On Martial Arts Alliances

There are many roads to the top of a mountain, and likewise–there are many paths to perfection and mastery of the martial arts. One of the most underused and misused of these paths is the Martial Arts Alliance or Organization. Sadly, the ones misuing this institution are the most knowledgeable of the martial arts community:  The Martial Arts School Owner.

The association of martial artists can range from your typical backyard sparring group to an alliance made up of martial arts schools to a federation of schools within the same system. There are many benefits to connecting and networking with other teachers, masters and differing systems–and none involve politics and rank.

Before we look at the benefits, lets look at the misuse of the martial arts alliance:

  • RANK. Teachers often use the association to promote each other in the absence of an exam or the threat of failing to achieve it. Basically, teachers who are fond of each other hold dinners where they award a certificate to a specific set of teachers–signed by everyone NOT being promoted–which recognizes those teachers as the next degree (or worse, a title). Quid Pro Quo, next ceremony, the promoted will promote the signers, and so on. You scratch my back, I’ll recognize you as a Grandmaster
  • TOURNAMENTS. I actually like this system, if it’s used properly. However, I have seen where groups of schools exclude anyone not in the club for competition. So now, we have tournaments being thrown only among a circle of like-minded schools, masters, and students–and only someone within that circle will walk away winners. Even if they allow non-members, many will see to it that a member wins. Whether by design or by unfair judging, this is usually the case with such exclusive tournaments. Then they have the nerve to call winners “World Champions”…
  • SEMINARS. You guys already know my stance on this hustle. I dislike seminar training so much, I will attempt to discredit in person every person I meet who learns this way. How it is misused is that teachers will hold a round of seminars among a group of friends and the students of these nine schools will attend (and pay for) the tenth teacher’s seminar, and next time around–another of the nine schools will host, and so on. I understand keeping the money circulating through the schools. However, students are often unfairly pushed to attend seminars of other styles when they are still trying to learn their primary system
  • CREDIBILITY. You trust a master to give you truth. But one thing with these alliances you will never find is truth. Teachers will attest to the knowledge and ability of another teacher simply because they like each other, and not because they truly believe that teacher is who you say he is. Anything that goes with it is then questionable–from encouraging your students to give him seminar money, to practicing his art, to giving a reference to a potential student of his. Put plainly, it is dishonest.
  • SELFISHNESS. Almost everyone participating is doing so for selfish reasons. One guy does it to surround himself with a crew who protects him. Another does it for rank because he’s made his own style. Another sees income potential. Another wants a reputation. Very few do it for love of the art or to improve his community.

Martial arts alliances can enhance your martial arts experience. My favorite use of the alliance is to have a circle of competitors you can bounce ideas off of, provide sparring partners for yourself and your students, to further your learning (rather than rank or pad a resume). The alliance can put you in the company of other philosophies, give you true friendships where you share information and learn from each other–even provide you with rivalries who will make you stronger and sharper. Some of the best martial artists we know have derived their greatness from alliances. Few know this, but well known FMA master Billy Bryant’s martial arts genius originated from alliances he made in the 1980s upon relocating from New York City to Washington, DC. When he came, we knew him as “Jabba”, and he was a Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do Black Belt. While in DC, he boxed, learned Kung Fu, Jujitsu, and FMAs. For some, he actually became a student of these men. For others, he traded his knowledge for theirs. And for a select few–he held sparring sessions so that he could spy on the best fighters and learn to beat them. For those who wanted that juice he had–we taught him our arts in exchange for his point fighting ability. It was a win-win. His greatness rubbed off on many who I see did not credit him. But likewise, he did not always give the origins of his knowledge. Often, he did not have permission to name their arts, but utilized the knowledge they shared with him. If you ever heard Billy talk about Saguisabal Visayan Eskrima or Kuntao–it’s me. Saguisabal is my grandmother’s maiden name, and I exchanged my system to learn to point fight from him. If you saw him do a Kung Fu form–again, that’s either me or Master Raymond Wong–in exchange for teaching Sifu Wong’s nephews to point fight. Billy was the perfect example of what can be done with martial arts alliances, as he took what he exchanged and often did it better than the person who taught him. To this day, I still don’t know who his teachers are. But I know that he was an excellent lifelong martial artist.

Here are some other uses for the martial arts alliance:

