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"Stay 'unreasonable.'  If you don't like the solutions [available to you], come up with your own." 
Dan Webre

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Copyright © 2003-2004 Phil Elmore, all rights reserved.

Bill Underwood's Defendo

Special Forces Unarmed Combat System, Reborn in Toronto

By Robbie Cressman

For decades, the name “Bill Underwood” seemed to disappear.  The 5 foot tall, slightly chubby, balding creator of “Combato” and “Defendo” passed away just north of Toronto in a nursing home at 90 years of age on 8 February, 1986.  What many forget is that well into his mid 80s he was still traveling around the world giving demonstrations and instruction to the elite in the genius of the hand-to-hand combat system that he created.  It was nothing for him at that age to topple 6’10, thundering paratroopers, subdue well-known “mountain man” celebrities like Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk) on national television, or quietly slip away to “hush-hush” locations to give training to well established security teams, law enforcement personnel, and intelligence agents.  

Lou Ferrigno (left), presumably prior to toppling.

Bill Underwood walked the “red carpet” after a short film was made on him entitled Don’t Mess With Bill, which was nominated for an Oscar at the 53rd Academy Awards.  Until the day of his passing he had a blank cheque in his pocket and a challenge left unmet.  The former trainer of secret agents had openly offered this cheque over many decades to anyone who could escape one of his holds if he put it on them.  MANY tried, yet none succeeded.

Underwood makes a point.

Underwood applying a little pressure.

Since February of 1986 Defendo lay quiet… until now. 

Mike Mandel, [whom I believe to be] the only known original instructor/trainer left in Underwood’s Defendo, approximately a year and a half ago began to impart all of his knowledge and experience to longtime friend Robbie Cressman.  The months since then have been a rocket ride.  Mandel and Cressman are currently being featured in the July edition of Martial Arts Illustrated, are days away from the opening of The Toronto School of Defendo, and will shortly be featured in a variety of other publications and television shows.  The duo are preparing for a demonstration and instruction tour in the U.K. slated for November 2003 with well known U.K. martial artist Clive Elliott.

Mike Mandel (left) and Robbie Cressman.

The Martialist recently had the chance to discuss Defendo with Robbie Cressman, Vice-President and Staff Instructor of Defendo International.

Robbie, for those who are not familiar with Bill Underwood, can you explain a little about his background -- how he developed his system and came to be involved with Special Forces?

Sure, my pleasure.  As a boy in Liverpool, England, beginning in 1907, Bill Underwood was exposed to some basic Jiu-Jitsu principles while he worked as a “cue boy” at the local Vaudeville Theatre.  Jiu-Jitsu masters Yukio Tani and Tara Maki were touring that particular circuit at the time and they developed a brief relationship with him.  Young Bill, (who had no previous “martial arts” experience) was fascinated by their grappling skills and quickly picked-up some basic principles.  From there he developed his own system, which became very different from standard Japanese Jiu-jitsu. 

Bill developed his system, which he called “Combato,” through WWI and used it numerous times to escape from life and death situations.  Bill was actually captured and brought behind enemy lines during the first German gas attack at Ypres in 1915.  Combato was his ticket to a “short” stay and a number of German soldiers died during his exit.  

In WWII, North American Allied forces didn’t have an answer to the Japanese wartime Judo that the boys were facing in the Pacific.  Underwood stepped up and taught Combato to Canadian, American, and British units of every sort and color.   A Canadian citizen at the time, Bill was well received in the USA and his first post there was with American Rangers.  Soon after, he was commissioned by the Pentagon for classified work with intelligence groups such as the F.B.I.

Underwood’s connection with the Pentagon was undoubtedly the introduction to one of his most interesting credentials.  His home base being in Toronto, he was commissioned to give unarmed combat instruction at Allied “Secret Training School” #103,” otherwise known as “Camp-X.”  How long he was there is not known, but it was probably for only short periods of time, giving crash courses in Combato.  The fact that Underwood was living only an hour from the Camp and was already involved in classified and Special Forces training makes it a pretty simple picture.  

(For those interested in learning more about the Camp I highly suggest that you visit Lynn Philip Hodgson’s website, He is the modern day authority on the subject and is now about to release his 4th book.  Lynn has done incredible work on the subject.)

In 1945 Underwood changed the name of his system to "Defendo." At that time Bill was getting bombarded with requests to train law enforcement groups etc...  He decided to do a little remodeling and removed the techniques that caused intentional permanent injury or death to focus more on restraint and compliance.  Defendo was born!  From 1945 to 1986 Bill taught Defendo all over the world.  In North America he was very well-known in the 60’s and 70’s and became a bit of a “media darling” in the 80’s while appearing multiple times on many well known television shows like Johnny Carson. 

How would you describe Defendo as combative system?

Essentially, Bill Underwood developed his techniques as a close quarter fighting system for the battlefield and then, as mentioned, modified it for more general self-protection.  It is a “Jiu-Jitsu” style grappling system but retains a combative feel through the inclusion of military type strikes, pressure point applications etc...  

