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message from grandmaster

It's Just Not the Same

When I started training years ago it was a totally different atmosphere than is it today. The kind of people that joined a school had a much different attitude and outlook than those students joining the martial arts today. There was only one reason a person joined a martial arts school back then, and that was purely to learn how to fight. There was no other reason that I ever heard of at that time.

grandmaster

These people were street kids, kids that had to face the rough streets of New York City every day. Each of them was hardened by street abuse, fight after fight, and got their rear ends kicked almost on a daily basis.

For more messages from Grandmaster, see the Archives.

They went to martial arts schools to even the score. They learned and they practiced, and more than that, they fought each other in every class, often going home bloodied from the day's fights within the Gwan. This type of training was much the same from school to school within the city.

If you dared to go to another school and they knew or even suspected that you were from another school, the challenge was on. "Hey, do you want to trade some punches with me?" was the common question. There was, of course, no refusing and off you went again, ending up with another new bruise to nurse before the next class.

In those earlier years the rules for fighting were much different from those of today. In fact, there were very few rules and they varied from school to school. Little did I know that in the future I would be one of the people helping to establish the official fighting rules for all the tournaments in this country, but that is another part of this story.

The Teacher was right. I did not die, in fact the more I fought the more confident I became in being able to handle myself.

At that time the rules in the U.S.A. were almost the same as they were in Asia. Fighting was a big part of the learning process and for good reason. The arts were for learning how to fight, so the only way to do that was to fight and that is what most schools did at the end of each class.

In my Gwan we would pair off and go at it until the Teacher said it was enough. Only then would we bow out and go home. Yes, everyone was scared and you could see the fear in their faces, knowing that they had to pair off and risk another injury. But the Teacher would always say, "Don't worry, I promise you won't die." I don't know why this gave anyone comfort, but it did, so you faced your new challenge and started swinging and kicking. The Teacher was right though; I did not die, in fact the more I fought the more confident I became in being able to handle myself.

Early tournaments

The tournaments you see today didn't exist in New York City in my earlier days. We had what we called inter-school contests. One school would challenge another school and either we would go to their school or they would come to ours and we would all see who had the best Kung Fu. Those contests were really nothing but hard fights and, since each school's name was at stake, we all fought like demons.

When tournaments finally did start to appear, no one had any idea what a brawl they were in for. Imagine a few thousand fighters coming together under one roof with no real rules of engagement. The only thing we knew was to hit the opponent, knock him out or take him down anyway you can. And that was just what we did.

But, as you might guess, it was a bloody disaster. Ears were pulled off and eyes were gouged out, groins were ruptured and bones were broken in places you did not know you had bones.

The first "organized" tournament I remember was held at the Felt Forum which is a part of Madison Square Garden. Master Aaron Banks sponsored the event, but things quickly got out of his control and soon he was calling for the ambulances. Fights started to break out between the schools and judges. It got so bad that they finally had to call in the New York Police Department (NYPD).

When the Police arrived, they were shocked to find that they were facing more than a thousand irate martial artists, all wanting to attack someone—anyone.

When the Police arrived, they were shocked to find that they were facing more than a thousand irate martial artists, all wanting to attack someone—anyone. Whole schools were now squaring off against one another, ready to go at it. Finally, Master Banks got it back under control again by appealing to the Teachers of each school. It eventually did calm down and the Police were happy to leave.

That brawl made martial artists realize that order was indeed needed. It was then that the ICMA (International Convention of the Martial Arts) was organized to finally settle what the rules for tournaments would be. We had to change our ways and create rules or risk being stopped from having any tournaments in the city.

As I said before, and I'm proud to say now, I was a member of the Board of Directors that helped clarify and standardize tournament fighting rules. To this day, those same rules or some variances of them are still used. The rules that we established back then have greatly helped to reduce serious injury. Thus, the new age of tournament fighting in the U.S.A. had begun.

Today's schools are different

Today, students don't come to schools merely to learn how to fight. They are there for any number of reasons; health, self-defense, exercise, discipline, curiosity, fun and even for baby-sitting. You have men, women and children joining schools all over the country. It has changed so much that most people today don't even care for the fighting aspect of the arts. Many just enjoy a good workout and the camaraderie of their fellow classmates.

Plus, there is the fear of lawsuits against the schools and Teachers, something I never heard of, or even dreamed about in my early training days.

In my day, you could be half-dead and still you had to go out and fight.

