I've talked before about some of the strange practices that arts do that fly in the face of physics and one that really intrigues me is the stomping down to gain power forward. I am convinced this came about as a misunderstanding of projecting the body weight forward in a small shuffle, stepping into your punch. SPM uses this technique and in the book "The Dragon and the TIger" Campbell/Lee, which chronicles Bruce Lee's studies with Sifu Mark Foon, they speak about this very clearly. Sifu Mark Foon taught Lee how to subtly shift his weight into his strikes to make them more effective and more powerful especially at close range. Som Bo Gin, the three step arrow form, is specifically designed to teach this. When I teach it I will emphasis my forward weight shift by exaggerating the sound my front leg makes when I plant it forward. I do this so the student can understand this forward propulsion. What is most important is that the fist conveys all of the motion of the body behind it and strikes in a brief explosive manner into the opponent without giving up your weight to them.
So I've thought long and hard over how things get mangled in translation and I also considered the way things are taught in China. To quote one Chinese professor, " In America it is the duty of the teacher to teach and do his best to make sure you understand but in China it is the duty of the student to learn and figure it out and not to have it broken down by the teacher". He told me that by me teaching the physics of the motion and explaining it to the student I am in fact corrupting it. It is contingent upon the student to learn and not you to explain it to him. So the student observes what the teacher is doing and the teacher will rarely correct them when they are wrong. I watched Sifu instructing a student one day and he moved his hands in one manner and told the student "do that". The student did but muffed it. Sifu did it again and the student did it wrong again. Then a third time and the student still didn't have it right and Sifu simply said, "Ok, you do that then" without the student realizing that Sifu just wrote him off. Whenever I've heard a sifu say that, I know I'm doing it wrong. So I've spent considerable time thinking about how we get things wrong and then I remembered me and Ron the water guy.
I used to have water delivered to my house, four 5gal jugs at a time. Ron would lift them off the truck and put them on the street in front of my house and carry them in two at a time. Ron was about 5'6" and 150 lbs. I was 5'9" and 165lbs. He'd reach down, grab them around the neck and carry them up my driveway, up 7 stairs and into my porch. I decided I'd help him and grabbed two and walked about ten feet before I had to put them down, my wrists aching and joints hyper extended. Ron looked at me, smiled and nodded 'no' and he carried them. This annoyed me that I could not do what he could so easily do. Ron did not work out or do any form of exercise. He drove a truck and delivered water. How could I be so much weaker than him? I was on a mission to develop this strength. When no one was around I'd grip the bottles and carry them around and it was torture. I practiced going up and down the stairs with them straining to hang on and keep my grip strong. I did it for weeks till I could finally carry them from the street to my house, up the stairs and in. I was happy that I succeeded at this even though the torque was so bad on my wrists and elbow.
The following delivery I saw Ron pull up out front and went out to greet him. He put the four bottles on the street and proceeded to carry two up the driveway. I grabbed the other two and walked up behind him. He looked at me as I came up the stairs and said, "What the hell are you doing?" I told him that I was inspired by his strength and wanted to develop it and he burst out laughing and said, " I can't do that, that's not what I am doing! Jesus!" I asked what he meant, he was laughing heartily and he held up two blue plastic grips that went around the neck of the water bottle and allowed him to grip it like you would a dumb bell, with the correct torque and physics. He was having a good laugh at my expense shaking his head back and forth. He said, "I can't believe you did that, man, well you've worked so hard I've got a present for you". He went to the truck and brought back two more of those grips and gave them to me. I was amazed how easy it was to lift the water bottles now. So I'd spent months developing a technique that had nothing to do with the reality that was happening. This technique was destructive to my body but I muscled through it. In reality the correct technique was much simpler and more effective. Every time Ron saw me after that he'd have a huge grin on his face knowing my egregious misreading of what he was doing. I imagine him sitting in a bar with the other delivery guys saying, "So there's this knucklehead on my route......".
We can all get it wrong. It is important to use keen observation and critical thinking as we train in our arts so that we get it right.
I find it very strange how the human mind can be so critical and analytical in one area and then completely suspend those functions in another. Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, once commented that it amazed him how a man could practice sound science all week and then go home on the weekends and promote completely illogical and conflicting religious beliefs. How is it we can be intelligent and critical in one area and not at all in the other? You see this all the time in life from religion to politics; it's okay if my candidate/priest/lawyer does it but not if the other person's does the same thing. We somehow turn off critical thought when it is applied to our practice and beliefs. This is so common in the martial arts and very troubling to me because it creates all kinds of problems. What we apply to sports and other aspects of everyday life we do not apply to our martial practices. We are told something by our teachers that in the rest of the world we would never just accept at face value. Once again: If you were told you could learn to swim without going in the water would you believe it? Similar things are believed all the time in the martial arts. I will cite several examples here of some of the silly and ill conceived practices martial artists do.
Magic over time:
Imagine a boxer saying, “ after ten years if I keep throwing this hook it will work”. Martial artists will do an exercise and say that, “ It doesn’t work now but it takes ten years before this blossoms”. It’s silly. It might take years to master it but if you can’t use it in a few months you’re doing something wrong. Guys will do some qi breathing and hand movement with the belief that at some magical moment they will coalesce into some all powerful technique. I've seen guys try to use 'special hands' to block a hook and when it doesn't work say, "well I just have to keep doing it or use the right breathing with it". The fact often is that the technique they are doing is just not effective no matter how well they do it. The martial artist will often say, "Well I can't do it but my Master can".
I was with a group of kung fu masters decades ago and they were talking about how they handle different fighters. One of the guys with me studied martial arts but was also a golden gloves boxer. One of the fellows there commented that he could stop his combinations. The boxer threw a few punches and within seconds tagged the guy. The next master stepped up and said, "You're doing the technique wrong, I'll stop him". So the boxer comes in again, same result, tags him. The technique was just not going to work. So the third guy steps in and challenges the boxer and the boxer can't hit him. I am stunned and the master walks away happy. I said to the boxer, "How did you not hit him?" and he replied, "That's my Sifu. I could have easily tagged him but if I hit him and he loses face he will never teach me again. I let him win". So the mythology of the technique lives on due to cultural concerns.
