Good And Bad – Part 1
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about where I was, where I am and where I will be as a martial artist. And that means thinking about the teachers, both good and bad, who shaped me and got me to where I am today.
I am not as accomplished as I want to be, but life ain’t perfect. I am, however, a stronger, smarter and better-informed martial artist than when I first started my foray into the martial arts as a clueless newbie. And that’s a fact worth celebrating. Even though I am not as accomplished as I want to be.
Whenever I throw a hook, especially a lead hook, I think about Paul, the instructor teaching the Beginners class at Impact. After so many years of swinging wildly like a drunk brawler at a bar, it took Paul only one lesson to correct my mistake and teach me the correct way of throwing a hook. And after the hook, there was the straight lead, the cross, the shovel and all the kicks in the Jun Fan arsenal. I took away many precious gifts from Impact and it would be difficult to have favorites, but if I must, I would say the two most memorial and precious gifts are the lead hook and footwork.
When it comes to technical competency, Impact deserves an “A”.
In Singapore, I booked Mark for one private lesson and during that one hour, he taught me how to throw the upper-cut properly, a technique I was having difficulties with, and showed me a boxing drill that I have been using ever since. Thank you. And even though his JKD is different from the Jun Fan ideal I so want to learn, I must say he is a technically competent instructor.
Here, let me give you some sound advice. When it comes to the martial arts, forget about all the Karate Kid movies and all the 90s flicks with Miyagi-ish masters. Forget about the zen and zing and drama. When it comes to finding a martial arts teacher, look for down-to-earth technical competency.
Back in the late 90s, I met a fellow Singaporean through my ad in the Inside Kung Fu magazine. I only remember him as Paul. We didn’t really spend that much time together. I think the difference in our levels contributed to our early parting of ways. After all, Paul had the benefit of several years of good martial arts training at a decent gym in London. I had… Well, I will get to that later.
Anyway, even though he came to me as a “training partner”, he was more like a teacher. From him, I picked up several excellent pointers about form and training and learned how to weave from side to side. It was his advice about the importance of developing finesse that caused me to drastically change my training regime. “Partner” implies an egalitarian relationship, but I got more, way more, out of our relationship that he did.
Before I enlisted in the army, and when Dragon Ball was the latest manga in Singapore, I went to a traditional martial arts class where the instructor taught me the most basic or basics. How to clench your fist. I can’t even remember his name now, but I remember how to clench my fist properly.
I mentioned Impact academy first, but the teachers who first set me on the JKD path weren’t from Impact. Back in 2000, I was in Redlands. There Louie, Jeremy and Dennis first taught me JKD. Because of what and how they taught me, I had an epiphany about JKD. It is one of the most scientific fighting system on the planet. I can’t be sure if I will get food on my table tomorrow, but I am sure JKD IS one of the most scientific fighting systems on the planet. I got that certainty from the Redlands teachers.
Out of all the JKD techniques they taught me during the short time I spent at Redlands, I have to say the burst step and shuffle step were the deal breakers. Back then, I went to the USA with the intention to research the various fighting systems and, originally, after JKD, I wanted to look at some Systema, Krav Maga and MMA classes. But the deal breakers, the burst and shuffle step, convinced me that there was no need to keep browsing. Even now, when I have forgotten where I stayed and what I ate in Redlands, I remember the burst and shuffle.
Before the burst and shuffle, a sparring session just meant getting hit in my face with every tentative step I take towards my opponent. Now, that scary distance can be covered in one, well, one quick burst of motion. Now, I take ONE step and hit my opponent.
Before & After ads are cliche, but very fitting for a JKD promo video.
In the Before segment, we see a scared-looking fighter stepping tentatively towards his opponent. And gets hit in the face. This step-and-get-hit routine gets repeated several times until our protagonist lands on his butt looking defeated. In the After segment, maybe with the words “JKD BURST STEP” printed across the screen in bold type, our protagonist keeps chasing the same opponent across the mat. Now, with every confident burst forward, he hits his opponent until, finally, the opponent lands on his butt looking defeated.
Cheesy? Maybe. But fitting.
I was pretty much clueless and confused before I went to the USA to study martial arts. That period, which I shall name ‘The Confusion’, was mainly wasted on bumbling around and making mistakes. Sure, there was the silver lining during The Confusion, such as Paul, the Singaporean training partner I mentioned earlier who gave me many excellent pointers, but mainly, you know, mistakes.
