Roles of Martial Arts Friendships (Series)

5 02 2016

“Greatness is never created in a vacuum.”



I once heard a wise man say, that if an accomplished man ever told you he took his journey alone, you are listening to the words of an ungrateful man. The two sayings are connected; rarely does one man create greatness alone. He may be the mastermind of that greatness, but no man can do it alone. He may have thought up the entire plan for his climb but someone helped him. Perhaps they helped him in small ways–for example supporting him, assisting him, or even through conversations with him allowing him to work out his ideas verbally. Sometimes, that assistance can come through a rivalry when the competition fuels his drive to excel. Perhaps, it is some silent partner, student, or forgotten teacher who planted a seed that sprouted in the field of his imagination.

No man did it without help, and only a fool undertakes a mission alone.

The most well-known and greatest thinkers in the martial arts may have been given sole credit for their creations:

  • Bruce Lee
  • Chojun Miyagi
  • Mas Oyama
  • Helio Gracie
  • Yip Man
  • Wong Fei Hung

However, people rarely talk about the training partners, the rivals, the other teachers, the comrades with whom the Grandmaster-in-the-making shared his plans for evolution… History has a way of being biased like that. Even the greatest of prophets–Ibrahim/Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be upon them all)–had men in their presence whose contributions we know nothing about. I guarantee that each of these men assisted the other in some way, even if one was a follower of another.

Martial artists whether learning, developing, or teaching always need at least one martial arts friendship. This friendship need not necessarily be a training partner; that is simply one type of friendship. One of my best friends and training partners is a blind brother I taught Chi Sao to almost 30 years ago. He is terminally ill and I talk to him at least 4 or 5 times a month. Often, you can work out ideas simply by discussing them. Another close friend of mine is not a martial artist at all; he is a boxer who thinks 99% of martial artists are full of it. Yet, when he and I get together, he is more formidable than most martial artists I know. Although he downs the martial arts, due to our sparring sessions, he practices Eskrima and traps and elbows… all of which he incorporated into his “streetfighting” repertoire. I joke with him that he is a secret, “closet” martial artist, as he practices, trains, and uses these arts, but tells his colleagues they are “tricks” he picked up (he is a bodyguard and limo driver, and quite an effective streetfighter). I have several martial arts friends I mostly talk business with, who pick at me for my testosterone-laced flyers and advertisements and websites. Their advice is extremely valuable and humbling, as well as respected. Friendships where you both are like-minded and 100% in agreement are a waste of time; you improve when you disagree and must justify, argue, or defend your stance. It is through those exchanges that ideas are modified and sharpened. Remember that.

Today’s martial artist seem to gravitate towards their own kind. A roomful of men who agree on everything will leave that room having learned nothing during their time together. But get a roomful of Sifu/Sensei of different styles and mindsets, you will find that at the end of the day you will have a dynamic outcome… Some friendships will be built or severed, some will learn something new, some will go home questioning one’s own system, some will go home to train harder and investigate the arts deeper than they have ever done in their lives. Some will challenge each other. Some will fight and win, some will fight and lose. Some will chicken out, but go home to reflect on why confrontation made him uncomfortable. It is through this dessent–this disagreement–that martial artists evolve their ideas. They must be forced to defend their systems. Yes, you love Jow Ga or Wing Chun. Yes, you believe Praying Mantis is superior, or that Hung Gar is stronger. Yes, Bak Siu Lum or Tai Chi is more advanced… but why? If you do this, I can do that; what would you do then? This is where the rubber meets the road in martial arts relationships. In the classroom, you only need to show students what’s next and what’s in the curriculum. In the presence of your Sifu or your brothers, you only need to be personable and likeable. In public, your skills are irrelevant as long as you have decent lineage and an a nice personality. In none of these situations are you challenged to maintain skills or improve from wherever you were yesterday. Kung Fu is not something in which we should be stagnant. Unlike sports where 35 years old is considered past one’s prime, in the martial arts we are considered to be more valuable, more knowledgeable, and overall a better expert as we get older. How can this happen when you do not surround yourself with people who force you to become better? Do you improve simply by being involved in the arts longer?

One of my best friends, Sifu/Guro Billy Bryant, surrounded himself with training partners and sparring opponents until he was into his 50s. He is a man who would embarass the majority of men reading this blog, I guarantee it. Why can I say so with such confidence? Because I know that most martial arts teachers have not trained or sparred in years, and Billy at 50 years old held a gathering every month at his dojo in Pasadena, MD, where fighters came from all over to spar with him–including men who had beaten him in competition (yes, Billy was still fighting the last I saw him). And you read that right; when a man would beat him, Billy would invite him to his dojo for a rematch. It’s an excellent strategy for growth and excellence. He told me once, that you always keep guys who are superior to you in your company. Some men will just use the opportunity to beat you up regularly, others will want to help you improve–but BOTH men will help you become a better fighter regardless of his intent. Words to live by.

On the other end of the discussion are men like my Si Hing Tehran Brighthapt. He is arguably one of my Sifu’s top fighters. At 6’2″, 250+ lbs, he is both strong and quick, he is both aggressive and tricky, and an encyclopedia of knowledge. Each time Sifu Chin brought visiting masters in to teach, Bright, who does not like forms, would learn and either choose to adopt their lessons into his training program or file it away in the “entertainment purposes only” section of his memory. Like clockwork, regardless of holidays or snow storm, Brighthapt trained 2 to 4 hours every Saturday and Sunday in seclusion, stopping only to teach his hourlong sparring class. I have personally witnessed him pound the bag with wheel punches for 30 minutes with very few breaks while wearing ankle weights and brass rings. He did not like spectators to his training sessions, so one had to be on the other bag or dummy while he trained. He was always good for a quick lesson in Kung Fu fighting techniques, a sparring session, or Chi Sao practice. Being one of the men who could easily lick any man in the room, he always obliged if you asked. Yet despite his insisting on practicing alone–he had two regular sparring partners:  Si Hings Terrance Robinson and Lemuel Talley, both men of similar size and strength. As a child, I was usually told to leave the classroom and close the door behind me for their sparring matches. As a teen, when I was old enough to join them, I knew these sparring sessions to be with heavy contact and nothing to shake a stick at. Sometimes, when other visitors came around, whether or not they were Jow Ga fighters–they would join in those matches. So long periods of solo training would be broken by the occasional sparring match to test skill.

Just keep in mind, that whether you are a student, a young teacher, or a mature Master–we all need to remain in the company of people who will help us grow. Some may only be foes for philosophical debates, some may be fierce rivals, others can be training partners, some can be sparring partners–either superior or inferior. Choose your friends wisely. They all can help you with your journey. And often, you may not realize the impact they’ve had on you until years later, after you’ve reaped the benefits of their company.

There is more to say on this subject, but we will revisit in a future installment. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an issue! Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.



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