Hung Kyun: Pavel Macek

 

How do you start your day, Pavel?

Every day is the same. I wake up quite early, because my wife is going to teach in the gym. I wake up with her, we make hot water and half cold, then we squeeze half lemon into it and a pinch of salt, this is the first thing we drink. Then we have tea: we are both lovers of Pu-Erh tea. We drink a lot of that every day. Then I do my Tit Sin Kyun, the ‘Iron Thread set’ which takes 20 or 30 minutes. Then I do my joint mobility exercises as well as squats and back bridges. Then I take light weights and do a set of 14 Hap Kyun ‘Long Bridges’ boxing techniques I learned from David Rogers Sifu. These help me open the body up after the Tit Sin Kyun, which is more closed in the hollow position. The ‘Long Bridges’ open it up, develop explosive power. After that I relax, switch on the computer and start to write, reply to emails and so on.

So your day begins with a mixture of Hung Ga, Hap Ga and StrongFirst training…

Mixing things up is not new, it’s actually the traditional way. In the old days it was always mixed. In Cantonese there is a a term Jaap Ga: when I asked my Sigung Grandmaster Lam Jou, about various sets and techniques he said “This is not Hung Ga this is Jaap Ga, this is a mix of various families”. So even the so called traditional sets that we today consider the core sets of Hung Kyun, are a mix of various arts, e.g Fu Hok Seung Ying Kyun, “Tiger and Crane Double Form Set”.

Hung Kyun also contains a lot of material from Hap Kyun. When I started to learn Hap Kyun drills from my friend David Rogers, who I consider to be one of the best teachers I’ve ever met, I’m coming back to the roots of Hung Kyun. I’m doing what Wong Fei Hung and Lam Sai Wing did: they cross trained heavily. Hung Kyun looked very different after Wong Fei Hung.

What interests me is bringing the traditional methodology to the modern environment and applying them practically in today’s environment: to be strong is good; to be able to defend yourself is good. So yes, what I do is a mix of things I learned from the traditional arts, the modern arts and from my strength and conditioning alma mater, which is StrongFirst and which I value very much.

You said Hung Kyun looked different after Wong Fei Hung. Are you saying Hung Kyun’s open-endedness came from him or that he codified the system?

Wong learned from his father and from various other teachers, for instance in the army, and modified the original Hung Kyun which was based on ‘Narrow Stances and Short Bridges’ for close quarter combat fighting. Wong introduced ‘Long Bridges’, wider stances, footwork, evasions, so called Sim Da, which means ‘evade and strike’ complementary to Bik Da tactic of ‘Short Bridges’, where you press the guy and hit him. Before him we have no written records, but Wong modified the old system, consisting of  ‘Taming the Tiger in Gung Pattern’ (Gung Ji Fuk Fu Kyun), ‘Five Animals’ (Ng Ying Kyun), and ‘Iron Thread Set’ (Tit Sin Kyun) and created ‘Tiger and Crane Double Form set’ (Fu Hok Seung Ying Kyun). It’s a mixture of different systems, particularly old Hung Kyun and Hap Kyun. That’s why they sometimes called it Hung Tau Fat Mei, ‘Head of Hung Kyun, the Tail of Fat Ga’, which is another name for Hap Ga Kyun.

The genius of Wong Fei Hung is that he made a compatible system out of these various systems. Think of it as an approach to fighting. Everyone has a different favourite tactic and strategy. Everyone prefers different techniques: close quarters, use the knees and elbows, groin strikes, maybe push the guy into the wall, or a cage. But another guy would rather evade, hit and counter strike. The same goes for clinch fighting or ground fighting. We tend to think of these things as styles, but they are actually fighting approaches: compare Lyoto Machida to fighters who fight in the pocket or use dirty boxing…these are different approaches to fighting.

That’s what Wong put together: a system that enables you to go fluidly from one range to another, or to specialise where you feel good. But you have to be able to fight at long range, close range, including clinch fighting, which is a crucial stage of fighting, and of course on the ground. The clinch and the ground are important phases not only in MMA, but also in Reality-Based Self-Defence.

Wong Fei Hung integrated more ranges and toolsets into the Hung Kyun system that up until that point had concentrated on close-in fighting?

