GW: I’m here today with Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani, who is a museum analyst, author of many books, and over one hundred and eighty articles on Persian Archery and Swordsmanship, the historical martial arts of Iran. He has a book called The Lexicon of Arms and Armour from Iran. And he’s also a highly skilled, practical martial artist. I’ve actually watched him teach and spar and let’s just say I have no interest in actually fighting him ever. You can find him online at https://www.moshtaghkhorasani.com/, where you will find a really extraordinary range of articles and resources on Persian martial arts. So without further ado, Manouchehr, welcome to the show.
MK: Thank you very much, Guy. I’m really happy to be on your podcast. It’s very nice, an honour to be here.
GW: Oh, thank you. Now, whereabouts in the world are you at the moment?
MK: I live in Germany. Frankfurt, Germany.
GW: OK, what brought you there?
MK: I have been living here for a long period of time, actually. I went to university here in Germany, so I’m German educated and American educated. So I studied both in the United States and in Germany. So then I found a job here, got started, got married, and well, I live here.
GW: Fair enough. And I’m right in thinking that you’re so your main job is not researching Persian martial arts, is that correct?
MK: My main job, I mean, I have been teaching for the last five years as a professor and lecturer at two universities. Actually, they are very good universities in the area of business administration and also leadership studies where what I teach at Masters levels now, and I also supervise many theses. I think so far I have almost supervised almost thirty, maybe twenty eight. I don’t remember, it’s all on my Web page. The areas I teach is intercultural management, cross-cultural leadership. They’re very related, as well as ethical leadership and intercultural relationships. So my job is analysing countries, cultures of different countries, comparing them to each other, behaviour, cultural behaviour, and accordingly prepare my students and sometimes executives to do that. Before and at the same time, I’m a consultant for a number of leading European, including British, law firms and American law firms and investment companies, again, in the areas of intercultural management, in the areas of cross-cultural leadership and ethical leadership and CSR – corporate social responsibility. These are these areas I teach and do research and supervise my students. And from time to time, I also write articles in these areas, but because I write academic articles and if you’re a researcher and you write academic articles, you get credit points. So basically I get credit points when I publish lots of academic articles also in the area of history and archaeology.
GW: I see, so your historical martial arts articles count towards your mainstream career?
MK: Correct. Because I don’t only write about martial arts, I also write about crucible steel production. I write about archery. How bows were made. I also write about different types of real weapons and weapon, let’s say, components, how they made them. And this is also my main area of research, and then after that, accordingly, martial arts. Not only, I don’t only write about martial arts, but weapon analysis, history of weapons, decorations. That’s why I also work for auction houses from time to time, also for many private collectors to identify antiques.
GW: OK, so I guess my obvious question there is, how on earth do you have time for a proper career and all of this research into weapons and martial arts and what have you?
MK: I don’t know how to say it, OK, let’s put it this way, I have an iron discipline. For example, I don’t know if it’s a virtue, I don’t sleep so much. I sleep five to six hours a night. That’s what I do. It’s not because I force myself, because I don’t need to. Everybody’s different. And this includes the weekends and this includes also when I’m on vacation.
GW: OK, so you have a couple of hours extra per day.
MK: Again, I repeat, I’m not saying it’s a virtue, but that’s what I do. And besides that, I just keep doing these things. And I believe if you like something and if one is focussed, you can concentrate on different things and I don’t see them as separate. For example, weapon analysis and martial arts are not separated. But at the same time, for example, intercultural management, let’s put it this way, we analyse cultures. Let’s say, if I may talk about it a bit, if I compare, for example, the culture of United States to German culture. And we go and analyse politics, business, atmosphere, economics, micro and macro. Then we analyse the effects of movie industry on the tactics of inclusion, exclusion, what most people, the media, because people always think they’re individualistic, but we know they are not. They’re influenced in every culture. We are all influenced by the media, also by education, by parents. So basically, the culture, the way I teach is different cultures affect the members of that culture, the majority of them. And to that military is one of them, military history, the weapon technology. So actually, if you look at it in a holistic view, you can see them all interrelated. That’s the way I look at the whole thing.
GW: Yeah. People don’t understand why I am a woodworker and a martial artist, and I don’t actually see them as being fundamentally different. You have an idea for how the world should be and you apply your skills with sharp objects to create that new reality. And that’s the same whether you’re planing a piece of wood smooth or swinging sword through the air. In my head it’s not fundamentally different.
MK: I agree with you. I was just talking to one of our colleagues, and he’s doing Georgian swordsmanship. And he had a very, very good point of view. And I completely agree. The more I do martial arts, the more I understand there is only one. They are similar to each other. It’s just really interesting to watch.
GW: It’s one of those things where I think for a beginner it’s really useful to really focus on the distinctions because the way you throw a punch in karate is not the same as the way you throw a punch in boxing. And some of the Japanese swordsmanship actions are different to the European medieval swordsmanship actions, which otherwise you’d think would be similar. But once you’ve learnt your own language and then you’ve learnt another language, you then realise actually how much they have in common. It’s useful to keep them distinct, but once you get to a certain point, you then see all these similarities between them and the distinctions kind of become academically interesting, but not terribly relevant.
MK: Yeah, absolutely.
GW: I go to martial arts schools of all different kinds and have a go and just go through the forms or technical exercise or whatever that the teacher is teaching. And it’s like, oh, this is interesting. And very often I’ll end up having a conversation with a teacher who said, you’ve done some stuff before, but not this. What have you been doing? And I said, well, actually I do some medieval Italian stuff, and then we get into a conversation about it and it turns out yes, the distinctions are interesting, but the things that are in common are really fundamental. So I have to ask, how did you get into the whole historical martial arts thing? What made you want to start researching?
