Episode 24: Designing Knives and Random Flow, with Maija Soderholm

Episode 24: Designing Knives and Random Flow, with Maija Soderholm


Maija Soderholm lives in the United States, but grew up in England with Finnish parents. She trained with the late Filipino master Sonny Umpad, and she has taken this multicultural approach in her designs with her company, SoMiCo Knives.

The Vaari (top) and the Moikka (bottom)

In this week’s episode we discuss how Maija got into martial arts and designing knives, including the most important use for a knife in Finland.

We also discuss the Random Flow technique of sparring, which uses constant movement and no choreographed drills or pre-set patterns.

Maija’s first book The Liar, The Cheat and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Swordplay, came out in 2014. Her new book The Hustler – Swordplay and the Art of Tactical Thinking is also out now, and in this episode we discuss the tactics of fighting, why we should aim to be more like pickpockets, and how fighting for real is, more often than not, a lose/lose situation.

In the podcast, Guy mentions a smallsword treatise where the writer recommends taking a blade into the palm of your hand, sliding your hand up the blade and grabbing the handle. This may be one of those times when memory plays tricks- he's looking for the book but hasn't found it yet. Have your bullshit detectors set to high alert!

Episode Transcription

GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I'm here today with Maija Soderholm, who, amongst other things, is an exponent of Visayan Style Corto Kadena and Larga Mano Eskrima. I will get her to explain what all that means. And she is a knife designer and has started a company with Rory Miller and Toby Cowern and has produced the first knife Vaari a couple of years ago. By the time this goes live, the new knife will be available. And it's a very exciting looking project. So without further ado, Maija, welcome to the show.

MS: Hey, Guy, nice to be chatting with you again.

GW: Yeah, it's been a while. We met at Swordsquatch, as I recall, and I enjoyed talking to you there. And as always, at these events, you never get to talk long enough to the people you are actually interested in talking to. There's always something happening to drag you away. So just so we can orient everyone, where in the world are you?

MS: I am in Oakland, California.

GW: OK, but that's not where you're originally from, correct?

MS: No.

GW: Now I know the answer to this question. Go ahead, feel free to explain.

MS: When people say where are you from, it becomes more complicated. I was born in London, Hammersmith, and that's where I grew up. And I moved here right around when I hit 30 years old. But my family emigrated to England from Finland because my mother worked at the Finnish embassy and my father was working, I think, on a job placement somewhere, and they ended up staying and marrying in the U.K. And so technically, I have no English blood. I am Finnish and 23andMe will attest to this. And yes, the accent is English, but I live in America, so it's probably tinged with Americanisms also.

GW: OK, well, anyone who has been listening to the show long enough knows I have a longstanding affection for Finland and I made my children move to the UK from Finland four years ago, and neither of them are very happy about it. So I'm sure you can sympathise. Do you ever get to go back to Finland?

MS: In my childhood I spent all my summers there. But since my grandmother died, which is quite a few years ago now, I haven't really gone back. Honestly, after 9/11, the flights probably doubled in price and it became much more difficult to justify spending thousands of dollars to go away for a couple of weeks. Being self-employed, as you know, you don't get paid when you are not working. So it became arduous to go, though I miss it. And obviously the US is not exactly a place to grow old in and so part of me really wants to go back.

GW: So how is your Finnish?

MS: [speaks in Finnish]

GW: Now if I understand that correctly, that's, “A bit rusty. Thanks for asking.”

MS: Yes, very good. Yes, exactly that.

GW: Excellent. OK, well, I'm sure your knives aren’t rusty. I've had a look at your website and I've never actually handled one of your knives, but I very much want to. And of course, I'll be putting pictures and links in the show notes so people can go and see the glorious curves of the beautiful Vaari. And it says on the website, I will put it in the show notes as well, of course, that’s somico-knives.com, that you were partly inspired by the puukko, the Finnish knife.

MS: Yes, indeed, so there’s two main influences, really, OK, there's three in the Vaari, but the two main ones are from Finland and this idea of a daily carry knife. My grandfather carried all the time. He was a big fisherman and he just carried a puukko everywhere. Actually, a lot of my family, when you're out at the kesämökki, the summer cottage, you just carry a knife everywhere because it's so useful. And so I really wanted to design something that was like the knife, The Knife. But of course, because I'm in the US, I was also inspired the first time around with this idea of the frontiersmen and the Bowie knife and something again, maybe a little bit bigger and more of a camp knife than just the puukko, that could do more jobs. And then the other really huge influence, obviously, is Sonny Umpad my Eskrima teacher, who fabricated all his own training weapons and modified blades that were given to him to a very specific kind of Filipino-style feel. And we'll talk a lot more about that, I hope, because it's one of the things that I never really understood until I trained with him, is how the design of a weapon dictates how it moves. Like you can really feel the personality of different shapes of blades. And so that totally influenced how I designed the Vaari. And now the new one, which is actually coming out this week, called the Moikka.

GW: Which is like “Hi” in Finnish, like “Hello”. I can imagine you pull it out and it’s like, “Hello!”