Today we tend to think there was specific Hung Kyun system that was handed down from the previous generation. But I don’t think it was like that. Personally I think before Wong the system focused a great deal on strength conditioning. That was the first part. The second part involved training short combat sequences, like combinations. When we look at other Hung Kyun lineages, we see different sets, different choreography, but the techniques are the same, and not only the individual techniques, but the combinations. In other words, there are some typical Hung Kyun combinations. I believe the art was passed down in short combinations and sequences, consisting of two, three, four techniques. Different people then joined these sequences together in different ways. That’s why we have various sets in various lineages. Trademarked systems came much later with the rise of commercial schools and marketing, and the need to claim you had special techniques.

But Wong was an army instructor, so he was more interested in what works than trademarking his own special Hung Kyun system. He just met good teachers and learned what he could. Lam Sai Wing was the same: he learned the spear, then he met someone who taught him sabre techniques. We should adopt their traditional attitude, becoming more interested in what worked than in trademarked systems.

What environment did Hung Kyun evolve in?

I would say, definitely army, because both Wong and Lam were heavily involved in the military. Also, local militias, responsible for protecting certain areas such as markets and theatres. You see that even today: many guys who practice combat sports also work on the doors. Back then there were casinos, markets, theatres. That was the environment.

Which presupposes weapons were more important to them than is now the case?

Certainly until pistols and rifles started to be used. After that, weapon training ceased to be so important. But the really old manuals say barehanded boxing is mainly for fitness, because you fight with weapons. They kept spear and sabre fighting as traditional training, after the 1911 revolution and with the Chinese new movement. Even as recently as the 1970s, brawls during Lion Dance festivities could lead to fighting with sabres and spears. Of course, the first rule of today’s Reality-Based Self-Defence is to always be armed, preferably with something you will use, maybe a tactical pen, a knife, a collapsible baton. We train a few selected weapons including single ended stick, long stick from drills to free style sparring and full contact. I’m also preparing a programme for double ended stick. We take our inspiration from the Dog Brothers. My focus is on the tactical pen and you can translate many of the barehanded techniques to the tactical pen, plus short stick and knife. These three are the best weapons to focus on for today’s environment. And learn to shoot of course.

Although this interview is about MMA, it’s worth pointing out your group trains just as much for street self defence. How do you balance training for self defence as well as for sport and how do they complement each other?

They complement each other much more than people tend to think. And people tend to chose sides. There are three groups: traditionalists, many of whom just practice sets and useless applications. Then you have the MMA guys who say the old stuff is all crap. You should just do full contact fighting, with perhaps more of an emphasis on grappling than the other two. Then you have the RBSD crowd: I’m going to poke your eyes, traditional arts are nonsense, and so are combat sports.

Whereas I think of martial arts as a stool with three legs. The three legs are actually very closely connected, although they differ from each other a great deal in some areas. For instance look at the clinch in RBSD and MMA: you have to have a safe base in MMA, so if he’s got an underhook he can’t throw you easily, so you open your legs, so you are stable. But if this were a self defence scenario, the groin kick is the very first thing you’ll do. Just a fast knee to the groin. But that’s not viable in MMA.

My personal approach is the following: use modern equipment, you have to spar and sparring doesn’t mean just beating each other, but you can have various sparring games and various sparring scenarios. You can vary the intensity of the sparring. You can go really light or full contact, you can do a drill or go freestyle and everything in between. You can spar and work different combat sequences and sparring games or drills aimed more to RBSD where your overriding goal is to survive without getting hurt.

You want to keep your hands up, turn your opponent, possibly not get involved in the fight. If there’s not other way, you might strike first and create the opportunity for escape, which is always the priority.

In RBSD you will want to be careful about the clinch range, because you will fall to the ground and you don’t ever want to fall to the ground on the street. If you do fall to the ground, you are looking to get back to your feet safely and as fast as possible and either continue fighting from there or escape.

You always take into account multiple opponents, that the aggressor might be armed, maybe with a gun or knife. But you can still use the equipment and the training methodology of MMA, because if you look at the old traditional arts, which were designed for real combat, it’s MMA with multiple opponents and weapons. That’s it.

