What can kung fu learn from MMA?

 

     Once again, the idea for this is lifted from a podcast by Iain Abernethy. He put together an excellent work on what traditional martial arts and modern mixed martial arts can learn from each other. In this piece I am going to take a look at what I feel are the things that Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA) can learn from the modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) schools.

     Before I go on, I must address one thing which has come up on some internet forums, and much more so in email correspondence. In my most recent posts here, I have written at length criticizing some of what I feel are the detrimental practices found in the TCMA. This has been misinterpreted by some as a hatred for TCMA. I wish to make perfectly clear, I do not hate TCMA, I love it! I only wish for some of these practices to go away so that our arts can be placed on a level of respect that I feel they deserve. When I am criticizing, I am doing so out of a deep wish that we can unite and show our true value and proper standing in the martial arts community. However, for as long as the issues myself and others have pointed out go unresolved, then such respect will not happen. There is too much information out there in such easy access to any student with an internet connection for some of the idiocy to continue. To be frank, I find nothing noble in defending a particular viewpoint based on the age of the idea or practice being defended. There are many who (quite loudly) proclaim that anyone who dares to say that qi power is a lie is a doofus, and the entire basis for their defense is that the idea has been around for such a long time! There are those who take a strange sort of pride in the tale that they practice an art which is supposed to have been unchanged in hundreds of years. Pride? Really? One does not need to dig all that far into the past to find that the idea that a martial system must remain unchanged is a pretty recent practice. So in the end, who is the traditionalist? I speak about the shortcomings of the style I train and teach, and I do so in the hope that there can be growth. If there is no growth, the art itself is dead, and can no longer be called an art at all.

     While I have dabbled in MMA, I have never gone full bore into the training. I bring this up only to illustrate that I am not in any way trying to present myself as an expert in MMA. So, if there are things I say about training or viewpoints of the MMA athlete which are wrong, I will direct you back to this paragraph. However, I have trained in TCMA for most of my life, and while I do not consider myself to be a “master”, I do feel that I am knowledgeable on the subject. This in no way means that my word is law, but if you argue a point I make about TCMA, I am more than comfortable in defending my position until proven right or wrong.

     The Ultimate Fighting Championship first came on the scene in the early 90s, and the original concept was to set a stage to show the Gracie Family’s Brazilian Jujitsu. What happened was too good to be a movie. The traditional martial artists were completely out of their element from too much time spent in believing that what they were told would work actually would work, and deeming it “too dangerous to test”. Never mind that the real traditional martial arts had been tested and tested for generation after generation going back far into history. TMA practitioners scrambled to find out where they went wrong. The traditionalists lost, well and thoroughly.

     In the karate systems, there was a renewed interest in the study of Bunkai, the training of applications of the techniques. No longer was every technique to be used against a reverse punch. This study has brought about a huge increase in the numbers of karate students who are learning to actually use their art. There are still those on the fringe, who either completely resist the ideas that there is more to the techniques than meet the eye, or cannot see that their instructor didn’t know how to use the art, and there are also those who come up with some really outlandish uses for the techniques, but by and large the study is getting good results, and in my opinion is a powerfully positive change in the karate systems.

     For the TCMA, things are actually at the other end of the spectrum. We have some few who are making the progress in training harder and studying applications, but the majority stay with the mystical side of things. I have written at length recently on my point of view as to the mystical claims in the TCMA, and do not wish to go into that again.

     Let us look at exactly what the MMA students do that gives them such confidence that they are not afraid to call out TMA practitioners.

Practical Application

     The list of techniques is an MMA school is pretty short compared to the list of techniques one will learn in a TCMA school. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. They are training for something specific, and their training methods and technique list will quickly reveal this. One must be careful to keep in mind what we are discussing.

     Iain Abernethy made a very important point when he stated that in determining practical application, we must first define what we mean by practical. What is practical is going to be based on what the purpose of the training is, i.e.; if you are training for tournament competition (sport karate or MMA) what is practical is going to be different than if you are training for self protection in a violent confrontation.

     I have two jobs. I teach sport karate by day, and TCMA in the evenings. I have two very different goals in each setting. For the kids that are learning sport karate from me, some of the training my TCMA adult students go through would be very inappropriate for the goals. In sport karate, the students are training to become fast, lower reaction time, increase flexibility, and train to deliver clean snapping techniques which do not harm the opponent in a tournament setting. For my adults, I teach them to deliver tremendous impact to specific targets in order to incapacitate an adversary and allow for their own extrication from the conflict. Very different goals, very different definitions of what is practical.

     For the purpose of this article, I am going to stick with the second set of goals, as my focus in this article is MMA and TCMA.

     In an MMA school, the students come to class to get a workout. They will do various exercises, and train a limited set of techniques in order to gain the level of proficiency they wish to have. The training is hard, as a main focus of these schools is a degree of physical fitness needed for competition.

     In many TCMA schools, the pace and environment is a lot less stressful. I have visited schools where there were frequent breaks due to the instructor starting to sweat. In all honesty, there was one instructor who’s school I visited, and he actually taught that sweating is bad for you, and that training should be kept at a light pace, and sweat meant it was time to rest!

