Leader of the Pack

Leader of the Pack

By Robert Anasi ’89
Photos by David Zaitz

In a crowded warehouse, two men circle each other, holding knives. As they move they slash out at each other with vicious blows. A crowd presses in a circle around them, cheering as the fighters grapple and hack. One knife flies across the room. The fighters fall to a padded mat and wrestle there until a supervisor runs forward and shouts, “Time!” The fighters are greeted by applause as they stand and embrace, and two more fighters step forward to take their places.

Welcome to the world of Dog Brothers Martial Arts, the brainchild of Marc “Crafty Dog” Denny ’74. For the last two decades, Denny and his partners have disseminated their brand of full-contact martial arts through videos, training sessions, and the biannual “Dog Brothers Gathering of the Pack,” in which fighters meet for no-holds-barred brawls with fists, feet, knees, sticks, and knives. The knives may be blunted and the fighters wearing headgear, but the bruises are painfully real. The Dog Brothers’ goal is to bring pack members as close as possible to violent encounters—a mugging, a bar brawl, a shoot out—so they’ll know how to handle themselves when faced with deadly pressure.

Denny’s journey from Sarah Lawrence to the Dogs began in the mid-1970s. He used the frequent lay offs from a construction job in Philadelphia as an opportunity to head down to Mexico. One trip brought Denny and a friend to the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the capital of the tropical state of Chiapas (site of the Zapatista uprising). After meeting two American women there, they spent an afternoon riding horses and then went out for dinner. The women had long blond hair and, in the 70s style, wore hot pants. Denny recalls: “It’s a conservative area. Spanish is the second language for most people and there are a lot of traditional Indian customs. We suggested that the girls change before we went out and they said, ‘Oh, they’re just going to have to get used to modern women.’”

Denny shakes his head at the memory. After more than 30 years in Southern California, he still has a lot of the native New Yorker in his voice. Medium-tall with a lean, muscled frame, the only place Denny’s age shows is in his graying but still-thick hair.

After dinner, Denny and his friends were accosted by a group of drunken locals. They thought the women were prostitutes and starting dragging one of them away. Denny and his friend were able to fend the group off and reclaim the girl. As the local men shouted that they were going to get a gun, the Americans ran to a nearby police station.

“It’s a sleepy little town,” Denny says, “And there was one guy at the police station. Then the drunk guys came roaring up in their Volkswagen Bug. They didn’t have a gun but they had car antennas and bottles and a screwdriver, which can be a pretty deadly weapon. The cop didn’t have a gun, so he ran away.”

After a wild fight in front of the police station, the Americans took refuge inside. Denny put his shoulder against the door as the locals tried to force their way in. When help finally arrived, in the form of more police, Denny was surprised to find himself in handcuffs. After three days in prison (“Not jail,” Denny says. “Prison.”) where he faced down more intimidation, Denny was finally released.

“I made a note to myself right there,” Denny says: “Learn how to fight.”

Growing up in New York City in the 1960s, he had faced a number of situations where he’d been attacked, often by a group. The Kitty Genovese case in 1964—in which a woman was murdered while her neighbors looked on—had also made an enormous impression on the 11-year-old Marc Denny.

“It bothered me deeply that people stood by while someone was preyed on in that way,” he says.

Denny’s life in martial arts went through a number of stages. First he studied Tiger Claw Kung Fu while he was in law school at Columbia University, then he took a year of tae kwon do in Washington, DC. After giving up on the law—“It occurred to me that I didn’t want to be sitting down for the rest of my life”—he moved to California. A chance encounter with a martial artist on Long Beach led him to the world-renowned Kali Academy, which taught a weapons-based style of martial arts developed out of tribal warfare in the Philippines.

Denny was a serious student but he still felt like he was missing something. “I started wondering,” he says, “Just how do these beautiful drills apply when it comes to real fighting?”

