ignores the myriad of potential threats that one might face. One lesson that sticks in my mind from the teaching I enjoyed from Schaufelberger Sensei on this topic, is to control the person not the weapon. This is not to say that you ignore the weapon but just that the threat is coming from the person wielding it and by shutting them down you remove or diminish their ability to attack. Easier said than done but maybe a thought process to include in the research if not already there.

    Reply

    • Steve,

      Good to hear from you. Great advice about controlling the person and not the weapon. We’ve received similar guidance from Jeff Imada, Mark Cheng, and others from the Inosanto Academy.

      Reply

  3. Thank you for providing an honest look into this and many aspects of our beloved art!

    Reply

  4. Personally I would recommend to all aikido practitioners interested in knife defense to training just a little bit of “Baraw Sugbo” – an eskrima style of the Ceniza family concentrated solely on knife defense.

    For an aikidoka like me, Baraw Sugbo approach is intuitive and very close to aikido, but more realistic and very sophisticated.

    Reply

  5. Thank you for your ongoing fearless examination of your – and by extension, our – practice.

    Reply

  6. Very nice article! Congrats!
    I teach a Northern Italian knife fencing in Munich, Germany. I teach offensive and defensive knife use as well as knife defense for over 9 years now. I do not fully agree on your point 3 but in general I’m very happy to see such an attitude on realistic knife defense research in Aikido.
    One additional point you didn’t mention is the fear factor. A general problem with unarmed knife defense is that the defender has about 99% of the fear on his side. As a knife attacker I can easily stay cool and tactical and wait for the right moment.
    Another problem is the distance a knife attack can cover. Here’s a short video of our knife-on-knife sparring:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xHElHPaFo4
    See the fighting distance?

    I would be happy to have an open exchange with you on the phone or to visit you as a guest teacher.

    With utmost respect,
    Rupert Sedlmayr

    Reply

    • Rupert,

      It’s a pleasure to meet you online and thank you for your feedback and sharing your knowledge. You have a good point about the fear factor. Facing an opponent with a knife when you are unarmed places you at a significant disadvantage and the weaponized opponent can most certainly probe defenses and take their time finding the right opportunity to attack. The distance an attacker can cover is indeed an issue. Guro Dan Inosanto ran a training program for law enforcement years ago showing the 21 ft. rule. The police were amazed at how fast someone can cover distance and attack with a knife. Thank you for sharing the video. We may take you up on your offer for a Skype call at some point in the future. It would be great to connect and have a dialogue. Just sent us your contact info via email so we know how to stay in touch.

      Reply

    • Rupert, your Demo does not demonstrate real street attacks, more fencing techniques. Knife attacks don’t spar, they assault. Perhaps your methods are useful under real attacks but your video does not represent this.

      -Sifu Chi
      Street Tactical Integrations Chief Instructor

      Reply

  7. Excelent. Consider check the channel of this guy, it have a lot of videos, here a couple:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kE-GNr9aQx4

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx6PuAY3GLY

    Is mexican, intructor of aikido and combatives. Also speak english.

    Reply

  8. Pingback: Review Teknik Tanto-dori di Aikido | Aikido Jogja

  9. Sometimes I feel that when we train in Aikido we are in a place of a different time and different place. It is refreshing that from time to time someone actually brings what one faces in the current world into the dojo. The answer to how Aikido can deal with something like this is best answered by our most senior and experienced Senseis. Otherwise Aikido will be put into the irrelevant basket in dealing with such an attack.

    Reply

  10. Deepest compliments and respect. Coming from the FMA world (the late Guro Ted Lucaylucay in Santa Ana & Huntington Beach) I had real problems with the way Aikido handled the blade. Even threaten to fail any shodan testing that touched the taped blade. Visted your dojo several times (when I trained with Sensei Phong (Tenshinkai Aikido at the Westminster Aikido) and found your people to be excellent in technique and hospitality. Thank you for sharing this exploration in cross-training/awareness.

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  11. Focusing on UKE and not On The Knife , Full Atemi Always….

    Nice point, but when making kotegaeshi and or any other technique,, getting out of the line of attack, unbalancing uke and applying technique fast,,, it´s kinda hard for a knife to enter( not that it won’t reach you) or, for uke to revert it that easily, Mostly if you move away , (TAI SABAKI AND ATEMI) while unbalancing UKE which will keep you out of that other arm`s reach…
    Again,, My point of view! of course jeff we all know , Legend he is…!!! ( VOW and respects to the Master)..

    Reply

  12. Thanks for having the courage to conduct and share this vital research. If I can be of any assistance don’t hesitate to get in touch.
    Chris Crudelli.

    Reply

  13. muy bueno! estoy de acuerdo, gracias

    Reply

  14. Biggest thing is to understand knives cut and stab…when they do you bleed.
    Pumping blood leads to death… escape first option.
    Comply second option.
    Never confront the knife…only the attacker.
    Unbalance the knife holder never grapple.
    See intent….

