I have sometimes mentioned on the boards that I am good friends with a gentleman named “Ama Guro Billy Bryant”, a very talented martial artist who, in my opinion, was the East Coast version of Bruce Lee. You will meet people who either bad mouth him or love him to death, and every time I talk about him I get private messages and emails asking his whereabouts or to tell them more about him. He is something of a phantom martial artist these days, but one that nearly everyone will agree was a great martial artist and fighter, so I’d like to talk about him a little.
I first met Billy around 1983, in a tournament in Philadelphia, PA. I was fighting in a plain black Karate gi representing no one (I was 13 and had loyalty issues with my martial arts teachers), but I had a Filipino flag patch on my uniform, which caught Billy’s attention. (Now that I think of it, that patch has introduced me to several other masters, including Master Apolo Ladra, GM Don Bitanga, and many more.) While Billy was interested in meeting my grandpa and talking FMA, I was more interested in picking his brain about point fighting because I admired his fighting style. At that time, Billy was in his late 40s and was quite dominant. At that time, he was going by the name “Jabba”, and representing Chinese Kenpo. He never talked about who he learned from, but I remember asking him for matches (as I did Billy Blanks, Leroy Superfeet Taylor, and many other great fighters I looked up to) and remarking that he seemed to have kicks as good as the Tae Kwon Do fighters–which he answered that he also had a Black Belt in Moo Doo Kwon (or some other Korean style).
Years later he ended up living in the Washington, DC area, and had visited my school several times, attempting to learn from my Jow Ga Sifu, Master Dean Chin. Sifu refused him as a student, saying that he did not trust him (as my Grandfather said as well). Billy came back several times, worked out with some of my Si Hings, impressed everyone, but was never allowed to join. I would run into him occasionally at the tournaments, and each time I saw him I learned techniques and strategies that I would work on until the next time I saw him.
To say that Billy’s quick lessons influenced me was an understatement: I use to this day nearly everything I’ve learned from him, and when I spar I envision him and mirror his fighting style.
In 1986 I won my first division as a Black Belt Adult and was handed my first $100 prize money. Billy was there to coach me, and talked to me about using competition martial arts as a form of income. I have to say this, when he was around I was more confident and for some reason almost always placed high. He spoke to me at that time about learning Arnis–which I knew well, but had little interest in teaching–from GM Remy Presas. We promised to get together and compare notes about what he knew vs. what I knew. He asked me at that time about forms, and I informed him that I didn’t know any and he said he would teach me some. We did not talk about FMA much after that until 1988, when I left the country to visit my Dad in the Philippines. Billy had me go to Angeles City to look for Luis Amador Oliverez, his Kenpo teacher.
I ended up staying in the Philippines for two years to study with Boggs Lao, Ernesto and Roberto Presas, and two other gentlemen whose names I have forgotten–one taught only Espada at Daga, and the other taught Hung Gar. Billy and I communicated via letter every month, and I reported on the lessons I learned, and my failed attempts to find Kuntaw similar to what I was learning at home (all I could find was Karate/Kuntaw), and searching for “Kali”.
When I returned to the US in 1990, I immediately hooked up with Billy–who by that time had become a student of my Si Hing Raymond Wong and had learned quite a bit of Jow Ga by then. Billy had a school in the Annapolis, Md, area and had forged a good reputation for his fighting and forms ability. I returned to the tournament scene, but had more of a taste for kickboxing, as I had kickboxed in the Philippines and liked it better. I joined a boxing gym (Palmer Park/Ray Leonard gym) and started working more on boxing skill, while working for a Tae Kwon Do chain teaching sparring classes and doing sales part time. Billy by this time was knee-deep in his FMA, and was all over the seminar circuit. He often introduced me to colleagues from the circuit, whom I found to have very poor skills despite being arrogant and cocky because of who they were learning from. He confided in me that Jeet Kune Do people were into Bruce Lee and his concepts more than they were into fighting skill. But they were good for attending seminars, and Billy actually made a nice income teaching them. So he befriended and complimented everyone even when he thought they were lousy martial artists. It was here that I developed a bad taste in my mouth for the video tape and seminar market: everywhere I looked, I would find poor skill combined with a lot of certificates and name-dropping.
In 1992, I began teaching at Bolling Air Force Base Gym with the curriculum that my Grandfather and I had devised together. Billy thought my curriculum was too light, and encouraged me to “fluff” it with “filler”, as he found that most students liked to be spoonfed and wouldn’t pay for training the same skills night after night. I tried some of his ideas, but always came back to the original method I planned to use.
In 1993, I opened my first commercial school with a dear friend of mine, Terry Robinson, who was a pioneer from the 70s in the bareknuckle scene. Billy gave a lot of good advice and donated equipment to get me started. He made my first flyers and taught me how to do it myself. I used his wording and found it very effective. Shortly thereafter, I found that one of his students, Kenneth Willis, grew up 20 yards from where my family lived in River Terrace, Washington DC. Kenny was a boxer who studied Eskrima with Billy, and only learned fighting from him. Kenny was my second greatest influence, as he was highly critical of Billy’s ideas, despite admiring him so much. I later moved to Baltimore to open my second location in Reisterstown, and got back on the tournament scene in that city. Billy had introduced me to some serious powerhouses there, and I trained with these gentlemen, who mostly made up their own systems. Some things were striking: all where African American, all had excellent skill, and all were trying to make their mark in a community dominated by Asians, commercialism and racism.
I had some disagreements with Billy, but none were bad enough that we couldn’t get past them. But but in 1997, I had offered to host Nene Tortal for a seminar in Baltimore, and it led to my last disagreement with him and I never spoke to him again… except for a few times I had called to see how he was doing. Our conversations were very short and contained none of the sage to student intimacies they once had. Last I knew, Billy was back in New York and confined to a wheel chair after a vehicle accident and some personal tragedy.
I was one of those people who knew Billy very closely, I knew his dirt, and I knew his struggles, but it does not bother me that I could not contact him anymore. What amazed me was how many people come to me, not knowing who I am or who I am to him, and offer rumors (some true, some untrue) that attack his character. To tell the truth, if we are talking about a great martial artist, we sometimes look at his personal life and judge his ability or validity as a teacher based on what we know or hear. Bruce Lee, most likely cheated on his wife with Betty Ting Pei, used Dan Inosanto to run his business when he was no longer interested in teaching for a living, and smoked marijuana. Steven Segall is a liar and and asshole. Maung Gyi is a phony veteran and lied about the origin of his martial arts. Others, are drunks, are bad with their money, have false histories, are jerks, has huge egos and small “manhood” complex… but what about their martial arts?
The fact is, Billy was human, but he is a good man (if he is still alive) and I really don’t care to hear about his faults, nor do I wish to share with people I don’t know. As a martial artist, he was one of the best and he influenced many great martial artists to become better. I emulate him when I fight, and he’s never made any movies. I also happen to owe my career as a martial artist to him, and that says a lot.
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