In part one of this trip down memory lane, I talked about my beginnings in training and ended with some stuff about competing. Let’s take it up from there.
As I didn’t have a Sanshou trainer, I was always on the lookout for information on how to be a better fighter. As a result, I automatically started looking at other combat sports which eventually brought me to muay Thai. The first fight video I ever bought was a tape (remember VHS?) of the epic battle between Rob Kaman and Ernesto Hoost. 5 rounds of insane intensity and neither one of them backing down; I was hooked.
Even though at the time there wasn’t a huge selection available, I read all the books and watched as many videos on the art of eight limbs as I could find. I then drilled the techniques and concepts I learned over and over, both in solo training and during classes. To be clear, I never became a real nak Muay because I adapted the Thai techniques for the Sanshou format I competed in. It might seem weird to reverse engineer techniques like that but back then, there was very limited information on Sanshou and even fewer experienced coaches.
Another factor is that traditional Chinese arts usually aren’t very practical for competitive fighting with rules and protective equipment. I’ve seen loads of people try to use them on the Lei Tai or in the ring and usually fail miserably. There are always exceptions of course, but I don’t see the point in tinkering with techniques that were never meant to be used in a competition format until you can squeeze them into that mold. Modern muay Thai being just that, it was the most interesting source of information and inspiration I found. If anything, it improved my kicking techniques. They weren’t bad per se but there’s nothing really quite like the bone-crushing power of muay Thai’s circular kicks, especially the leg kick. Until you’ve been hit by one of these, you don’t know the raw power involved or how to handle it.
Not that I’m down on muay Thai’s punching techniques but I don’t think there’s anything Western boxing can’t teach you on that front. Elbows is another matter…
For a variety of reasons, it’s been a long time since I went to a muay Thai gym to train. Mainly because there’s less of a need for me now asI no longer compete. But primarily because I got fed up with having to do all-out wars for sparring sessions all the time. As soon as I came into a new gym and they noticed I had some training, people would want to test me. In and of itself, that’s not a big deal but there are limits to it and when the teachers don’t enforce these limits, things turn ugly. A couple of times, I injured training partners because they wouldn’t take it down a notch when I asked them to. On a few occasions, I came close to doing serious damage because I was getting fed up with guys trying all the dirty tricks in the book to put me in the hospital. I don’t mind sparring hard and banging it out in the ring but it has to be done with the right mindset. There’s a huge difference between sparring all-out and sparring all-out with malicious intent. The latter is when bad things happen and it gets old really fast: I don’t need to take a third elbow in a row to my spine to know that it hurts or that you’re willing to break the rules.
Nowadays, I just want to stay healthy and train as long as I can for the rest of my life. Getting lasting injuries by doing macho-bullshit ego contests is not the way to achieve that goal. So I usually only train with people I know I can trust not to pull that kind of shit on me.
Muay Thai is in many ways “The one that got away” for me as far as martial arts is concerned. In another context, it would have been my primary art but things didn’t turn out that way and with no regrets on my part. I still think it’s an amazing martial art and everybody should spend at least a few years learning it. It will definitely shape the way you view fighting in the ring or cage; it sure did for me.
Tai Chi Chuan
About 15 years ago, I worked in a gym with a client where we’d do part conditioning, part kickboxing sessions. After a while, the owner mentioned that if I liked martial arts, I might like the Tai Chi Chuan class he hosted. I replied I wasn’t really into that because it was old folks who did that (yeah, little did I know…) and I was a fighter. He said “Nono, these guys fight.” so I decided to give it a try.
I remember going to the class the first time and feeling like an incompetent fool. I’d been training very hard for over 10 years already and thought I was hot shit. But doing the slow form showed me just how tense I was and how little coordination and control over my body I had. It was an eyeopener.
The next “Aha!” moment came when we did free style pushing hands. Here’s me doing that during an open mat session last year, along with a brief explanation on what it’s about:
Back to the story: I pushed hands with everybody and basically got owned. I was stronger than most people there but that only worked against me: the harder I tried (the more muscle I used), the faster I ended up on my butt on the floor. I vividly remember pushing hands with a guy much, much lighter and smaller than me and being unable to break his balance. What’s worse, he had no trouble at all tossing me around like a rag-doll.
My first reaction was something along the lines of “WTF?!”
My second reaction was telling my ego to stop being so hurt.
My third reaction was “If that small guy can do this, how cool would it be if somebody my size could do the same thing?” along with a deep desire to learn this art.
I enrolled in the class and for the last fifteen years, I’ve done exactly that: trying to learn everything my teacher and his teacher know. I’m nowhere close to that goal but I’m happy to see I have made some progress since those early days. And I thoroughly look forward to the coming years of study and training.
Training with Dan gave me some exceptional experiences and crucial insights in martial arts in general and Chines arts in particular. Over the years, he’s been criticized by many people (most of whom never met him though…) but I never had any problems with him and thoroughly enjoy his company outside the training halls as well. I hope to one day get near his skill level, though I fear I never will. It’s one of my great regrets in life that I’m not in a position to train more with him.
The question I get asked the most about Tai Chi Chuan is if it works in a “real” fight.
The short answer is “Yes.” The necessary tools are definitely there.
The slightly longer answer is “It depends on how you define “real”. If by that you mean an MMA match, I don’t think tai chi techniques are the best solution for that. If you mean a civilian self defense situation, then yes, I think it sure works there.
