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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

19 February 2010

Book Review - Watch My Back (Geoff Thompson)

Short Review: Graphically violent, with prose that sometimes stumbles, this autobiography is nevertheless an engaging read. Geoff Thompson is a noted figure in the world of self defence, meaning that anyone at all interested in his work will find Watch My Back a revealing insight. He viscerally describes the experiences that transformed him from somebody terrified of conflict into a successful bouncer, feared throughout his home town of Coventry. Available to buy here (or in the US, here).

Long Review: In the eight years I've been active on martial arts internet forums, I've said many times that I'm not interested in self defence (the only encounter I've had with RBSD was during Jamie Clubb's class, at the Cyberkwoon meetings). It isn't something I train for, firstly because I find it dull, and secondly because I'm dubious about the benefits. I'm small, weak and passive, so if some huge drunk with a broken bottle wanted to smash my head in for knocking over his pint, I doubt there is much I could do beyond running away.

Reading a book like Watch My Back only confirms that feeling. It is written by Geoff Thompson, a pioneer in the Reality Based Self Defence (RBSD) scene, particularly when it comes to the significant differences from a typical martial arts class. He has written many, many books on the topic, as well as branched off into self-help and even film scripts.

Personally I've never been keen on the self-help genre, but when it comes to self defence, Thompson is a legend in the UK, and globally respected as well. Though he has faced criticism for the direction he's taken in recent years, his contribution to the martial arts has been immense. In a comparable process to Matt Thornton's pivotal concept of 'aliveness', Thompson brought reality to self defence instruction.

Watch My Back was Thompson's first book, his autobiography, describing the circumstances that led to his later position as a world-renowned self defence expert. Although self defence isn't my area, I've been wanting to read this for a while. I finally got round to it due to the increased visibility of 'self defence' in BJJ, since Gracie Combatives hit the internet last year. I wanted to see what somebody acknowledged as an authority on self defence had to say, and how those views developed.

Thompson's autobiography frequently intersects with his other work in self-help, particularly overcoming fear. He even quotes a relevant chunk from Fear – The Friend of Exceptional People towards the end of the book. Presumably that can't have been the case with the original edition of Watch My Back: it has been updated numerous times since the 1990s (the copy I read is from 2000, with a new edition appearing last year).

Given that this book is largely about violence, Thompson's career as a self defence instructor also features heavily. That begins with the prologue, where Thompson summarises his perspective on the ideal approach to a real fight (pp6-7):

Not too detailed a plan, no complications, no equations, no grapple with morality or peer pressure, just bang him. That’s it. All this bollocks about karate or kung-fu, about this range or that range, bridging the gap, setting up, weakening them with a kick – there’s no need, just hit the fuckers . . . very hard!

It took some time for Thompson to reach that conclusion, and to inculcate his hardened attitude. Watch My Back discusses how he spent much of his childhood at the mercy of fear, made even worse when he suffered sexual abuse as an eleven year old. His greatest fear was physical confrontation, so he took up martial arts. It wasn't enough. Eventually, he says that he realised the only way to overcome that fear was to face it head-on. That's how Geoff Thompson found himself working as a bouncer.

Thompson had a black belt in karate, but that didn't mean much on the doors. Competitors in mixed martial arts gradually realised they had to become well-rounded to succeed in the Octagon or the ring, developing competence at striking, groundwork and takedowns. Thompson discovered this was also true on the street, but interestingly, he feels that the paramount skill is a fast, powerful, pre-emptive punch (pp254-255):

I love the Western boxing. This is surely the most effective system known to man, but again in kicking and grappling range it comes a very sorry second place. However, these boxers are so deft with their hands that it often does not get to the other two ranges. Most fights start at about 18 inches, then quickly degenerate into grappling if not maintained. So punching range is the natural range for a real fight. If it is the natural range I can see no reason to convince me that I should change it for another, especially when all the other ranges are weaker in this arena. Hands are king as far as I am concerned.

He is careful to note that you need the other ranges too – after all, he has a black belt in judo, and judging by pictures, he's had some contact with BJJ too – but for Thompson, a knock-out punch was his most valuable asset. That punch, normally indicated by a simple 'bang!', is put to use again and again over the course of Watch My Back. The vast majority of the book is a series of fights, where Thompson describes the drunks, thugs and criminals he had to deal with in his decade as a doorman. It is often extremely violent, especially when Thompson relates anecdotes of situations that didn't go so well, such as friends who were stabbed, glassed or even beaten to a pulp in their own homes.

Despite the frequently excessive violence (made all the more shocking by Thompson's constant use of the pre-emptive strike, which he believes is an essential part of self defence), Thompson manages to retain an air of authenticity, something few writers ever capture. While I doubt everything in the book is true, and any real events have probably been exaggerated and embellished, you still come away with the sense that Thompson is speaking from experience. Here's an example, from the end of the book (pp460-461):

‘So you’re not going to go then?’ I said, bringing my right hand back as though showing the door. The question engaged his brain and gave my shot a window, I’d only need the one.

Craig and Catalogue John were still outside waiting for me to arrive, unaware that I was inside. Wilmot-Brown was upstairs in the living quarters, looking out of the window for me. I’m here. I’m fucking here. He was probably cursing me for taking so long.