MS: Yeah, and this is actually slightly more like a puukko, actually, but kind of like a Filipino style recurve on a puukko.

GW: Wow. I can feel my knife collection growing as we speak.

MS: Yeah, the Vaari ended up being really the granddaddy of blades. It's actually a really big knife. I mean, it's big, heavy, it moves really interestingly with the balance point. I was very specific. I actually sat next to the fabricator, this guy called Will Capron and we worked on the grinding until the balance point was exactly where I wanted it, because that to me is one of the key things in blade design. And so it's a little bit forward of the guard, you know, and so it kind of tips forward, but it's not totally tip heavy.

GW: So you were there, you would take off a bit of metal, handle it, go, “not quite”, and then you take off a bit more somewhere else and you go, “yeah, that's closer.” So he got it to the point where it was right, and then all the rest were produced the same shape. Is that correct?

MS: Yeah. Yeah. And Will was wonderful to work with. Knife makers can be notoriously difficult and very opinionated, but what was really amazing was he really wanted me to get my vision, and so he really tried not to insert himself too much in it apart from his expertise and saying, well, we're really going to have to hollow out the tang with some holes and stuff. And we're going to have to do this to get what you want, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So he really used his technical expertise to get me what I wanted. And yeah, it sort of sits on its tip. You can bang on the back of it with a hammer. It's a real indestructible kind of blade, but it moves really nice. And technically, if you imagine yourself in Victorian era or frontier era in America, you could actually use it as a self-defence tool too.

GW: And looking at it, you would quite happily use it for trimming trees back. It looks like it has a pretty hefty kind of chopping action.

MS: Yeah, you can definitely start a fire with it. And build a shelter.

GW: I do have one question, given it's got some Finnish DNA in there. Can you open a bottle of beer with it?

MS: Oh, yeah.

GW: Well, that's the really important thing. I've spent enough time in Finnish summer cottages to know that a knife that can’t open a bottle of beer is completely useless.

MS: Yeah, I mean, obviously, use the back edge. Don't use the edge.

GW: OK, so how did you end up getting together with Rory Miller and Toby Cowern to produce this company and start making knives?

MS: I met Rory right when he started when he came back from Iraq, where he was working as a private contractor, and he came back to the US and he decided to teach. I don't know if he came back to teach, but he decided that he was going to start teaching and a friend of mine had pointed me towards his blog, the Chiron Training blog. And I really liked what he was writing. It was one of the few people who was thinking in the same way that I had been taught to think by Maestro Umpad, Sonny Umpad. But I'm only calling him Maestro now he's dead because he hated it in real life, just so we know. So I will probably use those interchangeably. Sonny taught in a very, very intuitive way, very one on one in his living room. He developed a method called Random Flow. So there were no pre-set patterns, no drills, no nothing. And he died young, at the age of fifty eight in 2006. I was kind of devastated because he had ruined me from going to any other martial art classes. It was incredibly boring, dull and I couldn't stand it. So I was searching really seriously to try and find people that would do something a little bit more, I'm not going to say realistic, but sort of more realistic, you know, something that wasn't by rote and it wasn't you do this, I do that, kind of thing. First, I found the combatives scene, which I guess was starting around that time in the early 2000s, and found a couple of people in there, found Mick Cooper and Steve Morris, did a bit of training with them. And then, like I said, this blog turned up and I started reading Rory's material. I was like, oh, my God, he's really good. And he had just written that book, Meditations on Violence. That had just been released.

GW: That is such a good book.

MS: It is still my favourite.

GW: Every martial artist who at least pretends to be a martial artist should read that book. If they haven't read that book, there's something they are critically missing.

MS: I know. And it's funny because since then he's written many, many other books that are all great, but they're much more mannered. And I really like that first one because it speaks much more from the soul, if you like. The darkness in that I think is much more prevalent. And so it really hit me much harder, I think, than some of his other more mannered books.

GW: They are all good, but that one is the stand out. If there's just one book on martial arts you read, that's probably the book you should read.

MS: I agree. Funny that you agree too. I'm very happy about that. So he wrote that he was about to go on a seminar tour and did anybody want to host him. So I wrote it back saying, “Absolutely.” And then he was like, oh, you're in the Bay Area. Somebody is already doing something in San Francisco. And I was like, brilliant. I'll just come to that. And a weird thing happened in that he said, all right, I'm flying in Thursday. The thing was starting on Saturday, he always likes to fly in early to a seminar. He says if anybody wants to trade with me Friday, message me. I was like, yes. And I was the only person that did. So when he came into town, I picked him up. I'm actually reading the last chapters of Meditations on Violence as I'm sitting in the car waiting for him to come out of the train station. And that was it. I got to spend a whole day with him. And I was like, this is brilliant. This is this is fantastic. And then we hit it off, really. And I watched him work and I was like, oh, my God, he's really, really clever, because he showed me a lot of the material. I think he sort of beta tested it on me a little bit on that Friday because it was one of his earlier seminars about how he was going to teach. And I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah. He kept showing me things I'd never thought about, blindsiding me with things. And I love that, where I'm like, I never thought about that. I never thought about that. Oh, my goodness. That totally makes sense. And so then I watched him over that weekend work this room, very disparate room of traditional martial artists, young people, old people, women, men, a real big group. And it was really fascinating to watch how he worked this group. So in a sense, because I'd seen the material before, one of the things that really impressed me about him was how he taught and how he managed a group of people. And I was like, oh, you're really good at that.

