The Return of the “Alive” Blade! – Karl Tanswell’s S.T.A.B. Seminar

I look back on 5th November 2006 and find myself fighting a very “Alive” internal battle to preserve my journalistic integrity and not to insert a firework metaphor to describe the central character of this seminar report. For those who are not acquainted with Matt Thornton’s Straight Blast Gym buzzwords, “Aliveness” is a term used to describe the association’s training model, which is ingrained in the principles of energy, timing and motion. It is an uncompromising and outspoken attitude to martial arts that has seen Matt Thornton and his associates ruffle the silk suits, hakamas, doboks and gis of many a traditional martial arts follower. And there is none more uncompromisingly loyal and outspoken about Aliveness than the UK’s SBG representative and full instructor, Karl Tanswell.

At this is what I was prepared for as I entered John Skillen’s full-time gym and martial arts centre in Loughborough. A self-confessed sufferer of “Martial arts TouretteS”, Karl Tanswell has even had some martial arts instructors put in a demand that he will not be in attendance when they give a demonstration or seminar. Judging by some of the comments I had heard from my peers, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Mr. Tanswell celebrating our four hundred and one year anniversary of the foiled gunpowder plot by cremating a gi-adorned martial arts traditionalist on a bonfire!

There is little doubt that since the inauguration of the British Combat Association in the UK and the birth of Ultimate Fighting/Mixed Martial Arts on the global stage, the martial arts arguments over which style is best reached a different level. The Aliveness paradigm has provided a philosophy for those who rate the grappling and full contact sports as the most truthful and realistic ways to train martial arts. Indeed, there are frequent arguments put across by some members of the RBSD community and some of the traditional martial arts world regarding the flaws of such training method for self-defence. One such argument seemed to be that of weapons defence. True, there were and always have been full contact weapon sports, which I guess would tick all the boxes of the SBG criteria, but with the odd exception, such as the low armour approach of the Dog Brothers, that was little evidence of integration into the unarmed combat field that dominated combat sports. How does an SBG practitioner address the ever-more-likely assault by a bladed weapon that today’s civilian is likely to encounter. After a near-death experience Karl Tanswell came up with an answer: S.T.A.B. (Survival Tactics Against Blade).   

“I hate this programme” Karl Tanswell confesses to the gathered seminar attendees. Not the most promising examples of self-promotion, I thought. “But, he continues, I understand what John’s [Skillen] intentions are and I have agreed to do it on this basis”. So what was John Skillen’s intention? Judging by the impressive line-up of instructors John had already booked prior to Karl’s seminar the intention appears to be quite clear. His full-time centre is set to become the main place for martial arts students countrywide to be able to experience training in no-nonsense, tested and proven methods of self-protection by the best in the UK industry.

This guy received seven deep stabs to his body and nearly died from the experience, John related to me as we stood outside his gym at the seminar’s conclusion. Such an episode provided Karl with the initiative to fully research and test different methods of controlling and disarming an attacker armed with a blade. Obsessively he pressure-tested handling fully resistant attackers until he came up with a system that was robust and simple enough that he could feel confident to teach it to other people. Added to this were Karl’s regular experiences working doors of Manchester’s centre for Acid House mayhem in the 1980s, the Hacienda. Knives were often used when violence kicked off and Karl recalled to the seminar attendees the varied methods the blades were often concealed upon entry to the club.

So, that’s the importance, mission and real-life experience Karl brought to the programme. However, what was the reason for his reluctance to teach this particular method? Well, this probably could be put down to his dislike of the glorification of violence often associated with weapons programmes. Despite training students for what he calls “The world’s toughest sport”, Mixed Martial Arts, Karl told me that he felt that the “Combat boxer shorts wearing” and “M16 replica” collecting macho side of the RBSD world were perhaps some of the worst examples today of what was wrong with the self-defence community. He would later cover this problem and explain its context on his ABC of Self-Defence at the end of the seminar. 

So, what does the S.T.A.B. programme consist of? Well, first of all Karl explained the SBG philosophy behind his training method. His tactics would be trained using the “Three Is Formula”, namely Introduction, Isolation and Integration. For more information on this, please see Matt Thornton’s regular column in this publication.

In Karl’s own words, taken from his website, “[The S.T.A.B. Programme] consists of only three positions and three things to consider in each position. There has been much said on the subject of avoiding a knife attack. Where possible, avoidance or escape are clearly the best options. STAB concentrates on what to do if these lines of defence fail. It works at close range and takes into account the possibility that a person may already have been stabbed before realising they are in a knife fight. The basis for the STAB program comes from Greco-Roman wrestling clinch work. This has been proved consistently to be an excellent method for controlling someone in close. In creating STAB, Karl has taken elements from Greco and modified them appropriately to take account of the blade. The result is a program which is simple to learn and, most importantly, can be drilled against an alive, resisting opponent”.

Okay, the Greco-Roman stuff is novel, but I am always wary about the escape and avoidance talk given. It is the most important fundamental principle of self-protection, heightened further when the risks are elevated, such as when you are discussing unarmed defence against a lethal weapon. However, it is all-too-often given lip service at self-defence seminars without any real application. Much like the issue of pre-emption, this area is often delivered as a welded on disclaimer at most courses and seminars before the class gets down to the same old drills that often consist of the idealistic block and counter formula or, more often than not, some type of entry to a convoluted wrist-lock. I was happy to see that this was not the case with the S.T.A.B. programme.

The first drill applied the single commonsense rule of survival that runs throughout the programme: namely running away from a knifeman. As soon as that blade appears your primary objective is to escape. Once a blade is shown you run. Likewise, Karl explained, once you have controlled or neutralized the threat of a blade, you make your escape immediately. The S.T.A.B. programme uses three methods, which all flow onto each other. These all follow wrestling holds and principles. The first and most important is the two-on-one. Then there is the single under-hook. Finally there is the back position. Each of these positions has its natural flaws. These flaws were also discovered through encouraging the students to experiment via the Three Is of the SBG model. It was at the Isolation stage, where students discovered for themselves possible problems they could face in a real-life situation and, with Karl’s guidance, came up with the solution. By the Integration stage all students were pressure-testing all three movements against resisting partners and naturally flowed from each position. We then looked at the disarming options, which mainly consisted of knees, head-butts and a standing straight arm-bar from the two-on-one position.

By the end of the seminar Karl faced a group of sweaty and tired students who he then reacquainted with the mindset of self-protection. For Karl, this is taught using the Self-Defence ABC. This is an acronym for Awareness, Board and Contact. Although the importance of awareness was made clear, this instructor also makes the distinction between and awareness and paranoia. For more on making this important distinction I encourage you to read the excellent “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker. The “Board” part is Karl’s description for the stage when pre-fight becomes in-fight. This is the moment when you make your decision and use a pro-active strategy before your assailant does. Finally contact speaks for itself – this is where the actual fight occurs. According to Karl all three to be understood and drilled well for a realistic appreciation of self-defence.

However, Karl’s attitude towards the whole self-defence issue is quite holistic and commonsensical. He told those his audience that “If you are really interested in self-defence then get your cholesterol checked, put your seat-belt on when you are in a car and do your best to live a safe and happy life”. Putting it quite simply, there are things in this life far more likely to kill you than another human being

John Skillen is promoting regular self-defence seminars with some of the country’s leading experts in the field at his full-time gym in Loughborough.  Contact John for details on 07719924311 or Email: Website:

Karl Tanswell teaches Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts at his full-time Straight Blast Gym in Manchester. Tel: 07966 577306 or Email:

Enhanced by Zemanta