     When a student in an MMA school is told how something is to be done, or used, or how it fits in with the overall strategy of what the school is teaching, the next step is to get on the mats and practice it. They drill and drill and drill until they become proficient, and confident. The term we use for this study in TMA is “practical application”.

     For many years in the traditional martial arts, there was a lack of study in practical application. Some techniques were determined to be “too dangerous to test”. In some cases, this was correct. But not always. In some of the cases, the techniques which were so classified were simply unreliable, or not understood. For years I was taught that a kick to the side of the knee would destroy the knee joint. Having suffered some pretty severe knee injuries in my life, I figured it had to be true. And all of us have seen the original karate kid, where the kick to the knee almost does in poor Danny Larusso. Tune in to any MMA event now, and you will see the kick delivered much more solidly, and simply shaken off by the one kicked. What we are told in TMA schools was not always the truth, it was an opinion.

     One huge step that can be taken by TCMA schools would be to practice practical application. The MMA schools have moved ahead and regularly test the very techniques we call “too dangerous”, so we should join them. Even when we are dealing with the more dangerous techniques, there are still ways to train them and bring about an understanding and an ability for the student to use them. There are schools doing this, but they are currently in the minority. This needs to change.

Critical Thinking

     In the TCMA there is a tradition of never questioning what we are told. When the master says it, we do it, end of story. In the MMA schools I have visited, this is not the case. The students are told what they are going to do, they are shown what they are going to do, they are taught how and why it will work, then they drill it until they get good.

     This type of approach does a two great things for the students. First, it shows a respect for the students as a thinking and reasoning person. Second, it brings about a greater confidence within the student about what they are learning. These are two incredibly important elements in the training of a student.

     If the first point is not addressed, the respect issue, the student will grow a resentment at some point. But the second point, if the student does not have confidence in what they are learning, they will quit training with you and go somewhere else.

     This does not mean that our classes will be constantly interrupted by inane questions. One visit to an MMA school will get rid of that notion. Contrary to what many TMA practitioners think, there is an air of respect inside of an MMA school. They are just martial artists like we are. If we could let go of some of our ego issues, we would see things clearly. I know of one instructor who refuses to call MMA a martial art! This is more than silly. MMA is a highly focused martial art. It has clearly defined goals and objectives, and the teachers and students set about directly working on the achievement of those goals.

     There are times when our traditions get in the way, and the issue of critical thinking, or more specifically, the lack thereof, can really get in the way of progress. We are thinking beings, and questioning is in our nature. When you are told something works, examine how and when and where it works. Also train to understand where and when and how it does not work. When someone tells you something does not work, examine for yourself to see whether or not they are correct. Critical thinking is not assuming everything you are told is a lie, is is actually being open to ideas if they can be proven true.

     In looking at some of our unexamined practices, we find very quickly that there are some that serve no purpose in the modern world. In the TCMA, there is a practice called the Bai Si. This is a ceremony wherein the student is essentially adopted into the family of the instructor. There was a time now gone) where there was an actual reason for keeping some techniques secret, at least that is what we are told. There is a common teaching that the secrets were to protect practitioners of the style in the event they were attacked by someone from another school, the secret techniques would be what would save them. I have my personal doubts, but I’ll will save it for another day. Suffice to say here that in the modern world, any instructor who is going to hold out any part of the system as being a “secret” is not worth your money. There are no secrets. Train hard, and train consistently under a good instructor and you will progress a lot further and a lot faster than someone who trains under a “master” who hides their lack of knowledge behind mysticism and “secret knowledge”.

     Another example is found in the way that we are brainwashed into thinking that to question the teachings of the instructor is borderline sacrilege. The simple fact is that it is a sign of a very insecure instructor when he is offended at being questioned. The secure and confident instructor welcomes questions for the simple fact of what is shown in student questions – 1. the students are listening, and 2. the students are interested. What more could a quality instructor want? That, my friends, that is great stuff. There is not much in this world more rewarding than to have an opportunity to teach something you are passionate about to someone who wants to learn it! 

     In an MMA school, many of the questions are answered before they are asked. However, when a students has a question, it is not only welcomed, it is answered! Who thought of that?

     Remember, people think, and they learn. As more martial artists begin to practice critical thinking, these practices are going to have to end in the TCMA schools.

Hard Work

     I am not an expert in the Chinese Language, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but as I have been told many times, kung fu means “hard work”. As stated earlier, there are only a few kung fu schools where the students are working hard. This has to change. In order for this to change, there will have to be a shift in the mindset of the school owners. I spoke with an instructor in California earlier this week (as of this writing), and he said to me that he cannot work his students any harder without them quitting. I told him to not be afraid so much. The students sign up in a martial arts school expecting a workout – give them one.

