Why Fat Guys Make the Best Sifus

10 09 2016

I had started to write this article about a year ago, and stopped because I didn’t want to offend. Over the last few months, I tried again and again to finish it–looking for a way to get my point across without hurting some feelings. Recently, while reflecting on my Sifu’s own unpolitically correct self–he said things as they were, but one thing we knew… He’d never tell you a lie. Sifu would curse in class, tell someone to take a shower before training, tell another to wash her hair, throw you out of class if he smelled alcohol (RIP JE), give you your money back, even jump on instructors in front of their students for not training enough or telling advanced students that beginners are catching up on them. He once laughed after class and told one my Si Hings “Well, Barrington (a beginner) really kicked your ass today…”

So, I scrapped every word I had written, changed the title… and here goes.

My Sifu once told our class that “Fat guys make the best Sifus”. This was right after fussing at me and my brothers for giggling after a classmate had fallen while doing kicks. He stated something to this effect a few times, and I am constantly reminded of what he meant as an instructor myself. One of the most profound statements indeed. I believe after you hear me out, you may agree.

Quite often, we celebrate athleticism and “natural ability”. We love great physiques, and especially admire those who seem to be born with beauty and ability. As teachers, we speak of silly ideas like being “built for Northern/Southern styles”, as if a short, fat man cannot learn Tien Shan Pai–or a tall, skinny man couldn’t learn Hung Gar. I recall a former employer of mine–a Tae Kwon Do master–instructing our sales staff to target soccer games for recruiting because he liked the flexibility and agility of soccer players and how it transferred skills to TKD. As a tournament competitor, I was often approached by coaches who wanted me to join their schools to go pro so that they could take credit for the instruction I had already received under my Sifu and Si Hings. In the modern martial arts community, I’ve seen jujitsu teachers at my son’s wrestling meets to recruit boys for their MMA teams. Why all of this? I believe it is laziness, really. So much easier to train a student who is walking through the door with endurance, flexibility, strength, and other physical attributes. As a boxer, I’ve heard trainers say that it was easier to pack muscle on a skinny guy for power, than it was to slim down an overweight novice and train him to become quick. Teachers pride themselves often on students who come to them after years of football, soccer, gymnastics, even dance. I get it. They are easier to teach. They are a pleasure, because you don’t have to build strong students–just mold athletes.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the fat guy. He has just as much enthusiasm for the arts as the basketball players. He watched the same movies, bought the same books to learn from, stood in the mirror as a youth throwing the same moves, ran outside after Black Belt Theater to copy the same actors. But the fat guy is harder to train. He is winded easier. He’s not as limber. He has two left feet often and can’t remember forms. He needs more breaks. But like fat guys when dating, he also has fewer distractions. Girls like the handsome boys, but the handsome boys know lots of girls. The athletic guy takes frequent breaks from Kung Fu training because it’s football season and the coach has increased practice to 5 days a week. He’s also playing flag football, he can’t attend Chinese New Year because it’s the playoffs, and he can’t attend sparring class because his basketball team has a series of games on Saturday. Very often, the fat guy isn’t into any other sport, so Kung Fu is his only outlet. He may be frustrated because he can’t seem to catch up with the skinnier guys. Everyone is already doing splits, and he’s still trying to master the Horse Stance. They are drilling Swallow Tail kicks, and he can barely do the Tornado kick. He is also self-conscious about performing forms in front of a group… so he practices when no one is watching… a lot. And do you know what happens? In time, the fat guy isn’t so fat anymore. Sure, he’ll probably never have washboard abs. He may still be a little chubby. Perhaps he did slim down, but he’s still young. Wait till he’s in his 30s, and he won’t have that build by then; he’ll be back. At some point in his training career–and every chubby guy I’ve ever known who stuck with the art has done this–he will pass the athletic guys in skill and ability, to the surprise of even himself. You ever see the guy at the tournament who everyone loves because he “doesn’t move like most chubby guys”? The one who was a big guy, but he is just as quick, just as strong, just as smooth as any pro. I’m talking about the Sammo Hung type. The Butterbean. One of my favorite students and best fighters to this day, is a young man named Marcos, whom we named “Butter Burrito” because I don’t think any of his classmates could beat him. He was limber, fast, wise, big, AND strong. But he weighed over 300 lbs and built like a Rhino. Among my Jow Ga seniors, we had a few big guys as our best fighters–Tehran Brighthapt and “Kung Fu” Joe Colvin to name a few. They got there because they had to work twice as hard to become equal in skill with their classmates, and in the process many of them had passed them.

And this led to a type of wisdom that many athletic martial artists won’t have. I’ve known some guys who have been fit their entire lives, tell overweight students to “suck it up” when their backs and hips and knees started hurting. They judge students by their waistlines rather than actual ability and knowledge. Many have even gone so far as judge character and discipline, based on someone’s fitness level! Many Sifus who were once overweight–including those who still struggle with their weight–are more empathetic, more compassionate, and more aware of the challenges of those who are not as fit when they first put on a uniform. This includes adult students who may have old injuries, children who just have coordination problems, older students, and male students with poor upper body strength. There are many Sifus who had it easy because of their natural ability and don’t know how hard it is to develop skill if one lacks athletic talent. Sadly, it does affect them as teachers because they only know how to mold students as they are. Lord help them if they get a student with two left feet! Martial arts teachers who have endured the same challenges as their students will know how to guide those students. They will understand how to inspire those who may be discouraged by physical limitations. They are patient, understanding teachers. And most of all, they can shape a beautiful, precious stone out of a plain, dusty rock. Those teachers who had to work harder, commit more time, and suffer many losses and humiliating defeats to gain skill in this art will be the best at teaching others how to do it.

Anyone can take a fit, strong, young healthy student and turn them into a champion. But the best skilled Sifus can take a scrawny, sickly, scaredy cat–and turn him into a Tiger. Those who know how hard it is to overcome obstacles often make the best teachers to show others the way. Some teachers are good for showing; others are good for growing. Good teachers can take your high school athlete and make him into a good forms competitor. GREAT teachers will do the same with the school nerd. Strive to be that guy. And when you look into the classroom at the chubby student who can barely do pushups, kick to his waist level, or hold a horse stance like everyone else–give him a chance to show you what he’s made of. And don’t blink; he may end up becoming your school’s next champion.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

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