About the author : Fred Mastro

Frédéric Mastro is an expert in personal defense. With his experience of mid-night portering and close protection for more than 20 years, he has created a simple, effective and realistic system to deal with the various assaults of the current urban violence.

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Fred Mastro: Read your environment. Read your opponents. Anticipate the threat and learn to focus on their first move or attack. When their first attack fails, you got them half-hearted. The sharks, the predators, are in for a quick kill.

True violence, a real-life violence that can cost your life, is different!

Thomas Lojek: Fred, I don’t think that you will need much of an introduction to our readers, because I am sure most of them already know you and your work as a highly sought- after self-defense instructor.

But for those who might never have given much thought into learning modern hand-to-hand combat: Could you give us a little insight about your background and how you got into this profession?

Fred Mastro: My family has Italian origins, but I grew up in Belgium.

Very early, I started to learn Judo and a bit of Karate, but I was too young, honestly, to understand the full concept of martial arts, including respect, honor and discipline.

As a young man I was trouble. Hanging out in the streets, wasting my time, getting into fights and so on.

Then, something happened that changed the course of my life.

A friend asked me to work as a bouncer for a night.

It was a private event and I really enjoyed the experience: people treated me with respect, I had a position of authority, and I was able to use my experience as a former troublemaker of our town to solve conflicts.

It felt good to me.

Just a few days after the event, I got another phone call: A club wanted to hire me to work at their door.

Suddenly, everything changed. I developed a professional attitude for the job and I was very serious about it.

Before, I was the guy who meant trouble. Now, I had to avoid trouble, protect a business and solve conflicts.

And I got paid for it.

For a young man, that was a great experience.

I became one of the good guys, learned to act highly professional and got very serious with my training. It changed everything for me.

Many of the most dangerous people are running under the radar. They can act quiet and friendly. Until it gets real.

Thomas Lojek: I guess as a bouncer you have seen your fair shares of fights and uncommon attacks?

Fred Mastro: Yes, I learned very quickly that I had to adapt to survive not only the violence that awaits one in this line of work but also as a professional.

We cannot just beat up people to protect a private business, like a nightclub. We will lose our job and go into jail if we do so.

We have to read and understand the dynamic of a situation and we have to read people.

Who is dangerous and who is not?

Who is just talking and who is going to attack?

We have to anticipate when things are getting real and when it is just dealing with angry or drunk people who can be annoying but are harmless.

I had to learn the reality of real violence.

The door can be an ugly place. Bouncers get killed.

You can lose your life in a second when the wrong people get mad and things get out of control at the door or during a fight inside the club.

When the action starts, there can be some really heavy-hitters involved, and honestly, you will find at least a few dangerous criminals around in every club.

Nobody hands out his criminal history to you at the door.

Every guy can be just a good customer or a dangerous criminal, who is willing to kill for even low motives.

Of course, over time you learn to read hints and the hidden signals of people and their true nature.

But honestly, you never know who you are up against until the trouble starts.

You would be surprised how many good and harmless looking guys are able to attack you with a bottle from behind or even with knives and guns.

Never allow an image to fool you: Many of the most dangerous people are running under the radar. They can act quiet and friendly. Until it gets real.

So, you have to learn how to read people.

Early on, I had to learn to really understand my environment: the social dynamics in clubs and when and why they escalate. The dynamics and rules of crowded spaces.

And I had to be aware of a possible rise in tensions between random groups or the random character of aggression by individuals in night clubs.

And of course, I had to learn quickly about the chaotic nature of a real fight.

I had some experience in martial arts when I started my job as a bouncer, but many of the techniques that I had learned before weren’t really helpful when facing real-life violence in a crowded place like a club.

These places are full of distractions and sudden attacks that you can only master with time and experience.

During these days, developing my mindset and trusting my fighting spirit by learning that I can handle anything, if I stay alert, open minded, and simply by never giving up, were what helped me the most.

My newborn fighting spirit taught me more about being a good fighter than all these years of martial arts before.

I wasn’t the strongest, but I never backed down or gave up. That is where you learn to be creative, open-minded, flexible and ruthless. Fighting spirit.

Thomas Lojek: That sounds interesting. Can you explain to me a little more about it?

What do you mean:Your fighting spirit?

And your mindset and how it helped you to become a better fighter… and a better professional?

Fred Mastro: The line of work that I got into and fairly young, isn’t exactly about rules. The street has no rules.