    Reply

  15. Your video raises some great questions. Your guest Jeff Imada demonstrates some real issues with knife attacks. Skilled knife practitioners who are attacking are almost impossible to defend against. most techniques taught are pre-programmed techniques that might work against a single isolated angled attack. this is not real life. Any real attack against a skilled practioner is never a single movement nor predictable. Kali arts like Pekiti Tirsia specialize in bladed arts. In all reality and humility, to successfully defend and survive a knife attack you must train for a long time and most likely have a weapon also. I teach and train in the Kali bladed arts and teach my students to carry a blade or something practical to aid in such attacks. Personally I believe that only a very skilled blade master can survive a knife attack without a suitable aid. I humbly challenge anyone to try their empty handed techniques against a live bladed with someone trying and willing to kill you. Only here is the real truth around ones technique and skill truly revealed. I will admit that I am not willing to take this challenge myself. Training and demonstrating with a practice knife with a predetermined strike does not show any efficacy of a technique. Your guest instructor showed this.

    Warm regards
    -Sifu Chi

    Reply

    • Chi-

      Thank you for joining the conversation. We agree with you completely. Facing an attacker with a knife when one is armed or unarmed is an incredibly challenging and dangerous scenario. There are so many variables and risks with fatal consequences that it’s always best to run, escape, or use an improvised weapon for defense.

      Our goal here is to show some of the deficiencies in basic aikido knife disarm forms and to begin to ask questions and explore solutions that can lead us to improved responses. We do this not because we believe it will result in an ability to consistently disarm a knife wielding attacker but because it’s a great technical challenge for us that forces us to think about what’s possible with the art of aikido and how best to approach this most challenging scenario.

      So far, our technical exploration and tests with new training methods we’ve learned from Jeff Imada and others at the Inosanto Academy have yielded great benefits in a number of ways, including how we think about dealing with a series of unarmed strikes from a well balanced attacker.

      It’s great to meet you and thank you again for your insights!

      Reply

  16. Nice video and article. The Japanese arts were designed to defend against tantojutsu, and usually you would be armoured. As armour was abandoned in favour of self-defence, many strategies and techniques didn’t evolve along with the times because of ‘tradition’ (like the overhand strike often defended in aiki is actually a strike with shoto or wakizashi). I don’t think the traditional way should be abandoned, but if you claim to teach self-defence then pressure testing your system is a must.

    Reply

    • Giles,

      Good insights. We agree 100%. The standard aikido tanto attacks are definitely designed to represent an attack that is for armor penetration. Even the tip of a Japanese tanto is engineered to punch through armor. Those attacks and the traditional responses are good training exercises and can help us with timing, angles, etc. for other applications. However, we do think it’s a worthwhile technical challenge to develop responses to knife attacks optimized to deal with an unarmored defender.

      Nice to see you here and thank you for joining the conversation!

      Reply

  17. I almost want to ask you if your Sensei knows what you are doing.
    Your videos show you taking ukemi for a competitive style in front of a picture of O Sensei, and calling Aikido inferior.

    I am disappointed. Your Aikido does not represent my Aikido nor its efficacy in a knife attack.

    Reply

    • HI Justin. Thanks for reaching out. To address your points:

      1. Yes, our Chief Instructor was actually at this event. We cross train with Jeff Imada and his teacher, Dan Inosanto on a regular basis. Since everyone involved approaches the opportunity with humility and an open mind, we are able to learn quite a bit from each other and share the strengths of our respective arts. One of Dan Inosanto’s teachers actually knew Tohei Sensei (they met in Hawaii). Tohei Sensei was so impressed with his martial skill that he gave him a tanto as a gift and the two were said to have a mutual respect and friendship.

      2. I don’t believe kali is strictly taught as a “competitive” art, although there have been knife and stick based matches in the past where participants have used kali, without a doubt. We don’t believe that exploring how different martial arts with different specializations approach things is something that O-Sensei would disapprove of – even in the case where we seek knowledge from competitive arts. While they have a different focus than our path, competitive testing of technique has significant value and does tend to lead to insights and optimizations that noncompetitive arts can learn from. I believe O-Sensei even let an American with some wrestling experience challenge Tohei Sensei in front of him for a TV show, so this kind of interaction does not seem to be something that should be unilaterally excluded from Aikido dojos.

      3. We never call aikido “inferior”. However, we also don’t believe that our art can be the best at everything. Every martial art has its strengths and weaknesses. Aikido is excellent at dealing with multiple attackers, committed attacks, and breaking balance. However, one of the weaknesses of our art is dealing with a series of attacks where an attacker does not over-commit movement, momentum, or balance. Aikido can deal with it, but we believe it’s an area where we can improve. Knife attacks are the ultimate embodiment of this kind of attack since great damage can be done with very little movement or commitment.

      4. Our goal here is to actively explore and test technical solutions and training methods to improve aikido based knife defenses. We think it’s a good technical challenge and that the efforts may result in benefits that can be applied to non-knife based attacks (which are inherently very difficult to deal with regardless of style). We’ve had great positive response from members of the aikido community and the larger martial arts community (jiujitsu, Filipino arts, Krav Maga, etc.) from our efforts to learn from others and seek improvements and innovations within our art. Over 99% of response from the community has been positive and this kind of dialogue has actually increased the level of respect for aikido in the greater martial arts community. We think O-Sensei would be happy to see us working in harmony with subject matter experts in other areas to mutually seek improvement and growth.

