Secret to Growth in the Martial Arts

It is said that a martial arts student will reach his peak within 5 to 10 years of study, from the day he begins his first day of training. I believe that number is a little less, between 4 and 6 years of training. Either way, it is true that the martial artist will arrive to the pinnacle of his physical skill within the first decade of his martial arts study. During the first 10 years we are younger, so naturally we have the advantage of age and youth. At the same time, we are excited to learn more and usually we will have more time (before kids, marriage, career) to practice. As we get older, we end up with more responsibilities and therefore practice takes a back seat to those things.

But I have a theory.

The younger student is often hungry for more development and more knowledge, and this is what fuels his drive to train harder. In addition to that, the younger student believes everyone around him is better than he is so he strives to improve as well. As the student makes the transition from student to expert, he becomes satisfied or complacent with his skill and begins to chase other things, like higher rank, more information, and notoriety. This is inline with the saying that the moment a man becomes satisfied with his martial arts skill, he stops progressing in the martial arts. The young man is dissatisfied with his skill, and therefore he strives to improve. The older man no longer wishes to improve his skill, choosing instead to pursue other things he deems more important than how well he can punch, kick or fight.

This is the same condition that plagues so-called “naturals” in the martial arts. You know what I mean–the athletic types, the former dancers, gymnasts, and students of the martial arts. These are the guys and gals who join a martial arts, and right away are complimented on how fast they learned or developed. By the time they reach the advanced beginner level, they look like they are advanced: they are limber, they can kick high, the stances look stronger, they have more powerful upper bodies…  But by the time they reach the advanced level, they have either quit, or they are now mediocre. Why? Because while these folks were good beginners, they were actually poor advanced students. But since they could do the splits, or had nice forms, there was no incentive to train hard and improve, and their skill reached a plateau. Basically, this student–who was “good” as a beginner–thought he needed no improvement, and either he or his teacher were satisfied with their skill. This “satisfaction”, my brothers and sisters, is dangerous. There is a very thin line between satisfaction or complacency–and arrogance. Don’t allow yourself or your students to fall victim to it.

So the secret to growth in the martial arts, is to recognize a few basic truths about skill:

  • regardless of how good you are, you can always improve
  • there is always another level to reach: in flexibility, strength, speed, timing, and overall skill
  • there is always a bigger, stronger, faster, more knowledgeable opponent out there… waiting to meet you
  • failing to improve prevents you from reaching your peak in the martial arts. The question is, did you ever truly reach your peak?

I am going to close now, but I hope you find value in this article. Thank you for visiting my blog.

Saving Up for the Real Thing

A good friend of mine talked showed me a DVD he bought in Omaha, Nebraska, of a compilation of streetfights. For most martial artists, I would say that it would be a surprise how the fights occurred. After viewing this video–and eventually Youtube clips of similar fights–I now see where the so-called streetfighting/self defense “experts” get their anti-traditional/anti-sparring/anti-competition nonsense from. The sheer sloppiness of the fights and the confusion that entails the streetfights would probably lead many to think, “that will probably happen to me too, if I fought on the street.”  (Surprisingly enough, almost none of those fights went to the ground, btw) It’s funny how people watch something, and then they are so willing to throw everything they’ve learned out the window as useless. You know what that tells me? You were no damned expert in the first place, and you certainly are no martial warrior.

But I saw many things that caught my attention:

  • I have been riding my teenaged stepson about pulling his pants up. Bottom line, I forbid it–and at 14 years old, he knows that if I see underwear it will lead to a spanking (yes, I even spank the teenager). But the next time he comes to the school, I will have him spar with his pants pulled down to make a point. On the video, more than half the boys on the video (they were grown men, but due to their level of maturity, I’m going to refer to them as “boys”… nothing personal) had their pants pulled down, and a good portion of the ass-whippings I saw were due to that fact. They can’t move or even focus on the fight because they can’t move their feet. You would think that kids who fight at night clubs, parties and high school parking lots would be smart enough to wear pants that fit so they would WIN a fight or two. I know, being a former streetfighter myself, that if you are serious about fighting, you dressed a certain way to make sure you were combat ready. Anyone who has ever studied the real 52 Hands would know what I’m talking about. Screw what you see on Youtube.
  • Most of the people on the video were inebriated. High, drunk, if you fight regularly, you skip drinking for this fact alone. You lose effectiveness if you can’t think. Not just because of religion–even when I was a bad Muslim, I tried not to drink in case something broke out. Some people don’t think about it, and that’s why they have a lot of lost fights in their past. It destroys your health, leads to impotence at a young age, and on top of that… you might get your ass whipped by an inferior fighter. It’s just not worth it. And trust me, women really don’t find you attractive when you drink. You just think they find  you attractive when you’re drunk.
  • When outnumbered, these guys had no impromptu weapons. That just amazes me. Even at 41 years old, I carry something that can be used as a weapon. Anything. Even a ball-point pen. These guys seemed to fight a lot, but they haven’t even thought about that. So what does a guy do when he’s been beat up? Get a gun. What a coward. Level the playing field, so you can continue fighting. It’s not necessary to try and kill everyone! Someone’s been watching too much TV!
  • There was no thought about targets. These guys swing wildly without a plan. No techniques, not vital shots, just swinging. They looked horrible. Once in a while, you’d see someone who has had some training, and he always dominates, even when outnumbered. It shows, but you have to prepare for it by training and fighting. The guys on the video may have worked out (some were muscular and you could tell they lifted weights) but the physiques had nothing to do with fighting success. In one clip, the fat guy beats the crap out of the muscle head with the tats and big mouth. Fat guy didn’t want to fight, but it was clear that he had once boxed, and he destroyed muscle head. It was hilarious. Preparation wins every time.
  • Where they lacked in preparation, most of the guys made up for it by showing up in numbers. Pugilist #1 runs his mouth. Pugilist #2 obliges and whips #1’s behind. #1’s friend jump in and sometimes kicks ass, half the time accomplishes nothing. #1 had courage because he had friends. I noticed that the worst fighters had the most friends. Sounds like a lot of martial artists I know.

So this leads me to a point. I have a good friend back in DC who I grew up with on the Karate circuit. He did traditional martial arts, entered tournaments, won some and lost some, trained hard and sparred harder, and went to college, got married and had a mostly non-martial artist’s life. When we were younger, he was a good guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but fortunately never engaged in fights–even when we fought, he was on the sidelines. I had wondered about him. He wasn’t scared; he was smart. I recognized that. But I wondered how he would do if he ever needed those skills for the real thing.

So back in the early 90s, when we were in our 20s, at the King Kong Discoteque (yes, I was into salsa merenge) an old boyfriend approached his wife on the dance floor. My friend let him know that she was with him, and the guy left. Later, while we were sitting down eating, ex-boyfriend approaches with two friends and tries to get her to dance again, snubbing my friend. Before I got the chance to ask him what he wanted to do, my friend jumped up and clocked all three guys, leaving me nothing but rug scraps to clean my shoes with. It was beautiful.

I know what you’re thinking… he didn’t have to attack them. Oh, yes he did. Those guys were planning to fight, it was that obvious, and they thought my friend was a marked target, being one of the only white guys in the club. There would be no way–short of brandishing a weapon–that we would have been able to stop that from happening. Liquor, jealousy, machismo, a little racial hostility, and plain old stupidity make fighting unavoidable. I had always teased Bill because he only fought (as I put it) when it counted. I was proud of him! And guess what, we went to King Kong a lot after that, even seeing those guys many times and never received so much as a glare from them. Talk about fighting without fighting! Sometimes, you save up for the “real thing”, and you never have to really engage in “the real thing”.

And this leads me to the major point of this article:  Sometimes, you have to fight to avoid really having to fight. A man who has fought a lot–simulated or otherwise–is more confident when confronted with the possibility of an impending fight. And if you actually go to blows, you will be more effective and efficient. AND, should you end up with one of these fights, you may avoid a serious fight just by demonstrating that you are the wrong guy to be fucked with. But many martial artists would rather avoid all fighting at all costs, saving up “for the real thing”. But the “real thing’ will most likely be a dismal failure if you have not truly prepared. And preparing in concept only–drills, demonstration of “what if he throws a punch/grabs you/blah blah blah”, and “well-thought out strategies”–but you have not simulated the actual unpredictability of a fight by having some good old fashioned sparring, you will most likely end up looking like one of those guys on the video. No difference between the ones who fight all the time, and the ones who are doing it for the first time.

