I have thought for a time about doing a series of interviews of some of the interesting people I have met in or through the martial arts. The biggest thing that held me back was confidence. I am, after all, not really a journalist. But…I have published books and I am not really a writer! I am just a guy with some ideas he wanted to share. So in that same thought process, I have decided to go ahead with the project. Here I present my interview with Sifu Onassis Parungao. He is a superb martial artist, a Traditional Chinese Martial Arts practitioner who was unafraid to put his money where his mouth is and enter into MMA competitions. He was also a valuable part of the cult classic “The Kwoon” (his fight scene with Death in the middle of an aerobics class still ranks as my all time favorite fight scene). He currently lives in Connecticut and teaches classes as well as offering seminars. So that said, I give you, Sifu Onassis Parungao!
Wallace: Onassis, first I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview, I know time is a precious commodity when you have a family and a business, so let’s get down to business. Shall we?
How long have you been training in the martial arts?
Onassis: 35 years plus.
Wallace: And the obligatory stuff; what is your training history, styles studied, etc.?
Onassis: Styles studied… hmmm, earliest thing I learned was a Filipino hand art (aka Arnis de Mano) called Tung Kong Kalan. Which roughly means three posts or directions, pertaining to how you move and also footwork. I started when I was eight and my Dad was very unforgiving almost to the point of vicious. As I said in another article I was a Navy brat…so we moved often and I fought a lot. My Dad basically got on his knees and said, “So you want to learn how to fight? Come here”, and he’d throw me down and put some painful locks on me and said “This is what you must feel if are going to hurt someone else”. Apparently that’s how he had learned from his teacher back on P.I. If ever I wanted to learn something new, I knew I was in for a bunch of pain so I stuck with the basics for a long while. Arnis is so opposite from what I do now. My Father has almost a disdain for forms work. His focus is/was only about the fighting and it shows. All you have to do is look at his hands.
A few years later came Judo and my father said, “you need to learn better how to fall and disperse your weight” so off I went. But I only stayed till brown belt as my Sensei wouldn’t allow someone under 16 to achieve black belt, so like most young impulsive kids I moved on. It’s a regret now that I’m older because I normally try to finish whatever I start.
Hung Gar since 84′ and Taiji since about the mid 90’s.
Wallace: I know you also have some competitive MMA experience as well. How many MMA competitions have you participated in?
Onassis: If you’re talking professional MMA as in getting paid money, my record is only 2 -1.
Wallace: Only? Ha! That is an official three professional fights more than most self-professed experts can honestly claim! Which events were you in?
Onassis: The events were UFC 7 and the Russian AFC. Those were back in the 90’s and so very different than modern events currently, no weight classes, no gloves and the only two rules were no eye gouging and no biting that’s it. I almost signed on to fight in Japan for Pancrase league but I had just gotten married so I didn’t feel that was cool to do.
Wallace: I can understand that. I have passed on several opportunities because of what I felt the extra travel or hours would do to my home life, which is my real life.
Onassis: My other belts and fights come from more sanctioned environments and therefore not true MMA. For example Chinese San Shou.
Wallace: I see drawing a distinction between MMA and San Shou, but let me have you draw that out a little bit for anyone reading this who may not be familiar with San Shou. While not technically MMA, San Shou is pretty rough. Let our audience in a little bit on exactly what San Shou is.
Onassis: To me San Shou is like Chinese kickboxing on steroids. Not only can you punch, kick and sweep (in some countries even elbows and knees) but you can throw your opponent. I’m fairly certain it developed post Cultural revolution as a safer way to display the combat aspects of Wushu. You know; there are weight classes, you wear gloves, a cup, some leg or head-gear. But you can pretty much bash the TAR outta someone or throw them down without mercy. Again for me, this was a no brainer because I used to enter some point fighting Karate tournies in the 80’s and I’d get D.Q’d for “using excessive force”. What a JOKE!!!
Wallace: Sport Karate tournaments have come a looong way in the wrong direction from where they started. It was fighting when it started, but now, not so much.
You also run your own school. What styles do you teach?
Onassis: I mostly focus on Hung Gar and Taiji. But to be specific, I teach the orthodox Lam Tsai Wing family Hung Gar style and also another style of Hung loosely named after lower regions in China, “Ha Say Fu”.
For Taiji, again I focus on 2 different families. One is Yang style, but it’s done on a Sun Taiji frame… sometimes referred to as Gu Ru Zhang style (Yang) Taiji. Also Sun Style Taijiquan and proudly I can say direct lineage. Sun also has Xing Yi and Bagua.
