Q&A with Larry Hartsell
A Venture into Jeet Kune Do, Grappling and Open-Mindedness
(from Black Belt Magazine, April 2004)
For years, martial artists have associated Larry Hartsell with two ultra-effective fighting concepts: grappling and jeet kune do. Bruce Lee’s system will forever stand at the forefront of martial arts popularity, and now that proponents of Brazilian jujutsu have focused the world’s attention on the effectiveness of ground fighting, grappling has come into vogue. This naturally brings us to Hartsell—an expert in both ways of fighting—as he twists Black Belt into a knot and chokes us into submission. At the mercy of his elbow lock and hook punch, we bring you the following interview. —Editor
Black Belt: Could you begin by discussing your martial arts background?
Larry Hartsell: My first martial art, in 1958 or 1959, was judo. At the same time, I was a high-school wrestler in the light-heavyweight class.
I had a football scholarship and went to Wingate Junior College and got involved in tang soo do when I met a Korean foreign exchange student. After that, [the college] dropped the football program, and I became enthusiastic about the only martial arts books they had out in 1960: books by Masutatsu Oyama [of kyokushinkai karate], Ed Parker of kenpo karate and Hidetaka Nishiyama [of shotokan karate]. I got interested, so I moved to California, where I started shotokan at the University of California at Los Angeles with Nishiyama.
Later, I rode by Ed Parker’s kenpo karate school on Santa Monica Boulevard and looked in. Dan Inosanto was teaching the kenpo class. I said, “This is what I want.” I became a student of Dan and Ed. I met Bruce Lee in 1964 at Ed Parker’s just before I got drafted into the Army. I was home on leave later in 1964 before I went to Vietnam, and that’s when I really came to know Bruce. We became friends, and after I got out of the Army, I came back and studied with him. From 1967 to 1970, I studied with Bruce and Dan and taught at Ed Parker’s.
BB: When you went to Parker’s, did you have to drop things you learned from Lee?
Hartsell: Yes, I did because Bruce had adopted boxing by then. He [mixed] it with wing chun kung fu. Also, there were grappling techniques he picked up from Gene LeBell and some stuff from Wally Jay’s small circle jujutsu, which he added to jeet kune do.
BB: What interest did Lee have in grappling?
Hartsell: Before his death, he had added 33 grappling moves to the jeet kune do concept.
BB: He got those from Gene LeBell and Wally Jay?
Hartsell: Wally Jay, Gene LeBell and Hayward Nishioka. And he had some chin-na and silat. He would mix the arts. He would enter to trapping and take down into a submission. If you read Tao of Jeet Kune Do, you’ll see those grappling [techniques].
BB: How well do jeet kune do principles apply to grappling?
Hartsell: I think the attack-by-drawing principle, where you deliberately set an opening for the guy to come in so you can counter, [applies well]. You can leave an opening for a side kick, then capture the leg and go for a takedown. Also you can use progressive indirect attack—faking the attack to go into a single-leg takedown and an Achilles-lock submission or some other technique.
BB: So, for the most part, jeet kune do principles work well to move in and go to the ground, after which pure grappling takes over?
Hartsell: Yes, that’s one way. Any range can be closed quickly. In kicking range, you can capture the kick. In boxing range, you can arm-wrap and take him down. Any range can be closed, and you can be on the ground very quickly. I’ve had people at seminars say, “I would just stay outside and kick.” But suppose you’re on a slippery surface; how are you going to kick?
Suppose you kick and slip, and the guy’s on top of you. You have to learn to deal with grappling range. Sometimes you cannot dictate your own environment; you’re into grappling range whether you want to be or not.
BB: Is the best way to deal with the environmental factor to study a variety of arts?
Hartsell: I think so. You should be experienced in all ranges. How are you going to effectively counter a boxer who’s a good inside fighter unless you experience that range? I believe a blend is the best.
BB: For beginners, what styles do you recommend for blending?
Hartsell: For weapons range, I recommend the Philippine martial arts because [they come from] a knife culture.
