The Tai Chi Debate : MMA vs. Tai Chi

Posted in Discussion Question, Mixed Martial Arts, MMA, Self-Defense, Taijiquan, Training with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2017 by Combative Corner

Lately Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) has come under fire and is now (as if it hasn’t always been) labelled as “The Flowery Art” – one without much practicality or effectiveness in the ring or the streets.  As an avid listener to Joe Rogan’s Podcast, The JRE, I am often in agreement to many of the discussions.  In this recent episode (#962) with retired Navy Seal officer Jocko Willink, there was much that I was in disagreement with (see video clip below). There are several factors Joe (and many others) must understand…

First… the video that everyone is talking about! [warning: violent content]

The 3 Tenets

  • Any “fight” does not a “street fight” make
  • Whether a fighter wins or loses has more to do with his/her training over any “style” or “discipline”
  • The training of any effective fighter must be directed towards common street attacks and (hard-to-predict) changes in such things as: social and environmental cues, level of aggressiveness/intensity, and opportunities of “unfair play” (i.e. eye gouging, groin strikes, etc).

It should be obvious that martial arts (including Taijiquan) came from a more violent time and its movements were designed to protect, subdue or kill.  Over the years (some may argue) as we evolved into a more civilized society, we (in the Taijiquan world) re-directed our focus to health and wellness.

Who is going to argue, especially if you live in a non-violent area, that martial arts training is best (or more beneficial) if you train it for health? Therefore it comes down to the need (for survival) and/or personal preference.  Can you do both?  Absolutely.

We’ve all seen Tai Chi for health.

But what is Tai Chi for “the streets?”

Does it exist? And if so, what does it look like?

First off, while some people DO “Choose to believe that there are secrets/magic” (as Joe Rogan mentions), there are many experienced Tai Chi practitioners that understand that fighting works on the same plane of existence as everything else.  “Rooting” is not magic, nor is “directing ones Chi”…but I digress.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying “It all can be boiled down to 5 simple steps”… however, for the benefit of time simplicity and brevity, I want to make these points known – especially to those that don’t understand the (internal) martial arts.

Intent

  • You must have intent.  You must have intent to do damage.  This is the main thing that the traditional martial artists of Taijiquan will likely object to, because the singular practice of a combative form may (depending on the person) develop a propensity towards violence.  This quickly brings to mind a not-so-old saying that is grounded in truth- “What we think about, we bring about.”  The often peaceful intent of a Taijiquan brings a sense of inner calm, a harmonizing of mind and body and enhances the likelihood to resist the urge to make altercations physical.  This important point of “intention” training, and devising a “go or no-go” plan to initiate leaves a lot to think about on a personal level.

Hitting (Explosively)

  • You must have the ability to hit explosively…what we in the internal arts call “Fajin.” In order to do this, internal arts excel, because it is rooted in “sung,” the ability of the body to release energy from a soft, relaxed state.  This was what I believe Bruce Lee was talking about when he described the “Gongfu punch.” It’s less mechanical, like many strikes you see in Karate and Tae kwon do… it’s more elastic – applying a snapping, yet penetrating power.  Anyone with a high skill in fajin (and obviously finding an open line of attack) will easily dominate in a one-on-one encounter.  One key note on training is that structure is essential and one shouldn’t practice moving explosively without understanding and finding the proper structure from which to release the strike.  This is one of the main reasons that Taijiquan is performed and often seen as a “slow, ineffectual, flowery” art form.  Remember, learn structure and technique before you concentrate on “fighting.”

Multiple Attackers

  • Today’s street fight is seldom mano-a-mano.  If you are not sucker-punched or thrown off balance suddenly without you first knowing, I’d be surprised.  Going back to intent…part of our trying should be directed in fighting and maneuvering tactically in a multiple attacker situation.  Forms or katas should include movements or practitioners need to practice individual drills that help to replicate this type of environment and chaos.

Calm through Chaos

  • It’s a great label, but most of us will never “calm” in a street fight.  However, all arts (if we are to call them “martial” arts) should be pressure tested.  These pressure tests can and should be done quite safely at first with a steadily growing intensity.  If one only does forms and katas, there will never exist a true understanding of fight dynamics and your level of skill in dealing with them.  As our experience, confidence and skill level grows…the more likely we will be able to deal with adversity.  As in the “controversial” video (posted above), China should not be upset with the conclusion.  Clearly the taijiquan “master” was unfamiliar with dealing with chaos.  Personally, I’d choose Ren Guang Yi to represent the combatively-capable taijiquan fighter.

True Grit

  • Lastly, if one intends to survive a street fight (all luck aside), one needs grit.  “Grit” is the emotional and physical fortitude that presses on when confronted by an obstacle.  Grit is courage and resolve and without it.. you are frail and destined to lose.  Can some train grit?  In my opinion, yes.  I believe grit can be built with a combination of training using: violence-prevention drills, gradual pressure-testing of these drills, physical techniques, and sparring.  The experience that we accumulate will produce confidence (not blind faith), and confidence in ourselves will be transferable to ourselves on and off the streets.

Joe Rogan talking about MMA vs. Tai Chi

Ultimately, in regard to the martial arts we choose to study, we have to make up our own mind.  I’m more apt to say “Train wisely” over “Choose wisely.”  After this article, I hope you are.

LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

COMMENT BELOW

 

10 Questions with John Painter (Part 2)

Posted in 10 Questions, Baquazhang, Internal Arts, Internal Development, Martial Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by Combative Corner

starting with Question #6…..

If you had the opportunity to train with 3 masters (living or dead) who would they have been and why?

As far as “no longer living” teachers I suppose that I would have been interested in studying with Sun Tzu the author of The Art of War, with Lao Tzu author of the Daodejing and with Wei, Boyang author of the Can Dong Qi. As far as living contemporary teachers not to insult anyone, but I have no interest in studying with any martial artist alive today. The reason is simple. My teacher gave me a lifetimes worth of material in which to try and attain skills.

The Li family arts are so rich, deep, unique and profound that it is far and away more than I can comprehend let alone master in one lifetime. Their methods are complete arts for mind body and spirit. They have been tested in the fire of reality, and they work in everyday life and in real world combat. There is no reason to clutter it up with other concepts and ideas as Shifu Li used to say, “No put legs on snake, he just fine way he is!”

Today I see so many martial artists studying a laundry list of arts and methods from different teachers, magazines, YouTube, books and videos and few if any of them seem to be as proficient as those individuals that began studying before this onslaught of information was available. Most of the truly knowledgeable and highly skilled in the Chinese martial arts that I have know have been those who focus on just one method from one teacher or at least they gain a high level of proficiency in one system before trying to learn another. I suppose flitting from one art to another provides some feelings of accomplishment for others but it is not for me.

My personal view is that to strive for perfection one needs to devote a majority of time to that one method. For me as I am a loyal student and also a slow study. So it is important to train in ones chosen method 24/7 that is, in the traditional school setting (Wuguan武館) for formal training at least two hours or more six days a week.

Next it is important to take the art out in the real world to practice the philosophy and the physical movements so they become your way (Dao) in this way ones art will never become stale or boring. The art becomes who you are not something you do when you dress up in your uniform to play Gong Fu Wushu in the Wuguan or on the tournament floor. Training in this way the arts will not desert you in even the most stressful battle situations and yes, as a former bodyguard and law enforcement tactical instructor there has been more than ample opportunities to “test” the Li family methods in the real world.

My old Gong Fu friend and Baguazhang cousin Johnny, Kwong Ming-Lee used to call the art developed by people who flit from one teacher to another platypus Gong Fu. When I asked him why he called such training by that name he replied, “Has beaver tail, fur, pouch like kangaroo, web feet, duck bill no one knows what the hell it is!” For me his platypus Gong Fu line about sums up my attitude on training with too many teachers or in too many arts.