In what other sport or athletic endeavor do they think that a technique will only be effective after a certain time? What tennis, soccer, football or other sport has a parallel to this? If you could put qi into your bat swing don't you think the players would be doing it? They do anything to improve their games so why not that?
Next: Stomping the feet to generate power.
Just in terms of physics how does stamping downward produce power forward? It makes no sense at all. If there were truth to this wouldn’t other sports do this? Wouldn’t boxing have developed this technique? How about a batter swinging, wouldn’t he learn to stomp to move his power forward? They will step into a swing and not stomp. Some martial arts will stomp on the ground to produce a ‘wave of power’ upward and out from the hands, or so it is believed. This makes no sense. How can stomping downward produce forward power? If you're pushing a car does stomping help you move it? If you're doing a bench press and you could stomp against the wall would it increase your power?
Personally I think that this is a misinterpretation of what someone was originally doing. If you are moving forward and projecting your power forward you might, while stepping, accentuate that motion by stomping to show your forward commitment. I think it’s just to show the weight shift forward, momentum directed into the hands from forward motion, and is accented by the foot noise. I think over the years a mythology has built around the stomping itself that was never intended. There is a parallel of nonsensical technique in baseball; sliding into first base. Countless times I’ve heard ex-players criticize this practice as both dangerous and illogical. Sliding into first base cannot be faster than just running over it. If diving to the plate were faster then runners would dive over the finish line. They do not. Sliding into the other bases is to get under a tag and not pass the base I understand but you can over run first without a problem.
I am going to show my great internal strength by shaking like I am palsied or need a drink. Why does this show power? We are not human batteries that build up a charge and then release it on contact although I know that is what is taught. Once again I think this is a distortion of the teaching of fa ging, explosive power. It is often described as ‘scared power’ or ‘startled power’. I think the significance of this is that originally they were trying to describe the release of energy when it happens spontaneously from the autonomic nervous system, in other words, the pure movement that happens when we are startled or scared. This is a total body response when this happens and not just a reaction of the limbs. We say we jump when we are scared, "That cat startled me and made me jump when it suddenly appeared". A great example of this is when the body is shocked by electricity. There are anecdotal stories of people being struck by lightning and jumping 10 feet away. In fact what happens is that the electricity bypasses the body’s normal pathways and fires all of the muscles at once thus producing a tremendous reaction and propelling the body. I had the reverse of this happened when I was 16. I was trying to hook up an FM radio antennae but I was given the ground wire instead. I reached for a water pipe and the second I touched it voltage ran through me and made my hand grip the pipe. I could not let go and was swinging by one hand, getting electrocuted, till someone kicked me off. I normally did not have the strength to do that. I think the ancients noticed how intensely someone reacted when startled and tried to develop this as a learned skill. I think that over the years it lost its original meaning and became an imitation of being scared or startled and not what the overall effect of those intrinsic reactions. So now we have people doing forms with extended arms and shaking violently and declaring how powerful it is but in reality, it’s not. Given the choice of being hit by that or any skilled boxer’s strike I will take the shaky hit. And now someone is saying, "Oh he does not understand the effect this has inside the body, it explodes organs". Well, prove it. Go buy a piece of liver, wrap it under ballistic gel like they do in car crash studies and hit it and make it explode. I know all the anecdotal stories about this and how somebody's master can do this but somehow they are never around to show it.
I do think there is another misunderstanding here regarding vibrating striking and normal striking. Once again let’s go to the physics vs the practice. Believe it or not earthquake science comes into play here. When scientists are trying to figure out the effects of an earthquake on structures they build models, quake tables, that they vibrate violently. If you take a given weight and put it on a beam planted on the ground you will find how much weight it can sustain in a static environment. After this is ascertained the scientists then vibrated the ground to simulate an earthquake. What they found was dramatic and amazing; the beam sank into the ground almost immediately. The vibration caused it to actually penetrate the ground that it stood on solidly moments ago. This applies to martial arts in a rather interesting way. While arts that teach vibration tend to do this away from the opponent, that is, somehow store the shakiness and then attempt to release it, I think this is wrong application. If you step into an opponent and place an phoenix eye fist on his sternum and push hard they may or may not have a reaction. However, if you vibrate the knuckle while on the bone you will see an entirely different reaction because now it penetrates into the bone. It’s hard surface to hard surface. Try it and see. Hold a small quarter inch dow or a class ring on someone’s sternum and then vibrate it. You will see the effect it has. If you are in a clinch and need to impose a violent reaction from your strike this can do this. On a similar note there’s a fellow that is considered one of the strongest men in the world who bends steel and tears phone books apart. When studied by scientists it was discovered that he pulses or vibrates his muscles when he does this thus causing him to be able to achieve such great feats. It’s the pulsing that increases the power as opposed to some shaking in the air. There is a molding tool that cuts wood the same way; it vibrates and cuts the wood cleanly (as seen on TV) but does not cut your skin. So there is actually a way to do this with your body but its applications are severely limited.
Grabbing a fist in mid air.
This is not only stupid but dangerous. I know a skilled boxer who would love for someone to do this to him as he is confident he will break the bones of their hands. I agree with him on that. Grabbing someone’s fist in mid air is near impossible unless it’s an adult vs a four year old. This is movie nonsense clear and simple. There’s a reason baseball players wear gloves to protect their hands. Somehow when someone teaches this the student does not say, “Are you crazy, why would I do that” but rather goes, “cool technique I must master it”.
