Monday, February 6, 2012

Meet Fred Ettish.

I used to laugh at Fred Ettish. Whenever I would hear his name I would smirk or just wave my hand dismissively. I had no respect for Fred Ettish.

You may be reading this saying, "Who the hell is Fred Ettish?". That is probably a good thing. If you knew the name you would probably of had the same reaction as mine. Here's a picture of him, mustache and all...

I was in my mid-twenties jumping around a Kwoon (Chinese version of a dojo) with my arms flailing around and honking loudly, doing my damnedest to imitate the sounds and movements of a White Crane. My Sifu told me that my eyes were not wide enough and that I had to try and open them wider, like the big, dorky bird that we were trying to become. Also, my honking wasn't loud enough. Oh, and I forgot to mention, he had us drinking shots of espresso so that we were jittery and wild like a Crane as well. Trust me, I'm not making this up.

After class we were getting changed when one of my fellow classmates started telling me about something he saw on pay per view recently. It was called The Ultimate Fighting Challenge (That's right, "Challenge"). In this PPV they would pit martial art style versus martial art style and lock them in a cage until one of them came out victorious. No referee, no gloves, no time limit and no rules. I could barely contain myself. To me, this sounded like the greatest event ever produced. Finally, all the schoolyard conversations where we discussed which martial art style was the best would be answered. I asked my friend who had won the event and he told me it was some little Jujitsu guy. I was shocked. Hardly anyone in those days had heard of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so I just assumed he meant the Japanese kind. My friend was a burly fireman. Without saying it out loud, we were both becoming disillusioned with our style of Kung Fu. We realized that if the time ever came for us to use our fighting skills in the real world our Crane beak strike with a four cornered Dragon stance wasn't going to cut it. This UFC might help us find our way.

I went to my friend's house the night of the second UFC pay per view. For the next few hours my eyes were riveted to the TV set. Style after style stepped up the plate to represent. Kung Fu, Karate, Savate, Ninjitsu, Judo, you name it. It was beautiful. If you ever get a chance, get some tapes of the early UFCs and catch a glimpse of a much different time. I've followed the sport since it's genesis and it's really quite amazing how much the sport has changed since the beginning.

Anyway, the fights were held tournament style with a 16 man bracket. That means if you made it to the finals then you would most likely have fought four times that night. If you won, but were injured, an alternate would take your place.

Enter Fred Ettish.

Fred was an Okinawan Karate fighter. He was brought in to replace an injured fighter to face Johnny Rhodes, an American boxer. Now, if you are unaware, there exist these weird rivalries in the martial arts world. One of the most common is the age old rivalry of Kung Fu and Karate. At the time I was a Kung Fu guy so naturally I wanted Fred Ettish to lose.

My heart skipped as both fighters faced off in the middle of the cage. You have to remember, this was the early days. Bare knuckle and no rules. Hair pulling, back of the head, neck and nut shots - all legal.

I'm not sure of the time, but it wasn't too long into the fight when Fred ate a stiff right cross which opened him up and had him on his ass. Rhodes was a boxer that knew zero about grappling so he just hovered over Ettish.

A crimson mask covered Fred's face and blood ran into both of his eyes which showed a look of confusion and fear. That look on his face seemed to tell the world that Karate, and all other traditional martial arts, have no place in the world of modern fighting anymore. Many people, like myself, saw this as a validation to abandon our current training and look for something we feel could help us survive a "real" fight. Fred Ettish remained in the position pictured above for the rest of the fight while periodically Rhodes would rain down heavy punches and knees that seemed to open up Fred's face more and more. Fred's white gi was saturated with blood and the fight was mercifully stopped at 3:07.

The years that followed had Fred Ettish seemingly disappear in shame. I left my Kung Fu school and would drive an hour and a half, one way, to train in Bruce Lee's art of Jeet Kune Do in Princeton, NJ which favored what I felt was a more "real world" approach to fighting. I later moved to Los Angeles and trained directly under Bruce Lee's number one guy, Dan Inosanto and after many years I became an instructor at his school. I learned to grapple and some time in 1996 I started to fight in single and tournament style "smokers" (kind of an unsanctioned gym fight). Back then MMA was still mostly illegal.