     But you still have to keep in mind that exertion does not equal learning. Yes, the student needs to have a good workout, but at the same time, they should be walking out every day with new knowledge. This has to be a part of the equation, or you are spinning your wheels. Some of my greatest memories are of classes where Sifu worked us to near death, and then pushed us a bit further. We loved it! We learned more  than just a new technique or a new application, we learned about ourselves. There is a lot of knowledge to be found in pushing yourself to the limits. Obviously, pushing to the limit cannot be done every day, but it an be done regularly. Give your students these memories and this training.

A Question of Forms

     If we look at things realistically, in most schools of TCMA, there is an over-reliance on the practice of forms. Understand, I teach forms, and feel that they hold an important place in the TMA. But in many schools, the forms are taught as an end in and of themselves. There are regular casses whee the students do nothing other than forms.

     There is a better approach.

     When looked at properly, the forms are a type of textbook. They really do contain everything the students needs to internalize the underlying strategy and tactics of self defense as viewed by that art form. But, and this is a huge “BUT”, they have to be trained and taught properly. There has to be extensive training – step by step – in practical application. There also has to be an understanding that the student is going to have a different body type and set of psychological and physical predispositions that will affect performance. There is no need for an idea that the art must be a perfect imitation of you, because you are the perfect imitation of so-and-so, who is the perfect imitation of Lord Autumn-bottom.

     _____

     In the end, I would be happy to see TCMA practitioners recognize one simple fact, MMA practitioners are traditional martial artists too. Just don’t tell them.

Advertisements

Martial Artist for Life

 

    Northeast_Tarrant-20110326-00195 I have been thinking over the last few days about how many students I have had over the course of my career in teaching martial arts. The number is pretty big due to all of these years working with the KICKSTART KIDS Foundation. Over 1100 students have passed through my doors from KICKSTART KIDS classes alone, and I hope all of them carried something away with them that they didn’t have when I met them.

     The point of this article is what separates those of us who are martial artists for life form those who are here for a while and then gone, never to be heard from again?

     I have put together a list of what I feel are the contributing factors to people who quit training in the martial arts. I must point out first, this is nothing more than my opinion…here is my list, in no particular order.

    1. Personality clashes
    2. Unrealistic goals
    3. Boredom
    4. Priorities
    5. Life gets in the way

     1. Personality clashes. When asked why I have trained in my style for so long, I tend to give the answer that I think the questioner wants to hear (because in my heart I don’t think anyone really cares why I have trained in my art for so long, they are really just making polite conversation). I have given answers along the lines of the effectiveness of the system, temperament, physical fitness in relation to the overall strategy of the system, etc. But the simple fact of why I got so deeply immersed in Hung Gar is not so complicated, or all particularly well thought out for that matter. I stayed because I liked my instructor and think the training is fun. Plain and simple. We got along quite well. He was often short tempered, but not with me. We had a similar work ethic, we enjoyed hard contact in training, and we never felt that either of us had completed the journey and knew all we needed to know. He was fun to be around, had a ton of knowledge, and never grew tired of teaching.

     With many students, a big factor in their quitting must be a lack of that kind of personal rapport with the instructor. There are instructors who are teaching for the money and not for the joy of sharing the martial arts journey with another like minded person. There are students who begin training for the wrong reasons. There are also people that we just don’t like, for whatever reason. This is a two way street. There may be students that the instructor just doesn’t like, and he or she may then put less effort into that student’s training. But as often there are students who simply do not like the instructor. These students will undoubtedly quit, and there is little to nothing that can be done by the instructor to prevent it.

     2. Unrealistic goals. I cannot count how many times I have had students show up with amazing energy and outrageous expectations in the beginning, only to end up quitting before they ever really got started.

     Many students come in with the idea that they are going to become Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris in the very cliché “Ten easy lessons”. The real world doesn’t work that way. I have said many times, but it does need to be repeated – the only secret in the martial arts is that success comes only through hard training and sacrifice. Period, end of discussion.

     Okay, not end of discussion, because I want to go on about this…

     Black Belt level skills are a product of years. Not weeks, not months – years. There are no shortcuts. And, as any Black Belt who has ever let their training slip can affirm, the skills of that level require constant practice. There is no end point. Proper expectations for martial arts training in any system would be to commit yourself to years of rigorous training, and never stop. Again, there is no end point. There is no time when you will be able to truthfully say, “I’m there! I’ve arrived!” Skill in the martial arts is a process.

     3. Boredom. There is no easy fix for this one. To one who has a passion for the martial arts, the training never is really boring, but it can get monotonous. Unfortunately, there is no real way around it. I remember reading a line from Gichin Funakoshi, wherein he stated that he had been studying a reverse punch for over forty years and was only now beginning to understand it. This is a little excessive on first glance, but I think something must have been lost in the translation. You can really learn all you need to know about the actual mechanics of delivering a reverse punch in less than an hour. But to reach that point where you can deliver it from different distances, different angles, and less than ideal circumstances is going to take a lot more practice. And if you do learn the reverse punch in less than an hour and never return to practice, you won’t really understand what is involved in all of this.

