Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bring It On!

     One day, as I was walking up to the building where I conduct my Yiliquan classes,  I noticed two of my die-hard students standing outside talking. One of them was relating stories which I had told him about the legendary karate master, Mas Oyama. I joined the discussion and provided them with perhaps a few new insights into the man and the nature of real martial arts as opposed to much of what we see today.

Speaking of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Challenge).........

    In the mid -1950's, Masutatsu Oyama was very interested in popularizing karate in the U.S. With a well-known judo teacher named Endo, he toured 46 states and gave dozens of demonstrations. However, he also utilized another ploy to gain recognition while also demonstrating the great power of his art. He would set up a boxing ring and a prize of $1,000 was offered to anyone who could prevent him from knocking them out for 60 seconds!

     That's right. Sixty seconds.

     A thousand dollars was a great deal of money in those days (probably comparable to ten or even twenty times that amount nowadays). And Oyama would happily take on all comers. He engaged several professional wrestlers as well as the usual street-fighting "tough guys" and even professional boxers.

     Nobody ever collected the money. In 46 states.....!

     Oyama would later say this his toughest opponent was a pro boxer; not because the boxer could hit hard (although I'm sure he could), but because his quick footwork enabled him to dance away from Oyama and avoid his sledgehammer punches. The time limit was getting close and Oyama hadn't been able to hit this fellow once! So he feigned exhaustion and the boxer sneaked up in the hopes of landing a solid punch (by the way, no gloves of any kind were used in these bouts).
     Imagine the fellow's surprise (and horror) when Oyama snapped up and struck him with a reverse punch. End of fight. Oyama's striking knuckles were the the stuff of legend and he only needed to land one blow to end a confrontation. It would be quite literally akin to getting hit with a couple of ballpeen hammers.

     While we all enjoy such stories and imagine the scenario of dozens of "tough-man" Americans doing their best to cold-cock this little Japanese guy.....and receiving a religious experience instead, we need to bear in mind that this is not too far removed from today's "UFC" bouts. Except that nobody ran around in little tights.... And yet, we no longer see this kind of formidable technique.

     We watch contestants from every kind of martial discipline compete in these events.  From Jujitsu to Sumo to Karate and Kung-Fu to just plain tough streetfighters, they all jump in and give it a whirl. I see karate stylists being tackled and beaten. Kung-Fu stylists are pinned to the floor. Sumo practicioners are beaten to a pulp.


     What ever happened to real martial arts?

     I don't have to guess at what would happen if a young Oyama walked into that ring. After all, he was the first to do it in the U.S. and he never lost a match. Unlike the young Brazilian jujitsu exponent who won a few UFC events (by the way, his family owned the event at the time), Oyama fought and won several HUNDRED matches. He performed in 46 states. If he only fought five opponents in each state, that would give him 230 bouts!

     And he never lost. He never won on a TKO (Re-read the deal above - he had to knock you out or you'd get the money). He knocked out every opponent! Every one.

     Why don't we see this kind of skill nowadays? Two reasons that I can think of......

(a) Those who posses it aren't going to jump into a circus and show it off. That's not what they're about. 


(b) Very few people are willing to train that hard nowadays.

     Oyama trained very, very, very hard. For years. Throughout his youth he trained with the intensity of a man possessed. He did a thousand sit-ups a day along with a thousand push-ups. In his weight training, he would bench press his own body weight once for each year of his age...three times a day or more. Instead of a standard striking post, he used young trees (sans padding) and would strike them 1,000 times with each hand every day...until the tree died and then he'd find another one. He did his forms dozens of times daily. He meditated under ice-cold waterfalls, ran several miles daily, and practiced forms in cold streams in waist-deep water. This kind of training he endured for three years while he lived alone on a mountain.

     When he came back to civilization, he wanted to test the strength of his thrust and he struck a large streetlamp post. He was disappointed because it only swayed! He'd hoped to break it. Imagine THAT punch striking you in the face. It'd only take one.