People just don't want to get hurt for any reason and, if they do get hurt, they go after their school. In turn, schools today just don't teach the way they used to for fear of being sued. Today, when the students fight they are padded to the hilt and in some cases they even have to undergo a medical exam before they are allowed to fight. I had never heard of such things in my day. You could be half-dead and still you had to go out and fight.

My older students often say to my younger ones, "Shrfu is not nearly as hard on you as he was on us. We used to fight all the time." They are right, I am not as hard. I have tempered my teaching as most other Teachers have done.

In the old days if you were injured, it only made you stronger and more eager to do better the next time. If you were hit, it was considered your own fault. You could only blame yourself, because it meant that your defenses were just not good enough. Broken bones, teeth, hands, elbows, toes, ribs - you name it and someone had broken it. Injuries were expected some time in the course of training and of course, we all tried our best to avoid being injured. Some succeeded more than others.

In the old tournament days, if you looked around at all the contestants, you would see this guy or that guy wrapped and bandaged up from some previous injury. And there they were, going into another bout. It was a test of the self that we all put ourselves through. "Push, Push, Push! Never give up! Try, Try, Try!" was the mantra we used.

What fighting teaches

"Push, Push, Push! Never give up! Try, Try, Try!" was the mantra we used.

The idea behind the fighting was not just winning, but rather to just try, to beat down your fears, and prove to yourself that you had the guts to face seemingly overwhelming odds and still try anyway. It was meant to make you stronger and it did just that.

The butterflies disappeared after a while and fighting became an everyday affair. You faced anyone no matter what level of skill they had and you just jumped in head first, fighting with full effort and always trying your best. There were no losers in matches like these. Nobody lost. Both fighters gained in self-confidence and experience. Both fighters learned the art of winning and losing with honor and dignity, because great effort has been put into the battle. We gave it our all.

Fighting can bring out the best or the worst in all of us. We as martial artists are always trying to give it our best, not our worst. We did not go hunting for trophies, as many schools do today; it was more the challenge of our abilities and temperament that was being tested and refined.

How one faced one's fears and ego was what was being tested. People who could handle winning without creating a huge false ego were true winners. Losers who could handle the defeat without insult and learn from it were way ahead of the game of inner growth and self-mastery.

Although the judges tried to be as fair as possible in tournaments, human nature did intervene at times. There was often some form of favoritism towards systems and contestants. Everyone had their favorites and it showed at times in calling scores. You had to learn to deal with this reality, because this was a part of the process of self-development. You learn that nothing in life is perfectly fair and that one must just deal with it. Stop the crying and get on with it, this was the attitude.

Once the right attitudes are attained, once the fears is gone, once you have found self-confidence, then the tournaments and fighting are over.

The audience often booed at contestants who were sore losers or too egotistical when they won a contest. These attitude traits do not belong in the warrior arts. If a contestant won he would offer to give his trophy to his Teacher as a gesture of thanks to him for the knowledge he had imparted and had enabled him to win. That's why you often see martial arts schools with numerous trophies in their windows. These all came from students who donated their winning trophies to their Teacher and school.

Once the right attitudes are attained, once the fears is gone, once you have found self-confidence, then the tournaments and fighting are over. This is the main purpose of tournament competition. Once that purpose is served, then tournaments are no longer needed and you can move forward to the next level of training.

Fighting is not for everyone

These days, when I ask my students, "OK, who wants to fight tonight?" not many of them answer the call. Those that do step forward take the opportunity to face their fears and conquer them. But it is not for everyone. It is for those few who still think that it is in the heat of battle that one's character is refined. Only by the taste of our own blood, can we really free ourselves from fear.

No, it not a pretty sight to see two people fighting. It is risky and sometimes brutal, but without these elements the changes within you would not take place. It's hard medicine to swallow, but it is one of the quickest realizations you will ever have in learning this art form. A few years of tournament fighting will teach you more than 100 years of merely talking about fighting.

I am not saying that those who don't choose to fight are not going to get anything from their training. We all get something, but that something is different for each one of us. As long as you stay centered on what you are seeking in the arts, realistically, when you find it, you will never be disappointed.

For those people that avoid the fighting aspect of this art, all I can say is that it's fine, providing you never have to prove yourself to anyone. My advice to those students who don't fight is this: never put your art to the test unless you are willing to test yourself first. This is not to say that only fighters can learn this art—we all can. Just be realistic about your abilities and your limitations.

In this way we can all take what we want from this art without false expectations and that is as it should be.

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