AAR:  Kembativz Brand (Kelly McCann) “Basic Combatives” Fredericksburg, VA 12/11-12/21

“Go see Kelly McCann,” my mentor said.  “Learn violence,” he said. 

Mission Accomplished!  My “year of Kelly McCann” was completed last weekend with the best of the bunch, his “Basic Combatives” course.  Unlike the other “physical” classes I took with Kelly earlier this year (see reviews of all the classes I did with him here, here, here, here, and here), this was a two-day event.  My body paid the price, but this was truly an awesome course.

As indicated above, this was the sixth class I took with Kelly McCann in 2021.  I have said before on this blog that our readers cannot necessarily assume anything negative about an instructor if I took only one class with him.  However, if I have taken more than one class with an instructor, the reader can definitely infer that I have found that instructor to be worth it.  Consider that I took six classes with Kelly this year, and draw your own conclusions.

Course Description

Kelly’s somewhat spartan website offers the following description of the Basic Combatives course:

We decided to do this Basic Combatives course based on the number of requests we’ve had from new practitioners who have identified a personal need to improve their ability to protect themselves, their loved ones and their property. This appropriately paced course develops fundamental skills necessary to do just that. Not only for newbies – this course will also help current practitioners hone in on their skill sets and develop them further.

The course was held at the Renegade Combat Sports Club in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Cost of the course was typicaly $250, but I got in on a sale earlier this Fall and got it for $200. I am not affiliated in any way with Kembativz, McEntrick, Renegade Combat Sports Club, or Kelly McCann in any way except as a satisfied, sale-price-paying customer.

Equipment

Not a whole lot to speak of here.  As directed by an email I received a few weeks before class, I had my groin protector (cup), a mouthguard (bought a new, better, more comfortable one for this class), wresting/mat shoes, and MMA gloves (some were also available to borrow).  That was it. I wore “regular” clothes to the class, nothing especially athletic.  I brought a small cooler with snacks, drinks, lunch, etc., and in my overnight bag was a healthy supply of ibuprofen.

Students and Staff

I arrived at the gym around 0830.  There were already a few people there I recognized.  Besides Kelly and his partner Michelle, I also recognized a few fellow students and a few assistant instructors (one of whom was a student in Kelly’s pistol class in October and came all the way from Missouri).  As students continued to file in over the next thirty minutes, it was obvious that this class would be a little different than the past classes I had taken there.  For one thing, there were more students than in previous classes.  By my count there were 16 students in the class.  Secondly, the level of experience of the students varied widely.  I had gotten used to being the least experienced student in these classes.  However, this time, there were two father-and-son pairs (the kids were probably around 15?), and at least one adult male for whom this was his entry into the world of combatives.  There was also one young woman in the course who had some prior experience with Michael Janich. 

Helping Kelly and his partner, Michelle, were several assistant instructors:  Brian, Jason, Mario, and Hunter.  They have either all been through the Kembativz Instructor Certification Program, are currently going through it, or are so well-versed in certain areas of the curriculum that Kelly felt comfortable having them do some whole-group instruction as well as one-on-one coaching.  It was of tremendous added value having them there and helping out, as no errors in technique escaped their notice. 

Training Day One

Training Day One began a few minutes late at around 0915.  Kelly began by explaining that this was the first Basic Combatives class they had done in a long time and that, accordingly, he wanted each student to provide a quick introduction of name and experience level.  He then introduced the various assistant instructors I mentioned above. 

From there, Kelly launched into a roughly 1.5 hour PowerPoint presentation about the Kembativz view of combatives.  I took a LOT of notes during this presentation, but I am not going to describe it all here.  A few highlights:

1.  If you want to be safe, don’t get into fights.

2.  Combatives are not a replacement for professional fighting.

3.  Combatives are 101-level, whereas professional fighting is the graduate school level.

The combatives community tends to impugn the combative sports, similar to how some in the “combat shooting” community have disdain for competitive shooting sports.

4.  Combatives is a shortcut/shorthand, and was mainly designed to give some fighting skill and mentality in a short time period to people who otherwise have none (sound like someone we know?)

One thing that I loved about this part of the class was Kelly stressing repeatedly the importance of avoidance.  Avoidance can keep us out of legal hot water and also keep the “bad guy”—even if he is less-skilled than you—from getting lucky.

Kelly also went over some keys to basic self-defense, which included not getting grabbed, not getting hit BADLY, not falling down, and to always hit back (the latter was a lesson I learned well in his Technical Striking class back in October). 

Kelly then reviewed his own definitions for fight, fear, courage, duress dysfunctions, self-defense, and self-offense.  He also pointed out where other training programs typically fail (some of these were the same/similar to those he had mentioned in his Defensive Handgun class), such as a lack of training intensity, failure to understand duress dysfunctions, and inconsistent application of principles. 

