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. ūüôā¬† 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. ūüėČ

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.

Exceed the Teacher, pt III (Two-Way Street)

It is said that teaching is a two-way street. How true.

I’ve stated in earlier articles that some teachers are more skilled at teaching beginners, some are good at teaching the advanced, and then others excel at teaching teachers–guiding experts and novice teachers to mastery. You have instructors, you have trainers, you have teachers, and then you have Masters. There is a difference, and there is a hierarchy. Often, teachers do not understand the difference; knowing the difference between the types and levels of teachers–as well as knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher–will help them become better teachers. Ultimately, knowing the difference will help teachers bring their students from the beginner level all the way through the ranks, through the different skills and paths of a martial artist to the true path to mastery. It is at this point that the “certificate” denoting you a Master becomes irrelevant, and you know why I call such a thing silly.

In the beginning of a student’s learning career, the foundation must be developed through rigid adherence to basics and structure. Many teachers skip this level and immediately move towards a free-thinking “create your own path” style of instruction before the student has even learned to move his feet. We know why they do this: ¬†It’s entertaining, good for business, gives the student the illusion that they are learning “advanced” martial arts, and it caters to the impatient nature of new students. Yet in the long run, students never develop the strong root they need to become good fighters in the future. I call this the “seminar” approach to learning. Students simply “pick up” what moves they can memorize, and through casual practice–will learn to do a little bit of demonstrating. Nothing is internalized, and often, the student never even develops the physique he needs to be an effective warrior.

At the beginning stage of a martial artist’s education, he needs an absolute authority in the classroom. He does not need a feel-good babysitter who gives the student everything he asks for. This is the issue I have with students with a little bit of scattered martial arts experience when they join my school. He has seen what is out there and foolishly believes that he is too “advanced” for rudimentary training. He feels that he knows the footwork and questions why he is still practicing his steps. He thinks he knows the basic hits of my Eskrima and wants to get to the drills and disarms. Students must learn that this isn’t Burger King; you don’t get to have it “your way” and place an order for learning this weapon and that technique. My job is to get you started on your martial arts journey with as much skill, knowledge and ability as possible; I couldn’t care less if you were bored while you were learning it. So shut up and train.

At the intermediate and advance stages of the education there shouldn’t be much necessity for a skill in communicating to the student. It is there, that the biggest jump in ability occurs. This is where your students are trained, and repetition becomes key and the fighters are developing that superhuman strength I talk about so much. I have visited over 100 Eskrima classes (well honestly, I’ve never counted. It could be 90 or something) and I have yet to see one where students are tasked with striking to a maximum number of strikes. At the intermediate level, “instruction” is not as important as training. The training is physical, and only after that high level of ability is achieved should students return back to the intellectual style of learning.

Here is where we arrive to the subject of today’s article. At the advanced and instructor level of learning, a different kind of teaching takes place and it is a learning experience for the teacher as well as the student. If you have never brought a student to the expert level then you will be 100% in the dark about this experience. This is where you students should rival you in ability and strength; you should have exhausted your knowledge by this point, and you are guiding your students to surpass you in ability and knowledge. Yes, it is a tall order to think that your students will learn more than you know. But it is the pursuit that will push you over the edge to go from being merely a teacher to becoming a “Master”. I call this the “What next?” stage–where my students can beat me in sparring and force me to pull out the animal in order to put them back in check. Very few men reading this blog have the humility to allow their students to reach this level. And even fewer men reading this article have the knowledge and skill base to bring a student to this level. It is where your students are the best in town, where few other fighters from other gyms can rival your own student’s skills–and those students look to you to tell them what to do next. This is why some great amateur fighters stay with the same trainer after turning pro and then can’t win a single fight. It is why some pro fighters make their way through the ranks and then cannot find their place among the contenders. And it is why some trainers bring their fighters to another trainer to prepare them for the next level of learning, the next level of ability, and the next phase of their journey. Simply put, some teachers just do not have the ability and knowledge to bring a student all the way, when that student has exhausted everything you have to give. It is a very humbling, eye-opening experience.

