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Combat Origins: The Hacker with Ryan Hall

Words by Alexander Darwin @CombatCodes

Illustrations by Ryan Best @RyanBestArt

Interviews with @RyanHall5050 @KennyFlorian @dotMudge @ChristianMontes76

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve had an overdeveloped sense of justice. It would get you into certain situations now and then, where you wish there were less consequences for planting your feet if you truly believed you were right and trying to help yourself or someone else. Having control of the world around you, if only within arm’s reach, is a positive thing. And that’s something I didn’t have the ability to do when I was younger until I began to train martial arts.”

Ryan Hall


Arlington, VA
July 2001

A typical high school party in suburban America: a star football player’s parents have fled to the Bahamas for the summer, and so their five-bedroom home is now at capacity with drunk adolescents, sweaty cluttered bodies swaying to a Jay-Z beat. A keg sits on an oriental rug beside the overfed golden retriever and some linebacker just vomited into the La-Z-Boy recliner.

Somewhere, within the chaos of hormones and dancing, shot-gunned beers and raucous laughter, stands a boy. He’s leaning against the granite kitchen counter. He’s a baseball player, shortstop with American Legion. He’s been in the batting cage every day working on hitting his up-and-outside fast-balls.

The boy watches the party calmly. He blinks rapidly as the surround-sound bass shakes the hardwood floor. He nods at a friend from history class, fist bumps a fellow infielder as they pass by.

He looks across the kitchen and sees that shit-faced linebacker. Big guy, two hundred pounds at least, draping his meaty arm across the shoulder of a girl the boy recognizes from math class. The girl clearly doesn’t want that arm there, she shrugs it off and re-engages with her friends, laughing nervously. But the linebacker doesn’t take the hint, his arm slings back onto the girl’s shoulder.

The boy feels something in the pit of his stomach. A swelling of urgency. The sensation rises to his chest and sticks there, as if waiting for the boy, urging him towards action.

He moves towards the linebacker, who still has his arm on the girl, despite the anxious flush now dressing her cheeks. 

“She doesn’t want you to do that,” the boy says, now standing right in front of them.

“What!?” the big kid shouts back in the boy’s face. The bass thrums against the floor beneath their feet, and the boy’s heart starts to pound along with it.

He speaks louder this time. “I don’t think she wants your arm there.”

The linebacker looks down at his arm, and then back at the boy.

“This arm?” he shouts, pulling the girl in closer to him. “Why the fuck should I care what you think?”

The boy feels the hairs on his neck stand up. A prickling sensation races down his arms. His breath catches in his chest.

The linebacker turns to face him, several inches taller than the boy, puffing his chest out to shove him backwards an inch. “What could you fucking do about it anyways?”

The boy can smell the puke on the brute’s breath. His mind races. He imagines throwing a punch, knocking the linebacker on his ass. But it just doesn’t seem real. His system freezes.

“That’s what I thought!” the linebacker stares down at him. “Get out of my face, I’m getting another beer.”

The linebacker shoulders the boy hard as he leaves the room. 

“Thanks Ryan,” the girl from math class offers, almost apologetically as she exits the kitchen with her friends.

The boy, Ryan, can still feel the blood thumping through his veins. He tries to take a shallow breath. He looks down at his sweaty palms, wondering what he would have done with those hands if he needed to use them.

He doesn’t know.

***

“People have not yet seen what Ryan can truly do on the mats. The last time he competed in jiu jitsu was 2012 and he is now light years ahead of what he was doing. It’s his never-ending search to get better, he’s constantly seeking the truths and removing the falsehoods.”

Kenny Florian

***

“Having a 120-pound vegan tune me up after he’s only been training six months was eye opening. If the beginner can put you away, then it’s inspiring, because not only is there value in doing something long-term, but there is also great initial value to the short-term training.”

Ryan Hall

Manhattan, NY
January 2004

A man stares at the business directory at the foot of a Chelsea greystone.

He looks like an engineer; lanky, unassuming, unshaven, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. And that’s precisely why Ryan is living in New York; he’s a first-year electrical engineering student at Manhattan College.

Tonight though, Ryan’s backpack isn’t filled with hardcovers like Electrical Current Fundamentals; he’s just got a pair of gym shorts, a mouthguard and a cup from his high school baseball days.

He finds what he’s looking for on the directory: FightHouse.

Ryan looks up to the second floor where the glass windows are fogged up before he steps from the January chill into the warmth of the building.

He climbs the stairs and enters FightHouse, a wide-open studio with egg white walls and wooden floors. A boxer works a heavy bag chained to the ceiling as a flock of aikido students fluidly move through their kata. A Systema practitioner in green army fatigues is shouting in Russian. In one corner, aqua blue mats cover the floor.