Fred Ettish (undeservedly) became the poster child for what was wrong with the martial arts. Grappling arts became the flavor of the month and any style that didn't contain some type of groundwork was labeled as ineffective. MMA forums on the internet started popping up everywhere and Fred Ettish became a popular whipping boy. I'm sure if you do a Google search you will find thousands of posts, cartoons, and images ridiculing Fred Ettish. I found several and thought about posting a few here to illustrate my point but declined.

Eighteen years have passed since I watched Fred Ettish and I really hadn't given him much thought. All he was to me was "the Karate guy who got his ass beat". It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I learned that Fred Ettish is so much more than that. (NOTE: If you do nothing else, please PLEASE watch this short video)

History Of MMA: Fred Ettish from Bobby Razak on Vimeo.

After I watched this video, I watched it again. And again. The strength of this man's character humbled me. Fred Ettish was simply an honest martial artist looking to test himself, and his art, in what (at least back then) was the toughest proving ground ever. He faced heavy criticism going into the fight and God knows he faced boatloads of criticism after the fight. Like I said, the internet came down on him hard. I am fortunate enough to have quite a few people on the internet that think I'm a pretty good guy. That kind of support can really make a shitty day seem a whole lot better. I can hardly imagine what it feels like to have to bury your son like Fred did and all the while be the recipient of mountains of abuse on the internet.

Over the years I have trained several fighters, both amateur and pro. The strongest, and probably the toughest student I ever trained had his first fight in New Jersey over ten years ago. My guy was around 240lbs of pure muscle. Less than 10% body fat and could kick like a mule. When he grappled you it felt like he could pop your head off like a cork whenever he wanted. In his debut fight he was knocked unconscious in less than 30 seconds. It devastated him. He lost his enthusiasm for training and eventually he quit my school and left the martial arts for good.

Fred Ettish had every reason in the world to quit, to give up. He didn't. When he fought his last fight at 53 years old it really didn't matter if he won or lost. Fred never gave up on himself or his martial art when he had more than enough reasons to do so.

Fred Ettish is a proud martial artist. Fred Ettish is a survivor. Fred Ettish is hard as nails.

I will never laugh at Fred Ettish again.

Fred Ettish today.


  1. cool story....nice post mustache man

  2. And now todays game is regulated and there are corner men guiding the athletes thru the fight. It was a different time, and he was pretty ballsy to try it out. Good for him not giving up.

  3. That documentary looks to be a fantastic piece too. Can't wait to see the rest.

  4. Wow, great story. Fred Ettish is someone that who can teach people what life is about...

  5. I remember watching the original fight. didnt realise all the flack he took afterwards. Seems totally crazy, it must have been hell to go through that.
    Very impressed with the courage he has shown. proper warrior material.

  6. Great post Mustache Man. Thanks for sharing. And much respect to you Fred Ettish!

  7. What a great piece! thanks Andrew for sharing that.



  8. This is a great write-up on a man who deserves our respect and admiration. Thanks for this, Mustache Man.

  9. This is so crazy! We happened upon your website because we watched you on the Tough Mudder website.... My husband trained under Fred for many years! He is a great man! My husband only has wonderful things to say about him. He attributes his military success to Fred and his training. What a wonderful story to tell of such a great guy.

  10. what a descent man massive respect to you both, you serve as a inspiration to many

  11. Great post, great story. Fred is a heck of man for sticking with what he enjoys and believes in spite of the cruel world we live in.

  12. I'm glad to know there really are people willing to test themselves, to understand their limits and abilities, even in the harshest of environments. Had I been a younger guy, i would openly admit to my dislike for Fred. However, i have come across his demise in my own personal way. For that, cheers to you Fred. You truly are an example of what a real martial artist is.