Don't Use a Punching Bag to Practice
I confess I was told this for years. If you use a bag you will become intent on moving the bag and not hitting into it. There is some truth to this as hitting a bag for a guy becomes an ego thing where he must move it to look effective. This often results in 'push hitting' where a person pushes the bag after contact. I've seen this often but never in a boxing gym because they know better. How can you know the structure of your body without hitting a heavy bag? I was once on a show and observed this fellow getting really angry. The walls were carpeted and I saw him look at the wall and make a fist. I yelled 'Don't do it" but he did and hit the wall. I had noticed his wrist was bent when he was about to throw. He broke his wrist. When you hit a heavy bag everything that you are doing wrong is immediately apparent. First of all most people notice that they are only 'arm punching' and have no body behind it. Secondly you notice how weak their wrists are and how then tend to collapse when you are just a little out of alignment. You don't learn swimming techniques on dry land and then think that when you jump into the pool you can use them so why do you think you can hit someone and know how it feels? There is nothing like hitting someone and having your fist collapse, your wrist torque or your finger break to realize you don't really know what you are doing. It takes a while to feel your entire body propelling your fist in a coordinated, controlled and effective manner. You can't do this in the air. Learning how to torque the hips, drive from the knees and pivot the wrist into very effective fighting takes bag training. I use a two hundred and fifty pound base on my 'bob' bag. When I first hit it, if it could laugh, it would have. Now and then I do think it is snickering at me but I keep training!
Overall there is often a suspension of critical thinking when learning martial arts and we tend to believe rather than to question. Somehow the Far East is freed from the laws of physics and has some esoteric knowledge that evades the rest of civilization. There may be a smidgeon of reality to this but in general there is not. There is no magic, no alternative physics. If you really look at the physics of your practice and then draw upon that to perfect your techniques you will really accomplish something. If you practice something with the belief that it will just ‘appear’ later, well , then you are doomed to great disappointment and perhaps injury. Practice with intelligence and you will bear fruit.
Taiji vs MMA, Yes, I saw it, and many folks felt compelled to send it to me with a “…..well what do you think dude?” I suppose this was intended for me to defend it and somehow to identify with the Taiji “Master”. I don’t. I’ve railed against this type of fighting for years. What did surprise me is that it took ten seconds, I was thinking five to beat him. The MMA fighter isn’t even a top fighter. As far as the Taiji guy, when you practice an art in the vacuum of your own school or system you are doomed for failure. It’s just that simple.
First I will explain the idea of closed set math as it applies to martial arts. A closed set is an equation that is set to work within certain limits and not open to all variables. It only works in a particular framework and structure. How this applies to martial arts is this; when there are conditions set for the match/engagement and you can’t go outside of them or you lose. In other words specific rules that you must follow or you lose. Step out of the box, you lose. Cases in point: Taiji push hands and Wing Chun chi sao. I have a lot of experience in this and strong opinions about it. I will give some brief examples of my dealings here.
I was invited to do a demonstration years ago featuring several styles but mainly Taiji. I can’t stand tournaments and exhibitions of martial arts. Everyone there is a self proclaimed ‘master’ and everyone wants to brag about their particular technique/brand of an art that only they know. There’s too much chest puffing and self promotion at these things for me so I rarely go or participate. So here I am at this demo and the day is winding down and then a Taiji ‘master’ challenges me, in front of a crowd, to do push hands with him. I explain I don’t do push hands, not my thing, find someone else. He wants to make a point how superior Taiji is to Jook Lum and how he can easily defeat me. He’s an arrogant schmuck and I’m a hot headed mick and I get ticked off and agree. However he has to show me how to do it since I don’t practice it. He’s 6’3 210 and I am 5’9” 157. He lines us up and then lunges at me. I step sideways and he loudly protests. “You cannot move your stance, you must stay there!” to which I respond “are you freaking kidding me? You are bigger and have a longer reach, why the hell would I stay in front of you?” See folks, this is closed set fighting; you have to adhere to their rules. Of course he practiced this all the time so at this game he’s good and I am not. We line up again, hands in those awkward push hands positions and before he moves I change my hands to mantis hooking hands and push him down. Of course this angers him and he tells me I can’t do this. He’s grandstanding to the crowd of Taiji people saying that I am not doing it right and he stomps away. He’s not a happy camper and I am not a pawn. The bottom line is that he had a set of conditions that Taiji uses to prove their prowess but they do not work in a real life situation where there are no rules. He had to get me to adhere to the rules to prove he was better.
Now for the chi sao; I get invited to a Wing Chun/Tsun tournament with some students. At this point in time they are doing traditional chi sao. By this I mean it’s a matter of one person trying to attack and the other diverting them and striking. It’s a fun exercise and I liked it years ago. My student wins with no problem. So what, it’s a game, doesn't prove anything about fighting. He has won 3 years in a row and now it’s the fourth and they are gunning for him. Somehow chi sao has devolved now into this routine of a few circular motions and then each guy chain punching at each other, trying to walk over each other, period. No real technique just queuing up and then stampeding forward. The bigger and generally fatter guy always wins. It’s a joke. Bas Rutten once said to me “just let one of these guys try to chain punch through me, they’ll be quite surprised”. He went onto ask me if I’ve ever seen it work in the ring; nope I haven’t. It’s another example of closed set fighting; it can only operate within the confines of a certain framework.
