Friday, 25 July 2014

Wing Chun for self defence? Learn Biu Jee!

Yesterday, I posted a short krav maga video on a social media site.  I like what I see in the video, and I will take concepts or techniques from wherever I find them, if they work.

A fellow wing chun student said that he was impressed by the block.  Fair enough.  My instructor's reply set me thinking, however, as his replies often do.  "Biu Gee, end section", he said.  A lot of Bil/Biu Jee/Gee/Tze (however you want to romanise it) looks abstract and esoteric to us, and often we wonder how it can be put to use in actual combat.  Many people who criticise wing chun do so because the forms look strange to them, they don't necessarily understand them, or they watch wing chun fighters who don't necessarily understand them.

It makes sense that a krav maga movement corresponds to our third form.  The essence of third form is that we have made a mistake, from which we need to recover.  Krav maga, so I have been told, assumes we are starting from a position of disadvantage.  During my short time learning Filipino boxing, I've also seen techniques which correspond to our third form, including the elbow block featured in the video.  When you consider that Filipino boxing is mainly a system of self protection, rather than a sport as such, you can see a pattern emerging.

How does any of this relate to self defence?  No matter how good you think you are, you will often find yourself at a disadvantage in an encounter.  It is said that Bruce Lee developed jeet kune do because he found himself facing larger opponents in the US.  It is also said that Bruce never learned the third form of wing chun (accounts differ - one has him learning the third form in the last months of his life; if that is true, we will still never know how it would have affected his wing chun).  Jeet kune do, and the arts Bruce learned to create his personal style, seem to be Bruce's way of substituting that missing knowledge.  As it happens, this took him in another direction entirely, but one which still drew on the wing chun that he knew.

Watch a true master at work.  Notice how those movements which were once large, wild movements have become more condensed and seemingly effortless.  Wing chun starts at this level, and yet some of the movements of biu jee are suspiciously large by comparison.  Why is this?  Is it closer to the Shaolin roots of wing chun?  Again, biu jee is about recovering from a vulnerable position, and such recklessness, by wing chun standards, may be justified.  Some say biu jee further develops the power which we gain through practising the earlier forms.  This would make sense too.  Other arts going in the opposite direction does not mean there is a right or wrong: the focus is different, owing to the environment in which the art developed.  Take the example of Filipino martial arts, which train weapons techniques first.

The embarrassment of videos posted on the internet haunts wing chun practitioners.  In forums hosted all over the world, the art is parodied and ridiculed.  Shouldn't we first question what we are watching?  If you show me a professional fighter, to whom combat is a daily concern, pummelling someone who has not learned the full system, don't even talk to me about the wing chun you think you see in that exchange.  The wing chun people who comment on the structure or footwork being wrong also miss the point.  Does it look like wing chun?  Are they using wing chun principles, no matter how shaky their practical skill?  If so, they are doing wing chun, but have not reached a level where they are a challenge to the other fighter.  Eventually, they may match, or even surpass, the skill of their opponent.

Geoff Thompson, who gets a lot of respect for injecting some realism into martial arts, mirrors my view that most encounters will be something akin to an ambush attack.  He talks of training techniques until they are second nature.  Again, we are singing from the same hymn sheet, as it were.  I don't subscribe to the belief that traditional martial arts, as we call them, have no relevance to the modern world.  You must learn them, though.  Learn as much as you can, and practise, practise, practise!

If someone is going out to test their art against others, they deserve respect for that.  Those who post videos of this with art versus art titles are deliberately misleading the greater martial arts community, however, because it may be an individual taking their first steps in testing their art against someone who has tested theirs many times over.  Always question.  Always.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

What have we learned from MMA?

In the beginning, mixed martial arts contests like Pride and UFC were created with the aim of testing different arts against each other.  The question being asked was which, if any, martial art would dominate in the ring or octagon.

It is tempting for a practitioner of a classical art, like myself, to say we have learned nothing from mixed martial arts contests.  The steady torrent of abuse from those who insist that classical martial arts are dead causes unnecessary animosity between traditionalists and those who practise the more modern arts.  There is a similar line from Krav Maga practitioners, for example.  Such animosity is, as I have often said, unnecessary.