     It is frustrating at times, as an instructor, to have students tell me, “But we did that last week”. You have to repeat and repeat and repeat to make even modest gains in skill. To any martial arts student reading this, please take this to heart! Some of the repetition will never go away, deal with it.

     4. Priorities. My students laugh at me when I bring this up, but I bring it up anyway as it serves to illustrate a very important point. I went out on my first date when I was 20 or 21 years old (I don’t really remember which…). M teen years were filled to the brim. School, work, and kung fu. I simply didn’t have time for “extracurricular activities”. There were (and still are amazingly enough) only so many hours in a day. I really didn’t have time for dating.

     Many of the students who quit training simply do not have martial arts as a priority in their life. There is nothing wrong with that, but don’t whine and cry about how much time training takes up. This is part of what old timers are speaking of when we use the term “sacrifices”. We lost time with friends and family on our journey, and we did it because we had a single minded determination, and we were not going to be swayed form the goal. There are few students left who have this kind of determination. I don’t say this to insult the modern students. There are some who are quite determined, even up to the levels of determination I am speaking of here. But “some” does not equal “a lot”. And when you factor in a simple fact, everything changes.

     You will always have time for whatever you want to have time for.

     5. Life gets in the way. I cannot leave the previous point without addressing this one. This one is huge because I cannot argue with it. When someone is training in the martial arts, and they find out a baby is on the way, or they get a job promotion which is going to require more hours, and so on. These are the types of life events that can get in the way of training. I have had students who had to quit training with me because they were working full time, and going to College full time. It would be very out of line to try to argue against this. I have friends who were training but ended up in a life situation where they could either train or buy diapers for their kid, and again, if one were to argue against this, it would be monumentally stupid.

     The simple fact here is that there is more to life than martial arts for many people. Life can get in the way of your goals. Some things can be avoided or overcome, and others cannot. My kids are my top priority in life, everything else, and I mean everything else takes a back seat to my time and energy for my kids. I do understand this one. I am lucky that life never got in my way, but everyone has their own set of circumstances, and we must all handle what comes our way in our own way.

      —–

     There is my list of things that I have seen as what makes people quit training. As stated everyone has their own life to deal with. Next up, a look at the  people who are “lifers”, and how they handled some of the obstacles listed above.

Pro Wrestling Daze (Revisited)

     I have had a few requests from some old friends to write about this, so here is an intro into my days in wrestling.

     Like anyone who was in their early teens in the early 80s, I watched a LOT of pro wrestling. Unlike a lot of people, my favorites were not Hulk Hogan, Junkyard Dog and Hillbilly Jim. I liked the wrestling that seemed more realistic. I watched a lot of Southwest Championship Wrestling, with stars such as Cowboy Scott Casey, Hangman Bobby Jaggers, and Mr. Piledriver Bob Sweetan. I also was hooked on World Class Championship wrestling, with the Von Erich family being at the top of the list. And every Saturday I would tune in at 5:05 to TBS and watch Georgia Championship Wrestling and stayed a fan as it evolved into World Championship Wrestling.

     Never having been one to do anything half way, I not only was a fan, but I had every intention of getting in the ring myself. I had to become a wrestler, and thus pay true homage to my wrestling heroes.

     Now, just in case there is anyone left out there who does not know, pro wrestling is a work, a term which means that it is an exhibition, not a competition. This is, still in my mind, very different from fake. Bodies fly, and bones are broken, and that my friends is real. This could just be leftover from the brainwashing that is involved in training someone for the ring. It is this brainwashing that makes us think we are doing what we are supposed to do when we cut our head open, or take an unprotected chair shot to the skull for the sake of making the show look real. One thing I need to point out here, to the wrestlers themselves, it is real. At least back at the time I am speaking of. We would get out there and give 100% of what our bodies had to give to entertain the audience. When the boys in the back would talk about a match they had worked, it always sounded as if it was a fight to the death. “I didn’t think I would get outta there alive” was a common saying. We took pride in what we were doing, even if it was a very strange sort of pride.

     At the time when I was first breaking in, it was still very closed to outsiders. The business had a set standard where no one was permitted in unless they knew the right people, the right people being those who were already insiders. I finally met a guy named Michael Shapiro who introduced me to the people who would get me a chance to get into the ring.

     The first thing the trainers did was try to make you quit. I thought this was a stupid way to do business, as when someone actually shows up for training, they are already proving their real intentions, but this was just the way things were done. In my first workout I was put into a “ring” which was nothing more than a slightly padded area of the room, with ropes set to form a crude square. I was put up against someone, but I cannot for the life of me remember his name. We squared off and lock into collar and elbow (a basic starting position for any pro match). The guy was strong, but I was no slouch myself. By this time I already knew that it was all a work, but this guy was going through this as if it were a shoot (competitive). By this point in my life, I already was a pretty capable wrestler, as well as being a solidly trained martial artist as well. I was not afraid, and I handled his rough wrestling pretty well. He grew frustrated, as his job was to really push me, and make me quit, and he wasn’t getting it done. He clubbed me in the face with a forearm, and I did it right back to him. We slugged it out (Brett would call it “one potato, two potato, three potato, four). Then he took it to the ground. I managed to lock a double underhook on him, and scissor his waist with my legs. This is not a particularly painful move, but it is a booger to get out of, and he was trapped. Although it wasn’t the most remarkable match, I took what they threw at me and won. Then the trainer took me aside and proceeded to “smarten me up”, which means he was exposing the business.     