And the night clubs have even less rules, because there are so many random people and so many unknowns in a crowded nightclub.

And the place itself, often messed up with alcohol, drugs, tensions between different groups, aggressive individuals, and all this happens in a kind of caged situation, because a night club is nothing else than a small confined space.

It is a jungle.

It doesn’t take a lot to turn a club into a violent mess: Just a guy looking at the girlfriend of another guy can start a mass beating, very quickly.

Or even more dangerous: an armed confrontation.

These were the ‘90s in Europe. We had no metal detector at the front door. Only us. The bouncers. Our instincts and our people skills.

And people can get very creative to get their weapons in a nightclub, if they want to.

So, if things escalate in a club, and it is the wrong kind of people who are involved, you can end up dead very quickly.

The only way to survive this was to learn to never let your guard down.

You had to read your environment all the time: the people and the signals of their social language like gestures, their looks, their body language.

And this is important to understand: nightclubs are confined and highly crowded spaces, full of distractions.

If something bad happens inside of a nightclub, then in reality, you have to counter three very different enemies at the same time:

First, the real troublemaker.

Second, the crowd around you.

And third: all the distractions that you have in this kind of environment: loud music, intense lights, shadows, maybe gyroscope lights and artificial smoke, or furniture like tables, chairs, banks, seats, and maybe the friends and girlfriends of those who meant trouble and who are trying to intervene or just attack you as well.

Every single one of these things can cost your life, if things went really bad and weapons or heavy violence were involved.

And even outside, at the door, you are exposed to threats like groups, sudden attacks or weapons very often.

The reality is as a bouncer, you will face a lot of random attacks, dirty fighting tricks, groups of attackers, crazy girlfriends attacking you while you are dealing with their boyfriends, groups coming back for revenge, hidden weapons, attacks with bottles, bats, glass, liquids, furniture, knives, guns.

Honestly, over the years, you will see attacks with nearly everything.

That is the reality of what we have faced during these days.

And in this “no rules environment,” you can’t counter violence with drills and techniques that come from rulebooks, like many martial arts still teach it.

That’s why I learned to trust my fighting spirit early on, because it was just necessary. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it.

People shot at me several times.

I was in gun fights.

People were dying in front of me.

I was stabbed three times.

Once, a bullet hit my leg and I showed up at work the next week.

And really, I didn’t care.

If you fight, you fight to finish.

That’s the only rule that I follow strictly and that’s what made me good at my job, during these days.

I never was the strongest or tallest guy around.

There were a lot of guys around who could beat me in weight, cardio, strength or experience in martial arts.

But I was the most vicious fighter back in those days.

That is where I got my reputation.

I wasn’t the strongest, but I never backed down or gave up.

That is where you learn to be creative, open-minded, flexible and ruthless. Fighting spirit.

That helped me to develop my real skill set: I learned to read my environment as well as my opponents or possible threats.

This is more valuable than drills.

Because drills are always reactive.

Understanding your environment and learning the art of anticipation is proactive.

It will give you the invaluable power of having the initiative in any situation.
And having the initiative is what rules the fight.

Anticipation of what can or will happen makes 80% of the fight.

When I can anticipate the first move of the guy in front of me, I will have an advantage over him, even when he is stronger than me.

That’s why my training seminars always include lessons about situational awareness, today.

Read your environment.

Read your opponents.

Anticipate the threat and learn to focus on their first move or attack.

When their first attack fails, you got them half-hearted.

The sharks, the predators, are in for a quick kill.

Even a strong fighter doesn’t want to get into trouble.

He will wait and assess and attack you when he feels it is the right moment.

You take this away from him and he finds himself in a situation where he has lost the initiative.

This can turn every fight.

That’s what I have learned during these years as a bouncer.

And the most important thing: Why am I alive after all these years as a bouncer?

Because I worked with my heart, my head, and with respect.

Many bouncers don’t respect people.

But my way was to respect all people. Always.

You have to be aware about everything, every possible threat, but you always have to respect all the people.

Use drills to learn! Use drills to understand basic concepts of self- defense. But don’t get caught up in them when things turn out different in real life.

Thomas Lojek: Sounds like you don’t really believe in drills and techniques?

Fred Mastro: No, please, don’t get me wrong here: drills are essential and they are necessary to hand out a basic skill set to you.

But drills and techniques are just tools to make you understand fundamental principles.

What you should avoid is the dangerous tendency in training and martial arts to think that drills and techniques are dogmatic rules that always apply to reality… because they never will.

