About Jim Wagner

There are few self-defense instructors in the world with a background like that of Jim Wagner’s. There are even fewer who have had such a dramatic impact on the martial arts world. For his achievements Jim Wagner was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Self-Defense instructor of the Year 2006 and simultaneously given the Outstand Achievement in the Martial Arts award by Budo magazine for introducing the world to his reality-based concepts and training methods. Today Jim Wagner’s own system Reality-Based Personal Protection, made public on January 21, 2003, is one of the fastest growing self-defense systems in the world.

The roots of Reality-Based 

   At the age of 14 Jim Wagner started learning self-defense from a school friend, Alfonso Uceda, who had been a student of Bill “Superfoot” Wallace in the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do. Today Alfonso is a security supervisor at one of the largest casino/hotels in Las Vegas, and the two have maintained their friendship.

   After a year of private lessons Alfonso had taught Jim everything he knew and he advised Jim to expand his horizons by studying different martial arts systems. Jim took his advice and enrolled at the Japan Karate-Do Ryobu-Kai in Anaheim, California. His new instructor, Kiyoshi Yamazaki (the same man that trained actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian) was a strict disciplinarian and traditionalist. In addition to Karate, the weekly regiment also included Judo, Kendo (the way of the sword), and other weapons training (tonfa, sai, staff, and nunchaku).

   At 16 years of age Jim Wagner went to a month long martial arts training camp nestled in Aspen, Colorado and took lessons from little known instructor at the time Dan Inosanto – protégé of the late Bruce Lee. It was there that Jim learned the basics of Filipino Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Wing Chun. After the seminar had ended Dan Inosanto encouraged Jim to continue training with him at the Filipino Kali Academy in Torrance, California. Thus, in 1977 Jim Wagner was one of the original Jeet Kune Do / Kali students under Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo.

Beginning in 1977 Dan Inosanto taught Jim Wagner the martial arts of Jeet Kune Do, Filipino Kali, and Wing Chun at the Filipino Kali Academy in Torrance, California and then later at the Inosanto Academy at Marina Del Rey
Jim Wagner and his former instructor Dan Inosanto

   Both masters, who were way ahead-of-their-time in that day, encouraged learning different martial arts and experimentation, thus Jim Wagner also studied the following systems during this period: Vietnamese Kung-Fu, Chinese Po-Keck Yin Yang Kung-Fu, European fencing, Chinese Kickboxing, and Greco-Roman wrestling. This was two decades before the term “mix martial arts” came into vogue.

In the early 1980's Jim Wagner, and other Jeet Kune Do instructors, were mixing different martial arts systems together long before the term 'mixed martial arts' became popular
Jim Wagner (right) in a full contact stick fight

Joining the military 

  At the age of 18 Jim Wagner joined the United States Army. His MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) was the unglamorous job of combat radio operator. As Jim put it, “I carried a heavy durable radio on my back that had a long whip antenna, packed an M16 rifle in one hand and the radio mike in the other.” It was only five years after the Vietnam War, the Iranians had American hostages, and it was out with President Jimmy Carter and in with President Ronald Regan. Yet, in spite of the low moral and lack of conflict at the time, the military was a defining moment in the way that Jim would approach the martial arts later on in life.

  When Jim Wagner went through “boot camp” (Basic Combat Training) at Fort Jackson, South Carolina he was extremely impressed to the degree of realism that the military trained its people. He recalls, “They were actually training for the real thing: simulated battlefields, replica enemy weapons, live-fire targets that were painted like Russian soldiers, smoke, explosions… the whole nine yards. Even the best martial arts studios that I had trained in before putting a military uniform on had never trained as realistically as this. That is to say, to include props and special effects as part of the training environment.”

The army's realistic approach to training influenced Jim Wagner positively. His ideas would later in life become the Reality-Based Personal Protection system
Jim Wagner during "war games" at Fort Benning

   After BCT Jim went onto Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Gordon, Georgia and then to his permanent duty station, the HHC 43rd Combat Engineer Battalion, Fort Benning, Georgia.

