“The Pitbulls of Aikido,” by Autrelle Holland


“When pit bulls are given status as an instructor, or even a high dan ranking, they often serve the role of the enforcer. These enforcers pit bulls do just that – enforce.”

Every martial art has their champions. Shiro Saigo, a noted jujutsuka, championed Jigoro Kano’s efforts to validate judo as a viable martial art. Mas Oyama exerted superhuman efforts in his own quests to test the limits of his abilities of karate by fighting bulls. It seems that, in every martial art, the first generation of students under a noted master are always fighters. This is an interesting phenomenon that crops up whenever a teacher of unmatched skill crops up. These students, drawn to their teacher’s ability to really do martial arts in a manner that is both effective and artistic, become what I refer to as the pit bulls of the school. They are the ones that handle the challengers that visit the dojo. They are the ones chosen to represent the ryu in competitions. Often, these pit bulls are dispatched to spread the teachings of their particular school in foreign areas, since there is no fear that they will defeated in a contest.

Aikido has such pit bulls as well. One such person was sent to Okinawa to establish a dojo. Previous attempts were met with resistance from the local martial art schools. This particular person was able to demonstrate, beyond a doubt, that aikido was a viable martial art, able to hold its own against the other schools. Other examples include the number of stories of students and teachers that regularly used their training to full effect for self defense, security, law enforcement, and the military. These aikidoka are training, more or less, the same aikido that everyone else is, but they are getting, at the very least, the goods in terms of understanding martial application. The importance of these pit bulls is that they help establish the effectiveness of the techniques of their school. Putting such people in the limelight can only help the reputation of a school. After all, if they are teaching martial arts, then the best thing to showcase would be martial effectiveness, right?

Often, these pit bulls are used as a rook, in some sort of a chess game. The rook is a powerful piece, but it is not the most important piece. I have seen pit bulls in schools that have weak aikido. The school, overall, lacks martial effectiveness, but somehow, one of the members is a pit bull, a capable martial artist. This is the case when a well meaning instructor teaches aikido in a manner that doesn’t emphasize martial application. Sooner or later, a beginner comes to such a school with past experience in a striking or grappling art. Such people can internalize the basic principles of aikido and make the techniques work. Usually in these cases, the rook pitbull is respected for their capability, and also resented for it. They find themselves called upon when needed, but they usually don’t advance far in their school. This is simply because of the ego of the instructor. In a school that doesn’t emphasize martial effectiveness, the promotion of a student that could outmatch the teacher is to be avoided at all costs!

When pit bulls are given status as an instructor, or even a high dan ranking, they often serve the role of the enforcer. These enforcers pit bulls do just that – enforce. Acting on orders from the top, or on their own accord, dish out intimidation and physical punishment as deemed necessary. They want you to understand that they are not to be messed with, and you get out of line, you will be dealt with. This sort of mob mentality in organized aikido makes no sense. The main motivators are political and fiscal, and more often than not there are personal vendettas that are handled as well. Often, the enforcers are similar to rook pit bulls, in that they serve a higher power that cannot do the actions themselves, whether for political reasons, or the inability to physically hurt anyone that is at all resistant. There are a lot of dojo tough guys that are only tough in the context of the dojo. These same people that they throw and pin roughly in the school couldn’t do the same to a real attacker. So they solicit an enforcer to keep the troops in line.

As soon as we all get back to the basic philosophical roots of aikido, the need for these pit bulls will disappear. Aikido does not contest and does not compete. Such a spirit creates an enemy where often times there is none, and is not in the spirit of harmony that aikido professes. Aikido is a martial art that takes into consideration that everyone has different levels of skill. As soon as we decide to train aikido as a martial art altogether, there will be no egos to be fed since we are all trying to improve ourselves. There will be nothing to prove, and nothing worthwhile decided by any sort of contest or demonstration of violence. The talent that these pit bulls have are put to better use by helping their juniors improve their own skill, and ensuring their seniors maintain their own skills and a proper mindset.

Autrelle Holland Bio

Autrelle Holland has been studying Martial Arts since 1989, beginning with T’ang Soo Do under Song Ki Pak. In 1993, he started training in Aikido under Chris Rozett. Autrelle is currently graded as a 2-Dan black belt holder under Takashi Ishikawa’s Misasagi Kai federation, which is recognized by the Aikikai Headquarters. Over the years he has continued to add to his knowledge by studying Jiu Jitsu under Thomas Asher, Wing Chun Kung Fu under Travis Taylor, and Kali under Joe Stores. Autrelle has trained with and attended seminars by a number of different instructors in various arts over the years. Most notable are Peter Bernath, Penny Bernath, Grady Lane, Thomas Huffman, Troy Ferguson, T.J. Cooper, Mike Sands, Perry Lambert, Katrina Reti, Ward Wilson, Patricia Hendricks, Stephanie Yap, and Anthony Arnett. His current practice emphasizes the high technical skill of throwing and receiving throws, realistic application and practice of Aikido techniques, and integrated weapons practice. He continues to study Kali and under the direct tutelage of Guru Sean Hurst, and currently holds the grade of Guro, or full instructor, in Kali. In addition to teaching Martial Arts, he has also taught several self defense classes for the Jacksonville community. Autrelle has also given free private instruction to members of the Jacksonville’s Sheriff Office.

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  1. Good for Holland Sensei! I’ve offered training to law enforcement on many occasions without success. I think the deterrent is not the cost of the training, which I also would provide pro bono, it’s the hourly wage cost of the officers who attend and the fact they will be unavailable for their normal duties while training.

  2. I basically agree with this theory. Nevertheless, in order to keep this theory from becoming just a cause of conflict, I believe that we should point the difference between a “pitbull” and an “preeminent practitioner”.

  3. That “pitbull” that opened the first successful dojo in Okinawa is still alive and still teaching. I attended a week long camp with him very recently. He is a loving, gentle person that still teaches a style of Aikido that focuses on martial effectiveness.

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