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Today I am talking with the one and only James A. Keating. Internationally recognized as an authority on edged combat, James is a legend among enthusiasts of self defense, knives and everything in between.
Although this interview has been the product of a couple months of conversation, I knew from our very first exchange of emails that I had genuinely funny and interesting person on the other end of the line. Jim’s zaniness and warmth is perhaps unexpected from someone who could disarm you with the twitch of an eyebrow, but I immediately noticed that he is not only driven by a great passion for martial arts but also by a very human desire to share and connect… definitely a guy I want to have a beer with one day (which is perhaps my highest form of compliment 😉 ).
Now let me be the first to say that I am not a martial artist – not at all. So me talking with Jim about knife fighting technique would be like a child talking to Einstein about the theory of relativity. That’s why I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I was born with a sword in my hand. Instead, I decided to get another side of his story, and ask about his background, his history and philosophy… where he is from and where he is going.
I hope fans of James will find this interesting, and perhaps even a little refreshing. Either way, it is with the utmost honor and respect that I welcome James A. Keating to BladeReviews.com.
Welcome to BladeReviews, James! Lets start at the beginning. What got you into martial arts?
Well Dan, it was my mother who first introduced me to the martial arts, yoga and calligraphy. She encouraged me to pursue martial arts over the traditional sports of the time. This was around 1965, so martial arts had not gone mainstream yet. Once I began with the martial arts, it clicked with me and I intuitively knew that “this was for me”. It began with Judo, moved to Karate, matured into Kenpo, slid slowly into fencing, grew into Aiki-Jitsu, evolved into JKD and Kali, blossomed into TaiChi and Gung Fu. It truly became a life-long pursuit for me and its still on-going to this very day!
So at what point did you begin training with knives?
My father being a knifemaker always had cutlery about. Either his own designs or repairing the cutlery of friends seemed to always keep blades coming in and out of the small shop he worked out of. As a fighting man he was coming from the WWII generation mindset where knives were a part of the combat equation. Kabar knives, bolo knives, throwing knives were not uncommon items for me to play about with as a child. My father taught us kids to throw knives well. He also instructed us in the basics of knife combat. It was the real thing, simple and effective. Even to this day, I still have the first throwing knife he ever gave me. For my 19th birthday my Dad made me a Bowie Knife. I still possess it today in my collection. I am still proud of the gift though he’s been gone since ’94.
I took up formal training in blade with Fencing. Fencing is the ultimate in my book. Kali came into being for me around 1982 and I fell in love with it, I have practiced Kali (FMA) with great passion ever since that time. Silat has also provided fertile ground to learn skills from, I am grateful for the knowledge I have gleaned from Silat as well!
When did you start instructing others in self defense?
I began teaching as an assistant instructor in 1966 or ’67. I taught all kinds of classes for various teachers. They could see my seriousness and employed it to their benefit. It also helped me understand how it all came together and provided me ample growth for the time when I’d open my own studio. Nothing beats “experience” and I was grateful for the chance to help and learn more.
It was in 1972 when I opened my own (first) studio with my partner Randy Wanamaker. I have had an ongoing studio of some type ever since that time. My studio is my laboratory, my studio is a “gentleman’s club” more so than it is a dojo. It is a rich environment for the pursuance of combative abilities, a museum of mysteries waiting for those interested enough to come within and learn. Together we can discover the inner rewards that come from walking this ancient path of steel and stride forth boldly into the future secure in our capabilities as men and warriors.
Sounds like my kind of place! Running a dojo like that has to be both a fun and rewarding experience. At what point did you found Comtech?
Comtech (Combat Technologies Inc) came into being in 1989. It blossomed in 92 into the way I had envisioned it originally. Like any business it took time to get the public aware of what I offered and who I was.
Comtech IS a business that offers tactical training and solutions to real world problems. Many folks believe Comtech to be a martial arts style. I am here to tell you that it’s not.