I only teach my Filipino stuff to someone who I feel is very close to me and I must know them well. Only someone like that would endure my Dads kind of training method.
Wallace: You also teach seminars. What are the topics you cover in these?
Onassis: I mostly teach seminars on fighting, martial concepts or some sort of useful transmission of application methods. To a lesser degree…forms be they weapons or empty hands. Everyone does this, so I focus on my strength which is being able to apply.
Wallace: And the experiences of training for competitive fighting obviously changes your perspective regarding the application of traditional Chinese Martial Arts. I have had a chance to see footage of your competitive fights, and you clearly use Chinese Martial Arts without breaking down into pure kickboxing or grappling. Was this a difficult thing to pull off, or was it an easy transition due to the focus of your training?
Onassis: No it wasn’t easy…it’s still not. But it’s been an absolute obsession of mine for over twenty years now. But it’s changed as I got older. When I was younger it was important to incorporate the traditional into the modern model. Now with maturity, “I say it is what it is” or “Go with the flow”…haha. What a person has to do is look at a certain truth, ie: That most modern martial artists almost across the board use western boxing in conjunction with some sort of grappling. (Typically BJJ)
Onassis: So that is a fixed constant… therefore if you understand your style’s strengths and weaknesses pertaining to both of these disciplines, then you have the path laid out in front of you. How many will do the work after that though?
Wallace: Not many. People seem to prefer that others do the thinking, discovering and hard work, and they want to just get the benefits.
It has been my opinion and observation, although I certainly was not the first to say it; when events like UFC came out, and then of course all of its offshoot events; traditional martial artists were shocked that so much of what they had been told was not true or didn’t work as planned. Some people closed up and went further into denial, and others went back and studied to find where their flaws were.
Is your study of application a result of that era, or was this something that was with you from the beginning because of how your journey began?
Onassis: Your observations are very astute Wallace and YES my obsession was hastened by those events. But I would have always been addressing the striking and grappling models on my own accord just because I’m one of those nuts who can’t leave well enough alone.
Currently, the model I follow is the “Gun & Bullet Concept”. Perhaps people will get sick of me saying this over and over but until I have a greater epiphany… I absolutely will not stop.
Wallace: Sometimes you have to keep on saying it. I’m really interested in hearing this!
Onassis: My sifu once saw me developing some particularly powerful strikes. I was in my 20’s and thought that raw speed and power could still override my opponents skills. Then it happened, he made a simple comment, he said: “ You have really strong bullets but I wonder how good is your gun?”
In layman’s terms: What good is it to have powerful strikes if you cannot land them? The Gun is in reference to how well you really understand your style and also good Kung Fu fundamentals in general.
Whenever I first say this to people, they don’t fully understand the importance. How can I explain my own epiphany? They think; “Ok so you mean just get better or more skilled right?”
NO, beyond the fundamentals for each style exists the lines of flow. The tendencies that all humans have; be it to flinch or to hesitate for example. The Gun is kinda like playing billiards where you take a shot but also attempt to set up the next one. All the while you know or have a good idea what your opponents next moves might be. That is the GUN as it pertains to martial arts application and the better you become at it, the more you start to look at it like a God-send.
Wallace: Very interesting! So this is a study of not only the fundamentals of your own system, but further it is a study of, or an understanding of human reflexes and reactions that allow you to predict where the opponent is going to be so that your follow-up is there when they arrive.
Onassis: So whenever I “Touch Hands” with people now, I’m not concerned with winning or hurting people so much. I only care if I can set them up, for me that’s enough. It’s like a Litmus Test for application skills… the more strangers I can come in contact with and set them up, the more I have done my job. Yet it is very humble…many times the guy doesn’t even know he got “Owned”, so there’s not much glory in it. The best compliment I can get is, “you keep getting me but I don’t know how you’re doing it”.
Wallace: Awesome approach!
Onassis: So that is the crux of my classes, I focus mostly on teaching my students the Gun Concept…even if they don’t realize it.
Wallace: Moving to a slightly different topic; Is there a common denominator that you see that hinders a broader acceptance of the combat value of the traditional Chinese Martial Arts? What I mean by that is this; I can see the idea put forward by Stanley Henning that the Southern Shaolin myth is a falsehood created and used by the triads to recruit members as probably being a historical fact. And the great historian Tang Hao said the same things Henning said, only Tang Hao said it decades before. But Henning was the first that I read stating that there were several “styles” of short bridging methods of martial arts around the different areas of southern China that were taught to military recruits and over time evolved into what we now know as “Southern Shaolin”.