GW: I've been to one of his seminars in Holland about five years ago, where I met him for the first time, we communicated back and forth by email for some years before that. But, yeah, he certainly had no trouble getting a very large group which had lots of different people in it and some gigantic egos present, because, you know, martial artists are raging egotists. We tend to be anyway. It was like he was conducting an orchestra.

MS: Yeah, exactly. After the seminar, I emailed him and I said, thank you for the seminar, that was really amazing. I said I'm really happy that you're not a self-actualised predator because you would be really scary.

GW: Yes. We can all be grateful that Rory is not a psychopath.

MS: And he wrote back a really simple little email and he said, my wife won't let me. I like this man, this is great.

GW: So that was a few years ago, and that's how you met Rory. So what made you guys think to start a company making knives?

MS: Well, I met Toby through Rory actually. Rory was doing some of Toby's wilderness training seminars. Toby lives in northern Sweden above the Arctic Circle. He's a wilderness guide and a survival guy. His speciality is actually cold climates. But he was in Maine, I think, or in Massachusetts doing something there. And that's how Rory and Toby met. And I guess Toby teaches very much in the same way that Rory does, in that it's just very intuitive. And Rory told me the story that they all met somewhere, they went to wherever they were going to camp out for a few days. And the first thing Toby said is, all right, everybody is going on a garbage patrol, picking up garbage. At first he thought, oh, well, that's nice. You know, cleaning up the forest. That's worthy. But no, the reason for picking up all the garbage that they were going to look through it and start finding uses for it. And so that's how they then hit it off, seeing the world in a different way. And then Toby came here to the West Coast because he got invited here to do something. And I ended up hosting them both at my house. They both stayed here. And Toby and I, again, totally hit it off straight away. We have a lot in common, especially because he lives in Scandinavia, too, now. And so that was it. We became good friends. I mean, this is quite a long time ago now. And then over the years, we were hatching all these plans. And I can't remember who came up with the idea of getting together and making this. But Toby has a whole bunch of ideas about what sensible tools look like and so do I. And, you know, because the three of us were like, why don't we just do this, and so we did. So that's really very, very organic. Nothing really planned, I suppose.

GW: But this is later on in your martial arts career. So how did you actually get started?

MS: Well, I watched St Trinian's movies when I was a child. Do you remember the Flashing Blade? Saturday morning television.

GW: I never got to really watch it because I was living abroad, but I saw one or two episodes.

MS: You can still find it on YouTube. I can't remember. It's like badly dubbed. I think it's French. Errol Flynn movies. I really, really always loved swashbuckling movies when I was really small and we had this kind of pointy pair of salad implements in the drawer and I'd run around the house with those pretending they were weapons and stuff. And so my parents took me to a fencing class. They were like, oh, look, fencing class. So I started fencing when I was like nine, or something like that. And I did that for a few years. But I think other things took over when I was a teenager. I didn't really know what to do with it, so I quit that. But that love of swords has always been there and I guess after that, there was no HEMA at that time, there was no opportunity to do anything other than that kind of style of fencing. And it always annoyed me that I was not allowed to do sabre. Girls were only allowed to do foil back then.

GW: What? That is outrageous.

MS: The next thing I did was when I was at university, actually, I’d just graduated and I was living down in Bath and I used to go work out at this gym that was underneath the Labour Club in this cold, dank basement. And one of the other guys that was always down there early in the mornings had a really interesting style of lifting. And I was like, wow, that's really fascinating. He was working reverses and all these things. I mean, this is the mid-1980s, way back. I spoke to him and I was like, “What are you doing?” He said he was going to a tai chi class and was using some of the principles in his weightlifting. I thought, whoa, that's so weird, I’m going to find this out and it happened to be right around the corner from where I was living. And I went to a first class there and this guy was teaching and he was like, all right, stand like this, put your arms like this, kind of thing. And it was freezing, UK winter, damp, cold church hall. And I started sweating and my heart rate went up and I was like, oh, this is fascinating. And that was it. After that, I was kind of hooked on doing Chinese internal martial arts for a long time. So I started with that, found some Xing Yi, then some Bagua and then Bauga has really become my thing, Baguazhang. You know, the whole thing where you walk around and around in circles. So I got absolutely jazzed about that. And so I've been doing that the longest. And then I found Sonny because I was actually at the school where I was training the Chinese stuff and the head teacher at that school was training with Sonny and he had a VHS tape playing in the background. And I saw Sonny move. And it was really hilarious because it was like seeing something that I'd actually been looking for ever since I was watching St Trinian's movies. I was like, that's it. That's what I want to do. That's amazing. That's what I want. And then it took me a couple of years to manage to actually get invited to train with him because his students were super protective about letting people know where he was or anything. He was totally underground. But I finally got in and in 2000 and then I trained with him until he died. And it was amazing. That probably opened my eyes more than absolutely anything else. It made everything else make sense in a way.