A man wearing a white gi uniform greets Ryan warmly. The man’s name is Christian Montes and he doesn’t seem physically imposing outside of his gnarled ears.

Ryan is provided a gi and steps onto the mats for his first Brazilian jiu jitsu class. He’s immediately drawn to the technical nature of the instruction. Much like engineering, there is a system to the art, an interplay of control and fluidity, a progression of levers and fulcrums.

The class ends with sparring, where Ryan is paired with a smaller man, a white belt. This novice, only at the start of his own practice, controls Ryan in a way he’s never experienced. The white belt is calm as he imposes his will and attacks Ryan with a series of strangles and joint locks. 

Sitting on the mats after class, Ryan breathes in deeply. He takes in the scent of sweat-soaked gi cloth and senses the firm give of the rubber mats beneath him. He’s home.

Soon after his initiation, he drops out of college. He spends his days training at FightHouse; both jiu jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing, though it’s not long before he fully devotes himself to grappling. He’s obsessed. He competes at local tournaments, wins and loses. Over the next several years Ryan moves away from New York, changes schools and instructors multiple times, but he always finds the mats again.

He follows the path that many jiu jitsu practitioners do, except, he is methodical and fully devoted to his training. Every moment on the mat is an opportunity to stress test the system; figure out where it breaks and where it overcomes.

Ryan still remembers a time when he did not know, when he looked down at sweaty palms and was unsure, when he was not yet brimming with calm confidence.

Never again.

***

“When the world knew him as the kid who could triangle world class black belts, I got to see how much wrestling he was working on. When he was the back-attack guy, all he wanted to do when we met up was box. When he was the deep half-guard guy, he had that monster Harai-Goshi phase. When he was the leglock guy in public, he was already showing me his karate style – high kick and spin kicks, that he’s been beautifully showcasing in the Octagon. Ryan is a true martial artist.”

Christian Montes

***

 

“Fighting brings out an insecurity in men that is pretty significant. Most can’t imagine the idea of getting into a fight or hurting someone without being angry. It’s because they’re afraid. They’re fearful because they don’t have the answers. They don’t know how to fight. A professional fighter shouldn’t have an emotional commitment. I don’t need to be angry to hurt you.”

Ryan Hall

Asbury Park, NJ
December 2011

“You have no idea what the fuck I’m capable of!” the belligerent drunk screams, pressing towards Ryan as his own friend holds him back. “I will beat you, I’ll fucking bite your nose off!”

Ryan sits beside a red-checkered table at Paisano’s Italian Restaurant, along with several of his training partners. They’ve come for dinner – the delicious calzones and subs the place serves – not for a fight.  But this man, spit flying from his mouth as he tries to close in on Ryan, thinks he wants a fight.

Other patrons sit, scared frozen to their chairs, watching wide-eyed as the spectacle unfolds.  Employees stand back, one waitress clutching a plastic knife to her breast, unsure of what to do in the face of such palpable aggression.

Ryan is stoic, his face dispassionate as he watches the drunk’s display. It’s the look of a parent watching a child throw another tantrum: observant, yet fully knowing that they can end the outburst at their discretion. One of Ryan’s training partners, Dave Jacobs, continues to enjoy his calzone.

“I’ve been in a fucking mental institution!” the man yells as he shoves his friend away from him.

The drunk stomps in front of Ryan, planting his feet and hunching over like an enraged ape. He leers his head forward, inches from Ryan’s face.

“Try me!” he screams. Ryan can smell his sour beer breath. He can see the dilated pupils at the center of the man’s bloodshot eyes. 

Ryan’s mind is still, his heart steady, his breath full.

He knows something this man does not. He can see fear in the man’s eyes; the veiled terror deep in his soul, masked behind his shit talking and violent posturing.

“Try me!” the man bellows again.

Ryan knows violence, it’s his tool, something that he can control. And so he doesn’t hesitate as he blasts forward from his seat into a double leg takedown. Ryan mounts the man with practiced ease as the rest of the restaurant convulses in the chaotic circumstance.

“I’m not going to hurt him,” Ryan says calmly, as he holds the man’s arms like a big brother pinning his flailing younger sibling. The drunk squirms, shouts more, makes excuses.

Ryan slowly disengages. Knee on belly, stand up, step back. Maybe the man has calmed down a bit.

“I will kill you!” the man screams through heavy breaths as he staggers back to his feet. “I will kill you!”

He rips his jacket off and throws it to the floor, perhaps something he’s seen in the movies that means now he’s really ready to fight.