During my career in Chinese martial arts I have met and become good friends with many high level practitioners and teachers some who really had or still have great skills. I have shared many happy hours with Master Jou, Tsung-Hwa, Master B.P. Chan, Master Henry Look, Master Liang, Shouyu, Dr. Yang, Jwing Ming, Dr. Daniel Lee, Shifu Johnny, Kwong Ming-Lee, Bruce (Kumar) Frantzis and many others.

Let me be clear not one of these people mentioned were my teachers they were friends and colleagues many of whom possessed or currently have great knowledge and skill. I have had only one teacher of Chinese martial arts, Daoism and Philosophy and that was Li, Long-dao and that is far and away enough for me. My other teacher or Asian descent was for a brief period with Lama Trangu Rinpoche of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He interested me in the deeply spiritual and crazy wisdom of Dzogchen practice which fits nicely with Li family philosophy called acceptance of the way (Xinfu Dao信服道) based on Daoism and Buddhist philosophy.

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How often do you personally train and what does it entail?

Today at age 72 I am still training six days a week. I believe in a combination of mind, body and spirit training to stay healthy and vital into my “middle” age. The martial routines listed below will be carried out for two months then the art will be changed to Taijiquan as the focus for two months and next Xingyiquan for two months then back to Baguazhang. Here is my basic routine.

Monday – Wed – Friday

6:00 am

Meditation from Tibetan Dzogchen tradition

Daoyin (Chinese Yoga) for flexibility and circulation of vital body fluids.

Yixingong Still Standing (Li family Yiquan)

Bag work striking heavy bag or speed bag with various palms or Xingyi fists

Nine Dragon Baguazhang Circle Walking (aerobic fast walking)

Select weapons training

2:00 pm

Progressive Resistance Exercise

I am aware of the ridiculous myth that some internal martial artists still cling to from the days of the Boxer rebellion that weight training (progressive resistance) will inhibit your Qi and is bad for internal power. This is a myth based on ignorance of correct exercise physiology. So Yes, I work out to gain good muscle tone, strength, speed and power. There is nothing wrong with being strong!

For this type of exercise I prefer using the Baguazhang stone spheres (Da shi qiu 大石球) along with resistance Rubber Cables. Mostly this consists of core exercises and then isolation exercises for problem areas.

Whole body core moves are first then isolations exercises for:

Back

Chest

Legs

Deltoids

Biceps

Triceps

Tues – Thurs

6:00 am

Meditation

Daoyin (Chinese Yoga)

Yixingong Slow moving to feel the connection from ground to palm (Li family Yiquan) Nine Dragon Baguazhang Circle Walking (attention on structure)

Light body training on balance beam and posts in our Bagua garden

Select weapons training

Saturday

7:00 am

Meditation – Daoyin – Yixingong

Teach instructors class which includes practical applications of each art often with full protective equipment. We train locks, throws, projections, strikes, kicks, and defensive tactics for each. We also work on weapons training and defensive tactics against weapons as well as spending some time at the police shooting range with our handguns. I often take along my antique Broom Handle Mauser guns commonly used by my teacher and his father in their work as Baobiao and trainers for Chiang, Kai-shek’s army during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Another practice we observe is inviting guest martial artist and fighters of other methods to share with us their concepts of attack. In this way we are able to study how our methods can function when confronted western boxers, grapplers Karateka, Jujitsu players and everyday street fighters.

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Most masters of the martial arts train not only bare hand but with weapons. What weapons do you train with and why should (or shouldn’t) weapons be included in ones training?

First off please do not call me master. William C.C. Chen once scolded me for calling him Master Chen at a demonstration at The Tai Chi Farm, he said the title was for someone who was dead and had nothing else to learn. Later I think his students insisted on using this title for him and he in his Daoist way just let it be. For me I am just a student who is always learning and evolving. Some call me teacher (Shifu) but in my heart I am just John Painter from East Texas.

For me combat weapons’ training is important. I believe it should not be taught to beginners until they have developed a solid structure and foundation. The Li family weapon training consists of classical and modern weapons including firearms. There are no contemporary forms routines within Li family training. It is all based on their free flow concept derived from an understanding of the Five Circles and Six Stances methods created by the founder of their family system.

So this is realistic weapons fighting with simple direct concepts for use of each weapon as a means of defense and offence. Mr. Li was fond of saying, “If you can move the hands and body you can understand the steel.” What he meant of course was that the fist and palm methods of the families Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan could be translated into weapons use. These are the weapons I was taught to fight with as a boy by Shifu Li.

Saber (Dao)

Double Sabers (Shuang Dao 雙刀)

Double Edge Sword used with sheath (Jian Yiji Jianqiao劍以及劍鞘)

Double or Twin Swords (Shuang-Jian 雙劍)

Bagua Big Saber or knife (Bagua Dai-Dao 卦大刀)

Eight Diagram Palm Twin Needles (Bagua Shuang Zhen 八 卦雙針)

Twin headed spear of Baguazhang (Shuangren Mao 雙刃矛)

Twin dragon (elbow) knives (Shuang Long-dao雙龍刀)

Long spear (Changmao 長矛)

Long pole saber of General Guan Yu (Guan-dao 關羽刀)

Cudgel or staff (Gunbang 棍棒)

Three section staff (San Jie Gun 三節棍)

Iron Folding fan (Tie-Zheshan 鐵 折扇)

Leather-thong whip (bull whip) (Pibianzi 皮鞭子)

Broom handle Mauser pistol (Zhouba Huoqi 帚把火器) yes they used guns!

Flying Dragon Fist (flexible rope weapon) (Feixing Long Quan 飛行龍拳)

Walking stick / Cane (Quaizhang 枴杖)

Chain Whip: three or nine section (Lianbian )

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What story most strongly comes to mind when you think your previous Master/Teacher?

There are three main stories. The first was when I was first introduced to him and he claimed he could make me healthier after reading my Qi pulses in my wrists. He told me to come next door to see the special exercise. When I showed up in his back yard he put me five feet from a huge lodge pole pine tree, adjusted my feet, legs and torso with my arms held out as if embracing the tree. Then he told me to just stand there which I did for about one minute until I noticed he had gone into his screened in porch and was drinking tea and reading the paper. I objected to this ridiculous assignment and he said, “Fine you not want to be better go home!” which I did.

The next day he comes over and invites me to his house saying he wanted to show me something special. Reluctantly I followed him to the steps on his back porch where he had stacked three solid red bricks one atop the other. He says to me, “You watch this please!” and he places his palm about six inches over the top brick. He gave me a big smile then, bam his palm slaps the top brick and the center one shattered as if someone had hit it with a sledge hammer. My jaw hit the floor, eyes big as saucers what I had just seen seemed impossible. The reader should remember this is in 1957 and there was almost nothing on television or in film about Asian martial arts especially in a small Texas town.

I said, “Mr. Li how did you do this. I want to do that too. Please show me how!” He says to me, “Ok very hard exercise takes much training for very long time you sure you want to work this hard?” “Yes I will do anything” I responded. “Fine you go over there look at that tree like I show you yesterday.” On reflection Tom Sawyer tricking his friends to white wash the fence comes to mind. I did become enthused to train in standing, Zhan Zhuang for a long time and by the time I realized the potential for my health problems I had forgotten or found the brick breaking of lesser import. Later he did teach us Iron Palm and we learned to break all sorts of things but that is another story.

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How important do you consider Qigong and should it (in your opinion) be included in all martial arts? Why or why not?

To circulate the breath is not the way!

The body’s fluids are not a magical water.

To ‘Guard the thoughts’ is not the Way!

How can you eat a picture of a cake?

Sexual practices are not the Way!

When the seed is gone life passes.

The newly born spirit fetus is not the Way!

What is unclean has nothing to do with true Energy.

To stop eating salted foods is not the Way!

Your food then lacks stimulating flavors.

A vegetarian diet is not the Way!

Going hungry only injures the stomach and spleen.

Abstaining from sex is not the Way!

Yin and Yang then lose their honored positions.

Let the soul be at peace and the body will right itself..”

