To err is human… Brief history of Systema in UK

To err is human, to knowingly deceive is something else.

Just a few words about how Systema started in London, and UK.

Please forgive me for not remembering and listing all of the names and dates!

In March 2000, Nick DiPaolo from the Midlands organised the first big seminar with Vladimir Vasiliev. Quite a few of us went to check this unusual style. I remember well some of the great people I met at this event: Dean Hall, Paul Genge, Yevgenii Gladkih, Mark Ward and many others.

We were very interested to continue learning, and a few of us got together in London to train regularly. I remember well my first cut on the face from a whack with a stick, I was quite confused- this wasn’t supposed to happen! The words of Mark, my friend and partner, still ring in my head: “Dave, this is a martial arts class, we are not playing checkers! Take the lumps!” How right he was!

I bought the entire video collection from Toronto, went to Canada to train with Vladimir, and attended seminars all over the world to get more exposure to this wonderful art.

I was fortunate enough to spend lots of time on the phone with Vladimir, who gave me some very useful suggestions on what to try in our training group. The group continued growing, and in the fall of 2000, Vladimir allowed our group to be called a school.

I am very grateful for the support and the help I got from my training partners: Mark Ward, Phil McNulty, Kevin (forgot the last name, but the tattoos were very impressive- and I really appreciate your wife teaching us how to cook Thai food!), Pervaz Akthar, Adam Reese, Charlie Evatt, Kyle Hastings…

Vladimir told us that his teacher was ready to start teaching outside of Russia- and this is when I met Michael Ryabko. My first encounter is captured on video- Michael hits me, I can’t breathe, my eyes bulge out, I think I am going to die- but I can’t help but laugh! I think this was the beginning of 2001.

DK2000ryabko hit

The first event that I organised in London was with Sergei Ozhereliev in 2001. We were hoping to get 10 people to turn up. We had 15- what a great success J I still have a wooden training knife  that we made for this event. As was the trend those days, I was fascinated by the “beyond the physical” aspect of Systema, so called “work without contact.” Obviously, I asked Sergei to show me a few tricks. I remember falling to the floor as his knee connected to my nose- there wasn’t much blood, and the bottle of whiskey was flowing through our veins, so there was no pain either. But we had to open another bottle to keep the spirits high- excuse the pun.

Then there were trips to Russia. The first one with Vladimir and Valentin Vasiliev. Then I started bringing groups from the UK, then Val… I think I should have mentioned Val earlier.

Val and I met at the first Michael Ryabko seminar in London (2002? 2003? I don’t remember), where he was invited as a translator, and I was just a paying punter. I forgot the name of the organiser, it was a Greek gentleman, we didn’t stay in touch. Val was the real deal then, as he is now. There was no bullshit about him, he had tremendous technical knowledge, and real combat experience- armed and unarmed. So when Val asked me to explain a few things about Systema to him, I admit, I was terrified )) I replied: I’ll show you what I know, please don’t break anything! He smiled and we became great friends. Because of his previous experience, and his incredible talent, Val (IMHO) is the one guy who got the most information from the master, and was able to digest it and to absorb it. He was very good before Systema, he became amazing after. Val and I were teaching classes together at the gym in London, near Liverpool street. Our London school is still based there. Classes were great fun, with the average class being 25-30 students. I remember a few guys who are now teaching in Japan that started with us in London, Ryo Onishi being one of them- a great fella, good skills, and good spirit!

Then in 2003 (or 2002?) an aikido black belt turned up. We had many black belts in class (most students were, actually), but this one kept trying to test us ))) He trained with us for a few years, and then started running his own Systema classes at Imperial college. The cool thing is, he has met his wife in my club, and they have two lovely children now. To the best of my knowledge, he is not teaching Systema now and someone else is running his school under a different banner. I read on one of the sites that he has started the Systema school in London in 2000. Seeing as both him and us know the truth, I thought this was quite amusing.

Val became a movie star and moved to Dubai. I got a job in Moscow and moved there in 2008. In my absence, the school was looked after by Giuseppe Filotto (the one who wrote the book) and a great fighter from Latvia, Uldis Veismanis. Uldis is still teaching privately in Brighton. His focus is definitely on fighting, and he produces great results in those who want to pay the price (not always in money). For me, it is disappointing that people ask him about that, as he is a very talented guy with a great depth of knowledge, he has helped me a lot in my Systema journey- but people ask him to teach them to strike and kick- he can give so much more! Ask the right questions, and you will get awesome answers from Uldis. Uldis trained in Riga with Valentin Vasiliev, and has met Michael Ryabko many times.


The biggest impact on both Val and myself was certainly Michael Ryabko. What he has planted in our minds, and hearts, continues to grow. What resonated most with me, is that the “martial” aspect of Systema is almost incidental. Systema, as I understand it, is about restoring balance in yourself, and in the little segment of the universe that surrounds you. Now before my colleagues jump at me with criticism that martial arts is first and foremost about combat, please note, that this is purely what interests me. It’s very cool that some people are only after the combat skills. The Russian martial arts scene has changed a lot in the last few years, and the market is saturated with schools and seminars offering the training, much of it is very martial, and very good.

At the risk of starting another flame war, I would say that many of us that are doing the seminar circuits are pretty decent teachers, or fighters, or in some cases, both. But as far as masters of RMA (with exceptional depth and balance), there are two that I know of. One of them I only met briefly, and have a broken thumb as a reminder of the meeting. Alexei Kadochnikov. I am not sure if he still teaches, or if he is accessible. The other one is Michael Ryabko- this who I trained with, stayed at his home, and continue to learn from.

There are a few schools teaching RMA in UK, some from the Kadochnikov stable (Andrei Tchevela in London is an example) Some from Ryabko lineage – I’d say that Rob Poyton and Matt Hill are the bigger ones, but  there are plenty of others: Glenn Robertson, Gareth Ashby, Michael Culloty in Birmingham, Craig Abson in London. My friend and partner in my school in London is Glenn Miller (really!) and I am very excited that Dan Chlouch is also back on the scene, teaching privately (focussing on fitness, nutrition, and bodyweight conditioning) as well as helping in classes. We have quite a few students that achieved the Staff rating; they are completing their apprenticeship and will become instructors soon.

I guess I have to say a few words about the project that I was running in 2014-15. I partnered up with one of Michael Ryabko’s former students, and I was hoping achieve the following: standardise the “beginner’s” curriculum, and the methodology for presenting it to the public. The partnership didn’t work. But the amount of noise and shit stirring that was created when the project started and when it ended was disappointing and harmful to the Systema community. I regret that.

That’s it for now, 16 June 2016.

More to follow…