  13. I think this quote is pretty fitting:

    "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat." -Theodore Roosevelt

  14. This post resonates - and the T.Roosevelt quote above is the ultimate nod to men like Fred Ettish - you can believe it when you are younger, but it takes the tests in life thrown at every man as you get older to really put it to the test (check out the poen 'IF' by Rudyard Kipling too). The physical training and competition of any sport is superficial to what it can teach you in life!

  15. Thanks Mustache Man. I too stumbled across your site from watching the Tough Mudder video. And as a MA coach, I must say your training regime humbles me sir... I need to step it up.

    I often watch the UFC at a bar or a restaurant, (cuz I am too cheap to pay for it) and it amazes me the level of criticism coming from people who have no clue what is like to step in to that cage, or know the difference between a right cross and a triangle choke for that matter...

    As for Fred, he should absolutely be proud of the what he did in 1994. He had the courage to step into that cage. I wouldn't have. He learned something that most traditional MA's learn at some point in their training (if they are lucky), their game has holes in it. At the time Fred was a karate guy, he (most likely) trained with other karate guys, not boxers, not wrestlers, and certainly not BJJ practitioners. He got rocked and it killed his mental game in the cage. It happens all the time. You want to see people crack? Watch some amateur MMA fights. You will truly see people give up, tap out after one punch, yes even cry. Fred got his ass kicked but he didn't quit either. Fighter say that fighting is 90% mental (toughness) and 10% physical.

    So Cal Tough Mudder this Saturday. WOOT!!!

  16. Great story on Mr Ettish. Good points to remember when criticizing anyone. On a side note, I still think there is a place for traditional martial arts (full disclosure, I'm a wing chun practitioner), but I'm very aware of the limitations they offer. Not sure if that holds true for every traditionalist. Having said that, looking forward to learning other systems in the future. Thanks.

  17. Cool post. And cheers to all those who are brave enough to endeavor, instead of just sitting on the sidelines.

  18. Respect to Mr Ettish and thank you bringing the rest of his story to light

  19. Respect to Fred Ettish. I think the traditional values he was taught payed off.

  20. MM - Thanks for bringing attention to this. I've been a fan of the UFC since the beginning and was also aw-struck by the match-ups of different styles. I remember the Fred Ettish fight, and remember watching the poor guy get pummeled. It was fairly common to see back then, though. A guy gets in the ring all tough looking and then you literally see the mind shift after he gets punched in the face the first time. He said it himself, he was in a dream like state and you could tell if you watch the tape again. Anyway, thank you again for shedding light on something we all have a tendency to look past when we watch this kind of stuff; these guys are real people with real emotion and real lives. They're putting so much more than physical effort out there every time they fight. Congrats to Fred for not losing the emotional fight and becoming an inspiration to people. It certainly was a hard road.

  21. in office tough mudder training

  22. Nicely handled, mate. I have no doubt that would have meant a lot to Fred Ettish. I hope that message reached him.

  23. I am reminded of two lessons here... One, everyone, and I mean everyone, has something to teach us. Two, we tend to say things via internet/text/email that we would not say in person. Keep it positive; our mothers had it right with "if you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all." Great post.

  24. Both humbling and inspiring. Thank you.

  25. This is an object lesson on how to handle it when the world is kicking your ass.

    Whiney people take note, he did it all himself, got beat, came back and won, no excuses - just heart.


  26. After reading this i have to say thank you. I know what its like to loose a son, dealing with that loss is tough enough and never gets any easier. I cant imagine however the extra stress and additional emotional battles he had to face on top of losing his son. Hearing Mr. Ettish say that he will never lose a emotional fight truly is inspiring. To have that mind set in all that emotional grief is a man who has the "STUFF". i cant imagine the burden placed on Fred Ettish and as a father i grieve with him and i praise him for choosing to continue to be a father, husband and a FIGHTER.
    A great post, humbling but very inspiring. Thank you for sharing this.
    Chris Ball

  27. When you said you used to have no respect for Fred Ettish, I was anticipating a geniune reason. I had never heard of him so I had no prejudgements. I was expecting some serious charge against him as a martial artist: fraud, thuggery, writing verbal cheques he couldn't cash, using illegal moves in a tournament, or teaching his students delusional airy-fairy techniques.

