Searching for Ama Guro Billy Bryant

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.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Can the Filipino Arts Sustain a Full-Time School? (Part II)

There are those who believe that the Filipino arts are not aesthetically pleasing enough to attract students. At least, not enough students to pay a two thousand dollar lease.

But it isn’t always about beauty, or fads, or marketing, either!

In the FMAs, we offer many reasons to study:

  • a good, strong form of self-defense
  • it can be a great workout, unlike the workout of many other forms of fighting
  • we teach fighting skills much faster than many other styles

Can the arts help a kid get good grades? Can an FMA school be a cheap alternative to After School Day Care? Can it be set to music, like Tae Bo?

Man, I should slap you for those questions.

The Arts are in their own niche market. A book I once read told me that if you have concerns about the competition in your industry’s market, eliminate them. And what better way to eliminate competition than by carving your own niche in the market–where there IS no competition? It was recently noted on the discussion boards (at www.martialtalk.com/forum) that most cities have no full-time FMA school, yet every city boasts at least a few hundred FMA students. Wouldn’t it make sense, that the only school in town would be able to pull in a good portion of those students? Especially the ones who caught the FMA bug!

And this isn’t counting the potential students who crack open the Yellow Pages to find a place to teach self-defense and/or martial fitness… and stumble upon the FMA school. Sure, it don’t look like Jet Li’s fight scenes, but here are the benefits of studying the Filipino Martial Arts, sir…

It isn’t always all about slick marketing and mixing arts with more popular styles. Many times, we just have to do a better job relating to the needs of our public. I’m not referring to press releases and newspaper clippings, but simply to advertise the benefits of the arts we teach and then explaining what we do when they walk through our doors. After all, it isn’t much different from the challenges of Kung Fu Sifus in explaining why he doesn’t teach Monkey style Kung Fu or jump up into trees, and why the Tae Kwon Do Sabumnim explains that he is not teaching Karate and is not called a Sensei. Part of the recruitment and sales process is education, and that will make a huge difference in whether or not a school sinks or swims.

I believe that most martial arts students really don’t have a preference in what style they study, given a proper education while searching. They just want to know that they will either get in shape, or learn to defend themselves, or will be a muggers worst nightmare. The Filipino arts can provide those benefits and more. The question is, do you have the ability to put your style in front of enough people to pay the bills?

And this brings me back to the subject of how to run a school. I don’t believe enough attention has been given to the how, and this is why most martial arts schools fail–not just the Filipino schools, but martial arts schools in general. As the saying goes, “A Black Belt in the Dojo, but White Belt in the Office”. It isn’t a question of what style is marketable, just like the question of whether fighting ability depends on what style you practice. If that’s the case, then every hard core school would be broke, and every Tae Kwon Do school is making a ton of money.

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Can the Filipino Arts Sustain a Full-Time School?

Let me answer this question with the short version, and then the long version.

The Short Version: YES.

The Long Version:

I have been hanging around MartialTalk discussing whether or not a full-time FMA school is possible… and whether they are needed, bad for the art, blah blah blah. If you check it out, you may notice a few feelings getting hurt, insecurities coming out, and things of that nature, but the conversation and feedback is pretty good. But at the same time, it is also pretty sad.

There seems to be the belief that the Filipino arts cannot survive in a commercial school, unless it is a side dish to something else. There are several reasons why, but the most bothering of them all is that teachers of the art believe this–and it is reflected in how they treat the very arts they teach. In most FMA teacher’s resume profiles, the Filipino arts are just one of the arts they do and are often just “sticks and knives” to them. Even the ones who do empty hand use another style for their main form of empty handed fighting. Because of this, I would say that the only way the Philippine arts will survive commercially in this country are (1) as watered-down martial arts, or (2) as a specialty, niche art to be given up on DVD and in one-day seminars.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I would like to offer my advice to those who would like to take a stab at making this art a full-time job and career:

