• Thai Boxing vs. Kung fu

    Here is an essay from January of this year which I never finished, but addresses some of my thoughts on my own martial arts journey:

    I took up Thai Boxing about a month ago and I am starting to finally understand how people become addicted to the martial arts. For me, this has always been a question I couldn’t really answer without cutting myself down.

    See, when I studied kung fu, I did it for weeks at a time, with months and years in between. There were times, like those three weeks out in Hanyuan working on a story, when I felt the passion of what I thought at the time could be an addiction, something that could become the dedication I had seen, heard about, longed for within myself. But it passed, and I returned to my old life. Dreaming of being a martial artist in the late morning and doing a lot more reading and writing than kicking and stretching.

    There were a few incidents that threw my weakness and my lack of dedication to the martial arts back into my face:

    There was the time I was out with Tenzin and Tian Hua in Tian Hua’s hometown of Pengzhou. For me, the story of Tian Hua and his town was paramount: the slow decay of Tian Hua’s former school, the dusty bored streets of his town, his obvious undimmed passion for kung fu and fighting and the art that made him a man. The tragedy of Tan Hua was more important to me than whatever it was he wanted me to display, in order to prove myself a member of the club. Something about my demeanor, about the way I carried myself, the questions I asked, the things that seemed important to me … something abut how I stacked up to Tenzin, a mountainous physical presence, made Tian Hua lash out late that night. Drunk off baijiu, he kicked me a bunch of times, screaming out at me, “You’re no kung fu man!” which in Chinese, 你不是功夫人!feels so much stronger. There is a categorization that takes place and I was on the wrong side. I never spoke to Tian Hua again after that night. Tenz would remind me of that night every so often , perhaps to rub it in. Shifu laughed when I told him what had happened, “Tian Hua is a hothead, always has been. Forget about it.”

    Another time, I sat at the table with Shifu, Shiye and Lao Wu and we talked about Lao Wu’s garlic business and how I might be able to help. Talk drifted to martial arts. Lao Wu was a boxer and clearly remembered how to fight and carry himself like a fighter. When Shifu mentioned I studied kung fu, Lao Wu looked at me skeptically. “But he can’t possibly learn kungfu,” he said. Again, the Chinese version seems so much more powerful: 他没有悟性 ie he is unable to learn. Shifu said, “I will determine whether he can or cannot learn.” I never saw or spoke to Lao Wu again either, but it stayed with me.

    Shifu always said I was tripping when I brought up the fact that I didn’t belong. He got a little gruff and said, “You’re my student. You belong.” Other times he would say, “Your pen is your kung fu.”

    A few moments that stuck with me shouldn’t define ten years of interaction with Chinese martial arts, but they did. I remembered those moments most of all, and forgot any others that may have presented a different relationship. I didn’t train enough, wasn’t really into it, and basically wanted to cut out the hard body stuff and horse stance suffering and get right to the “enlightenment” part of kungfu. I wrote a little bit about this idea very recently for Fightland in an essay called, “Why Kungfu Masters Refuse to Teach.” In the essay I try to pick apart the traditionalist stand-point a bit, and show how their way of thinking helps lead to a perceived decline in the traditional Chinese martial arts. For me I was always so much more interested in the lore of it all, despite my fantasies of being the baddest man in the world.

    I think my fantasies may have leaked out into the space around me, been picked up by real kungfu men, and been scoffed at as the mewling of the softcore scholar. I’m not too sure anymore, but the feeling of not belonging remained.


    Then I joined the Cellar gym and began training Muay Thai, a bit of kickboxing, some boxing. The difference in how I approach training at the cellar versus training kungfu with my master in China is dramatic. I go almost every day to train at least one, usually two hours. I always come home feeling like I’ve made progress. I can see my progress actually, each time I throw a jab-cross, switch kick into Thai pads, or go a little bit longer with the jump rope before faltering.

    I rarely had this feeling when I was training kungfu in China. We never hit pads, rarely did partner work, and I don’t remember ever putting on gloves for any reason. In the kungfu world, it was me versus my shadow, versus the wood, versus the world-blotting sand bag hanging by a thread over the very center of the earth. I remember pain, a lot of awkward movements, and failure.

