John Lehmann’s foray into stick fighting wasn’t borne out of fun. The martial arts veteran picked up the skill 20 years ago after watching his friend – a tae kwon do practitioner – get assaulted with an empty beer bottle in a parking lot in Canada.
“At that point, I said, ‘I need to learn how to use weapons to defend myself and my family,’ ” Lehmann said. “Just in case.”
Lehmann was already well-versed in martial arts – he’s a 23-year veteran who said he’s qualified to teach 16 systems of the craft. He took to Filipino sticking and began to learn all he could about the sport.
As a martial arts instructor, he was drawn to the Filipino art of stick fighting over the unorganized stick fights common in the area.
“There’s a group of guys called The Dog Brothers but they’re very ad hoc and they basically just beat the crap out of each other in a park,” said Lehmann, who lives in Depew. “Which is cool, but it’s not sanctioned. There’s no sportsmanship about it. Not just whacking someone with a stick – it’s more sophisticated than that. Filipino martial arts usually have 12 angles of attack that break down the body geometrically.”
Recently, Lehmann became involved with a company called “Stickfighting World.” The company essentially acts as a pro stick fighting league.
Tonight, Stickfighting World will put on its biggest event to date – a five-fight card in Hamilton, Ont., with Lehmann defending his crown as super heavyweight champion in the main event.
The bouts will take place in a converted church in Hamilton. The balcony will serve as the VIP section, with the ability to hold up to 100 people. The lower bowl around the ring can hold roughly 200, according to Lehmann.
Unlike the popular Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, which take place in a cage, tonight’s event will take place in a plexiglass tank. Lehmann said this helps stick fighting’s chances as a spectator sport.
“It’s better for the crowd,” Lehmann said. “If you look through the cage, you can’t see much. That’s why in Japan they do it in a ring. The cage is just a gimmick. It’s a marketing ploy.”
Each fighter will receive $200 for participating.
Before the matches begin, two of Lehmann’s pupils – Mike Wagner and Jake Puff – will put on an exhibition Combat Sombo match. Combat Sombo is a form of martial arts that originated in Stalin-era Russia. It combines boxing, karate, judo and wrestling, in addition to other skills, according to Wagner.
“It specializes in submission holds using the lower limbs,” Wagner said. “You’re allowed to punch, kick, knee and elbow while standing but once someone initiates a grab, it goes straight into wrestling.”
Lehmann takes pride in spreading knowledge about Combat Sombo – he’s the founder and CEO of the American Combat Sombo Guild and he’s certified to teach the craft.
But, at the present moment, Lehmann, or Gentleman John as he goes by in the martial arts world, is more concerned with winning tonight’s match against Tyger Smith and helping to spread the word about stick fighting to help it grow as a sport. He’s confident he can do both tonight.
“I’m expecting to come back with the belt after Saturday and then defend it again later in the summer,” Lehmann said. “And this event is going to open up the eyes of a lot of people. UFC was looked at as a joke when it first started. This has the potential of blowing up. This has the potential of becoming huge.”
Wagner shares Lehmann’s optimism. He believes interest in the sport is growing and it’s only a matter of time before fans start showing up to organized fights.
“Yes, there’s a lot of people on Facebook and on the Internet in general that are really interested in coming out to the second fight,” Wagner said. “It’s a tight community and word just didn’t get out enough to other places in the past.”
A major goal in legitimizing the sport is getting the Canadian government to sanction it, which has not yet happened. Getting sanctioned in the United States is more of a long shot, making it difficult for Lehmann to prove he’s running a legitimate operation.
“In America, any jerk can open a martial arts facility,” Lehmann said. “There’s no sanctioning body or certifying body out there. If you’re a barber or a beautician, you have to have a license. If you want to teach self-defense, you don’t have to have one.”
He has been teaching martial arts classes for many years but recently moved his facility to the basement of Fitness Fusion in Depew, where he has 12 pupils ranging from 10 years old to adult.
Lehmann has become a staple in the martial arts community. Fighters from countries such as Japan and Russia often reach out to him to learn more about the Combat Sombo and stick fighting he teaches.
He’s now been inducted into four separate martial arts halls of fame. Yet, he’ll continue his quest to popularize stick fighting by missing two induction dinner parties – one in Las Vegas and one in New York City – in order to fight tonight.
He knows if stick fighting does take off, there will be many other trips to look forward to.
“We’re talking about going to Atlantic City. We’re talking about going to Las Vegas,” Lehmann said. “I’ve had people contact me from Russia, England, Germany and France. They’re all very interested in what’s going on. They just want to see it grow. Right now, it’s in its infant stage.”