MMA, Krav Maga, Jeet Kune Do and various modern arts were not plucked out of the air.  What they did was to survey the arsenal of classical arts, absorb them and adapt them to a particular environment.  Jeet Kune Do, in particular, continues to survey the spectrum of traditional martial arts and "absorb what is useful."

So, what have we learned?  Muay Thai, which was once a minority art in the western world, when compared to the more established arts of Karate, Judo, Kung Fu and others, came to dominate as a striking art.  In the early years, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu of the Gracie family similarly dominated.  So, these must be the most effective arts, right?  Wrong!  All we know is that a vast majority of mixed martial artist are able to make this combination work for them.  Before practitioners of both arts start lambasting me, allow me to explain.

I have great respect for Muay Thai - in the hands of a master, it is a devastatingly effective weapon.  Similarly, I grew up on Judo, from which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu claims its ancestry, so it would be foolhardy to write it off.  Have both these arts had success in UFC and other contests?  Yes!  Have other arts been successful?  Yes!

My chosen art of Wing Chun has had limited success in the octagon.  We claim this is, quite rightly, because Wing Chun is basically for life and death situations, not winning prizes.  However, Karate practitioners have had successes in the octagon, and Karate was most definitely a combat art when first developed.  What's going on?

If you look closely at Muay Thai and BJJ, one thing becomes clear: sparring is an important part of training.  Karate, Judo, Wrestling, and other arts that have been successful in the ring or octagon, also emphasize the importance of actually fighting to obtain the skill of fighting.  Wing Chun?  Not so much.  My own experience of this came when sparring with a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do, BJJ and Eskrima.  It's true that the moves I had repeatedly conditioned into muscle memory allowed me to give a good account of myself in that exchange, but I initially found it difficult to make the transition from my training to having a live opponent trying to get the better of me.

I see a similar thing when Wing Chun practitioners, and those of other traditional arts, enter the arena.  I take the resulting videos with a large pinch of salt, however.  Is the art useless?  Have centuries of development been wasted?  Is it true that what once worked on the battlefield can not adapt to the modern age?  No, no and thrice no.  What has changed is the way we train.  Mixed martial arts is nothing new.  The people who developed the traditional arts did so from their own experience of combat, and even stole what worked from others.

Furthermore, if you believe the art you study is the same as when it was first developed, you are fooling yourself.  Some have been subject to "cultural considerations": the more deadly aspects of the art were deemed unacceptable, and so were removed.  Others may have escaped such a fate, depending largely on where they developed.  People ask why some arts were practised in secrecy, or only handed down within families.  Well, I have just answered that particular question.

We are not immune to this in the modern age either.  If we gouge eyes, strike to the throat or break bones, our laws may judge that the force we used to defend ourselves was unreasonable.  Similarly, arts where throws are a mainstay of the arsenal become impractical when we are faced with throwing an attacker onto tarmac or concrete.  Serious injury, or death, may be the result.  Then again, punching someone could also lead to them falling awkwardly and the result may be the same.

Despite what some MMA enthusiasts insist, the traditional arts are not useless.  When I see someone lose in the ring or octagon, whatever their background, my conclusion is the same.  Whether it is lack of experience, fear, choosing the wrong technique or simple incompetence, they have failed to make their art work for them.  We must also ask, if one martial art was useful to everyone, why are there so many of them?  If we are unable to make our art work for us, it may not be the art which is at fault, and we may also say we are not at fault.  Maybe choosing the correct art is also a part of making it work for us.  If karateka, wrestlers and boxers can do well in octagon, maybe it is because they learned how to make their art work for them.

So, what have we learned from MMA?  First and foremost, we must be able to make our art work for us.  This may mean stepping outside of the boundaries of our art and making it our own.  If we are unable to do this, we must reconsider how we train and, possibly, what we train.  Second, and linked to the first point, we must spar.  Ideally, we should spar against martial artists of other styles.