So many arts do this type of practice and it’s foolish. I studied Aikido years ago and I often protested at the way they set up their attacks. The opponent would thrust himself forward with the craziest punches that no one uses in real life. They are great at redirecting these over committed punches but can’t do a thing with a jab. I asked the Sensei if I could invite some boxers over from Joe Frasier’s gym up the street but he declined. He claimed that on the street this is how people really fight. He was wrong. Around this same time there was a player for the New York Jets that was practicing Aikido. His Sensei was visiting from Japan and I was invited to meet him through my Zen associations. There was a nice outdoors gathering picnic style. It was very pleasant and afterwards we were invited to question the master and do some applications with him. He did not speak English and worked through a translator. I asked him, “what to you do to stop a jab” and he responded through the translator, “jab can’t hurt you, no power, he must commit, then you throw him”. I shook my head and said, “well I’d like to see what you’d do with Muhammad Ali”. He understood Ali’s name and responded directly in English,” Muhammad Ari, froat rike butterfry, sting rike bee” with a big smile on his face. Then through the translator he said, “ Ali is an exception, no one else can punch like him, don’t worry about it”. I replied, “Sensei, welcome to America, a lot of people can effectively jab here”.
Folks there is no such thing as a clean and orderly fight. It’s not a chess match or some contrived series of events like in the Sherlock Holmes movies. It is not a mathematical equation that you are going to figure out. You are not going to redirect his energy in a peaceful and meaningful way. You are going to experience violence, chaos and pain but if you’ve trained for that there will be few surprises and you will have an advantage. If you have not trained for them….well look at the Taiji vs MMA video and you’ll get the point.
Someone needs to tell these folks that the fighters stand inside the ring and the spectators stand outside of it!
Whenever I have a new student I start the first class with teaching them the ‘secret of martial arts’. I do this because most people think there is some secret knowledge/technique that only a few know and they hide it from others only to divulge it to their best and inner most students. Many masters promote this idea, that if you knew what they knew you’d be invincible. They have cult like followings due to this strain of thought but I think it’s a little insane, so I will divulge one of the secrets to real fighting here and explain why it is so important. Here it is:
The body always follows the mind.
I first really got an insight into this many years ago when I used to work with Geoff Bodine and Dr Jerry Punch on racing shows; generally Goody’s 500 at that time. Geoff is a legendary racecar driver and I asked him if he sped on local streets when he drives. He emphatically said, ‘No”. I asked him why and he said, “If there’s a problem I cannot trust the common driver to react in a safe away, I can’t assume anything they do so I would not put myself in that situation.” I asked, “So what is different between what they do and what a pro does when there’s a problem?” He said, “An everyday driver, when he encounters an accident or whatever, will look at the problem and not the way out. In other words they see a crash and look at it while trying to avoid it; this is the completely wrong way to do it. The pro sees the crash and looks to where he wants to go and not the crash itself. This way the car will follow what he is looking towards. When you look at the crash you will head into the crash”. He went on to tell me that if your car is sliding on ice or whatever to look where you want to go and not the impending crash. If you do this you might escape the situation unscathed.
I thought about this long and hard and how it applies to everyday life, especially martial arts. One of the things I teach initially to prove Geoff’s point is this, and every guy knows this: You are driving down the street, might be going only 15 miles an hour, and you see a pretty girl walking down the street. You want to look at her so you decide to lock your hands on the wheel so you don’t drift and look over and keep going straight. Invariably the car drifts towards where you are looking. Somehow the body subconsciously follows the object of the mind. It’s very difficult to do otherwise. So how does this apply to martial arts? Well, it is germane to winning a fight and here’s why. When you are engaged in a conflict if your mind is in retreat mode, it is backing away from the fight; you have no power in your strikes. Your mind is in defense and not offense. If you are scared or intimidated your mind is in protection mode, it wants to flee and so there is little forward energy in your punches because you don’t want to go into the danger. This is particularly apparent when backing up in a fight. Pros always talk about how difficult it is to punch when backing up. You must back up while projecting your energy/mind forward to have any power otherwise you will be very weak. You are moving back with the intention of luring the opponent in to strike him or to maintain a safe striking distance. This is vastly different from moving back just to protect yourself. If you are moving forward and do not have forward intent, that is to say, you are not intending to hurt the opponent, you will not be effective.
There is this idea taught by many that you want to develop defensive moves, that you want to protect your ‘castle’. There are arts based on this notion; I need only to defend myself. I find this to be a terrible way to think. It should be ‘how dare you attack me!’ and attack the attack, not defend the castle/self. This puts you on top of the fight and not behind and reactive to it because then you are just responding to an attack. When you do this you are letting the opponent control the fight. You are reacting to what he does and not initiating an attack on him. There is no such thing as self defense, it’s self offense! Damn, I just gave away the second secret of martial arts….and I only have a few of them. A defensive mode puts you outside and reactive to the attack. If attacked you attack back and twice as hard. Your mind cannot be defending. When I teach beginners and they ward off some strikes I can see that what they are thinking is, “Whew! Stopped those ones, great! Hope I can stop more”. As opposed to, “I want to crush you for punching at me”. In the first example the mind has escaped an attack and gained no advantage but in the second the mind wants to squash the attacker, put control in his hands, thus ending the source of the attack. You cannot develop a ‘wait and see’ attitude in a fight. Teddy Atlas calls this,” posing for a picture”, you want to see if you caused enough damage and stop for a view. You can’t do this in a martial art. I am not talking sport here but life and death though in sports you can’t do it either.
When attacked you must engage completely and thoroughly until the threat is neutralized, period. This can mean disabled or no longer a threat because they left. You must develop your mind so that even when backing up to avoid getting hit your total intention is to hit forward, to deliver into the opponent while staying safe. The body will always follow the mind in these situations please be aware of this. If your mind is scared your body is weak. You fight with one intention only: to win. The other person has trespassed on you, they want to harm you, now you take control and stop it.
I was approaching the ring on a job recently and ringside was the ex-heavy weight world champ who is now an announcer. He loves to imitate movies trailers so as I approach he starts in his best Don LaFontaine voice says, “ In a world where only one fighter can survive Joe McSorley is about to face his greatest challenge”. With that he does a Bruce Lee ‘waaaahh’, thumbs his nose and launches a back fist into the air while shaking his head Bruce Lee style. I immediately rise up on one leg and wave my hands classic kung fu movie style and settle into a mantis stance while returning the ‘waaaahh’ call back to him. Folks standing ringside stop and look at us with a ‘WTF’ expression. Then we both laugh, hug each other and talk work and family.
