When It’s Time to Grow Up, Part II (Perfection)

I have noticed that many martial artists are content with being mediocre, and they will mock those of us who strive to outdo the next guy.

My grandfather had always told me that mediocrity has no place in the warrior’s vocabulary, that a fighter who does not strive to improve is a dead fighter. We strive for it, but we should never arrive. For perfection in the martial arts is like the path to piety:  The day you believe you have achieved it, this is an indication that you will never achieve it. This is not an occupation where you can say, “been there, done that”. When a teacher has become too old to fight, he continues his path with his students. But my question is, do we ever become “too old”?

As a martial artist, you must always push to get stronger, faster, and smarter. What is the age cut-off when we decide we will no longer cross sticks with another man (for sparring) or go into the gym to train to get stronger? This is what they call the “Black Belt Syndrome”–as one’s Black Belt degree gets higher and higher, his belt gets smaller and smaller and his belly starts to cover it to where you can no longer see it until the master decides he’s just not going to wear a uniform anymore. On one hand you have masters who decide “teaching is now more important than training”, and then on the other you have the masters who keep themselves on the path by maintaining their skills well into old age. You will have to decide which master you will be.

I have met masters in their 60s and 70s that they teach a different art at 60 than  they did at 30. I am only 42, and my art has changed in the last 5 years. I would think that if I no longer worked out, compared myself to others that I probably would not have evolved my art at all. Some masters add on more techniques and arts to their teaching repertoire as time progresses, while others makes their specialty more effective and efficient by altering the way the art is applied and trained. This is not to say that one is superior than the other, but that there are many paths.

A few days ago I stayed up with some students showing them tapes of Jow Ga practitioners at tournaments in Singapore, Indonesia, China and Malaysia. Some of the competitors came from Jow Ga masters who combined with Wing Chun, some added Ying Jow (Eagle Claw), some did nothing at all. On one of the clips, we watched students of our Grandmaster do some amazing things that are not even seen here in America (Chan Man Cheung is in his 90s, and still teaches, and has never studied any other arts). One student commented that none of the students he saw were better than those of my Si Hing Rahim Muhammad, who is in Washington, DC. He posed the question, if I thought the DC Jow Ga fighters were better because my teacher added Ying Jow and Bak Mei. I answered, that it was because Sifu Chin, my teacher, was a perfectionist who did not accept mediocrity. As a result, Master Muhammad was the same way, and his students were the same way. There have been many who accused my Sifu of being egotistic or arrogant.

Not at all, it’s just that my Sifu never decided to “grow up” and accept defeat.

And this is what separates good masters from great, memorable ones. Some decide they have arrived at their peak and simply want to teach, and maybe investigate other arts. Others are always comparing and tweaking, and trying to make what they have unbeatable. They are never satisfied with their skill and ability, and therefore never stop training and improving.

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When It’s Time to Grow Up

I recently saw an old, good friend of mine, Sensei Robert Dosty. He is a Kyokushinkai and Danzan Ryu Jujitsu teacher here in Sacramento, and one of the first men I exchanged with when I arrived to California.

Something about Sensei Dosty:  He is a big, BIG man. I guess he must be around 6’3″, and every bit of 350 lbs and is about a decade older than me, about early 50s. But something I must tell you; he moves like any young slim man. He can tumble, he is agile, and can do things like jump kicks and point fight. He reminds me of another old friend from the East Coast, Master Gerald Dawson. Both men do things they are not supposed to do, and it is because of the martial arts that they can do them. They are sort of my generation’s answer to the late, great Moses Powell. Dosty is also one of a few men I have asked to teach in my school before getting to know the combat side of his skill. His personality alone–and I rarely do this–spoke for the kind of martial artist he is. I believe our first open gym sparring session at my second location was when I realized that he was a good fighter and he did not disappoint.