He had reached the pivotal moment that every martial artist comes to face. No matter how many forms and drills you do, no matter how high you can kick and how hard you can punch, you wonder: What will I do when it’s for real? Tired of waiting, Denny and a partner decided to find out. Wearing fencing masks and stripped down hockey gloves for protection, they started fighting with the sticks used in Kali. For Denny, the first experience of real contact changed everything.

“It was almost a psychedelic experience,” Denny says. “As one of our guys put it: ‘There’s no meditation that will put you in the here and now like the silence around the sound of a stick buzzing by your head.’ You experience yourself without the words. There are a lot of people who chant up in the mountains for years to get a glimpse of that.”

In that intensity, Denny had found a way to move forward as a martial artist: “higher consciousness through harder contact.” The phrase became the Dog Brothers’ credo.

Alongside fellow martial artists Arlan “Salty Dog” Sanford and Eric “Top Dog” Knaus, Denny began fighting regularly. (Most of the pack members pick up “pack” nicknames over time. Denny got his “Crafty Dog” nickname for his fighting style and philosophical bent). Over the months they attracted others to their core group and developed the philosophy of the Dog Brothers. Denny explains the canine allusion on the group’s Web site: “The dog is the interface of man and the wolf, and we can connect so strongly because our dynamics are so similar. … Just like dogs, there is the bond of the pack …” Even though men are civilized, they still have wilderness inside them, he writes, and the best way to hone this innate aggression is through the group. “The solution is to ground aggression in a ritual expression that also prepares it for functional application.” For Denny and his companions, this solution took the form of Dog Brothers.

Dog Brothers took another step when Denny began to videotape some of their techniques and training sessions. Recovering from a serious knee injury, he was able to devote himself to editing the material. The results were far in advance of typical martial arts videos of the time, in which “the teacher stands in front of a wall and beats up his students,” says Denny.

Videos with titles like Die Less Often II, Bringing a Gun to a Knife Attack, Dogzilla’s First Day, and Lonely Dog in Action sold in large numbers and drew students to the growing pack. Denny was able to phase out his job in real estate and devote himself to Dog Brothers full time. As the business side expanded, Denny and his partners also continued to learn new skills from across the martial arts universe, including Brazilian jiujitsu and krabi krabong, the forefather of Thai kick boxing.

Dog Brothers now has an international following, and Denny teaches his techniques to martial arts groups and law enforcement agencies worldwide—as well as the United States Army. The group has also had the distinction of being turned down by the Ultimate Fighting Championship—the premiere mixed martial arts organization—for being “too extreme.” This is like the pope calling someone “too Catholic.”

In his teaching and writing, Denny emphasizes the fact that Dog Brothers offers a sense of manhood and community that has been all but lost in our society, although the threat of violence remains quite real.

The “Dog Brothers Gatherings of the Pack” are the place where the tribe of men comes together. Unlike spectator sports, where fans gather to be entertained, everyone at a Gathering has trained and fought.

“It’s not like boxing or cage-fighting where people are the mob at the Coliseum. We’re the tribe that comes to witness its warriors prepare themselves. We are preparing ourselves to stand together to defend our land, women, and children.”

For Denny, another major difference from contact sports exists in the attitude of the participant. In boxing or mixed martial arts, if you hurt your opponent, you go in for the kill (or at least a knockout). With Dog Brothers however, the man you are fighting is not the enemy; he is a brother. Fighters are guided by what Denny calls their “watcher,” an inner presence that keeps a fighter grounded and centered.

“In a weaponry fight you can’t expect the referee to jump in and stop it because you just can’t control yourself. You have to know when that guy can’t handle the next shot and you’re going to leave him lastingly damaged. The values are of the warriors of the tribe preparing to stand together, and you don’t want to damage someone you need to fight beside you.”

There are no judges, no referees, no trophies. “It’s a celebration of what each man has accomplished for himself,” Denny says.

To him, the man who comes out of that experience is transformed. He’s learned to connect his adrenal high with his inner self, his watcher. After the fights the applause is for both men. In those moments, the sense of community is real.