Ryan looks down at the jacket, picks it up and politely attempts to hand it back to the enraged man. Again, he throws the jacket down.

The chaos continues. The drunk’s unintelligible screaming melds with the restaurant staff’s yelling, a baby crying, calls for the police.

“Go be an asshole outside,” the drunk’s friend shouts at him. The man responds with an open handed slap to the face, taking out his rage on his own friend.

Ryan takes the cue and opens the door to the restaurant, stepping outside to invite the man into the cool night air. He is the bait; the man wants him, come and get him. Just don’t bother anyone else in this restaurant tonight.

The drunk faces a dilemma. All of his aggression was aimed at Ryan; his friend was holding him back. And now, Ryan, the man he wants, awaits him outside in the darkness. He’s free to go.

As is the case with those who don’t truly know violence, the drunk hesitates. He waffles, now seeming to question his prior actions. Why was he trying to fight this man in the first place? A man who remained unwaveringly stoic in the face of violence.  A man who doesn’t look physically imposing, but whose ears are gnarled like the roots of a tree. A man that already took him down and controlled him like a child, with ease.

The drunk turns his back to the open door. He knows his ruse is up. All the posturing, yelling and aggression, it was nothing. Just noise and movement. Perhaps he’s done, ready to calm down and call it a night. But it’s too late now.

A shadow bursts from the darkness and envelops the man, dragging him into the night. 

The shadow works silently, swiftly, efficiently. 

The man is finally quiet.

***

“I don’t find violence scary. The thought of someone trying to hurt me doesn’t worry me.”

Ryan Hall

“A hacker looks at their environment or target and tries to get an understanding of how it works and what rules it tries to operate within. The hacker then attempts to perturb that environment. Sometimes by throwing random input into it and other times by deducing logical cases that cause the target to behave ‘inappropriately,’ particularly when it is predictable. Ryan’s analytical and experimental approach reminds me of some of the better hackers I’ve worked with. Even more impressive is how quickly he iterates and evolves.”

Peiter Zatko aka “Mudge”

Falls Church, VA
April 2012

Ryan sits cross-legged on the blue mats of his own academy, Fifty/50 Martial Arts. He’s hunched over, intensely focused on something in front of him.

“Got it!” a rare burst of emotion escapes from the normally stoic Ryan as a smile creases his face.

“Faster than the last one,” a man says from across from him on the mats. The man has short sandy brown hair and a square jaw.

“I finished that one ages ago,” a woman, clad in a gi, chimes in from beside them.

“Jen did have you beat on that one,” the man chuckles. “Now that you’ve got the hang of the four pin, try out six, this time with a spool pin.”

The man passes a silver lock to both Ryan and Jen. 

“Thanks Pete,” Ryan replies as he sets to work, first moving the lock through his hands and then holding it up to his face to examine it. He jiggles the lock face with his thumb and then carefully inserts a tension wrench into the keyhole. He readies a carbon steel pick.

Peiter Zatko has been teaching Ryan and some friends the art of lockpicking for the past several months. Every time Peiter arrives at the academy, he brings a more advanced practice lock with him. First, Peiter shows them how the specific lock works: where the plug meets the cylinder, how many pins it contains, whether it possesses security enhancements like spool pins. And then, he teaches them to exploit the lock: how to find its security flaws and use their tools to break its defenses.

“Look out for the false set,” Peiter warns Ryan. “When you separate a spool it’ll snag, under set, even though it still feels like it’s at the shear line like the rest of the pins.”

Peiter is a master lock picker. He’s recently taught the agents at nearby Quantico how to pick locks, along with providing them instruction on other close access security bypass techniques.

But, Peiter is even better known for a different sort of security bypass. Hacking. He’s still known to many around the world as Mudge, the man who helped found the hacker collective called L0pht in the 90s. Peiter demonstrated flaws and exploits in high level security systems and famously testified in front of a US Senate committee, telling senator Fred Thompson that he could bring down the entire internet in thirty minutes.

In 2010, Peiter was brought on by the US government to manage DARPAs cyber security research division, which was conveniently located right next door to Ryan’s academy. Peiter found a place to learn Brazilian jiu jitsu, and even more importantly, he found a teacher that had the mind of a hacker.

Ryan’s brow furrows as he probes the lock with his pick. He’s focused, just as he is when he practices jiu jitsu. The world dims outside of his task. He breathes deeply, steadies his hand.

“Do you feel the spool yet?” Peiter asks him.

“Yes,” Ryan replies. “I feel pressure back on the wrench when I push it.”

