The 60 Year Old Guy with the 3rd Degree

Not long ago I was talking with a gentleman whose name escapes me. He was a 1st degree Black Belter from the 60s who had studied Karate in Japan, and had not “updated” his training since then. He was an older gentleman–I’d have to say he was easily in his 60s–and very fit. We talked about the martial arts and how they had changed over the years, and he mentioned that his children had studied the arts in the 80s and how disappointed that his children (1) reached the Black Belt level far sooner than he had without the skills to match, and (2) his boys did not have the level of indominability he possessed upon reaching his Black Belt. While he was lamenting this state of the martial arts, I wondered if he retained his fighting skills after all these years and sure enough–I overcame my shyness and asked for a match, and he obliged.

Now, I don’t want you to criticize me for challenging an old man to a match. First, it wasn’t a real match, as he and I only played hands for about 3 minutes and I certainly would not have fought him like a young man (unless I needed to). Secondly, this gentleman’s physique was not indicative of his age and I would bet the house that he could have held his own against any man I put before  him. Bottom line, he was skilled as a fighter and I know his kids must be proud of him. I wish him many years to come and I know that God has blessed him with the gift of youth and wisdom in his older age. But on to the point of the article….

He struck me with something he said:  (and I’m paraphrasing) I had not taken on another teacher because I already felt safe with the skills I was given and I never met another teacher who could match my own. What a blessing. I have an issue with people who insist that “the Black Belt is only the beginning”. I believe it is the end. It is only the beginning when your teacher bestowed the belt on you before you had become an expert and the last time I looked, the black belt was supposed to mean you were an expert. And the second thing here is that he was blessed to have a teacher he felt was the among the best, and he never met another man whose skill matched his teacher’s. This is something I would hope every martial arts student had. Yet I know that it is not, and that is because we tend to give rank to people who really don’t deserve it.

And now, my real point.

I have met many a 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th degree master who couldn’t hold a candle to my skill level. And I have also met 1st and 2nd degree fighters who were better than me. There is something to be said about the level of hunger in a man striving for the next degree when he is in the lower levels of the Black Belt that isn’t there once he reaches the 4th degree. After the 4th, they seem to become more of political ranks than earned degrees of skill. One man I know of–Dr. Jerome Barber–is one of them. Our paths have only slightly crossed in my years on the East Coast. According to my old friend Billy Bryant, he introduced me to him years ago (although I don’t remember) at a seminar in upstate New York. Like Billy, Doc B was a student of Kenpo and Modern Arnis, who was one of those old-school dojo-hardened fighters from the 70s. And like Billy, he did not pursue the next rank as much as he pursued more skill. And trust me, if Billy Bryant says you’re good–you know what you’re doing because this man didn’t pull punches with his opinion. Well, when Modern Arnis leadership was up for grabs I had hoped that the best of his students, like Doc B, would take the reins but I was wrong. The guys who promoted seminars, chased the paper and wrote articles for GM Presas all fought for the “sokeship”, while the real warriors stayed in the background and continued their path of martial arts enlightenment on their own. But I don’t doubt that in Modern Arnis circles, even the “Masters of Tapi-Tapi” know who the big dogs are. There is a saying that you achieve what you strive for, and those who pursue high rank get them (or give it to themselves), while those who pursue better skill get them as well. Billy Bryant–surprisingly–was only a 1st or 2nd degree Black Belter in Modern Arnis. I don’t believe he achieved any other rank in the FMAs–other than what he was gifted through honorary ranking. (Side note:  During my time in training with him, Billy’s organization [the Maryland Black Belt Association] awarded me a 3rd degree Black Belt in 1994–not for martial arts knowledge but for tournament performance, and I am proud of this honorary rank. At the same time, I received a 5th degree in Tae Kwon Do from a teacher I won’t name… because of SALES PERFORMANCE. That’s right, because I sold a lot of memberships, I received a 5th degree black belt from a “kwang jan nim” of Tae Kwon Do. It’s disgusting. I never mention that…) Doctor Barber made his reputation the old fashioned way, and although he never posted youtube clips all over the place and chased behind GM Presas, itching for higher rank, his reputation as an Arnisador is without question. Who knows why he never went for higher rank? But I’m willing to bet that it was because he was too busy training to stop long enough to take a test. So maybe his resume doesn’t read like a book, but his skill and reputation speaks for itself.