GW: OK, how does that work? Random Flow approach to the martial arts in general and how to move and how to perceive combat, that sort of thing - I don't think anybody listening, or maybe one or two, have any idea of what that looks like. I've seen you do some work with students when we were at Swordsquatch. And that's also one of the reasons why I invited you on the show, because it seems like a really interesting approach. Could you go into some depth about what is it exactly that you do?

MS: Yeah, so if you look at Sonny's early curriculums, he came from the Philippines, emigrated to America in 1969 when he was 21. His father had American citizenship because he was in the US Navy. And so Sonny had the option of coming here and claiming that if he wanted it, which he did. His parents basically sent him, which he hated. And so martial arts was his connection to home, and he was hugely passionate about it. He had two great passions, dancing and martial arts. And he used to just train with other people for a while. Then slowly he started to train the bouncers at the nightclubs where he used to go dance and he taught some people for a while. And then he realised that all the stuff that he was teaching them was not manifesting when they were sparring. And so at one point in the mid to late 90s, he had an epiphany. He was like, there's something missing. There's a missing stage between learning what to do and free sparring. And he figured out that the Why and the When were missing. So he was inspired by, well, this is how the story goes, it might not be exactly true, but he was inspired by Cha Cha and partner dancing because the dancing that he was really into, that he was good at, this was the ‘80s remember, was partner dancing. So he was a hustle dancer. That was a partner dance. So this idea of moving around with somebody and then your touch being the indicator to what happens next. So there's all these moves within the dance that can happen. But then you choose to do what you do when. This idea of constant movement came to his mind as a way to span that gap, which could add in the Why and the When, it would give the What you're going to do meaning. And so he developed this idea of Random Flow, which is not sparring in that you're not trying to win, but you're trying to insert a technique or an idea into time. And the basic premise is don't get hit. That would dictate why you were doing what you were doing. That was like the base level. It's like, why are you moving out the way? It's because they're coming at you with that hit. Why are you blocking? It's because that hit is going to hit you and you can't get out of the way, that kind of stuff. So it's just a method of moving around that's continuous. There's an ebb and flow. We call the base movement a pendulum because it basically consists of an in and an out. So, in effect, if we look at relativity, if we're both moving, if I step back when you step forward and then you step back when I step forward and you kind of smooth that out, that is our equivalent of standing still because the range is not changing. If you start to take an angle or you're moving at a slightly different speed than the other person, accelerating, decelerating at different times, now the range changes. So that then gives you the opportunities to do what you need to do. So that's what Random Flow basically is, it’s this constant motion. It's not pre-set. There's nothing that you know is going to happen next, but opportunities arise and those opportunities are what you're trying to see.

GW: OK, so you're basically creating an unstable base.

MS: It’s not about balance, if that's what you mean.

GW: I don't mean physically unstable. I mean, rather than in a basic martial arts set-up for a basic drill, you've got two beginners or whatever, one of them is standing still. The other one steps in with a strike. And the one that was standing still then does some sort of defence. And that's kind of how they tend to be structured. So when they're both standing still and everybody knows that one of them is going to move first, you're taking that away, so actually everybody is moving. And it's an unstable base rather than a stable base, because it's motion.

MS: Yeah, and the base idea is that you need to be making decisions. The reason why these pre-set ideas come about is because if X happens, Y can happen or might be a good idea. So what the motion adds is that the person doing the feeding doesn't feed unless they're close enough to actually get the hit in. And then the other person has to notice if the hit is actually close enough to hit them, which is why they have to block. If you're looking at something simple like that. So it takes the reason why you're doing the thing that you're doing and puts it sort of centre forward, instead of you must do X because you know, which means you never actively engaging that part of the mind that's making a decision. The decision is always given to you if you're standing still and doing something that's pre-set. So that decision making becomes part of the training from day one. And it could be super simplified, right? It doesn't have to be anything goes. It can be, I'm going to do a cut from high right or high left, a diagonal cut like Kesa, if you like, in Japanese terminology. You don't know which one's coming, but whichever one comes, I need you to block or move or whatever it is, so that that element of randomness is what makes now your vision, your way to try and find precursors, all that stuff that is going on inside your sensory system kick in, in a way that it doesn't if you know what's going to happen.

GW: Right. Yeah, I used something similar in the way I structure the drills that I use for my students, where even if it's a very simple drill, one of the ways that we can randomise it or make it more interesting is when teaching an absolute beginner with big swords, usually they're both standing still. Then one of them moves first. Then you can have an alternative version of the same drill where if there's an opportunity to do it, the other person can move first and prevent the accident was about to occur. And then you can have either one of them can move first, then you make them start from out of measure and come towards each other. So they're actually in motion before the drill even begins, and so they have to actually look for the pattern of movement in their opponent and see when it is appropriate to make the strike that they want to make.