Saving up for the real thing is a good idea… it’s smart. But you have to prepare. You must have a combination of good concepts AND hands-on live practice–whether it’s in a tournament, sparring with strangers, or in live fights. But you must have both. And hands-on fighting must be done outside of your comfort zone. It cannot be accomplished in the classroom, or your Guro’s garage, or your homeboy’s backyard. Get both, and then save up for the real thing.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Frivolity In the Martial Arts

I have always said that martial artists with good skill on the path to mastery have no time for silly things. Where you find a martial artist who is preoccupied with rank, politics, online battles, bragging rights, and money, you will often find the most poorly skilled among us. There is a saying that martial arts politics–be it money, rank or power–is for those who have little useful skill. That is a very true statement, because the skilled have little interest in those things. This is the reason that every school has a group of men who are low Black Belters or under belts, who are the best fighters in the school–yet they have yet to test for higher rank:  they have little use for anything that does not improve their skill.
Why don’t you chew on that one for a minute?
See, as martial artists we should have two things foremost in our minds:  the development and improvement of our personal skill, and the promotion of our reputations–our school’s reputation, and our teacher’s reputation. And that emphasis on reputation brings you back to your own personal fighting skill. Anything outside of those two things–who is recognized as “senior” in your system, who has the “real deal” version of your teacher’s teacher’s art, who was teacher’s favorite, which master can lay claim to the creator of a concept or style, I could go on–means nothing. Nothing, if the man in front of you has the superior fighting skill. Please don’t forget this.
But what of other martial arts skills? Like brick-breaking? Chi Sao skill? Form performance? The number of forms learned? The ability to hold a strong stance? Physical Strength? Speed? Flexibility?
Listen. If those things will make a difference in your ability to put a man on his behind after you learn them, then I say go for it. I have had my own classmates talk of going to Hong Kong and bringing back a different version of the forms we learned here in America. They talk of learning the second version of a Broadsword form we learned from our teacher 30 years ago. My question is, will these things improve our fighting ability and the functional knowledge we have of our style? Probably not. So I’ll pass.
We love history, foreign-language terminology, arguments about what to call our arts, titles and ranks we should be using, blah blah blah. But those things are silly non-issues for the true warrior. And anytime you meet someone obsessed with those things, I guarantee you that you are in the presence of the inferior martial artist. And that’s why you will be wasting your time until you get away from that conversation and back into the gym.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

The Making of a Master, pt IV: The Doubter

Which are you? Sleeping Lion, or Roaring Lion?

One of the qualities I have seen in a few of the Masters I have met, is a quiet, reserved man who can turn into a killer at the drop of a dime. Kung Fu movies have led to many people to think that the martial artist must be humble and quiet and never fight unless he is provoked or backed into a corner. While this ideal is valid, it is not the quality of the Filipino fighter. Our philosophy is more of the Roaring Lion, who emits his fighting prowess through his speech, his swagger and his reputation. Bragging, in the FMAs, is okay—even encouraged—among our fighters and Masters. However, it is not the only approach to humility and confidence in the Filipino arts. Many a great fighter has quietly solidified his reputation by staying to himself, and unleashing his skills on unsuspecting doubters at the right time. What a concept!

Some martial artists are content to remaining in obscurity. They do not need for the world to know who they are and what they can do. These men train their skills in private, and had done enough fighting in another life that there is no need to spar regularly to cement their fighting ability. (I have a philosophy about the use of prior fighting experience in today’s skills, but that is the topic for another post)  This is a quality usually found in older men, but is sometimes taken on by younger, less experienced fighters. Naturally, I do not feel this is best for the young man, as he must have had some kind of fighting career for this to be useful to him. Yet there is an exception:  Young men who do not wish to fight unnecessarily and are among weaker non-warriors should adopt this technique. I would recommend it for adolescents who are seriously training in the fighting arts, as they have other, more important goals—like completing their high school education.  But for the young adult who has decided to make the martial arts a way of life, it is best to sow one’s oats on other fighters and hone his combat ability on the path of fighting mastery. And you can’t do that while hiding in the shadows; you must put your name out in the air and at the same time search for opponents. Even when traveling, a young fighter should introduce himself to local martial artists and look for places to train and people with whom he can “exchange ideas with”.

At the end of the road of young martial artist lies the first few steps of the next road:  the teacher. If you find yourself at the age of too-old-for-fighting-but-not-yet-a-teacher, especially as a newcomer to a martial arts community, it may be a good idea to play the background for a while in order to observe your surrounding and formulate a plan for introducing yourself to the community.

Wait. What about paying one’s respects to the local Masters and building a reputation, you ask?