  • Zhuang Zi

First let me say that these are my own personal opinions derived from years of practice, using what some Asians call Qigong concepts to heal injuries and overcome illness. What I have come to understand is backed up by an enormous amount of research and study of traditional Chinese medicine from its earliest times to the modern era. My goal is not to insult or offend anyone, but you asked me this question so I feel I must be honest in my response.

If used as an exercise for learning how the mind influences the body, what you term Qigong training can be very important for the health and vitality of students in everyday life and martial arts. However, if viewed as some mystical power source for the development super-natural abilities that are not in line with scientific reality it can in my view be a detriment that slows down real martial attainment. It is all predicated upon the understanding of how and when to use such methods by the teacher for the benefit of his or her students and for what purpose it is employed.

My understanding of this word Qigong is perhaps quite different from the traditional concepts bandied about today especially in the martial arts world. In my view there is a great deal of misinformation and fantasy being proliferated in books and on line about Qi and Qigong. I do believe that teachers can only teach what they know or understand, but that does not make the teaching accurate or correct. Much of what is passed off as Qigong is derived from tradition, superstition and is not based on sound science.

The traditional Chinese character for Qi is really a symbol for vapor, air or steam (). The radicals or parts of the Chinese character form an illustration of rice cooking in a stove with the invisible steam raising the pot lid. Hence the concept of an unseen force animating a material objects. The term Gong is a character that means a skill (Gong). Combine the two terms and you have air skill, steam skill, vapor skill. In the earlier times this word was simply used to mean breathing exercises that developed health. Some were stationary accompanied by visualizations or recited mantras and others were combined with moving callisthenic exercises.

Most people are not aware that the term Qigong is a relatively modern one and was not used in ancient times to describe forms of exercise for longevity and health or martial art concepts unless they were specifically breath control methods. One of the earlier terms used was, to lead and guide (Dao-yin導引) a reference to controlling the body with the mind. Dao-yin has been described as a form of Chinese therapeutic yoga or movement exercise. Today most all of these forms of movement and breathing regimens have been lumped under one term and are classified as Qigong. Frankly I prefer to use the older term Dao-yin because it more closely fits what I was taught by my Shifu.

There is also another older term which refers to healing, removing stress and improving longevity that translates as, nothing too much on fire (Wuhuo無火) this was a method of learning to dissipate inner fire (anger, frustration) through meditation or calming movements which could also be a form of moving meditation. Because this also used breathing methods it could be classified as an early form of Qigong.

A most important point that is often missed by modern day students is how much these exercises depend on using intention (Yi ) and imagination to produce desired results. One of the earliest Dao-yin aphorisms was control body with mind (Kongzhi Shenti Yi Tounao 控制身體以頭腦). Ancient Daoist master Wei, Boyang author of the “Can Tong Qi” also known as Akinness of the Three. The title is often I believe erroneously translated as the “Secret of Everlasting Life”, It is a manual for developing longevity and internal power written around AD 142 and sums up the practice of what is today called Qigong in the first chapter with the following statement.

In the end whatever you call it; it is no more than the mind and heart (Yi & Xin) and the breath (Qi) becoming as one. It is simply the Yin and the Yang influenced internally with their spirit energy entwined.”

Although it is not found in the book and I first heard this from my own shifu, Wei, Boyang is also attributed with another popular Chinese Qi aphorism about mind, body and Qi, “The mind commands the body respond and the results (Qi) follow” (Shenti qi xianghu gensui 頭腦、身體、氣相互跟隨). The very clear implication here is that one does not need all sorts of fancy rituals, forms or actions other than sincere meditation used as a form of auto-suggestion practice.

Modern neuroscience is proving that when we calm outer distractions and begin to repeatedly feel and think deeply about a specific result our unconscious mind, the control center of all internal physiological processes attempt to manifest our desires. In truth when we distill most Qigong training methods we find they all depend on using our mind to direct this energy for our benefit.

In the Li family system there are two methods that incorporates this concept. The first is, Health of Fitness Air Skill (Jiankang-qigong健康 ) here one is using the mind and breath to influence the healing, strength building and longevity of ones body. This has some bearing on martial arts as if one is not healthy it is difficult to engage in combat.

The second is combat focused breath skills (Zhandouli Qigong戰鬥力 ). This category includes meditation, Zhan Zhuang and Yixingong training. There is no circulating illusory energy through invisible lines of energy reputed to exist in the body. In reality this is an ancient version of auto-suggestion for developing speed, strength and power. This subject is very deep and not easy to fully explain in this short answer. I hope the reader is able to derive some benefit from my explanation. And as we see from the poem by Zhuang-Zi (Chuang Tzu) at the beginning of this question the true way is to “sit and forget” meditation is the most powerful Qigong for all practices including martial arts in my considered opinion.

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Bonus Question

As a former bodyguard and combat specialist, what exercise drill, technique (from your studied systems) or human skill/quality do you consider to be the most important for self-protection and why?

Our company American Rangers Martial Law Enforcement Institute® (ARMLETI) has been instructing the instructors for corrections officers, law enforcement, military and private bodyguards for over 25 years. We specialize in tactics ranging from hand to hand, baton, Taser, Pepper Spray and knife as well as PKC Pistol craft, small arms and long arms. So we have some practical experience in realistic street survival. www.american-rangers.com

For self protection there is no question, the first thing one must develop is situational awareness. Next one has to understand the terrain that is, what are the advantages and disadvantages to the area where you are at the moment. How many escape routes are available, where is cover available, what things around you can be used as a weapon. These two concepts should be trained and drilled until they are second nature they should become your first line of defense. These things are right out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. One should make a careful study of his methods and apply them to single and multiple combat not just large scale military maneuvers.

Next you must have the will to survive no matter what the cost in injury or pain to yourself. Not everyone has this ability. I have seen some tournament fighters in street fights fold to the ground after having a finger or arm broken as if waiting for the bell. There is no bell in the street or in an alley so you have to learn to keep going, you have to learn that it is all on you to survive. Without that mindset no methods, tricks or martial tactics will serve you when the enemy is bent upon your demise. So mental toughness must be the first thing one develops and then fighting technique in my estimation.

After this physical fitness in terms of stamina, reaction speed and the ability to generate explosive power are very important. Aerobic training, progressive resistance exercise should all be a part of the regimen for the professional bodyguard or LEO. All the techniques in the world will be of no avail if the body is not properly conditioned to move with speed and power. Qi will not save you from a good butt whipping in an alley full of skin heads. If you believe otherwise please be my guest, test it and then let me know how that works out for you!

In Closing

Let me say it has been a privilege to be asked to participate in the activities of The Combative Corner I hope my answers have been clear and instructive.

Thank You.

John P. Painter PhD. ND

Captain American Rangers Martial Law Enforcement Training Institute

Director of The Gompa center for internal art studies

For more information on John Painter, visit The Gompa.

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10 Questions with Dr. John Painter [Part 1]

Posted in 10 Questions, Baquazhang, Internal Arts, Martial Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by Combative Corner

If you were anything like me, you were a big-time reader of Inside Kung fu Magazine.  That is where I was first introduced to the likes of many martial artists whose passion and dedication was to bring the arts of the Far East (particularly) to North America.  People like B.K. Francis, Erle Montaigue, Paulie Zink, and Dr. John Painter (just to name a few).  These Hall of Famers helped to pave the way for many of the instructors teaching today and it is truly an honor to receive Dr. Painter’s 10 Questions.  So detailed and generous his response – I decided to break the interview up into a part one and part two. Enjoy!

When did you get started in the martial arts?

I knew nothing about any martial arts when I began training in post standing (Zhan Zhuang 站 樁) and Breathing Skill (Qigong 氣功) with Shifu Li, Long-dao in East Texas about 1957. The Li family claimed to be from Sichuan province China having lived there for many generations. For reasons unknown to me Li, Long-dao and his father Li, Zhang-Lai moved to Beijing. During the final days of the war according to stories they worked as combat trainers for soldiers fighting for Chiang, Kai-shek 蔣中正 in the Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 – September 9, 1945).