Teachers can sometimes learn in the process of bringing their expert students to the next phase of their martial journey. They must also be honest with themselves and honest with their students about what they can accomplish as well. If you are a teacher who has never fought in the ring, but now you have a student who is good enough to climb in the ring what do you do? Pretend to train him and possibly turn him into another tomato can? Or try to put together a strategy for preparation and see if it works? Or do you take him to another trainer for supplemental training? This is a major decision for the both of you.

Loyalty can sometimes suppress a potentially great student’s path. Pride can sometimes cause a teacher to suppress his student’s potential as well. I see this all the time when young men bypass full-time training for easier paths to instructorship; and then years later they bring their Black Belt students to competitions to serve as cannon fodder for my students. Poor guys didn’t have a chance because they learned from teachers who never learned to fight themselves. Or worse, decades later, when the young man-turned instructor-turned Master now certifies his underqualified student as a Master himself. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Even when you haven’t accomplished those things yourself, when a student has reached the limits of your knowledge and experience, never forget that you still have more knowledge than the student does. Sending him to another limited teacher would be just as counter-productive. This is what you can do. You can allow your student to teach you, through teaching him. I cannot go more into this subject without teaching you things that I have reserved only for my own students. But I want you to know that at the advanced level of instruction, when your students are nearly as qualified as you are, you can learn while you guide him in his learning. You learn together as you bring him through the next level of your own martial journey, and what you learn there will help you when you teach your next generation of students. In the end, you both will be more knowledgeable and qualified to instruct. It sure beats just slapping a title on a piece of paper and selling it to him. Don’t be too proud to admit to yourself that this new level of teaching is unfamiliar territory; believe me–every martial arts teacher must experience it.

Thanks for visiting my blog.


Exceed the Teacher, pt II (Lesson from Bouie Fisher)

This article is a nod to one of the late, little-known masters of the fighting arts: ¬†Bouie Fisher. It is also part II to this article–but will ride the topic of fight strategy. I am still putting the article under “Teaching Philosophy”, because the thrust behind my reason for writing this article is to share my view on the journey from fighter to ¬†fight philosopher to teacher, despite the lessons in strategy we will present here.

And pour yourself a pot of coffee or tea:  this will be a long one.

First, for those who are unfamiliar with Bouie Fisher, he is the trainer of Hasim Rahman and more famously, boxing master Bernard Hopkins. These two men are perfect examples of the saying to “exceed the teacher”. Fisher was a good amateur who did not turn pro (or perhaps he did not fight long as a pro). He had eight children with his wife, and the life of a fighter is not financially stable enough for many men to be able to gamble their family’s standard of living on it. I wasn’t there, but I suspect (like many fighters) his wife probably told him to get a job. Either way, Fisher became a trainer and after 20 – 30 years of doing so–retired from boxing. He had a fighting philosophy that was unique, but no champion to prove its worth–or perhaps no student to fully develop those theories into proven methods.

Maybe I should jump in here to say something about that.

Any teacher can come up with a theory about fighting and technique. We do it all the time. We all have students to teach those theories to. But not every student will be suited to completely learn, develop, master, test, and prove those theories. The teacher must either be that fighter himself, or get someone to be that ultimate student. This is the dilemma of striking out on your own and forming your own style. Most teachers, unfortunately, become stuck at the theory level. Meaning, they form the theory and simply start teaching it–skipping all the stages of development. Sometimes it’s due to ignorance. Sometimes it’s due to laziness. Many times it is due to their desire not to have those theories tested, and possibly proven wrong. Ego has kept many teachers’ methods from being fully developed. Fear is the other head of that oppressive monster. Teachers have the dual challenge of devising a superior fighting style as well as finding the appropriate student to carry that technique forward. Many teachers just don’t want to have a champion who is known to be better than themselves. Few teachers, however, are driven to have a student who not only proves his method is superior–not only to exceed his own skills–he is willing to sit in the background and allow his student to rise all the way to the top, even if onlookers fail to give the master credit for the students’ success. One of the things I can tell you about the difference between boxing teachers and martial arts teachers: ¬†Boxing teachers flaunt their students’ successes as for their pride. Martial art teachers promote themselves. Look at the websites. Master so and so will tell you all about his accomplishments, but don’t tell you crap about his students. Boxing teachers tell you almost nothing about themselves, instead choosing to boost up their pupils. A martial arts teachers’ resume is padded with his own accomplishments, while boxing teachers’ resumes contain nothing but students. Think about it. The big lesson from Bouie Fisher was that he was extremely proud of his fighters, and pushed harder and harder for his students to be known as the best in the business. Despite that his prized student was the pound for pound best fighter in the world for years–Fisher was relatively unknown, silent during interviews, and satisfied. Talk about selfless commitment to the role of a teacher…

