Monday, June 3, 2013

Interview with Tony Wolf

Interview with Tony Wolf
Mr. Wolf in a defensive cane pose
For this installment of our interview series, we have a bit of a coup.  We have an interview with Tony Wolf, one of the major forces involved in the reintroduction of Bartitsu, a lost mixed martial art of Victorian England.  For more information see the last article.  Tony Wolf has to his credit the editing of two compendiums of Bartitsu as well as co-directing and co-producing the documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes.   He has worked as a movie fight choreographer, and has the unusual title of “Cultural Fighting Styles Designer” for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

                                Jaredd Wilson: Thank you for your time in doing this interview. First off could you tell us what  your martial arts background is?  
                Tony Wolf: I started out training in WTF Tae Kwon Do in my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand around 1978.  I spent roughly the next ten years deeply immersed in TKD and various other styles - capoeira, Filipino stick and knife, freestyle wrestling, etc. and ended up with a twin career teaching scenario-based "padded attacker" self defense and moonlighting as a professional wrestler.  The pro-wrestling led to movie and TV stuntwork and fight choreography, and thus a strong interest in historical European martial arts - fencing with two-handed swords and so-on.  That was my main focus for about another decade, until I switched historical gears and dedicated myself to reviving Bartitsu.

JW:         Could you explain what bartitsu is?
Bartitsu Cane Wrist Strike
                TW:         Bartitsu is essentially a cross-training method developed by a fellow named E.W. Barton-Wright, who was among the very first Europeans to train in jujitsu in Japan.  He returned to London in the year 1898 and started promoting what he called the "New Art of Self Defence" - the name "Bartitsu" was a portmanteau of his own surname and "jujitsu".  Barton-Wright also defined it as meaning "self defence in every form".  It was basically a combination of koryu jujitsu, some judo, elements of European wrestling styles, the old "fisticuffs" style of boxing, kicking and a specialized system of fighting with a gentleman's walking cane or lady's parasol, which were very fashionable accessories at the time.

Barton-Wright established a club called the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in London's Shaftesbury Avenue and he brought in instructors from Japan and Switzerland to teach the various component styles of Bartitsu.  The Club eventually attracted an interesting clientele of aristocrats, soldiers, athletes and actors.  Barton-Wright gave interviews and lectures, wrote magazine articles explaining some of the theory and techniques, etc.  He also set up challenge contests in which the Bartitsu Club instructors took on wrestlers from other styles. Basically Bartitsu was this very novel idea that was, as it turned out, at least 70 years ahead of its time, but he was riding high for a few years right at the turn of the 20th century.

Then in early 1902, for reasons we still don't fully understand, the Club suddenly closed down.  The instructors dispersed and Barton-Wright seems to have abandoned self defense instruction in favor of his other great interest, which was physical therapy.  Eventually Bartitsu itself was almost forgotten, except for a cryptic reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Empty House", which explained that Holmes had used Bartitsu (misspelled as "baritsu") to defeat his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, in their fight at the Reichenbach waterfall.

JW:          How did you become associated with bartitsu?

TW:        I'd been intrigued by Bartitsu since I was a kid, but in those days it was very difficult to learn anything about it.  I'd come across a random reference in a book or a martial arts magazine once every couple of years, and that was about it.  Then, of course, the Internet happened.  In the very early 2000s I became one of the sub-editors of an online academic journal called the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences, and we received photocopies of some of Barton-Wright's original articles which had been discovered in the British Library by the late judo historian, Dickie Bowen.  To those of us who had been wondering about Bartitsu for decades, it was like finding buried treasure.  EJMAS started to get Barton-Wright's material online, and within a few years we had formed the Bartitsu Society, originally just to co-ordinate research into Barton-Wright's art.  By about 2005, interest started to grow in actually reviving it.

Mr. Barton in "Gi" (love the socks)
JW:          You said that he studied as a Jujutsu in Japan, is there any indication of which school of Jujutsu Mr. Barton was privy to?
TW:         Yes, he trained at the Shinden Fudo Ryu dojo of sensei Terajima Kuniichiro in Kobe for about three years, and also said that he had taken some lessons from Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan judo.