The war was a military conflict fought primarily between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. The Li family seeing that there was little hope of being victorious left the area and within a few years immigrated to the United States first to New York City and then to a small Texas town where they opened a restaurant and found me and two other young boys whom they chose to learn their art. They found their way to Texas after not finding a happy reception in New York’s Chinese community. Li, Long-dao took his family by train headed for San Francisco California.

On the train from New York a strange set of circumstances caused The Li’s to end up in Longview Texas instead of San Francisco quite by accident, providence or fate. When the conductor called out “coming to Looongview” (the name of the town) Shifu Li thought the man was saying dragons view town as the word for dragon (loong 龍) in Chinese is pronounced long.

Thinking this an auspicious sign he ushered his family off the train and set out to make a home in “dragon view village” Texas. He persisted during our association to insist the town of Longview was a place with great wind water energy (Feng Shui 風水) even though it was explained to him that the town was named because of a very high hill near the center of town where the founder in the 1800’s had say, “there is a very long view from here.” One should be wary of trying to change or correct a high level Gong Fu masters opinion!

My studies began around 1957. Shifu Li thinking his family system would become extinct made the decision to teach me and two other neighborhood boys his traditional arts after his son rejected the “old school” teaching in favor of playing Texas football. So you might say this was Shifu’s way of being passive aggressive towards his sons abandonment of their traditions. We trained every day after school and on weekends for at least two hours per session. This lasted through my first years of college. Then in 1969 Li, Long-dao wrote two letters one in Chinese and the other in English naming me his adopted son and the heir to their family system.

In truth I had no thoughts of teaching martial arts in 1969, as I was busy studying psychology and theater at Texas Tech University with plans to be an actor in film and on stage. My boyhood hobby of stage magic and escapes like Houdini became my profession after college. During the early 1970’s I went to work performing in the Dallas night club scene and also at Six Flags Over Texas as a magician and western stunt show gunfighter.

After an episode in a night club where I was able to stop a shooting incident, the intended victim a very wealthy Dallas socialite hired me as her bodyguard and this began another twist in the long and winding road of my career. It seemed as if my martial arts training kept surfacing as part of my life that I could not ignore. Word got around at Six Flags about the occurrence in Dallas and from time to time I was asked by the security department to guard celebrity guests. These included Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers and Helen Reddy.

In 1972 things had become difficult at Six Flags. I formed a partnership with a stunt man from Six Flags who was into Japanese Jujitsu but also learning the Li family methods from me and we opened the Kung Fu Tao Training Center in Arlington Texas, the first Chinese martial arts studio in Texas. Within the first year my partner and I had a falling out over moral issues and I bought him out taking the school over as head instructor.

Working as a bodyguard continued for a couple of years. I worked for many Dallas elite and two prominent night club owners, both Italian and well connected if you get my inference here! There were many adventures in the USA, Caribbean and Mexico that allowed me to hone my martial skills with hand, knives and guns plus developing a high level of threat awareness.

But finally after being hit in the neck with a pool cue in a waterfront bar in Pensacola, shot in the left hand in Texas, stabbed in the side in Mexico (you should see the other guys) and after the birth of my daughter my wife convinced me that while I was very good at my job protecting some rather dubious characters, taking a bullet for someone else might not be the best choice for a new father. She kept quoting the line from a Dustin Hoffman film “Little Big Man” “You better watch out Mr. Merryweather they are whittling you down, quit before you loose all of your parts.” After some consideration on losing body parts or leaving a fatherless child behind I chose to begin concentrating on teaching the Li, family system full time giving up the life of a bodyguard.

The protective work did help me come to understand the reality of street combat survival which is quite different from what goes on in the sports world or martial sparring ring, and for that knowledge I will be forever grateful. Later this same skill set stood me in good stead when in 2002 some law enforcement friends and I formed the American Rangers Martial Law Enforcement Training Institute (ARMLETI) to train the trainers for law enforcement, corrections officers and private bodyguards in combat shooting and defensive tactics.

Over my years my Gong Fu school has undergone three changes. First it was called the Kung Fu Tao Training Center where we taught traditional Chinese martial arts, Daoist yoga and Qigong along with weapons training, massage and herbal classes. This stayed open from 1972 to 1983 when we needed to move to a better location. We opened the Wholistic Fitness Center in 83 to take advantage of the new age movement which pretty much fizzled out in the South. The 1,400 foot center was state of the art with meditation rooms, library, training hall, student lounge, offices and a photographic development studio (pre-digital).

The center ran from 1983 to 1995 when we moved to our current location The Gompa Center which is the ideal setup. We have a secluded area not in a commercial building with an indoor training hall outdoor Baguazhang training garden, light body training area, Baguazhang nine post and Yin Yang Bapanzhang ten post areas plus a large Taiji deck and a bunk house for our out of town guests. We named it The Gompa, as Gompa is a Tibetan word that loosely means place of quiet study and that is exactly what it is a place for serious internal art students to learn and grow in the Li family arts. www.thegompa.com

What particularly drew you to the art of Baguazhang?

Although in later years it became my favorite internal martial art and health exercise I was not particularly drawn to Baguazhang in the beginning. As a part of my earlier health training I was given the assignment of walking in circles around a big pine tree in the back yard while practicing breathing exercises (Qigong氣 功) to help what Shifu Li called my dark mood (Qingxu情緒) a Chinese word for depression. At 13 I had been diagnosed by western doctors with what for want of a better term they called bio-chemical depression which was contributing to my immune system problems.

So after hearing this and examining my meridian pulses I was given a special diet by Shifu Li and the edict to walk around the big pine tree in a circle every day for one hour. As mentioned in a previous answer this was the dancing dragon breath energy skills (Long Wudao Qigong 龍 舞蹈 氣功). That was the beginning of my introduction to the Li family style of Baguazhang called nine dragon eight diagram palm (Jiulong Baguazhang九龍八卦 ). It was not long after starting Li family Bagua Qigong and then the martial training that I began to see a vast improvement in my health and energy levels from which I attributed to this strange practice of walking in circles.

I believe I began studying Li family combat methods of Jiulong Baguazhang in 1959. The system is unique in that there are no formalized forms to memorize. It is based on practical proven combat principles executed while walking in straight lines and then around a circle. Later the student learns to maneuver around nine circular patterns based on the Yijing magic square design. At the time we were learning these methods I am pretty sure there was nothing written in English on any Chinese martial arts and absolutely nothing on Baguazhang especially not in a small East Texas town.

Unlike some other Bagua styles in Jiulong Baguazhang each of the eight “palms” is not just a hand position but incorporates whole body attitudes of mental energy and movement related to the book of changes (Yijing易經). Palms are studied individually for their ability to express neutralization force and defensive actions including locking, throwing and striking. When each palm is understood then the eight are combined and used interchangeably. This allows them to produce hundreds of defensive and offensive combinations for every type of conceivable attack.

The reader should note that this was and is a method used by protective agents and as such is a truly martial system never meant for aesthetic or tournament display. Although there is a method of what one might call Qigong within the system it is for health and longevity not martial prowess. Within the combat methods (zhandouli Bagua) anything esoteric or mystical was discarded as being too impractical for combat applications. In later years when I became a bodyguard these methods saved my life in more than one altercation dealing with multiple opponents both unarmed and armed.

 

I’d like to know more about the Li family, where they came from and how Taiji came into their family.

I make no claim as to the authenticity or historical accuracy of the stories told to me as a boy by my Shifu. So if there are mistakes it is entirely due to my faulty note keeping. According to the information I was given by my Shifu Li, Long-dao the family lived in Sichuan province for many years. Mr. Li his father Li, Zhang-Lai and grandfather Li, Ren-ma had been highly respected bodyguards / wagon masters (Baobiao 保鏢) in Sichuan Province.