These scenarios change some of the stuff that’s done in MMA, because your strategy will be to avoid the ground, because his buddy might kick your head off or he might pull a knife and start to stab you from the bottom of his guard.

But traditional self defence is not that different from MMA, just with the risk of multiple opponents and weapons and no rules. Although you still have to be aware of the legal context. Back in the day they didn’t have to take account of law, but if you do a double leg on a guy on the street and he falls and hits his head on the pavement, he might die. So if we do a head twist takedown, ‘Two Dragons Play with the Pearl’, and we throw the opponent to the ground, we need to control his fall. Then you can either slam his head on the pavement if it’s a life or death situation, or you can just put him on the floor and then kneel and continue striking, or push away and run away. It depends on the situation.

I think these three groups should cooperate and they usually do, and learn from each other. David Rogers is fine example, also Tim Cartmell, Burton Richardson. I’ve bought some of his programmes and DVDs. It’s excellent stuff. These guys use the best of all three worlds: traditional arts, MMA, which is my opinion is one of the best things that happened to martial arts, and RBSD.

How do find time to cover all that material?

I named my school Practical Hung Kyun for a reason: because we are focused on the practical side. Practical means good health, strength, and combat usage in various environments. I devised a series of ‘Eighteen Application Drills’ (Sap Baat Saan Sau), six of them cover stand up, six cover standing clinch and six cover the ground game. They are devised primarily for RBSD. For the stand up phase, you use strikes that don’t need any specific conditioning such as palm strike or Pek Cheui, hammerfist, knee to the groin, simple stuff. The stand-up clinch material is stuff you are most likely to need on the street, such as a headlock. The ground phase is intended to cover what happens if you end up on the ground, if you slip, or the guy throws you, or you come out the worst from the headlock. Mainly it’s about how to get to a better position and stand up again.

That’s the basic. At the same time, students work on the fundamentals, strength training, breathing exercises, stretching and they start to learn the first set. Then when you get these eighteen drills you start to learn basic sparring drills…just straights and hooks, simple groin kick or inside leg kick, level change and takedown. And that’s it. Nothing else. You develop simple head strikes and kicks, takedown and takedown defences and freestyle sparring drills for those.

You should also be working on your strength and conditioning and your first set which takes long to learn because all Hung Kyun sets are very long. We have four main ones.

After that you can add anything else. It’s very simple. Even when I’m teaching the self defence stuff, it’s a matter of adding plugins, for example when we learn escapes from the various ground positions, we have an MMA plugin. I don’t want to ask my guys to change things completely: one of the best ways to open the guard is to get biceps control, head butt the guy and he’ll open his guard. But for MMA you can’t do that, so I’ll teach other ways to open the guard or even finish from inside the guard. So the technique and strategy might be different because on the street you don’t want to spend any time in the opponents guard or with someone in your guard, but guard is guard, left hook is still a left hook…fighting is fighting. Instead of using a chop to the back of the neck, which is not allowed in MMA, you’ll do a front headlock, take him to the ground, spin and take his back.

We do rear naked chokes in our self-defence techniques but only from standing or kneeling which means you still have opportunity to stand up very fast if you need to. You might not have such good control of the opponent’s body as you would in the back mount, but for the street environment you also want to be able to leave at any time. For my MMA students, on the other hand, OK we take the back, put the hooks in. But for self defence you don’t want to take the backmount unless it’s what Burton Richardson calls a ‘safe to grapple’ situation. He could still pull out a knife and start stabbing you.

How did you build your group? It seems quite informal compared to the typical Hung Kyun school.

I follow the examples of the guys I like. At a certain point I got sick of the fake traditional martial arts environment, the cocky Sifu with his nose up just because he has a different suit and special lineage and they spent some time in China. No. The student has to like you and respect you because of the way you are. Not because you say “I know everything and everybody else sucks.” It has to be natural. We do what we love. We go through the old stuff, the old videos, but we like the modern RBSD scene so our techniques are informal and respect comes naturally.

Students make fun of me and I make fun of them, it’s just natural. We want to have a good time, but accomplish what we need to. We train hard, but we train smart, but it’s not formal. You don’t have to train for 10 years before you learn some sparring. We’ve also been influenced by our friendship with guys from the combat sports community. Most of them are just super nice guys, they don’t go round beating up people at discos. They are professional combat athletes so they have to take care of their lifestyle, of their diet, their strength and conditioning.