     Over the next few weeks I kept training with the hope of getting a match in front of people. The trainer was a little shady, and kept asking for more and more money, of which I had none. He promoted his own shows in and around Austin, and he would have the people who sold the most tickets go over (win their match). If you didn’t sell enough tickets, you might not even be on the card. I kept getting passed over for matches, mostly because I didn’t have more money to pay the promoter, and in part because I didn’t go out and sell a lot of tickets.

     I was about six months into my training when I had my first match. It took place in San Antonio at a Flea Market. The promoter ran a flea market and had matches every Sunday. So I got to start working matches pretty regularly for him. The ring was pretty unforgiving. My first match was against my buddy who wrestled under the name “Chief Lightfoot”. Later he would be Best Man at my first wedding. (Yeah, that’s right, my four month marriage…)

          So, in my first match, I learned a tough lesson. I tried to show the audience every move and trick that I knew. Inside of three minutes I was completely blown up. I was dead on my feet, and we still had more time to fill. I managed to get through the match, and went back to training to get a better understanding of how to work a match that I could actually survive.

      I was back the next Sunday, and had a much better match.

      I was only a few weeks into actually working and getting paid (poorly) when I had my first in ring injury. My opponent sent me into the ropes and executed a clothesline on me when I came off the ropes. I really wanted this to be a memorable bump for the audience, and intended to really put my opponent over. I was a lot bigger than him and I felt we needed something big to happen to change the course of the match, and allow him to win in a way that would make it seem believable. I tried something I had never done before – to spin 360 degrees in the air and land flat on my back with what I hoped would be an earth shattering THUD.

     Well, in reality I managed to get pretty high in the air, about five feet up, totally horizontal, and spin about 90 degrees.

     Ooops.

     When you are six and a half feet tall, and (back then I weighed) 245lbs., and you are in the air with your butt higher than your head, it ain’t gonna end pretty. I landed on my right shoulder and it separated on impact. I felt it pop back into place when I rolled over on my back, and the strangest thing, I was wearing a mask, but you can still somehow see that expression of pain on my face on the film.

     The show, of course, must go on. When Oscar pulled me to my feet, I told him I messed up my shoulder. Like a true professional, he chopped my throat before asking me if I could continue. I said I would try, so he chopped me a few more times and threw me out of the ring to let me think about whether or not to continue. I opted to continue, and we did for about another ten minutes or so, if memory serves. The match ended when he tried to remove my mask and reveal my identity. I was instructed that he would seriously try to get the mask off, and under no circumstances could I allow him to succeed, because they were promoting me to the audience as a major star hiding under a mask. If he had managed to pull the mask off there would have been a serious let down for the audience…

     With the match over, I was in the back thinking about the long drive back to Austin. One of the boys kindly offered to yank on my arm and make sure it was correctly back in place, but I opted not to take him up on it. There are a lot of “doctors” in wrestling, guys who have been hurt and figured out ways to get out of seeing a real doctor. I never did let any of them practice on me.

     I waited to get paid, this time it was five dollars! Yes! My first big payday! Never mind that he paid me in quarters, I had laundry money! So I took my coins and started the long drive back to Austin.

     On the drive, my yellow ‘86 Camaro had a blowout. So, here I am, dead tired, one working arm, and trying to change my tire on the side of I-35. Not fun. It gets better folks! I managed to get the lug nuts loosened, and get the car jacked up with only one arm. I pulled the tire off, and the car fell off of the jack.

     Yeah…that day kept getting better and better.

     You can always rely on the kindness of strangers, and that was the case here. Someone saw me sitting on the fender staring blankly at the world that had somehow gone very, very wrong, and changed the tire for me.

     I kept working matches around central and south Texas for several more years. In the end, I realized the big leagues were turning more and more to the ‘roided up monsters, and being unwilling to juice, I called it quits.

     I am not bitter about it at all. I think if I had been given the chance, I could have done some pretty good things, but I had my innings. I don’t watch a lot of the current product because I don’t like it. When I was a wrestler, we wrestled. The boys now are stuntmen, not wrestlers. When I was in wrestling, you had a match where everybody thought the two guys were hurting each other, and we weren’t. Now, you have two guys jumping off of balcony’s and landing in piles of barbed wire and thumb tacks, and people think they aren’t getting hurt. It really isn’t worth the time to watch anymore.

     Anyway, that is a quick peak inside the world of pro wrestling from someone who was there and managed to survive past the age of 40. When I watched the Mickey Rourke film “The Wrestler”, I was actually thankful that I never made the big time. That could have been me. I never got famous, but looking back, it doesn’t seem that I ever even tried to get famous, so I don’t look at it as a failure. It was fun, and I met some really good people, and that is what life is supposed to be about.