MK: I started at a very young age with wrestling. And also many people know from my videos, I have also a black belt in Kyokushin. Just recently I passed my second Dan in Kyokushin, which is bare knuckle and very tough style of Karate. I did it under Shihan Nazari. I’m preparing for my third Dan in black belt Kyokushin, which I’m going to pass. Due to Corona I’m just waiting until it’s all over. Also I have been a practitioner of Brazilian jujitsu for years. I’m going to pass my black belt, again after Corona. And also I started a couple of years ago to add Wing Chun and I’m going to pass my instructor level in Wing Chun, next to wrestling. So put it this way, I was in martial arts. I did kickboxing Muay Thai next to Kyokushin and wrestling and BJJ, then in between I started to do historical martial arts. The last two years I didn’t stop doing historical martial arts, but I concentrated more in karate Kyokushin because I want to pass my third Dan in black belt and I want to pass my Brazilian jujitsu black belt and these things. So I concentrated on this. The reason I did it, if you wish, I can say why. But now I’m back again into historical martial arts. My team has been always there. But if you Guy want me to explain why, I can.
GW: OK, we’ll get to that in a minute. But before we go there, you’re doing these established martial arts, karate, Brazilian jujitsu or whatever. What made you want to look at the historical sources and start doing historical research, what was it that you weren’t getting in your martial arts life at that point?
MK: My plan was the following: I was always in love because of Japanese martial arts. I still do Iaijutsu next to Kyokushin, everyone in Japanese martial arts also does some Iaijutsu and specifically Katori work, which I’m very interested in. But then as a matter of fact, I was always interested or have been interested actually in nihonto, Japanese swords. So I also know quite a knowledge on Japanese nihonto classification. And then many years ago, before my first book, Arms and Armour from Iran was published in 2006, it was years before that, I saw a Persian Shamshir, and I looked at the blade and I just said, wow, what kind of blade? Theirs are not folded. They are crucible steel. And like Japanese nihonto, I know many people or martial artists look at Japanese nihonto or Persian blades as only weapons. But if you are a collector of these items, they are the most expensive swords anyhow if you want to buy, because the blades are pieces of art. Actually, it’s like a painting. I mean, they are weapons, of course, but people who collect them don’t look at them as weapons. They look at them as pieces of art, like Picasso. So that’s the appreciation I knew from nihonto. And then I started to appreciate them. And then I realised that Persians, Iranians, contributed a lot. And the more I read, the more I was fascinated by these blades. And then I realised that one should go and do research. What I found out was that especially collectors in the West, I spent almost all my life outside Iran, in the West, be it Germany or the United States. But then I realised that back then, there were some articles here and there under Islamic arms and armour, and Persian was some parts of it. And I realised they only talk about museums, collections, in the United States or Europe, mostly Western Europe. My first question was, why didn’t they go to Iran?
GW: Why not?
MK: Yeah, exactly.
GW: Presumably most of them will be there?
MK: Right, exactly. And then when I asked and there was some, I don’t know, there was a shared opinion. Again, back to tactics of inclusion, exclusion of culture, shared opinions, when we build up groups we start to share and everyone goes with the wind, oh, no, those guys do not keep that. You know, they just sold them, or it was like that. But I said, look, first of all, Persia, Iran was not a colony for a long period of time. So I cannot believe that. So I went to Iran. It was after actually many years because I was not there for many, many years. When I went back there, I was mesmerised by the culture, everyone is, by the people – very friendly. And then what I saw there was that in the Military Museum of Tehran, they had their collections of one of the Persian Kings, Naser al-Din Shah from Qajar, but he had collected them over centuries. And then they found out they were distributed into a military museum of Bandar-e Anzali in the North, Military Museum of Shiraz. So then I wanted to have their permission. But then it’s military because it was under the military. So you know what I did? I wrote a letter to them, said, I’m here, and my speciality is nihonto and I would like to do research on that. And everyone was telling me, you cannot do that because you had not been into this country for such a long time, as a kid you left. Now you come back right to the headquarters. But what I believe is once you go to the source, once you go to the top, you gain what you want. And I knew that already and don’t listen to people. So I did, and the only thing I had back then was a fax number. So I wrote something and I faxed it. Can you imagine?
GW: That was a long time ago!
MK: It was like 2001 or 2002. I wrote it and then I got a telephone call two hours after by the head of military museums of Iran. He invited me to talk to them, so I went and he was a researcher, Iranian studies researcher, a very nice man, very friendly man. I asked about this. And I tried to explain to him and he said, OK, he cannot make a decision right now. Of course, you cannot do that. And how long we wanted to stay, I said only a couple of days more. And then I went back to Germany because of my job and all these things. Then they invited me back again. Then they opened the museums. I analysed hundreds of pieces in all the museums. They have not only Persian, they have also many Russian, European collections, the swords of the kings given to them. You can imagine Indians, Europeans, all of top quality. So I analysed them. Then I went to lots of writings. I went to Persian original manuscripts on sword classification. Back then my idea was not martial arts, although I knew, as a wrestler, Iran has over 22 indigenous martial arts which have survived. Some of them are with bareknuckle strikes, kicks and also punches. So I knew that already and I knew that there was not a classification per se of them. I did some classification on some of them published as academic articles of techniques. I’m not finished with that. But then I started to do that. Then we know that we have House of Strength, which they trained with all those nice items.
GW: Clubs, we call them Indian clubs. But really, they’re probably Persian.
MK: Yeah, they’re Persian. Yes, that’s right. So I started doing research first only on the sword classification, which was my first book, Arms and Armour from Iran, which is eight hundred pages, it is a huge book. I spent many years on that. And then after that I realised I need to find the lexicon because then I fished over 5000 different entries on arms and armour from old Persian. Iran is an old country, Jiroft showed us it’s not only five thousand but seven thousand years of Persian culture. So we started to get old Persian, middle Persian, the holy language and the new Persian from the 10th century, finding all words and classification of words. And then in original, because Persian script went into four levels, four different scripts. And I wrote the Persian scripts in front of it. And because I’m trained also not only in business administration but also in English linguistics, so I know how to classify languages. So I classified their meaning. And when I was doing this meaning, for example, “Shamshir”, I realised there is some consistency, and then some shamshir types, for example. Then I saw most Persian battlefield accounts concentrate on this vertical strike, they say it should be vertical, it shouldn’t go there. You should start like that. Then I saw a consistency here and there, again there, again there. And knowing Japanese swordsmanship like Katori, I know that Persia by tradition is a very traditional culture, like Japan. I don’t know how to explain this to you. It is a very different approach to culture. And I know it from cultural studies. You see these techniques which are repeated again and again, and then they are shown in miniatures. And then I said there should be something into that. And also the archery. Back then, I didn’t know that there were so many manuscripts in archery, which I encountered later, but I saw the consistency of borutkeš, moustache draw they explained. Then they explained the eyebrow draw. They explained many others. We know that back then before I went there, in Arab archery, which was translated into English or in Turkish, you know that they referred always to Persian manuals, which are very detailed, but no one knew. And then I started collecting for this lexicon. After I collected them and in the middle of my research for my lexicon, I found archery manuals. I found crucible steel manuals. I found this and this and this. And I said, OK, let’s go and try to delve into the historical Persian martial arts. But I would like to say, which now in African martial arts, our colleagues are doing. OK, they have a continent, but I had a culture which is Persia, Iran. But I just said, OK, I need to find consistency. I need to find what was being done, and I need to find out these type of things. And I had one advantage next to all these things. As an antique researcher I have handled thousands of antiques in my hands and Guy, you know that what a difference it makes. Not that I just had them in my hands. I analysed them, measured them. I photographed them one by one. So the mechanics of the weapons, because all the reproductions we have, well, what should I say? I think, you know what I want to say. The reproductions, right?