MS: Yeah, exactly. So something very similar to that. The trick to learn new skills is to let things happen to you on some level. The ego is a real barrier to this kind of training, which is why a lot of people don't do it, I think. There's a skill, I think, that Sonny had, in making the What your job, something that you can actually focus on. I don't actually have to worry about you actually hitting me, for instance. All I'm looking at is the openings in between your strikes, for instance. So I can focus on that. Then we put the thing back in again where I am actually in danger. So now it goes up at level of difficulty, if you like. Just like pad holding an empty hand.

GW: That’s advanced skills.

MS: I had the opportunity to train with a master dancer who could lead me into decisions that were realistic, whereas if you have two people that don't really know what they're doing, you can't actually see all this information within the movement. You're like, are they open? I don't know. Are they close enough? I don't know. What am I meant to do? I have no idea. So in a sense, you have to give people jobs depending on their level of skill. If people train with me, I can make you move left, right. I can make you cut. I can show you openings. I can show you the danger of why you shouldn't take that opening. So my job is to give you opportunities to explore this whole fight game, but piece by piece and then stack those pieces together, which is why it's kind of garage training. It's backyard training. It's not it's not designed for a huge format. It's very old, traditional style of training, Filipino martial arts.

GW: OK, yeah, it doesn't sound like it's optimised for teaching a roomful of thirty 15 year olds.

MS: Well, no, and honestly, Sonny wouldn't teach 15 year olds blades anyway. Actually, he refused to teach anybody under 21 edged weapons.

GW: OK, yeah, OK, fair enough.

MS: But the same thing applies.

GW:: Yeah, absolutely. OK, one thing I forgot to mention in the introduction, despite my notes, is your books. So, we've got to get those in there somewhere. So your first book, The Liar, The Cheat and the Thief, came out in 2014. So obviously, I'd like you to tell us about the book and what led you to write it and what's been the best thing about having it out there for you?

MS: I wrote it because Sonny really wanted us to continue his ideas, and I was actually named as one of his lineage holders of his system. I am the wrong gender and the wrong nationality or ethnicity to really be taken that seriously as an FMA teacher, and so I wanted to do my part to try and share his ideas in a system. Also from a personal level, my interest is the tactical thinking. I'm not a really tiny human being, but I've always been less strong, less tall, less aggressive than most of the people I've done martial arts with. And it got really tiring losing. You know, even if you're doing techniques, when you're working with somebody who is just being really obnoxious and you can't pull something off, there’s part of your brain that goes, you know what, this doesn't work, or what's wrong with me, or why can't I make this work? And I never really got the answer to that, until much later when the teachers are like, oh, well, if they're resisting, then don't do that, do this. And then it's like, oh, there's actually other things I can do. And then training with Sonny. Sonny was the first person that taught me how to weaponize disadvantage and how you can use the assumptions that people have about you against them. And so he basically taught me how to think tactically and how to move people around and basically be like a puppeteer, a puppet master. And so I didn't want to write another book about Sonny, which was, look, here's a picture of Sonny and these are the things you did. And here's a bunch of still photographs together. You can't learn anything about those. So all those things together came together. And I was like, yeah, OK, I could actually start writing about what I learned from him and what was important about tactical thinking. And of course, because I did want to teach, one of the things he had asked me to do right before he died, I mean, it is a little bit of a cliche, but he is one of the last things he said to me was don't teach pre-set patterns or drills or choreographed drills. Shit, OK. So after he died, that was my job. How do I teach something that I can have people do but that people don't necessarily know how to do by themselves, if they don't train with me? How do I spread the ideas that he had? So all the drills in that book are things that I've come up with, some of the ones we used to do in class with him, some are modified versions of that and some are ones that I've actually invented to try and get people to start random flowing and doing the tactical thinking. So that's why the book is what it is. So some background at the beginning and then there's a bunch of drills in the back. And what's best about having it out there? I guess what's best is the breadth of field of people that have got something out of it, so most of the people I teach now are not Filipino martial art practitioners, they are HEMA people, they are Chinese martial art people that have these sword forms that they don't know what to do with. And now suddenly they have a format in which to discover how something that has these moves in it but with zero context might work or how they put their Xing Yi sword drills into something more meaningful. So it's given a vehicle to a whole bunch of different people to think about their art in a different way. And that is hugely gratifying.

GW: I can imagine that's what inspired you to write the next book, The Hustler: Swordplay and The Art of Tactical Thinking?

MS: Yeah, actually, yes, I didn't know I had another book in me, honestly, because I was like, all right, well, that's it, I've said everything. And then somebody asked me to talk and I was driving around speaking out loud to work out how long stuff took because you have 20 minutes or something to talk. So I was just literally trying to create a logic arc of why Sonny's work was important, looking at tactical thinking and all the misconceptions. And I kept having all these ideas and I was like, oh, my goodness, it's actually a book.

GW: Those are the best books.

MS: And I'm really quite happy with that book because I think it actually explains everything. The first one does have the whole drills in it. So it's sort of only really applicable if you're actually playing with weapons with someone else. But, you know, it does have history.