True violence, a real-life violence that can cost your life, is different.

There is no way to mimic its real conditions in a drill.

Especially not because crucial factors of a fight, like fear, pain, hate, blood, and just the madness of real-life violence will never be really part of a drill.

You can simulate a few factors, but it is not the same as fighting for your life.

If you lose your sight, because blood is running into your eyes after being beaten with a bottle, while some crazy freak is stabbing you with a knife, because you talked to his girlfriend, then the power of the drills that you were admiring for so long in the safety of your dojo will go overboard very quickly, I can assure you that.

See, the right thing to do is: Use drills to learn! Use drills to understand basic concepts of self- defense.

But don’t get caught up in them when things turn out different in real life.

That is the risk of most drills and martial arts when they become too dogmatic.

Tools are made to help you, not to define your reality of violence, because real violence is a crazy beast that shows up different every time.

It changes, evolves, surprises you.

Drills give you tools, but you win the fight from the inside.

It is you.

Your fighting spirit, your mindset, your flexibility to understand and adapt to situations and opponents.

A guy who simply does feel less fear and less pain than the average person can beat you drills easily.

And while he keeps coming, you will start to second guess yourself, why nothing seems to work and what to do about it… and that is when your guard goes down.

Or you become tired and he will exploit that by simply not giving up… until he gets you.

And then your 5th Dan of any discipline has become worthless and you will end up beaten or dead.

Simple things can beat you.

Never become so arrogant and self-assured to forget that.

Drills sometimes have that effect.

They make you feel secure, while reality is more dangerous than you knew and before you find out how dirty and chaotic real life violence can be.

Learn, but stay open for everything that goes beyond drills.

Accept the randomness and the chaotic mess of violence.

If you do so, drills become a useful tool.

But if you get caught up in them with a false sense of security you will be at risk to be beaten by somebody who simply does not care for your drills.

That is the reality.

And what we need to consider to understand the context of how I learned real-life self defense: European bouncers, especially in Belgium, aren’t allowed to carry weapons.

Our fights are only empty-hand. No pepper spray, no baton, no
handcuffs. It is illegal to use these tools or any weapon as a bouncer in most European countries.

People bring all kinds of weapons into the fight against us, but we can’t use a single one. You go to jail, if you do so.

Therefore, you have to learn to defend yourself against these weapons with empty hands techniques, only.

That is how you learn quickly and to stay highly altered and creative during a conflict.

The trouble of martial arts vs. real life violence lies in people… in their thinking.

Thomas Lojek: What about martial arts? Are they useful for becoming a real fighter or are they a waste of time?

When real-world violence is so different, is there any reason to learn them?

Fred Mastro: I studied and trained martial arts for decades: Silat, Kali, MMA, Judo, Karate, Brazilian Jiutsu.

I tried nearly everything.

And every single martial art is fine. It is fine within its own context.

Every martial art has a few good things.

The trouble of martial arts vs. real life violence lies in people… in their thinking.

It is the mindset of people that doesn’t work.

They follow dogmatic rules.

They put theory over reality.

They train in the safe environment of a dojo and in respect of the safety rules within their martial arts schools.

And then they get hurt when they face people who don’t care about safety and rules, because they are just reckless and fearless criminals who want to hurt you.

But this dilemma is not the fault of martial arts.

It is the fault of teachers and masters who are not willing to adapt and move on to reality-based training.

And most don’t move on, because they never faced real violence or they are just fine with what they do.

It pays the bills. Everybody feels good. They are popular and respected to be a good person.

But the reality out there is ugly. And it becomes worse every day.

You have to train for these crucial moments when your life is at stake and not for being a respected good person within the rule book of your martial art.

The more tools you have, the better you will get along.

So, learning martial arts makes sense.

But don’t get stuck in one single martial art or in the dogma of a single school.

This is where things go wrong in your training.

That’s why I tell my students that they should go out there, join other dojos, and learn other forms of training.

I tell them to learn.

My teaching is very simple: Learn, learn, learn.

Adapt. Stay open-minded.

Visit other schools, other instructors, try new styles and teachings.

Learn something new. Move on.

Don’t put your training and your fighting skills in a box.

Because a real fight will push you outside the box. Always.

Your ability to move on when things get dirty and chaotic and go beyond what you have learned so far is what makes the fighter.

This is the real school.

Sometimes you need a technique, sometimes you just have to get random, brutal and dirty.