   Throughout his stay in the army Jim maintained his martial arts skills and even gave private lessons to interested soldiers. After the army Jim Wagner went back home to Southern California and enrolled in collage majoring in graphic arts and learning the French language to pursue a career in advertising. After his first semester Jim started working as a production artist for Val-Pak Direct Marketing Systems and then landed the position as Art Director for Mammoth Publishing followed by CCM Publications. He then went on to work for a couple of advertising firms, and ended up as the president of Advertising Design Centre. These skills in marketing and advertising would prove useful in later years when Jim would begin promoting his new Reality-Based Personal Protection system.

Placed behind bars 

In 1988 Jim Wagner had stopped teaching under the Jeet Kune Do / Kali banner and was experimenting with scenario training, paint guns, firearms training, and began to read books about SWAT tactics and world terrorism. One of Jim’s top students, Mike DiGiovanni, who was the maintenance supervisor for the City of Costa Mesa, and convinced Jim that he should apply for a new job opening at the Costa Mesa Police Department Jail. The job was that of corrections officer – a jailer. Jim, wanting a career with a little more adventure, applied for the position and received it six months later.

For two years (1988 - 1990) Jim Wagner booked and housed prisoners at the Costa Mesa Police Department Jail Facility
Corrections Officer Jim Wagner booking a prisoner

   For two years Jim booked and housed prisoners. It was also in this very environment that he abandoned most of his traditional martial arts training and simplified his fighting techniques. He had no choice. The corrections officers were not allowed to carry any weapons in the jail, and it was a common occurrence for prisoners to attack the guards. This was in the days before pepper spray, and before the popularity of stun guns and the invention of tasers. Immersed in daily violence Jim learned what truly worked and what didn’t.   

Pinning on the badge    

In 1991 Jim Wagner, sponsored by the Costa Mesa Police Department, entered the police academy – the
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Training Academy Class 104. It was here that he trained with the shotgun, pistol, baton, and police defensive tactics. Like his military training before, Jim was deeply influenced by the realistic conflict scenarios that his instructors put him and his fellow recruits through. Five months later, on June 21st, Jim was out on the streets of Costa Mesa with his Field Training Officer (FTO).  Along with the uniform, badge, and gun came everything one would expect in an urban sprawl just south of Los Angeles: robberies, rapes, murders, domestic violence, car chases, stabbings, gang activity, and every other sort of evil. He had been shot at, attacked with a knife, and plenty of hand-to-hand conflict. For most of Jim’s eight years with the force he was out on the streets doing patrol. That’s what he preferred, and he chose the part of the city that had the most crime – Area 1, the southwest side.

Most of Jim Wagner's career with the Costa Mesa Police Department was on street patrol (1991 - 1999)
Officer Jim Wagner on patrol in Costa Mesa

During this time Jim earned a place on the S.W.A.T. team (Special Weapons and Tactics). For most police departments in North America this is the top-of-the-food-chain, and Jim took full advantage of the opportunities. It was through this conduit that Jim learned about logistics, command post operations, hostage negotiations, entry team tactics, and sniping. On the job training included courses with LAPD SWAT, the U.S. Army Special Forces, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Tactical Training Center, and from U.S. Marines Division Schools MCB Camp Pendleton (Advanced Sniper Course, Military Operations Urban Terrain MOUT, Helicopter Rope Suspension Training HRST, and Range Safety Officer RSO).

   While conducting a myriad of courses at Camp Pendleton, both military units and other law enforcement agencies using the base for their own training discovered Jim Wagner’s unique approach to training and his seamless blending of defensive tactics with edged weapons and firearms skills. Before long he was getting offers from not only the Marines, but others as well: U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group, Department of Defense Police, California Highway Patrol, California Department of Corrections, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Probation Department, U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration & Naturalization Service, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines Provost Marshal Office, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the list goes on. Then, by 1996 Jim found himself being invited by foreign unit to train in their own countries: GermanGSG9, Brazilian G.A.T.E., Argentinean G.O.E., Royal Canadian Mounted Police, London Metropolitan Police, Helsinki Police Department, and various units in Spain, Mexico, and Israel.