We finally moved into Kelly’s principles of combatives.  Kelly does not teach particular “moves” or “techniques”.  These rely too much on “if the other guy does this, you do this”, which, given the myriad of possibilities, are all but impossible to memorize and, in turn, utilize in the moment.  Instead, his system relies on principles that are every bit as applicable upright as on the ground as in any other environment (armed, unarmed, etc.).  There were 18 principles that he defined for us and which we would apply over the rest of the two days.  I am not going to list them all here, but a few examples included:  moving offline, attacking through perpendicularity, use of full body-weight strikes, use of repetitive striking/cycling, alternating use of high/low strikes, and the use of incidental strikes.  All of these are illustrated dynamically in Kelly’s old 3 DVD set:

Kelly then moved into common errors that are seen.  I recorded 13 of these, which in part included:  failure to maintain a solid guard position, over-reliance on head-hunting, forgetting to use angles, grabbing the grabber, and failure to control the distance between you and the attacker.  Kelly rounded out the morning presentation with the following quote:  “you can’t hide what you don’t know here.”  The best way to get better at fighting is…to fight.  And fight we would.

After an hour lunch break, things started to get physical.  Virtually all of the next two days would be spent on the mats or in the ring/cage.  The remainder of Training Day One consisted of three major blocks of instruction.  The first focused on combative movement.  This was something we had covered in several of the other classes I had taken this year.  Perhaps because of that, I found it easier to put it all together this time.  We worked on forward, sideways, and rearward movement.  We then worked on the hook step, the sidestep-pivot, and the in quartata.  We also covered change-stepping (or is it chain-stepping? I never did find out) in order to get the correct leg set up for a knee lift, criss-cross stepping, and the skip step before delivering a flying knee (see photo of me below getting blasted by Hunter!).

The second segment of the afternoon was spent on different types of strikes.  We covered a wide variety including the axe hand, the cupped hand blow, the hammer fist, the palm thrust, the slashing elbow, and the knee lift.  We practiced these on each other with the lightest of contact (or deliberate misses in some cases, depending on the type of strike) and on Thai pads held appropriately by our partners.  Kelly and his assistants circulated among the pairs of students through all of this, making sure that the students were not burning bad repetitions but were instead corrected immediately.

The rest of the day was spent on blocking.  For this, we donned our MMA or boxing gloves and practiced blocking a variety of punches and combinations.  This was actually fairly hard on my forearms, which took a bit of a beating blocking various punches thrown in combinations (such as jab, cross, hook, uppercut).  We did these mostly by-the-numbers with our training partners, speeding up only when we felt comfortable (I should note that we constantly changed partners in this class, so we had to constantly deal with people faster/slower, taller/shorter, stronger/weaker).

We finished out the day around 1730.  Kelly finally has an actual bar set up in the gym, and I had a few drinks and shared in the camaraderie for about two hours before heading off to dinner and my hotel. I will note here that I felt well enough that evening to get in a small workout at my hotel.  So, overall I was not too badly beat up.  Things would change.

Training Day Two

I arrived at the gym at 0830 to find a few students and instructors drinking coffee at the bar.  We got started a little after 0900, on the mats, with stretching followed by a relatively quick review of the material from the day before, which we got to practice again.  I must confess that Day Two was much more of a blur for me, as it was spent almost entirely on the mats and would exact a bit of a physical toll on my body. 

Part of the morning was spent on methods to either redirect the aggressor or to get to his side or back.  So we worked on basic arm drags, shoulder drags, and a push-pull.  We also worked on some flow drills that had us swinging hammer fists—lightly—at our partners, which they would block (either inside out from below or outside in from above), while we did the same to their blows, alternating, speeding up when comfortable.  Eventually we added some movement around the mats while doing this, the idea being to get us used to some chaos in front of us while also continuing to move around.  I felt a little spastic during this but eventually figured it out.  We also worked on some half-clinch work, how to get out of it, and also how to counter how someone might try to get out of it.  Also mixed in during the morning were how to use the push-pull to enter into a rear-naked choke, how to deliver a bent-arm blow (one of my favorites from a Kelly class earlier this year!), and a few different ways to execute a chin rip (a very dramatic move that is well-featured in many of Kelly’s videos from yesteryear).  We also covered sequences (what some would call combinations).  We got to try out several that Kelly likes, but he emphasized that there are no right or wrong answers with sequences as long as we stick to the combative principles.  What seems to work really well for him might feel awkward to us, and circumstances might also help determine how to build a sequence as well.  In short, we would have to build our own based on what works for us and what the situation dictates.

