Bill Underwood

Bill UnderwoodBill Underwood (The “Little Giant Killer”) was Canada’s top Unarmed Combat Instructor in WWII.  It was Bill who created the basis for Canadian Forces Unarmed Combat by way of his system known as ”Combato” (1910).  His system known as “Defendo” (1945) became a foundation for many Canadian and American Law Enforcement Agencies.  All things considered his life work is truly Canada’s contribution to the world of unarmed combat and the martial arts.  No other fighting system even dating back to Canada’s Native Indians was created and developed in Canada, was used in defense of the nation and played a significant role in it’s Law Enforcement history.  Underwood’s Defendo even played a noted role in Canada’s pop culture.  Little Bill was a guest on “The Johnny Carson Show” 4 times, once as an 85 year old controlling the Incredible Hulk himself, Mr. Lou Ferrigno.   Bill was also the subject of a short film which in 1981 was nominated for an Oscar at the 53rd Academy Awards.  Mr. Underwood was a fascinating and talented man with an incredible story.  Who was Bill Underwood?

The five foot, 2 inches, gentle looking man called the "Human Atomic Bomb"- "Mighty Atom" – "Little Giant Killer" as a 12 year old boy in 1907 Liverpool England, made after school pocket money selling programmes at the Vaudeville Pavilion Theatre. As a child Bill was a friend of great performers like the legendary Harry Houdini, Buffalo Bill Cody and Charlie Chaplin.  Most are unaware of the fact that it was Bill Underwood who was standing at Harry Houdini's side on McGill Campus in Montreal in 1926, when Harry received the punch to the stomach that would soon after end his life.   Periodically on the Vaudeville circuit Japanese Jiu-Jitsu experts would demonstrate their incredible abilities on the local stage. Crowds would be amazed while watching small Japanese men nightly throwing big muscle-men around the stage like rag dolls. Between acts backstage Bill developed a friendship with world famous Jiu-Jitsu experts Yukio Tani and Tara Maki and they began to teach him in a short period of time some of the basic techniques of their craft. Unbeknown to anyone, Bill was a prodigy in the making. With limited exposure to his instructors he began to develop and build immediately upon some of the techniques he had learned and evolved them into what would become a unique, improved system.

Bill then emigrated to Canada, and in 1914 came back overseas with the Grenadier Guards of the Royal Montreal Regiment. He continued to develop his fighting system and extricated himself from numerous life and death situations during the war using his Combato. In full hand-to-hand fighting mode he escaped the Germans at Ypres on foot, following the first gas attack in April, 1915. The next year, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot and learned gunnery from Canada's Billy Bishop, and he became friends with Roy Brown – the man who shot down the Red Baron.

In 1940, at the beginning of WWII, Bill attempted to enlist in active duty but due to his age he was turned down and he was told that this was a "young man's war".  Bill was very patriotic and refused to let the issue go.  He  joined Toronto's Queens Own Rifle Reserve Unit and shortly after his arrival asked his superiors if they were interested in seeing the hand-to-hand combat system that he had developed.  Bill was in his late 40's and was a little rotund and he was taken with a slight degree of skepticism.  Bill simply asked them to provide a handful of their toughest young men and he would take care of them.  At an Army Camp in Long Branch (Etobicoke, Toronto) he put three of their biggest soldiers (all with wrestling experience) into the hospital.  His fighting system known as "Combato" had officially made its debut. 

Underwood's superiors were amazed at his skill and the techniques he created and word spread very quickly through the Canadian Forces.  Underwood was immediately requested to begin training men in the Canadian Army, Navy, and Air Force at training camps throughout the country. Underwood, being a reservist and very patriotic, refused to take regular pay for his services but received income from the sale of his first two books "Combato: For Soldier and Civilian" (1943) and "Combato: Self-Defense for Women" (1944)

As Captain William Fairbairn was teaching his unarmed combat (CQC) to British Forces word of Underwood's work was quickly spreading to American Forces.  The timing of Underwood's contributions were paramount.  North American Forces did not have a fighting system to "combat" the Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and wartime Judo they were facing in the Pacific Theatre.  Underwood was requested to come to the USA and teach the American's top Special Forces unit at the time… The American Rangers.  Underwood moved to New York City and taught the American Rangers at Camp Butler.  During this time Underwood began to travel within the USA.  Among many engagements, Bill demonstrated his fighting system at U.S.A. shows and at the famous Stage Door Canteen. 

Underwood's time in the USA and involvement with the American Rangers opened the door for him to be interviewed by the Pentagon. Underwood began to provide combat instruction for the FBI and related Intelligence Units and Services.  At this time Sir William Stevenson (The Man Called Intrepid) had been secretly working for Sir Winston Churchill in establishing the British Security Coordination (BSC), a top-secret British Intelligence division based in the Rockefeller Centre in New York which was also associated to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE)  The FBI and BSC were connected as the BSC assisted in the FBI's development.  The Underwood family has distinct memories of Bill being at the centre for meetings and work which they were completely unaware of. 