Here is what I was told as to the background of the family and their arts. As to Taijiquan the first incarnation created by Master Li, Ren-ma was based on the founding principles of the Taijiquan Classics as written by the creators of the art. After studying Chen and Yang styles master Li distilled their essence into a single form blending them with concepts already practiced in their family arts into a method containing nine moves. Li, Ren-ma used the following nine moves from classical Taijiquan in his form: Ward Off, Roll Back, Push, Press, Shoulder Stroke, Elbow Stroke, Slant Flying posture, Punch Below Elbow and Dragon Stamping Kick. His form was called Willow Taijiquan (Liushu Taijiquan柳樹太 ).

Master Li, Zhang-Lai introduced a different idea and became famous for his ability to use only the four pearls (Ward-off, Rollback, Press and Push) AKA grasp the birds tail, as his combat methods. These were what he called the four treasures with void standing (Wuji Zhan Zhuang無極站 樁) being the fifth treasure. He called this Five Treasures Grand Ultimate Boxing (Wu-Bao Taijiquan五寶太 極 拳). In this form there are five separate pre-form opening movements to awaken the relaxation energy (song) and prepare for whole body power movements (Zhengti-jin整體) and five core movements repeated on both left and right sides. They are Ward Off, Roll Back, Press and Push.

I learned both the willow and five treasures methods, as a boy but it was the Wu-bao Taijiquan that became my primary focus. As a judge for international Chinese martial arts competitions during the 1980’s I have been obliged to make some study of every know system of Taijiquan although I cannot say I have any deep level expertise. I also briefly studied Chen style from Chen Xiao Wang to examine the Chen method of generating pulsing force (Fa-jin發勁) and Yang style from Yang Zhenduo to understand the pushing force (An-jin按 勁) from that system. These were explorations so as to help me better understand the roots of the Li family concepts derived from both styles. For myself I have come to the conclusion that the Wu-bao Li style is all I need for health and self-defense applications.

As a student, was there anything within the internal martial arts system that posed problems for you or that you had to adapt to?

I suppose it would be the rigors of learning under the tutelage of a stern task master who brooked no back chat. With Shifu Li failure was never an option, in any form. He was a strict disciplinarian. You received few compliments for things done correctly. You heard quite a bit when things were done wrong. Ask a question once, it was answered politely, ask it again a short answer with perhaps a demonstration was given, ask a third time and you possibly would be picking yourself out of the dirt. He seemed to believe that he was preparing us for life or death survival and took the training very seriously. If you look in a Western dictionary under “Tough Love” there would or should be a photo of Li, Long-dao. Although at times he had what Tibetans call a streak of “Crazy Wisdom” in that if things got too intense he could break the tension by doing some pretty strange antics. So I would say that in dealing with him there was a bit of culture shock.

It was all new to us and very foreign even perhaps a bit exotic, but we did not question what we were learning and not so much from fear of the third question rule, but more from awe and respect for our teacher. I feel the reader should also realize that during the 1950’s there was a different mind set than what we see in young people today.

Children were taught to be seen and not heard, there were no computers, video games, cell phones or other distractions. We had books and television for entertainment in those days and these along with our parents, teachers and church instilled in us a sense of etiquette and good manners. Television shows modeled polite children, violence was not graphic.

The adventures of Superman (one of Mr. Li’s favorite shows) with George Reeves taught us about, “Truth justice and the American way!” We had heroes who righted wrongs, protected the weak and innocent, they took care those who could not help themselves. There were no anti-heroes. There was a clear sense of good and bad like Yin and Yang. That was the American or at least Texas way in those days and it fit right into the concepts of the Li family bodyguards’ adherence to martial conduct or martial virtue (Wude武德).

What do you say about Bagua (or any of the “internal styles”) in regards to it’s effectiveness in combat?

This is a difficult if not tricky question to answer. As far as Baguazhang goes in modern times in my view it has become a splintered art divided up into many incarnations. Some versions of the art have become so watered down by modern sport Wushu interpretations designed for tournament form demonstration that they are practically useless for true self defense. This is also true of Taijiquan and Xingyiquan where the demonstration versions and compulsory routines often contain wide stances and movements that biomechanically cannot generate much in the way of true whole body power or kinetic force.

Some of my friends in China tell me that when martial arts was for a short time outlawed during the reign of Chairman Mao there was such a hue and cry a sports ministry was formed to allow a watered down state approved version of martial arts to be used as artistic expressions but not true martial arts. Stances were deepened and changes were made by the then governing body to insure that these arts were aesthetically pleasing but of little real combative use. Over time it proved that many of these alterations were particularly damaging to the knees and especially to Western players as the Caucasian bone structure in the knee is a bit different from that of our Asian brothers and sisters.

Over time much of the original prowess of these arts diminished, traditional masters took to the hills to hide out others fled the country to South America, Canada, Europe and some to the USA others threw in the towel and joined up with the governing body. Over dinner one night I asked my good friend Madam Wong, Ju-rong daughter of the famous Wang, Zi-ping one of the most skilled fighters in all of China, why she was teaching the watered down Wushu methods to Americans, surely she was free to teach what she liked now that she was in the land of the free.

She looked at me for a long time, leaned across the table and whispered, “Because I still have family living in China!” So today the major players in the West of Chinese martial arts are from the contemporary Wushu group and another group only plays for health concerns while the smallest number of Chinese Gong Fu mavens concentrates on the old school methods for health and realistic fighting skills. We are few in number but I think those numbers are growing.

As to Baguazhang, Dong, Hai-Chuan the alleged originator of the art Rotating Palm (Zhuan zhang ) later to be named Eight Diagram Palm (Baguazhang八 卦 掌) was purely interested in combative methods especially during his tenure with the Emperors palace guards and later when he taught outside the walls of the palace. Although some sources say he did not teach the palace guards his Baguazhang reserving that for inner door students on this the historical jury is still out.

As far as fighting efficiency it is said that Dong would only take students who were proficient in other martial disciplines and had experience with combat methods. Each of his students would then be taught to use the palm as a main weapon along with circle walking and rapid turning methods called single and double palm changes. As his students came from different disciplines each was taught to adapt his previous fighting skills to three main concepts. The first was using palms as a main weapon instead of the fist. The second was in applying these methods while circling and turning to make the practitioner a hard target.

This was introduced in the methods called single and double palm changes and the third was in walking around facing inward on a large circle to create very adroit footwork. Even with these similarities the art took on different characteristics as some specialized in throwing (Shuaijiao摔跤) tactics while others focused on locking and holding skills (Qinna擒拿) and still others on specialized striking skill (Da-gong打功) and so on.

For this reason there are many variations or interpretations of Dong’s methods. However originally all interpretations were about realistic combat methods and they involved many levels of training that one might call cross-training today. Early Dong Baguazhang students learned the circle walking and palm changes but there were no long memorized forms. The forms were based on principles and were often a series of martial tactics linked in a certain order then re-linked in another order over and over again until the student could move freely and spontaneously. There was no such thing as a compulsory routine which is not conducive to learning free flowing self defense tactics.

There was also some light body training (Qing-gong輕功), Stone Sphere training (Da shi qiu 大石球) a type of progressive resistance exercise using stone spheres of varying weights and sizes for developing what we call core power today. More advanced level students graduated to the Nine Palace training (Jiu Gongdian九宮殿) where one walked or ran around nine posts set in the earth representing multiple opponents. There were also forms of combat drills with Baguazhang push hands exercises, application drills and eventually some sparring methods were also employed.

Although there are exceptions to everything in my view a majority of today’s modern so called internal martial arts seldom contain much more than some elaborate dance like forms to be memorized, push-hand games, mysterious often unintelligible instructions about the invisible Qi energy and through all this the students are given the erroneous impression that this is enough to defend oneself against a serious physical assault.

The old school training was far more than a long set of dance routines and some push-hands and Qi magic. These old masters were rough and tumble men who used such methods to survive life and death altercations. Today in my opinion there are less than a handful of people who have had these old school methods passed down to them from teachers who were real fighters not tournament jocks, but men who paid their dues on the streets of Beijing, Hong Kong, Canton and other cities in the golden age of Gong Fu in China.

