ST. LOUIS • Police Detective Joe Mayberry is looking for a little something more when he reads 20 police reports a day. He takes an extra look at surveillance photos of bank and store robbers. He asks victims a few extra questions: Were you looking down when you were attacked? How did the bad guy hold his gun?
The fraud investigator is trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys so he can defend himself against them — and teach others to do the same.
Mayberry, 43, and his wife, Jennifer Mayberry, 33, own and operate the St. Louis Combat Institute, based in a former storage garage in a small business park on the Hill. They teach kickboxing, Israeli martial art Krav Maga, and Systema, a Russian martial art. While kickboxing and Krav Maga are taught at several other area schools, the Mayberrys say they are the only Systema instructors in the area.
Systema has its roots in the 10th century, and the soldiers who used it then were versatile and innovative, using hand-to-hand combat and objects around them to protect themselves. The same applies today. Joe Mayberry teaches students how to protect themselves in the dark, outdoors, against one attacker or several, using whatever potential tools they have with them — a gun, a knife, an iPhone, or even a coat. Yes, it is possible to take someone out with a smartphone, or slice open someone’s neck with a jacket zipper.
“What they’re learning here is realism,” he said. “What a lot of these places are teaching can be found in books. What we’re teaching is what is happening in the street today. If people are being robbed at knifepoint, we’re working on that in class this week.”
There are no techniques, no uniforms, no breaking boards or fancy kicking. The lessons focus on natural body movements, breathing techniques and how to be smarter and calmer than your attacker. “The System” is based on taking care of yourself more than destroying your opponent and keeping your cool “like a snake charmer,” so you have an advantage in a tenuous situation, Mayberry says.
“The beauty of Systema is it teaches you to stay calm in the face of fear and violence,” says the soft-spoken Mayberry. “For police, I can’t think of anything better. You put aggression into a police officer, bad things can happen.”
He points out that traditional “pain-based” compliance methods used on criminals may not make a difference, especially if the bad guy is under the influence of drugs — and otherwise feels no pain. Systema is “more subtle and effective,” he says. Special forces units in the United States have adopted it, he says.
Mayberry himself learned about Systema through his work with the government. He grew up in north St. Louis County, one of six children, and collected bottles and took odd jobs to make enough money for karate lessons. Before graduating from Bishop DuBourg High School, he earned his black belt. He joined the Marines to travel the world, and while stationed in Israel learned about Krav Maga through some friends he made in the Israeli Defense Forces. He then worked for the State Department in Washington, and by then Krav Maga had come to America. But it had become more of a commercialized fitness routine, different from what he learned in Israel, he said.
While in D.C., he met people who had once been Soviet military officers, and they told him about Systema. It was unknown in the Western world before the fall of communism, he said, and is slowly gaining recognition.
He began training with some teachers and, meanwhile, started work as an officer with the St. Louis Police Department. He met Jennifer, a black belt in freestyle kickboxing, through friends. They have three children, Joseph, 11, Jordan, 10, and Jillian, 8. When the kids were smaller, Joe Mayberry worked as a security officer at bars and nightclubs to supplement his police income.
Not being home for his family was tough, so the couple opened the St. Louis Combat Institute in 2010. It’s something they can do as a family – the kids come along to classes in the evenings, hang out and do their homework. On Saturday mornings, they help teach Systema classes for kids. Many of the school’s students are area law enforcement officers.
Steve Stulze, head instructor of Xtreme Krav Maga St. Louis in Fenton, admits he is a competitor and that he bought the St. Louis Combat Institute domain name before the Mayberrys had a chance to — just part of doing business, he says. While he doesn’t know much about Systema, he questions its lack of levels or testing. “What is their goal? How do they know if they are good if there isn’t a test?” he asks.
Mayberry said students are tested in class as individuals, and a “cookie cutter” approach doesn’t work if you’re dealing with all ages and abilities.
Classes are laid-back, quiet, and the Mayberrys don’t bark orders. Students work in pairs or in small groups as they practice how to handle themselves in different scenarios: fending off an attacker who has pinned you to the ground, coming up behind a gunman and disarming him, fending off an attacker who has a knife to a hostage’s throat.
Jake Lipe, 28, of St. Louis, lost his hearing four years ago after he was diagnosed with a neurological condition. He’s taken classes here for a year and is hooked. He says the classes gave him more confidence. “It pushed me, it taught me a new way to live,” Lipe said. “Time spent here is better than moping about not having my hearing anymore. I was pretty good at that.”
Ray Perkins, 53, works as a probation and parole officer in St. Louis. He has taken classes for more than three years but says he does it for himself, not his job. “I’m learning about my own fears and capabilities, and what I can and can’t do,” he said. “It’s just enhanced me as a person. You learn about what your body can take, and to fear it less.”
Students end the class with back-slaps, laughter and casual conversation with Mayberry, who gladly answers extra questions.
So they don’t call him master, or sensei?
“No, gosh, no,” Mayberry says, chuckling. “I’m just plain old Joe.”