“Secrets” of the Filipino Fighting Arts
Words from a Modern-Day Warrior

The Mean and Nasty Old Master, pt II

I want to talk a little more about one of my favorite people in the world:  Old people.

I was partially raised by my grandparents, as my mother could not afford child care in those days. My grandfather, then, took that opportunity to hijack my life and raise me to be a martial artist. Despite that I had some other aspirations, like my siblings, who are very successful–I was bred to do these arts. Many of you may go your whole lives and not encounter someone like me whose parents did not give them a choice about what path to take in life. It is a very un-American concept, disallowing your child to make a life decision such as a career path or who to marry. But I assure you it is a practice that is done more out of love and less out of tradition, and it is not one I regret not a single day of my life.

All my teachers were lifetime martial artists as well. I am not speaking of the guys who just practice and teach the art all their lives. The kind of men I learned from turned down other job opportunities and did this art even if it sent them to the poor house. For them, the martial arts was an occupation, a calling, a lifestyle. Very unlike your military guy-turned martial artist, or your State worker-turned martial artist, or your [insert occupation]slash/martial artist. What I have observed of these kind of teachers, having had 9 such men as teachers, is that they spend their whole lives looking for a student who would treat these arts as a lifestyle just as they had done. The big disappointment for them, as I noted in my last installment of this subject, is that they may never encounter another quite like them. It is no wonder that these men will take their children (or at least their first-born son) and train them, hijacking their lives, to be the perfect product of their teachings.

Let’s discuss the difference between the kind old master and the mean old master. There is a difference.

Without wanting to insult or cause offense–cause you know how much I hate to do that–we will focus on the mean old master and I want you to compare him to the nice old masters you most likely have encountered. The truth is, there are far more nice old masters than mean old ones. There is a reason for that, and that reason is why I gravitate towards them. You may disagree with me if your old manong is a nice guy, but despite what you say, my experiences have told me otherwise. So here goes:

  • He is competitive. The old master is competitive with other old masters. He takes great pride in having students who are the best in his town or province. When he encounters a fighter who is superior to his own, every mistake you make (as his student) is magnified when you lose. He says to himself, “If you had done what I told you to do, if you had practiced more, or used this/that technique–you would have beat him.”  In other words, he doesn’t want any other teacher to say their boys are better than his. The old master has long sized up the other masters and feels he has a better way. One of the things that keeps him in this game is that he is striving to establish himself as the BEST. And now that he is too old to do the things he used to do, he lives through his students to carry the torch. When he is teaching you, he is attempting to recreate himself. He wants you to do the things he can no longer do.
  • He wants you to be competitive. He wants you to be better than he was, better than his first generation of students, better than the other guys’ students. He loves a hungry student who trains like a mad man and struggles to make him look good. Because when you look good, he looks good. Yes, even though you are doing the work, and looking good–he is somewhat vain.
  • He is not a celebrity teacher. Some masters spend a lot of time talking about what they did when they were young. They highlight their past accomplishments and skills, and therefore many do not want the student to exceed the master. But not the mean old master; he wants the next generation to be bigger and better than he ever was. My grandpa would tell stories about his matches, and although embellished somewhat to make him sound like the Filipino Superman–he always finished by telling me that I would be bigger and stronger and more famous than he was. He picked my friends based on if he thought they would boost or hurt my reputation–or help vs. suppress my skill. My teacher Bogs Lao would force me to fight with bigger, stronger, better fighters because he wanted me to improve. There were a few fighters I feared because they were relentless in kicking my behind, and when he discovered that fear he made me fight them more. He did not want to hear that I was nervous, or hurt, or sore, or tired. Bogs built his reputation off of the skill of his students, and was satisfied only with our best. At the same time, he did not tolerate mediocrity. The celebrity teacher doesn’t care if you are the best or not, because regardless of what you do, it will not affect his status as a well-known master.
  • He was a perfectionist. Notice I said “was”, rather than “is”. Is he a perfectionist? You betcha. But the reason he is mean and nasty now is that he was a perfectionist when he was young, so he knows firsthand what perfection looks like. He can tell when you’re really giving your best, and when you’re just tired. The mean old master knows the secret to 110% of your effort:  There is no such thing. It’s just that 99.99% of you will never truly give 100% of your effort. So when you actually DO give it all you’ve got, you feel like you’ve given more. This man knows what you feel like on the 150th pushup, because he’s done it himself, many times. Now take three minutes rest and give me ten more.
  • He truly wants you, your skill, your reputation and the system to outlive him. The mean old nasty master knows this absolute truth about the fighting arts that very few know, and does not exist in most other fields:  When he is dead and gone, when you have graduated from his tutelage, you will never work this hard again. There is a reason why fighters with 50+ fights still pay millions to their trainers when they themselves are great, knowledgeable fighters. That reason is that the teacher sees the mistakes and shortcomings we often don’t see, and they will not let us quit when our minds and bodies tell us to. They will force us to do what we will not force ourselves to do without our lives being on the line. In a real fight you will pull out all the stops to win. You won’t do it in training. But if you pull them all out in training, when you fight, you will have more in the bag to pull out. Reread this line several times until it sinks in. That was one of the secrets of the Masters.
  • He doesn’t care if you like him, or if you’re offended by what he says, or if others don’t like what he has said or how he said it. Because when he is gone, you will love him and appreciate his teaching more than you did when he was alive. This is another one of those absolute truths about the martial arts, that does not apply in many other fields. He is a bitch to learn from, and maybe you didn’t get the training the way you thought it should have gone when you were a pupil, or maybe you didn’t like the way he insulted you or hit you when you got it wrong–but when he is dead, you will miss him and honor him as if he were a parent. I look at the complaining I did when learning Eskrima from my grandfather in the backyard, doing my basic 5 strikes (we have 24, but my first 5 were my daily routine in those days) in 100 degree weather until my hands bled. I longed to learn the other arts, the forms and sinawali and disarms that I read about in the magazines. And look at me now. My students, family members and close friends know exactly what I’m talking about. I am the 43 year old version of that old man. He died when I was 22, and I never took another class, nor another master, since. Old people are like that, they are the way they are because they feel like they have earned the right to say what they say and do what they do, and they don’t care if you don’t like it. Humility causes even old men to bite their tongues. But the men who have taken lives, saved lives, and walked the Earth with the skill to make a Godlike decision–whether to take or not–know nothing of humility. <—- And here you have the main difference between the mean old nasty master, and the nice, sweet one.

But I must make a correction. While searching for clips of old masters on youtube (I had seen an interview with a Master who was the student of Master Lema, bragging that his boys were unbeatable–to illustrate my points), I found this one and realized that I should say that these Masters are not all men. I especially enjoy this clip, because it shows one of those mean old masters in rare form interacting with her student. No doubt, her fighters know a different Master than the rest of the martial arts community. Enjoy! And thank you for visiting my blog.

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5 Responses to “The Mean and Nasty Old Master, pt II”

  1. I think my mother was my first mean old master. She ran her house the EXACT same way. I guess that is why I was able to adapt to the environment when I started with you are Wong’s in ’86.

  2. This is a profound column, especially in an era of self-esteem building and political correctness, where competition is frowned upon. What of the games where no one keeps score? How about the teachers who aren’t allowed to correct in red pen because it’s too traumatizing for students?

    What happens when teachers and students adopt this mindset and you have a dojo where no one competes, everyone is a “winner,” and no one is ever criticized in the least?

  3. […] other words, “Mean and Nasty Old Master, pt II“. But this really isn’t “part III”, because this article is about his […]

  4. […] remembers his techniques, can still move around and more, is itself impressive. But as I said in this article, there is a difference between an old master and an old warrior. Both are old. Both look good for […]


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