GW: Some of them these days can be startlingly good. But a lot of them really don’t feel like the ones in the museums, some do, but most of them don’t.
MK: And then in Persian, it makes another difference because you can have a crucible steel made, not as beautiful as in the past, but still made, even if you get the balance right, you don’t get the real pattern right. I mean, making a Nihonto, Japanese Nihonto, although they kept a tradition, some of the patterns, they cannot do it still, but make Persian Shamshir the way they did in the past is a wishful thinking. No one can do that. No one can make a crucible steel the way they did in the past, they just make some small blades. But if they make a real curved blade it doesn’t feel the way that they handle. But we did lots of research. For example, just recently we found out the adhesive material. We found out what they used, again, based on a manuscript, what they used to glue that, the natural glue, as we call it. We found out, just published an academic article. We found out the mechanics of the crossguard, why the crossguard was made that way in another academic article. So, I just want to say, because they are the real things and we do research on real weapons. I’m talking about Persian. It gives us lots of advantage on analysing the mechanics of the weapons back then. I just want to mention that.
GW: Yeah, I would agree. When I was really getting into researching early 17th century Italian rapier, I went to the Wallace Collection and the lovely David Edge, who I think he’s just retired, but he was Head of Arms and Armour and then he became Head of Conservation. He opened up a bunch of cases and brought out the swords I was interested in and I could literally hold them in my hand and lunge with them and just move them around and oh, my God, this is totally different. And when I gave one of them to my friend who came with me and I said, OK, you stand like this and just point it at me and I was going to approach like they talk about in the treatises, suddenly, for the first time in my life, my body naturally took Capoferro’s guard position with the weight on the back foot, leaning back, your arm fairly extended because this sword, the sharp point, just disappears when it’s pointed at your face and you literally don’t know where their sword is. So you have to go and as the text says, find the sword. And you find their sword with your sword, and it is very frightening because if you make a mistake, that sword goes straight in your face and you can’t even see it, right? Yeah, it changes everything. So I’m entirely with you in that one of the critical moments in a historical martial arts development is handling museum originals.
MK: Yes, it’s really important, especially important. Because once you work for museums, as you did, and the museums trust you and they open all these things and other things for us, for me many private collections opened their doors in Europe, the United States or Russia or wherever. But I mean, as you know, many private collectors are also very cautious, which you understand why, of course. I mean, they are normally wealthy people, but they’re cautious. But we all know why. And so that’s why it’s also open for you and then you are. So that’s what you gain more knowledge on analysing these antiques and help you a lot to understand the mechanics, right?
GW: Absolutely. So you were getting into the historical Persian martial arts. The first time we met was in New Zealand, about three years ago. And you were teaching classes on what? How do you pronounce the name of the art you were teaching?
GW: Razmafzar. You’ve been creating a school teaching this stuff?
MK: I mean, my idea of Razmafzar was, again, my idea of Razmafzar was and still is to teach, and my students know that, to teach them martial arts. That’s my first approach to that. I know everyone does it. Yeah, of course everyone does it. My approach to Razmafzar is they are fighters and they can use weapons. That’s what I look at, so I never want my students to call themselves “fencers”. Because this is not our tradition. If I may say so, I want them to consider themselves as fighters. The reason, Guy, I’m mentioning it because many people, I’m talking about my school, when they come to Razmafzar in the beginning they only want to learn Shamshir. You understand what I mean? We don’t want to do wrestling. That’s the reason I’m saying this. We don’t want to do this because you get too close. You understand?
GW: Fiore would not approve. Fiore basis his art on wrestling. I mean, if you’re going to be doing like proper armoured and armed combat, you have to wrestle. No question
MK: So you know why I do this. And then I said, listen, this is a martial arts organisation. You need to do everything and now it’s established people know that. But in the beginning, they just didn’t want to do this. And then I said, guys, you just need to. I remember there was a guy back then. I want to learn Neyze. We need to learn spear. I’m interested in that. For me it was very strange. I tell you why it’s strange and why I said “established martial arts”. Listen, you go and do Kyokushin. Kyokushin has many katas many people don’t know that because it’s like Muay Thai but it has thirty nine katas and OK guys. Excuse to all Kyokushin practitioners here, but you all guys know what I’m talking about. Many people in Kyokushin want to fight. These 39 katas for them is…
GW: It’s torture.
MK: Exactly. But I love katas. I always practise them all the time because I strongly believe if you don’t master, I’m talking about Kyokushin katas, you cannot fight well. I strongly believe in it. I say that as a fighter, many people don’t do it. But then in Kyokushin you don’t have a choice. You need to learn to. You cannot just say I don’t want to learn to thrust. You cannot do that. You do not progress to black belt and you cannot fight in those categories. I was used to it also, let’s say Brazilian jujitsu, although it is a modern art based on Japanese jujitsu. You don’t have a choice. You cannot say I only want to fight from top position, I hate to be on my back. But they’re going to evaluate you on your back as well. If you don’t learn it, you’re going to fail and you cannot fight against black belt categories or in brown belt category or stick to Wing Chun. If Wing Chun has three or four forms and let’s say I only like Chum Kiu. Many people say I like the second one Chum Kiu, but it’s not your choice. You need to learn it. And many people in Wing Chun, we don’t want to learn weapons because it’s not relevant anymore. But you don’t have a choice. You need to learn Wing Chun weapons as well. So I came from this established martial arts mentality.