Comtech is a corporation that offers tactical training, tactical solutions and customized gear for those who need such materials. If a person is seeking a rank belt or other such childish notions from their boyhood they needn’t visit me at all. I left that tripe behind me long ago and have moved on to wiser, better things to be concerned about. Rank is great for novices or children, beyond that it’s only fit fare for those sad scavengers who still seek out such worthless “attaboys” from the local Bing Bang Ryu studio somewhere downtown. It’s black & white simple really! In the real world all that counts is skill – you either do it, or you don’t… Comtech can be interpreted in many ways aka “My JKD is not your JKD” influence.
It is a martial method custom made for adults and those serious about their personal defense choices.
As a “no frills” kind of guy, this style of training is extremely attractive. Can you describe Comtech’s growth? Were there any big hardships you had to overcome?
Growth for Comtech was phenomenal in the mid to late nineties. It seemed that people were hungry for the knowledge of the knife. It was if people had been waiting for something like the knife arts to come along. As the cutlery business was growing from it’s cottage level beginnings into the larger version of itself I hopped on for the ride too. It was an ideal situation. I love working in the cutlery industry and wish I could do more in the future. The blending of the knife related martial arts and the cutlery industry itself was a key factor that put me out ahead of others initially.
Hardships were not too many. I was openly accepted by nearly everyone who had interest. Resistance came from the traditionalists, the naysayers and those who associated knife related martial arts with criminal behavior. (IE: You must be a criminal if you practice the knife… what else??) It did not take long to discard such a weak and pointless mindset and win over the resistant ones. The knife is no different from the gun. Owners of knives and guns are responsible people by and large. It only takes one or two bad apples though to ruin it for everyone. This why the arts must have the element of professionalism to them, legalities must be taught along with the techniques of application. We need to establish a win-win mindset and stay practical.
I totally agree. The uninformed can be especially quick to make snap judgments and latch onto the negative when it comes to “scary things” like knives, so really anyone who practices this kind of self defense needs to act as an ambassador for the art.
What accomplishments are you the most proud of?
Hmm, the reputation I have worked so hard for, to be a good man and a good teacher.. and to have that recognized worldwide. I am very pleased with that aspect of my success formula. The knives, gadgets and products I have designed or created have helped out many people around the world in finding their own martial paths or to establish some peace of mind in their worlds. I am pleased that I have helped so many people in such a wide array of areas.
What advice would you give to someone looking to learn a martial art or defense system?
I would advise them to learn to see the way clearly. To do their homework and discover that art which truly sparks their inner flame. Avoid factionalism and cult-like behavior, it is not the way. Avoid polarization, extremes of belief or training lead to cultism. Keep mental, physical and spiritual balance, seek the middle path Seek self knowledge and freedom through the martial arts. Do not be taken in by belt ranks, contracts and commercial based hoodwinking practices.
What, in your opinion, is the future of self defense?
The future of self defense lies with “RAYGUNS” Dan! Once we all have a Raygun it’s ZAP – problems all gone! Heh Heh, that’s me being “funny” – not to worry! (Its ok, I totally invited this 😉 -Ed.) Ok, seriously though, the future of self defense doesn’t lie with MMA or traditional arts. The future of personal defense begins and grows from the minds and endeavors of those individuals who are open enough and sharp enough to grasp that it is the individual – not the art which governs the future.
Bruce Lee was one of the first to publicly claim that the man should always be deemed more important than the art he practices – a revolutionary thought in it’s time. The art has always came before the practitioner and many still cling to this backward, self limiting thinking as if it were something to be proud of. It’s Not! Move on pilgrim, just move on! My Goju teacher Master Peter Urban used to say: “that which is not self evident, is not evident”. Reality realized! – Yes, there is the future for those who can handle it! Personal revelations – breakthroughs into confidence and skill, going beyond your teacher or style and finding yourself!
The Comtech Stinger may be one of your most widely known inventions, and has received critical acclaim from around the world. What went into designing this self defense tool?