JW:           Right now is there any kind of structure to Bartitsu, do you have a rank or title in the system?  Is there an agreed upon system, style, or curriculum?
TW:         As far as we know, there were no ranks in Barton-Wright's original art.  We also found that we were accomplishing everything we wanted and needed to by simply co-operating as colleagues, so after a while we just didn't see any point in setting up a formal hierarchy.

On that basis, the Bartitsu Society doesn't legislate anything; there are no dues to pay and no formal structure.  People tend to decide their own "stations" on the basis of their enthusiasm and contributions.  Likewise, individual Bartitsu clubs and study groups can devise their own grading systems or choose not to, as they wish.  There is also a lot of diversity in terms of aims and goals.  Some people concentrate on street practical self defense, some on historical recreation, etc.

There is a consensus that, in order for it to make sense for a revivalist approach to describe itself as Bartitsu, it should include Barton-Wright's original material, which we think of the Bartitsu canon.  The canon is highly detailed in some areas, but we only have clues and hints about others.  Thus, in order to bring the art back to life, we must extrapolate, also drawing significantly from the sources produced by Barton-Wright's assistant instructors and their students, dating up into the early 1920s.  We think of that process as "neo-Bartitsu", and it allows for a good deal of individual interpretation.  There's an element of deliberate anachronism in there, in that without that focus on that particular time and place, neo-Bartitsu basically turns into Dog Brothers-style sparring, Jeet Kune Do, MMA, etc.

JW:          What in particular, piqued your interest in Bartitsu?  Especially since you had been studying other Asian martial arts?  Was it the fact that it was European, the fact that is was an extinct system that could be resurrected, or something else?
TW:         Basically, we consider Bartitsu to have been a fascinating experiment in martial arts cross-training that was abandoned as a work in progress when Barton-Wright's Club closed its doors in 1902.  The purpose of the revival is to continue that experiment and try to figure out where it might have gone if that Club had continued to thrive for, say, another ten years.  That double curiosity about the history and what Bartitsu might have become is my own main motivation for wanting to revive the art.

JW:          In your view as a practitioner of Bartitsu, how does it differ from Asian martial arts that people may be more familiar?
TW:         Asian martial arts are so diverse in themselves that it's difficult to draw meaningful technical distinctions.  The way I teach Bartitsu, though, might be considered unusual in that I place a very heavy emphasis on experimentation and improvisation.  For example, we will very frequently perform the canonical stick fighting set-plays or jiujitsu kata exactly as Barton-Wright recorded them, but then use them as conceptual "springboards" for neo-Bartitsu experiments.  A central exercise in my own Bartitsu classes is to allow the "opponent" to spontaneously defeat the "defender's" pre-arranged responses, forcing the defender to improvise solutions.  This type of pressure testing drill also provides a useful bridge between the formal set-plays and free sparring.

JW:          One of the first things someone sees when they look up Bartitsu on the internet is that it was, as you mentioned previously, the "Martial Art" of Sherlock Holmes.  Being that there were two blockbuster movies on Mr. Holmes, and he was shown doing martial arts is what was shown representative of Bartitsu, or was it relying more on Mr. Downey's own martial arts background?
TW:         The "Sherlock Holmes" fight choreographer (Richard Ryan) is an old colleague of mine and we sent him copies of both volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium during pre-production of the first movie.  As a professional fight choreographer myself, I knew that whereas verbatim historical accuracy isn't a high priority unless you're shooting a documentary, the more sources of inspiration a production team has, the better. 

There are strong technical similarities between Mr. Downey's Wing Chun and the style of boxing that was dominant in Europe during the late 19th century, and the grappling of Brazilian jiujitsu is also very similar to the eclectic "British jiujitsu" that was introduced at the Bartitsu Club.  Combined with walking stick fighting (as seen in the "Game of Shadows" movie), the overall effect is an excellent cinematic representation of Holmes's martial arts.  The impact on the Bartitsu revival has been entirely positive, in that millions of people now positively associate martial arts with late-Victorian London.  We used to joke about Bartitsu becoming cool on the assumption that it would never actually happen ...

