About Erik Paulson

(Excerpt from Karate Kung Fu Illustrated, February 1997)

When Erik Paulson was just a little guy, he used to tell his wrestling fanatic brother, “If you’re a good puncher and kicker, nobody can take you down.”

One day, Paulson’s brother answered with a challenge: “You want to bet? A wrestler will always beat a karate guy”

So Paulson and his brother went at it — on several occasions. ” I could hit him a few times, but he could always get lucky and take me down, ” Paulson remembers. “Later I started to realize that that he kept on getting lucky. I’d hit him, but I’d end up on my back. Then he’d get me in a side straddle or side headlock. From that time on, I knew in the back of my mind that wrestling was the thing I liked most.”

Cut to the Present…

If you saw last year’s World Combat Championship, that one-shot no-holds-barred event martial artists are still talking about, you probably remember Paulson. He the grappling expert who ended up fighting in the striking division. He did all right, too, until opponent James Warring entwined his mitts in Paulson’s ponytail and refused to let go for nearly the duration of the fight. Man, that’s gotta hurt!

Well, that was just one page out of Paulson’s pugilistic portfolio. Since then he’s made history by defeating Japan’s reigning light-heavyweight shootwrestling champion, Kenji Kawaguchi. Paulson became the first American to take the title and the belt out of Japan. In case you are wondering: No, he did not prune his locks for that competition, because hair-pulling was not allowed.

Only 30 years old, Paulson already has an impressive martial arts resume that includes judo, boxing, taekwondo, muay Thai, and jeet kune do. He got most of his takedown skills from shootwrestling, which he started learning in 1989. Yorinaga Nakamura, an instructor from Japan, provided Paulson’s introduction to the multifaceted art and has continued to guide at the Inosanto Academy, where both men teach.

Paulson also absorbed a lot of grappling truths from Larry Hartsell, a former student of Bruce Lee. “He did a few grappling seminars for me,” Paulson says. “Larry helped change my mind about everything.”

Paulson, who moved to Los Angeles in 1989, also took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Yet there was something about shootwrestling that held his fancy. “I was doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and I loved it, but Yori showed me all the other options I had,” he says. “I went home and tried some of the stuff on my buddy, who was a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I made him tap with the ankle locks, and he was surprised as I was. So I stuck with it.”

Paulson claims that shootwrestling’s effectiveness stems from the way it gears its grappling toward taking a kickboxer down and its kickboxing toward keeping a grappler off. “Combined, they are a pretty good mixture” he says.

Because of this unique mixture of realistic combat arts, Paulson has been able to refine his grappling techniques. That means they’re reliable moves for the training hall, the ring or the street.

Erik Paulson Beginnings

This article features an exerpt from “Master Level Shoot Wrestling, Part 1” by Erik Paulson

I first became aware of Shooto (Shoot Wrestling) in 1989, when Yori Nakamara, the founder of USA Shooto, did his first seminar at the Inosanto Academy at Marina Del Rey, California. Up to that time, there had been a clear delineation between the striking and grappling arts. You either punched or kicked somebody or you took them to the ground and grappled ? there was really no cross-training mixing striking, throwing and ground. About the closest anyone had come to that was Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yori, who had come from Japan where he had learned the art from Satoru Sayama and then went on to teach it in the Shooto dojos of Japan. Nakamara (accompanied by wife Hiromi) eventually moved to America to learn JKD from Dan Inosanto, and to meet Brandon Lee, Shannon Lee, and the rest of Bruce Lee’s family. Upon arriving to begin his study, Dan Inosanto asked Nakamara if he had learned any of the Japanese fighting arts. Nakamara then demonstrated a torrent of integrated punches, knees, kicks, throws and submissions that was unlike any blend the JKD master had seen before. In only took Inosanto a few days to share this new form of fighting with JKD grappling expert Larry Hartsell, who agreed that it was a noteworthy advancement of the combat sports. Nakamara soon began teaching America’s first Shooto class at the Inosanto Academy.