The core of the system is the “Defendo Triad,” which is 5 grips, 4 leverages, and 12 pressure points.  What sets Defendo apart from many systems is that it’s a very well-packaged, well-rounded system that teaches very effective, simple techniques that get the job done… immediately.  

Defendo is not a martial art.  It’s not about physical fitness, competition or sparring.  It’s about the shutting down of physical conflict immediately.   The system is not based on physical strength or athletic ability (although that always helps) so anyone can learn it.  We have one student right now who is 70 years old!  

Defendo has an excellent component of finger compliance techniques so we regularly see smaller people taking down others twice their size and strength.  Defendo was also designed to be learned very quickly.  It is a fantastic option for those who wish to learn self-defense or reality based fighting and yet don’t have 4 or 5 years to earn a black belt.   At the same time, Defendo offers many highly effective twists and tricks for seasoned martial artists.

If Underwood taught Allied Forces in WWII, did he have any relationship with Fairbairn, Sykes, or Applegate?

There is no known record of Fairbairn and Underwood meeting.  However, under the cloak of secret operations during those days, who knows for sure?  The fact is that while Fairbairn and Sykes were instructing in Europe, Underwood was doing the same here in North America.  They were contemporaries.  I think it is likely that Applegate and Underwood met because of the American connection, but again, with both of them having left us, we will probably never know. 

A comparison between Fairbairn and Underwood is an interesting subject.  Without question, Fairbairn was the most celebrated of the two.  They developed their systems moving in opposite directions…  Fairbairn started with “Defendu” while he worked for the SMP and then moved to “Close Quarter Combat” after 1940.  Underwood, as described earlier, went about things in the reverse.  Fairbairn did not predate Underwood. In regards to the creating of their own individual systems. Underwood was developing Combato from 1907 onward, while Fairbairn was studying other Eastern systems at that time and didn’t coin “Defendu” until 1926. 

You've said you believe Mike Mandel to be "the only known original instructor/trainer left in Underwood’s Defendo."  How did your organization come to "inherit" Defendo?

The reason that Defendo, in its pure form, as Bill Underwood originally taught it, is with us today is completely due to Mike Mandel. 

I have had a great deal to do with the research, preservation, and establishment of where we are now, but Defendo would not be with us today if not for Mike’s incredible memory of the system.  He learned the system in the early 70s and then taught for Bill at his school in Toronto, certifying students who traveled from all over the world.

For whatever reason, Defendo essentially disappeared -- yet this had absolutely nothing to do with its effectiveness or practicality as a system.  Defendo’s rich history and credentials attest to that.  Underwood was simply a terrible self-promoter.  The vast majority of those who studied and taught the system are older now and not in action.  There are many who remember Bill.  I get e-mails every week from former students, soldiers, police officers etc… who have come across us and are thrilled that someone is teaching Defendo and preserving Bill’s legacy.  

The fact that we have been blessed with the opportunity is incredible.  After a solid year of research on the subject I have only come across one other individual who is actually teaching [what I consider to be] “Defendo” as part of his system professionally.  Mike Griffin of includes Defendo components with the law enforcement (Use of Force) and mixed martial arts instruction he gives.  He was a student of Bill's in the late 70s, early 80s.  Mike is a great guy.  I encourage you to visit his website.

Through all of the above we have essentially inherited the system and we do have a very direct lineage through Mike Mandel and the fact that he was a paid trainer for Bill Underwood.  We also now own and operate under Bill’s original company name, “Defendo International.”   Essentially, we are Bill Underwood’s Defendo almost 20 years later.

Is your organization affiliated in some way with Bill Wolfe’s Modern Defendo?

No, not at all, actually... 

...We have no issue with the Wolfe brothers (I have heard some good things about their Vancouver Battleschool) or any other group for that matter.  It’s important to us that people understand that our main objective is to preserve the work of Bill Underwood.  “Defendo” was always  Bill Underwood and that’s how we want him remembered.

Can you give us an idea of what else is on your plate and how you plan to bring Bill Underwood's Defendo back to the public eye in the coming months?

We are extremely busy.  The Toronto School of Defendo opens this month. We are also being featured by Martial Arts Illustrated in the July edition.  Regular Defendo classes have already been in progress north of Toronto in the Barrie area.  We will shortly be featured in "Eye Spy Magazine”, the world’s top magazine on special operations and intelligence groups.  We have a long list of demonstrations and professional instruction sessions ahead of us as well as features in other publications and even some future television appearances.  We have already been to the Camp-X Museum and The Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, which is directly connected to the Canadian Armed Forces.  We will be in the U.K. in November.  We have a professional training video shoot scheduled for mid-July.  This list goes on…

Aside from training directly under us in the Toronto area, we will be offering a distance learning program.  Students will be able to study the techniques by video and come to Toronto to be certified in the system.  There will shortly also be a program for those who wish to learn the system and open their own school in association with us in their community.  Anyone interested should contact:

Robbie Cressman
Defendo International Ltd.

In Canada: (866) 817-3076
Outside Canada: (705) 456-4333

We appreciate your time, Robbie, and wish you and Mike Mandel the best of luck in your endeavors.

Thank you!  We appreciate the opportunity.