“Good. Now, lighten up the torque on your wrench, and push gently with your pick on the spool pin,” Peiter instructs. “You’ll hopefully feel some counter rotation.”

A few students have filtered into the academy and are peering over at Ryan’s newfound hobby.  They know Ryan; once he sets his mind to learning a new skill, he won’t stop until he’s satisfied with his ability to execute.

Ryan doesn’t just want to know how to pick locks. His interest stems from a desire to know how locks work in the first place. He wants to know the mechanics behind them, how the people who designed them think, and what shortcuts or omissions in their threat models they might have.

The silver cylinder lock clicks open satisfyingly in front of Ryan.

He hands it back to Peiter, who nods his head approvingly. “Looks like I’ll need to bring something tougher for you guys sooner than I thought.”

More students enter the academy, donning their gis and getting ready for the evening class.  Ryan will continue teaching what he’s been working on for the past hour. Not lockpicking. But bypassing a security system just the same, the human body. Teaching the body’s mechanics and how to exploit its weaknesses through angle, leverage and torque.

He will teach the art of jiu jitsu.

He will teach the art of hacking.

***

“The UFC provides the perfect opportunity for testing technique, seeing where the holes are.  Just like penetration testing or security testing in the infosec world. You need people trying to break what you’re doing in order to test its validity.”

Ryan Hall

Ryan has a gift not only to follow what he feels is right, but also the intelligence to figure out if it isn’t right, to determine what needs fixing. He’s the type of person who will never take what you say as gospel, he will hear what you’re saying and then test it out himself to see if it’s true or not.”

Kenny Florian

Sacramento CA
July 2019

The man in the cage shrugs. 

He’s just finished a fifteen-minute mixed martial arts bout, where another professional fighter attempted to grievously harm him for the duration. 

After the dust settles, the man has his hand raised in victory and all he does is shrug, as if to say, what did you expect? He isn’t sweating, his face unblemished, his body unharmed.

This is Ryan’s fourth fight and fourth win in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s largest and most competitive professional mixed martial arts league. A modern-day Roman Colosseum for those humans that exhibit the greatest aptitude for unarmed combat. 

Ryan’s win tonight was flawless. He dispatched a veteran opponent with a combination of long-distance spinning kicks and ninja-esque rolls to attack the legs. He knocked his opponent down several times and made him appear an ungraceful brute.

That’s been the trend for all of Ryan’s opponents thus far. They come off as brutish, without finesse, as if they’ve not been equipped with the same tools for violence that Ryan has.

Of course, this isn’t the case. All humans have the same tools: fists and feet, elbows and knees, shoulders and skulls. Professional fighters sharpen these tools, make it their trade to use them to inflict damage or incapacitate an adversary.

Ryan though, does not just sharpen his fight game. He writes and executes a code, and then he stress tests it.

Over thousands of hours of training he methodically determines which techniques are viable and which are useless to him. He doesn’t use a technique because it’s what he’s been taught, or what the current styles are. He only integrates what is lean, agile, efficient. He seeks to minimize damage to himself while maximizing damage to his opponent. 

Ryan removes the uncontrolled variables during his bouts: anger, excitement, hubris, fear. After all, he doesn’t train with these emotions, so injecting them into his fight would only serve to hinder his performance.

Ryan isn’t bothered by the fact that fans jeer him during his fights. Getting swayed by fan reactions would be a weakness, a deviation from his strategic execution. He doesn’t care what they do or think; most of them are untrained, with no respect for combat.

Mere hours after his fight, Ryan will already be strategizing for his next bout; analyzing his performance alongside his coaches, seeking to remove weaknesses and exploit strengths. The next day he’ll be back in the gym, again stress testing his technique. He’s repeated this same process thousands of times, each time evolving his martial programming.

Perhaps this is why Ryan looks so calm right now in the cage, as he shrugs in front of thousands of spectators. 

What did you expect?

***

“What most people think are the rules are not the rules. There are some things in common wisdom that are deeply profound, but most things that are commonly believed you can be pretty damn sure are incorrect. The question is: do you have the strength of character, the courage to go in a different direction? Even knowing that if you fail, people will mock you for it, they’ll say you never should have done it. If you succeed, initially it will be written off as luck, but keep winning and you’ve developed a valid and new path forward.”

Ryan Hall

***

About the Author:  Alexander Darwin is a @BostonBJJ black belt and author of ‘The Combat Codes’.  The Combat Codes is a sci-fi novel that fuses thrilling mixed martial arts action into an immersive dystopian world. A must-read for any fan of unarmed combat. Book Two of the Combat Codes expected early 2020!

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