  1. First, you must have good skill at the art. There are just far too many mediocre martial artists and fighters representing the FMAs–as well as other arts–and no one will stand out who does not leave behind people impressed with the art and the artists. If you want to do this full-time, develop your basic skill and train until your palms bleed and your forearm swells up. This is the first rule to success in the martial arts. Good marketing and slick sales speak only gets you so far…
  2. You must be committed to staying on the path of promoting good Filipino Martial Arts. This means having the discipline to not add “After School Karate” and “Sticks and Kicks”, just to make a buck. If your mission statement is to promote solid, traditional FILIPINO Martial Arts, anything that does not drive towards that direction is working against your mission. Don’t do it. Resist the easy money and build on your passion.
  3. Study Sales and Marketing. Learn how to promote and persuade. If you don’t like doing so, get someone who does. But a business with no sign and no effective advertising is like a car with no wheels. It’s just sitting there. This, I believe, is where most martial artists fail. Nothing happens until you make a buck. You can post Youtube clips until you’re blue in the face, but you have to drive traffic towards your classroom.
  4. Decide if you will have an empty handed program or not. You don’t have to have everything, trust me. I don’t see Boxing gyms adding weapons and kiddie classes, and I don’t see Fencing academies trying to figure out an empty hand component. But whatever you decide, make sure you have done the research and that you have a solid, strong program available. Too many FMA people are still “exploring”, and they don’t have that “master’s expertise” aura about them. Don’t pad your resume with a bunch of stuff you have only scraped the surface of. Don’t teach what you “dabble” in.  Be a true expert at what you do, and decide what type of expert you will be. Nothing will kill a business faster than having a bunch of people believe you are not one of the best.
  5. Get yourself a good business plan and a website, along with a good cheap location. You do not have to be in an expensive location, and you don’t have to be in a extremely busy location. But with good advertising, reputation and website, you will draw students. You should also have a place that is affordable!
  6. You must either have financial backing to keep you floating until you arrive at success, or you must have the drive to keep going until you get yourself there. I have seen many good martial arts teachers fail because they lacked one or the other. Does this mean I have never had financial problems? Of course not, I have moved out of expensive shopping centers and taught in parks until my enrollment allowed me to get back into another commercial location. I have lived in a hotel with two young children (I was a single father for 6 years) while teaching and working a low-paying job at night (and sneaking my babies into the job) before “breaking through” to full-time teaching. Believe me, I am not a very educated or smart man–my wife proofreads, edits and even rewrites everything I post here–but I will do this art until I die. And I will always have a school. If I can do it, I know you can. But you have to have the fighting spirit to see yourself through the difficulties and the faith to know that you will succeed. Too many martial artists do not, and so they end up tap-dancing in Tae Kwon Do schools for $75 a pop and certifying beginners as experts to make ends meet. And you shouldn’t have to accept 5 year old students, sublease in Kenpo and TKD schools, or spend your entire martial arts career in a community center to have a school.

Of the FMA masters I have met that have made a decent living with their arts, none have a college degree, and most speak poor English. By our standards they should not be successful in the business, but they are. Take a good look at what you would want to remember you did when your life passes before your eyes, and if you would have rather have spent it teaching the arts, pursue it. The Philippine arts are as valid as any mainstream martial art, and there are possibly millions of people who want to learn it. Be one of the teachers ready to take them in when they are ready to train.

Thank you for reading my blog. And if this article interests you, you may be interested in my first book, Making a Living with Your Backyard/Garage/Community Center Dojo, available for purchase on the Offerings page. Good luck!

How Long Does It Take to Learn How to Fight?

“How long before I am able to defend myself?”

If you are a Martial Arts teacher, you are probably asked this question at least once a week. I know I am!

It is a normal question for the martial arts student. We get several types of martial arts student in my school, and some of these guys are unique because my school is primarily an FMA school:

  • those wanting to get in shape or lose weight
  • victims of a crime who just want martial arts skills
  • victims of a crime who did their homework and are searching specifically for the FMAs
  • former FMA/JKD/Modern MA students
  • people who worry about self defense
  • those who saw “Ong Bak” and confuse anything from SE Asia with that stuff Tony Jaa does (LOL)
  • recent Black Belters who want to add FMA to their resume
  • Filipinos who want to reconnect with their heritage (and non-Filipinos who like Filipinas)
  • martial artists interested in fight competition

Regardless of why they come to the martial arts, most students really are curious about how long it will take before they can use it. Then, of course, we get the occasional “when will I be able to take on ten men?” 🙂

Seriously, I have heard some instructors consider this a question posed by the misguided and ignorant. I beg to differ; along with wanting to know how long it takes to achieve instructorship, most people want to know how long their journey will be. And as teachers, we owe it to them not to respond with some vague, vapourous answer. At least for those of us who have been teaching for a few years, we really know how long it takes to develop self-defense skill and should reply with something realistic. Of course, there are many factors that will determine how long. There will also be the question of “define ‘learn to fight’.” Are you referring to just some punk on the street? Or a seasoned streetfighter? Or empty handed versus an armed opponent? The truth is, if a student has learned to inflict damage, has learned to counter an opponent’s attacks, has the physical ability to do it, and the mental fortitude to handle such a task… then that student can defend himself. You as the teacher must guide his training to that point as quickly as you can, as soon as the student has undertaken study with you.

