Texas Ranger Lone Wolf McQuade was a childhood hero of mine. Chuck Norris played the iconic tough-guy LEO. Everything about him was completely badass. Norris, a 4-time world Karate champion in real life, played a cop who was a martial arts expert. Walker lived alone, had a wolf for a pet and drove a truck so powerful it saved him from being buried alive. Watching Chuck Norris movies as a child was among the more formative entertainment experiences of my youth. Here was excitement, honor in action, and martial skill galore. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I pestered my dad to take me to Chuck Norris movies, which were definitely not his style. In an effort to be more like my hero I bartered improved grades and reduced classroom misconduct for my first karate lessons, taught in Shotokan Sensei Ken Higa’s garage dojo in Orem, Utah. Chuck Norris was an icon, then and now. He always played a cop or a soldier, a man of honor and good character, who served the greater good and fought the righteous fight.
My favorite Chuck Norris movie, Lone Wolf McQuade, served as the launching pad for a long-running and successful television series about a Texas Ranger (though the character’s name had to be changed to Walker due to copyright issues). The series Walker, Texas Ranger featured regular battles with criminals that were settled with flying side-thrust and spinning back kicks, judo throws and arm bars. Walker also studied, taught and even competed in the martial arts in the show’s episodes.
Can Chuck Norris’s movies and television programs provide real-life lessons from which LEOs can learn? They can. In the better class of martial arts schools, whether the traditional arts such as Karate, Kung Fu, Judo, or Tae Kwon Do, or the more modern and combat oriented arts of MMA or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, students are taught discipline, self respect, restraint, and compassion. These are critical elements for the proper performance of duties as a cop, corrections officer, special agent or security guard. These alone are good reasons to train in the martial arts.
One of the things that set Chuck Norris the actor apart from his contemporaries was his success on the field of competition. Many famed martial artists who became actors have no competitive history to speak of, or it’s shrouded in mystery, legend, and given a large measure of exaggeration. During Norris’s 10-year career as a competition fighter, he was among the best in the world, winning four world titles. Despite his success in karate he sought out experts in other arts and learned from them as well.
Norris was a contemporary and a friend to the world’s best martial artists and regularly was involved in training exchanges. He brought the Gracie family to the U.S. to demonstrate their Jiu Jitsu in 1988, years before the fledgling Ultimate Fighting Championship would make them household names. The Machado brothers, a well-know family of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructors, make several appearances in the Walker series and were also involved in fight choreography.
Most students of the martial arts never compete in fights or tournaments. Those that work in law enforcement or security and have chosen this path are missing out on the most powerful training experience one can have. Understand this: the only thing in the world that is “like fighting” is fighting. Everything else is merely an attempt to create something similar to an actual fight. We can create realistic drills, training scenarios and mock scenes in which role-players are covered from head to toe in padded protective gear. They attack with limited force in specific patterns, and students know that the instructors and role players mean them no harm.
The streets we patrol are no place to first experience the chaos of a real fight, against a well-trained and fully resisting opponent that is trying his or her very best to punch, kick, throw, or choke you. Competitive combat sports provide a battle laboratory that is unparalleled in the development of technique and combat mindset needed to prevail when stuff gets real.
There is value in training martial arts even without competition. The drilling, character development, physical conditioning and refinement of fighting techniques will improve your survivability on the street. This is only a small fraction of the training value and psychological preparedness you can get if you take what you think you know out on the mats prove it to yourself.
Many martial arts instructors are teaching techniques that they have never used against a resisting opponent, techniques they learned from teachers who never did either! Their endorsements for the alleged efficacy of those techniques are often stories passed down from generation to generation with dubious origins. Heck, even if the fight did happen the way you’re being told about in class, who’s to say the guy Grand Master Whomever was fighting had any real skill of his own to fight back with?
Go to a boxing gym, wrestling club, Judo Dojo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school, MMA school, or the rare hard-core, knock-down competitive Karate or Kung Fu school and ask them what works. You’ll find students and instructors that are using their techniques in hard sparring every week. You’ll find competition teams drilling the tools that win matches and medals on weekends. There’s no arguing with knockouts, high-amplitude throws and submission victories. Have a new or exotic technique you think might have value? Great, you’ll be asked to try it in sparring, then in competition.