In my travels and experiences, I have found far more functional fighting skills in lower ranking black belts than I have in Black Belters with advanced Black Belt degrees. And where I have met guys in their 50s and 60s, yet they still hold a low degree–like a 3rd degree–I have always found those men to be superior in knowledge and skill. In my own Jow Ga system, one of my older brothers, Tehran Brighthapt, is one of our best and most accomplished fighters. He was on the first US team to fight San Shou in Taiwan in 1979. When Sifu went to confront another martial arts school or even local gangsters, he brought Bright with him. Even when Billy Bryant came to our school in 1984 looking for a match, it was Tehran who fought him and recruited him as a student. Yet I have outranked Bright on the Jow Ga curriculum since I was 15 years old, and I don’t even think I can defeat him today at 42. Rank means nothing. Skill means everything. Never forget that.

So when you meet a 60 year old guy with a 3rd degree Black Belt, ask him for a match (respectfully, of course). Pay close attention and take mental notes, because you are about to learn something valuable.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

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More Than a Business, Revisited

Now, I hope I’m not sounding judgmental with this article, but even if I do I don’t care because this blog is for people to read my opinions…

My biggest complaint about the FMA community in the West–and now the Philippines–is that the Filipino arts is treated as not much more than a commodity. Not everyone, I know. But for most people it is a skill people will pay for, and teachers offer it to anyone who is willing to pay the fee. Teaching is very canned and impersonal, and I have seen many organizations where every student learns exactly the same thing. I don’t want to spend too much time beating up a dead horse, as I am sure most of my readers have heard this point being made over and over…

So, let’s switch gears here and get to the meat of my article.

I have noticed on my articles about Ama Guro Billy Bryant, that each article brings me a ton of email and a few comments from prior students. I will see compliments made publicially, but receive private messages that are less than flattering. I will get questions of his whereabouts, or what training with him was like, or offers to compare notes, etc. But you will notice, for about the last 10 years or so that everyone is looking for him:  old students, friends, training partners… The man was more than just a martial artist, he was an influence. Whether someone simply knew him, trained under him, or was a training/sparring partner–Billy left his imprint on the martial arts experiences of everyone he touched. No one was the same after meeting him, even if they hadn’t learned anything from him, Billy Bryant changed one’s perspective and expectations of the martial arts and what it can do for us.

There are not many teachers out there who have this sort of influence. I have seen teachers receive respect simply because they are teachers. Or some teachers will have inferior fighting skills but no one would dare say it because of who he is. But every blue moon, you might meet a martial artist who raises the bar… This is a martial artist whose knowledge and skill are rarely seen or felt, and even if you only see them one time, you never forget it. Many martial arts students may go their entire lives and never meet such a person. Some will. A small number may meet several such men and women. And when you do, you never forget it. And this is why many of the students of the late Bruce Lee had never taken a new teacher after Lee’s death in the 70s. With his skill level, almost anyone you encounter may seem inferior. I feel this way about my grandfather. Most of my Kung Fu brothers felt this way about our Sifu, Dean Chin. I have seen many fighters end up self-taught after leaving a great master’s tutelege, and even succeed, without a teacher. These masters just have “it”–that something that cannot be duplicated or faked–and those who are touched by them search for it, or are spoiled by it.

For those of us who have encountered such masters, we are attached to our teachers and friends by some invisible string, instead of a business deal… and that’s my point. It has nothing to do with money, and men have left their homes to go and study with such masters. It is no surprise that many students will spend their entire lives looking for that teacher they lost. Do you see where I’m going with this?

If you have a good teacher, get as much time as you can with him or her. Don’t take them for granted, because who knows the next time you may get to train with him again? I am happy to see that Billy left behind so many students and friends that love him. But I am wondering how much regret is out there? How many of these folks ask themselves, why did I leave this teacher? How many left over silly things that now seem insignificant–like overdue tuition, financial trouble, or personality conflict?

In Eskrima, the techniques are simple and easy to learn. But the real lessons in Arnis is not in the movement of the drills and techniques–they are found in the many conversations you may have with your Master. The many practice sessions, the many sparring sessions. As a student, your job then is to uncover as much as you can while you are there, so that when you walk away, you will be satisfied with what you have obtained. Don’t promise to return, because most likely, a student that quits never will.