    I was very surprised to learn you had no respect for the man because he lost a UFC match. Are you serious? You lose all respect for someone as a man and a fighter because he lost a match? The only people who believe that are people who think their own ass is unkickable, which is a delusion. If someone never had their ass kicked, I'd suggest it's because they haven't looked hard enough. Everyone gets whupped sometime, that's just simply the way it goes.

    I just watched the fight myself. Sure, Ettish got beat up bad and it must have been embarrassing for him. But Rhodes hardly looked stellar either, as it looked like he didn't know what a choke was until he experimented with it out of sheer desperation. How is it possible for Rhodes to be annouced as a 4th Dan karateka who won numerous karate and kickboxing championships and not know how to choke someone out? Rhodes' looked powerful but sloppy. But everyone beats up on Ettish because he's the one who copped a hiding? The only thing Ettish was guilty of was being underprepared but if he didn't test himself, how was he to know? Besides Ettish was only a stand in afterall. Rhodes was a genuine competitor and I'd question why he wasn't a lot sharper and able to end the fight more quickly.

    It's stupid to respect Ettish because he didn't crawl into a hole and die like everyone expected. It's stupid because to not respect someone for losing a match is stupid. Ettish did his best but it wasn't enough on that one day. So what? He clearly was not a coward and took an enormous amount of punishment, so I don't think anyone could question his fighting spirit.

    I can't understand why it took you this long to work out that Ettish deserved respect. I never knew or heard of the man, but as a fellow martial artist, I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would pay him out because of what happened in 1994. You pay someone out as a fighter when they refuse to learn from their mistakes or they give up, not for losing or "looking bad". No one is so shit-hot that they can dish out that "you lost you loser!" crap and never be forced to eat their own words. I look at Ettish vs Rhodes and think "There for the grace of God go I" and try to learn from the mistakes each fighter made.

    The man's son shouldn't have needed to die before people got shocked back into reality and starting thinking more clearly.

    As for fighting styles, I don't think there is such a thing as the perfect fighting system. You mentioned you were disillusioned with Kung Fu. I don't do Kung Fu myself but when I think of Kung Fu, I think of Bruce Lee and he's not someone I consider soft. I think a style is only as good as the practitioner and I bet if Bruce Lee did karate, boxing or some other art, he'd still be a tough as nails martial artist. Within a given style there is often a wide range of competencies and interpretations, so it makes the distinction between practitioner and style very fuzzy. I think problems develop when people become too rigid in their thinking and do not evolve or learn from other styles. At the end of the day, you have to call one fighting system "home base" and then build on it by grafting other styles/techniques onto it. Otherwise you just get lost in a maze of conflicting techniques/styles.

    1. Where do I begin with this one?

      "I was very surprised to learn you had no respect for the man because he lost a UFC match. Are you serious?"

      "Because he lost a UFC match"! Are you serious? You have to understand the martial art mindset back then. Too many martial artists clung to their styles like they were the Holy Doctrine. Anything outside of their chosen system was often deemed useless. To be a strict Karate man and enter a MIXED MARTIAL ART competition is, plain and simple, stupid. Would you respect a boxer who entered a Greco-Roman Wrestling tournament and got his ass handed to him every match? With your logic you could say that he "did his best but it wasn't enough on that one day." That boxer would not have earned my respect, hence, my disrespect (at the time) of Fred Ettish.

      Your somewhat harsh critique of Rhodes' technique is not much different. Some people might even say disrespectful. If someone mentioned to you that they saw a Johnny Rhodes fight would you wave your hand dismissively like I did with Fred and say how poor you thought his technique was?

