The assailant grabs Dave Ayala from behind, holds a knife to his throat, and mutters something about beating the shit out of him. But Ayala turns out to be an unwise mark. He screams “No!” at the top of his lungs, punches the guy in the groin, pushes him to the floor, and kicks him in the head. Hard.
This counterattack has apparently done the trick, because soon Ayala’s assailant jumps up and sweetly praises the efficient skill with which Ayala, who happens to be his student at Prepare and Impact Personal Safety in Chelsea, just beat him up. Ayala’s other self-defense instructor, the one not covered from head to toe in 40 pounds of protective padding, agrees: “Nice fight, Dave.”
Such nice fights have little to do with macho stupidity and a lot to do with men’s openness to their own vulnerability, according to the city’s masters of self-defense. “Men’s socialization is that they are expected to know how to kick ass,” says instructor Shep Clyman, a/k/a Crank, the menacing mock mugger. As Clyman tells it, confrontational bluster doesn’t go far in a life-or-death situation, and not knowing how to fight doesn’t make someone a sissy boy. “If you’re not trained, then you don’t know how to kick ass.”
Men are increasingly comfortable with this notion of needing to learn how to protect themselves. This means not only learning how to poke out an attacker’s eyes when necessary, but also learning how to steer clear of confrontation. One way or another, both these things push against what most males are used to thinking about themselves.
“I was taught that because I was a guy, I needed to know how to fight,” says Ayala, 26. Working in security, Ayala had plenty of opportunity to rumble with shoplifters and often did, despite the fact that he didn’t really know what he was doing. Since he has begun training, Ayala feels better about his physical skills—and is consequently less compelled to use them. “It never occurred to me before that fighting should be the last resort.”
Indeed, self-defense training is an oddly violent route to nonviolence—or perhaps nonviolence is an oddly peaceful goal for such a combative activity. Students learn how to best inflict pain in conflicts they’re practicing to avoid. But instructors say running through the made-up encounters eases people’s fears about real violence. And the urge to engage in confrontations often decreases in inverse proportion to a person’s fighting abilities.
“Students develop confidence through sparring, so they won’t have to spar” is how Ralph Mitchell explains it. Mitchell, who teaches at Universal Defense System in Canarsie, says assailants itching to fight are also likely to stay away from people who know how to defend themselves. “Street fighters can tell when people aren’t confident,” says Mitchell, whose approach involves techniques from Thai boxing, Chinese gung-fu, and the French martial art savate.
Since he began teaching in 1974, Mitchell says he has seen a change in his mostly male students. “They are more open about their insecurities, whereas 10 years ago, everybody was more like John Wayne.” Warrior types still appear at his gym with regularity, but don’t last long, according to Mitchell. “The cardiovascular conditioning”—long and intense in Mitchell’s workout—”weeds them out.”
People looking for Bruce Lee–type destruction may also be turned off by the decided gentleness of Mitchell’s approach. His class can seem like a ballroom, with students pairing off to practice graceful, slow-motion kicks and sweeping arm gestures. “Move with your partner,” Mitchell says over the music. “One’s a leader, the other’s a follower.”
When sped up, such kicks, wrist twists, and spins can be deadly. But backing away from challengers—an especially difficult skill to teach men, according to instructors—is a still surer way to avoid defeat. “We have to get them to relax and lead themselves out of a fight,” says Clyman.
For Mitchell, that means the best advice, sometimes, is to run. At Impact, much class time is spent learning to negotiate with the attacker, flinging out calming phrases like “I’ll give you whatever you want” or “We really don’t have to do this.”
Before taking his first self-defense class, Ken would have been more likely to return insults than spout such platitudes. Ken decided to hone his physically combative side because of gay bashing. He has now taken three classes, the latest on defense against an armed assailant, and has found he actually enjoys the physical confrontation in classes.
Nevertheless, when a car full of kids screamed “fag” at him and his partner recently, they chose not to engage either physically or verbally. With his new training, “it was a lot easier to just walk away,” says Ken. “I didn’t feel as vulnerable, I suppose.”