And the next thing you know, you are a middle aged man on the internet looking for a teacher who is irreplaceable or may have passed away. In 1999 when I had first moved to the East Coast, and old classmate of mine contacted me. I hadn’t seen him since the 80s, and when we finally got to speak, the first thing he asked was how Sifu was. I had to regretfully inform him that our teacher had been dead about 15 years. He said to me that he had planned for many years to return to DC to pay his respects and visit our teacher and was surprised at how much time he lost. When I last saw him, he was lean and rock-solid. The man before me was overweight, balding, and left with a martial arts void he may never fill.

If you have a Master around you, don’t lose him until he is taken from you. It isn’t about the money. Your martial arts teachers are like family, only–you may not know it until he is gone.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

The Pear Tree Parable

It’s funny how connected like minds are these days. As I was editing this article, Darrin Cook on his “Big Stick, Big Combat” Blog wrote a post that connects well with the contents of Guro’s article. When you get done with this one, mosey over to Guro Cook’s blog and take a look!

This is one of those stories we tell our children when they get older, because while they are young, the lesson doesn’t apply as much as when they are grown. I recently retold this story to my teenaged stepson, and I think it would benefit many in the martial arts to hear it.

A man who lived in a poor community came out of the house one morning to find a full-grown pear tree growing in his yard, full of fruit. It amazed him, because just the day before the tree was just a sprout of a plant. Knowing it to be a blessing from God, he picked all the fruit from it and took it inside to his wife and family. She made all sorts of sweets and dishes with the plant, and the man–being a good man, thanked God for the gift.

The next day, he came out to find that not only had the tree grown a little larger, it had grown fruit again! And just the same as yesterday, he recognized it to be a blessing, and took the fruit inside to the family. He thanked God for the gifts and went on with his business.

The day after that, fruit came again, and he repeated his same actions. In fact, day after day, he picked fruit to give to his family, thanked God, and went about his business. He never had to lift a hand to water the tree, prune it, nothing. Because he was in an area with other poor people, and wanting to spare them ill feelings because they had not been blessed as well (for whatever reason God had for not blessing them) he told no one.

After 6 months, the family was starting to tire of pears. Plus, the winter came and sweets just didn’t seem right when it’s cold outside. When wood was bare, he took a branch or two to warm his home.

That spring, the tree was dead. End of story.

There are many lessons to this story:

  1. Just because the man did not have to water the tree, it didn’t mean that he should not have. If the unwatered tree yielded fruit, a watered tree would have yielded more. He was guilty of taking from the tree and failing to put anything back to keep the tree going, instead leaving it up to God to keep the tree alive. In Islam, this is referred to “binding one’s camel”. Have faith that God will take care of your needs (like keeping your camel at home), but at the same time, do what you have to do to make sure it happens (bind the camel to a post)
  2. Too much of anything is a bad thing. The family was guilty of overindulging, and therefore sickened of a good thing because they had just too much. If they had shared with other families, everyone would have gotten enough to enjoy the fruit. Sometimes, the pleasure is taken away (as is the blessing) if you do not share it
  3. The “blessing” from God is sometimes given to you, so that you may share it with others. Wealth is not always given to men to hoard, but as a vessel to bless with others

There are others, but these are what I can think of right now. So, what does this have to do with the martial arts?

Many martial artists are guilty of taking from the pear tree. Not necessarily stealing, just using its resources and failing to water the tree and sharing with others. As teachers, we do not add to our skill by training or learning more. Many of us do not share with other teachers in our community. (I am often guilty of this myself)  Some of our teachers are in love so much with the dollar bill, that we leave many students in wont of good instruction because we are looking for the student with the big bucks. Our knowledge and reputations are the tree, the students are the fruit…

As students, we pay our tuitions (like the man thanked God) but not much more than that. If your school is small and does not use contracts, chances are that your teacher is struggling financially. Every dime he takes in pays a bill. But we have students shopping the internet for deals to save $5 on a pair of gloves, rather than pay your teacher for the gloves. He cannot offer the same discount because he does not qualify for better bulk discounts! And when you go on vacation, do you pay for the month you are gone? Or do you use that money for an hour on the slot machines? Every little thing counts.