I am not saying to skip paying one’s respects. This is a necessary custom that has been long lost over the generations, and is even looked upon with a suspicious eye. What I am recommending here is to carefully put yourself out into the open, and seize the right opportunity. Just don’t “bum-rush” the community by hanging your shingle immediately and handing out business cards. That is for fools. The careful master observes from the sidelines and tries to understand the members of his new community because this will help him choose a good strategy in how he will present himself and which position in the community he will assume.

You probably have to hang around me a little longer in order for this to make sense. So let’s move on to the next point.

As a martial artist, it is not imperative for every person around you to respect or like you as a fighter. But it is important for you to maintain your skills and to believe in them. This is why some fighters will play stupid (including me) in order to get the next guy to open himself… in other words, to show his hand. My Dad use to say, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” There is a healthy lesson in that. We will keep our weapons sheathed in the effort to keep from having to use them, and that is the method of the quiet, Sleeping Lion. He does not need to project who he is or what he can do. In a way, you can say that the Sleeping Lion is actually “playing possum”, waiting for the curious antelope to come and poke and prod him, and foolishly attempting to show his courage. When Sleeping Lion sees the chance, he shows his cards and by then it is too late to turn back. And this reminds me of a story.

My Grandfather had traveled south to look for work. Because his goal was to make money, he did not want to engage in any fighting because he was not there for his martial arts. There was a much younger man who was seemingly knowledgeable in Eskrima and Karate. Every day my grandfather heard this young man brag about the training he had been receiving and fights he took part in. And every day, he fought the urge to tell the men he worked with that he was a martial artist. Being a fighter, my grandfather was borderline arrogant, and refraining from bragging was a struggle for him. The young man taught some people techniques after work, and occasionally would have matches—which really whet his appetite to test his skills. One day he got his chance.

While washing up for lunch, the young man noted my grandfather’s large forearm (his right forearm was much larger than his left—the effect of years of single stick Arnis practice) and the condition of the knuckles on his hands, and asked if he had martial arts training. He answered in the affirmative, and the young man asked him why he had not said anything. To this my grandfather answered something that is now a regular part of my everyday speech:  You and I are not in the same business, nor are we at the same level in the martial arts. This shook him and a combination of fear, anger and embarrassment welled up in him, but he did nothing. In the next few days, the young man would glance at him while talking about the arts, tease him about demonstrating his art, and even ask his opinion. But he never challenged him, which is what my Grandfather wanted. Papa always answered with sarcastic comments or laughed off the things the young man said. These things were always unanswered the way he wanted them to be, yet the young man became more and more emboldened. Finally, perhaps a week later, the younger man did it. He stated that surely, my grandfather was not well-skilled in the art because he was as quiet as a mouse. My grandfather told him that the empty can made more noise than the full can, and that if he played with the younger man, he might hurt him so he should go back to his friends. He issued a challenge, and Papa brushed him off, saying that he was making a mistake, but welcome to try. The young man insisted, and so my grandfather agreed to spar him, but only with the small thin reeds that grew nearby. If he were convinced after that, they could then progress to the sticks. (The reeds they used were green, hollow and very thin; sturdy enough to sting but not hard enough to injure.) After a very short match, which my Grandfather easily won using only our basic strikes and basic trapping technique, the young man conceded and became a student of his for the duration of his stay in that town. I apologize for not remembering the name of the town or the gentleman.

When I came to Sacramento , I did not advertise the fact that I was also a teacher of Kung Fu. In fact, the only two people I told of my Kung Fu training was the late Grandmaster Vincent Tinga and Wing Chun/Bak Mei Master Eddie Chong. To both men, I actually demonstrated my kung fu skill. Master Chong and I actually exchanged notes with a White Eyebrow form called Gow Tow Bui, 9-step push. But for about 5 years I publicly downplayed my Kung Fu knowledge while training a small group of students, until my then-student, now assistant Instructor—Charles Azeltine—convinced me to go public with it. So we added Jow Ga to our website, and I began to advertise Kung Fu. In doing this, I had those who doubted my knowledge. Some even called my classmates on the East Coast to verify my lineage (LOL), and one asked me for a demonstration when I encountered him in a restaurant. Not only was this advantageous for me to have 5 years of obscurity, it was actually pretty fun. Our presence in the same community, but now revealing a Kung Fu lineage has actually made waves here. Men who pretended to be knowledgeable in the Chinese arts are now acting as lambs—even asking me to teach them. One Kenpo teacher who invented his own “Kung Fu” style is now uneasy around me.