GW: Me too.
MK: So you can’t come to me and argue, I only want to do this. You understand what I mean Guy?
GW: I do. I have a slightly different perspective on it though, because generally speaking, when beginners come to the school, they get taught the stuff that they’ve showed up for the class for, like this is like basic level Fiore stuff, this is like basic level rapier stuff or whatever. But because of the kind of cultural background of how martial arts used to be taught historically, for example, when Salvatori Fabris showed up to the court of King Christian IV of Denmark, to give the king his fencing lesson, the king would be taught what he wanted to know and Signor Fabris would just do as he was told, because in that relationship, the king was the king and Fabris was this expensive foreign fencing instructor who had been hired to teach him, to teach the king. But the authority structure is completely different to the way it is in most, shall we say, non historical European martial arts schools. Actually, in history. Now, of course, a lot of modern historical martial arts schools are run along, shall we say, Japanese hierarchy structure lines where the teacher is sensei and you do as sensei says. I run mine closer to what I think of as the more likely historical model where like even in the 18th century, if I was teaching backsword to some officer, the master of arms in the 18th century was usually a corporal or sergeant and they’re teaching lieutenants and captains and majors and colonels. So there’s no question who is actually in charge. So it’s a very different cultural hierarchical perspective on the role of the martial arts teacher.
MK: Yeah, fair enough. But we should never forget that Persian culture is Asian culture. West Asian. For example, if you go to Zurkhane, House of Strength, it is completely hierarchical. Where you should stand is determined by the number of years you have been practising the art. What you are wearing is determined, who starts what, how you bow. Everything is predetermined. We should never forget Persia again, in today’s diplomatic circles is West Asia, not Middle East, called West Asia, Middle East. Whatever you want. Persia, Iran is located West Asia.
GW: Yeah, that’s true.
MK: So it’s traditional. It has these elements to it, right?
GW: Absolutely. And it would be inappropriate for a beginner to show up in one of my classes when I’m teaching longsword and say, well, actually, I’m just here to do poleaxe. OK. Go away then because I’m doing longsword today.
MK: But no, I learnt it, to be honest with you, I learnt a lot in Razmafzar. Let’s put it this way, I’m not as strict as I used to be in Razmafzar. I need to say that.
GW: Most of my listeners will probably never have experienced Razmafzar. So what is it like? Tell us about it.
MK: The main weapons set we practise, which we see a lot of in miniatures and there are also lots of descriptions in different battlefield accounts, we concentrate on three main weapons, Shamshir, which is this curved sword. Actually, to be honest, that’s what we are going to do it later on. For me it is a cultural sphere of arms and armour used by Persian warriors. The reason we haven’t concentrated on ancient ones because we are going to completely reconstruct it like people do it on Viking experimental archaeology. We haven’t done that. The reason is not because Razmafzar is not only about Timurid, Safavid, starting from that period. We are going to have a consistency later on. We are going to show it soon, experimental archaeology, even bronze swords, because I analysed many bronze swords. We do shamshir and separ, which is the curved one with the shield or as you call it, buckler. But we have a small one, we have a medium size and big ones. This is the first thing our guys learn. I put many techniques into combination, just so that people remember the different techniques. Then we do also Neyze, which is the spear. It is a cutting spear like Naginata. And we do that and also very few techniques also combined with the shield, but mostly without. Then we do also shield or Separ with the Khanjar, which is a curved dagger, in combination. These are these three main weapons sets that we have. And then next to it in each level they train, they need to be accomplished wrestlers and grapplers. When we mean accomplished wrestlers and grapplers, OK, guys, for those of you who practise freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman or Brazilian jujitsu or catch wrestling, it’s that level, it’s not just some throws. In my system, they need to be accomplished wrestlers because in Persian tradition, even today, wrestling is king. I’m not saying that wrestling is good or is bad. Now I’m back in also Kyokushin circles. So before I start a fight about striking versus grappling, I come from both sides. So I mean, I’m not just saying because a guy asked, oh you went back to striking what was the reason? And the thing is because Persian tradition is wrestling tradition and they need to learn wrestling, very accomplished on foot, on the ground and everything. I place a lot of emphasis on wrestling. OK, pre covid, of course, now they cannot do that, of course not. And then we have these combinations and these three sets of weapons and then next and, of course, excuse me, I forgot one important weapon, which is they need also to practise archery. Of course, this is part of our tradition as well. And then after that, then there are also other weapons which come into play. For example, because Khanjar, for example, is always held in reverse grip. But then after that we have kard, which is like a knife, is also with the shield again, which is held like that in a forward grip. Then we have also other heavier weapons. And then later on, fewer of us have that because it’s a question of money, of course, investment. I would like them to at least to make experiments with armoured fighting, put on armour. But as you know, Guy, buying an armour is always something.
GW: Let’s put it like this. My armour cost nearly twice what I paid for my car. That says a lot about my priorities and my car was not a brand new BMW, but still, good armour is not cheap.
MK: And for that reason I want them to do it. But I cannot ask them to do it, because many people told me, Manouchehr, we don’t have money to buy armour, which I completely understand. But what I mean, what should you do? I mean, it’s clear. Let’s face it, they need to invest. Many people have other priorities. They have kids. I fully understand you cannot invest in money for an armour.
GW: By the time you save the money, you’re too old to use it.
MK: That’s the reason. But, you know, armoured fighting for some of us have it. You have armour so they do it. It is important. This is also part of our tradition. Also for higher levels, I don’t want them to do it in lower levels, but I’m sure you know that also have cutting test requirements to understand the mechanics of it. But then again, I would like them to do that a bit. I’m a big fan. I do it a lot. I do a lot of cutting tests, which you can see that on our channel. But I don’t want many of my people to do cutting tests. But I think you know why. I don’t want to make it so everyone should do cutting tests. People should be really good at handling weapons before they move and even cut tatami or hard green tatami. They need to know what they are doing. That’s the reason.
