I was in the East Bay last week looking for a place to open a satellite class. It is a challenge because for the last 13 years, I have made Sacramento my home and I kicked off my school in 1999 by fighting in tournaments and building my reputation first. Today, at age 43, I am still young enough to move but perhaps too old to be introduced to the martial arts community with the bang I came with when I opened schools in Washington DC, Baltimore and Sac. This reminds me of something my old teacher Boggs Lao once said when he took me (nervously) to challenge a teacher in Angeles City.
Boggs took a lot of pride in having very dominant fighters. Some of the guys at our gym were so strong, and so skilled that we really could not unleash some of our fighters against other gyms simply out of politeness. It may sound like bragging, but this is true. It was in the way he trained us. We had a fighter, a U.S. serviceman named Lakeim Allah, who teaches in New York City who was hands down the best fighter at Clark Air Base. When he fought, he always won decisively and without any threat of losing. He was powerful, quick, agile and very smart. He was also a real gentleman who would lightly tap lesser-skilled fighters yet destroy bigger stronger men–only if they got out of line. When we had class sparring in the gym, he often did not spar other than to help teach. As a grown man–despite that I was young–I was very strong for my size (118 lbs), uncontrollably aggressive, and very quick. Yet when I fought Lakeim it was a child fighting his father. Soon, I started to close in on him skillwise–and Boggs began taking me to other gyms for sparring.
On this day, Boggs had a feud with another master (I believe this man was his cousin) and he was bringing me to fight. Before we had left he said that he needed me to prove things about his fighting art that he could no longer do, but I needed to do it in a way that we could preserve the other guy’s (whoever I would fight that day) dignity. We arrived at the other man’s gym, which was more of an enclosed porch, looking like a place where tigers were bred. Without much conversation, we went right to the sparring, while Boggs and the other man talked. Each time I got hit hard, I responded with more aggression, and Boggs would yell at me to control myself. I began to feel that I would not win this fight if I had to remain so calm. In my mind, I felt like I needed to tap into my aggressiveness in order to beat the man I was fighting. After all, he didn’t seem to have a problem attacking me aggressively. Soon I was so mindful of angering Boggs that I was ignoring the punches to my nose and the kicks to my thigh… but before you know it, I entered a mental zone and was using the techniques he told me use–successfully. My lip was busted, I had a huge bruise on my right thigh, which was actually a combination of many bruises, and my nose felt like it was broken. But at the end of the match, this guy was exhausted and could barely touch me and our match looked like Sugar Ray Leonard versus Paulie from Rocky.
I learned an important lesson that day. Boggs told me that he knew that the feud was with a man whose students were lesser skilled than his own. He also said that he knew I could have easily beaten whoever that man put in front of me. But he did not want bad blood with a teacher who offered no competition to him, and he said I needed to know how to fight with lesser skilled fighters without pulling out my best effort. Beat an inferior man half to death, what does it prove? Stronger man destroys weaker man, he looks like a coward. It was a lesson I needed to learn as an America-bound teacher, he said. And only the experience of having to fight while holding back–even getting my ass whupped in the process–could teach me this important lesson. Because I was known for my temper and being somewhat reckless if no one was around to pull my chain. My father was anxious to send me back to the U.S. to attend college and work, my mother was bugging him monthly to send me to her, and we needed to pack many lessons into the remaining months before my Dad would pull the plug on my martial arts education. This was a painful, but life-changing lesson.
I asked Boggs some time later why he didn’t worry that I would lose the fight, possibly getting hurt, by disallowing me to hit my opponent hard in that (and a few others) match. He told me that a teacher must not fear his student suffering a few losses and even injuries, in the pursuit of acquiring skill and knowledge. I once had a student who had a very heavy hand in Eskrima and always seemed to mishandle his brothers. So I fought him in a match, and treated him the way he treated his brothers, sending him to the hospital for stitches. Another time, I allowed another teacher to bring his Black Belters to fight my very arrogant and hard-headed young students–one included my own brother. They needed some humility, after demanding that I allowed them to fight in the Black Belt division since on a few occasions, several of them had defeated Black Belters–in point fighting. So I was forced to let them experience some old-school Black Belt fighters. Sometimes it is painful for me to watch, but like a mother bird who never lets her chicks out the nest–they will never learn to fly. The same way Boggs taught me compassion by handicapping me in a challenge match with a young man determined to impress his Master–teachers must allow their students to suffer the aches and occasional agonies of learning the hard way. Shelter them from those dangers, and your students will feel insecure when they are too big to stay in the nest.
We see martial artists who have been protected by their teachers so much, they make it 10, 20, 30 years and have never experienced defeat. Not because they can’t be beaten, but because they are too afraid of stepping out on the floor. Their teachers project their own fear of leaving the safety of friendly martial arts events and seminars onto their students. They will quote a plethora of excuses why they don’t spar or participate in tournaments. They never explore uncomfortable waters in the arts. They feel the need to remain in the small ponds where they can act like Big Fish, rather than jump in the vast ocean of sharks and other predators. They use politics to build their reputations as “fighters” rather than plain old fighting. I don’t always blame the mainstream FMA guys for their weakness; it is ingrained into their DNA from overprotective Guros who never stepped onto the floor themselves. The result is a large majority of martial artists who barely scrape the surface of “martial”-anything. Martial arts training and development requires defeat and risk-taking. You know why we shouldn’t allow prospective students to “try it to see if they like it”? Because if you are teaching this art properly, they won’t like it. The real martial arts is scary. It will make them ache. And it will sting.
Don’t be afraid to let your students suffer the sting; it won’t kill them. It will make them stronger. Strong enough to fly.
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