GW: I think that does describe pretty much all of the target listeners of this show. So you're amongst friends here.

MS: Thank you. But The Hustler, I think, is more of a mind-expanding book in general and a way to look at what martial arts are actually for and perhaps why they're misunderstood, and how they're taught, maybe how a lot of them are taught is leading to the misunderstandings. And I called it The Hustler because, of course, Sonny was a hustle dancer, so it seemed super appropriate. And then this idea of this mindset of getting away with something. The ‘don't get hit’ part was so important for Sonny. Don't die doing this. It's like everybody wants to die. The double death is somehow a win. And it's like, no, it's not. It's pretty easy to learn how to hit somebody. It's not hard. It's really not hard, but it gets much harder when they're trying to hit you back and it gets much, much harder if you actually care if they actually do. And so to me, that is the big part that's missing. So I try to explore why people are okay with that. What drives us to be OK with the double hit and think that's some sort of glorious death, and then looking more at maybe what our role model should be like, pickpockets. You know, the whole point is to steal and not be found out, right? Yeah, that's how you have somebody that skilled is to actually do the thing and get away scot free. That's our job when we're trying to do any of this stuff. I mean, not always, because sometimes people back in history for sure have fought for different reasons. You have to uphold the honour of your family or, you know, your only option is to die. Or if you don't die, then something else happens. I understand that this is this is a very simplistic idea. But for my context, which is self-defence. I mean, in the Philippines, Sonny's context ranged from fighting the pirates on the beach, self-defence, you're getting mugged on the jungle trail or whatever, or in the side street in urban Cebu, or challenge matches. And so these are the context that these fights were part of. And the idea is that you want to live and go home after. And again, that going home after is obviously why Rory and I got on also because that's his whole thing, is that you do the thing and then you go home. The point is to go home.

GW: Yes, absolutely. The point is to go home and it is pleasant to sleep in a whole skin.

MS: Yes, I think so. I don't know if you agree with this, but the sword was the first thing that humans designed specifically to kill people. Knives, you can do a whole bunch of stuff with. But the sword?

GW: Knives started out as tools, spears started out for hunting animals to eat, but a sword is expressly for killing people.

MS: Yeah, killing people. And the reason why it's designed as it is, is because it's really good at it.

GW: That's right.

MS: We’re squishy on the outside and the inside, and if you make holes, you bleed out, this is what it's for. And so that whole idea about it is a very specific weapon that sort of defines your tactics, I think it's very important that you use it because you want to live, not because you want to die second.

GW: Well, exactly, I remember a good friend of mine, Stefan Dieke, who’s a historical martial arts instructor in Germany, he was watching a sport fencing tournament and in an épée match, somebody won five four. He won the match and got the medal. I can remember the look on his face when he said, “Guy, that's nine dead people.”

MS: Well, yeah. And people forget that, right? I mean, it's one of the things I write about. Everybody thinks you've got a 50:50 chance and you actually really don't in a match like that. I mean, not sport, obviously, because they were fighting to the rules. You know, you've only got four options, right? You've got win/win, which is maybe you both kind of back away. But apart from lose/win and win/lose, you've got lose/lose. And that is the most common.

GW: I do training with sharp swords, and very often the first time students take a sharp longsword against a sharp longsword and start doing drills like that, everything changes for them because suddenly the consequences of that thing just touching them is so much greater. Blunt swords are great, they are totally necessary and training with lots of protection is great, it’s totally necessary and a really useful part of the process. But no protection sharp on sharp. Don't do this at home. Do this under careful professional supervision. But no protection sharp on sharp gives you a window into the psychology of the fundamental foundation of the art itself, when you see that sharp blade coming towards you and the things you would do to get away from it.

MS: Absolutely. Yeah, it totally changes it. And the resistance I get to some things. I was like, you can't take that hand cut. Oh, I'll take that hand cut. I'm like, don't get your hands hit. Oh yeah, those, “I can take that cut” people. Yeah, maybe. You know, I'm not saying you should stop fighting because you got a cut. I understand it. But why train for it?

GW: No you definitely shouldn’t train to take the cut. I’m a woodworker for a hobby. I cut myself fairly regularly and it's never pleasant and a much more minor little injury than a proper knife cut to the hand. There's a lot of damage.

MS: Oh, yes. Yeah, absolutely. It's like, OK, but now you have lost the use of your right hand forever because one of your tendons is severed. It's like, that might happen. But let's train to try and avoid it, shall we?

GW: So this reminds me, I think somewhere there's a smallsword treatise that actually recommends getting the point of your opponent's weapon to go through the palm of your hand and you slide your hand down the blade and you grab the handle. It could be that I'm making that up, I'm going to have to check it and I'll put the results in the show notes. I'm going to make a note here. But there is at least one record of that actually happening in a smallsword fight. But I don't think the person who did it would recommend it.

