A weekend at Kelly McCann’s Kembativz civilian training center
It is a Sunday afternoon in March, and Kelly McCann has me pinned to the ground, torqueing my elbow and my wrist in different directions in such a way that I’m whimpering and cursing and laughing and trying hard not to wet my pants because the pain is so excruciating.
When I get it together enough to tap out, Kelly launches himself forward over my head to make the point that, if he wanted to, he could have lodged his shoulder into my arm and, putting his entire body weight behind it, probably removed the limb from my body.
With the status of my arm as still attached to my body confirmed, I lie there on the ground, giggling. This was day two of Kembativz, Kelly McCann’s civilian training course.
In November I was mugged. I was walking home from a spin class, and my attention was entirely focused on the Twitter feed on my phone. Having looked up long enough to note how nice the houses were on this block, in the Eastern Market section of Washington, D.C., I felt I was safe enough to space out at 7 p.m. on a weekday.
Suddenly my phone was wrenched from my hand, and then I was curled up on the pavement, screaming and incoherently begging the people who had knocked me down and were kicking me, ripping my computer bag and my gym bag off my shoulder: “please, please, please.” Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t kill me. Please just take all of my stuff and leave me alone.
It was over in seconds, and the damage was minor: a fat lip that I hoped no one would notice, and a bruise on the side of my head where it had hit the pavement. The police recovered my phone and my gym clothes. Renter’s insurance bought me a new computer.
Psychologically it was a different story. It wasn’t the first time I had been assaulted. I had been followed into my apartment and grabbed on the steps when I studied abroad in Spain during my junior year of college. I screamed, and after a second, the guy ran away. But for months after that incident I walked around at night looking over my shoulder, adrenaline shooting through my body every time I heard someone step too close behind me. When I was looking for a place to live in D.C., my most important criteria was not that the rent be affordable, but that it was in a neighborhood where I would feel comfortable walking home alone at night.
This time it was worse. I was terrified to walk around in broad daylight. At midday I called my dad, hysterical. It had happened twice. What if it happened again?
A week later, I emailed Kelly McCann.
Kelly is an old friend of my editor, Tucker Carlson. A former U.S. Marine Special Missions Officer, he is now a security specialist, providing security in combat zones and training for the civilians who go there. In 2003, he took Tucker to Iraq.
Late last year, Kelly made his first foray into training civilians who had no intention of heading into combat zones with a course he calls “Kembativz,” the phonetic spelling for “Combatives.” In October, he had invited Tucker to send a reporter to check out the beta course for free. I hadn’t been able to attend that weekend, but Kelly had extended a standing invitation.
So the last weekend in January, and then the first weekend in March, I made the drive out to Fredericksburg, Va.
When you walk in, the training studio looks like a giant airplane hangar. It’s one big open space, with a blue mat covering most of the floor. The ceiling is covered in camouflage-color parachutes with holes to let in some light. Along one side of the gym, dubbed “The Hurt Locker” in red and white paint, there are a punching bags and BOBS, or body opponent bags — rubber torsos and heads mounted on a stand and planted in cement. A stuffed dummy hangs from a noose above them.
Turn around and you notice the giant leprechaun painted on wall just by the door. He has a mischievous smile reminiscent of the one Kelly himself wears, and holds a cudgel over his head, as if he’s hiding around the corner waiting to whack an unsuspecting entrant in the head as he comes through the door.
Which, incidentally, is something Kelly says he and his friends used to do when he was a kid in Boston, hiding around corners to attack the unsuspecting victim, and something the other guys say he’s still been known to do if you get him drunk enough.
The rules of the gym are simple: No one gets to watch — “you either participate or get the hell out of here” — go as hard as you’re willing to get back, always protect yourself, stick to the drill, and “save your cheap shots for the street.”
“We as instructors are always ready for someone to be a trickfucker,” Kelly says. “And I guarantee you will end up upside down in a trashcan.”
At the beginning, the strikes they teach us feel awkward. This, it turns out, is actually the whole point. Combatives is street fighting. Traditional martial arts or boxing or wrestling, Kelly says, are things that you do with someone. Combatives you do to someone. It’s meant for that uncontrolled scenario in an uncontrolled environment when the choice is black and white: attack, or be attacked. Hurt or be hurt.
Kelly describes the movements as “succinct, minimalist, and kind of ugly.”
Simply, he says, “we’re pounding the fuck out of people.”
I would describe my activity on day one somewhat differently. I am effectively giving my training partner love taps, utterly painless and nonthreatening blows for which I am apologizing profusely.
“Oh my gosh, sorry, I didn’t mean to,” I repeat breathlessly, each time I actually make contact with my training partner, a man who has probably 60 pounds on me and seems somewhat amused at the idea that I apparently think I could hurt him so easily.
On my way out the door for lunch on the first day, Kelly tells me that I need to work on my rage. He wants to see more of it while we train.
I struggle that weekend with whether I would ever be willing to hit someone with the intention of seriously hurting them. Do I wish I’d had the presence of mind slam my knee into the balls of the guy who followed me into my apartment? Sure. Do I wish I’d spent the next day at the police station trying to explain why I had put a man in the hospital using the kind of moves Kelly was teaching us? Not so much.
And I wonder if I would ever be ok with having done something like that. What if I had successfully fought back against the kids who mugged me, who — according to the police report and much to the chagrin of my dignity — were only 14-years-old? Would I be able to live with the idea that I had left a 14-year-old kid with a limp for the rest of his life? Would I have been ok with the fact that I attacked a 14-year-old in the first place?