I dropped a heavy right onto Ray’s fat jaw line. I hit him as hard and as fast as I could. The contact was sound. One of my better punches, if I do say so myself. I felt the heavy contact of knuckle on bone and knew I’d get a result. His eyes closed and his face shuddered. He was out before he fell. His body tumbled heavily towards the beer-splashed floor. His beer glass jumped from his hand and, almost in slow motion, spun in the air, spewing beer in all directions. My right foot met his head before it hit the floor, taking his front teeth out. I kicked him so hard that blood splattered all over my lovely Fila trainers and socks. His face bumped against the floor emitting a low hollow thud that made my stomach turn.

A collective ‘OOOO!’ came from the bar full of customers. As he lay motionless at my feet, beer and blood running in a river around his head and seeping into his silver tracksuit top like an explosion transfer, I brought the heel of my right foot heavily down on his face and let out a blood-curdling ‘KIAAA!’ I hated myself as I did it. But I had to, it was survival. If this bastard got up I could lose, and that frightened me.

There are various flaws with this book. The prose can be clichéd and clumsy. Sexism and homophobia creep in at several points. Attempts at humour occasionally fall flat, or worse, cast Thompson in a sinister light, taking pleasure in violence and personal abuse. He can sound arrogant, especially his proud boast that he has never lost a fight in over three hundred encounters. That's a figure which could happily sit alongside Rickson's infamous '400-0' claims, with about the same likelihood of accuracy.

However, to an extent all of that is understandable, because the book is written as if it was an informal chat with the reader, not a carefully edited piece of non-fiction. While Thompson tries to shift into a more professional register at certain points – and when he talks about his theories on self defence, he sounds authoritative – generally you feel as if you're sat in a pub listening to old war stories.

Whether or not these have grown in the telling, they're often engrossing, and importantly, Thompson goes on to reveal his fears at the consequences. Primarily that means legal repercussions, or even more dangerous, disgruntled opponents returning for another round, with friends and weapons, when your guard is down. In this section of the book, Thompson comes across as honest, stating that the fear was always there. He just learned how to harness it as an ally, instead of ranking fear among his enemies.

If you're looking for a polished piece of writing, this probably isn't something you'll enjoy. As he describes in the text, Thompson wrote the original edition of Watch My Back in a toilet, while working in a factory. His route to becoming an author certainly wasn't typical, and it has taken him some time to achieve competency: much of his first book reflects that. However, if you're interested in self defence, or Thompson's experience as a bouncer in 1980s Coventry, those flaws can be overcome. Available to buy here (or in the US, here).

Since Watch My Back and his days as a leader of the RBSD movement, Thompson has become a screen writer. For example, Clubbed grew out of Watch My Back, essentially a fictionalised version of the book brought to life. If you've read the book, I found it makes the film a lot more entertaining. You'll recognise some sequences that have been lifted directly from the text, but mostly they're modified, in order to fit in with Clubbed's narrative. Thompson even has a cameo, holding the pads for the protagonist and his training partners. Thompson's style is definitely better suited to film, so I'll be interested to see what he comes up with next.

Clubbed wasn't the first film to emerge from Watch My Back, as in 2002, Geoff Thompson wrote the short piece Bouncer. Impressively for a first-timer, he was able to get Ray Winstone to play the starring role. Perfect casting:


  1. Good review.... I've also felt the same way about self-defense and BJJ. I think that it's good to remember that while BJJ does train "aliveness," we still do things that you would never do in a street fight (like jump guard).

  2. Thanks!

    Interesting that you mention pulling guard and self defence, as it means I can c&p something I've written before:

    I have seen pulling guard advocated as self defence a couple of times in the past. First, there was this post on Bullshido, by Lampa, where he talks about pulling guard in a multiple opponent situation, surprisingly.

    Second, it is featured as part of Gracie Combatives. I go into more depth on the review, but in short, you can see Ryron on the left has a grip on Rener's shoulders and is crouching down, in the process of moving backwards, ready to sit into guard. Your feet stay on the ground, you don't jump. Here's a screencap

  3. Hey Slidyfoot, thanks for reading and commenting on my blog. I really appreciate it.

  4. No problem: I always try to comment if I can think of something relevant to say when reading a blog, as I know how much I enjoy feedback myself. :)

  5. Been a fan of Geoff Thompsons for several years and from what I've heard (rumour and grapevine)..

    - It was exagerated to warn people off (as I'm sure he quickly became a trophy to take) and I can only assume sell more (request of publishers .. welcome to real life - sigh :)

    - His other book Red Mist is allegedly more 'his' real life story.

    - I personally really admire what he's done to a) market himself and achieve his goals ... very clever and b) do what he dreams off (become a writer) and solid evidence that writing words isn't enough ... finding a market is crucial.

    - Plus he has trained with very good martial artists, got his BB from Neil Adams in Judo, is good chums with Rick Young (Blue from a Machado in like 93 and BB from Gracie Barra here).

    Cool review and you're definatley clever enough to see more between the lines than most (myself included .. am a little jealous)!

  6. I assume when you say "BB from Gracie Barra here" that he received a second blue belt whilst training in the UK?

    Would be interesting to know exactly who and when (I'd guess early on, which would mean Maurição), as I haven't read much about Thompson's BJJ training.

  7. Heh - re-reading this, I realise that you just meant Rick Young got his blue from the Machados in '93, then his black belt over here from Maurição, rather than anything about Thompson's BJJ rank.

    D'oh: more proof that I'm really not that clever after all. ;)