One of the things we see in the business of the martial arts is the assumption that students will be with us long-term. I believe this is why there is such an emphasis on certification and rank; there is the purveying belief that giving students goals to achieve will make serious martial artists out of those not cut out to be them. But this is not true. While I agree that some people are psychologically and genetically predisposed to excelling in fighting arts, there have been many people who overcame the odds to become great fighters because of plain old hard work. Hanging a carrot on a stick may work for a while with some (like children), but not everyone is ready for the blood, sweat and tears it takes to perfect this craft. And to push a full curriculum on students who have yet to prepare for this journey is an injustice, as not everyone is here for that. The truth is that most students will not be with us long, and in order to make their time with us worth the money, we should give them real skills that they can use as soon as possible and save the “attributes” stuff for the ones who will commit for the long term.

In other words, we should teach our students how to kick a mugger’s ass within 3 – 6 months.

Really, it isn’t that hard. Teach a guy how to ball a fist, how to train his fist to use it without injuring himself, how to inflict injuries on an opponent, give him the strength and physical ability to hurt someone with those techniques, and then, finally, give him opportunities to try it out under pressure. I say:  he should be ready to spar within a month, and sparring with some skill within 3 months, and feel like he can wear a guy out within 6 months. And this is empty-handed as well as with weapons.

Now, I have heard the argument that we should be teaching open hand techniques in the beginning, instead of the fist because the hand is not prepared for fighting while balled up yet. I believe that this is a good philosophy. However, I feel that there is a better reason to teach the student to use his fist and to train his fist so that he can use it:  the fist can cause more damage, and although it takes a little longer to learn, the student needs to have something to show for his training time with you. In my own system of Kuntaw, we traditionally use the open hand more, but because my grandfather was a fist guy (who also didn’t practice langka), I am also a fist guy.

I also recognize that many systems and teachers do not have skills that can be used right away–“right away”, as in “within 6 months”–so teaching a guy to fight within 6 months may seem awfully quick. If you have the desire to add this set within your style, here is the easy formula again:

  1. learn how to make a fist and punch
  2. learn basic hand conditioning
  3. learn power mechanics and vital targeting
  4. develop physical fitness, strength and durability
  5. teach him to spar, and have him spar until he is confident enough to fight without fear

Within one month your student should learn his skills well enough to spar; at least lightly. After 3 months, he should be proficient enough to pick and land shots, as well as stop attacks. And by his 6 month, he should have sparred enough rounds that he is no longer afraid to spar and confident enough to face whomever you put in front of him. This is a rule of thumb I use, and have been using for nearly two decades. Try it for yourself, I am sure that if you incorporate my timeline, you will see quicker results in your students.

Once your student has developed testable fighting ability, you should then proceed to your curriculums. I believe that what we see in the Filipino arts is the opposite:  we develop curriculum skills before developing actual skills. The result is several generations of martial artists who “know” many techniques, but have either poor ability to apply these skills, or are afraid to attempt application. Developing the ability to fight is actually quite simple, unless we wait too long to develop it. Once you have introduced students to the art without fighting skills, it will be very difficult to teach the fighting skill.

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Putting Food on the Table (For the Martial Arts Master)

I’m having a dilemma right now.

I have been discussing what it takes to make a decent living as a martial arts school owner, and I am realizing that many serious martial arts teachers don’t really want to run a commercial school! Do they want to teach? Yes! But there are many things you must do to make your school successful and I’m not referring to donning a clown outfit and entertaining 6 olds, either. Most of these things really take a different kind of discipline than what it takes to work out or fight, but it seems that most of these true blue die hard martial artists aren’t willing to do them in order to put food on the table. As a result, we lose many of our best teachers to full-time day jobs, while those students looking to train in a school are stuck having to choose between Mickey Mouse Tae Kwon Do and Barney Kenpo Karate. It is sad that many serious martial artists equate success in the dojo with selling out one’s values, to the point that they sabatoge their own potential for success by believing that it just can’t be done.