MS: Well, yeah, I think the idea that that occurred to them once they had their hand stabbed was a good one, you know? It's like the move that you've seen in movies, like Japanese movies, or fake Japanese movies usually. It's in Blade 2, Wesley Snipes, you know, where he's got the katana and he kind of slaps his palms on the side of it and holds it and twists. That's apparently a technique. Everybody was like, oh, that's really stupid. But then my Japanese teacher friend said to me, oh well, that used to mean they were with a whole bunch of other people on the battlefield and somebody stabbed you. Your job was to clamp your palms around it and hold it in you so your friends could kill him.

GW: That makes more sense.

MS: That totally makes more sense.

GW: You know, we do grab blades in a swordfight, in longsword for example. It’s perfectly safe if you do it correctly, to grab a European made longsword by the blade. No problem. Fiore shows it in several places.

MS: I do it on people too if they're waving it about in the air just across the top.

GW: Yeah, and it's especially easy to do it without cutting yourself, but it's not you wouldn't try and catch a sword in motion that way generally.

MS: Well, again, it's an opportunity. It's a gift. That's actually one of those things where everything is a gift is like, oh, they did that. It's a gift to me, you know? There's that great joke that the gods play on us, which is when you strike you’re open. Your defence is away from your body. So every time you're attacking, you’re open. So every time they're attacking, they're also open. And so there's always opportunity. So all you have to do, which sounds so simple, is just not be where they are and be where they are not.

GW: Yeah. Good luck, because of course they are trying to do the same thing. And they're watching you and they're coming after you. These things are very, very simple but not easy.

MS: That's exactly why The Hustler book came out, because if you're both doing it physically, what else can you play with? It was actually in the first book, The Lier, The Cheat and the Thief, I was trying to teach people how to fake and bait, which basically is acting. It turned out that people don't know what they look like. People would be doing weird little twitches or strange little motions. And I'm like, “What's that?” and they are like, “I'm faking.” I was like, “No, you're not.” Faking is a subtle thing. It involves you knowing what you look like when you act and the other person recognising what you're doing and falling for it. And then the reason why they're falling for it is usually because there's a reason for it. So for instance, you can't fake somebody out of range. They have to believe they can hit you, which is why the fake works. Or a bait works if you're in their range. I think a fake to me is me feigning a threat to my opponent, which they have to deal with. And a bait in my mind is me looking as though they can hit me. So it looks like I'm feigning an error.

GW: The terms I think the listeners are probably more familiar with is, ‘feint’, to give the impression of an attack that's actually going to go into a different line and ‘invitation’, which is offering an opening for the strike. The concepts are exactly the same. I practise mine with video cameras and mirrors so I know exactly what I look like.

MS: Yeah. And so when I fake, you need to believe that I can actually hit you and when I bait, you need to feel like you can actually hit me, which usually means that you kind of can, it's just that your footwork and your motion is better at dealing with it.

GW: And you should never, ever, ever give out invitations unless you've prepared the event for them to arrive at.

MS: I mean, you know, there's always three options, right? It's like they buy it, they don't buy it or they just they defend or they don't care and they counter it. So you need to be able to, when you do it, notice that they've gone for it or not. And if they don't go for it, maybe you can still just hit them straight on. But you also have to have your defence online as well just in case they really don't.

GW: OK, so are you writing anything else? Do you have another book coming?

MS: No!

GW: OK, well, I think maybe you should give it a little bit of time to percolate, I'm pretty sure there's another book in there.

MS: Well, yeah, I mean, I just don't know what I'd write about. I feel like I've said everything already, just like I did after the first one. You know, we mentioned right at the beginning before we were recording that I'm much better in conversation. I don't have ideas that come out of nowhere. The second one came out because I was verbalising as I was driving along how to explain something to somebody that I was trying to convince them of something that they knew nothing really about, something new. And so that's how the book came out. It's about conversation that brings out the idea about what's missing, what people aren't getting. I don't want to put more books into something where there is already way too much. I want to write something because it's not written about exactly like that before, something new to spark people's creativity and imagination.

GW: Well, when you get your idea, let me know and I'll be happy to be on the other side of that conversation.

MS: Well, yeah, I mean, suggestions definitely taken. You know, somebody did try to convince me to write fiction. But I’m not sure.

GW: Have you turned your hand to fiction at all? Have you tried it?

MS: When I was at school, I wrote stories all the time. But now that I've become an adult, I've basically failed on that front. I've become less imaginative, perhaps, I don't know.

GW: OK, well, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a novel in there too, or at least at least a collection of short stories, probably involving knives and swords,

MS: Sometimes you never know what will come out. I'm a painter. I paint and the images that I have in my head of what I'm going to paint very rarely come out. A lot of very different things come out than what's in my head. I was like, oh, wow, that's so weird. I'm painting flowers. Where did that come from? So you really don't know what's in there.

GW: OK, so what is the best idea you've not acted on?

MS: Best idea that I have not acted on. Oh, goodness, yeah, you did pre-warn me of this, and I've been thinking about it and I don't know.

