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Street Fighting Man 

Ass-kicking instructor skirts philosophy for bare-knuckled violence

"I will do whatever it takes to win the fight!"

Fifteen men, one woman and one exhausted reporter all repeat the mantra after a grueling, hour-long class in the art of kicking ass. The group is diverse, made up of big, scary dudes with shaved heads and multiple tattoos, as well as a few benign-looking characters such as an insurance broker and real-estate agent. They've all gathered at an office park off Randolph Road to push their physical limits, call upon their inner cavemen -- and break out of their cushy daily routines.

Let's face it, most of us are softies. We sit behind a desk all day pecking at a computer. Sure, some of us might be in decent shape from working out at the gym or shooting hoops on weekends, but could we handle ourselves in a fight?

No, says Nick Hughes, creator of Fight Survival Training (F.I.S.T.), which he calls a "simple and brutally effective" form of self-defense. The techniques in F.I.S.T. are different from those used in typical karate schools, which Hughes calls "McDojos."

In Hughes' unique fighting program, "There's no philosophy or age-old traditions that you get in traditional martial arts." Those "old traditions" just get in the way, he says. "The average black belt will get his butt kicked in a street fight. The traditional martial artist is like a guy who's gone to Home Depot and bought all these fancy tools, but he's never actually hammered a nail or sawed any wood."

As the recent tragedy in New Orleans demonstrated, civilization can sometimes break down, with folks forced to fend for themselves.

But another national tragedy convinced Hughes to start F.I.S.T. "After 9/11 I was approached by all these businessmen who wanted to learn self-defense," he says. "A lot of our training is teaching people whose survival skills have been muted by living in a society where the police and military supposedly take care of all their problems. But 9/11 made it clear that's not always the case."

Whatever your views of vigilante-style justice, Hughes offers an attractive product for those in the market for fighting. At 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, he is well known in the ass-kicking community. Hughes is the kind of guy who sits facing the door when he's at a bar or restaurant so he can check out who's coming and going. He urges his students to scan newspapers for reports of murders or assaults so they can visualize how they may have handled the situation. He even knows which arm tendons open and close one's hand (useful information during a knife fight).

Originally from Australia, Hughes has earned black belts in a variety of martial arts, including Jiu Jitsu, Yoshinkan, Akido, Combat Karate and Zen Do Kai. In 1984 he joined the French Foreign Legion, and for the next five years served in the Legion's parachute regiment as a frogman commando, and later as a combat instructor in the military police. He's also worked as a bodyguard, protecting members of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family and numerous rock stars (including Warrant). In 1994, Hughes moved to the US, where he began doing consulting work and seminars on violence management, self-defense and rape prevention.

"F.I.S.T. is not all physical," he said. "A lot of the training is about being mentally ready and able to deal with the possibility of violence."

Other distinctions between F.I.S.T. and typical karate schools are that there are no uniforms, no kids and no "katas" (a prearranged series of movements designed to teach basic techniques). "At most martial arts schools, they're just dance routines you learn to get your next belt," Hughes said.

Some experts say the F.I.S.T. approach is dangerous, pointing out that chronic focus on physical violence can be unhealthy. "The paranoia associated with constant vigilance creates tunnel-vision, survival thinking, and physical and emotional exhaustion," says Andrew Silver of ResolutionExperts.com, a Charlotte mediation and skills-training consulting firm. Silver, who has a masters in conflict resolution, cites former Army lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman argues that a prolonged and heightened sense of arousal can adversely affect complex motor skills and cognitive processing.

Don't tell that to Brian Rowe, a co-owner of The Penguin restaurant and long-time Hughes student. A few years ago during a party at The Penguin, a troublemaker fresh out of jail showed up and sucker-punched one of Rowe's partners. "I tied him up like a pretzel and held him down until the cops arrived," Rowe said. "(F.I.S.T.) is not about beating people up, but it gives you options. Some people like to say, 'I choose not to fight.' But if you don't know how to fight it's not really a choice."

Cara Phillips, 25, has been taking classes since May. "I was a little scared at first being with all these big, scary guys, but in reality you're not going to be attacked by a woman. I'd rather have men as my companion instead of just my protector. It's hard work, but it's so rewarding. My confidence is huge now."

Have an idea for Urban Explorer? Contact Sam.boykin@cln.com or 704-944-3623.

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