      "It's stupid to respect Ettish because he didn't crawl into a hole and die like everyone expected."

      Then call me fucking stupid then.

      "The man's son shouldn't have needed to die before people got shocked back into reality and starting thinking more clearly."

      Man, I'm just shocked at how much you got wrong about this post. All it takes is a simple Google search to see the mountain of shit that has been thrown on this guy's back. His son's death has not "shocked me back to reality". It was just another emotional struggle that this man had to endure. I RESPECT the way he handled all of this abuse and came out of it all with a strong mind. I RESPECT the way he analyzed the inadequacies of his system and, under heavy criticism, looked elsewhere to fill the gaps. I WOULD NOT respect him if he remained the same karateka who entered MMA competitions and continued to lose horribly. NOT BECAUSE HE LOST, but because he failed to evolve.


      "if Bruce Lee did karate, boxing or some other art, he'd still be a tough as nails martial artist."

      No, you are wrong. If Bruce Lee did Karate he would be a tough Karate man. Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis were tough Karate men. If Bruce Lee did boxing he would be a tough boxer. There were many tough boxers back then. This would not make him a tough martial artist. It wasn't until Bruce Lee saw the folly of his chosen style that he started to shine. At the end of his life he abandoned ALL styles, even his own.

      "I think problems develop when people become too rigid in their thinking and do not evolve or learn from other styles."

      For someone who got so much wrong, you got this one right.

      But, I do want to thank you for taking the time to read this my blog and post such a passionate reply.

    2. Thanks for writing back, I appreciate the exchange.

      I hear your point about Ettish going into an MMA competition when he was a karateka rather than an MMA fighter. I guess I see it differently in that I don't draw a distinction between MMA and karate as fighting systems. I thought the point of UFA was to allow different fighting styles to compete, so I don't see a karate man entering UFC as a contradiction. Rhodes had a karate background himself according to the announcer, although he looked more like a boxer in that fight. Sure there may have been some traditionalist hard-heads out didn't like the idea of a karate man entering an MMA competition, but who cares about those snobs? You said it yourself: UFC was an arena to settle all the schoolyard debates about whose style worked the best.

      Actually I have complete respect for Rhodes as a fighter. I would never wave my hand dismissively at that guy, why would I? He's done nothing to deserve that. Yes I provided my personal opinion on where I thought he could have done better (i.e. it took him far too long to end the fight with a choke, which the commentators themselves said), but that's a comment on his fighting technique. I never questioned his worth as a fighter. I never said I respected him less as a fighter.

      Why did I volunteer those comments about Rhodes? I was pointing out that there was more to that fight than Ettish getting his ass kicked, which judging by the flak you say Ettish received, is a point a lot of people missed. There was nothing more to my comments than that.

      I get that you're paying tribute to Ettish's determination to endure in the face of many huge challenges and I fully support what you said in that regard. I just think he never deserved the lack of respect he got in the first place in 1994, by you or anyone else. I don't think he ever had a case to answer for. People get KO'd all the time and people don't make a hateful legend out of them. Ettish stuck around longer than someone who got KO'd but for whatever weird reason, he got a lot of venom from people who wanted to rub his face into the dirt for the sake of rubbing his face in the dirt. As if the guy was too stupid to know he got his ass kicked and needed regular abuse from complete strangers to make sure he never forgot. It's totally unjustified and people can wrap whatever logic they want around it, but to me it's just an ugly display of misplaced anger.

      I don't draw the distinction that you do between "martial artist" vs "karateka/kung-fu/boxer/etc". To me a martial artist is anyone who devotes themselves to studying the art of fighting... what people call themselves is just a name to describe the manner in which they fight (e.g. MMA, boxer, kung fu, jujitsu, etc).

      I'm glad that we both agree on the importance of learning and not being rigid. That's one thing at least.

  28. Hmmm. Don't know why, but it didn't link to my profile before (