  • PURCHASING POWER. One school may only need $200 a month worth of martial arts equipment and supplies. But imagine if 6 schools pooled their purchasing power to demand a larger discount from suppliers.
  • LEARNING. Teachers holding group workouts among themselves to share information. This information can be brought back to the home school to figure out how to incorporate those techniques–or beat them.
  • TOURNAMENTS. We support each other’s tournaments, but we also tap into each other’s strengths to provide our students with a steady stream of opponents that we know won’t try and hurt them–or we can demand that they pull out their best effort to beat our guys. However, I am not in favor of excuding non-members. The more unfamiliar opponents, the better. You don’t want a federation’s tournaments known as a particular style’s tournament. This should be for everyone.
  • TESTING. If you’re going to promote, why not bring other teachers to give their HONEST opinion about if your students deserve their rank or not? Those teachers can bring their own best students to prove yes or no. This way, if a student is testing, he really doesn’t know if he will pass or fail. Rank, then, is truly earned. And properly vouched for.
  • BUSINESS KNOWLEDGE. In every group of teachers, there is always one or two guys making a killing with their martial arts, and there are some who work side jobs while teaching because they are struggling. A true alliance with equality will have those with more knowledge sharing information and even resources with those who have less. What good is a martial arts community if most of the teachers can’t keep their doors open?
  • RESPECT. Real respect for the martial arts comes when teachers of the martial arts respect each other. Too often, I see teachers right up the street from each other who have never met, dislike each other, bad mouth each other, or know nothing about each other. But if you have a community of teachers who all excel, have a mutual respect for one another, and help each other keep food on the table–martial arts in that community will be respected by all. I had such a relationship with a few teachers in my area, and if one of their students came to me–I sent him back to his teacher. I only took a student if his teacher were okay with it, and he agreed not to quit. If a student was no longer attending that school, I encouraged them to go back first. As a result, you will find many of my students who are doing Wing Chun and Eskrima, Tang Soo Do and Eskrima, BJJ and Eskrima.

If you spread a 50 gallon drum of water in a parking lot, the water will quickly evaporate and disappear within a day or two. But if you keep all that water in the 50 gallon drum–it will remain for years if you keep it together. When martial artists complain that traditional masters have lost ground to the MMA gyms, this is the reason why. We are spread all over the place, doing our own thing, and not caring if every other teacher is putting food on the table. That’s not what this art was ever about. Yes we are fighter warriors. But we are community minded leaders, who use this art to help others and keep them alive. How about joining with others who have the same goal and moving forward as a true brotherhood? There is an African proverb that says if you want to travel quickly, go alone–but if you want to go far, travel together. Something to think about.

As I said, this only one approach to the road up the martial arts mountain. Many great masters and fighters did it in isolation as well. Kyokushinkai founder Masutatsu Oyama comes to mind. But even when he had perfected his art–he joined hands with other Japanese masters, some who even disliked him, and built a worldwide reputation for Japanese Karate that stands to this day. Perhaps we will talk about that method soon.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

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The Illusion of the Old Warrior Past His Prime, pt II

My grandfather had told me to look for old warriors along my martial arts journey, and to learn from them where I could. I discovered that many of these old men still possessed their fighting skills, and were very happy to oblige when I would ask for a match. Anyone who knew me in my youth knows that one of the first things I would do when meeting a good fighter was ask for a match. I was raised this way, and I learned a lot from doing this. I learned more about their habits and techniques than an observer because I was up close and seeing in real time how those techniques work. If I could offer you any advice today, I strongly encourage you to adopt this for yourself. Often we do not ask out of “respect”–but those masters know you aren’t disrespectful. On the contrary, many of the old masters enjoy going a round or two! It’s like watching an aging dancer hear his favorite song and getting up and shaking the dust off. Trust me, nothing can bond you to an old fighter like giving him a chance to move around and start his motor like he did back in the day.

I made the mistake a few times of underestimating the old warrior too. I’ve started a match thinking that I should “take it easy”, just to discover that the old man doesn’t just “still got it”–he never lost it! There is a warning my Lolo often gave, which was to keep an eye out for an old man who is in an occupation where many are destroyed young. It’s sort of the difference between an old military officer, versus an old military NCO. Both were warriors. But one has most likely seen more battles, suffered more injury and risked life and limb for his occupation. You get old two way in the field of martial arts and sciences:

  1. Becoming unbeatable and dominant
  2. Avoiding fights altogether

We all have seen those boxers who were known warriors in the ring. They took on all challengers, including the ones others avoided. They’ve been beaten a few times, been on the canvas even more times. To the true fight fan, those men had careers and wars that would bring tears to your eyes. This is my aging warrior; he fought until his body told him that he could no longer do it. But little do we know, he is only declining to the point that he can no longer compete with the best of the best. Beware this old man–against the average man, he will destroy you, even at his age.

There are still a few old champions we know and love, but they did not take the warrior path. They were among the best as well, but avoided the fighters who frightened them. They made it through tough fights and refused rematches. They didn’t fight dirty; they sought to win matches and avoid wars. We still loved them for their accomplishments, but you know deep down in your heart that if he fought So-n-So, he’d never make it out alive.

In my grandfather’s day, a 40 year old man wasn’t considered “old” yet. Those men still fought, and they sat in a place where they still had good use of their bodies yet possessed the wisdom that came with age. I knew a few men in this age group who were dangerous, and these are the men I looked to pattern myself after. Too often, martial artists will experience the signs of old age:  arthritis, weight problems, internal problems, injuries that limited their movement. Rather than make like the warrior and *fight* those problems like a dangerous opponent, many will give up, consider himself “old” and allow his youth to slip away. What I love so much about the aging warrior is that he will experience those problems and endeavor through them to try and regain his youth. He returns to the gym, he hits the street to do roadwork, he enters competition as a “Senior/Master”, he will attend Round Robins to give it one more shot. We all fear for him–but he won’t listen. He was born to do this, and has not accepted defeat yet. This is a great place to be. Older, but not yet old. Still has his fire, still has what it takes to return to his prime and will do it.