Even if the techniques you are learning in a non-competitive school are great, your ability to apply them is another matter entirely. There are throws, punch combinations, and submissions that I can score with regularly against fighters less experienced and less trained than I am that are inadequate against a better opponent. If you have never tried your pet technique against someone who is really, desperately, trying to resist, how do you know it will work when you need it? You don’t. You can only learn the subtle but key elements of a technique in the refiner’s fire of a real fight of some variety.
I’ll never be the tournament champion that Chuck Norris was, or even a perennial podium finisher at local tournament, but my own experience has shown me that there is no substitute for competition. I started my study of the martial arts in 1983 and I have competed in Karate, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and military combatives. It’s fair to say I’ve experienced no more than modest competition success. On the other hand I have been in a number of real dust-ups and I have only come out on the losing end once.
Fear is a mind-killer. It can cause one of two terrible things to occur when a police officer gets in a fight: overreaction or freezing up or going “condition black”. When fear-induced rage sets in, the ancient caveman part of your brain takes over, causing you to act without thought and often without regard to agency use-of-force policy or public perception of your actions. Freezing up is even worse, causing good officers to fail to take action to protect the public their partners, or even themselves.
We’ve all seen “stress fire” courses and “stress inoculation” in which trainers attempt get a student’s heart rate up by forcing them to do pushups and jumping jacks, yelling and screaming or creating confusing conditions. These are valuable additions to your training programs but no substitute for the real thing. A good officer will train regularly in all aspects of their job, including firearms and defensive tactics, knowing that any shift could call for their lawful and necessary use. Do this, if only once. Sign up for a tough competition that’s a month or two away and observe how that decision changes your behavior and thinking.
Immediately you will find that you are much more focused on your training. You’ll push harder. Those drills like wind sprints, plyometrics, and Olympic lifts you’ve been bypassing because their annoying and difficult will return to your training schedule. You’ll push yourself much harder in sparring and in conditioning. You’ll find yourself identifying holes in your game you know you need to work on and seeking coaching to help you do that. Tell your coaches and training partners about your decision and you’ll witness an immediate change in them to.
My friend, Deputy Chief of the Meridian Idaho Police Department, Tracy Basterrachea explained it to me like this while I was preparing for an upcoming tournament, “A fight team is like a family. You might pick on your little sister, but if someone else even looks at her wrong, you will kick that guy’s butt. Once you register for a tournament or a fight, your friends will teach you things you had no idea they knew.”
That statement came after a training session in which Tracy had been drilling me on takedowns he had learned as a wrestler at Boise State University and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu techniques he had used as a successful competitor during the World Police Fire Games, and as a coach in several martial arts. He along with other of my coaches and training partners willingly told me about holes in my fight game that some of them had exploited for years in the gym during sparring. The minute I was representing them, however, they wanted those fixed so I would be a success.
I relearned an important lesson. If I am willing to do this extra work, identify my weaknesses and ask for help preparing for this competition in which I know I will compete with men who do not really intend me harm, against whom I will compete in controlled conditions and in relative safety, why don’t I exert the same effort when preparing daily to deal with people who may want to kill me and are willing to go to any lengths to do that?
The average street thug is not a martial arts expert. Your time in the training hall and your competition experience has the potential to give you skills and fighting spirit that will set you apart from the common criminal you encounter on the job. Your life and the lives of your partners and the public may depend on that someday. Take advantage of this opportunity.
Chuck Norris is an actor. He makes entertaining movies and television in which characters like Ranger Walker teach lessons and demonstrate examples that are worth emulating by police and security officers. Chuck Norris the man also put his skills on the line against the best competition he could find and was victorious. We may never be his equal on the field of competition but we can learn much from his example.
Gabriel Russell is a Deputy Regional Director with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, a First Sergeant in the Army National Guard, Founder and Managing Partner at Takouba Security LLC, and a volunteer at Safe Call Now. He has a Master’s of Science from Central Washington University.