What for us is fun and perhaps a homage to traditional martial arts is to others a very serious proposition. They’ve been taught their style a certain way and have great faith in its efficacy. I, too, come from this tradition. When I would go to the different schools in Chinatown Philly or NYC I loved to watch the forms. There seemed to be some hidden magic in the movements that would enable you to beat anyone. I was enthralled by it and learned quite a bit of it. The problem is that as beautiful as it might be most of it doesn’t work, at least in the ring or with a skilled fighter. On the street you might be able to pull off a lot of the moves with some mook but in real life or death fighting with someone with a modicum of skill you’ll be in trouble. Unless you test what you know, or think you know, you don’t know if it works. By testing I don’t mean in your school with a fellow classmate but in some other gym where they don’t care about your art. You will find out quite quickly what doesn’t work. Often when we are clobbered by an opponent we say, “Well, I couldn’t out and out do my deadly technique in this situation”. Well, guess what, the other guy couldn’t either so you’re both holding back and he beat you while holding back.
Once when I got to work with a very highly skilled fighter I said I wanted to mix it up with him but only to a point. I said, “You can hurt me but please don’t injure me, I have to work and can’t afford it”. He was 27 years my junior. He smiled and replied, “No problem, you can injure me” and laughed. We had a great session and it was life changing for me. Some things I do worked very well and impressed him while others failed miserably. It was quite eye opening. I’ve always tested what I know and something that works beautifully in one area does not work at all in another. You have to sort this out for yourself.
A fellow came to one of my classes because of his interest in Hakka style arts. He had studied three other Hakka styles and wanted to see how he would hold up against Jook Lum. He was very nice and clearly had put time in learning other styles. He asked to pair off with one of the students and work out. We agreed. He stood in front of the student, legs parallel, arms in a classic short fist form with one elbow sitting on the palm of the other with his arm at ninety degrees to it and close to his chest. One of the fellows here, who had no knowledge of traditional styles, looked over at this fellow’s stance. He very sincerely said to his workout partner, “Wow, the poor guy is handicapped” because of the contorted arm position. He was not joking around, he meant it. Well the poor guy tried to stop his partner but could do nothing. His opponent was more powerful than him and his parallel stance just collapsed under the assault, mild as it was. Clearly he had never gone against anyone with real boxing skills. He was very gracious and left at the end of class to never come back again. I wonder what his view of it was when he left. “Well, I would have…..”?
I am not trying to pick on him or anyone here but I am trying to make a very serious point and here is why it is so important to me; it’s personal. Years ago I had a studio where we used to train on Saturday mornings. There was a fellow named Jon* who would visit from time to time and work out with us. He had trained with several traditional and qualified masters. He was a great guy and extremely well versed in traditional arts. He knew many forms and techniques and was a skilled and athletic trainer. When we sparred he would talk about the different hands he would use and looked like someone right out of a kung fu movie. He had great kicks and was very strong. I used to play around with him because I liked a lot of those fancy moves but I always admonished him about the true efficacy of them. Generally at one point in the work out I would blitz him and punch him into a corner just to make it real. Over and over I told him, “some of what you do will not work in a real fight, be careful”.
Time went by and I did not see him for a while. One of his teachers called me one day and told me that Jon had witnessed a fight in a park and went to intervene. Some poor guy was getting beaten by four guys and he wanted to help him. He was stabbed in the process and was in the hospital now recovering. Though he had not seen me for a while he wanted his teacher to tell me what happened and what working out with us had meant for him and that I should know about it. I was sad but relieved he was doing ok. Unfortunately the doctors did not realize that he had internal bleeding and he died in his sleep that night. It was a horrible moment in our lives. He had a wife and children and now was gone. There is no time in my life that I would rather be more wrong than this one. My heart sinks writing about it though it was long ago. I am in no way implying or suggesting that I would have fared any better in that fight. I may well have died on the scene. I will always wonder how it went down and what he did. He was a wonderful human being, a loss to us all and a true gentleman. I was so touched that he asked his teacher to contact me. What a spectacular man he was.
So when I see people doing something in training that I think is ineffective I am always reminded of Jon. I watch folks in so many schools doing things that will get them hurt or worse on the street. I see these self defense classes for women that teach pure nonsense that will never work and it bothers me to no end. Decades ago I was observing one of these classes at a university. They had volunteer male students grab and attack the women and the women would enact their techniques and beat them. I asked the instructor if I could try something and he said ‘sure’. I laid a $20 bill on the floor and said to the guys “Anyone who can break away from any of these arm locks, blocks, kicks or whatever can have the $20. Beer money boys”. Amazingly after that not one woman there could stop her attacker. I said to them,” Now the boys had something to gain and it was only beer money. The attacker on the street has his freedom to lose and 10 years with Bubba in a jail cell; think how motivated he is not to lose”. I wasn’t doing this to be a jerk but to remove the unrealistic view they had of their training. I view it as an absolute necessity that they know how difficult and violent real situations are.
Life on the street is serious, there is a lot at stake. Please realize this my friends and make sure you can actually defend yourself as you think you can. It can save your life.
*not his real name, I did not want to salt anyone’s wounds retelling this
I ended this year with a great night with some of the legends of martial arts, men I truly like and respect. I’ve spent over four decades with this practice and the last three years traveling with the martial arts fights and fifteen years with the boxing crews. I’ve met a lot of great trainers and fighters and learned quite a bit in the process. I’ve met brutes and great gentlemen and everything in between. On a few occasions I’ve been stunned by the knowledge some individuals have had not only of the universe of martial arts but the more profound and subtle aspects of Eastern Philosophy. Their interests have been wide and varied and they cannot be pigeon holed. I am thrilled and honored to know them and to be friends with them and hope to continue to learn and associate with them.