MMA's contribution to the continuing development of traditional arts?  We must make that which we have learned work for us, in whatever situation we will need it to work for us.  Many of us already knew this; MMA just might have awoken those who were ignorant to the reality of training for combat.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Miss Smith

I just found out that someone I know has died, and I had to find out via Facebook.  She's one of those people who don't fit neatly into a "friend", "acquaintance" or other category.  Mostly, she would ask me about my cousin, because her and my cousin were best friends.  The last time I saw her was outside the hospital, where I had an appointment.  I can't even remember why I was there; it was a few years ago now.  I remember her telling me that something was wrong, and that she was scared.  To be honest, she wasn't someone I spoke to a lot, but that last conversation was something like a call I would have taken as a Samaritan.  I don't know whether she was just scared, or she wanted to confide in someone and felt more comfortable with someone she didn't know so well, but I got to know her better in those few minutes than I had before.  I feel guilty now that I didn't wait around for longer, because she made it clear that no one was there with her.

Back in the days when I drank more than was healthy, I saw her with some friends.  She looked miserable. "Nobody loves me," she said.  "I do.", I replied, heavily under the influence of alcohol.  Her friends left us alone, not realising I had meant it in a platonic way, and she sat staring at me, neither of us knowing what to say.  After a few minutes, she left too.  For a while, whenever I saw her, she would criticise everything I said and did.  In truth, she was quite mean to me.  I asked a mutual friend what I had done.  "You didn't make a move," he said.  I didn't understand.  "You had a chance to make a move, and you didn't."

I don't know what else to say.  People I know would probably think I'm not affected by things like this, or that I didn't know her well enough to be upset.  What I heard from other people was how tough she was, but what I saw in my few interactions with her was her vulnerability; her humanity, I guess.  That last time she spoke to me, she said that people had her all wrong, that they thought she was something she wasn't.  I don't know about that, but I wish I had known her better.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Thought for the day: tolerance

Each of us have people in our lives who are a source of irritation.  They may seem to take pleasure in annoying us, or it may apparently be something they do with little conscious thought.  Imagine, however, that their behaviour were a symptom of some great internal turmoil or mental anguish.  What then?

Monday, 21 April 2014

Thought for the day: Easter Monday

Life has often been a disappointing or, worse, downright frustrating experience for me.  A possible reaction to such an experience would have been to travel the path of darkness, to strike back at a society which has metaphorically struck me down many times.  Were it not for the moral framework provided by my faith in God, I believe this would have happened many times over.

Our beliefs, whatever they may be, guide us and shape the person we are, have been and are yet to become.  When others question these beliefs, they are effectively saying a part of who we are is wrong.

We are all different and, in our own ways, believe different things: these are pieces of the puzzle that makes us unique.  Never give in to the pressure to conform.  Be yourself, always.

Strontium Dog

I recently bought a collection of Strontium Dog stories.
As a child, I would rush to the newsagent every week to buy 2000AD: my favourite comic, or comic book, as the Americans would have it.  The main character in that publication, and the most popular, has always been Judge Dredd.  It wasn't that I didn't like Judge Dredd, but I found the stories of Nemesis the Warlock, and especially Strontium Dog, more compelling.  Looking back, I can see that the stories of Johnny Alpha had quite an effect on my young and impressionable mind.

In the 1980's, the area in which I lived had become a hotbed of racial tension.  I'm going to remain silent on the reasons for this, but the divisions were there, and those divisions were strong.  From some quarters, there was pressure to conform, and displaying anything other than hatred for those from another cultural, and often religious, background made you a traitor against your own people.  This attitude was by no means universal, but it was more widespread than I had imagined.

It is questionable whether I would have eventually been pulled into the aforementioned school of thought.  In many ways, I was the typical nerd, isolated by the time I spent learning to program a computer or obsessing about Star Wars.  A good point to make about science fiction fans is that we spend a lot of our time reading about alien civilizations, so our fellow humans seem somewhat less threatening to us.  However, like a lot of science fiction geeks, there was a feeling of exclusion, of being on the fringes of society: that, I believe, is where the interest in the tales of Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog, originally came from.