    At Shifu’s, there were maybe a handful of students, all of very different strengths, doing the same exercise each and every time. We did the forms, stood in the stances, hit the iron circle and perhaps the wooden dummy. It was hot and sweaty and painful. I rarely saw any progress … the bruises would fade and get covered by other bruises. My kicks might improve slightly, maybe I was able to touch my toes. I do remember coming back from a few weeks at Shifu’s place and a friend told me, “Dude, you look fantastic.” And I took the compliment and forgot about training.

    When I was in my 20s in China, with the opportunity to train with Shifu, I chose weed, wine, and women instead. So when I did train, it was never with devotion. I didn’t take the training home with me and repeat or try and get better. So whenever I went to Shifu’s, it felt like I was starting all over again, year after year.

    There are other factors here at play besides the training methods, I am sure of that as well. I am older now, and hopefully bit wiser. Age has shown me not only the encroaching limits of my physical form, but also the critical need for me to get healthy and in shape before it’s too late. These days, I dream constantly about hitting pads and kicks. I am anxious about my training and a day or two without a trip to the gym and I feel compelled to set aside everything in order to get my ass back in there.

    At the Cellar we have pads and gloves, shin guards and systematic training. Work the punches then the kicks, then go to clinching. Hit the bag, hit each other—lightly—back to the pads. I feel like this regimen will create a new me every 3-6 months. I am starting to get addicted. I am starting to feel that pull that all of the martial artists seem to talk about.

    I can’t help wondering if Shifu had had pads to hit and had run his training sessions a  bit more like the cellar does, perhaps I would have been more willing to train. Maybe I wouldn’t have to take this final lunge into the martial world this late in life and hope that I am not too late. The clear answer is, No. Back then I was too stupid to know what I had with Shifu, and today I am less stupid.

    Regardless, I have found a place to train and a discipline I am falling in love with. So looking into my past and trying to rationalize not training when I could have is just a mental exercise. It doesn’t really matter. Not anymore.

    July 18, 2016 • Kung Fu People • Views: 3403

  • Update on the New Masters, Fightland, and Muay Thai

    I am no longer writing for Fightland, which is a bummer in many ways, but also a relief. The work I did for them drained my brain of any martial arts thoughts for a long time, which meant this blog lay fallow. The good news is that I will have more time to lay down my thoughts here, and there is a lot to talk about.

    The first thing I should mention is the New Masters Documentary film, which is still an ongoing project. We published a personal note from on the ground in Beijing today on the Kickstarter site, so all backers will have received that note. The three videographers on the ground—Chris Cherry, David Dempsey, and Graeme Nicol—believe they are very close to finishing this film. As a producer on the film, all I can do at this point is wait and prepare for an eventual marketing push to follow a completed or near completed film. That push will also involve submitting the film to festivals and competitions around the world and hoping for the best. One of the awards we had on the Kickstarter campaign was a chance to view the screening of the film in a series of cities. I know that once the film is finished, that will be, for me, the most exciting and rewarding part of the process.


    Here is a story I wrote about the Thai Boxing Association Tournament in Des Moines. Really opened my eyes up to the sport, to fighting, and to the community as a whole. I have been training in Thai Boxing since October of 2015 and it has been one of the most rewarding decision I have ever made. I am in much better shape than I was and I feel good about what I’m learning. I’m also discovering long-ignored physical issues and injuries that need my attention. Most prominent is sciatica built up over time spent on the computer and not much else. But at least I’m addressing it.

    Unlike my training in kungfu, training Thai Boxing has become an obsession for me: I am addicted to pad work and learning new techniques, I love sparring and dancing with my training partners, and I also study film to see if there are new things I can learn. When I trained kungfu, it seemed much more about the culture of the art for me, as opposed to the actual martial art. I never felt like the training was something I could dedicate myself to.

    I wrote this story here, “Why Kungfu Masters Refuse To Teach,” as a study of why I felt the way I did about training kungfu the traditional way. Methods, I think, make up a lot of the difference. Hitting pads just feels a lot better than hitting wood or stone. I understand the hard core idea behind traditional methods, but honestly, it felt stupid to me. Even the wooden man, which I admire and have written about as well, just seemed to be a very counter-productive tool.