Are the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Danger of Becoming Irrelevant?

 

     There is a struggle facing the practitioners of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA). This is something which is always facing any martial art as the world evolves, but it seems at that right now we are closer to the edge of irrelevance than we ever have been before.

     In the TCMA, we have had an issue for a long time. The pretty hand gestures, the silly poses and so on, they have been there for a while. There must have been, at some point in our history, an understanding that these things were poses, and that they were part of the entertainment in our art. But somewhere, this part of our story was lost. There are still entire systems that think that the poses and gestures mean something, that they are functional, and as often as not this opinion is based on nothing stronger than the say so of the “head of lineage”.

     Over time, and with the widespread practice of either watering down the curriculum to make it more suitable for children, or listening to the nonsense spouted by people who didn’t have the wherewithal to follow the truly traditional road of hard training and hard work, far too many questionable practices had crept into the training halls. When contact was reduced to prevent injuries, at some point people began to make up stories that the techniques could not be tested, as they were too dangerous. This was never the case. Yes, the techniques were dangerous, but not so much so they could not be tested, only that they placed the student at a greater risk of injury. Then contact was reduced further and then the rules of the tournament changed to allow for techniques which were far removed from any practical application. I am certain that legal considerations came into play at some point as well. At this writing, if a student gets injured in your school, insurance rates will go up as there is always a risk of getting sued.

     Back in the 1990s, something happened that would change traditional martial arts for a long time to come. The debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was so promoted, and such a huge spectacle, and so talked about, that no martial arts event before had compared.

     In the first UFC events, traditional martial artists had their eyes opened the hard way. All of the time spent in not testing the teachings because they were “too dangerous”, all of the time spent with a focus on non-contact, all of the lack of understanding of the basic concept of practical application and the true nature of combat came to a head, and there was no choice but to admit we were wrong.

      As TCMA faced up to the reality of what was shown to the world in the UFC events a crossroads was reached. Some of the instructors chose to pursue our roots – practical application and hard work. Other schools clung to the history (which was made up), and the mysticism.

      Karate fared better in my opinion. There was a pretty widespread renewed interest in the study of Bunkai, practical application. Much more so than in TCMA. There are always going to be those who promote themselves as masters of everything, and all traditional martial arts have problems of this nature, so it is pointless to focus on that.

      I have recently written at great length, and through several articles on the subject of the falsehood of the mystical claims of the Chinese Martial Arts. I do not wish to go further into that, but if you are interested in my opinions on the subject, the articles are published and available on this website.

     The question that forms the title of this article is direct – Are the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in danger of becoming irrelevant? The short answer is, “yes” with a “but”, long answer “no” with an “if”. 

      Yes, TCMA are in danger of becoming irrelevant, but it is avoidable.

      No, TCMA are not in danger of becoming irrelevant if we make some changes. What follows are the changes I see as being necessary if we are to remain relevant.

      1. Begin training harder. One of the biggest things that the TCMA schools should immediately take upon seeing the success of the MMA schools is to give the people what they are looking for – hard training. We all know that “kung fu” means “hard work”, lets live up to that meaning! Endless repetition of forms is not the hard work the people are looking for. The trend right now, and for the foreseeable future is to teach the fighting skills behind the martial arts, and drill them. It has to be practical. The modern martial arts student has an unlimited access to tons of information. When you start teaching and promoting BS, expect to be discovered, and expect to get shut down. There are so many ways to drill the basics that it is insane to just drill in the air or in forms. Just for the record, I am going to begin posting a series of articles and videos that will demonstrate some of the drills I use, as well as links to videos from others who have taken the lead in this movement and who are already posting such videos.

      2. Understand how to use what you teach in the forms. Let us be clear, if a student only wants MMA, they will go to an MMA school, not a TCMA school. But, if like so many people out there, they want to learn a traditional martial art, but they also want to be able to use it, they just might call a TCMA or TMA school. As an instructor, you can increase the chances of this happening if you do the work, and study and learn to use your art. If you cannot use it, you are a Master Fancypants, but not a martial artist.

      It takes extra work, and a lot of study, but live your role! If you are only in it for the money – OPEN YOUR EYES! There are much better paying jobs out there. If you truly want to be the best, then get to work and know your job.

      3. Be able to identify which parts of the forms have no function. It is painful to admit, but we have to face the fact that there are parts of our forms that have no practical usage. Once we face this fact, we are free. We are free to openly study the form and see what parts no longer have value. We don’t need to just drop these parts, but it is important to know that they are there. I take no joy in bringing this point to public attention, but facts are facts. One may well ask why I do not recommend dropping the sections, and I will answer. It would be a mistake to simply drop the sections, in my own opinion, because they are still a part of the form. The sections were put in for a reason. And while I may not understand the function, there could be one. What I will not do is try to tell my students that I know a function that I cannot understand or find. As long as the application is hidden from my sight, I am not going to make any claims that I know it. And if you try to tell me that these parts are for the development of Qi, I will hit you in the head with a steel chair.

