The flight attendant probably felt uncomfortable as she watched the tense passenger walk down the aisle. The next thing she knew, a hand covered her mouth and a box-cutter slashed her throat, pouring blood onto the floor and turning most of the horrified passengers into easily controlled victims. As her life drained from her body and she slumped to the carpet on September 11, 2001, our whole approach to teaching self-defense in this country changed.
No one knows exactly what happened on those fateful flights, but the terrorists are believed to have used a combination of graphic intimidation and everyday weapons to seize control. The result, however, was clear then and it’s even more apparent now: All Americans have a pressing need to learn how to mentally and physically handle armed attackers.
“Before 9-11, we were teaching students primarily to guard against bullies, rapists and muggers,” says Don Bendell, a martial arts veteran based in Canon City, Colorado. “Now, we must prepare our students to defend against enemies who are often invisible until it’s time to strike. They don’t want our wallets. They want to strike terror into our hearts, take away our way of life and steal our souls.”
Don Bendell began learning disarming techniques in the 1960s when he took up judo and jujitsu to complement the hand-to-hand combat training he’d received at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The following year, he was forced to put those skills to the test when his Special Forces unit was deployed to Vietnam.
“Facing an attacker with a weapon is like sleeping with a grizzly bear: Although it can be a unique experience, it is nonetheless a bit unsettling,” Don Bendell says. Then he waxes somber: “I’ve been stabbed, shot, blown up and gassed, and [I can say] there’s no self-defense situation as scary as facing a weapon attack.”
According to Bendell, the fear of an armed assault stems largely from the images Hollywood feeds us. Fistfights can be as realistic and brutal as the choreographer wants to make them, but they pale in comparison to images of metal penetrating human flesh.
“The punching and kicking in most films doesn’t make us think of death, but a knife blade or bullet definitely does,” he says.
When it comes to fending off an armed attacker, Don Bendell believes having information about the most effective tactics and the possible outcomes is the best defense. “You can never have enough knowledge,” he says. “Knowledge is never dangerous, but a lack of preparedness, denial and naiveté can be suicidal.
“If confronted by an armed mugger or a terrorist, it’s possible to come out of it alive — if you know how to turn everyday items into expedient weapons, if you keep your head and if you decide you will survive no matter how great the odds. You must use anything as a weapon to even the odds, and your attitude must be one of victory, period.”
After his stint in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, Don Bendell returned to Fort Bragg, then served in three other Special Forces units. Afterward, he began teaching taekwondo, judo and jujitsu to civilians and at the Fort Bragg Boxing Club. He now holds a seventh-degree black belt in taekwondo and freestyle karate, and a sixth degree in judo and jujitsu.
That comprehensive traditional base has enabled him to recognize effective ways to deal defensively with weapons, then make them better.
“Many jujitsu instructors concentrate on teaching what [works in] grappling competitions, but to me, that’s like teaching karate classes but only working on sparring — with no kata, one-steps or whatever,” he says. “Arm locks, leg locks and chokes are just part of judo and jujitsu, but throws, sweeps, smaller joint locks and pressure points should not be ignored.
“Long before the Ultimate Fighting Championship was created, I’ve preached that students must have a striking discipline and a grappling discipline to be effective in self-defense. But the techniques they learn aren’t nearly as important as the number of hours practiced and the attitude that they will be the victor and not the victim.”
When forced to defend himself against an armed attacker, Don Bendell prefers to remain fluid so he can switch between grappling and striking. “I almost always stand with my feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and hands down and ready to move,” he says.
“Against a single opponent with a weapon, I’ll use jujitsu as my primary style, but against two or more, I’ll get into a modified front stance and use taekwondo or freestyle karate kicks and punches because you can’t put a joint lock or choke on just one of the guys — or you’ll get your head pummeled by his partner.”
Against a single armed attacker, jujitsu is the preferred response because of the control it allows. “If an attacker’s adrenaline is pumping and I side-kick him powerfully, many times that won’t halt the attack,” Don Bendell says.
“He’s more than likely going to say, ‘Oh, you wanna fight dirty?’ or ‘Oh, karate guy, huh?’ Then he’ll continue the attack, functioning on sheer adrenaline, which masks pain and gives him extra strength.”
With jujitsu, however, you can redirect his gun or knife. “You gain control of the situation in a hands-on manner, then eliminate the threat,” he says.
Don Bendell insists there’s a hard-and-fast rule about jujitsu that many students overlook: You can’t effect a technique without first creating a distraction. That’s why those who haven’t studied the art can’t execute wrist locks or chokes on opponents who resist with all their might.
What the unknowing martial artists need to do first is distract him. He advises spitting in the bad guy’s face, kicking his groin or backfisting him — anything that breaks his concentration and creates an opening.
“I might throw all the change in my pocket and my car keys into his face as hard as I can,” Don Bendell says. “I might stab him in the throat, eye, groin, armpit or wherever with a pencil. I might use the edge of the can of soda pop to strike his cheekbone, nose, back of the hand or other vulnerable body part. Using anything as a weapon makes it a little easier to defeat an attacker with a weapon.”
All martial artists should do their best to avoid fighting, but if you know an attack is coming, hit first. If you can’t do that, counterattack according to the way you’ve trained, he advises.
One thing Bendell swears by, even though some black belts disparage the technique, is the cross-arm block, or X-block. Against a knife, you should immediately search for a field-expedient item to use as a weapon, but you won’t always be able to find one, he says.
“In that case, try the cross-arm block. Palm blocks are the easiest to use against a knife, but they don’t give you control of the knife hand. It’s like putting on a bandage [without] curing the disease.”
The cross-arm block enables you to stop the attack and take control of the knife hand. After that, you can keep the knife away from the thug’s free hand so he can’t transfer the weapon to it.
Don Bendell executes the cross-arm block with his fists closed, then immediately puts the backs of his hands and fingers together so the attacker can’t easily yank the knife free. He then twists one hand to grab the handle and the hand holding it; or he moves the man’s arms, usually clockwise, while grabbing the knife hand and applying a wrist lock.
At that point, he’ll add a leg sweep, kick, head butt or any other technique he deems appropriate.
To prepare his students to survive, Don Bendell transcends the usual attack-by-the-numbers exercises in which the instructor drones, “This is how you defend against a thrust; this is how you defend against a side slash. …”
He does include those drills, but his most effective teaching methodology involves giving two people one rubber knife and turning them loose. As soon as one is stabbed or slashed in a lethal fashion, he critiques their actions.
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To drive home his message that what he’s teaching is effective, Bendell often hands the training knife to the students, one at a time, and issues one simple instruction: “Stab me.” Then, with minimal effort, he fends off each attack, disarms the assailant and pretends to stab him.
After he makes his point, he reviews his course of action, demonstrating how he minimized his movements to conserve energy while waiting for the opponent to attack. Then he explains the explosive techniques he used to disarm each one.
When it comes to weapon attacks, Bendell clearly has been there and done that. He doesn’t want anyone else to be subjected to the trauma he’s endured physically, mentally and emotionally. If you heed his advice, chances are you won’t be.
Story by Lori Hoeck • Photos Courtesy of Don Bendell
For information about Don Bendell, click here.