GW: Yeah, I encourage my students to cut stuff. But then I’m a woodworker. I’ve been cutting things since I was a little boy. It’s not fundamentally different cutting with a sword against a target or using an axe to chop down a tree. The way you do it is different, but you’re getting the blade to behave in a certain way on this particular substrate. So you change what you’re doing to make that change in the substrate occur. Once the blade is an extension of your will then all sorts of things become a lot more straightforward, but it’s something that people who are not accustomed to blades really have to put some time into practise. I get them started usually with cooking, because if you’re decent in the kitchen and you can chop vegetables and whatever, you are used to controlling a sharp blade and making big things into small things and just applying that fundamental understanding of how sharp stuff works to longer sharp things, it’s a useful kind of segue into it.
MK: I mean, what I found out in cutting is I mean, OK, there are different curves with shamshirs. Some of them which are really curved, extreme curves, and cutting with them is very, very dangerous because of the curve after the cut. You need to know how to control it because it keeps going after the cut.
GW: You’ll hit yourself with the point.
MK: Another thing, for example, if you do these cuts right. And you know, this recovery which we learn is this and you turn right, you turn like that. With a highly curved sword.
GW: You are hitting yourself!
MK: That’s the problem. That’s my problem with highly curved swords. With the Neyze, the cutting spear, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s not a problem. I don’t have a problem with that. Or if they do this cutting, with this highly curved blade it’s always after you cut and sometimes it’s like a snake which cuts. And then you see these things just start to vibrate. You need to control it. For example Katana is curved as well. But the curve of Katana is not like that, right?
GW: Very gentle. And the blade is pretty stiff. It’s not steeply curved and it is pretty stiff. I’ve done some practise with heavily curved 18th century European blades. And it is kind of strange. Once you start thinking about the point, everything gets a lot easier, because it’s all about putting the point where it needs to go, but the point isn’t at the end of your arm, like the extension of your wrist, it’s curved back. So you have to kind of feel where the point is. And then you can make those turns and it’s fine because you’re not going to hit yourself with your own forefinger because now your forefinger’s connected to your point. You can make those turns. And actually there’s space for your body inside the curve of the sword and you bring it and it’s lovely. You can sort of basically sit inside this cage of steel you’re making with this curved blade. But you have to be able to extend your nervous system down to the point of the weapon to be able to do that safely. And that takes a lot of practise.
MK: Yes. I mean, that was always my main concern because many of our guys also prefer really curved blades for training. And another thing, as you know, I mean, as far as in our field is concerned, unfortunately, really sharp shamshirs are made, but quite expensive. They are not made of crucible steel but still quite expensive because there is not a huge market for it. So you need to have it custom made. And then people have one already custom made for training, like a training Shamshir, and now they’re going to have one custom made for cutting. Then we have another issue again as we started again in the beginning. European swords is an established market now, because there are many practitioners and it’s the mechanics of the market. As we all know, the more demand is there, the more you can just respond to it and have a supply. But this here, we don’t have this structure yet, right?
GW: Yeah, I have a custom made longsword for cutting and again, that cost more than my car as well. I don’t care about cars, but I really care about swords.
MK: Just to have one thing, maybe for your viewers, because I also was a member of an MMA club here. And then I just say one thing. This gentleman was such a good fighter. He came to me and he said, oh, he watched me do these historical martial arts, he would like to give it a try and I say, yeah, you could, but you know what he said, well, I don’t have any money. That’s the reason I do MMA. I could hardly afford my gloves. I felt so bad because he was such a good fighter. Young guy, like twenty one, right? I mean, he’s now a very good fighter. We still have contact with each other and you know, that day when he told me that, because before he said that, you don’t need so much money for a fencing mask and this is normal things. And he said, no, he can he hardly could afford his MMA gloves. You sit and feel so bad, I cannot explain how it felt. And then you realised why did you go to this established martial arts? Because one of the reasons is also it’s not so prohibitive. It doesn’t cost that much for them, right?
GW: Yeah. And one way I found around this is when I moved to Helsinki, 2001, within three months, I found a space and I had a permanent training facility. And the deal was my students could leave their swords and masks and things in the salle, but if they ever got dusty then they got moved on to the beginners’ rack. So what happened there was students, if they took a few months off training, their sword got dusty and ended up in the beginners’ rack, so anybody else could use it. But when they came back, of course, they could just go, oh, my sword’s over there and take it and put it back on their own rack. And they never lost ownership of it. But the point is, I didn’t have any money to go buying 20 steel swords for my students because I started my school on a shoestring. But within about a year and a half, we had enough steel swords and enough masks to equip a beginners’ course of 20 students with steel swords and masks, and that meant that people who did not have the money for the weapons but did have the money to pay for training at our reduced student rate, they could train for years without actually having to shell out three, four hundred euros for a sword. So there are ways around the problem. But I totally recognise, for a lot of people, and particularly you want them to start quite young because then they have more time before they have kids and jobs and careers and everything else. They have more time to train. But they don’t have decent jobs, they don’t have any money, so they can’t afford to get the gear. But if you can get them training that young, they’re pretty skilled. And eventually they save up the money and they buy a sword or whatever. And then 10 years later, when they are employed and what have you, then they can buy better gear. But I didn’t realise when I did it, but the delightful consequences of that policy I instituted straight at the beginning when I got the permanent training space, it meant that people who couldn’t afford the weapons could still train.
MK: Yeah. Very good idea.
GW: Yeah, if it’s dusty or rusty, anyone can use it. Of course, it motivates people to come back to the salle. And most people who get into martial arts, they’re really keen and they love it and they care about the swords and everything and they understand they want people to be able to do this, and so they’re OK with their equipment being used while they’re not using it, and if they’re precious about it, like this sword is my precious, my baby, they don’t keep it in the salle anyway. They take it home and they cuddle up with it in bed or whatever. As long as the policy is completely explicit, everybody knows it’s going on, it works pretty well. So you took a break from historical martial arts?
MK: I mean the break, I didn’t really take a break because my guys were doing it, were doing it as well. I was only talking to these guys. I had a very, very demanding task, which I did in Tehran, Iran under Shihan Nazari. And then I also had fights with him. He fought with me. I mean, Shihan Nazari is a super heavyweight in Kyokushin circles.