Jim Wagner at a shoot house at Camp Pendleton during Range Safety Officer (RSO) course
Officer Jim Wagner on CMPD S.W.A.T. Team
The demand on Jim Wagner’s time was so overwhelming that in 1999 he decided to resign from the Costa Mesa Police Department and started teaching full time. However, not wanting to fully give up his law enforcement career Jim applied as a Reserve Deputy at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (the fifth largest sheriff’s department in the United States), and was sworn in one year later in 2000. When his chain-of-command took a look at his file and saw the amount of training and experience he had, they promoted him to the rank of sergeant only a few months later and placed him on the newly formed Dignitary Protection Unit (DPU) as a team leader and trainer. During this stint, working out of the Katella Facility, Jim was a bodyguard for diplomats, celebrities, VIPs, and as a personal bodyguard for the Sheriff himself – Mike Carona.    The two years at the Sheriff’s Department was a time where Jim Wagner not only perfected his bodyguard and firearms skills, but where he became involved in other high-speed training: gas & oil platform takedowns off of the coast of California, bus assault, tactical rappel courses, aircraft assault, ship assault, tactical swim and SCUBA courses, police maritime search & rescue, helicopter assault, foreign sniper courses, and lots of police and military defensive tactics courses. Some of the courses Jim created during this period were: Bodyguard Defensive Tactics, SWAT Defensive Tactics, Patrol Defensive Tactics, Corrections Defensive Tactics, Investigator Defensive Tactics, and Probation Defensive Tactics.
Jim Wagner was a team leader for the Dignitary Protection Unit (DPU) of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, California (2000-2002)
Sergeant Jim Wagner on Dignitary Protection Unit
America goes to war arts 

On September 11, 2001 the United States was attacked by Islamic terrorists using passenger aircraft as piloted missiles. Like most Americans, Jim was outraged by these acts, but rather than complaining about it he volunteered to go “on the front lines.” The federal government was looking for those with special operations experience and accepted Jim’s application, marking it HIGHLY QUALIFIED, and sent him to counterterrorism school at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) at Artesia, New Mexico. In class TSATP-206B Jim learned all about terrorist organizations worldwide, explosives, Close Quarter Battle, weapons of mass destruction, defensive tactics, and spent countless hours at the shooting range. This was only the first phase of training.

U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service 

Next, Jim Wagner went through the Federal Air Marshal Basic Training Course where he learned all about air transportation security, surveillance, bomb searches, rules of engagement, and participated in elaborate scenarios on the ground and in passenger aircraft. On April 18, 2002 Jim graduated with honors (Academic Award achieving the average score of 97.68 and qualifying as EXPERT on the Practical Pistol Course), and was sworn in as a Special Agent. He was then assigned to the Los Angeles Field Office where he began to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom doing counterterrorism missions on the ground and in the air.

Jim Wagner was sworn in as a Special Agent with the United States Federal Air Marshal Service exactly six months after 9/11
U.S. Federal Air Marshal Jim Wagner (right)

After 146 missions, and coming face-to-face with suspected terrorists, activity started dying down in the aviation sector. At the same time Jim Wagner’s monthly column HIGH RISK in Black Belt magazine, and his feature articles in Budo magazine all across Europe, were becoming increasingly popular. Since writing for these two publication, first in 1999 and then in 2000, the martial arts community was finally awakening to the real threats society was facing and to Jim’s reality-based techniques and training methods that are based upon military, police, and special operations training. In conjunction with several other events happening at the time, Jim Wagner decided to resign from the federal government working his last day on September 11, 2003 – the one year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Back to training the elite 

Once again Jim Wagner could have photographs of his face published again, and begin teaching the world’s elite teams full time again. This time it included the U.S. Coast Guard Sea Marshals, the U.S. Air Force Security Forces Space Command, the U.S. Army Military Police, and then in December 2003 for the Israel Defense Forces. Jim was once again invited to train in Israel, only this time it was for new recruits, and Special Forces selection, at the famous Wingate Institute, where the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga was born, but not on the civilian side of the facility, but on the military side of the house known as Baghad 8.