I originally envisioned a blunt pushdagger. Basically a less than lethal knife type of design. By taking away the blade of the common pushdagger and replacing it with a rounded, blunt tip I achieved my goal(s). From there we experimented some with the design and refined it. I invested money in the project more so as a lark. I never expected it to create such a strong effect in the greater picture of things. But, as we know, it did! There are two versions now available, the original (sterile) (Gen I) version and the newer, slightly larger version (Gen II). I wanted an intuitive, ergo-dynamic, no-bullshit personal defense device that did not depend upon batteries, sprays or 20 years of training. It needed to something anyone could use with little or no advance training. The STINGER hit the bullseye in every respect!
What I find interesting about the Stinger is how well known it has become outside the martial arts community. I have a number of friends who couldn’t do a karate chop to save their lives, but know all about the Stinger. It’s really humbling to chat with the guy who created it.
On the subject of various products (and being a knife site) I wanted to talk about one of the knives you designed, (a personal favorite) the Spyderco Chinook. Any plans for future collaborations with knife manufacturers?
Indeed, the Chinook was a super project. It is now part of history, it was discontinued last year. I am very grateful to all concerned for the success of the Chinook project! I am currently working with Spyderco and Knife Master Mike Janich on a new design. I hope this new folder of the future will find it’s place in the minds, hands and hearts of those needing such a tool in the days to come (as did the mighty Chinook).
Awesome! I will certainly be keeping an eye out for it and hope to write all about this new knife in the not so distant future. While I’m on the lookout, do you have any other plans for future projects?
Indeed Dan, I do have a few new projects forthcoming. Besides the folder project with Spyderco that I’ve already mentioned I have a book coming out soon as well. Its on a topic that many do not associate with myself. The public image is that of Jim Keating being the “Knife Guy” and this newest book has no knife at all in it’s format. It is about Snake Fist style Kung Fu, a secret passion of mine for many years along with Tai Chi Chuan and Wing Chun. Both arts Tai Chi and Wing Chun have the snake and crane in their roots – so it is a logical extension of study to seek out snake boxing too.
My book will raise some eyebrows I am sure but given the chance the methods taught will bring about knowledge and skill swiftly. Skill banishes fear, ability cannot be denied. This book is a rare look into a side of my life that I do not often share publicly. I intend to do a seminar on these very things in the coming months. At this point in my life, my Kung Fu has never been better – now it’s time to give back to martial arts community for all they’ve given me over these many years. I hope that by sharing my knowledge I will inspire others to follow their hearts as I have. The old saying is thus: “He + Art = Heart” and so it is! It is a hard path to follow at times, but very rewarding just the same.
I’ll have some new DVDs coming out soon also. Seminars are few this year, I concentrate mainly on private instruction (one on one) these days. I enjoy the private training more too. Teaching tribal arts such as Kali has largely taken over my teaching format. Martial arts are stricter, more demanding than tribal arts. The easy going flow of the tribal art methods appeals to me in my old age more so than the harsh, punishment based methods I previously practiced as “martial” arts.
Sounds like you are staying incredibly busy – I look forward to hearing more about that book.
Ok, final question, and one I’m sure a lot of people are curious to hear the answer to: what knives do you carry with you every day?
I carry two folders usually. I don’t vary too much from either Spyderco or Cold Steel products. The rare times that I do carry a fixed bladed knife it’s usually a four inch blade model. Nothing too big. Of course being Jim Keating – the popular public image of me is one where I carry ONLY Bowie knives. That is a fun image to be saddled with but its hardly practical or intelligent. Yes, I do have Bowies, but to carry one is the rare opportunity for me and only in the right setting. As I write this, I have two Cold Steel Voyagers on each side of my body. They are the older style with non-metallic clips. I carry my own knife too. The Spyderco / Keating Chinook is a great all around folder. I love it. It’s why I designed that way, so men would value it and most of all use it!
Thanks so much for doing the interview James, is there anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for allowing me to communicate these things to those who are interested in such material Dan. Your efforts are greatly appreciated in the cutlery community and I look forward to inter-acting with yourself and your readership again in the future. Good training and much success to everyone!
James, thanks again. It has really been an honor to have you here and you are welcome back any time.
For those interested in learning more about James Keating, I encourage you to visit his website. Also, for a taste of something new I would check out MAAJAK, where James shares interesting links, stories and more in his often-updated and always interesting web magazine.