This year will mark the 25th year of martial arts training for me. Looking back at it now, it’s been one hell of a ride so I figured I might do an overview here. Thinking back about all this, I was forced to do some introspection and faced some of the more unpleasant experiences I’ve had. I hesitated mentioning certain things for a variety of reasons. In part because some of the people involved are still alive but mainly because there’s no need to rip open old wounds. On the other hand, I also don’t want to lie by omission or leave it to people who weren’t there to fill in the blanks. So I tried to give an accurate account without ruffling too many feathers.
I hope you enjoy reading my “memoirs”.
I started with Judo and Ju-Jitsu as a teenager because my best friend at the time trained in a dojo that taught these two arts. I didn’t know much about anything then but it looked cool. The classes were a mix of both arts in that you had a curriculum for each and had to pass for each part during belt tests. Looking back on the training, it wasn’t all that practical but it taught me how to do break falls, for which I’m still grateful today. Most of the techniques were trained in a format that didn’t really work well for self defense though. But I didn’t know any better at the time and I enjoyed the training a lot.
I made it to orange belt before I quit. The reason I quit was not because I didn’t like to train anymore, on the contrary. Here’s the story.
Chinese martial arts
During the Summer holiday, there was a funfair in town and I was having a blast playing video games in the arcade. One of my fellow students at the dojo walked by and told me there was going to be a Kung fu demonstration that day. I figured it could be fun so I went to check it out. Little did I know how it would change my life…
The teacher who did the demo, Mr. Jean-Louis Gonsette, was a pioneer of Chinese martial arts in Europe and the term “old school” certainly applied to him. He wasn’t a big guy but his body rippled with rock-hard muscle and his eyes held a gleam of cold steel. A little while later, I learned he was a famous bouncer and he’s still one of the toughest men I know.
The demo started with students showing self defense techniques, pretty classic stuff really. But then it was time for the teacher to do his part and he saluted his partner for a choreographed fight. Both men started punching and kicking each other at full speed and pretty much full power too. (As I would later learn when I did similar demos with my teacher, if you didn’t block or evade a technique, you got nailed real hard.) This went on for a while and I watched in fascination. The most impressive part was when his partner slammed my teacher to the ground with a full-on hip throw. In and of itself, no big deal. Except for the part that the demo was outside in a gravel parking lot instead of on judo mats… My teacher just bounced right back up again and continued the fight. Not a scratch on him.
I signed up the week after and studied with Mr. Gonsette for a very long time.
The style I studied, Hung Chia Pai was a Southern style with loads of low stances and an emphasis on arm techniques. The training was tough and challenging, with an hour-long warm up filled with calisthenics and then another hour of actual class. Even though I always came home exhausted, I loved it. I learned to take punishment and fight through pain. I also learned some basics that still serve me to this day. Again, there’s nothing special about that. But compared to my previous training, it was an eyeopener.
I eventually stopped training in this style for a variety of reasons. A large part of this was the curriculum: the more experience I got outside of the training halls, the more I found certain parts incompatible with my training. I’m not saying everything was bad, only that I felt conflicted about certain parts in the curriculum and couldn’t keep training those things without having to alter the curriculum significantly. At the time, I didn’t feel it was my place to do so, so I moved on. I still occasionally train in this style and find a lot of value in it, especially after having learned so much elsewhere. But it is no longer where my heart lies and I’m also getting too old for some of the more dynamic aspects.
From all the people who I started out with at this school, as far as I know, I’m the only one still training in martial arts.
The next key moment was when I started competing full-contact at the age of 18. I’d already done some forms competitions in which I did those choreographed fights but that wasn’t really my thing so I decided to step into the fight game.
My first competition didn’t go all that well. The called my name all of a sudden so I didn’t have time to warm up for my first fight. I was lucky that my opponent wasn’t very good either so I leg kicked him as hard as I could a bunch of times and the referee stopped the fight in my favor. I walked off the mat feeling great that I won but a few minutes later, I started feeling excruciating pain in my legs, especially my shins. A little while later, I could hardly walk. Later I learned my shins were not conditioned enough for the power I had put in those leg kicks, but then and there, it was too late to do anything about it.
The next fight, I don’t remember anything about it anymore. It’s one big blur inside my head. My corner man later told me I gave out three punches or kicks for every one I took. At one point, I was apparently lying on top of my opponent on the floor, still punching as hard as I could (ground and pound was not allowed in the rules) with the referee blowing the whistle right next to my ear and pulling me off. I don’t recall any of it. I won the fight and as we walked off the mat and back to the warm-up room, the whole audience booed me. I didn’t hear a thing. Years later, I’d learn about auditory exclusion as an effect of adrenal stress.
I eventually made it to the finals and lost on points. Turns out the guy’s teacher was the referee for our match. Which explains why he got away with kneeing me in the groin without getting disqualified, but I digress. I got a nice silver medal and went straight to the hospital to show it to my father who was in chemotherapy. I remember seeing him smiling at me in the hallway outside of his room as I limped up to him. When he saw the medal, he cried and was proud of me. He died three months later, a few weeks before I won my first national title.
I ended up competing internationally and had a blast with that. I traveled the world and got to fight against some really good fighters. I lost to some, won against others and got a bronze medal at the world championships at the height of my career. As cool as that may sound to you, I never considered myself to be particularly great as a Sanshou fighter. Not that I was bad, I was OK. But there were many, many fighters who were way better. However, I’m proud of the titles I won because I didn’t get them for free:
Belgium is a small country and the Belgian Wushu Federation had very limited means. We didn’t have a national trainer to coach us all the time. In fact, I never even had a trainer to teach me Sanshou, I had to figure it all out by myself. That meant I made tons of mistakes but also that I kept on looking for more information and better ways of doing things. This made me a better teacher eventually but at the time, it would have been great to have a coach to help me out. With more support, I might have made it further. But we’ll never know, I guess. I’m not bitter about this, not at all. At one point in my life, I was unhappy about it but I moved on and made my peace with it long, long ago.
Here’s a fight from 1999. Not all that impressive when I look at it now…
As my fighting days came to a close, (I was about to get married and planned on having kids) I got offered the job to train the national team. I took it and enjoyed certain parts of it. Others, like the politics and constant knives stuck in my back, not so much. Eventually, I left for those reasons and haven’t looked back since. I still teach my Sanshou classes and those who want to train with me there are welcome. But I’m no longer interested in working in an environment that sucks blocky nuts.
That’s it for part one. In part two, ‘ll talk about discovering muay thai, tai chi chuan, self defense and a lot more.