StrongFirst definitely helped me shape my way of teaching and the group of students. Pavel Tsatsouline and his group are doing an awesome job of building a group of humble, dedicated people who love the stuff they do. They are the true leaders, they promote each other, they don’t hide any secrets, they’ll share everything, they’ll give you all the support you need.

The StrongFirst methodology has shaped the way I teach martial arts very significantly: analysing the art, deconstructing it, selecting the most important parts the students should learn right from the beginning, focusing on less stuff and doing it much much bett

er, hiding no secrets, just being open, teaching everything with the aim of helping your students become better than you are or were. Encouraging your students to cross train, to take different workshops, read, research…

That’s very different from the traditional Chinese martial arts approach…

I would say I came back to the roots. What’s traditional? Should I do things exactly as your teacher or grand teacher? Or should I do something that actually works today? I’m not only talking about fighting, I’m talking about health, strength, general fitness, combat usage. In my opinion that’s traditional. You should want all those things. That’s traditional. If you do exactly the same as your teacher and you’re overweight, in pain, weak, and  know 100 different defences against a straight punch but can’t do anything if someone pushes you in the pub, I would argue that’s not a version of tradition you want. So what’s traditional?

You spent some time training with Michael Goodwin in San Francisco. How did he train?

I was training with Y. C. Wong sifu in San Francisco and met Michael Goodwin there and then later in Hong Kong. He’s been to visit Prague multiple times. Michael is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met and I would even dare to say the best Hung Kyun teacher out there. He’s heavily cross trained in multiple arts, both Chinese and non-Chinese. He has a vast experience in martial arts, combat sports and various self defence system.

We share the Lam family Hung Kyun material but it’s the way you approach it which defines your school. So yo can have 100 Sifus of the same system, but it’s up to you how you approach it. I’m not saying the others are wrong, but I’m saying we focus on health, strength and self defence. I don’t want to do something because someone just told me, do this for 10 years and you will be good.

When he’s coaching say, the military press, Pavel Tsatsouline might show a technique and say ‘try this and you’ll see instant improvement.’ And your military press increases by 4kg in the space of five minutes. Boom, you improve. And if you continue practising like this for a few more weeks or months imagine how much stronger you’ll get.

The same goes for combat arts when you use that Strong First teaching methodology: the various combat sequences and sparring drills are the key to the functional combat training. You cover the same stuff again and again, but you vary it, you vary the time, the intensity…the material is the same, but the way of presenting the material is what’s crucial and this is what makes us different from most Hung Kyun schools.

I don’t believe in styles or systems, I believe in teaching methodologies. I don’t care if it’s Karate or BJJ, or Hap Kyun or Hung Kyun, or Taiji Quan…all good, but it depends on the teaching methodology and the methodology of practice. You can have super deadly combat Taiji Quan if you approach it in a certain way, for training and teaching. This is vital.

StrongFirst has also influenced your approach to sparring?

Everything. I would say StrongFirst has been the major influence on my martial arts and on my life in general. Meeting Pavel and all the other instructors was definitely a turning point in my life. With kettlebells you can do hundreds of exercises, and in the beginning Pavel taught a lot of exercises, but then we started to look for the exercises which give you most bang for your buck. So we cut them down.

Right now at level one we teach just six exercises: for a three day certification, 10 hours a day, and you just learn six exercises. You can get freakishly strong and in excellent shape just with those six.

We have three principles:  One, continuity of training process, you have to do something for a long time. Two, waving the load, you can’t train hard all the time, you have to have easy, medium and hard training sessions, even during the session itself you have to wave, train explosive movements, hit bags, pads, then rest. Three,  specialised variety, do the same stuff but do it differently.

Let’s say, you’re practising the rear straight, you can step forward strike, you can step back and strike, you can step side and strike, slip and strike. It’s still the rear straight, but you can do it same but different. The principles are the same whether it’s strength training, business, lifestyle, the principles are the same. These principles have changed my life, my wife’s, my students, so I’m grateful…

Pavel Tsatsouline talks a lot about the importance of the central nervous system. Could his perspective help clarify the old debate about internal and external methods in martial arts?