   Since 1992 Jim had only been teaching government agencies. Before that he had taught many civilian courses, and even spearheaded one of the most popular women’s self-defense courses of its time (1989) called Women Against Rape, but admittedly Jim had developed the “us against them” attitude over the years; a common attitude among law enforcement officials. Then Johan Lai, one of Jim’s former deputies from the Dignitary Protection Unit and close friend afterward, convinced him that civilians were the ones actually on the “front line” of crime and terrorism, and that all law abiding citizens should be taught how to defend themselves as much as any first responder. After all, the aircrafts that were seized on 9/11 didn’t have military or police personnel aboard to protect the people. It was those brave souls on United Airlines Flight 93 who fought back against terrorists though they all perished in a field at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When a robber sticks a gun in the face of his victim the police are not going to be there, nor will they be there with a rape victim, or with the victim of a gang related drive by shooting, or…

   Therefore, on January 21, 2003 Jim Wagner made a decision to teach a civilian version of his techniques and training methods under the new name of Reality-Based Personal Protection.

Reality-Based goes global 

   Once the decision was made to go public with the Reality-Based Personal Protection system Black Belt magazine immediately put their weight behind Jim Wagner’s ideas and filmed the DVD series Reality-Based Personal Protection which consisted of eight titles: Knowledge Domain, Defensive Tactics, Ground Survival, Knife Survival, Crime Survival, Terrorism Survival, Handgun Survival and Women’s Survival. On the other side of the sea Alfredo Tucci, the publisher of Budo magazine headquartered in Madrid, Spain commissioned Jim to work on several DVDs: Police & Military Knife Defense, Special Operations Knife Offense, Police Ground Tactics, and Police Baton Tactics, which to this day are some of Budo’s top selling DVDs.

In 2003 Black Belt magazine produced eight DVDs to launch the Jim Wagner Reality-Based Personal Protection series followed by the book in 2005
Jim Wagner during filming of his DVD series

Of course DVDs and articles is just one way that Jim continues to spread the news about his revolutionary self-defense system. The best way has been for Jim to teach people himself, and to raise up an army of qualified instructors. What started as regular courses in Dublin, London, Los Angeles, New York City, Helsinki, and Chicago has recently included other cities like Paris, Amsterdam, and Solingen, Germany. From the first month the system started it went international, and it hasn’t stop growing since.

Jim Wagner today 

Besides teaching Reality-Based courses worldwide, producing DVDs, and writing books and articles, Jim Wagner is still a consultant and instructor to a variety of agencies, security firms, and bodyguard companies. In fact, in the beginning of 2006 Jim Wagner accepted a two-week assignment where he and another bodyguard protected movie stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at their Malibu home. He also was hired to provide close security at the 63rd Annual Golden Globes Awards pre-event party that included Shirley McClain, Matthew Perry, Scott Bakula, and Tom Arnold.   Also in 2006 the famous German knife maker, Boker, released the Jim Wagner Reality-Based Blade. This is a tactical folding knife designed by Jim Wagner himself and features a few original ideas that have been patented. Jim’s unique knife is only finding its way into the hands of military, police, and security professionals, but it is bringing knife enthusiasts into the Reality-Based Personal Protection system – specifically into the Knife Survival courses. Jim is currently working on other versions of the Reality-Based Blade, and on other designs.  2007 looks like it will be no less busy. Jim Wagner has plans to teach, for the first time, in Australia, South Africa, and Switzerland, and to continue building up the new Italian office.

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