Rough and Tumble

Rough and Tumble, or RAT for short, is also a modern martial art of South Africa, that developed independently of other systems of Rough and Tumble in other parts of the world. The North American fighting style, known as Rough and Tumble still exists.

Rough and Tumble (RAT) is a no-nonsense approach to self-defence and combat. Originating in the South African military in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, some say that RAT is one of the pioneering groups for the now popular mixed martial arts (MMA) in South Africa. We were already holding open competitions in the early 1990’s where any style or system can enter and we have always believed in cross-training, sharing and learning from others.

The first use of the term Rough and Tumble for fighting dates back to the early 1700s in the North American frontier. Rough and Tumble fighting was the original American No Holds Barred underground hybrid “sport” that had but one rule – you win by knocking the man out or making him say “enough.”

All techniques of boxing and wrestling were allowed, and competitors thought nothing of biting, eye-gouging, and even reaching into an opponent’s pants to attack their genitals. People were maimed in these brutal fights, which were often referred to in historical records as “boxing matches”.

A RAT practitioner sees martial arts as incorporating all aspects of fighting, such as standing striking and grappling (i.e. throws, locks and chokes), ground grappling (i.e. holds, locks and chokes) and the use of weapons. We have a simple 5 step approach that we use for all confrontations and it includes the psychological and strategic approach to combat and self-defence.

RAT is not, as many people think, just a combination of good techniques from different martial arts, but practitioners continuously develop new techniques and principles. We see RAT as representing concepts in all martial arts and self-defence systems.

A RAT practitioner will learn to fight as well as use strategy in a number of different ranges and situations and must demonstrate his or her proficiency in a practical manner during grading tests, classes and competitions. The RAT practitioner will also need to learn when it is appropriate to use combat techniques and which techniques are appropriate for different situations.

The guiding characteristic in the development of South African RAT was the meaning of the term “Rough and Tumble”, but the histories of these types of fighting are unrelated. RAT in South Africa was originally conceived in the late 1980s in the South African Defense Force and officially founded in the early 1990s.

RAT was originally developed for a need to train special forces soldiers in armed/unarmed combat. These soldiers were reconnaissance soldiers, known in South Africa as the recces.

RAT in South Africa was developed for a need to train soldiers in a greater range self-defense techniques and situations than is offered in many conventional martial arts.

Nowadays RAT is practiced by civilian members and training is still geared towards small groups of learners. Practitioners are required to demonstrate knowledge, attitudes and skills in several areas: technical knowledge, strategy and creativity, open-mindedness, persistence and determination, martial arts skill and superior fitness.

Origins of the Term “Rough and Tumble”: The origins of the term “Rough and Tumble” was from “bragging and fighting” introduced to the North American backcountry from England where it came to be called “Rough and Tumble.” In North America, as in England, it was a savage combat between two or more males (occasionally females), which sometimes left the contestants permanently blinded or maimed. A graphic description of “rough and tumble” came from the Irish traveler Thomas Ashe, who described a fight between a West Virginian and a Kentuckian. A crowd gathered and arranged itself into an impromptu ring. The contestants were asked if they wished to “fight fair” or “rough and tumble.” When they chose “rough and tumble,” a roar of approval rose from the multitude. The two men entered the ring, and a few ordinary blows were exchanged in a tentative manner.

Then suddenly the Virginian “contracted his whole form, drew his arms to his face,” and “pitched himself into the bosom of his opponent,” sinking his sharpened fingernails into the Kentuckian’s head. “The Virginian,” we are told, “never lost his hold . . . fixing his claws in his hair and his thumbs on his eyes, [he] gave them a start from the sockets. The sufferer roared aloud, but uttered no complaint.” Even after the eyes were gouged out, the struggle continued. The Virginian fastened his teeth on the Kentuckian’s nose and bit it in two pieces. Then he tore off the Kentuckian’s ears. At last, the “Kentuckian, deprived of eyes, ears and nose, gave in.” The victor, himself maimed and bleeding, was “chaired round the grounds,” to the cheers of the crowd.

Sporadic attempts were made to suppress “rough and tumble.” Virginia’s tidewater legislators passed a general statute against maiming in 1748, and in 1772 added a more specific prohibition against “gouging, plucking or putting out an eye, biting, kicking or stomping.” In 1800 the grand jury of Franklin Country, Tennessee, in the manner of American juries, generally indicted the “practice of fighting, maiming and pulling out eyes, without the offenders being brought to justice.”

But in the southern highlands, rough and tumble retained its popularity. During the War of Independence, and English prisoner named Thomas Anburey witnessed several backcountry gouging contests. “An English boxing match,” he wrote, “. . . is humanity itself compared with the Virginian mode of fighting,” with its “biting, gouging and (if I may so term it) Abelarding each other.” Anburey described “a fellow, reckoned a great adept in gouging, who constantly kept the nails of both his thumbs and second fingers very long and pointed; nay, to prevent their breaking or splitting . . . he hardened them every evening in a candle.” Bloodsports have existed in many cultures, but this was one of the few that made an entertainment of blinding, maiming, and castration.” Later when the Lancashire wrestling style made it to the US and was blended with the “rough and tumble” mentality, and the gambling involved, the very aggressive American catch-as-catch-can style of wrestling emerged and created some of the most outstanding grapplers in the word. Much of today’s MMA fighting concepts can be traced to these early “shooters.”