If you can find such a man to learn from, do it. You will find that the learning experience is one of a kind. Not quite the calm disposition of the sagely old Master; not quite the cranky old former fighter (see my “Mean and Nasty Master” series. I wrote three of them). You get the enthusiasm and energy of a young teacher, and the wisdom and experience of an old one. And most of all, you might get to fight him or see him fight as well. If you’re really lucky–you will get to see him return to his youth, as all old fighters go through this stage at least once or twice in his middle age. Very few of us maintain our youth all the way into our older ages.

And if you are a teacher, and looking to build your reputation–avoid the aging warrior who is returning to his prime. It is very easy to underestimate such a man. He is greying or balding. He might be overweight. But even if he can’t move like he used to, he is young enough to hurt you. Old warriors didn’t get here by accident. They got here by being wise, attaining knowledge, and by being tough. Never–NEVER–underestimate an older fighter who cut his teeth in a rough environment, even if you are amused by his pot belly. He may be looking to rebuild his reputation by making you an example. They are tough, their minds are tough, they have the knowledge as well as the skill and the ability to do it. They may not be worried about offending the community, and they certainly aren’t willing to get their bodies banged up even more in order to prove they can beat you. That rotator cuff injury or bad knee might force him to use a few tricks you’ve never seen to take you out earlier, because he doesn’t have time to play with you. A younger fighter might beat you–but an older warrior will hurt you. I’m not exaggerating; heed or bleed. 🙂  I’m not trying to discourage you from taking advantage of a match, just make sure you follow the rules when you take one on.

I know what I am talking about. I have been lucky/unlucky enough to encounter these men and learn this (while ignoring advice I had been given already) firsthand.

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The Illusion of the Old Warrior Past His Prime

I’ve said it many times on this blog–that my favorite boxer is “The Executioner” Bernard Hopkins. I see in him many of the qualities of a true martial arts fighter-teacher, and I consider him a Master Boxer. If you are around when my new book is released and you get a copy–I’ll explain in depth why.

I have had in my lifetime the pleasure of actually sparring several Masters past their prime. Many have studied with the Masters, but unlike most, in my youth I was naiive and asked those masters to spar. There is a connection you have with a teacher when you fight him that most of your fellow students will never share. Perhaps out of “respect”, fear, or simply being bashful, many students never actually fight with their teachers. The result is an edification of those masters and their prowess that is (excuse the expression if it offends) unearned. How often have you heard a teacher claim that his master or grandmaster was so strong or such a great fighter–but you know that testimony was exaggerated or just made up out of respect? It’s okay… you can agree with me; I won’t tell. 😉

I’ve discovered that there is a clear difference between old man who was a vicious fighter in his youth versus an old man who didn’t fight very much or wasn’t very good at it when he was young. We often pay homage to older masters and swear by their skill and knowledge when the quality of those men’s skill and knowledge was mediocre at best. Yet they are old; and no one would ever say that an old man’s art is average. It’s just not politically correct to do so.

(actually, I would)

The truth is that mediocre young martial artists often become mediocre old masters. No disrespect intended, we are just calling a spade a spade.

Quite often, we are impressed with an old master’s youthfulness. The fact that this man is advanced in age, but isn’t confined to a walker or wheelchair, still 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 their age. But while the old master’s “self-preservation” is an adjective–the old warrior’s “self-preservation” is a verb, and action word. There is a difference. One man kept himself healthy. He exercised, ate well, trained in his martial art, kept it going into his later years. But the old fighter did the same, and then some. He trained aggressively, not just to be good at his art–but to be the best. He wanted more than simply longevity in the art, he wanted to retain his dominance and prowess well past the age that he is supposed to have it. Like B-Hop, he wanted to still have the ability to destroy men half his age, and keep this ability for as long as the Creator wills it. Few old masters have this. Many of the old masters can still do splits, have good joints, and look as young as they were in their prime. But the old warrior has arthritis. His hand swells in the cold because he’d broken it on someone’s head in his youth. He may be missing a few teeth. His body isn’t as youthful as the master’s, but unlike the old master, the old warrior is dangerous. He knows much more about fighting, and can recreate himself through his students because he knows what it takes to develop a dominant fighter. In other words:  My old warrior can beat the breaks off your old master, not that he’d ever do it. No offense.

Old Masters tend to be kind, while old warriors are mean and nasty. Old masters very likely had lots of students telling how great he was in his youth; old warriors only have ghosts and stories in his past. The old warrior quite often were not great businessmen, entertaining teachers, or well known. Often, the old warrior was disliked in his youth, and avoided by the old masters when they were young. So today, we know very few names of men who actually served as kings of the martial arts jungle–but we certainly know the names of the non-fighters who got articles written in magazines, were well-liked, and certified thousands of non-fighting, future “Masters” (even a few “certified Master” titles along way). And the old warrior? He didn’t do much besides train, fight, and teach the few students he had.

So now that I’ve defined the Old Warrior, let me tell you about him.

But next time. Thank you for visiting my blog.