I would like to point out also that these modern day keepers of the “old school” flame are working to preserve the spirit of these arts for future generations. It is from them that anyone who really wants to understand how to use Taijiquan, Baguazhang or Xingyiquan should study. This is because you cannot learn to swim from someone who has never been in the water! Many attempt to teach what they call self-defense with these arts with no more practical experience of real combat than push-hands games or some tournament sparring.

The gap between a controlled environment and a deadly attack on the street is a huge yawning chasm. To try and teach such methods without practical experience is teaching theory based on belief not reality. This is my view is a reckless and dangerous attitude that could possibly cost a student dearly in a real attack.

PART TWO COMING SOON!

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10 Questions with Ismet Himmet [video]

Posted in 10 Questions, Internal Arts, Kungfu, Martial Arts with tags , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by Combative Corner

Ismet Himmel is a masterful teacher of Wudang Principles and teaches from Hainan, China.  He has many wonderful training and workshop clips, forms and other videos available on his youtube channel.  Typically, we send our questions and the interviewee returns the answered questions in writing.  This time we were very fortunate and happy to see that Ismet, took the time and effort to put his answers to video.  Enjoy.

For more information on Ismet and WDP-China.

Visit there YouTube, Facebook, or website.

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10 Questions with Ty Gay

Posted in 10 Questions, Jiujitsu with tags , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by Combative Corner

What was your journey into the martial arts like?

I started around the age of 9 or 10 in a karate program at the YMCA in the small-town of Shawnee Oklahoma for a month and then later joined a taekwondo and Hapkido School and eventually received my black belt in both arts in 1989.  In the 90s I took a break from martial arts to pursue my musical career and at that point started playing in local bands and eventually moved to Oklahoma City to play drums for one of the more popular local bands at the time.  Around 1997 is when I met the band Tool and their singer Maynard James Keenan.  I also was fortunate enough to meet Maynard’s bodyguard at the time who ended up being Henry Akins.  Henry at the time was a blue belt under Rickson Gracie (now the third American black belt) and was getting dropped off of the tour in Oklahoma where his family lives.  We exchanged numbers and he came over the next day to my house where we ended up training on the carpet.

I will never forget how magical those moments were and how blown away I was by the techniques.  Me and Henry became immediate best friends and remain friends until this very day.  Because there were no Jiujitsu schools around me or even in Texas at that point I started training at a reputable judo school called USA stars.  USA stars was not just a judo school, it had all sorts of wonderful martial artists, teaching everything from Thai boxing, filipino arts, Japanese Jujitsu, combat jujitsu, judo and MMA.  Around 2002 I received my black belt in Combat jujitsu.  In 2002 I also started training with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Leonardo Xavier and by 2007 was a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  Although I loved the sport aspect of Brazilian jiujitsu it was much different than the Jiujitsu I was first shown by Henry Akins.  As a brown belt I left my association a little bit disillusioned and in search of the original art I had fell in love with in the late 90s.  In 2009 Rener Gracie came to my school and did a seminar.  I knew at that point I had found what I had been looking for.  I have been following him and his brother Ryron ever since.

I received my Gracie jiujitsu black belt from the Gracie Academy in 2013 and it is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

 

How do musicians balance all that they have to do with their training?

It’s hard but you find time for the things that you love.  There is now even a Facebook group for touring musicians that allow us to find the schools that are most receptive to our training schedules.  There is also another click that me and my rock ‘n’ roll friends who train have created which is called Rockjitsu!

One day I have a vision of my band (EVERYBODY PANIC!) doing a huge show or even going on tour with other like-minded artists such as Tool, Trivium, Powerflow, Five finger death Punch, King 810, Nothing More, Dragonforce, Travis Barker/blink 182 and many others with hopes of making it a charity event with a huge seminar early in the day taught by different members of the bands who train and then later that night having a huge rock ‘n’ roll show🤘🏼

It might seem like a crazy idea to most people in the music industry but I always have a knack for making crazy ideas work – so I’m cool with it.

 

You and Jennifer are “Double Threat” (Gracie pun). How has her influence improved you?

[speaking of Jennifer Gray, Interview]

She is my rock and my muse.

Jennifer is what a truly strong person looks like.

Without her I would be truly lost.

Because of her I’m not only a better practitioner of the art of jiujitsu, I am also a better practitioner of Life.

 

There has always been a lot of talk about gi jiujitsu and nogi jiujitsu. Whenever we see pictures of you, it’s always with a gi? What is your general feeling about the gi and its use?

I love training with the Gi but I also love training without it.  There are many aspects to this beautiful art so I try not to limit myself.  Gi, No Gi, Gi with gloves, No Gi with gloves, weapons, Close quarters, flow rolling… the list goes on and on and all of these things are important to me.

I also think it is important to train one day a week as if I am 70 years old in preparation for the day where my “young guy moves” are no longer efficient.

 

In a purely self-defense situation, what (in your opinion) are your 3 most reliable techniques.

  1. Verbal Jiujitsu
  2. Situational awareness
  3. Distance management

 

How did you come to form Redline JiuJitsu and what was that experience like?

In 2004 is when I officially started my Academy.  I was pretty intense back then so the name redline comes from the tachometer on a race car.  I feel very fortunate to have had the first Brazilian jiujitsu school here in Edmond, Oklahoma and still be around today.  I used to be a sprinter but now I am more of a marathon runner when it comes to my philosophy of jiujitsu and even business.

 

As an owner, business man and instructor of a Jiujitsu school, what is the most important lesson that you’ve learned?

95% of everyone who I have given free tuition to never valued the program and ultimately left the art.  At the same time you cannot put a price on the ability to know how to keep someone from taking your life in the worst case scenario, so I do not charge people for jiujitsu, instead I charge them for the things that I need to live and to create the environment to transfer this priceless information.

 

As the lead singer of a heavy metal band, how to do injuries, sore pipes (from chokes) and such affect your performance or the way you structure you days?

Injuries typically do not affect me at all because I just don’t get injured that often.  The reason for this is because I have no problem being tapped out by someone and I also have no problem taping fast (my defense is pretty good too).

 

What are Ty’s musical influences? (and are they the same artists that he plays when training?)

Tool and Nine Inch Nails are two of my biggest influences in music, but to be honest I really love all music.  As for playing things at the Academy we typically restrict it to music with no words. (any genre)

During the last chapter of the blue belt test the student is required to free roll with me or one of my instructors and during this five minutes we typically play Meshuggah (bleed) because of how it can immediately induce anxiety.🤘🏼

 

If jiujitsu didn’t exist, what other martial art might you have gravitated towards and why?

Judo, the reasons should be pretty obvious

 

Bonus Question

What are Ty’s top 3 future goals; now or far in the future?

  1. Financial freedom
  2. Help more people reach their full potential through the medium of jiujitsu and music
  3. Stay on the mat forever

FOR MORE ON TY, JENNIFER AND REDLINE JIUJITSU

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10 Questions with Nick Evangelista

Posted in 10 Questions, Fencing, Martial Arts, Swordsmanship, Training, Weapons with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by Combative Corner

Everyone in the fencing world should know who this guy is.  I came across him when I first took up fencing and although I’ve never had the opportunity to be taught by him, his teachings, description of fencing history and theory, and vision of what fencing is and should be have stayed with me through his books; The Art and Science of Fencing, The Inner Game of FencingThe Encyclopedia of the Sword and others.  For his more recent writings and for more information on the man and his thoughts, visit his fencing school’s blog; EvangelistaFencing.com.  Now, without further ado…

How did you initially get drawn into fencing?

