Failing (In) Craig Douglas’s Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC) Course, Part 1

Anyone who has seen me knows I do not make money off of my body. My mind is my money-maker, and I succeed at my job in large part because I can put “ass in chair” (as writers say) and focus mentally for hours at a time. I regularly finish a workday mentally exhausted, but never physically strained (other than occasionally being sore-assed).

Craig Douglas’s Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC) Course was the most physically taxing weekend of my adult life.

As I noted in an earlier post, it is a good thing that the possibility of attending the class only came up at the last minute because if I had time to research the course before attending (as I usually do for my research), I may very well have declined to participate and just observed from the sidelines.

Just observing would have been easier, to be sure. But I would have also learned much less. Sometimes observation alone is not enough.

Grappling with Mike Levandowski. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane.

The overarching goal of the ShivWorks collective’s coursework – of which ECQC is a part – is “to give every student the empty-hand skills of an MMA fighter, the firearm skills of a USPSA grand master, and the verbal agility of a stand-up comic.” I have previously discussed the verbal agility and firearms components of ECQC. But what about the third leg of the stool: empty-hand skills? Or, to borrow the title of Chuck Haggard’s presentation at the 2018 Rangemaster Tactical Conference, what options do we have “between a harsh word and a gun”?

In ECQC we begin to explore these options the first night of class on the mats at Chapel Hill Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Douglas’s approach to empty-hand skills while on one’s feet is based on Greco-Roman wrestling’s emphasis on pressure, posture, and position. In his characterization, this is the “operating system” that runs our various “apps” (drawing a gun or knife, blocking a blow).

As with the unit on managing unknown contacts, in this part of the course we pair off and train with other students, typically going through multiple reps with different partners. In order to manage the training, Douglas specifies different levels at which we should be working with each other: consensual vs. non-consensual, competitive vs. non-competitive, and technical. Typically, consensual and non-competitive or technical will go together, and non-consensual and competitive will go together, but at times we might work non-consensual and non-competitive.

We finish the four hours of the first night of class doing a mountain goat or billy goat drill. The purpose of the drill is to give us immediate perceptual feedback on our body posture and alignment. Working non-consensually and competitively with a partner, we wedge a boxing glove between our foreheads and try to push our opponent back. (This is apparently a kinder, gentler version of the drill which used to be done without the boxing glove mediating, to the detriment of the skin on students’ foreheads.)

I did the first one-minute rotation of the drill with the oldest person in the class, a 68-year-old recent retiree (who I actually first met at Tom Givens’s Rangemaster Instructor Development and Certification Course). The rotation felt more like 5 minutes than 1 and the weakness in my legs was exceeded only by my shortness of breath. My partner was apparently feeling the same as he sat out the second rotation. I looked around with relief and saw that everyone else was already paired up. Just as I was about to hit the water fountain, the assistant instructor for the course, Ron Sable, stepped forward to work with me.

Ron Sable, ECQC course assistant instructor, with Craig Douglas. March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

Ron Sable, who actually bears a striking physical resemblance to a handsome mountain goat, is a U.S. Army veteran with 23 years of experience as a Special Forces operator and instructor. Although the drill was supposed to be non-consensual and competitive, I can’t believe he was working at even 25% of his capacity or else I would have been on my back repeatedly. Still, after this second 1-minute-that-felt-like-5-minutes rotation, I did not have the aerobic capacity to do the third rotation. I made it to the water fountain after all.

Although I did not recognize it at the time – because I didn’t know what was coming – this did not bode well for my future performance in the course. In fact, in an attempt to prep me for the course the day before it began, John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research reminded me, “If you can shout ‘I can’t breathe,’ you can in fact breathe.” 48 hours later I would understand exactly what this meant.

Craig Douglas observing grappling with Jerry Coates. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

I woke up Saturday morning with tight hamstrings and soreness in parts of my neck that I didn’t know could be sore. After our three hours shooting on the range and a break for lunch, we gathered back out on the range for grappling, which involved short bits of instruction and long stretches of application.

I will skip the technicalities and simply observe that in clench fighting you are basically repeatedly flexing your biceps and upper back muscles while squatting at various depths and using your head as a tool to apply pressure and gain position. This is true even when working consensually and technically, but even more so when working non-consensually and competitively.

Grappling with Chris Magno. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

And the aerobic challenge remained. My capacity diminished with each cycle of three 1 minute rounds of grappling, which we did from the entangled underhook/overhook position, the bicep and wrist tie position, the underhook/wrist tie position, and more of the underhook/wrist tie position.

Grappling with Adam Williamson. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane.

At one point Douglas said mockingly: “I carry a gun because I’m not into this wrasslin’ shit.” Which for some is not far from the truth. On the positive side, guns are a force multiplier that can be used by people who are physically weaker than their opponent by virtue of numbers, age, gender, infirmity, size. But as the old saw has it, if you only have a gun, every problem starts to look like a gun problem. Which is limiting. Toward the end of the course, I learned that one of my fellow ECQC students was Ryan Hoover, co-founder of Fit to Fight and owner of two training centers in North Carolina. Reading up on Hoover after the course, I found a YouTube video worth watching, and not just because it mentions a t-shirt he saw in a gun store that read: “I’m too fat to fight, I just shoot.”

“Thunderdome” at Trigger Time Range, Carthage, NC. ECQC Course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

After a couple of hours of grappling we move to a sheltered area with a sandy floor. It’s clear that we’re going to be doing ground work soon, but first we practice in-fight weapons access. Here we need to grapple from entanglement and get in a position draw our gun. We do some dry runs first, then do it “live” with training guns and marking cartridges.

We get in groups of three, with 2 grappling and 1 timing. Each rotation will be 3 minutes long. 3. Minutes. Long. Because we are using marking cartridges, we wear eye protection and a FIST helmet – a padded head covering with a clear plastic face guard. Except these helmets are used so the face guards are somewhat opaque. And as soon as I put it on, my glasses start to fog up. The face guard has several round holes and also a small triangle near the mouth for ventilation, but even before beginning the rotation the airflow seems inadequate.

FIST Helmet. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

The first rotation I am the timer. This gives me an opportunity to observe the process, which I liked. But I hadn’t thought the situation through completely because it also meant that I would have to do the second and third rotations back-to-back. 6 minutes in a row.

In the second rotation I am the defender trying to access my gun against an opponent who is supposed to resist at 35%. Initially, that seems about right. After a minute, the resistance seems to double, and in the third minute, to double again. By the end I am not even thinking about accessing my gun. I just want to know when the time will be up so I can get the FIST helmet off and breathe.

After I take my turn as the defender, I put the FIST helmet back on to play the role of the attacker. But I have to take it off immediately. I am am sucking more wind than the helmet seems to allow in. Thankfully, one of our trio, Mike Levandowski, steps in for me. This spares me, for the time being, but is not a good sign for what is to come.




  1. “we wedge a boxing glove between our foreheads”

    Man… earning “the forehead dot” was a wonderful rite of passage. 😉

    David – I admire you for digging in and doing this. Looking forward to reading, as Paul Harvey says, “the rest… of the story”. 🙂


  2. Awesome assessment of the beginning of ECQC! The aches and the scars will fade but the memories will remain forever. Even though you did not receive the mark of the beast, it sounds like a great experience. It was definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve done as an adult as well.


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