Some of us do not understand how we affect the hands that feed us, and instead only look at how we can benefit from our teachers’ knowledge. Have you noticed how your school’s toilet doesn’t work right? Or how the carpet need shampooing? Take the initiative and do it for him! Your teacher probably has too much pride to ask someone for help!

Back to the subject of taking and failing to put back, how many of us are failing to give our experiences to our arts? Each generation should be improving the art he receives from his Master, but many students are too lazy (or scared) to go forth and build the school’s reputation or even to test and refine one’s fighting skills. Active schools tend to have good students because the students are building the style from the inside out.

I will close this article here, and let you ponder over those things for a few.

Btw, the inspiration for this article, is the closure of the school of a good friend of mine. He was a great fighter, very knowledgeable,  a great martial artist, and a good family man. He even had a lot of students. But unfortunately, they never paid their tuition on time, and he was late on rent one too many times, and his landlord cancelled his lease. He did not make enough money to get a downpayment on a new place, and was too proud to ask for help. None of us knew he was in such dire straits until he announced that he would close his doors. It is Christmas–a day of giving in this country–and for martial arts schools, our worst month of the year. Why? Because our students buy so many gifts and spend so much money outside our schools, that they often neglect to pay tuition. I have this problem myself, so I save through the summer just for December. My friend could not do so, and now he must look for a community center to teach in. This is a damned shame.

Thank you for reading my blog. Happy holidays, everyone.

Searching for Ama Guro Billy Bryant

I have sometimes mentioned on the boards that I am good friends with a gentleman named “Ama Guro Billy Bryant”, a very talented martial artist who, in my opinion, was the East Coast version of Bruce Lee. You will meet people who either bad mouth him or love him to death, and every time I talk about him I get private messages and emails asking his whereabouts or to tell them more about him. He is something of a phantom martial artist these days, but one that nearly everyone will agree was a great martial artist and fighter, so I’d like to talk about him a little.

I first met Billy around 1983, in a tournament in Philadelphia, PA. I was fighting in a plain black Karate gi representing no one (I was 13 and had loyalty issues with my martial arts teachers), but I had a Filipino flag patch on my uniform, which caught Billy’s attention. (Now that I think of it, that patch has introduced me to several other masters, including Master Apolo Ladra, GM Don Bitanga, and many more.) While Billy was interested in meeting my grandpa and talking FMA, I was more interested in picking his brain about point fighting because I admired his fighting style. At that time, Billy was in his late 40s and was quite dominant. At that time, he was going by the name “Jabba”, and representing Chinese Kenpo. He never talked about who he learned from, but I remember asking him for matches (as I did Billy Blanks, Leroy Superfeet Taylor, and many other great fighters I looked up to) and remarking that he seemed to have kicks as good as the Tae Kwon Do fighters–which he answered that he also had a Black Belt in Moo Doo Kwon (or some other Korean style).

Years later he ended up living in the Washington, DC area, and had visited my school several times, attempting to learn from my Jow Ga Sifu, Master Dean Chin. Sifu refused him as a student, saying that he did not trust him (as my Grandfather said as well). Billy came back several times, worked out with some of my Si Hings, impressed everyone, but was never allowed to join. I would run into him occasionally at the tournaments, and each time I saw him I learned techniques and strategies that I would work on until the next time I saw him.

To say that Billy’s quick lessons influenced me was an understatement:  I use to this day nearly everything I’ve learned from him, and when I spar I envision him and mirror his fighting style.

In 1986 I won my first division as a Black Belt Adult and was handed my first $100 prize money. Billy was there to coach me, and talked to me about using competition martial arts as a form of income. I have to say this, when he was around I was more confident and for some reason almost always placed high. He spoke to me at that time about learning Arnis–which I knew well, but had little interest in teaching–from GM Remy Presas. We promised to get together and compare notes about what he knew vs. what I knew. He asked me at that time about forms, and I informed him that I didn’t know any and he said he would teach me some. We did not talk about FMA much after that until 1988, when I left the country to visit my Dad in the Philippines. Billy had me go to Angeles City to look for Luis Amador Oliverez, his Kenpo teacher.