I tell Kelly this at the end of the day when we all retire to the Celtic Cudgel, the Irish bar that they have constructed behind the training gym, complete with a replica of the Blarney stone on a table, and a set up that keeps the Guinness at exactly the right temperature. He forcefully tries to disabuse of me of the notion.
“You can’t think of consequences in that moment,” he says, because your attacker isn’t.
An attack is an attack, he says, regardless of your attacker. He recalls being in Africa with child soldiers holding AK-47s. If someone has a gun in your face, it doesn’t matter if they’re young or old or male or female. It certainly won’t matter when they put you in the hospital.
That’s the mindset Kelly says everyone should be in at all times. You can’t just hope that nothing bad is going to happen to you. Or that if you get mugged, you’ll end up with nothing more than a couple of bruises and a missing computer. I got lucky, by his account. Instead, he points out, I could have been knocked over and hit my head wrong and been paralyzed for life.
If that sounds overly dramatic, he says, it shouldn’t. Everyday there’s somebody getting car jacked, getting mugged, getting shot, losing the use of his or her legs, getting killed. Why shouldn’t today be your day?
“I wish we could all go around dressed in saran wrap and smoke dope. I really do,” Kelly says. But we can’t.
Kelly doesn’t sugar coat anything. If you “what if” him, he says, he is not afraid to tell you “you’re fucked.” And he doesn’t sugar coat what it is that we’re doing. By the time I get home that night, muscles I didn’t know existed will be so sore that I will barely be able to lift my arms to wash my hair.
“This is my lifestyle,” he tells us, rolling up his shirt sleeves to reveal several tattoos. One of the most prominent reads “Memento mori,” or, “remember your mortality.”
“I also live on 800 milligrams of Motrin a day … and when I wake up to take my morning piss I look like an eighty year old man,” he says.
Kelly started Kembativz with Ernie and Vinnie, both former Marines. They are joined each weekend that I’m there by a stream of men — most of them military or former military — who come through the training facility, stopping to correct a strike here and a kick there, pointing out that a bear hug scenario is going to go a little differently for a 120-pound girl than it will for a six foot tall man.
In addition to Kelly, Ernie and Vinnie, there are a few instructors who stay the whole time. There is Curt, who runs a firearms dealership in the area and does firearms training. Pete and Dylan have both made the five-hour trek down from New York to help out Kelly. Dylan learned Combatives from Kelly’s instructional DVDs. When he finally met Kelly, they hit it off and stayed in touch.
Dylan met Pete on a Facebook fan page for Kelly, when Dylan gave a “shout out” to other people training in the New York area, and brought him down to meet Kelly when he started Kembativz. As two of the younger instructors, Dylan and Pete have the privilege of being Kelly’s punching bag when he jumps into the demonstrations.
For a guy who has a fan page devoted to him, Kelly seems to have little ego. At the end of each day, he steps behind the bar and spends the evening serving up Guinness and whiskey, and some lighter beers for the less sophisticated palates among us. He says that after a day of being in charge of our training, he likes to take a more subservient role.
That lack of ego spills over into the course itself. There is nothing flashy about Kembativz — it is neither trendy fitness program nor a setting for muscular men to try to out macho each other.
The instructors dress in black shirts and jeans, and they come in all shapes and sizes – short and tall, bulging biceps and bulging stomachs. Kelly himself dresses in sneakers and jeans, with a green hoodie sweatshirt over a turtleneck Under Armour shirt.
Lest that lure you into briefly thinking that any one of these guys might not be able to snap you like a twig, one of them will come over to demonstrate the proper way to do a leg kick. “I’ll go easy,” he’ll say, before launching a kick that sends me stumbling backwards halfway across the mat, and leaves me standing gingerly on that leg as I try to pretend that the pad I was holding did anything to blunt the force.
On the second day Kelly tries to give me a reason to get angry. He pairs me with Kaja, a college student from the area who has been training with him in Muay Thai for several years. We’re practicing a combination we worked on the day before that ends with a slashing elbow to the back of the neck, followed by a full body weight stomp on any available body part after the person flops to the ground. When we learned the combination the day before, I would politely drop into a push up position when I felt pressure on my back and obligingly extend my ankle to be (fake) stomped on.
But when Kaja’s elbow comes down on my back, I just drop. Limbs splay where they land, and I lie on the mat momentarily stunned that I’ve ended up here.
I have a realization in my prone position on the mat: I could hit her back.
There is something incredibly liberating about this sensation. Hitting someone was never really something I considered to be an option. It’s just not something you do in polite society. But this wasn’t polite society. I could hit Kaja back. In fact, I was supposed to hit Kaja. And if I could hit Kaja, well, then if anyone ever tried to hit me again, I could hit him or her too.
When I return to Fredericksburg one month later, it’s a whole different ball game. Something has shifted in my brain, and I’m having fun, delivering my hammer fists and cupped hand blows and shin kicks with gusto.
“Keep it fast, loose, and disrespectful,” Kelly says, walking around as we train some combination.
“These are ‘fuck you’ moves.”
“It’s cool when a guy goes down like that, isn’t it?” Pete says to me later on in the weekend, after I’ve made the six-foot something former police officer drop to the ground.
It really is. It’s a rush. In this setting, it’s fun. And yet whatever the strike was that accomplished this — a head rip, a shin kick, jamming my fingers into the clavicle notch or into his eyes, or a slashing elbow to the back of the neck — is one I hope I never have any occasion to use.
But at this point I know I would, if I had to.
On the very first day in January, Kelly told us that Combatives was “10 percent technique, 90 percent attitude,” that you had to be determined that if today was the day that you’re number came up, you were going to tamp it back down.
Thanks to that course, I have the technique. And thanks to those guys, I have the attitude to go with it.