And let’s keep in mind two things. First, Fisher did not have a lot of fighting experience. He had fights, yes. But he had to cut his fighting career short, so what experience he was able to accomplish, he used as a base for his theories about fighting. His system was mostly untested, by professional fight standards. Secondly, his method represented an older school of fighting. As fighting became more mobile and based on points, rounds became shorter, and the fighting rules were more concerned with safety–many of his methods were being considered outdated. But worse–they were considered inferior to the new methods, which were becoming known for efficiency and less prone to being countered. When he retired the first time in the 80s, Fisher joined the ranks of boxing trainers whose methods were obsolete. Then someone suggested he took a look at an up-and-coming lightweight named Bernard Hopkins.

Bernard had lost his first fight, and was entering the fight game at an age most would deem too old to start a career in boxing. But he was hard-working and disciplined, and these two factors made him a good prospect for tutelage. Those of you who are teachers know exactly what I’m talking about; we all encounter physically talented, but lazy students. You can bring out hard work ethic in a student, but it isn’t easy. When you find a student who is both hungry for knowledge but also naturally hard working, baby you just hit the jackpot. Who among us wouldn’t love to have a gym full of these guys?

I’m going to stop now, because if you’re a fight fan, you know the rest. B-Hop is known as one of the craftiest, old-school fighters in the game. He had lost a few times, but no opponent had ever made him look like a fool in the ring. If you get in the ring with this man, he will beat your ass. You might beat him on the scorecards, but he will leave you lumpy at the end of the night. He is proof–at 48 years old–that old-school boxing is alive and well, and¬†relevant. Not just that, he also proof that a man pushing 50 can still defeat the young men half his age with superior tactics. Fisher’s system was not fully tested and proven, but with the right student as well as the desire to allow his student to surpass himself in skill and reputation–the master is able to see that system become a well-established school of fighting in the community. I predict that old school boxing methods will make a return to the fight game. I am personally not a fan of the flashy style of boxing so popular today.

And let’s take a look at Bouie’s fighting style, shall we?

  • The goal of the fight plan isn’t to rack up points, but to punish and beat your opponent into submission
  • Every technique must hurt and wear down the opponent
  • You keep moving so that opponent’s can only catch you with glancing blows, but
  • You stop only to fire on the opponent
  • Attacks must be delivered from a position where the opponent has trouble seeing the attack as well as
  • Being out of range of a possible counter
  • Keep the feet near the opponent, but keep the angle of your torso away from his line of fire
  • Kill the body with body shots
  • And deliver those body shots from a position that protects you from counter
  • Apply constant pressure on the opponent, anytime he is not punching you should make him eat punches
  • If a split second passes at the end of the opponent’s attack and he is withing range, make him pay for it
  • As soon as your combination attack is complete–move away.
  • Defeat your opponent by keeping him out of balance emotionally and psychologically
  • Rather than move back and forth, move side-to-side
  • Attack your opponent when he attempts to change positions
  • Punch outside of rhythm. In other words punch before stopping your feet (which 99% of fighters do), so your attack will come while you move
  • Block with your elbows and shoulders, not with footwork (compare this to the Ali shuffle/Roy Jones Jr dancing)–it keeps you in range to fire back
  • Within 2 – 3 seconds, shots should be delivered to both head and lower body
  • Attack the hip and the front of the shoulders. It keeps the opponent from being able to punch as well as move his feet. This is an “investment” that will pay off later

There is more to the strategy, but I think this is plenty for you to take in.  I would like to encourage you to check out some old fights and see for yourself how these theories look in application. You may want to add them to your own arsenal. Thank you for visiting my blog.