I ended up staying in the Philippines for two years to study with Boggs Lao, Ernesto and Roberto Presas, and two other gentlemen whose names I have forgotten–one taught only Espada at Daga, and the other taught Hung Gar. Billy and I communicated via letter every month, and I reported on the lessons I learned, and my failed attempts to find Kuntaw similar to what I was learning at home (all I could find was Karate/Kuntaw), and searching for “Kali”.

When I returned to the US in 1990, I immediately hooked up with Billy–who by that time had become a student of my Si Hing Raymond Wong and had learned quite a bit of Jow Ga by then. Billy had a school in the Annapolis, Md, area and had forged a good reputation for his fighting and forms ability. I returned to the tournament scene, but had more of a taste for kickboxing, as I had kickboxed in the Philippines and liked it better. I joined a boxing gym (Palmer Park/Ray Leonard gym) and started working more on boxing skill, while working for a Tae Kwon Do chain teaching sparring classes and doing sales part time. Billy by this time was knee-deep in his FMA, and was all over the seminar circuit. He often introduced me to colleagues from the circuit, whom I found to have very poor skills despite being arrogant and cocky because of who they were learning from. He confided in me that Jeet Kune Do people were into Bruce Lee and his concepts more than they were into fighting skill. But they were good for attending seminars, and Billy actually made a nice income teaching them. So he befriended and complimented everyone even when he thought they were lousy martial artists. It was here that I developed a bad taste in my mouth for the video tape and seminar market:  everywhere I looked, I would find poor skill combined with a lot of certificates and name-dropping.

In 1992, I began teaching at Bolling Air Force Base Gym with the curriculum that my Grandfather and I had devised together. Billy thought my curriculum was too light, and encouraged me to “fluff” it with “filler”, as he found that most students liked to be spoonfed and wouldn’t pay for training the same skills night after night. I tried some of his ideas, but always came back to the original method I planned to use.

In 1993, I opened my first commercial school with a dear friend of mine, Terry Robinson, who was a pioneer from the 70s in the bareknuckle scene. Billy gave a lot of good advice and donated equipment to get me started. He made my first flyers and taught me how to do it myself. I used his wording and found it very effective. Shortly thereafter, I found that one of his students, Kenneth Willis, grew up 20 yards from where my family lived in River Terrace, Washington DC. Kenny was a boxer who studied Eskrima with Billy, and only learned fighting from him. Kenny was my second greatest influence, as he was highly critical of Billy’s ideas, despite admiring him so much. I later moved to Baltimore to open my second location in Reisterstown, and got back on the tournament scene in that city. Billy had introduced me to some serious powerhouses there, and I trained with these gentlemen, who mostly made up their own systems. Some things were striking:  all where African American, all had excellent skill, and all were trying to make their mark in a community dominated by Asians, commercialism and racism.

I had some disagreements with Billy, but none were bad enough that we couldn’t get past them. But but in 1997, I had offered to host Nene Tortal for a seminar in Baltimore, and it led to my last disagreement with him and I never spoke to him again… except for a few times I had called to see how he was doing. Our conversations were very short and contained none of the sage to student intimacies they once had. Last I knew, Billy was back in New York and confined to a wheel chair after a vehicle accident and some personal tragedy.

I was one of those people who knew Billy very closely, I knew his dirt, and I knew his struggles, but it does not bother me that I could not contact him anymore. What amazed me was how many people come to me, not knowing who I am or who I am to him, and offer rumors (some true, some untrue) that attack his character. To tell the truth, if we are talking about a great martial artist, we sometimes look at his personal life and judge his ability or validity as a teacher based on what we know or hear. Bruce Lee, most likely cheated on his wife with Betty Ting Pei, used Dan Inosanto to run his business when he was no longer interested in teaching for a living, and smoked marijuana. Steven Segall is a liar and and asshole. Maung Gyi is a phony veteran and lied about the origin of his martial arts. Others, are drunks, are bad with their money, have false histories, are jerks, has huge egos and small “manhood” complex… but what about their martial arts?

The fact is, Billy was human, but he is a good man (if he is still alive) and I really don’t care to hear about his faults, nor do I wish to share with people I don’t know. As a martial artist, he was one of the best and he influenced many great martial artists to become better. I emulate him when I fight, and he’s never made any movies. I also happen to owe my career as a martial artist to him, and that says a lot.

Thanks for visiting my blog.