      5. You reference that this is not how you would deal with a knife attack so we’d love to see your approach. We are actively seeking input and knowledge and have received input from Filipino martial arts experts, European dagger practitioners, and a range of others. The more insights we can get, the better!

      With respect and harmony.

      Josh

      Reply

  18. This is an absolutely EXCELLENT video!! Thank you for posting!!!!

    Reply

  19. Great article and videos ! I practice Viet Vo Dao and my master completely agree with your point, when you see a knife you just run or give your wallet/phone/whatever. No material possession is worth the risk of fighting someone armed, especially with a knife.

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  20. Dear Jeff, I wrote an article referring to yours, though mainly to challenge the interpretation or use of your article on social media. I freely admit I had a bone to pick with the technique in the video. However out of respect I draw your attention to it in the hope of fruitful dialogue. Article is here on Linkedin:
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/death-disarm-misunderstandings-aikido-sebastien-martineau
    And on our website:
    http://www.isshinkai-aikido-praha.org/?p=234

    A note that was not in the article. My best fencing teacher once said that he had resigned from coaching the British Olympic team in disgust, because all they were interested in was speed and fitness while as far he was concerned fencing was “physical chess”.
    What does that mean? I remember as a child and experienced being introduced to bokken by my uncle and future Sensei. I was very surprised all the blocking and parrying was not part of Japanese sword as he understood it.
    A really good fencer leads their opponent through feints and openings down a path of attack that he or she has chosen. Similarly in Aikido we offer, a hand or angle of body or opening so that someone primed and waiting to attack takes the path we have chosen.

    “Aikido is excellent at dealing with multiple attackers, committed attacks, and breaking balance. However, one of the weaknesses of our art is dealing with a series of attacks where an attacker does not over-commit movement, momentum, or balance. Aikido can deal with it, but we believe it’s an area where we can improve. Knife attacks are the ultimate embodiment of this kind of attack since great damage can be done with very little movement or commitment.”

    It is clear from this passage we have areas of agreement and some not (breaking balance is not something we seek – another story). And I question the view on commitment and over -commitment. Areas for dialogue perhaps.

    With respect and purposeful creative discord aimed at ultimate harmony,

    Sebastien

    Reply

    • Sebastien:

      Nice to meet you and great article!

      I agree with many of your points but would like to point out a couple things:

      1. The kotegaeshi variation I showed in the video is not a technique we would choose as a viable knife defense. We selected this technique because variations on this “classic” kotegaeshi defense as well as kotegaeshi executed from a tuski (thrust) are commonly seen in the aikido world yet (in our opinion) have fundamental problems in this particular application. We’ve been collaborating with Jeff and his teacher, Guro Dan Inostanto to develop more viable technical responses and training methods for dealing with a knife. So this really was just a demonstration of how a skilled knife fighter can respond to a commonly practiced technique. We expect to share our thinking on alternative aikido based knife defense movements in the near future.

      2. I agree with you that a “red pen” exercise does not provide a true reflection of a live blade scenario, but it does have value in showing how hard it is to fully prevent getting cut or stabbed. I’m not nearly as skilled as Jeff, but can still execute a series of knife attacks in less than 200 milliseconds each that include direction and target changes. I think this exercise may have illustrative value if nothing else, to highlight the fact that one should run if possible and expect to get cut if an engagement happens.

      I’m delighted to see you (and others) taking a constructive approach to creating a dialogue around this facet of our art. Hopefully over time, we can continue to exchange and share knowledge, opinions, and research and move forward in a way that improves and strengthens the art of aikido.

      Sincerely,

      Josh

      Reply

  21. Hi Josh!

    This article should be required reading/viewing for all martial artists. Not just for the content, but for the demonstration of an open mind and humble spirit… the hallmarks of true confidence.

    Keep up the good work, sir!

    Reply

    • Ando:

      Thank you so much for the kind words and encouragement. It’s inspiring to have people like you supporting our knowledge exchange efforts.

      Reply

  22. Daniel Moshe Johnson

    Very nice.
    .

    Reply

  23. Nice video of what to expect from someone who is skilled with his hands ordinarily and now extended his reach with a short weapon.
    I teach once in a while my students that a good martial artist is more dangerous with the knowledge of weapons.

    Reply

  24. Time and distance is your friend…

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  25. Great video and techniques. As many of us are not masters or skilled in knife fighters keep in mind the basics of martial arts, side stepping and lower kicks.your feet is longer than his reach and side stepping helps to disorient the attcker.with timing and patience the basics will help when defense is necessary.

    Reply

  26. Spencer Onefeather Calderon

    You need to get with Robert Redfeather ,Apache knife in California , Y’all are Great Knife instructors

    Reply

  27. Still today, several people believe they can defend themselves from an attack with the knife, deluding others who can do it, do not realize they teach to be injured or killed. I hope this video reflects these fantasy teachers

    Reply

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