We had internet back in 1997, when I left the army, but it was nothing like what we have now. Just typing ‘martial arts’ and ‘singapore’ into the search bar would have gotten me nothing useful in return. So it was down to searching, the old-fashioned way, through newspapers, magazines and business directories. And after a fair amount of pavement pounding. I finally found a traditional wushu school that offered lessons at the community center near my previous home. We did some stuff that was more fun, and looked more useful than what I did at the karate dojo perviously. I mean, they did partner drills there, which I didn’t even see at the dojo. There was some physical contact such as slamming of wrists and deflecting of punches and so on. I guess the physical contact made it feel more REAL and practical. Like if someone attacked me then, I could handle it because I was already trading blows with a live human instead of empty air.
So I stuck around with that school for a while more. Even traveling to other branches where the teachers were teaching. I met stronger martial artists. And for a little while, I was contended. Then I grew restless again. Around that time, the two teachers at the community center announced that they had to close the class there due to lack of new students. We were advised to take classes at HQ instead. I think most of my fellow classmates did not take that opportunity. I did, of course. I mean, HQ is usually where the top dogs are, right?
The lessons were slightly more intense, probably due to the presence of the Chief Instructor. But still, I was not happy. Something was missing. The lessons didn’t feel practical anymore. Partly because no matter how diligently I drilled with live partners, different ones even, my sparring didn’t improve. What I did during the drills, like the wrist-slamming exercise, weren’t really applicable in the chaotic moments of a sparring session. We learned to punch from the hips while standing in the horse stance, and even as a novice, I knew if I tried to pull that off, I would get punched in the face and kicked in the nuts. And when we practiced deflecting punches, we always deflected reverse punches thrown from the hip. Somehow, despite being trained to punch in that manner, none of the students punched like that during sparring sessions.
I needed something. Something real. Something practical. Something that didn’t get my ass kicked on the mat.
I had been doing some reading, and a term kept popping up in the Chinese wushu magazines. San Da. I understood it to be “anything goes” fighting style, the practical side of traditional wushu. So I asked around and eventually got to meet S. He, by far, is the most memorial teacher, for want of a better word, I ever had. I spent the longest amount of time with him and did more things with him than I did with any other instructors. He is also the teacher who imparted the least amount of knowledge and, considering that, he’s also the biggest waste of time and my biggest regret.
I didn’t regret the time and money I spent on Karate lessons, even though I gave it up after 3 months. Even though I thought the lessons taught me nothing useful. I couldn’t bring myself to blame the dojo because they gave exactly what they advertised. Karate lessons. They taught Karate and they taught it well, paying attention to details and making sure we did our kata properly.
But I regretted the time spent with S because he didn’t exactly give what he advertised. He was supposed to teach “Kickboxing”, and he WAS a kickboxer, but he just couldn’t teach. I spent 3 years in his camp as a “kickboxer” but I didn’t really learn how to punch or kick till I went over to USA in 2000. A tad unfair and harsh? Okay, let’s do a comparative analysis between one of S’s lesson and one of someone else’s lesson.
Hell, let’s expand the sample pool.
First lesson under the microscope is the upper cut.
After months (and months) under S’s “tutelage”, I never did learn how to throw a proper upper-cut. Not one. Our first upper-cut lesson, when it was my turn to step up to the pad holder, I tried to imitate what the others were doing. And was promptly laughed at. S told me, “That’s not right! Hahahaha!” I had to do what he was doing. And so S stepped up to the pad holder and did a flurry of upper-cuts. “There, like this!” Again I tried to imitate and failed. Maybe I was just stupid. Maybe, in other schools, a live demonstration and “like this”, counted as proper teaching. So during the 3 years, I never did learn how to throw a proper upper-cut. “Like this” and a demo just didn’t cut it for this dullard.
Then, years later, I met Mark in Singapore and arranged to have one single private lesson with him. A one-hour slot. We covered a boxing drill to help learn how to punch from both sides (left and right), among other things. During that one-hour slot, Mark took maybe 10-15 minutes to explain the mechanics of the upper-cut. Going into what I call the “prep position”, he explained that the upper-cut is a follow-up punch to be delivered from a low stance. Maybe right after dodging a high punch from my opponent. “DO NOT BEND AT THE WAIST!” he admonished. So bending my legs like he did, I assumed the position. Next, he showed me how to push up from the lead foot and use my hip to generate power. “DON’T JUST SWING YOUR ARMS. USE THE PUSH FROM YOUR FOOT AND SWING OF THE HIP TO GENERATE POWER” was his advice. During that brief moment in time, the upper-cut was taken apart for my benefit, so that I may put it back together myself. Then, I could see how each individual twitch or twist of my body, down from my toes and up to my fist, came together in perfect harmony to form the upper-cut.