JW:          If someone was interested in learning more about Bartitsu or studying it themselves, what would be your suggestion?
TW:       The Wikipedia page ( ) is maintained by members of the Bartitsu Society and 
 is a very accurate source for the basic history.  The Bartitsu Society website
( ) is our default repository for news, articles etc. and is basically a one-stop shop for Bartitsu online.  The venerable Bartitsu Forum email list ( ) is the best way to communicate with other enthusiasts.

I also recommend the two volumes of the "Bartitsu Compendium" (available from Amazon or and the documentary "Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes" ( ).

The Bartitsu Society encourages people to set up their own Bartitsu study groups and there are a lot of hints and tips in that direction available in this article - .

The Bartitsu Club of Chicago, which is my school, has a website at .

JW:          What have you learned from re-discovering Bartitsu?
TW:        I'd say that my interest in Bartitsu has taught me a great deal in three major areas.

First, I've learned a lot about the history of the Western world during the period circa 1900, which has been very interesting in that so much of the "modern" world was essentially invented during that time.

Second, the process of the revival has been hugely instructive re. how ideas or memes are spread and developed via the Internet and other media.  12 years ago only a handful of people had ever heard of Bartitsu, let alone took any real interest in it, whereas today it actually has some pop-culture currency.

Third, it's reinforced that's it's possible to create a successful "system" without imposing a formal structure or a top-down hierarchy.  The Bartitsu revival is deliberately an open-source phenomenon.

JW:          Does Bartitsu have a deeper meaning or philosophy associated with it?
TW:       Barton-Wright never recorded anything that could be described as a philosophy of Bartitsu, but there are certain ideas that are inherent to it, significantly a kind of open-mindedness and willingness to experiment.  He was very much the Bruce Lee of his time and place, and we sometimes describe Bartitsu as "Edwardian Jeet Kune Do".

JW:          Who was the most impressive martial artist you ever trained with and why?
TW:         It's a tie between Dan Inosanto, who made the martial arts I'd been doing up to that point look about as sophisticated as thumb wrestling, and Brad Waller, a combat biomechanics genius and the first man I ever met who had fully mastered a "revived" historical martial art.

JW:          What kind of difficulties have you encountered in re-establishing a "dead" martial art? 
TW:         Barton-Wright was very clear in his written explanations of the various formal kata and set-plays - I think his engineering background helped - and he had the advantage of photographic technology to record them as well.  There will always be minor differences in interpretation, but in essence the "canon" is quite easy to recreate for people with solid cross-training backgrounds. 

The greatest challenge at the technical level has been to "fill in the blanks", as is required in neo-Bartitsu.  For example, we know quite a lot about the jujitsu and stick fighting aspect of the Bartitsu curriculum, but not much about the "modifications" he made to boxing, apart from some somewhat cryptic hints.  Likewise, there are implications to the cross-training process that he never directly recorded; for example, what to do if an opponent seizes your walking stick.  My own approach to solving those puzzles is to pressure-test them via sparring drills and so-on, attempting to keep within the spirit and detail of what we know about the rest of his curriculum.  Most important, though, is the attitude that we are picking up where he left off; continuing his experiments, rather than trying to (re)create a definitive version of the art.  That process is designed to be open-ended and on-going.

JW:          Have there been any techniques that you couldn't figure out from the descriptions or have you encountered any resistance from other martial artist, or martial arts purists?
TW:         There has only been very minor "resistance", almost always in the form of online commentary by casual 
observers of the revival process who make inaccurate assumptions about our goals.  I understand the objections; from the traditionalist standpoint, it's highly unorthodox to practice a martial art that doesn't have a direct teacher-student lineage, etc.  I suppose it comes down to subjective opinions on what constitutes an acceptable degree of "accuracy", "legitimacy", etc.  I would actually have anticipated more criticism along those lines, but I take the fact that it hasn't happened much as a tribute to our success at explaining what we're doing and why we're doing it.

JW:          What would be your long term goals for bartitsu?
TW:         I'd like to think that it will continue on its present course, which seems to be as an open-source, niche alternative for creative and somewhat eccentric martial artists.

There are still a number of historical mysteries about Bartitsu that I hope will be resolved one day.

Originally Posted on

No comments:

Post a Comment