My personal martial arts journey began with judo in 1974 in Minnesota, which I studied for two years and competed in regularly. However, I soon had my eyes opened to the realities of streetfighting when I was jumped, tried to use judo to subdue him, and got my hair pulled (the story of my life), my head stuffed into a snow bank, my ears boxed, and my eyes punched in. At that point, I decided that I needed something else and made my way down to the local karate school. At around this same time I saw my first Bruce Lee movie and thought to myself “I need to learn that.” Through reading in magazines I found out that Bruce Lee taught a style called Jeet Kune Do that was great for street fighting (an aspect that was later emphasized by Paul Vunak). Inspired by Bruce Lee, I decided to learn stand-up striking. From judo I then began studying taekwondo sport karate (which would last for 13 years!). Wanting to learn how to better use my hands in a real fight, I began taking boxing in 1978 and competed in Golden Gloves in Anoka, Minnesota. In 1981, I met Rick Faye, who was an instructor under Dan Inosanto. Faye just happened to be teaching at my karate school on Saturdays. Faye taught a mixture of weapons, trapping, boxing, Thai boxing, interception and destruction. Then he would take the fight to the mat and teach ground fighting (striking and grappling). When I asked him what this well-rounded art was, he told me that it was JKD, kali, and muay Thai and that is was based on the art of Bruce Lee. Until that time I had never met anyone who taught the art of the man who had inspired me to learn martial arts ? Bruce Lee. I immediately got Faye’s phone number, quit the karate school, and began studying JKD.

After graduating from high school in 1984, I decided to move to California to try to break into the television and movie industry and to be close to the center of JKD ? the Inosanto Academy. Ending up in Palm Springs, I worked as a bouncer and bartender for five years and got work as model and commercial actor. During this time I continued my martial arts odyssey training in boxing, taekwondo, and JKD in Redlands under Dennis Blue, Tim Tackett, and Burt Poe. In 1989 I took a chance and moved to the City of Angels. Being from Minnesota, the Land of a 10,000 Lakes, it only seemed natural that I move close to the water ? so I ended up Manhattan Beach, where I finally started following my dreams and broke into feature films, getting work in “Baywatch,” “Spygames,” “The Abyss,” “American Ninja,” “Bloodsport,” et cetera. At this same time, however, I had another much more important goal ? to use my martial arts skills to actually fight in international full contact matches. I had no idea that I would eventually become the first American to win the World Shooto title, hold it for six years, and then retire undefeated in title defenses, with two Shooto world belts.

Once I was in Los Angeles, my first three stops were to sign up for classes at the Jet Center and the Inosanto Academy ? run by two of my great idols, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Dan Inosanto ? and Rorion Gracie’s garage. I began classes at the Jet Center and Rorion’s garage in 1988, before I had actually moved, and then continued in both in 1989 when I was an official “Angelino,” which was when I joined the Inosanto Academy. In 1989 I took a seminar with Yori Nakamura in Shooto and was hooked! I loved the combination of striking and grappling. I knew I needed the groundwork of Gracie jiu-jitsu because of its positional control, but I also wanted to combine it with the wide-open attacks and dynamic intensity of shootwrestling. During this time I also had boxing coaches, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling training from Rico Chiapperelli, and continued taekwondo and gymnastics for kicks and flexibility and to help my movie stunt work.

I 1992 I decided to “get real” with my martial arts training and fight for real. I was asked to fight a five-round fight with three minutes per round ? the highest level of professional Shooto! I had thought it would only be a three round fight for my first match but I was “thrown to the wolves” so to speak. My opponent was Shooto’s top ground fighter, Kazuhiro Kusanagi. To everyone’s surprise I beat him with his own submission ? the reverse triangle, which I actually learned from watching tapes of him! From that point on I defeated four world champions before being given a chance to fight for the Shooto light heavyweight belt ? two years after my last victory! Finally, when given the opportunity, I defeated Kenji Kawaguchi, by reverse figure-four toe-hold from the knee-bar, for the title. I became the first American to ever fight and win in Shooto, and to take their belt away from them. I would hold the title for five years and defended it against Suda (pounding him into submission via TKO referee stoppage), after he publicly challenged me for the belt in the media. My final Shooto win was against Ronald “Machine Gun” Juhn, in Superbrawl 2000, after which I voluntarily retired the two Shooto title belts I had won.

People often tell me that my style is unlike anything they have ever seen ? and that is because my martial arts journey has been unlike any others. I break up what I teach into three parts: striking, clinching, and groundwork. Each of these three parts are used in varying degrees in submission fighting, submission wrestling, and self-defense (with and without a weapon). The two terms I have coined for my methods are “Combat Cross-training” and “Martial Athletics.”

I have had over 40 different coaches, teachers and guides, over a span of more than 30 years, who have contributed to my knowledge base and influenced my fighting philosophy and teaching style. Some people can influence you with one second of their time, and others will influence you with a lifetime of interaction. But only your mind, body, and spirit can help you determine the difference between an instructor, a coach, a teacher, a guide, or a guru.