History of RAT in South Africa: The development of RAT in South Africa was influenced by several factors and several martial arts, but was uninfluenced by other systems of rough and tumble, which were unknown to the creators. As mentioned above it was conceived because of a practical need for soldiers and the nature of the meaning of “Rough and Tumble”, but later it developed as a contribution to the world of martial arts.

Initially, its technical structure was influenced by conventional martial arts and fighting systems and sports, but its fundamental concept has always been that a complete martial art needs to incorporate learning in all areas of combat. RAT has matured and continues to develop as a martial arts approach, rather than as a rigidly defined system. Practitioners believe that they are contributing to a universal concept of martial art. This means that knowledge developed can be applied to other martial arts, but also that knowledge and principles can be applied in RAT from other martial arts.

The martial arts and fighting systems that influenced RAT in its early stages were: western boxing, Chinese Kung Fu (Gung Fu), Japanese jujutsu, Zulu and Southern Sotho stick fighting Nguni stick fighting, and taekwondo. Later influences include amateur wrestling, Hsing-i (Xing Yi), and eskrima.

Principles of South African RAT: Practitioners refer to RAT as a martial art because it was a rejected as a defense force sport. Reviewers suggested that the range of techniques indicated that RAT should rather be classified as a martial art. Initially, the founder, had named RAT, ‘Rough and Tumble: The Sport of Integration’, as the most basic principle of RAT is that it should incorporate, use and offer self-defense learning in all possible areas of combat (in other words integrate any concept that could be of use to learners).

Whatever the need of application, RAT practitioners and teachers should have the insight and capacity to develop learning around such needs. So unlike most other martial arts, RAT does not have a specific technical structure and physical appearance which would enable someone to easily identify and classify RAT as RAT. The technical repertoire of one practitioner may be quite different for another practitioner. Learning becomes an individual experience and that is the real challenge for teachers of RAT.

Characteristics of RAT: While RAT might be an individualized form of learning there is a structured syllabus initially, which becomes far less structured at more advanced levels. Learners need to gain knowledge, skills and attitudes in a variety of areas and these areas form the physical and conceptual characteristics of RAT.

In terms of the physical characteristics, learners need to gain knowledge and skills in striking techniques (punches, kicks, elbow strikes, knee strikes, head butts, and other hand and finger strikes), standing grappling (throwing and tripping, clinching, trapping, locking and choking), ground grappling (striking, holds, locks, and chokes), target areas, use of weapons, defense against weapons, and self-defense. At the psychological and more cognitive level, learners need to demonstrate and apply knowledge in strategy, persistence and determination, ethics, laws, and to display attitudes of open-mindedness and humbleness.

Syllabus structure of RAT: Each learner is given a syllabus, which for most learners will comprise of several sections:

  • A fitness programme for that rank, level or grade
  • A fitness test
  • A sparring and drills assessment
  • An assessment of technical and knowledge areas and skills

There are two syllabi, one for Junior RATs and one for Senior RATs. Junior RATs are learners below the age of twelve, and Senior RATs are learners over the age of twelve. Junior learners who enter classes at a young age and continue beyond the age of twelve are permitted to progress through the Junior ranks.

Junior syllabus and ranks in RAT: A more traditional ranks structure of coloured belts was adopted for Junior ranks and there is a final belt (junior black belt). On completion of the black belt level there is continuation onto the senior ranks. It is possible, especially for younger learners to gain intermediate grading levels, such as coloured stripes. For example, a learner may gain several intermediate stripe levels between red and yellow belt.

At every level learners are challenged and are required at an early phase to begin applying principles, creating new techniques, and to improve their sparring ability.

Junior ranks:

  1. White Belt (no grading exam)
  2. Red Belt (practitioners receives RAT emblem for uniform)
  3. Yellow Belt
  4. Orange Belt
  5. Green Belt
  6. Blue Belt
  7. Purple Belt
  8. 1st Brown Belt
  9. 2nd Brown Belt
  10. 3rd Brown Belt
  11. Junior Black belt

Senior syllabus and ranks: In the senior ranks there are no conventional coloured belt markings. There is however a ranking structure. The syllabus for this level is also somewhat different and unconventional, so it is very difficult to make a comparison between the ranking belt structure of other martial arts.

For the first four ranks, learners are required to learn the Junior RAT syllabus in addition to further learning requirements. From the third rank onwards learners are also expected to do other required courses before they can complete their rank. Learning is challenging and gets progressively more difficult, both intellectually, physically, and technically. Initially tasks may be structured around already pre-determined techniques and situations, but at higher levels learners are required to reflect a lot more and create new techniques, as well as specialize in areas of their own interests.

Initially learners can be viewed almost as non-specialist ‘jack of all trades’. For this reason practitioners are exposed to other martial arts and martial artists and may even compete in various other martial arts competitions and even no-holds-barred kind of competitions. Competition is viewed in the light that it cannot be fully realistic. So competition to RAT practitioners is regarded as a drill and a learning activity in a particular sub-area of combat. For example, if some learners enter a sport jiu-jitsu competition, it would be to enhance their attributes in grappling. For this reason, RAT learners mostly develop an open-minded attitude to other martial arts and martial artists.

There are eighteen ranks in total with numerous compulsory and non-compulsory courses. At the 9th rank level learners are required to complete a special course on ‘persistence and determination (P&D)’. The P&D course is mostly devoted to developing the capacity to persevere, and is therefore often physically demanding in nature. Other spin-offs are the learners get to work in teams and engage with knowledge and skills. Usually at the end of this course, learners make noticeable improvements in their skill levels.