I am happy and honored for those around me who have stuck it out in this art. I am happy for their critical minds and inquisitive nature and taking nothing for granted. I appreciate those who can challenge what they are taught and either support or discard it as useful. I consider the folks around me as friends and equals and hold no rank or title over them. We can all learn and practice together as we always have. I am thankful to know you and appreciate your kindness and support. Happy New Year to all!
OBTW- note from the alternate martial universe
If I were to write about my encounters the way many other mantis people write today on their sites it would go like this:
Spent another great night with Bas and Renzo! They were so impressed with my abilities they both asked to privately teach them the hands and dim mak. They couldn’t believe what I can do and said they’ve never seen anything like it. I am too humble to brag about it though and declined their requests.
Now for reality: I would never say such a thing or brag for several reasons. First, it’s a damn lie and secondly I have nothing but respect and admiration for these truly kind, generous and humble fellows who could wrap me up and discard me like a chewing gum wrapper. Also I can't out run them when I see them again! I’ve never heard them brag in any manner and they are kind and welcoming to anyone who approaches them. Secondly lying on the web will eventually catch up with you in one form or another whether it’s braggadocio, out right lying or plagiarism. Unfortunately the web is full of guys who make extraordinary and impossible claims, mastering ten arts while fending off an army with their dim mak, a tooth pick and other such Bullshido. It’s obvious to anyone with a clear mind which is truth and which are lies on the web so don’t think you’re fooling anyone but yourself.
There is a strain in this art, along with others, where the practioner is obsessed with doing the original style as was done only by the founder or as close to it as possible. This somehow legitimizes the artist as being more authentic or genuine and therefore more effective. If what they do is closest to the source then they are the true mantis god or some such nonsense. In any other practice this is called fundamentalism. I don’t see any sense in this and here’s why. So I’m an army sniper but I want to go back to the original sniper and what he used because it must be best; yeah a musket. I’m a doctor and I want to go back to the original treatments for heart disease or cancer, maybe I’ll let a little blood out of you to cure you. I’m a dentist and I want to go back to the original dentistry, that makes great sense eh. When I was a kid my dentist didn’t use anesthesia so he would kneel on my thigh when he drilled so the screaming pain in my leg would somehow counter the damn drill in my teeth. Nope, didn’t work. Let’s go back to the original football protection or baseballs and bats. You know I think boxing like John L Sullivan is the way to go, not this junk Mike Tyson and Many Pacquiao does, nope let’s do the original because it’s much better.
This train of thought assumes that things have not grown or evolved at all, people don’t learn and the world is static. So let’s go back to a mono culture in China 200 years ago where the majority of men were between 5’2” and 5’9” and weighed as much as 155 lbs and pit them against a poly culture where they might be against a 6’5” 225 lb guy. Something they never saw or trained for but somehow their ‘original’ art is going to be prepared for it. There’s a lot written about different arts and how they were originally developed to fight horsemen or a particular type of armoured soldier and how that training misses the point today. A great kick in the air seven feet high might look really cool and take great skill but is going to get you killed in a street fight…. unless of course your opponent is riding a horse.
So on one level I get the idea why someone wants to do the original but in today’s fighting world it doesn’t make much sense. Oh, I have stop writing now my quill is running dry!
I know that I continually return to this topic from different angles but I feel it is necessary.
I have heard people use the term ‘defensive art’ ever since I started training over forty years ago. I’ve even used the term in the past to describe Jook Lum. My feelings on this topic have evolved greatly over time. Akido, Taiji and other arts will claim they are defensive arts and basically non-violent. I get this. I get why someone wants to study an art that claims to be non-violent. No sane person wants to be violent or be engaged in a violent situation. If you go to a school and they tell you that you can protect yourself in a non-violent fashion it is very appealing. It’s safe and kind. The harshness of a violent world gets softened. The phrase ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ is civilized by this idea. The problem is; it is dead wrong. I’ve said this before- imagine fighting a bobcat defensively; it can’t be done. A ferocious attack must be met with a ferocious defense. You are not going to guide the cat’s energy and safely escape. It’s like thinking you can play and practice touch football and then go into a full contact game. It’s silly, it won’t work. I’ve heard people say that they think they can use their Akido moves to take down a football player. It’s not going to work friends.
I’ve fought humans who have this ferocity. Their intent is to hurt you and they don’t care if they are hurt. You can’t reason with them or guide their movements. You must either attack fiercely or run quickly, there are no other options. Someone crazed out of their minds or high on drugs is single mindedly violent. A wrist lock or a throw is not going to stop them. Once while training with a military expert I knocked him into the air and onto his back when he came at me with a gun (fake). He landed on his back, laughing and saying “bang , bang , bang” and he ‘shot’ me as he landed violently. He looked at me and said incredulously, “you think the bad guy drops the gun when you throw him? Really? He NEVER drops the gun”. It was quite eye opening.
Years ago when I was working out in the Chinatown kwoon I got into t discussion with a fellow named Russell who was from the ‘hood’. At the time I was studying Taoism under Wei Hsun Fu and I was submerged in philosophy and religious thought. Russell made a comment about being in a life and death situation. I commented that I did not want to ever take a life and in fact, if in that situation of kill or be killed, I would not kill the other to save myself. I would only be defensive and never fight to kill even if given no choice. Russell looked at me and said, “Man, you’re a fool! Are you going to let some bad guy win and go on being bad rather than stopping him? Are you going to let him roam society, hurt woman and children because you’ve taken some high and mighty moral stance? What’s moral about that man? A good guy dies so a bad guy can live. You’re crazy. Where I come from we want the good guys to win, you owe it to yourself and you family. Crazy man, you’re crazy”. Clearly I never forgot that conversation and it had a great impact on me. He lived in that hostile environment and was stunned by my naivety of it. There is no justice when you let the criminal go on to someone else when you could have stopped it.