All of the above does not sound like much, but it took us to lunch at around noon.  We reconvened about an hour later, and from here on things would get “interesting”.  We were told to meet on the mats with cups, mouthguards, and MMA gloves, and we would now fight each other.  The pattern for the next few minutes was to partner up, and on the “fight” command, start fighting.  We were mainly boxing at this point, no real grabbing/grappling.  We would fight for 20 seconds, then rest for what was probably 40 seconds, then fight for another 20 seconds.  We would then switch partners and do the same.  In all, I fought against seven partners two times each.  By midway through partner six I asked Kelly if I could say “No mas”, but he said no, I had to keep going.  So I gave it my best.  I must confess that, compared with my performance in Technical Striking back in October, I did MUCH better this time.  I kept throwing, targeted pretty well, and I would say that I dominated at least three of the people I fought (not bad, considering I was the shortest student in class…..even the young woman had me slightly in height).  Along the way I got to fight one of the teenagers in the class, who was quick and accurate but once I tagged him well, I kept after him and didn’t let up.  I also got to fight against the young woman, so now I can officially say that I punched a girl in the face.  Despite being somewhat pleased with how I did here (I got tagged solidly a few times myself), I was less impressed with my cardio.  There is just nothing to compare to going at it like this.  Running 4 miles a few times a week is nothing close to what this required.  Wind-sprints and burpees would probably be a better way to prepare.

Kelly had us all sit down after this, gassed, and then we got to have a quick roundtable of our takeaways.  It was a most welcome reprieve.  We continued to hydrate through a dedicated break, and most of the rest of the class was devoted to fighting on the ground.  We covered sprawling when someone comes in low for a takedown, riding the opponent to the ground.  We did this a few different ways.  We also worked on “wall-walking”, when someone takes you to the ground and you end up in a seated position up against a wall or other object, with the opponent on top as if he just tackled you.  This required some serious work (and our “wall” was actually the chain-link fence that makes up the sides of the cage, so my back became a smorgasbord of little marks and bruises afterward). 

We finished out the day back on the regular mats, working on defense from side control, from the mount, and from the guard.  We also spent a bit of time on in-fight-weapons-access, learning and practicing how to access our tools when someone is on top (such as the mount).  We finished up around 1645.  I stayed for a quick bit of “liquid painkiller” and to talk a bit with Kelly, the other instructors, and my fellow students, continued to hydrate, and hit the road by about 1745. 

Thoughts

I would not have taken six classes over nine total days with Kelly this year if I didn’t feel like they were worth it.  But I must confess that this was the best of the bunch.  The amount that was covered, the number of reps that I got, the explanations, the availability of almost instant feedback from the many instructors there, all made it very much worthwhile.  It was also interesting to see my own progression in both the understanding and application of the combative principles over the course of the year.  While it is difficult to assess how much of my growth to attribute to the entire year versus just this course—and it was nice to have Kelly tell me how much I have progressed this year—I truly believe this was the best of his courses.

I should mention that I got a bit beat up in this course.  My biggest concern coming into the class was my old friend–my shoulder–which had been bothering me for a few weeks, going completely kaput. However, both of my shoulders held up fine. By the end of Training Day Two, however, I had numerous small scrapes and bruises on my head, my forearms were bruised, I had random little circular bruises on the inside of both upper arms (from arm drags?  They don’t hurt), a pretty badly bruised left knee from a partner’s elbow that was pointed downward when I initiated a knee lift, and worst of all, my rather prominent nose is now a little bent.  X-rays have revealed that it is not broken, but it looks like it will require some work to restore its former glory.  It was actually one of the assistant instructors that caused it when we were doing the “wall walking”, but it was more my own stupidity than anything.  It may even require surgery, but I am not upset about it, as it was more of a freak thing how it happened, and I didn’t even notice the effect until I got home. 

I started training with Kelly to fill some of the last remaining gaps in my game:  unarmed combatives and getting intimate with violence.  While no master at either, I think it is safe to say that I have achieved these goals.  There is no doubt in my mind that I am better equipped today than I was a year ago to deal with issues without tools.  While avoidance would still be my number one priority, and I understand that there are many younger/fitter/stronger/more skilled people out there, I do feel like I have a good feel for what I can and cannot handle (the latter being most important. In the end, I’d rather I never fight anyone!).  As for getting more intimate with violence, nothing beats getting punched in the face and punching others in the face.  Again, the best way to learn to fight is to fight. 

I am not thrilled about my nose, mainly because I was considering some other “physical” classes early in 2022, and those will now be off the table.  But maybe now is a great time for me to step back a bit and focus on some other things.  We shall see what 2022 brings.  But I would definitely recommend this course to beginners as well as those with more experience.  I believe that Kelly and his crew have a TON to offer (at a ridiculously low price).  If you avail yourself of their services, you will benefit greatly.  Rest assured, you WILL be tested, but the rewards are—in my opinion—worth it.  As it says on my recently purchased Kembativz coffee mug:  “My Lifestyle Hurts”.

As always, thanks for reading.  Please note that I omitted quite a bit of information from this review due to the need for relative brevity as well as to leave something on the table for those who follow in my footsteps.  If you have any questions or comments, please post below, as we always welcome civil discourse.

5 thoughts on “AAR:  Kembativz Brand (Kelly McCann) “Basic Combatives” Fredericksburg, VA 12/11-12/21

    1. Thanks for the comment. Great class. Hope you’re at least a little less bruised than me! Take care!

      –Robert

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