GW: This is a podcast, so there’s no video. And by my recollection, you’re not exactly a giant.
MK: No, I’m not a giant, I used to weigh, before I started, because it was one of your questions possibly I can say I used to weigh 85 kilos. But I’m not that tall. But because of that, 85 kilos gave me tremendous strength, I don’t want to brag, but especially in wrestling and also when I do BJJ and striking, people always say, you have so much strength. But what I did, I started preparation for second Dan, I trained every day striking, wrestling and I was a member of the MMA club, trained all the time and then went and did my second Dan which in Kyokushin passing one is really the thing. I mean I had to do a three day test and then I got and fighting this, that, very physically very demanding. Then immediately I told them I’m going to do my third Dan. And then I started to do that for certain. I started my solo training because of covid, so I started to train. I have been training three to four hours a day, every day without a break, even Saturday, Sunday. So that’s why on our videos, you can see it on our YouTube channel. And again, Katas and Katas, also mostly many Japanese weapons which come from Kenjutso. So also I do this Wing Chun and all these things are grappling. I can do grappling. I can do this traditional judo where you have your belt and against a tree or railings and try to do different. But I do it, I keep doing them. And so I trained that. And I also started a diet. First I cut all sugar completely.
GW: That’s a good start.
MK: Then I cut carbs completely. So for one year I have been on a diet. I know, I know, guys, it’s not very good. I know. But I dropped from 85 kilos, in spite of training so much, I dropped to 76.
GW: Wow, that’s pretty good.
MK: Yes. But in spite of lots of training. But I have a very careful diet. It’s not that I just cut them. I have all this protein intake, I have vitamin intake, not now, but I will keep going like that but gain again 4 to 5 kilos of muscles before I go to pass my third Dan because in third Dan I need to fight against super heavyweights and I want to have five more kilos on me.
GW: Yes, you really do. How heavy is a super heavyweight?
MK: They are mostly 120, 125 kilos. What you are talking about is muscle mass. Yeah. I fought against Shihan Nazari. Shihan Nazari is two metres five.
MK: And he is one hundred twenty five muscle. You can see muscles all over the place but his speciality is he knees you so he grabs you, knees your face, that’s his speciality.
GW: And even with the extra five kilos you are giving away fifty percent of your weight, they have a 50 percent weight advantage on you. That’s outrageous.
MK: And in contrast to MMA, at least you can hope to bring him down to rest on the ground, in Kyokushin, there is bareknuckle, there is no throws allowed. But for those guys who think you can take Shihan to a MMA match, he’s a black belt in judo as well. So far for taking the guy down. And he’s so super fast. Another technique he does, which really surprised me in fighting against him, his speciality’s axe kick and hammer kick.
GW: Oh God, that’s a horrible kick.
MK: And you know how he does that? He gets height and basically he can kick you down into the ground. Another thing for me was meditation because I know some people don’t like it, it is a very traditional Japanese tradition. It’s very hierarchical. But I enjoy it. Some people don’t like it. I enjoy it because it’s very disciplined, I mean, for example, it is very hierarchical, very disciplined. You just train, you don’t argue and the people respect you, and there is an established body. That’s what I wanted to say in the beginning if I do my second black belt it’s worldwide. There are ten million members of Kyokushin. In Japan…
GW: Ten million?
MK: Yeah, 10 million.
GW: That’s a big school.
MK: Yeah, OK, so you see what we are talking about, what dimensions we are talking about, and these are the dimensions we are talking about, about established as I wanted to say in the beginning. And I use this very unhappy word. That’s what I wanted to say. Established in a sense that, OK, they have been around. But then again and to me what I did with the with the Japanese martial arts or with Kyokushin, which I also had it in wrestling, but wrestling in Iran, not wrestling here, because I also practise MMA and wrestling here. Wrestling in Iran is very traditional. Although they practise Olympic wrestling it is very hierarchical, very traditional, because wrestling for them is a sacred art, a noble art. Wrestlers in Iran, as I kept saying, the whole society. I just give you an example. One of our wrestlers was wrestling a couple of years ago and he was not very nice and he was against it. I think he was American wrestler when Americans were visiting us. And he was not very nice. He was just acting not very nice. And then the commentator said, we really hope he will lose this match because he doesn’t deserve to be called a wrestler. We are now from now for the American, hopefully he is going to win, you see, because a wrestler needs to show moral qualities. This is in wrestlers in Iran, Olympic wrestlers, they come also mostly from traditional wrestling arts. They have to fulfil this idea of javiinmardi. Really, you cannot just try to win at all costs.
GW: What was that word?
MK: javiinmardi is like chivalry, like Persian Bushido, and this is still practised. Again, it’s not only because of historical martial arts. Also when I came here in Germany and I was in a number of wrestling clubs and sometimes I didn’t like them because they completely lacked this Persian Iranian mentality. And I just said, these guys are only wrestling on the mat. They don’t have any honour, I cannot explain it.
GW: I can give you an example. OK, one time we were doing this tournament at the end of a long seminar at my school and it was like a full day tournament and Fiore’s weapons. But you could choose wrestling, dagger, sword, spear poleaxe. And you didn’t have to have the same weapon as your opponent. The fighters who were going to fight agreed what weapons they would fight with and the idea was you could choose anything and one guy chose dagger when his opponent had a poleaxe, because he was like, I got to see if I can do this, OK? And at the end, there were two prizes. The second prize went to the person who won the most fights, classic tournament victory. The first prize went to the person who, we took a vote of all the competitors and all of the spectators, and whoever got elected as the person who best represented the spirit of the art. That was first prize, second prize, you just win the most fights and both of those people got respect and it was two different people and it could have been the same person. If you just want to win the fight, you should take the poleaxe against the dagger. But if you want to actually challenge yourself and gain renown, as is a thoroughly medieval knightly attitude you take the dagger against the poleaxe because you know what, I’m going to give it a go. In that actual match, the guy with the dagger actually took out the guy with the poleaxe. Nobody was expecting that. But it happened. I think it comes down to the ethos of the martial arts, which is we know that what we do in the salle is not the fundamental truth of actual combat because no one’s trying to kill each other. But what we have to train is the attitude that will get us prepared for the actual test. Whereas if you have a sport where really what you’re trying to do is to win tournaments and competitions, then the system by which you are evaluated is completely different. Did you win the tournament or not? That’s what actually matters. When we started, it was like this to us both, martial arts is really one thing and there’s lots of dialects of martial arts, but they’re all dialects of a common language.
