We talked to the creator of the fighting style about the responsibility that comes with teaching people how to defend yourself with a knife.
Photo via Libre Fighting Mexico Facebook.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"Study ways to use anything around to your advantage. This includes using one's clothing, or the opponent's clothing, to blind, choke, or distract the opponent. Using whatever is within reach as a projectile. Spitting, biting, pinching, hair pulling, and head-butting. Smashing the opponent's skull into a wall, curb, or table."
It's not Tracy and her mates gearing up for a big night out; it's one of the seven principles of the highly dangerous knife-based pastime known as "Libre Fighting."
Since its inception in 2004, the founder, an American named Scott Babb, has set up more than 22 chapters worldwide, mostly in the kind of places you'd imagine might be populated by the sort of "free spirits" willing to fight one another with knives. Places like Bosnia, Mexico, Indonesia, and, of course, the UK.
Libre Fighting isn't a traditional martial art. It's quick, ruthless, and extremely violent, as you'd probably expect from anything based completely on finding really clever ways to stab someone with a knife.
Watching videos of the sport in action, the first thing you notice is how fast everything moves; situations are over before you even realize what's going on. The only thing your eyes really pick up are flashes of the custom-made "Libre Fighter Knife," which is basically an ergonomic switchblade, made so the practitioner's hand feels super comfortable while he tries to puncture the life out of another man dressed in a black death-metal T-shirt.
The sparring is all set in claustrophobic close-quarter conditions to mirror real-life muggings and attacks. Two sparring partners are thrown into a tight corner and are told to strike fast but keep their distance using fast footwork and feints. Obviously in sparring they use rubber tubes instead of knives, because otherwise it would just be called "pirates club" and everyone would end up dead.
I recently spoke to Babb about creating Libre, his experiences growing up, and who would win in a bout between him and Chuck Norris.
VICE: Who are you, where are you and what do you do?
Scott Babb: My name is Scott Babb. I was born and raised in San Diego, California. I started studying martial arts at age eight, thinking it was the solution to all my problems, and continued studying them for the next 30 years.
You mentioned your childhood; do you think there was one traumatic moment that made you get into martial arts or knives especially, like a bully or something?
Well, one of my mentors, Rob [Andersen], once said, "There are two experiences every boy needs to have: kicking someone's ass, and getting their ass kicked." I got to experience both of those multiple times. The first time I saw a knife pulled I was about 11. This 13-year-old kid pulled a pocketknife on a 21-year-old man twice his size and got him to back down.
I was 16 the first time I pulled a knife on someone myself. I'd only been training in knife work for a few months at that time, and two gang members wanted to take my jacket. They were a few years older than me, much bigger, and easily would have overwhelmed me if I were unarmed. When the knife came out, they backed down in much the same manner the 21-year-old man did.
I don't advocate brandishing knives as a primary line of self-defense. Unfortunately, a knife-based martial art also tends to attract some weirdos, so we have to be very careful about who we let in. We have to do a bit of screening and make sure we're not training psychos.
Yeah, I bet. So how did you create Libre Fighting? I've noticed a lot of the close-quarters combat is quite similar to Wing Chun and Krav Maga. Is that something you've studied before?
My primary influences were Filipino martial arts and Western boxing. But what really shaped Libre was studying footage of actual knife assaults. Seeing how people in Western culture used knives. You'll see us doing a lot of techniques where we pin the opponent against the wall and press the attack. That was a direct result of studying prison shankings.
In winter months, where an opponent is wearing several layers of clothing, your tactics have to be different, especially when you only have a four-inch blade. We found that knife attacks generally happened after dark, in close-quarters environments, so our training had to reflect that. We do a lot of low-light training, a lot of close-quarters training, and a lot of multiple-opponent training.
And it's a continuing evolution, though that doesn't mean the system is always growing. It also means taking away the nonessential. So I'm as prepared to remove something from the curriculum as I am to add something to it.
A bit like Jeet Kune Do then, but with knives. So who is your martial art for? I mean, people who actually use it outside of a training studio will get arrested pretty quickly, especially in England.