But my reason for doing so is not as calculating as it may sound. I simply did not want to teach Kung Fu to the masses, so I did not advertise it. When I began meeting Kung Fu people, I found many of them to actually be novices in the Chinese arts, and did not wish to waste time discussing CMAs as equals when we were not. I was here to promote my Filipino martial arts, and build its reputation—that’s all. This experience, though, taught me a lot about why some older masters remain in the shadows when we want them in the open. Not being a part of the mainstream community allows you to be an observer and engage only when you want to. It lets you focus on your own art and avoid distraction. It gives you time to reflect without ego and the dynamics of having counterparts to contend with. At the same time, it requires that you choose the right moment to end your hiatus. However, you must be content to being thought ignorant of a subject you enjoy discussing; you must even be satisfied not being recognized as an expert. You must resist the doubter as well as welcome him, because—if anything—you always have the option of dealing with him by uttering the words a doubter hates to hear most:  You’re welcome to try. And this requires you to keep your fighting ability sharp, yet the ego in check:  a combination of skills that are extremely necessary in the making of a master.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Choose Your Friends Wisely

The martial artist, if he is serious about his arts, must avoid frivolous and wasteful activities and pastimes. At the same time, he should avoid people who are infectious and stunt his growth. This does not seem to be profound advice for supposedly grown men, but you would be surprised how many of our martial arts teachers violate this common-sense rule.

I have long told my students that they should surround themselves with people who feed them, rather than people who feed off them.

One of the characteristics of a great martial artist is that he has friends who are just as skilled as he is, or better. These friends are not workout partners, as much as they are sparring partners. Ask the old Masters who they hung around as young men. Rarely will you hear of the old Manong talk of training with their friends. More often than not, his compadres are referred to as sparring partners. These men challenged them often, and the most valuable of these friendships fluctuated between rivalry and hostility, and brotherhood. The result of this type of friendship is a true Martial warrior friendship. This is not the kind of friendship we find non-warriors holding. This is the kind of friendship where true respect among the fighters is found; where there is no ego remaining, no held-back thoughts that “I think I can beat him.” It is the kind of friendship where you can truly attest to a man’s skill and really say that you would go into battle with him (something too many American martial artists like to fling around without really meaning it). With this type of friend in the arts, you have beaten him many times, and he has beaten you many times. So, perhaps one of you is the superior fighter, but one could not improve without the other, and as one improves, the other improves.

Another is that you keep those who are more knowledgeable and experienced around you. I have always gravitated towards older, wiser men. One of those men for me was Guro Billy Bryant. A great fighter and martial artist, I have learned more from him than many of you have learned from your teachers. He was also a great sparring partner; although I had some things I could hit him with, I could never beat him. But you’d better believe that without knowing him I would be inferior to who I am today. Another of these men was Marty Kakavas (could be misspelling his name), who I met in 1990, after fighting him for a Grand Championship on the East Coast. He was a self-declared Black Belt from Buffalo , New York , and could whip most fighters, including Billy. By the way, the day I met Marty, he beat the both of us at that tournament. Billy ended up disliking him; I asked for a rematch and became a friend. Marty was so open, he would show you the techniques he used to defeat you and challenge you to get past it the next time he fought you. This was unlike many fighters who reacted as if you asked them to undress, if you asked them for their techniques. Another fighter I met who was this way was Billy Blanks (yes, that Billy Blanks) who would oblige you with not just a technique and advice, but a short sparring match, if you asked.

Sometimes, martial artists like to hang around what I call “Butt-Boys”, some of you call them “yes-man”. These are hang-ons who compliment you and talk about how great you are, and serve nothing but the ego. I see plenty of them on the internet as well as in the martial arts community. You know what I mean:  followers. These guys swear that you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, and they never question you or your art. And if anyone questions your art, they jump all over it like you just called their church pastor a child molester. These men add nothing to your martial arts knowledge, but to your martial ego. They feed off who you are, and the only things they feed you are things that the martial artist needs least:  popularity, money, superficial reputation, and the lustful pull of pride. In other words, they are nothing more than martial arts groupies.

The martial artist, if he is ever to grow, doesn’t need groupies. He needs doubters and questioners. He needs people who will force him to put his theories, ideas and skills to the test. He needs people who challenge his way of thinking and give him alternative ideas. He needs people who will feed his mind and his martial education, not feed off what he possesses. Put the right people in your life and you will grow as a martial artist. Put the wrong people in your life and you will regress.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

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