So he and I ended up at a club together back in 2002. My school was providing security for several Reggae spots around town (I love good music) and he was the warrior in his group when stuff hit the fan, as I was the warrior of mine. We had a good laugh and I told him that I was planning to spar with a gentleman from South Sacramento who had beat me in a tournament. I wanted to try him again, but tournament season was over, so I had a date to spar him (in November outside) at a park near the college. Shocked, Dosty asked me why, and I went on a rant about developing my skills on superior fighters, yet the young man I fought wasn’t superior, just tricky, blah blah blah–and to that, Dosty interrupted, “Mustafa, isn’t it time to let go of the ‘warrior’ thing?”


He went on to say that at my age–I was about 33 at the time–it was time to wind down my sparring career and focus on teaching, perhaps the guy who beat me was just younger and in better shape, stuff like that. I disagreed, but at 2 a.m. in a lobby full of drunk Jamaicans it was no place for a serious conversation. We committed to continuing the conversation and never did.

Not long after, he had a death in his family and took about a 6 year hiatus from teaching. He’s back, and that conversation still has yet to take place. I would like to give you my thoughts on this subject.

First, I don’t believe that in the Filipino martial arts, we ever grow up from being “warriors”. I recall over the years, being surrounded by many men in their 50s and 60s who still size each other up, compare fighting skills through matches, have rivalries and grudges, and even spar in matches. For many of these old men, they passed up careers in favor of pursuing their martial arts–even choosing a life of near poverty in order to keep skills honed. I see nothing wrong with this, as we all must choose our path. Some of us aspire to teach, some aspire to become famous masters, some are satisfied casually teaching and practicing the art–and some aspire to prove their fighting superiority over everyone they encounter. While one person will opine that this is ego or arrogance, I define it as the mindset of a warrior. For what is a warrior but one who struggles for combat superiority, and endeavors to find out where he stands?

I am reminded of another such man who made it into his 60s proving his worth over and over and over and over. Guro Billy Bryant. I know of a man in his 80s who did this as well… Late Grandmaster Antonio Illustrisimo. I know of another man also in his 80s who does this in every new town he travels to:  Grandmaster Cacoy Cañete. Each of these men are known for picking up a stick and asking to see what you’ve got. And hundreds, maybe thousands, have expressed amazement that these men still have the ability to defeat younger men. Guro Bryant had a second life many FMA practitioners do not know, as he hung in Karate circles as much as he did in FMA circles (which mostly did not overlap). In the Karate circles, Billy actively fought in tournaments, both point and semi-pro (contact) and emerged not just victorious, but dominant. It was not ego for them, I’m sure. Most likely, it was simply what they do. Some people play music all their lives, some shoot pool, these men enjoyed fighting matches. And I only knew Bryant, but he was very passionate about winning and losing. When he lost, it was a very loud dispute, and the vehicle ride home was often very quiet. See, Billy’s livelihood depended on wins and losses. If he lost, he could not pay his rent or eat. This is why I say it was not ego for him–it was his way of life, and I know many of you know very little about this. It was also the reason he was in tip top shape, and many other masters stayed in good shape and sought to remain superior. I believe that if Billy has any ego at all, it was through his FMA that he expressed it, but he is a warrior in every sense of the word. I do not doubt that GMs Cacoy and Ilustrisimo were no different. This is how they made their living and after a lifetime of fighting matches, you don’t just stop because your hair is falling out.

And when you lose, you are not expected to just “grow up” and take it like a man. I heard a fighter once say, “If you can handle losing calmly, you’ll never be a champion.” To be a winner, you must despise losing. We’re not talking fun and games; to the warrior a loss spells inability to pay bills, damage to one’s reputation, training time being wasted, even death. We are in the business of dominating another human being, and there is no retirement pay. So warriors, unlike other professions, never give up the warrior thing.

Yet I will admit to being somewhat of a sore loser. Yes, I have a temper. But I also have a short memory, so anything I do after losing is not personal; it’s just business. So part of my business requires me to retest after a failed test, to revise or strengthen what I do, and I am pretty passionate about winning and losing. My students who compete heavily know this (as do members of the audience), so in the same way I yell and scream during Redskin games, boxing matches, I will scream at my students in tournaments (another reason I stay home) and may occasionally argue with a referee, opponent, or ask for a rematch if I lose. Just call me a diehard competitor and fan, but deep down inside I am a warrior who never plans to retire.

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