       4. Practice critical thinking. Critical thinking is both a skill and an attitude. It is the application of certain questions to a given claim, and using the answers to evaluate whether or not the claim is well founded. This skill can be applied to any situation, evaluation, and even social issues.

      When you approach the martial arts from the perspective of critical thinking, you are able to make well thought out, informed and rational decisions. The other path is to simply accept whatever you are told as being true, and this leaves you to take whatever opinion you read or hear and adopt it as your own. In such cases, you may be right or wrong. But if you use critical thinking, you are able to examine the different positions before you take any of them as your own.

      As stated above, critical thinking is a skill and an attitude. It involves using the tools of rational, logical evaluation to determine if a claim is well founded. It allows you to react rationally to what you are told or read. You need to be able to rationally evaluate any claim made.

       5. Stop hiding. Be proud of being a practitioner of TCMA. For far too long “masters” hid from the light of day like so many cockroaches. In some cases, I am sure that they truly believed that they had some secret hidden ancient knowledge, even when they didn’t have anything secret, or even special for that matter. In other cases though, I am sure they hid from public view because they knew they didn’t really know anything, and were scared that they would be exposed as frauds.

      But for the true martial artist, stop hiding. Make videos and post them. Be public about your curriculum. The entire concept that what we teach has to be hidden from view is baseless. We say on the one hand that no one can learn form a book or video, but on the other we say that we cannot post videos because we don’t want people to learn our secret stuff.

      Which is it? Seriously.

      The traditional Japanese and Okinawan and Korean systems freely film and post their material. Why are we hiding still. Are we scared? I am taking a stand on this as stated above, I will be posting a series of videos and articles detailing everything we do and teach in my school. I hope to get the entire curriculum up before too long. I challenge other instructors of TCMA to do the same. You and I both know you don’t have anything truly secret.

      The fact is that when we move into the 21st century, we will start to regain some of the lost respectability. Some instructors have already started down this road, we should join them.

Site and Article Update

 

     I wanted to put up a quick update on where some of the articles have gone. It was time to do some house cleaning. As I have been examining some previously unexamined beliefs and practices in my training, things have changed. Specifically, in my series tiled “Forms: Step by Step”, a lot of what was published was no longer accurate in it’s description of how I do things.

     While there could be some debate on this, it is actually a traditional practice to make changes to the forms. Total mimicry is a very modern phenomenon. So, I have been working on increasing the practical applicability of my forms. I have a partially finished article on this which should be up by the end of the week, but that is for later. Here I am just making note that I removed the previous posts under the Forms": Step by Step category, and am going to be re-writing them and updating the information on how I do things. It is also my intent to include some videos, but that takes time and I don’t like to take time away from my kids, so that is something that may not happen right away. We shall see. Anyway, keep an eye out for the updated and much more detailed articles in the new and improved series!

The Cult of the Chinese Martial Arts

There is a really strange subculture in the Chinese Martial Arts, almost like a cult. In fact, I have, many times, referred the Chinese Martial Arts family as a cult. I will go into greater detail about this presently, but I wish to first make clear that I am not referring to everyone who practices Chinese Martial Arts as members of a cult. I am referring specifically to those who adhere to certain beliefs spelled out below. My friends know who they are as well as who I am speaking of in this article. Here I am going to give a list of some of the more common issues that really hinder the levels of respectability for the Chinese Martial Arts as a whole.

The Grandmaster Syndrome

Within the Chinese Martial Arts there is a long list of taboos. These are things which must not be mentioned in any public setting, and absolutely never in writing.

At the top of the list, one is never supposed to say anything counter to the official teachings of the “head of a lineage”. These are people held in high regard because of who they learned from, as opposed to gaining respect through hard work and the development of high levels of skill. It is the lineage that is supposed to make their kung fu more authentic than that learned from someone else. When one questions this traditional belief, the typical line is to compare lineage to the concept of attending a fine University. There is a serious and unwarranted jump needed to make such a connection. The person considered to be the head of a lineage is someone who learned from someone famous in the lineage. Okay…in modern times it usually has to be someone who learned from someone who learned from some famous historical figure in the system, but you can see the idea.

All too often, however, a person of note in the history of a style or school was not well known because they were the best, they were well known because they were well known, had a big school, or most typically, knew the right people. Connections have always been more important that what a person really knows, and this holds true for many fields of study outside of the martial arts as well.

I don’t spend a great deal of time talking about my lineage. I want to be judged based on what I know, not who I trained under. There are many ways to test the skills of a trainee of any martial art, and I have never backed away from any of these.

There have been very heated debates on the kung fu internet forums based on nothing more than “my lineage is better than yours”, and “is not”, and “is so!” This is worse than childish, it is asinine! The people who promote their lineage over the actual training are immature and look more and more so each time they debate the issue.

The debates go on, and people continue to be duped into thinking that because this guy learned from that guy that this style must be the real deal.

It isn’t and never was.