If you have never read Strontium Dog, it is set in a future where a radioactive shower has caused mutations in a section of the population.  Rather than sympathy, the mutants face hatred from the humans who were not affected by the radiation.  A recurring theme is that of exclusion, most importantly from employment, leaving the job of bounty hunter as the only viable option for a mutant.  Johnny Alpha is one such mutant.  For anyone who feels like they don't fit in, it's powerful stuff.

My young mind made the obvious connection between the intolerance shown to Johnny Alpha and the intolerance shown to ethnic and religious minorities.  Clearly, they are not mutants, but the hatred displayed towards them was just as incomprehensible to me.  I couldn't help but notice that the behaviour displayed by the bigoted humans in the comic was mirrored by the bigots I encountered on a daily basis.  In one story, a little girl says she does not understand why her mother doesn't like Johnny, only for her mother to scold her and hurriedly remove her from his presence.

It's arguable that Marvel did much the same thing with X-Men, but that was somewhat less appealing to me.  Reading the stories again, what strikes me is that they were incredibly violent, but the message about intolerance is incredibly clear.  People talk about books changing their lives.  Well, every week I would go and buy 2000AD, and it made a lasting impression on my young mind.

Saturday, 12 April 2014


For what I think was my 10th birthday, my mother bought me a model of an F-104 Starfighter.  It was one of the self-assembly types popular at the time.  The effect this had on me is ably demonstrated by the fact that I remember the name of the plane.  I've probably got the year wrong, but I remember the circumstances.

The thing I remember, and it's an important point, is that my father had recently left home.  Something about life in Britain, during Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, caused the divorce rate to sky-rocket.  We were always at the lower end of the income scale as a family, so Conservative policies affected us more than most.  It was a time of great hardship for us and, looking back, I realise how hard my parents tried to shield us from the reality of our situation. In no way does that excuse my father's behaviour: even with two young sons at home, he decided that the questionable charms of another woman were too much to resist.

I had told my mother that a birthday present would not be necessary, because I saw how much harder things had become for her, and I was as aware as a child could be that she was suffering from episodes of depression.  Such things were not talked about in those days, but I was dimly aware that she was not the same.

I didn't understand why I had a model aeroplane as a birthday present.  I had always been bookish and aloof: quite the opposite of the other members of the family.  My father had once made some money, and bought a second-hand motorbike for my brother.  Mine came the following year and, much to my father's bemusement, was rarely used.  My mother worried that, with my studious nature and small frame, I would be a target for bullies.  As things turned out, I was a target, as my mother feared but, thanks to the Judo lessons her and my father had insisted my brother and I attend, rarely a victim.

Though I didn't understand the reasons behind the gift, I spent what probably seems longer than it actually was gluing the tiny pieces of grey and clear plastic together.  The picture on the front of the box was a painting of an F-104 in action, which made me eager to complete the model.  Most importantly, my mother saw that I was happy with the gift.  I don't know when I realised that I would never have the optional pots of paint to make my Starfighter look like the one on the box, because I didn't dare to mention it to my mother, but it didn't matter.  This was something I would never have asked for, and that made it a more thoughtful gift.

I can't remember what happened to that model aeroplane.  The difficult teenage years have been and gone since then, including the time my voice broke, and the small-framed son she had worried would become a victim of bullying came home from school one day with the voice of a man.  I know this amused her, because she often laughed about me being so small and having a voice "in my boots", as she put it.  At the same time, I could see a sadness in her, because the little boy who relied on her was slowly disappearing before her eyes.

Ultimately, the model plane doesn't matter.  It sat on a second-hand school desk in the room I shared with my brother, waiting for the coat of paint it would never receive, but that doesn't matter either.  The memories attached to it are what matter: my mother seeing me patiently glue the pieces together, the thought behind the gift and, perhaps most importantly, the gratitude I showed for the gift and the thought behind it.