Under Intrepid and the BSC and because of his involvement with American Intelligence and Canadian and American military forces Underwood was commissioned to give combat instruction to unconventional forces at the Special Operations Executive's S.T.S.# 103 a.k.a. Camp-X…the very camp Ian Fleming trained at as a Spy and created his beloved character James Bond.  Fleming modeled his character after Sir William Stevenson – Intrepid.  Camp-X was the most critical Special Training School for the SOE outside of Europe.  Underwood trained Spies and Assassins at the Camp and off-site at classified temporary training locations. 

Amongst his activities with the BSC and SOE he trained highly specialized Assassination Squads of 6 team members.  One such unit was known by some as "The Super Six".  Their key objective was to be dropped behind enemy lines on a one way assassination mission to remove Hitler himself. Apparently, German Intelligence got word of the plan and begun to issue Hitler look-a-likes to make things difficult.  The teams primary objective was abandoned and its members were re-assigned to seek and terminate German Intelligence Agents on the east coast of Canada and the United States.  The infamous British double agent, radio personality Lord Hawhaw apparently leaked the name of one of the team member’s true identities and German Intelligence dispatched assassins to eliminate him.  He was emergency evacuated from the region.  Shortly after the team was disbanded and team members were isolated from service and knowledge of their existence and objectives was denied.

After the war in 1945 Underwood began to receive requests from North American Law Enforcement Agencies to teach their officers Combato.  Underwood refused as the nature of Combato was far too aggressive.  He was then asked if he could modify his system to incorporate more of a defensive posture and include compliance and escort techniques.  Since some of Bill's Combato had focused on fast joint locking it was a perfect fit.

At a dinner table conversation on VJ day in 1945 Bill was expressing his bewilderment at what to call his new system.  It was his daughter Pat (who is still with us today) who piped-up and said, "Well Dad… if you called your fighting system Combato and your new system is about defending people… why don't you call it "Defendo?"  Thanks to Pat the name stuck. Bill gave his first demonstrations and instruction to Butler, New Jersey and New York City Police Officers and requests and training only grew from that point forward.

Bill UnderwoodThroughout the 1950's and 60's Bill continued to train military units when requested in Combato.  More and more he began to move away from the direct killing techniques to self-protection, compliance and control options.  He began to create what would become the basis for Canadian and American Law Enforcement Open-Hand defensive tactics.  He was regularly involved with Canadian Police Forces in Ontario and his 1950 Publication, "Defendo – Police System of Self-Defense" became a training manual for Law Enforcement Agencies as well as Military Police and Security Professionals.  Underwood led Combat Display teams which were active in the Provost Corps Circles.  The 1960's saw Underwood continue to travel in Canada, United States and to Britain in 1965 where amongst many units he trained the Manchester Police.  In 1969 Bill released his last and arguably his most well-know book, "Defendo, Occidental System of Self-Protection."

The 1970's saw Underwood continue to operate in a similar manner to decades past.  The family was deeply saddened by the loss of his wife Kathleen in 1977.  Despite the loss of his dear wife of 50 years Underwood continued to travel and make television appearances in Canada teaching Defendo.  In the late 70's doors began to open-up for Bill in much larger media circles.  John Brunton and Pen Densham of Insight Productions productions in Los Angeles released a short film on Bill's incredible life called, "Don't Mess with Bill". 

The 1980's for Bill represented triumph and tragedy.   In a bizarre series of events 2 of Bill's 3 daughters were killed in "freak" accidents and both within days of each other on opposite sides of the continent.  The family was devastated and it took a heavy toll on both Bill and his daughter Pat but they managed to pick-up and continue forward.  

Bill Underwood on the Johnny Carson ShowA massive development for Bill was the nomination of his short film for an Oscar at the 53rd Academy Awards in 1980. Bill walked the Red Carpet with the stars of the day.  The fact that Bill was in his mid-80's didn't slow him down.  The short film was a real boost for Insight Productions which later moved on to large projects like "Robin Hood" with Kevin Costner.  He continued to provide regular professional instruction to Military, Law Enforcement, Security and Body Guards while his own Toronto training centre was teaching students who traveled literally from around the world to learn his system.  The 80's also saw Bill on the likes of the best known American television shows of the day.  Bill made appearances on  That's Incredible, Real People, The Alan Hamel Show, Dina Shore, The Michael Douglas Show, The John Davidson Show, Bob McLean, 100 Huntley St. and The 700 Club.  Underwood's most notable television spots was his 4 appearances on The Johnny Carson Show.  Johnny loved Bill Underwood and had him demonstrate and teach Defendo to many world renown celebrities.  In one of the most popular spots he toyed around with World Champion Body Builder and Incredible Hulk Television star, Lou Ferrigno.  Using finger and pressure point applications he easily took control of the giant. 

  The short film caught the attention of a major motion picture company which was writing a full length feature film on Bill's life.  Alec Guiness and Mickey Rooney were interested and were preparing to read for the roles.  The movie however did not come to reality due to Bill's failing health.  Bill was now in his very late 80's and his health was deteriorating. An off-site accident while training Body Guards for an American Senator made it more and more difficult for him to operate physically.  Bill entered a nursing home in Newmarket, Ontario where he passed away quietly of natural causes at the age of 90 on February 8th, 1986.

Article written by Robbie Cressman

Robbie Cressman is Chief Instructor of Underwood Systems and Bill Underwood’s Official Historian.

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