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
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