When I was growing up in the 1950s, fencing always seemed to be in front of me. In movies and on TV, and in books. When I was around 14 years old, The Three Musketeers was my favorite story. Any and everything with swords got my attention. Fencing seemed so exotic and otherworldly. I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world, and I wanted to learn how to do it. I didn’t have any idea how this would come about—I didn’t know any fencers, or where there were any fencing schools–but somewhere in the back of my brain, I had a feeling I would one day fence. In the end, many things conspired to lead me to fencing. Actually, I sometimes think fencing chose me rather than the other way around. I should add, though, that it was not an easy union. I had to work hard for everything I’ve accomplished.

People don’t often talk about injuries in fencing, but have you sustained many injuries and if so, how have you dealt with them? 

I’ve been fencing for 47 years, and I have never had a serious injury. Nothing beyond the normal bruises, welts and scrapes. When I was learning to fence, I was taught balance, timing, and distance. Basically, I was taught to control my actions. My background is a traditional fencing game. Falcon Studios was peppered with former champions. No one gave an inch. Everyone fenced hard. It was very competitive. But it was fencing, not the running, poking school of bipedal joisting. The fencing I learned is the same fencing I teach my students, and in 43 years of transforming everyday people into fencers, I have never had a student injured beyond the aforementioned bruises, welts, and scrapes.

I have been injured by everyday life, though. Broken body parts, and the like. And I have most certainly had to adapt my fencing to these hurdles. One of my most challenging injuries was having my right hand—my fencing hand—crushed in a car door ten or so years ago. I remember the sound of crunching celery as my metacarpals were being reduced to puzzle pieces. How did I deal with this intrusion to my fencing? Actually, I just kept teaching, because my fingers weren’t broken, and that’s all I needed to maneuver my foil. With every personal injury I’ve had, I just keep teaching, adapting to the situation, until I heal up. Fencing is what I do. Of course, I do not recommend this regimen to anyone else. Today, for me, old injuries regularly suggest impending bad weather.

     Side-question: what are the most common injuries that you’ve seen fencers come across?

Outside my own fencing sphere of influence, the injuries I see most in modern fencing are to the knees and ankles. To me, whatever the level of the fencer injured, these problems imply poor training, a fencer lacking proper balance. For all outcries to the contrary, there is something to be said for good, old-fashioned fencing form: an attack with a straight arm, measured foot work, timing flowing from the fingers, the free arm being employed for balance. No silly leaping, no over-extended lunges, no toe-to-toe jabbing, no feet going in ten directions at once. It doesn’t surprise me that so many fencers are being injured in the modern fencing world. The only place where chaos turns into order is on page one of the Bible. Everywhere else, it leads to serious problems.

Your books are a staple to any fencing library… however, it has been a while since you’ve published.  Will we see you authoring more?  Or are you switching to articles and blogs?

I published my last book in 2001. At the same time, I was the Fencing History editor for Encyclopedia Britannica. I also published Fencers Quarterly Magazine. Since that time, I have gone to college, earned a BA in History, and am now in the process of finishing my Master’s in History. Lots of writing there, but on topics dictated by educational requirements. More fencing books? I have at least five in my head. Plus, I have my website, where I can pursue short term fencing ideas that interest me. I have a number of options, but I need to get my Master’s Degree out of the way first.

I’ve read that you’ve always been against the pistol grip, however, in looking at pictures of your personal foils, I’ve noticed that your grip is heavily taped. What is the purpose behind it?

Since you mentioned pistol grips, no, I don’t like them, and I don’t let my students use them. They are incompatible with the requirements of the traditional French School of Fencing. Also, I should mention, for those who are too young to remember the 1980s, that the FIE medical board recommended in 1982 that pistol grips be banned from fencing as dangerous. But that is neither here nor there, so I will now jump off my soap box, and return to the subject of binding French grips.

When I was l learning to fence, French grips were wider than most of the French grips I see today. Hence, they were easier to hold onto. So, I build mine out with three or four winds of sports tape. I would not call this “heavily taped.” It does not change the shape of the French grip in any way, nor does it change its intended usage. It merely makes the grip wider and, hence, as I said, easier to grasp. This, in turn, substantially improves the fingering potential (doighte), which has always been the hallmark of French weapons. The sports tape also provides a superior gripping surface than plastic, rubber, or even leather. Some fencers do not like having their leather-bound grips covered with cloth tape, but I believe that function always, always, always takes precedence over esthetics on the fencing strip. Just the same, I do not force this onto my students.

Do you still compete?  If not, do you still fence “hard?”

No, I have not competed since the 70s. My business is teaching. My fencing master once said to me, “You can be a great teacher or a great fencer, but you can’t do both at the same time. I teach because that is what I enjoy the most. But I do fence with all my students who have graduated to bouting. I fence with students who come to me from other salles, as well. I do not hold myself aloof from the world. And, yes, I fence hard. You never let anyone win. Acting as a brick wall is the only way to pull the best out of a student. Anything less than that is a lie, and gives the student a false sense of confidence. They have to earn their touches. Mastery is forged in opposition. Skill is earned under fire. I learned this at Falcon Studios more years ago than I care to think about.

What training aides and/or specific exercises have helped you or your students best?

I think what helps my students the most is continual one-on-one lessons with me, which includes mechanical lesson and regular bouting. There is always a continual dialogue that runs through these sessions, which allows the student to apply critical thinking to their situation. My ultimate goal is to produce creative, independent fencers, who can easily function in any fencing situation without my assistance.

I also employ aspects of Behavioral Psychology in my teaching. Let’s face it, when you teach someone to fence, you are obviously attempting to modify their behavior. If you know specific techniques, this can make the procedure much easier. When I was an undergrad in college, and minoring in Psych, I wrote a 56 page study on the use of behavioral techniques in training fencing students. By the way, they work well.

When picking a weapon… how do you know which weapon is for you?

My recipe for knowing which weapon is for you: Start with foil, and fence it for a year. Foil will teach you the fundamentals of fencing thought and behavior, which are embedded in its conventions. Year two: add epee, which will hone your timing, point control, and judgement. During this time, shift between epee and foil. Year three: Add sabre. Sabre always comes last. It is the most divergent from the other two weapons. But, here, you can easily integrate the point control of foil and epee into sabre. In this third year, fence all three weapons. At the end of the third year, you will not only have a solid grounding in each discipline, but you will also know which weapon speaks the loudest to you. Unfortunately, many students coming to fencing want instant gratification, and immediately pick the weapon that seems the coolest to them, and many coaches will let them do this. I say, “Oh, well…!”

There has been a lot of talk between French vs. Italian methods.  What (in your opinion) are they talking about and is there any advantages or disadvantages choosing one over the other?

The two traditional schools of fencing are the Italian and French. The Italians began developing systematic fencing systems first during the early 16th century. This, to take the place of armor that was being abandoned in the wake of firearms. The French became serious about establishing their own approach to fencing during the 17th century, chiefly because they liked neither Italian fencing masters, nor their theories of swordplay.

Although there are today structural similarities between the two fighting systems–the Italians having borrowed from the French at the end of the 19th century to establish a more cohesive method of operation–the philosophies of the two remain widely separated by temperament. The Italian system primarily stresses the dynamics of strength, speed, and aggressive manipulation. To physically dominate opposition is its goal. The French approach, on the other hand, is built on finesse, economy of motion, and strategy. The well-versed French fencer looks for ways around his opponent’s strengths, rather than meeting them head-on. To my way of thinking, this makes the French school more flexible and creative than the Italian, which tends to be more dogmatic. I might also add that the French school, with its non-confrontational approach, easily fits a wider range of physical types and demeanors. This means, you do not have to be the strongest, or the fastest, or the most aggressive fencer in town to win.

In order to bring hits back to a more realistic place, some classical schools have used point d’arrets.  What are the pros and cons of using these? And are these something you’d ever recommend for your students?

When you have the proper spirit and training, fencing is fencing. The best fencing is an internal expression. As far as I’m concerned, the point d’arret is a “classical” affectation. Period.

If you had a moment to recollect your favorite on-screen sword fight (of all-time!) what would it be and why?