Everything depends on context.

This is where martial arts fail their students.

They become dogma.

And their masters become a living dogma.

Nobody really attacks a master once he has a certain status and his own schools.

Really, nobody attacks his master honestly and with full force.

It doesn’t happen.

In a dojo there is always a secret line of respect around the master.

But not for the idea that he is unbeatable, and nobody is, but for the idea that he is the master.

And this is counter-productive for learning how to handle real life violence.

Because this secret line of respect doesn’t exist when somebody with a knife wants to kill you.

It is just raw energy.

And this is why I go out and study other teachings or visit
other dojos and even tell my students they have to attack me without hesitation.

When I visit another instructor or seminar I am just a student.

People get “Oh Oh… But you are Fred Mastro..” and I tell them: “No, I am nobody, I am here to learn. I am a student, a nobody, a blank page… now attack me and make it real… I want to learn something. If it hurts, if you beat me, I am fine with it. I learn. Forget who I am and teach me.”

The same way I urge my students to attack me without holding back.

It is okay. If they beat me, if I get hurt, that’s part of what we do: Nobody wins 100% of the time.

We all pay our student’s debt of becoming a good fighter in blood, pain and humiliation along the way.

That is life. That is the reality.

And martial arts have moved away from this reality.

The master of a martial art has to maintain the image of being unbeatable to be credible and to stay in business.

The dojo creates a sense of security for everyone, and teaching becomes dogma.

Until their students face a real bad guy who doesn’t care about dogma, honor and who you are.

He just wants to get you hurt and most likely he will succeed just because you have never learned to get out of a dojos comfort zone of dogma and security and into what it really means to fight for your life.

Don’t get me wrong: I love martial arts.

They are my life.

I studied them all my life.

But they have some troubled concepts that I never get used to.

That’s why I started to teach Mastro Defence System.

For people like me, who put learning over dogma.

For people like police officers, counter terror units and body guards, who need to put learning over dogma, because their lives depend on it.

These guys know how real-life violence looks like.

And they know that they can not train in a false sense of dogma and security for what they will face out there.

I cannot fool them.

Many of them have seen worse things than I did.

That’s why they like to train in my schools, because they know: I won’t fool them with things that don’t work.

We train for real-life.

And if I die while protecting my family, I will have no problem with that. Because that is what men do for their families.

Thomas Lojek: What is your personal worst-case scenario, real-life threat in the streets of our modern cities, today?

Fred Mastro: My worst-case scenario is always the one that would involve my family.

I can handle an aggressor or even a small group.

No problem.

Maybe they can beat me. No problem.

Nobody wins all the time.

But protecting my family while dealing with a threat is really the most nightmarish version of all self-defense situations.

See, I don’t care about myself.

If something happens to me, well, it just happens. That’s life.

And if I die while protecting my family, I will have no problem with that. Because that is what men do for their families.

But knowing that I have to get them out of the situation, without any harm, while the threat in front of me needs my undivided attention is the single one situation that really scares me.

Because it is really difficult.

And it is so difficult, because you are emotionally attached to the situation.

The thing is if your wife, or your kids, or any one you really care about, will be involved in a situation, you will act different.

It’s not the same. Believe me.

You will act different.

And here is another thing: most drills and trainings are made for one-on-one situations.

Or a few for group training.

But they never involve the stress that you will feel when the life of your family is at risk.

And this is why I tell my students that they have to include their families in their self-defense training.

You can be the best fighter in the world, but if your family doesn’t know what to do when you are facing a violent threat in the street, the years of your individual training will go overboard, simply because you are distracted by your family.

Your wife has to know that she cannot pull you away from an aggressor, because that is the moment when he will beat you while you are immobilized by your own wife.

When kids start to cry or just to freeze, it can make it all worse for you, because the number one goal is to get them away from the threat and doing so without attracting the attention of the attacker while they move.

Your family has to understand at least some basic rules and have emergency plans if something like an armed attack happens to you while being all together in the street or at home.

What is your thirty years of training worth if you lose your family, because they never learned to act accordingly while facing a lethal threat?

You can play the hero, sure, but if you lose them anyway, because you are the only single trained person in this situation, then you are nothing other than a tragedy, wasting your life for training and losing it all when it really counts.

Include your family in your training.

It is a crucial skill for today.

GTI Magazine

This article was published in GTI Magazine January 2021!

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Photos by Fred Mastro