    I am still sorting through my attachments to kungfu and my newfound love for Thai Boxing (and Brazilian jujitsu!). The culture and history and lore of kungfu are some of the most richly satisfying and fascinating research topics I have come across, but for the actual martial artist I am creating out of my soft pudge, I find other arts to be more rewarding.

    I’d be interested to hear thoughts from anyone who might have a similar experience.


    July 18, 2016 • Modern Kung Fu • Views: 3112

  • Support the New Masters Kickstarter!

    New Masters Kickstarter

    After a long long time (two years has it been, since this first post?) I can finally say that the first larger work to come out of this endeavor is emerging out of the primordial soup:

    The documentary film I have been working on with a crew of filmmakers and producers, The New Masters, is coming to life. We just launched a Kickstarter Campaign to keep the project rolling, and when you visit the page, you’ll see our trailer, several photos from the project, and the story we mean to tell.

    Here is the New Masters Kickstarter

    Please, Share it on your social media. Donate to the cause. We put together some great rewards packages as a token of our our gratitude for your support. Also, leave some feedback either here, or in the Kickstarter if you do end up backing us (thank you!!) and let us know what you think of the story we are trying to tell.
    Here some excerpts:

    “Over the past couple decades, Kungfu has taken a back seat to a new combat phenomenon, mixed martial arts, or MMA. MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and the new proving ground for anyone who considers themselves “the greatest warrior on the planet”.

    Our documentary, The New Masters, explores the meeting of these two martial styles in Mainland China. We follow MMA fighters and Kungfu masters as they navigate new landscapes, feed their families, seek out the Tao, and fight for the pride of a nation. The film will also explain how the martial arts in China are a metaphor for China’s own emergence onto the world stage. Traditional culture, in this case Kungfu, is being diluted and transformed by commercial considerations and the sweeping power of globalization, represented by MMA and the general mixing of martial arts worldwide.”

    “The New Masters is also a poignant look at one critical aspect of China’s rise: How can China’s most treasured cultural traditions contribute to the modern world? Is there more to modern China than just cheap exports and the breakneck commercialization of a once-Communist hermit?

    This is a question that grips many Chinese today, and although discourse in China is dynamic, much of it is overlooked in favor of economic and (mostly negative) political news. The martial arts are one forum for this conversation.

    We want to to bring this larger story to the screen, and we need your help to do it.”

    Once again, here is that link to the New Masters Kickstarter

    Thank you so very much!

    The New Masters Crew

    November 3, 2014 • MMA, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 11189

  • Martial Law

    Japanese martial arts

    I wrote a story a while back about pirates and militias, and the role of the martial artist, in certain time periods, as a guardian. This idea has been with me for a very long time, due perhaps to my love of fantasy novels. The story of the hero who protects the village, or slays the dragon, is an old one, and I also touched on that cycle in a post on this blog, “Mixed Martial Arts and the Hero’s Journey.”

    I wrote the former essay during the media frenzy following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After that shooting, it seemed as if every day another report about police shooting unarmed men – mostly black, a few white – came tumbling through my social media feeds. In each report, police aggression was clear and apparent. The police seemed eager to pull the trigger, eager to escalate the situation. As if they had been waiting for this opportunity for some time, and now finally had the chance to “fuck someone up” – I found myself more and more drawn to the fantasy of a militia with morals, with a code, with the discipline of a master, or an MMA fighter … a force made up of people who used force so often, in controlled settings, that the tendency to escalate a situation has been beaten out of them so to say.

    Continue Reading

    September 3, 2014 • MMA, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 28321

  • Douglas Wile mentions The Last Masters

    The cover of one of Wile's books on Taiji and Daoism

    The cover of one of Wile’s books on Taiji and Daoism

    Douglas Wile is one of the most prominent martial arts scholars alive today, and in a recent article for JOMEC, “Asian Martial Arts in the Asian Studies Curriculum,” he mentions The Last Masters blog. Pretty cool.

    Dr. Wile has written a number of books on traditional martial arts, check some of them out here, and be sure to read this essay linked above, as well as Ben Judkin’s response/review, “Will Universities Save the Traditional Asian Martial Arts.”


    June 11, 2014 • Kung Fu People, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 9021