This is an easy question to answer. My favorite movie duel of all time is from the 1940 Mark of Zorro, between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. To me, it is the most balanced and cleanly executed sword fight ever produced. Also, it is carried out without any background music, something of a rarity in filmed action. But you don’t really notice this lack, because the sharp ring and changing tempo of the clashing blades more than fills the gap. It is a wonderful sword fight.

Runner up: The final duel between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). If the Zorro duel didn’t exist, I would pick this one. In all other aspects, I think Robin Hood is the superior film.

One more plug: I also recommend the fencing in the French movie, On Guard. It is one of the best modern swashbuckler films I know of. All the sword fights are superior, the story, based on an 1858 French novel, is interesting, and it even has a wonderful, though anatomically flawed, secret thrust. A good movie to own a copy of.

Bonus question

If you had the chance to train with one Maestro, living or deceased (besides ones you’ve previously trained with), whom would you choose and is there any particular reason why you’d choose him/her?

Maybe Madonna as the fencing master in the James Bond movie Die Another Day? Why? She dressed well.

Actually, I’d choose Domenico Angelo. I would just love to pick his brain, and find out what made him tick.

Harry Angelo, Domenico’s son, would be my second choice. Same reason.

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10 Questions with Benjamin Bowles

Posted in 10 Questions, Fencing, Swordsmanship, Weapons with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by Combative Corner

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What got you interested in swords and fencing?

I’ve been interested in swords and weapons since childhood. It was fascinating to me to see swords, which are clearly implements of harm, sit only a room away from fine art in museums. I couldn’t have told you back then but my fascination with weapons is because they represent the half of the emotions we wrestle with and suppress. They represented the physical aggression, conflict, and violence my upbringing was fortunate to be without, but emotions I was familiar with. That made them foreign yet familiar, and always stirred my interest.
I began fencing in college on a whim. I looked for a physical education class to fill some credits and saw “beginning fencing”. Having played with toy swords growing up, I thought I should try learning how to use them. I developed a lifelong passion since.
What were your main obstacles in building Benjamin Arms?
Manufacturing 19th century weapons in the 21st century was more difficult than I imagined. Mainly, the industrial processes common then are now rare, artisanal, and expensive (i.e. forging, casting, leather working, etc). Many of the processes have been lost to time, too: The steel recipes and heat treating techniques for blades were closely-guarded guild secrets in Solingen and never published; The species selection, curing technique, and drying process for fish leather is a mystery.
Through arduous research I’ve been able to finding the artisans, manufacturers, engineers, and materials for my weaponry, though it sometimes takes years.
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What part of your business do you enjoy the most and why?
Resurrecting weapons! For instance, I’ve spend the last 2 years studying Italian epee design, construction, function, and materials and just finished a few weeks ago. After so much work sourcing materials & prototyping I got to resurrect a weapon detailed by a fencing master from over 100 years ago. I had his book on my desk and my reproduction in hand. The work gives me pride, and gives honor to the masters of the past.  www.BenjaminArms.com
What part of the artistry do you enjoy the most and why?
I enjoy working with Italian weapons the most because they require more skill to build. I feel Italian foils and epees are really demonstrative of my expertise and unparalleled craftsmanship in classical weapons.
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Your niche requires you to know a lot about fencing history. What resources and travels have helped you the most?
I could not have built this business without my apprenticeship under Maestro Ramon Martinez and Maestro Jeannette Acosta Martinez. They provided the constant stream of weapon specifications and construction techniques I needed to make sound weaponry. More than that, though, they taught (and continue to teach me) how to fence. Fencing systems will explain the purpose for each weapon’s design, and I could not make them without knowing how to fence.
Secondly, to continue improving I’ve been researching traditional construction techniques since the beginning. Sword construction is not a widely written about topic, and most highly specific questions remain unanswered: what are the period techniques for ornately etching sword blades? How were 19th century fencing blades heat treated? How do you produce sharkskin leather for grips? This led me to amass a library of reference books and articles, but also to travel to some of the major knife and swordmaking capitols of Europe. I traveled to Solingen, Klingenthal, and Thiers last year to collect and document as much information as I can. You can read more about the visits to those cities and my research on my website.
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How have you been able to model your business from others?
You’ll find parallels of my business in many niche markets, though I’ve modeled my business from fencing equipment suppliers of the past. Castello Fencing Equipment Co., Joseph Vince, Souzy Paris, and Serafino Gnutti all sold a variety of fencing swords and accouterments. Its always been my intention to provide the same diversity and quality as these past manufacturers.
Why do fencing blades have a cant, and when was that implemented into the weapon? (part 2) Many sport blades are also angled inward, is this too, a modern invention and why?
It depends on the system of fencing, as French weapons are canted and Italian are not. The answer lies in the purpose of these “weapons.” Foils (in the French school) were not designed as exact, yet blunted replicas of the sword but rather tools to teach the principles, dexterity, and movements required to use the sword. For example, French figure 8 guards teach the student to sufficiently turn their weapon and place the guard against their opponent’s blade when defending or attacking (in accordance with French fencing theory). The fencer must learn to manipulate the figure 8 guard to be successful fencing with it (that is to say they learn the system by using the correct weapon). That learned manipulation is the goal of a foil’s construction.
The cant on a French foil serves the same goal. When given a straight canted foil, a beginner will not be inclined to widen the lateral positions of sixte and quarte. They will instead fence with their hand towards the center because a straight cant encourages that. A straight-canted foil also won’t point toward their adversary when properly executing French hand positions; they will fight against the foil to do the technique properly! If a student develops the ability to use a canted figure 8-guarded foil, then they’ve learned the principles of offense and defense needed to use a French dueling sword or French smallsword properly. It’s been this way for a long, long time.
In short, French weapons are canted because French fencing technique requires it. Learning any system of fencing requires the tool designed for the task.

You’ve recently switched from selling complete weapons and parts, to just complete weapons. Why the change?

On the business side It was quite expensive to stock the parts and materials to make such highly customizable weapons. For each single sword I had to stock all the possible guards, leather colors, blades from various producers and at various lengths, pommels, and much more.
Concurrently, I noticed disturbing market trends which reminded me how quickly, without vigilance, classical fencing can turn into sport fencing, and customization may have been helping. Customization in part allowed for individual interpretation of (and deviation away from) 19th and early 20th century fencing technique. Because the tool and the application are dependent on each other, I determined it best to no longer customize as the survival of historically accurate technique depends on historically accurate weapons.
We know that fencing plays a big role in your life and businesses. How do you incorporate your personal training in such a busy life? 
The work-life balance is always difficult for business owners. Assembling the swords takes no time compared to web-design, product design, client communication, part re-orders, bill pay, business licenses, sales taxes, etc. I’m very lucky, though, that I also run a fencing school in San Francisco called the Golden Gate School of Arms. This means I still get to fence regularly and know exactly where I need to improve.

What does your typical day look like?

It starts with lots of coffee. My coffee maker is the most important tool I have. Sometimes morning coffee is the only reason I’m excited to go to sleep. The day proceeds with clerical work before heading to my workshop in the afternoon. There I saw wood, polish metal, and advance my order log forward. On the best evenings I button up the shop and head to my class, where I teach a great batch of students with weapons I built and put in their hand.
Bonus Question –
As someone who makes (and likely collects swords), what are 3 of your personal favorites in your possession and why? (these can be swords you’ve made yourself or bought/acquired)
I actually only have seven swords! Three of which are mementos or gifts from retiring fencers. Of the four I use, my favorite is the Meriginac foil I teach with – a little heavy on the point, but handles just the way I want it to. My truly prized possessions are in my library: a copy of “La Manufacture d’Armes Blanches du Klingenthal” which I had to go to Klingenthal to buy, and a signed copy of “The Code Duello”, by A. W. Paterson which was surprisingly and very generously given to me as a gift.
For more information on Benjamin Bowles and his company Benjamin Arms visit the following links:
BenjaminArms.Com
GoldenGateArms.Com
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