Now, speaking only for me, I see the clinging to the myths as that common denominator, this nonsense we claim as fact that others laugh at. I could go on, but the interview is about you, my friend, so…
The question is, do you think there is a common reason preventing the wider acceptance of the fighting effectiveness of the TCMA, if so, what is it, and if not, explain why not.
Onassis: A few parts in this one:
1) About Shaolin…you often hear the saying that “Shaolin is the Grandfather of most kung fu styles”. I don’t need to rehash the common lore (truth?) that Bodhidharma went to Shaolin, meditated for 9 years in a cave and when he came back down…gave the monks the foundation for Shaolin roots. In this regard, almost everyone can claim lineage to Shaolin if you go back far enough.
2) In my group of training brothers, I was the fighter… not so much the historian. But I have heard from my sifu and good brother Stephen Chew (who’s well traveled and research) that yes southern style short bridging families of kung fu did exist prior to the so-called introduction of “ Shaolin”. It does make sense that fighting and self-defence was always a necessity.
3) You speak of the acceptance TCMA??? Do I really have to pull the MMA card? Granted I don’t want to get into the sport martial arts VS self-defense argument, because both have value. Currently people see what’s in the media and follow like sheep.
Wallace: Indeed. It is…sickening.
Onassis: Seriously, as if the lack of people in traditional kung fu who know how to apply wasn’t bad enough, it’s the other side of the spectrum that border on HOO-HA and Mysticism! Why is it that most of the best fighters in TCMA are foreigners, i.e. Non-Chinese? Because for most, there is no need to develop such skill. Also evolution, just as mathematics as improved over the centuries so has martial skills. It’s the modern world, you video everything and learn from it…good and bad. In the old days if you fought and killed all your opponents, nobody survived to learn from it and they certainly couldn’t review a tape afterwards. So things could stay the same way for a long time if you follow me?
Wallace: I get it. For the sake of the readers, could you elaborate?
Onassis: For example, the modern adoption of the sweet science of western boxing. Look at how it was 100 yrs ago in classic Irish style fisticuffs and compare that to modern boxing. The very essence of the “Jab” is an anomaly for traditional kung fu. The Jab, fires out quickly and tries to return back to chin position. It’s purpose is to sting, annoy(pepper) and set up your opponent in order to set up the “Cross” or other finisher. In traditional Kung fu terms, the Jab does a lot of things wrong that “Flies in the face” of most kung fu basic:
– It begins usually from a higher non-relaxed shoulder joint. In Kung Fu you always relax the shoulder and sink the elbow.
– It not meant to be a full body strike. In traditional Kung Fu, you want to put your full body structure behind your strikes, thus it can be a little slower.
– It’s fast and supple, thrown from the balls of the feet (unless tired). Meaning it’s also at the maximum range when you’re leaning into it. Not that Kung Fu doesn’t have something similar but usually one foot must always be planted and the other can be alighted…that is Yin & Yang.
But it’s these very attributes that make the Jab a Modern problem that most traditional martial arts cannot deal with.
Wallace: Right. In the context of when and where the traditional martial arts were born and developed it simply wasn’t part of the equation so methods to deal with it were not codified into the systems. Didn’t mean to interrupt, please continue.
Onassis: Take Taijiquan for example, it is defensive by nature and never attacks. But it can still be brutally defensive in it’s application. The BANE of Taiji is you usually are trying to create a stick point from which to apply energies. What if your opponent is Muhammad Ali and “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee”? The Taiji person is screwed if he cannot deal with this.
So now it is a “put your money where your mouth is kinda world” and you know what?… It’s a harsh reality. But for me, traditional Kung Fu has saved my life many times and also helped me in the sport arena. So in that regard, TCMA is very useful and still applies today. It’s just comes down to how you train and perhaps who you train with.
Wallace: Excellent! I would say most styles are most effective in fighting against their own style.
Do you find a lot of misunderstood or incorrect application being practiced in TCMA?
Onassis: YES!!! First and foremost, nobody just strikes and leaves their arm out to be “messed with”.
Also many people look at a form and see a Rolodex of techniques that are possible. But there is no way in hell that they can “Sift through” all those techniques, pick one and then apply it in the same time as a punch for example.
Wallace: Especially in light of the fact that the other guy is still raining blows down on you while you sift through. Pain, proximity and time mess up the plans of a lot of would be tough guys.
Onassis: The more experienced you are… the more you realize that you only need a few entries and a few counters in the beginning. Then if you stick with it long enough, the other methods open themselves up to you as you mature.