The people that I have known who promote lineage the loudest are those who have no strength in their own ability, and need to use something to gain a foothold into people’s minds and make them think that their school is the best school in which to train, or they have never tested what they were being taught, and are afraid of what might happen if they were to test their claims and fail.

Can you see the absurdity of the thought that, “well, he is tiny and weak, but he learned from the Grandmaster of the style, so I have to train here”? These are also the “masters” who play the secret knowledge card to the maximum of its potential. They have to! They cannot use the system in a fighting situation, so all they have left is to promote some mystique about hidden knowledge.

“Secret Knowledge Taught Here”

Just imagine how absurd you would think it was if someone opened a martial arts school and hung out a sign that read, “Secret Knowledge Taught Here!”

Yet, people really sign up in schools where they think that ancient and secret knowledge is taught only to those special students who pay their tuition.

There are no secrets. There are many in the Chinese Martial Arts community who hate it when I say this, but it is fact. There are no secrets, no hidden knowledge, no death touch, no magic, no levitation, none of it.

Well, I take that back. There is one secret. Hard work.

Get up off of your butt and do something. People get so caught up in the ideas of magical powers that they lose sight of the real world. Science will open your eyes to a lot of things, but you first have to be willing to have your eyes opened. When I teach my students, I teach them ways to test my claims, and I make sure they also understand that they can find their own tests to reaffirm the claims. There is no magic involved, only science. Many “masters” would not be willing to allow such tests. To even question a claim is tantamount to blasphemy.

Sometimes, when a “master” comes to believe their own lies, they can be convinced to allow a test of their claims. There is a video available online where National Geographic did a story on an internationally known martial arts “master” who had begun claiming the ability to perform a no-touch knock out. The reporters had a person stand in and accept the challenge to be knocked out without being touched. Of course, it didn’t work. When it didn’t work, they went to the master looking for an explanation Naturally, he had one. He didn’t have it prepared ahead of time, as was obvious as he searched in thin air for some reason that wouldn’t sound completely asinine. All he could come up with was the following:

“The skeptic was a..uh. .totally non believe it…non-believer. Plus…I don’t know if I should say that on film…if the guy had his tongue in the wrong position of the mouth; that can also nullify it. Yeah. You can nullify it. You can nullify a lot of things done to you. In fact, you can nullify it if you raise those two big toes. If I say I’m gonna knock you out, and you raise one toe and push one toe down…can’t knock you out. And then if I try again, you reverse it. If you keep doing this, I won’t knock you out.”

In this situation, the master is not presenting anything other than opinion. His claims of no-touch knock out proved upon testing to be false, the reason he gave for the failure of the demonstration were unsupported opinion. In addition, to all appearances, he was making up his response on the spot. He did this for no other reason than to support his previous unsubstantiated opinion. This is precisely what you want to avoid, as it is weak reasoning, at best, and post-justification at worst.

All claims in the martial arts should follow the scientific method and shown to be observable, explainable, testable, and repeatable. If this is not the case, you are dealing with pseudoscience, and you need to go elsewhere for your training.

Bodhidharma Slept Here

When people come to me to learn, I teach them the art and how to use it. I do not teach them the history because the history that is widely known is fiction, and the history that is true is not what they want to hear.

People love the Bodhidharma story. And when pressed, most martial artists will admit that it probably isn’t true. I went ahead with what some of the most respected martial arts historians had uncovered and said publicly that the story is false, and made a lot of people mad. Facts cannot be changed by ignoring them.

The simple fact is that martial arts are military arts. They existed in China and everywhere else long before Bodhidharma made his fabled journey, if he existed at all to make the journey. To think that China (or any other Country) had no military training for its soldiers until after the 520 AD(ish) visit from a wandering monk is completely ridiculous. If you have to cling to that story, I feel sorry for you.

Qi Makes You Fat

I don’t believe in Qi power. In the Chinese Martial Arts, it is not okay to make such a statement. I have been branded a moron and a buffoon ipso facto for openly admitting that Qi is nonsense and the people who promote, claim and teach it are frauds, charlatans, and liars. It is not okay to speak or write these things.

For many people in the Chinese Martial Arts, Qi is the entire reason they are a part of it at all. I was in the same group, so I know whereof I speak. I was originally into the Chinese Martial Arts because the mysticism was so appealing to the weird youngster that I was. I wanted to believe that these powers were real, and I wanted to have them to smite my foes. I trained and sought out the masters, and I spent an ungodly amount of money on this nonsense.

And in the end I got nothing out of it.

If Qi powers were real, there would be a scientific way to prove it, it would be known outside of the martial arts and acupuncture sub-cultures. It isn’t because it is not real. It would be common knowledge by now, and would not need to be “proven” through parlor tricks.

 

This is but a taste of the strange beliefs that a critical thinker must deal with if he is to be a trainee in the Chinese Martial Arts. I started out as a believer in this nonsense, and have grown and reached a clear understanding. There are some CMA practitioners who are leaving the asinine stories and lies behind, and are moving ahead into the world of real skills, and testing what they teach. I hope that this movement grows. The silliness has gone on for too long.