Now, before I go on, let me list the basic recipe for success in the dojo:

  • You must be in good enough shape and have good enough skill that your students will be motivated to stay with you and work harder simply because you’re around
  • Classes should be designed so that they are experiencing an increase in skill and physical ability
  • Your school should look like a place where they will learn (not posh, but at least fit the image of a serious dojo)
  • You must have studied marketing and sales. It does not have to be a formal education, but at least well enough that you understand the functions of sales and marketing, how to put together and carry out a plan
  • You need a good website that paints the picture of what you do
  • A good, clear mission statement that colors everything you do
  • A reputation
  • A Unique Selling Point
  • Your Daily Business Operating Plan must be in place and adhered to
  • You must have a target market and a marketing message, as well as a Martial Philosophy
  • Your own niche in the market where you do business
  • Multiple forms of income within your martial arts

Although it may sound like a lot, it isn’t. But it does take a lot of preparation, and for some reason many martial artists seem to believe that all you need are certifications to teach and money. I started my first school in 1992 with almost nothing, and nearly two decades later, we are still here. And why is that? Because I never believed for minute that I couldn’t do it.  Many teachers out here are pessimistic, so they end up working 40 hours a week PLUS running a dojo, and that isn’t success, my friends, because I guarantee that something is lacking. And there are plenty of ostriches out there with their heads in the sand, trying to convince themselves that they really don’t want a school.

Yet, they will criticize and dislike those who have a full-time school, while sniveling “good for you” out the corner of their mouth… implying that those who have a school are either arrogant or selling out.

So, the bottom line is that some folks are just not business minded! Is there hope for them to still teach full-time without having to punch a clock elsewhere 8 hours a day?

Yes!

I would like to share some of my ideas–and these are just opinions; most of them I have not tried:

  • Find ways to maximize the use of your space (for those who already have a school). Rent out the gym on days and slots you do not have classes. You can approach church groups, fitness instructors, massage therapists, dance instructors, etc. Many schools have days free that can be income-generating slots that will cover many, if not most, of your school’s bills. Several times, I have rented out my school to others needing space.
  • Sell things:  Martial Arts supplies, books and videos, exercise equipment. My good friend an older Kung Fu brother Raymond Wong had a carry out and wholesale sari sari (knick-nack) store across the street from his school. On top of that, he owned rental properties and
  • Throw martial arts tournaments. You would be surprised what kind of money you can generate from investing about $1,000 of your own money in a one-day event. But beware!  If you do not patronize other’s events, or are not well-respected in your martial arts community, this may not be a good idea. Competitors and teachers are fickle. In some martial arts communities, any tournament will draw competitors just because you advertise it. Some competitors are chasing prize money. But many, like in Northern California where I live, are social people; they only attend tournaments promoted by people they are associated with or like. Either way, between door sales, entry fees, and concessions, it is a great form of income.
  • Have a side business that supports the martial arts community:  trophies (late, great Shihand Robert Everhart did this); martial arts supply; bill collections; or write books or promote video/DVDs
  • Work for yourself! No, really! Pass out flyers full-time as a job, and you will see a nice jump in your school’s enrollment. To be honest, marketing is what drives the bus, and someone’s got to do it! However, in most martial arts schools, no one does it. So are you going to hire someone? Or do it yourself?
  • Teach on the road. I have used satellite classes almost all my adult life, and I swear by it. Having even a rec center class on the other side of town allows you to tap into a market that normally would consider your gym too far away to join. If you take a venue that is either free or low-rent, it’s a great second income! Especially if you only teach once or twice a week
  • Work seasonally. This is something I had done when I first began teaching, and have done several times when enrollment was low. Take short-term jobs, like post office “casual” postitions during Christmas. This will end after a certain date, and  you will be less likely to stay when you should be returning back to your business.
  • Compete on the open circuit. A fun, easy income…. if you are good enough. On top of that, you are building your reputation at the same time!
  • Use your martial arts as a form of personal training. Not just fitness, but offer exclusive personal training in real martial arts for those whose schedules requirement and have the income to support it. This will let you work when you want, and personal training brings you about the worth of three to four students per client. You can’t beat that with a stick!

In the old days, teachers taught small groups and supplemented income with other things. But this allowed them to focus on their art daily and fully. Of course, a full enrollment will too, but if it’s just not for you there are many ways to make your living with the martial arts–within the martial arts.

I hope this article is useful to you, and gives you a few things to think about. Thank you for visiting!