Brian O'Neill: Education on bar fighting isn't so tough

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Pittsburgh guy goes into a bar. Spends half his adult life working in them. Writes a book.

Don't wait for the punch line. James Porco, the 35-year-old Brookline man behind "Bar-jutsu: The American Art of Bar Fighting," is all about making sure punches aren't thrown. That said, his paperback book outlining his basic techniques is a hoot.

It's as if Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn wrote a treatise on bouncing as the sequel to "Wedding Crashers.'' I smiled through it one morning, sat down in a Baldwin bar to talk with Mr. Porco and co-author John Monaco for lunch the next day, and later tried a few of the techniques on the big mat in the Bar-jutsu school astride tavern-dotted Brownsville Road in Carrick.

I remain less likely to win a bar fight than to place in the Tri-State Brawl-Fleeing Championships, but I picked up a tip or two that might at least allow time for the cavalry to arrive if I'm ever backed against a saloon wall. I won't feel bad about not throwing a punch either.

The book's 128 pages of basic self-defense tips and color photos cover everything from dodging the drunk with the broken beer bottle (the "weapon of glass destruction") to defending yourself when an overly aggressive music critic comes at you while you're singing karaoke. Yet it's not about punching back. It's all about blocking and using the attacker's momentum against him. Mr. Porco, who has seen too many bar fights and stopped countless more, knows the Hollywood-style bar fight is way stupid.

The man who wrote the book on bar-fighting grew up in Bon Air, wrestled as a heavyweight for Schenley High, dabbled in professional wrestling under the name of his old shop teacher Van Hughes, and has been a bouncer everywhere from the South Side to Clairton since he was 18. He's also a union ironworker and a martial arts instructor. Apart from those details, it's an ordinary life with wife Erin and their 4-year-old, Molly.

Four summers ago, he was on the grass outside Keystone Oaks High giving free lessons in ninjutsu, a "survival art" of unconventional combat and weaponry, and found he kept answering "in a bar'' when students asked where they might employ a given move. A light bulb went on.

He began teaching classes targeted to bouncers in 2010, and about a year ago he opened his Bar-jutsu school in the very place he could only intermittently afford martial arts instruction as a kid. Remembering those days, he charges only $10 a lesson.

Taking an ancient Japanese art and Americanizing it to bar-jutsu isn't as tough as you might think. Mr. Porco substituted a cue stick for a bo staff and even figured a way to use the ubiquitous ballcap as a weapon of sorts. Before long, he was pitching a book on bar-jutsu.

Tuttle Publishing, which specializes in books rooted in Asian culture, loved it when co-author Mr. Monaco seasoned what had been dry training tips with stuff like this from page 96:

"Question: How many shots of tequila are too many?

"Answer: Yes.''

Mr. Porco is having fun with bar-jutsu, but he takes his work seriously. He speaks of a bouncer's task the way a lifeguard might explain his: Observe everything. Anticipate problems before they happen. Watch the people most likely to need intervention. (The bouncer's focus should be on those swallowing more than water.) Mr. Porco urges every tavern customer to do that, too, scanning the joint for potential exits, allies and trouble.

The book lists at $13.95 but Amazon has pitched it at $10.46. Bar-jutsu videos are on youtube, and the authors are hosting a book launch party Jan. 25 at The Getaway Cafe in Baldwin Township, where many of the book's photos were shot. That's all good, but something still worries me.

Mr. Porco is 6 feet tall and weighs 225 pounds, and he will spend as much as 90 minutes teaching a single move in a class. I come in 55 pounds shy of him, and spent only 90 minutes reading his book.

Mr. Porco countered my concern by saying Masaaki Hatsumi, "The Grandmaster of the Bujinkan" (an international martial arts organization), is rather slightly built, but at 82 years old remains "the baddest man on the planet."

Maybe so, but I'll take my cues from another Asian teacher, Mahatma Gandhi. It's not so much that I've embraced Gandhi's theories of nonviolence. It's that I'm sort of built like him.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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