I believe a lot of traditionally trained guys are confused or don’t understand how to use what they’ve learned in a modern setting and then they just fall back on Kick Boxing or relying on a younger mans game… i.e. more speed, more strength and more conditioning. All good but not for when you get older. As you get older and wiser, you understand that fighting is just like beats of time, there are “pauses” and there are “rushes” and then you learn to be patient and listen before you issue energy. That is the only way an older weaker person wins out.
Wallace: I love what you just said there. “don’t understand how to use what they’ve learned in a modern setting”. It isn’t the system that is wrong, it is the way it is being applied. So many doors are opened in just understanding that one important point!
Onassis: Regardless of styles, certain methods are slower developing, to try them VS a boxers jab is crazy. If you understand your methods and enter correctly for what he gives you first, THEN you can use that slower bridge.
Double butterfly palms from Hung Gar is a perfect example, too often you see people applying it from outside range when the other guy is throwing the classic reverse punch or worse; a jab. But that will only hold up vs a compliant student leaving his arm out. This makes it a secondary type method…meaning it’s better used after a bridge or contact has been established.
You can only do certain things when your opponent gives them to you. But if your opponent is unwilling to play your way, some people become lost. Again, you can enter to manufacture this opportunity or you can enter to control and listen…wait and then make him pay
Wallace: This is all such good stuff I don’t want to move on but I want to cover all of the questions while we have a chance.
You have spent a good number of years training in the martial arts. I want you to take a moment and tell me about what you feel is the most valuable thing that you have learned in those years.
Onassis: I could cheapen this interview and give you a generic answer like “Self Control” but I’d be avoiding the bigger picture.
For me, because I teach and not just self cultivate…this is a loaded question. The most valuable thing(s):
In Martial Terms, I’d say the ability to “Listen and Follow” … also to be able to set people up is far more important to me than to actually hurt people now. When I was younger I followed this credo; ” Each day try to become Faster, Stronger or more Skilled.” Currently I try to maintain that but also to be smarter.
In Art Terms, I’d say learning to keep the practice as part of my Life. Like “putting drops in a bucket”…eventually it fills up. Then you start again with a bigger bucket. So the learning never stops and it’s always interesting.
In Spiritual Terms…well there is none for me that comes from my kung fu training. I’m a Catholic so I’d like to think that my self-control, forgiveness and understanding that life is precious comes from Jesus Christ. Obviously nobody’s perfect and I have plenty of my own crosses to bear.
Wallace: We all do. Great stuff.
So, let’s say someone wants to book you for a seminar. First off, is what you teach style specific, do they need to practice Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, or can you work with any system or style?
Onassis: No I’m not style specific, but being in some sort of Kung fu already usually helps. If not that…then having an open mind and being willing to “empty the cup” really goes a long way.
Also, I’m mostly an “Apply” type teacher. Meaning I’m not going to just focus on forms, so students shouldn’t be the type that get all weird with touching and exchanging methods first hand with other people. People have to be comfortable touching hands with strangers, be it easy and benign or full contact…eventually some sort of physical contact is preferable to none at all.
Wallace: I will interject a quote from Marc ‘Animal’ MacYoung, “The difference between theory and practice is that in theory there is no difference.” Contact has to be a part of any serious training, just my humble opinion.
And if they want to book a seminar, what is the best way for them to contact you, and do you go to them or do they come to you?
Onassis: Sometimes I fly out to a location and work out a deal to cover the costs. Other times students fly or drive in, stay at a hotel and work out for a long weekend. It’s up to them.
Obviously I have a couple of school reference pages available in which my contact email is listed. I also have a Facebook page under “Cheng Yee Kung Fu School”. If you will, list those page links at the end.
Wallace: Will do. Onassis, I thank you very much for your time! This has been fantastic, and you have given me a lot to think about. Maybe sometime we can do this again, and next time get some footage of you demonstrating these ideas. This big man can still take getting thrown around!
Onassis: Likewise brother Wallace!! Too bad we don’t live closer to each other…we’d either be training all day, BBQing or a combo of both. Hmm, the later seems more doable.
Wallace: I do love BBQ…
So there is the interview. If you wish to get in touch with Sifu Onassis Parungao, here are the websites he mentioned. I am one who is slow to recommend any instructor, but he is very well-trained, knows his material and does not have that over-bearing “Master of All” ego. Contact him through the following:
Cheng Yee “Righteous” Kung Fu School
Gales Ferry, CT.
Main School Home Page
Taiji Specific Page
Facebook Page Search ( Cheng Yee Kung Fu School)