The first rule of Fight Club is to train in Systema, a form of martial arts used by the Russian Armed Forces.
“Systema’s approach to self defence is an awakening of what you can do with your body period, not just for fighting,” says Emmanuel Manolakakis. “What you can do with your body and understanding how it works and through that understanding how you defend yourself.”
Manolakakis says he first discovered the Russian martial art after deciding to get back into training upon graduating from York University. While he was living with his parents in Richmond Hill he heard about an instructor who specialized in Systema, which he liked because of its less traditional hands-on approach.
“The moment I saw it I was like, ‘This is beautiful, this is exactly what I wanted,’ ” he says. “It’s a very practical way of defending yourself with no belts, no uniforms, you just wear regular workout gear, come into a class and the teacher is going to show you how to really protect yourself.”
After settling in East York and starting a family, he says he was inspired to start his own club since he wanted to continue training, but the commute north took too long.
What initially started as a part-time gig, he says, quickly transformed into a career.
“I was working full time for Bell Mobility, I had a great job, everything was good and I just wanted a small little club just to add to my martial art training,” he says. “I started with two classes and now we’ve got near 15 classes … and it’s just grown ever since to the point where this is what I’ve done full time for the last 10 years.”
The studio, which is located on Donlands Avenue south of O’Connor Drive, also offers youth and fitness programming in addition to adult martial arts training. Manolakakis, who runs most of the sessions, says he also instructs at York University and at Leaside High School, where he trains all grade 9 students, as well as around the world in China, Australia and France.
Although he liked the movie Fight Club, he says he wouldn’t have picked the name if he’d envisioned then that he’d eventually add a kids’ component, which he says started four years ago due to demands from his clients.
“All the adults that were coming to my classes looked at me and said, ‘Emmanuel, you have to teach our kids this stuff,’ ” he says.
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the name and martial arts in general, he says, is people often think they’ll get hurt or that everyone has to be aggressive or angry.
“It’s quite the opposite, we’re quite the funny group and we study every aspect of self defence and we do it in such a positive way with incredible results,” he says. “It’s just incredibly fun. The whole idea is if you’re not going to have fun, you’re not going to learn anything and if you’re too serious, it’s only going to get in your way to do what you need to do.”
He says his goal is for people to learn self-protection and how to develop a healthy and fit lifestyle. Aside from adding the youth programming and watching the club grow over the years, he says another highlight is taking part in charity work for the neighborhood.
“It’s a great community,” he says. “They’ve just adopted the club so well. I live in the area, my kids go to school in the area, I have a business in the area so everybody knows you and it’s a nice feeling. It’s good to be involved in your community. The more things you do within your community you just feel connected.”