MK: Yeah, absolutely. And you asked me why I went back because, I just found meditation in doing Kyokushin katas, which I trained in nature, I trained when it was hailing, raining, minus 12 Celsius on the frozen lake. And do these katas, it wasn’t fighting. It’s just meditation for me to go back there. And it’s just I found, OK, during this covid time I found a new dimension of practising katas every day. I know it sounds very strange. In the nature I always have almost the same thing, be it very cold, very hot, always wearing the same thing, almost. And training all these katas and then becoming one with nature, feeling good about it. On ice I did the katas and felt different, in water. I did it then on grass and every surface felt differently. Then all of a sudden I realised one thing, it is so beautiful. It’s like a meditation for me, Guy, I cannot explain to you, I want to fight. But I mean, it’s like ego driven you know, who cares? And I was away from this mentality. I was just myself, my katas and the nature and the birds all around me because of that lake. And that’s it. And it’s something which I could have never, ever found out, before covid. And they said, oh, Manouchehr, covid is over. I think we talked about it as well. And I had so many invitations after covid, but I don’t know if I want to go to events and teach. What’s wrong with you? I was just swimming in the nature.
GW: I absolutely get it. We don’t get snow very often here, but the last time we had proper snow. I stripped down to my shorts and went outside and I did longsword forms in the snowstorm. And I was not there for very long. I’m not stupid. I’m not getting frostbite or dying of exposure or anything. But, you know, five, 10 minutes of swinging a sword around with no clothes on in a snowstorm. There is video because my wife came out to video and I am open to bribery about putting it on the internet. Actually, I remember a long time ago. It must be about 1999 my friend Stevie Fick, who teaches historical martial arts in California. I was staying in Finland and he came over to Finland to visit with his wife and we went off to the summer cottage and it was June in Finland, so beautiful long, light evenings. And we’d go swimming in the lake and come out and do sword forms on the rocks. It was just magic, it is absolutely magic and I’m glad to hear you say what you say about forms, because one of the things I do whenever I recreate historical martial arts from the sources is, if the source itself doesn’t have forms or katas, I create them. Because I don’t see how you can train properly without them.
MK: You know, that’s what I did in Razmafzar. Put techniques together in forms, or in katas. If I may, away from Razmafzar because as you many guys know, as every Kyokushin practitioner does lots of boxing and Muay Thai. You have to. Let’s say you don’t like katas, OK? You go into boxing. Let’s talk about when I was in the United States, I was in boxing team, and wrestling. So when you do boxing, OK, holding, jab to the face. The first boxing combination you learn, jab, hook with the left, jab and then cross. That’s the first.
GW: It’s a form. A miniature form.
MK: Then you practice it all the time. Then they correct you. The second, jab to the head. Americans know that, guys boxing in America. Jab then you go down, jab to the belly, then you cross second, then another. And you know, in American boxing, which is not only American, but because I learnt it there. So I think Germany is the same. But the Americans are very systematic about this, is you learn up to a hundred forms of different combinations. And if this is not kata what is it?
GW: Of course it’s bloody kata.
MK: Thank you very much. Kyokushin guys come, I don’t want to do these 39 katas. Then they go in the combat training. They say you grab him, you knee him, you go back kick, then you punch here and do it all the time. Is this no kata? No this is not kata. How? Muay Thai is the same. You know when I trained with all these Muay Thai guys, again they’re just again combinations, katas. The only difference is longer katas or shorter katas. That’s it. Show me one martial art without katas. Even wrestling. Put the hands up, put your head down. Grab him here, put him in the position, then you can pick him up. So what is this? This is kata. Thank you very much.
GW: Of course it is. In Japanese swordsmanship, kata usually more commonly refers to a pair drill that has that set form and then you have variations on it. When I’m teaching one of our forms, our forms tend to be a series of techniques strung together. It’s not a fight. It’s a whole series of different techniques strung together so that you have a kind of a memory palace to store all this material. And so we do this is the application, now we do it alone in the form. Then here is the next application and then we do it alone in the form. We build it our application by application. So everybody knows, OK, this step is so you can get to this angle to hit them in the face, or this step is because our school is only this big. And if we don’t put a turn in here, you’re going to run into the wall. So some steps are just to keep the form a certain size, some for developing attributes like, OK, we might have a sword flourish, where the sword does four different things. And that’s not supposed to be a series of actions, that is a handling drill to teach you how to manipulate the weapon. But so long as the student understands what the purpose of each of these actions is, it is useful practise. And then once you’ve got it, you have like a zip file for the whole system in your head.
MK: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And then in times like this, when we have what we are having at the moment, you can train on your own.
GW: Yeah, well, here’s the thing. I have always trained on my own, to the point that in 2019, I created these online courses, and in 2019, I put together an online course to teach people how to train on their own. And then literally six months later, we’re all in lockdown. It’s like I told you people, you need to know how to train on your own! I just finished writing a book on solo training, to teach people who don’t really understand what it’s about, how to do it and how I visualise and how it fits in with training as a whole. So I’ll be delighted to send you like an early copy of it if you want to have a look.
MK: Absolutely. I would love to.
GW: OK, now I see we’re running close to time. Are you pushed for time? You don’t have 17 more articles to write? There are a couple of questions that I tend to ask most of my guests, and the first I would hesitate to ask you, because you seem to have done an awful lot, but what is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
MK: I started to learn long distance swimming under two coaches and at the same time I started to learn diving. Then I went up and passed my open water diving licence. Because my wife says, because she was my diving buddy, why do we do all these things? But we did that. Then I said, OK, we need to be ice divers.
GW: Oh God.
MK: Which my wife rejected.
GW: I’m with your wife on that one.
MK: Yes. I always wanted it, but you need a buddy to prepare for the test because this is something I always wanted to do. I know it sounds very strange. I wanted to get a licence in ice diving. Also another thing I wanted to have a licence on and I never finished it – cave diving. But then I realised cave diving is even more dangerous than ice diving. Because you can get stuck, right?
