“Engaging Toughs”: Pressure Testing and Sparring in Neo-Bartitsu Training

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Monday, 2nd September 2013

“I learned various methods including boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and the use of the stiletto under recognised masters, and by engaging toughs I trained myself until I was satisfied in practical application.”

– E.W. Barton-Wright, 1950


The Bartitsu revival has gathered real momentum over the past several years, spurred on by the success of the Sherlock Holmes film franchise and by the continuing popularity of steampunk. New clubs and study groups are forming and Bartitsu presentations have become fixtures on the pop-culture convention circuit, especially at steampunk conventions.

The association with Sherlock Holmes and “fantastic Victoriana” means that Bartitsu now holds some appeal for people who might not otherwise take much of an interest in martial arts training, perhaps via taking a “taster” class or just watching a demonstration at a convention. Thus, their first exposure to Bartitsu is often in a basically ironic, playful or academic context that is geared towards people with no, or very little, prior background in martial arts training.

Going through the motions …

Under these circumstances, the overriding requirements are that the experience should be safe and enjoyable for all concerned. Thus, in taster classes, techniques are typically taught and rehearsed slowly and carefully, with some attention to correct form but little emphasis on realistic application against a determined, resistant opponent.

Demonstrations at these events can vary widely, from closely researched presentations of authentic Bartitsu techniques, through to slapstick displays that bear little actual resemblance to the c1900 art.

Engaging toughs …

Participants in an ongoing Bartitsu course, however, can expect to go beyond the rote rehearsal of pre-arranged techniques, and to be progressively introduced to the crucial element of spontaneous, active resistance. In so doing, they may join in the spirit of E.W. Barton-Wright and Pierre Vigny “engaging toughs”, or Bartitsu Club jujitsu instructors Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi, who regularly took on all challengers on the stages of London music halls.

The cliched “sport vs. street” or “sport vs. martial art” argument posits an artificial either/or duality between self-defence/combat training and active competition. Understanding that it’s impossible to safely spar or compete using the totality of techniques from a combat-oriented style, it certainly is possible to spar within a rule-set that draws as much as is safely practical from that style.

It can easily be argued that the benefits of actually being able to test those techniques – as well as, more generally but also importantly, fighting attributes such as endurance, courage and the ability to improvise under pressure – against active resistance out-weigh the objection that one is only using a limited range of techniques.

The case can also be made that it is in the crucible of athletic pressure-testing, via hard sparring or any other form of spontaneous, genuinely resistant training, that the art initiated by Barton-Wright in the late 1890s is really brought back to life.

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