GW: My guests usually fall into two camps: either they are very execution oriented, and so when they have a good idea, they act on it and so they don't have any ideas that they wanted to act on that they haven’t acted on. And most other people have this one clear thing that they would really like to have done by now, but they haven't gotten around to actually doing it, maybe starting a school or writing a book. I mean, you've written two books and you have a school, so they probably don't count. So I'm guessing, given that you've got your books out, I'm guessing you have probably actually done your good ideas.

MS: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely things I wish I'd done when I had the opportunity, or I wish that times had been different in the past that made certain opportunities more available to women, for instance. But there’s nothing really I can complain about. I mean, I think I would have liked to have ridden around the world on a motorcycle, and I never really actually did that. I mean, I travelled enough and did ride a motorcycle. But, you know, that would have been fun to do. That would have been a cool experience, I suppose. But, you know, some of the things are just fantasy things that would be really, really fun. But then the reality is probably not exactly the same.

GW: Yeah, that’s always the case. I can imagine though, riding around the world on a motorbike would be would be kind of fun, particularly if you can do it with blades festooned around you.

MS: Right. Wouldn't that be cool?

GW: But maybe not terribly practical.

MS: No, not terribly practical. You have to have a fairly short sword on a motorcycle, otherwise it would be hard to carry.

GW: Yes, indeed. OK, so my last question. How you interpret the question is as interesting as the answer itself. Somebody gives you a million dollars or a similar amount of money to spend improving training worldwide. How would you use that money?

MS: I don't know, I mean, I really think what Sonny gave me is incredibly valuable and would help other people, but that's kind of egocentric. I think one of my fantasies has always been to have a salon, you know? In this sort of idea about old Europe and fencing salons, but actually have a beautiful building, but really host other people, too, and like minds and have not really a think tank, but a “do tank”, I suppose. I love playing with different systems and inviting people that I think are interesting thinkers to collaborate. And I think that would be a really fun thing to be able to set up so that you can have this ongoing centre for doing that. Of course, I'd have to be kind of king of it.

GW: Well, when I moved to Finland in 2001, within a few months, I actually had, not a beautiful building but an industrial building, 20 minutes out of town, but a full time salle. And it makes all the difference having a permanent space. Because you can host events and create events at the drop of a hat. I never got lots and lots of different instructors there at the same time. But when I used to travel around for seminars, what I was basically doing when I would go to events like Swordsquatch, I was basically there to audition guest teachers for the school. So when I saw somebody who I liked, I thought, OK, they've got something interesting to offer, I would pay them to fly to Finland and we would have seminars in the school. And having the space made that so much easier and more practical.

MS: Yeah, and the space is nice and also just the environment and the culture that you're creating around it. I mean, for me, I think the learning is kind of campfire learning where you have a whole bunch of people that are hanging out long enough with each other to start really talking and then, “Let's stand up and try that.” So there's more time. I’d really like money not to be associated with training. I think that would make everything a lot better so that you could invite people and maybe it's just you and them, but you could pay them to come over, and it would be great to collaborate on projects and discuss stuff. I don't have time to research HEMA, but there's a whole bunch of cool stuff in there that would be really fun to talk about and to brainstorm around and stuff like that.

GW: The way I did it was I would run a weekend seminar, which my students would attend with the guest instructor teaching the seminar, and that would pay for the instructors to come over. But of course, they'd always stay a few extra days, sometimes they would an extra week, sometimes they would do two weekends and I'd have them for the whole week in between. That's what actually I was doing. I didn't really care so much about the seminar because that was for my students who are obviously less experienced, or certainly in the early days. But getting somebody whose work you like and basically just hanging out with them for like three days, four days with a room full of weapons that you could just go to try stuff out. And I think that was probably the single best thing that contributed to my development as a historical martial arts instructor, probably more than anything else. I think your “Do Tank” idea is brilliant.

MS: I mean, I've had enough people stay at my house when they come into town. Really great people, Ed Calderon, Toby, Rory, a whole bunch of the violence dynamics people that have stayed with me. And it's just been a blast sitting around the kitchen table, having coffee in the morning and seeing what comes out, or late night whisky and vodka fests. But to be able to do that somewhere nice, maybe by a Finnish lake in a lovely cabin somewhere would be really, really super neat.

GW: Maybe we should make that happen.

MS: I’m down. I'm totally into it. I'd be very happy to participate in that. All we have to do is find the million pounds or dollars or whatever we're using.

GW: Oh it’s not that expensive. If we’ve got the space and we've got the lake, then the rest is just flights.

MS: I know, but it would be nice to have a trust that would earn enough money so it would perpetuate.

GW: Yes. But we have to start somewhere.

MS: Yes. Yes, I'm in.

GW: Excellent. All right. Well, thank you very, very much Maija for talking to me today. It's been a very interesting conversation and I hope you've enjoyed it, too. And I look forward to doing some random flow with you next time I see you.

MS: Oh, absolutely. It's always a pleasure to talk with you. You were really super fun to chat with at Swordsquatch. And as you said, there's never enough time, there's too much going on and stuff. So I really enjoyed it too. I was very excited that you decided to invite me onto this interview thing that you're doing.

Back to blog