The politically incorrect answer is “Not the way most people practice it.” This is probably the most accurate answer of them all.
I took up Tai Chi Chuan with my teacher because him and his students clearly showed skill beyond anything I had at the time. But also because the self-defense techniques focused on evasion, footwork and not fighting force with force. They handled especially this last one in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Sure, most systems claim doing this but when you look at their actual techniques, they’re just crashing and bashing all the time. Not so in the style I practice, even though it sometimes looks like it. I discovered a comprehensive curriculum that is versatile and practical, something I often found lacking in the other Chinese arts I’d practiced and seen. For the last 15 years, it’s been the art I trained in the most and the one I’ve found to agree the most with my personal mindset and views on violence. I plan on continuing my training until I die.
Here’s a clip of me doing a pushing hands competition in Sweden, back in 2003
The most common criticism I get on my Tai Chi Chuan (aside of “You obviously have no idea what Real (TM) Tai Chi is!”) is that I use muscle all the time when people look at my size and assume that’s all at I’m doing. I don’t really look like the archetypical image of a small, gray-bearded Chinese master who radiates oneness with the Tao. I never will either. Because I don’t fit the profile people have in their head for a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner, they immediately discard anything I do as muscle. I used to respond with:
“If all I use is muscle instead of “internal power” like you claim to use, then it should be very easy for you to beat me. Given that the art is all about using an opponents strength against him.”
For some weird reason, they rarely take me up on the offer to show me the error of my ways. The few who have claimed foul afterwards because I didn’t play by their rules of “I can do anything I want but you can’t.” and fail to see why they’re veering off into Lala-land.
Today, I just shrug and move on. I know when I’m using muscle and I know when I’m not. I know when I get it right and I know when I’m messing up. I also never claimed to be a master of the art, let alone any other arts. Besides, if I suck so bad at it, why are you wasting your time on me? I didn’t ask for it. So please let me lie in my pool of ignorance and I’ll continue to happily train my Neanderthal Tai Chi Chuan.
Pentjak Silat and Kuntao
Not so long after I started my Tai Chi Chuan training, a dear friend of mine introduced me to South-East Asian martial arts, in particular Pentjak Silat and Kali. We started training together and even though I had my reservations about certain aspects of these arts, I continued training hard with him. I didn’t get hooked on Kali but Silat struck a chord with me. There was something about the brutal efficiency and strategy that I liked a lot. But the real click happened when I read Bob Orlando’s first book: Indonesian fighting fundamentals: The brutal arts of the archipelago It was perhaps the first time I ever read a book on martial arts that was well structured and exceedingly clear in explaining both the techniques and concepts involved. What’s more, it made perfect sense to me.
I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Orlando over to teach seminars at my school on several occasions and found that besides being an exceptional teacher, he is also a great person to have as a friend. Aside of all the Kuntao he taught me, I more importantly learned tons about how to be a good teacher. I believe that this is one of his most unique skills: teaching. I hope to one day be as good a teacher as he is.
Bob accepted me as a student and I try to train as much as possible with him. Living on another continent makes this difficult though. Not having the possibility to train more often with him is also one of the biggest regrets I have in life.
With his unique blend of Silat and Kuntao, combined with his structured approach to teaching, I discovered a system that is brutal and efficient with a pure focus on self-defense. On the surface, it might look like a traditional fighting art but when you practice with Bob, you quickly discover he’s laser-like focused on street application. Just like with my Tai Chi Chuan teachers, you have to actually feel what he does to you instead of just watch what he’s doing. Here too, I speak of experience in that even those movements that look innocently relaxed are much more painful to receive than you can imagine by watching a video.
Here’s a video of him going slow and relaxed on me during one of the seminars here in Belgium.
When I first put this video online, a lot of people missed the fact that he’s demonstrating here. He’s showing each part of the technique clearly by pausing long enough for the camera to get a good view of what happens. Don’t let that fool you into thinking he can’t speed it up or hit harder. Having been on the receiving end of his techniques more than enough, I know for a fact that he can effectively apply what he teaches. Even when he holds back, it hurts plenty so you don’t want to know what it feels like when he takes off the kid gloves.
Over the last 25 years, I came across many different martial arts and teachers. Some of them were great, others sucked blocky nuts and everything in between too. I’m not going to go into it too much here because I don’t see the point. But to be complete, I’ll add the following:
- Karate. A handful of lessons that I didn’t enjoy. The Japanese rigid etiquette just isn’t for me, I prefer the Chinese way.
- Wing Chun. A few months with a teacher who didn’t like me. I didn’t have a problem that he made sure everybody in class but me made progress and hardly gave me any corrections. I did mind that he started badmouthing me behind my back. So I left, no regrets there.
- Shootfighting. I liked it a lot but the teacher moved his classes elsewhere. I occasionally train with other people still but not enough to make much progress. In part I regret this because I like the art but my plate is pretty full already so I’m OK with being an enthusiast more than a seasoned practitioner.
- Combatives. If anything, what I learned is close to the WWII combatives systems. These were mainly private sessions with people who have used their training effectively while serving their country in some capacity. Always a humbling experience to learn form them.
That’s pretty much it for part Two. In part Three, I’ll talk about Combat Sanshou, Self-Defense, writing and making videos.