We come to martial arts schools to learn to be safe. We want some type of guarantee or security. We hear that certain movements, hands and special techniques will insure our safety. When you practice in the school with other students these techniques work. The problem is that those other students are not your enemies, have nothing to lose and nothing immanently vested in making it work. The criminal on the street has his freedom or life to lose so therefore will fight with great ferocity. Often folks come to me to learn the Jook Lum ‘hands’ as if there is magic in it. In just the last few months I’ve had several folks from short fist arts come and visit us. They have all kinds of nice moves and flashy hands but when paired with someone throwing real punches at them they collapsed. They were not used to someone who dances around taking shots at them while staying at a safe range. No one rushes in stupidly, they pick and run and whittle you down. I guess they didn’t like this realistic training since none of them came back. If you don’t train realistically you cannot fight realistically. This does not mean you have to bash each other about but you do have to bring some intent to it. If you do not train under pressure your brain cannot adapt to it. If you train in comfort your brain only develops in the cognitive parts and not the instinctual parts. When you are actually in a real and violent situation your brain switches to the rear part; all the cognitive training is lost to the ‘fight or flight’. Since the fight aspect was not trained in the correct part of the brain we will fold under pressure.
Just training to fend off someone allows them control of the fight. If your only reaction is to their action then they have the advantage. No matter how good you are you will eventually get hurt. You have to engage in their action and disrupt it, break their rhythm and shut them down. This is not easy and takes a lot of training. I’ve said for many years there is no such thing as self defense. You must offend their attack. What they begin you must finish.
Do you feel comfortable hearing this? Most likely not but sadly it’s true. There’s just no easy, safe way to do this. You can up your odds greatly and even lean great skills in avoiding a confrontation but if it comes down to it, you won’t be able to handle it unless you develop the skills.
One thing I notice more and more as I go through life these days is that people desire to learn things but do not want to have any discomfort in doing so. Whether it’s physical training, learning an instrument or whatever, folks just don’t want to go through any pain in the process. Many people express interest in this art and arrange a time to come visit me and the class. Ninety percent of the folks that come visit me seem shocked by the effort we put into practice and physical stamina it takes. It’s not that we do any extreme workout but they want ‘easy’. They want to learn some form and magic hands but don’t want the pain of actually transforming their body to do so. Practicing forms and punching the air will never teach you to actually defend yourself. You might get stronger and faster but you will never develop the brain that can react to an attack. Hitting a tennis ball against a wall will never prepare you to meet an opponent. Practicing drills on a football field will never prepare you for the actual force in a game. You have to engage in it at the core reality of the game. The point here is that if you don’t burn, you won’t learn. The body learns and grows under pressure. If you just do the same routine all the time the body adjusts and does not grow from it. If you play soccer with the same level of guys or play guitar with the same amateur musicians you will never develop your skill. If you only fight with people in your school you only learn how to fight them and not the nut on the street. Fighting is not logical, systematic or regimented; it is crazy and chaotic. Steel is tempered by fire and pressure, not by coddling.
I am often dismayed and amazed when someone tells me about their technique that stops a hook or an upper cut. It’s always in a controlled environment and the opponent never launches multiple attacks when blocked. They opponent is generally some guy in the school who thinks he knows how to box, he doesn’t. No real fighter just stands there and gets blocked; they immediately adjust to it and attack elsewhere. There are countless videos I see on youtube where the ‘master’ blocks an arm and then goes to town on the opponent while the attacker not only just stands there but never throws the other hand or slips the punch. Also, the straight in fighters, always pick on someone their own size and never anyone 8 inches taller. Why is that? Because the tall guy, if he has any real skill, can stand out of your striking range and pick you off. If you really want to learn how to defend yourself you must practice with those who are better than you. I once had a huge guy literally pick me up over his head and hold me 7 feet off the ground. I learned a lot that day!
If you really want to learn you must go through a certain amount of discomfort and pain whether it’s contorting your hands to play the guitar or punching a bag till your joints ache, it has to happen. Hitting a bag has its downsides but it also teaches you quite a bit. If you’ve never hit anything solid you have no idea how your joints are going to react. I’ve seen people break their wrists when hitting a bag improperly. Why do we think we can automatically hit someone effectively when we’ve only punched the air or hit a light mitt? Even hitting a heavy bag lightly offers a world of good feed back. It lets you know your stance wasn’t good or you had no torque or that your wrist collapsed. Many of the ancient arts hit sandbags and other things to condition the body. The other thing is that a bag moves, at least a little. No one is going to stand there and let you hit them. How do you hit a moving target effectively without giving up your balance? It something you have to practice. You can practice hitting a ball on a pitch machine all you want but wait till someone is throwing at 95 mph and they don’t want you to hit it. That’s how a fight goes and they are hitting you back!
As far as a workout goes most people when they work out start slow, work up to a burn and stop. Actually you should get to the burn as fast as you can and then work out in the burn as long as you can. This will make the body react to it and grow from it. It’s the stress on the body that makes it learn and grow. Find your comfort zone and then crash through it. Please use some intelligence with this; hurting yourself is not the goal but training the body is.
In just the last month I’ve had a few new people interested in learning stop by and meet me. In each case they wanted to learn ‘the hands’, the form, the technique but none wanted to actually work at it. They didn’t want someone bigger, stronger and faster actually punching at them; that’s not comfortable. Even though their training partner was a gentleman who could control himself was too much to ask for. None have come back. There is this illusion that if you practice it in school a lot in a ritualized way that somehow when some drug crazed brute attacks you that you will be able to handle him. Where else in the real world does this exist… in sports? ‘Hey I want to learn hockey but don’t check me, push me or knock me down. I’ll figure out how to do that when I am actually in a game, not when practicing”!