GW: Then that’s it. It’s over.
MK: Yeah, that’s right. And then many people ask me, why do you want to do stuff like that? I mean, I don’t know. I just think it’s real. These are these two things I always wanted to do. And yeah, these are these two things and there are more there are many I want to do.
GW: Ice diving and cave diving. OK, well, one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life was having a flying lesson in a light aircraft. It was just absolutely stunning. I was high for two days afterwards. It was absolutely. And it was just incredible. And I would really, really love to just happen to find fifteen thousand pounds under a cushion somewhere so I could spend it on getting my private pilot’s licence because that that sense of being in an alien environment. We are earthbound people, right? We’re not fish and we’re not birds. I’ve done scuba diving once and it was it had a similar kind of oh, my God, this is amazing feeling. But I would take the air over the water, but I totally get it. I guess the flying equivalent of ice diving is probably aerobatics. Oh, dear God, I would love to fly an aeroplane doing aerobatics. So I tell you what, when you get stuck under the ice, I’ll come in on my sea plane and break you out. OK, and my last question is, somebody gives you a million pounds or dollars or choose the currency you like, to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?
MK: It’s really a difficult question, I have been thinking about it because, what we need in historical martial arts, I think at the moment, and your approach Guy, I really love it. That you call it historical martial arts, this is the best approach to call it. Not from this region, from that region, which is really lovely. Absolutely the best choice to make, really. I think the first thing we need to have is just to have a research centre. Right now, for example, I personally can talk about our field. We have many, many different manuals, not only on fighting, on sword analyses, different types, on archery and many things about how things were made. But you need for these type of things, budget and money. And then another thing maybe we could have like a body. But, you know, if you make an organising body of things, then you start to question the structure and who is going to be the president, right?
GW: Yeah, it tends to calcify and it creates political problems straight away.
MK: Organisations are human things and traditional martial arts are not free from that. We all know these games. But I think, if I could, I would spend it on research. Set up research groups like we do at the university. Our field is no different. I also work and do research for many academic journals in historical martial arts or the analysis weapon analysis. But we all do it with our own money and with our own time. And you know how hard it is. For example, just to give an example, we have a hundred thousand manuscripts in Persian alone which need to be translated and worked on. And very often people misidentify manuscripts. I was talking to a researcher, this person is talking about court rules. And it goes like fifty pages about the rules in the court of one king. Then all of a sudden, one chapter is dedicated in how to conquer fortifications. And he said, what? What is the relationship between court rules and conquering fortifications? But the problem what I’m saying is this. People in museums, they have in Persian, it is a language where people wrote hundreds, thousands, millions of manuscripts and then these court rules, who’s interested in court rules? No one. And there are so many of them. But then when you find it. But in cataloguing this, they go maybe 10 pages, 20 pages, they don’t see that. So what we need, at least I can talk about Persian. Same as in Japanese. I know that that my colleagues who were Japanese, they told me, so let’s stick to Persian. So we need different people, different students assigned to go through them to try to find out, OK, maybe it’s not what we had thought. For example, one more thing is about cooking. We had a recipe book and one part talks about fighting and shooting with a bow. It is a cookbook!
GW: But this is how is it in a lot of European manuscripts as well. You’re a rich person and you want a book and you want the book to have all the stuff you’re interested in. And so there’s a bit of sword fighting, there’s a bit of making fireworks and there’s a bit of magic spells and there’s a bit on animal husbandry and there’s a bit on how to look after your horse because that’s what you like. And so a lot of our manuscript sources of historical martial arts are bundled in with other things that we have. Why would you put those together? But then all I have to do is look at my own bookshelves. And if I imagine that any four or five of those books will be put together into one volume. That’s basically what we’re looking at. It’s yes, it’s just that people didn’t have that many books and so they would have them bound into reasonable sizes. Why would you why would you keep them separate? They’re all mine.
MK: So I would have invested in all cultures across our planet. But in research. Not in an organising body. I think I explained to you why. Because from experience, I know the problems there. But research, in my opinion, is a beautiful thing. And I know in every culture and I’m sure I mean, European is not my field, but I’m sure European’s the same. In every culture, there are still things to be discovered. I am one hundred percent sure of that, in Chinese, in Japanese, European, African name in Persian, Ottoman. Right now, currently we are working with colleagues from Turkish universities and they have found many manuscripts, Ottoman manuscripts, which they have never thought they even existed. So things like that. And we need a budget. We need money for this type of research. And just to make one example, at the end, for example, business administration, law or natural sciences, I’m going to stick to Business Administration. We have lots of budget because we are company oriented. You see the difference.
GW: Honestly, in 50 years time, no one is going to care about Business Administration in the 2020s. But in 50 years time, we will still be reading 14th century Persian manuscripts on archery.
MK: Exactly. You know, that’s why my colleagues always say, why do you put 95 percent of your research on this stuff? Exactly what you said, right? I said, guys, no one cares what you write here now, that’s the reason I concentrate on those areas. Exactly what you said, yeah, absolutely. Because they’re always relevant. They will remain so. They’re always beautiful. I fully agree. And that’s what for that. But you know what? I cannot run to a company, to a law firm or to an investment company, give us money, because we want to do research on Persian manuals. And what do you think? What are we going to say?
GW: My solution to this has been, you know, I have students and my students basically pay me to teach them how to fence with swords. But that money basically frees up my time to do the research. So my students are my grant giving body. But yeah, if some big company would like to go, oh Guy, here’s a large chunk of money so you can go off and just do research, that would be great. Yeah, that would be really nice because, you know, big companies tend to have an awful lot more money than, you know, a few hundred sword enthusiasts going, Guy’s my teacher I’ll pay him something.
MK: You gave me something like one million pounds or dollars.
GW: Yeah. Which is a good start. I mean some people have come up with plans that really require 100 or 200 million dollars, like we are going to build this amazing centre. But the idea really always is, how do we find out what is really there in the sources and make it available so that interested people can find it? That’s the trick. Excellent. Well, Manouchehr it’s been an absolute delight talking to you, as always, thank you. Nice to see you again. Thanks for coming.
MK: Thank you. Thank you very much.