For grappling range, shootwrestling or Brazilian jujutsu. For punching range, I would find a good boxing or kickboxing gym. As far as overall conditioning, Thai boxing is king. It also has good standing grappling—hookups which use knees and elbows.
BB: Some people say that if your opponent wants to grapple, you will end up grappling. You can avoid grappling if both of you want to keep your distance; but if either person wants to come in, the other person has no choice.
Hartsell: Exactly. If there’s going to be a fight, somebody’s got to come in at you—whether it’s in kicking, punching or grappling range.
BB: So kicking, punching and trapping ranges are used mainly to get into grappling range?
Hartsell: That’s one way.
BB: Would you ever stay out of grappling range on purpose and not go in?
Hartsell: Yes. If a guy is physically stronger or moving quickly, I would probably stay back and let him come to me. My defense would be my offense.
BB: But your ultimate goal would still be to grapple?
Hartsell: To end a street fight, use whatever works—a left hook, an uppercut, maybe a right cross. If he comes in, maybe a figure-4 face lock or whatever’s there.
BB: Once you’re in, would you ever pull back out and continue striking?
Hartsell: No. There’s a saying in wing chun that I like: Once you have him, you keep him.
BB: How do you know when to close the distance to grapple?
Hartsell: If you know something about boxing, about kicking, it helps you time [your entry]. Dan Inosanto told me, “You never grapple with a grappler; you never kick with a kicker; you never box with a boxer. You do something he doesn’t know.” But sometimes you’re forced to go into one of the ranges whether you want to or not. So you should know something about each range.
BB: Know something about each and specialize in one or two?
Hartsell: Yes. Use what you do best to counter what he has.
BB: Is entering into trapping range and grappling range what you do best?
Hartsell: Yes, getting to the inside range.
BB: How do you generally finish a fight after going to the ground?
Hartsell: I just go into a submission hold— kata gatame or yoko shiho gatame, then maybe into an arm lock or neck crank.
BB: When you face an opponent, do you plan on getting into grappling range, or do you just work in whatever range he takes you to?
Hartsell: Your opponent’s move is your move. Go with the flow. You can initiate the first move or you can counter his move. It can be done two ways; I do both.
BB: How well does grappling mix with arts that focus on punching and kicking?
Hartsell: Every martial art should have some form of grappling. I have worked as a doorman and bouncer in some of the worst bars in Charlotte, North Carolina, and most fights I saw ended up on the ground. One guy was either in the mount position beating the hell out of the other guy or grabbing [whatever he could]. Judging from what I’ve seen and been involved in, you have only one or two punches. If they don’t knock out the other guy—or at least hurt or stagger him—you end up in clinching range.
BB: For grappling self-defense, how important is ground work vs. throwing? Do you need throwing techniques, or is throwing something you can avoid?
Hartsell: There are different types of throws for competition and self-defense.
If you’re fighting on pavement, you don’t want to throw where you’re going to injure yourself. But there are many different ways to take a person to the ground: single-leg and double-leg takedowns, body tackles and go-behinds.
BB: Those are ways to get to the ground without using a traditional judo throw?
BB: Do the same things that make grappling so effective in competitions like the Ultimate Fighting Championship make it effective on the street?
Hartsell: Definitely. You can throw a guy, tie him up or go into a standing lock. Locking, grappling and takedowns—it’s all a blend. But you have to realize that if you’re fighting two or three people on the street, you might not want to take it to the ground because the other guys might start kicking you in the head. You have to be effective in standing grappling to turn your opponent and get behind him, then use him as a shield.
BB: Some people say grappling is best for self-defense because you can win a fight without hurting your attacker.
Hartsell: Exactly. You can go into a time hold, control hold or submission. That’s why I like it.
BB: Is the best way to improve—as a striker and a grappler—to acquire as many skills as you can from different styles?
Hartsell: I think so. It reminds me of a saying: There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but my path may not be your path. We’re all built differently; we all have different instincts. That’s what Bruce Lee believed. You have to pick your own path. Some are short, and some are long. I always encourage students to attend any seminars they want.
When it comes to knowledge, you owe allegiance only to yourself.