This always reminds me of the time many years ago when a fellow was watching my class. I asked him if he wanted to join and work out with us. He said, “No, because I know that if I am ever attacked I will go crazy enough to beat anyone”. I’ve heard so many ‘masters’ say this about the art: “when the time comes a true master will rise to the occasion, he does not need to spar before hand”. Right. We were hitting a heavy bag at the time and it was a pretty crappy one that wasn’t tethered right. As he watched us hitting it he was fidgeting and got real worked up and said, “I’ll show you!” and then ran at the bag and attacked it in all his fury. The bag wasn’t balanced real well and when he hit it, it dipped and swung back at him, caught him under the jaw and sent him flying across the room and he landed on his butt. The bag clocked him real good. He sat on the floor stunned. Sadly we did not have the decency and composure not to laugh hysterically.
For some reason Chinese kung fu is full of many silly myths. I hear them often and I’d like to start addressing them here.
1) The Master Never Gets Hit and Can’t be Beaten
Well, this is true if the master is never in a fight but only then. Can you imagine saying this about any other athlete? You know a good batter never strikes out, a good quarter back never gets sacked and a good basketball player never gets blocked or misses a foul shot. It reminds me of the question put to “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky. “Wayne, how many times have you made your shot”? Wayne replies, “I don’t know how many I made when I took the shot but I do know how many I made when I didn’t, none”. Is there a boxer that never gets hit or loses? So forget this myth, it’s nonsense. If you fight you are going to get hit. As they saying goes, ‘ it’s not what you do when you get knocked down but what you do when you get back up”.
2) An Old Master Can Beat a Young Fighter
Does this idea hold in any other sport? Do old ball players beat young ones? Do old boxers beat young ones? It’s crazy. As you age you lose many physical abilities and there is no way around it; believe me I’ve tried. Maybe an older fighter against a younger inexperienced fighter? Yes, that can happen but two fighters of equal ability years apart chances are great the young one will win. I am a complete failure if my younger students can’t beat me.
3) You Have to be a Better Fighter Than Your Student
Yeah, explain that to Michael Jordan that Phil Jackson could not coach him or to Mike Tyson that Cus D’Amato couldn’t train him. Only in kung fu do you find these ridiculous ideas about ability and teaching.
4) Size Doesn’t Matter
This is not only stupid but potentially deadly. Why are there size classifications in fighting, wrestling or youth football? So the little guy doesn’t get crushed. There is this idea that Bruce Lee would level a heavy weight, well, possible but not likely. I’ve had many experiences with bigger guys who were both skilled and unskilled fighters. Years ago I was with a WWE wrestler on a video shoot. They guy was huge and held a national trophy for heaviest military press. His chest was huge and his arms were not only bigger than my legs but almost the size of my waist. He had this shtick he’d do in bars for free drinks. He’d hold a full glass of beer in his hand and let someone full out punch him in the chest. If it didn’t spill they had to buy him a beer. He got a lot of free beer. In the course of the day we got to talking and he asked if I wanted to hit him to see. I did but didn’t want to admit it. I am very much into internal striking, i.e. – striking into the organs not through them. There were a few times I had floored folks with one blow so I was careful when I did it. In the back of my mind I wanted to know if I could hurt him yet was afraid I could not. Well, he egged me on and I went for it. I hit him with a normal punch first, to check the waters. Nothing, nada, zip, no reaction. So I hit him with 50% internal striking and again, nothing. So I gave him my all out, ‘to the moon Alice” (google it) and walloped him. His body shuttered for a second and he said, “Well, that was interesting, hmmm”. Not the reaction you want when you think you hit him with Thor’s hammer. This is where you say, “Please don’t hurt me sir”.
One time I had a huge guy, ex football player, just sweep me off my feet and held me up in the air over his head like I was a 4 year old. I was afraid he was going to throw me on the floor. He didn’t.
The other night while practicing I had a fellow, who was 5/8” 160 lbs, holding the bag while a very experienced kicker kicked him. Each time he would slide back a few feet from the blow ala Bruce Lee demo. There was another guy there who is 6’3 and maybe 235lbs and I had him step in and hold the bag. He didn’t move an inch when kicked. force = mass x (velocity / time) = (mass x velocity) / time = momentum / time
It’s just physics! Folks, size matters. (It just doesn’t matter when relating to……never mind)
5) Practicing in the Gym, Doing Forms, Prepares Me for a Real Fight
I’ve said this one a thousand times: you cannot practice swimming next to the pool. When in a real fight your cognitive brain is gone, period, it’s flight or fight. Unless you’ve trained your mind under very realistic conditions you will not be able to handle a real onslaught. Plus, when you train against fellow students you train to defend against what they do, not what happens outside. Most martial artists do very clean and linear striking but that almost never happens on the street. You can’t block a bobcat and you’re not going to block a berserk street fighter. I’ve told this story for years; I got attacked by a drug crazed knucklehead in a hallway once. He was bigger than me and came at me flailing like an egg beater. He was beating the hell out of my arms and I couldn’t get near him. I’d never experienced this before and finally shot a kick to his groin that dropped his hands and I ended the fight. In the school no one ever did speed and attacked me so randomly. You have to practice under real conditions and with partners who don’t fight like you do.
Years ago a student of mine was invited to another kung fu school. He is a good and kind hearted person and perfectly suited for dealing with many martial artists as he works in a mental hospital. He did the warm up with this school's students and then they paired off to practice punching and blocking. He was throwing first and his partner told him to start so he threw a few punches and his partner jumped back and shrieked, "Hey, you're trying to hit me!" Frank replied, "Of course I am, I'm punching you'. Frank could not understand that this student had never had real punches thrown at him. The sifu of the school called me later to complain about my 'brute' of a student. He may have been throwing real punches but he wasn't going to land them. The sad thing is that his many students really think they can defend their selves and they can't at any level.
If you don't practice what is real you can't deal with what is real.
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