Fifteen minutes to learn the upper-cut. Only fifteen minutes because we had to move to other things and we had only one hour.
Before Mark’s lesson, there was a very brief moment at Impact when I asked one of the instructors about the upper cut, and he gave the same advice about pushing from the legs and not bending at the waist. And the positioning of the hands and the trajectory of the fists as they travel towards the target. FYI, the trajectory can either be a straight line going upwards or a cross, like an ‘X’. See? So the right fist would go from bottom right towards upper left. Or it could be a ‘|’, a fist just going up the straight line.
Now contrast these two brief moments in time, barely more than half an hour put together, with S’s months and months of “LIKE THIS” and furious demonstrations. Now that I think about it, not once did S tell me not to bend at the waist or insist that power is generated from the push upwards from the legs and twist of the hip. The hip sort of push in the same direction of the punch btw.
Next lesson under the microscope is the hook punch.
Under S’s tutelage, I thought I had that punch down pat. During lessons, we wore thick gloves and it felt good just to swing as hard as we could at the pads. Then I got to Impact and found that my hook looked bad. Like a drunken brawler at a bar. All those years wasted on learning to fight like a drunk… You see, S favoured the fast and furious punching style. Hard and fast with loud solid thuds ringing from the pads. I don’t recall S advising us to make our hooks tight or to pivot on the foot or to swing our hips into the punches. The pads were always held far apart and pad holders were never taught to angulate the pads properly. Why should they? We wore thick gloves for the pad work, remember? So it didn’t matter all that much how our punches landed. However, I have the sneaking suspicion that if anyone tries hitting the pads like we did during S’s lessons but without the gloves on, he would break his fingers on impact.
Now contrast the S’s hook punch lessons with one brief moment at Impact. It was during one of Paul’s class when he took a brief few minutes to explain the mechanics of the hook punch. He showed us the pivot on the lead foot, the twist of the hip and finally, what I consider to be the icing on the cake, the elbow tip. See, your hands are in the ready position, right? Then as you pivot on the lead foot, assuming you are going to throw a lead hook, and twist your hip, you tip your elbow up so that the arm is perpendicular with the floor. Just like that! You have a tight lead hook. You don’t draw your hand back. You don’t pull your fist far away from your face, and incidentally opening yourself up for a solid headbutt to your nose. You simply tip your elbow up when you pivot your foot and twist your hip. The power, like in the example of the upper cut, comes from the legs and hip. Simply swinging your arms makes you look like a drunken brawler.
To this day, it amazed me that it took the Impact instructor only several minutes to explain the hook to me while S failed to do so during the 3 years I spent with him. Also, I did my pad work at Impact without gloves on, so my pad holder had to pay careful attention to how he/she holds the pads.
Here, let me round up this segment with some important advice.
When you are out looking for a martial arts school, ask to observe a lesson at the beginners level first. The really good instructors know how to dissect the most basic technique, the jab for example, and explain the mechanics properly to the class. So watch. When the instructor is teaching his students how to throw a punch, did he take it apart into its base components? The slight twitch of the leg, the twist of the hip, the push from the shoulder and finally all the different forces traveling down the arm into the fist. All these components have to be fed to the students in manageable chunks. If you see an instructor doing the S-routine, skipping ahead of the individual components without explanation and going straight to the end product, just leave.
Also, please note that in real life, without the protection of a thick pair of boxing gloves, taking a wild swing at someone can lead to fractured fingers. So watch the instructor. Did he explain about the trajectory of the fist? Is that punch supposed to travel in a straight line or is it going to cross towards the opponent’s center line? Which part of your fist is going to make contact? The first two knuckles or the last three? And is the fist supposed to be vertical? Or horizontal? Details matter! That is to say, details matter if you don’t want to end up with broken fingers the first time you try to defend yourself against an attacker without the benefit of thick boxing gloves.
Teck Y. Loh