I train a lot of military and law enforcement—Special Forces, private security contractors, and a lot of black belts in other systems. We've done a lot of work with Mexican Special Forces, who have implemented Libre on six occasions that I'm aware of. I also think Libre is ideally suited for women; the knife makes a great equalizer against a 200-pound man.
The way I train a civilian versus the way I train military and law enforcement varies greatly. With civilians it's really about fighting for your life, where the use of a knife—or a similar improvised weapon—would be justified. It's not like a 1950s biker movie where two guys draw knives and circle each other taking hacks back and forth. The scenario I train people for is two or three guys, armed, who have the intention of beating you to death, and you have no choice but to fight for your life with everything you have. That may mean pulling a knife if you carry one, or picking up something that can be used as a stabbing implement if you don't.
Sounds fucking intense. How have the police reacted to you training people in ways to kill people, especially so violently?
I haven't had any problems. I am very selective about who I teach. I screen everyone and talk with him or her before I let them join our classes to make sure they're OK. I'm not shy about booting someone if they strike me as being in any way "off" after they do somehow make it past the screening process.
The truth is, if someone wants to murder another person with a knife, they don't need me to teach them how to do it. It happens every day, all over the world. I teach people to survive against the guy who wants to pick up a knife and murder them.
Yeah, I guess. Do you feel the same about guns in America? Is it a personal-responsibility thing, or maybe they're too readily available?
I'm not really a "gun guy," personally. I have nothing against them, but guns aren't really my thing. America is very much a gun culture. It's a subject people are incredibly passionate about in both directions. Personally, I think most legal gun owners are responsible, good, hardworking people. But that being said, guns aren't my thing.
In the UK we can't really relate to the gun culture, but knives are a lot more prevalent. So how many real, live knife fights have you had? And what is the worst injury you've seen when practicing Libre?
I've pulled a knife on three occasions—never had to stick someone, though. And I hope I never have to.
In training, bumps and bruises are common. An occasional split lip. The formative stages involve a lot of forearm clashing, which leaves nasty bruises on the arm. We jokingly refer to this as "the Libre birthmark."
Libre has taken lives in Mexico. All in law enforcement and military situations. I've been able to see photos of two of the incidents. It's something that haunts me, if I'm going to be totally honest about it. The idea that something I created played a part in taking someone's life isn't an easy thing to live with, even if the victim was a criminal and it was a life-or-death situation. I'm not supposed to say that; I'm supposed to pretend to be a tough guy who doesn't care for the lives of criminals, but the truth is, it's a hard thing for me to live with.
So you're not generally a violent person? Or does it all come out in Libre?
When I was a younger man I was hot-headed, short-tempered, and, at times, mean. But through martial arts and boxing I've purged that anger to a large extent, or at least learned to control it. Nowadays I am very much a pacifist in my day-to-day life. Personally, I don't even carry a knife any more.
In Libre, we train people to explore their dark side, to tap into primal instincts and turn them on and off like a light switch. You'll see in our videos, we always move with intent—we don't walk through the motions. If I'm going to teach someone how to wield a blade, it's also important for me to teach them how to relax their mind and have an even temper as well. To train them to only unleash their demons when they are fighting for their lives. I'm not going to teach someone who is a generally hostile person how to use a blade.
That's good to know. So what's the main thing you'd like people to take away from Libre?
The human body is an incredibly fragile thing if you know how to attack it. In saying that, I'd hope that people would gain a greater appreciation for the value of life. In some sense, Libre is a study of human mortality. If I've done my job well, my students will never, ever want to be placed in a situation where they want to take a life and will find the thought sickening, as it should be.
But I also like empowering people. As someone who spent a lot of my youth timid and scared, I can relate to feelings of self-doubt, and like giving people the tools to overcome that the way I did.
Finally, I have to ask, who would win in a fight between you and Chuck Norris?
[Laughs] I've always been more of a Bruce Lee fan. And Bruce would kick my ass.
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