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Steve Jones has been training in Systema under Vladimir Vasiliev for about a year. He is a post-graduate student of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, and pays his tuition by working as a doorman. Steve has studied karate in Canada, Japan, and England. He is training for a 2nd Dan black belt attempt this June in England.

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"This tattoo is his blood type," says the apprentice nodding toward the Russian letters on his master's beefy forearm. At least once it has saved the man's life.

Warriors from all over the world came together in the gymnasium of a Toronto Public School on Yonge St. this weekend in the fall of 2001 to meet one man: Mikhail Ryabko.

"He's like a mirage," says George Pogacich, a muscular martial arts instructor from Detroit who has spent the last 25 years training in Western boxing as well as many Oriental and South East Asian fighting systems. "I've got a much longer reach than him, and I'm bigger and younger but couldn't get near him with any of my punches. I watched what happened on video and realized that he wasn't where I thought he was!"

Khosrow Helly, an instructor from Paris, disagrees. "He's not a magician - only because he's willing to show you his secrets!"

"I've never seen anything like it," says an elated Dave Quaile, his liquid blue eyes twitching with excitement. Dave is an Australian war vet who served in Vietnam in 1970. He's done a 24 hour flight from Bundaberg, Queensland to meet the great Ryabko.

Mikhail Ryabko began his martial arts training at the age of five under the tutelage of one of Stalin's remaining personal bodyguards. By the time he was fifteen he was already doing assignments for Spetsnaz, the pride of Russia's elite special forces.Why did he join Spetsnaz so young? "It was just a circumstantial thing. Very often we don't belong to ourselves."

Ryabko stands at a stocky 5"5 and looks more like a home plate umpire than the archetypal warrior. But he served with enough poise and skill to become a captain in Spetsnaz. It is clear from his robust but damaged body that his unit saw a lot of action during the Cold War. His apprentice spent the entire forty-minute lunch break massaging the captain's left shoulder. "A shell exploded and threw me against an armoured vehicle. Sometimes it needs a little attention."

You wouldn't know it from his nearly incredible demonstrations, but his legs were damaged, too. He also wears a scar on the left side of his ribcage where a sniper shot him. Where was the sniper? "I don't know; I never saw him!" he jokes, and everyone laughs. I mean, what country? "Could be from a lot of countries," he says to greater laughter from all the hard men surrounding us. Was it in Russia or overseas? "Another country." This is all he was prepared to say on the record.

Ryabko is cagey about his military background not just because he's quite a private man, but also because most of his service is still classified by the Russian government. There is another reason. It stems as much from his remarkable consideration for others as any concern he may have for his own safety. "I just really wouldn't like to specify any particular geographical region because sometimes the operations are familiar to those people who still live in those areas, so I do't want to say."

What were some of the worst things that happened during your time as a counter-terrorist operative? His infectious, chubby-cheeked smile disappears now from below his ski jump nose. What replace it are tight thin lips, and eyes that become suddenly heavy with intense sorrow. "When I lost my friends."

Just then, one of the foreign instructors gives Ryabko a big bottle of cold beer, which he sneaked, passed the school's young security guard in a brown paper bag.

In addition to counter-terrorist operations, he is also the tactical commander of hostage-rescue teams, and is in charge of apprehending armed criminals.

The burly Byelorussian lowers the paper bag from his face to his solid thighs and swallows. "War it is blood, it is dirt. And very often those who regulate this whole process have no idea what they are doing. Let's take, for example, the minister of defense who is a civilian. What does he know about war, or special operations? The answer is nothing, so we have a lot of human losses."

He tries to wash down the taste of blood and dirt with lager. It seems to work.

"War is a funny thing, sometimes things are simple, sometimes not," he says, his eyes lightening with humour. Like, for instance, if you had a diarrhoea attack. You run down into the ruins and do your thing there, and the battle is going on outside..." he pauses for dramatic suspense, "Immediately your opponent comes in to do the same thing!" Mikhail squats lower in his chair and waves as though to an enemy soldier and fellow sufferer of the runs.

When he's not working and teaching, Ryabko very much likes to socialize with his friends, and travel to the holy places. His wife has accompanied him on this trip.

On the subject of the counter-terrorist campaign undertaken by the US and its allies, Ryabko says it is crucial to keep an eye on people who catch the attention of security forces. He thinks governments are doing the right thing freezing suspicious bank accounts. "Keep in mind that all these terrorist acts are committed with the help of dirty money, money unaccounted for from the oil and drug industries."

Some of the martial artists, particularly those in the military, can't resist asking his predictions about the US-led counter-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. "I know you've served in Afghanistan, what are our chances of victory?" asks a middle-aged American through a thick salt and pepper moustache.

With no hesitation, Ryabko says, "100%," but then adds cautiously, "But if you are only to throw bombs, no chance at all. Until the foot of the soldiers steps across the entire territory, the war cannot be completed."

He speaks of the Afghani people with admiration. How they survive is "shockingly impressive," he says thinking back to his time there. He recalls their primitive homes of sticks, mud, and cow dung, with a blanket or rag for a front door.

At his home in Moscow, he and his wife have two kids. He is teaching his son Systema, a martial art native to Russia, which has been a heavily guarded secret even from other Russians since 1917. Only Spetsnaz soldiers and top government bodyguards were allowed to receive training in Systema.

Looking around the gym at all the nationalities training in Systema, it is obvious that times have changed since the end of the Cold War.

Systema is very sophisticated. Unlike some of the Oriental martial arts that encourage mimicry of the master and train by repeating techniques thousands of times, Systema does not produce clones of the master, but rather encourages personal expression of kinesiological and psychological principles. Systema considers that people are different shapes and sizes, and we think and react differently, so it makes sense that we should fight differently.

Ryabko explains that in contrast to sport-oriented martial arts that practice a limited number of moves, "Systema teaches people how to move and use everything their bodies have, as well as utilizing and adapting to everything in any violent situation." This claim would sound too grand coming from a less experienced soldier.

Systema does not rely on brute physical strength. In fact, the adept fold their training partners into awkward shapes on the hard floor with effortless grace. Why then is only one out of seventy a woman? No one knows.

"Everybody is able to learn," says Ryabko. "The problem is that to excel we have to throw away all the unnecessary things out of our heads."

How do we rid ourselves of unnecessary thoughts?

The old warrior glances upward and smiles. "For me prayer helps with concentration and to calm down.

I came to that conclusion because in the trenches there were no atheists."

copyright @ 2001 Steve Jones


by Steve Jones