     Oyama never studied boxing. Or wrestling (although he was quite good at judo). Or homemade karate forms. Only traditional karate. And he never lost.

     So to our UFC people who insist that "traditional" martial arts don't really work, I have this to say.....


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Traditional Way

      In a recent conversation with an old friend I was told that within the past few years there has been a movement back towards "traditional martial arts."  However, a senior student told me that, in his opinion, many of the "traditional" schools aren't really training in the "traditional way" anymore.  Huh. 
     Even more recently, I was congratulated on being able to trace my martial arts lineage.  I've never been much of a stickler for establishing one's pedigree because in the long run it doesn't necessarily mean much.  I've known a good many "blue bloods" who weren't worth a damn when the chips were down and more than a few "mutts" who I'd be more than happy to have on my side should a situation ever go south.
     When I served as National Chairman for the AAU Chinese Martial Arts Division I traveled the length and breadth of the U.S. and met a good many of the nation's foremost kung-fu "leaders."  Naturally, all of them could trace their lineage back to the nth degree and many of them looked down their noses at anybody who coudln't.
     Now, I've always been pretty much a pudding taster - like in the saying, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."  Purebred or not, what mattered to me then and what matters to me now is whether or not a practitioner can make his stuff work.  Does he really know what he's doing and can he make it work or is he just going through so many empty (but traditional) movements?  Therein lies the truth of it.
     I also recently read an editorial in a martial arts magazine that stated that "bending the truth" about the
origin of one's martial art system is actually considered traditional in the Orient.  The author was right.  I mean, look at some of them:
  • Zhang Sanfeng (Chang San-feng) is said to have originated the art of Taijichuan although there is no concrete evidence that he even existed.
  • The founder of Baguazhang (Dong Haichuan) allegedly learned his art from a Daoist hermit who was living up in the mountains.  This is a favorite fable and many kung-fu styles point to enigmatic hermits as the originators of their arts.  It makes you wonder if there was some kind of conspiracy going on with a bunch of hermits...
  • Xingyichuan points to the legendary general, Yao Fei, as it's originator.  This is a second favorite fable.  Yao Fei is revered throughout China and although he died at a fairly early age, he's been given credit for having originated several kung-fu schools, including Eagle Claw.  Very creative fellow...
  • In Japanese martial arts, more than one school of swordsmanship credits their origin to ghosts or goblins who, for some obscure reason, decided to teach certain warriors their special technique
      And so on-
     I'm reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", when King Arthur is trying to explain to a group of peasants just how he became king...that Excalibur was given to him by the Lady of the Lake.  And the peasants make disparaging remarks about why it's not logical to base a system of government and leadership upon a story wherein "some watery tart lobs a scimitar at you..."
     Hilarity aside, they have a point.  As funny as that entire scene might be, we, as martial arts enthusiasts, base entire martial arts systems on similar tales.
     Now, I'm not going to say that these kinds of things can't happen.  I know that they can.  BUT -  let's try to keep these stories to a minimum.  In Asia, lineage - the past - is everything.  Confucianism, which spread all over the Orient, stresses the importance of one's lineage (whether it's one's family lineage, martial arts lineage, or whatever) and subsequent obligations to ancestors.  
     So.  Back to the point I was making at the beginning of this lecture... I believe that a "traditional" school should practice in the "traditional way", more or less.  I think that that's what makes a school traditional (or not), regardless of their actual lineage.
     Certainly, it's fine to employ training methods that may not have been used back in the day - but the old ways of training and the attitudes involved therein are what made the martial arts what they were and what they should be.  Our martial arts ancestors didn't have the nicely made heavy bags that we enjoy, nor did they have many other pieces of modern training equipment.  If they had, they almost certainly would have used them.  But it's the spirit with which they'd use them that makes the difference.
     To me, it's the spirit in which training is conducted that determines how "traditional" a school may be - not the sheepskin upon which a lineage is written.