This article was inspired by a student of my Kung Fu brother and the art of Sumo.
My older Kung Fu brother, Raymond Wong, who teaches in Washington, DC., had a student years ago named Steve. I don’t remember his last name, but if you are from the DC area and fought in tournaments in the late 80s/early 90s, you may remember a very good fighter who was paralyzed on this right side. And when I say “right side”, I mean right side. Everything–his face, his arm, his legs–was paralzyed. I cannot remember if he had always been this way, but I remember that it did not stop him from training, working, dating–you name it.
Steve had his reasons for training. When I first met him, I remember thinking that we had to be careful with him, because I didn’t want to hurt him. Steve was no softy though, and fought to do everything everyone else did. He played instruments for Lion Dance. He practiced forms (modified for him, though). He kicked by swinging his right leg. And believe it or not–he even fought in tournaments. If you were lucky enough to catch him or fight with him, it was an amazing thing to behold. Steve, who nicknamed himself “Handi-Man” after Damon Wayans’ character on the show “Living Color”, was difficult to hit, and was just as difficult to defend against. Because of his supposed disability, he attacked by throwing himself against you. A few times he would miss and then have no way to stop himself. But the majority of the time, he would not (his timing was very good) and whatever he launched at you would hurt like hell, as Steve was very strong and equally as quick.
Where he lacked in grace and balance, he made up for it in trickiness and power. One of the things I saw him do was pretend to fall off balance, and then when the opponent moved in for the kill–he’d jump on you. We have to give Master Wong credit for convincing Steve to work with his condition. Notice I did not call it a “disability”. No more than being a lefty, or having short legs, or a preference to use the legs or the hands–his paralysis was just that: a condition. I also did not say “ignore” his condition. Nor “overcome” his condition. I said “work with” his “condition”. Simply put, Steve emphasized what he could do, and found a way to compensate for what he couldn’t do. This is what those who are supposed to have a disability do; they do not see themselves as victims. They simply find a way to make it work, whatever “it” happens to be. Both student and teacher must do this. You must bring out whatever is in the student and find a way to make them successful.
Why do I bring this up? Because I have found that in the martial arts, we are supermen who do what most of our peers cannot. We are physically stronger, we are braver, and we use what we have to protect others. We are the go-to for troubled people. And when some martial arts student wants to learn to defend himself or get his body healthier, we must find a way to make that happen–not determine who can learn or who “shouldn’t” learn. Raymond took a student many of us, including myself, would be afraid to teach and made him strong.
Another lesson from Steve… I just happened to arrive at a tournament when I noticed the red “WCBA” t-shirts Wong’s students wear. When I saw Steve in sparring gear, I was anxious to see how he would do against the others. To my surprise Mr. Wyatt (the tournament director) did not have a “special” division, and he put Steve in with other green belt fighters. Where an opponent attempted to go easy on him, Steve took them apart. A few of the fighters were determined not to allow this “Handi-Man” take the trophy, and came at him with just as much fire. Steve stood his ground and placed, after losing to a very good fighter who did not treat him lightly. It was a well-deserved win. Over time, Steve was a regular at the tournaments and he became quite good. I remember him saying that he wanted to do full-contact, so I sparred with him, hoping to discourage him. Instead, he gave me a run for my money and I walked away with even more respect than before. And 20 years later, I am still talking about him.
No student should be underestimated, as their potential is limitless. That is, unless they or their teacher installs a glass ceiling over them during training.
But I’m not done! There is an entire sport/art for people who would normally qualify for disability plates in the nice, progressive, left-leaning state of California: Sumo. Sumo wrestlers are, by Western standards, obese. Yet these men are extremely powerful, curiously fast, and in much better shape than one would imagine. The art of Sumo has taken atheletes who lack qualities we think they should have, and teaches them to use their “disadvantage” as a great advantage in combat. When you are done reading this article, I would like you to do some research into the training they endure and take a second look at the power of the Sumo wrestler.
All that to say this: Teachers should look at their student’s abilities and qualities, and then find a way (even if they have to modify their art or teaching method) to make the students successful. Even if they appear obese. Even if they are partially paralyzed. Even if they have conditions that prevent them from doing everything other students can do. Teachers teach. Student pay you to learn. No one said it would be easy, but your students deserve a teacher who believe it can be done, regardless of what hand they were dealt. This is what separates the teachers from the Master-teachers. And this is one of the secrets of the learned.
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