Definitely. The Naked Warrior book is all about internal training. Whatever we do in StrongFirst, push ups or deadlifts, we treat that as internal training. Lots of stuff is happening inside. To be honest, I understood a lot of material in Hung Kyun, the ‘Iron Thread Set’ for instance, only after I started learning from Pavel and his other instructors. What happens to the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, how you use your legs, the grip, how they are interconnected, breathing, sounds, abdominal pressure. As for the debate, ‘is chi real?’ I don’t care, I care what works.

I don’t know how my iPhone works. Tit Sin Kyun works. I do it every morning. This morning I completed one year of breathing exercises straight. I’ve missed only one day, because we went to the cinema. From a western point of view, it starts to make sense: you watch your hip flexors, the diaphragm, your pelvic floor, tongue position.

The old Chinese masters were just using a different language from the new science, but the result is exactly the same. Anybody who trains hard Qigong, like Tit Sin Kyun or anything like that, say Sanchin Kata, must read The Naked Warrior and Power to the People. Read it through the lens of your internal training and so much stuff will start to make sense. You’ll say ‘Oh, so I can connect my legs like this, and if I tilt my pelvis like this it won’t work…then here, lift the pelvic floor,’ and you have everything. That’s why our students learn internal training in the very first lesson.

Some of the Chinese masters were hiding the secrets so well that they disappeared. It’s the wrong mentality. I want you to be great, and I want you to teach the most important things right at the beginning, not in 10 years. There is fundamental, intermediate and advanced stuff, but there’s no secret stuff.

At what point did you get interested in MMA?

Basically in the early 1990s, I was working as translator for a Czech combat magazine, called Knockout. This magazine used articles form Inside Kung-Fu, Black Belt and other foreign magazines and that’s where I read about MMA for the first time. The UFC and Gracies and so on. I found it very interesting, but at that time I had the traditionalist attitude, the usual stuff about groundfighting and sport combat.

Then I went to San Francisco with my friend Ales and we saw UFCs 1 to 3 on VHS and we said ‘Wow this is rough, brutal, what the hell is this?’ When we came home, I started thinking how to defend the mount, what to do with the guard, because at that time we had no idea what to do if someone would mount you. Most people were like, ‘Oh, I’ll finger poke him, I’ll hit his groin, I’ll do this and that and it didn’t work of course.’ I started to cross train, watch DVDs, attend seminars. I wanted to know what to do, to be able to fight in this environment.

Eventually I found out grappling suited me: I don’t like to get punched in the face and I don’t like to hurt people. I like to outsmart people. In sparring if I can do something clever I’m happy. If I hit the guy, KO him and he falls down it doesn’t make me happy. With grappling, it’s a real martial art: if you know a little bit more than the other guy, you have a tremendous advantage. If say you mount the guy and ground and pound him, 90 percent of non trained people will turn on their belly and give you their back…or they’ll push you away and give you the arm bar. In stand up fighting, the skill is important, but in my opinion it’s much more difficult to learn. Even simple boxing, it’s so hard to learn timing and distance. And if you get punched it hurts.  But in grappling, you get rear naked choke, you just tap and it’s ok.

If you have good training partners who aren’t trying to break your arms or dislocate your shoulder, you just tap and you learn. You can train with full contact resistance and safely.  

I’m a huge fan of Erik Paulson, the way he presents the material and teaches. I went to seminars with him, with Carlson Gracie.

A few weeks ago my friend Michal Hořejší, a professional MMA fighter, led a workshop for my students. Cross training is a must: it’s a line that runs through everything we do.

But you can’t just take everything and throw it all in a bag and shake it. It doesn’t work like that. You already have to have a certain idea of the combat phases, the differences between RBSD and MMA, and you have to get rid of a lot of stuff, not just accept everything. That’s why I like David Rogers’ term: ‘integrated combat arts’. It’s not about learning a bit of boxing, a bit of BJJ, then go to a Krav Maga and you’re a self defence expert.  It doesn’t work like that.

You have to have an excellent bullshit radar, you have to focus on functional and practical skills, and not on what looks good. Just the basic stuff and to be better at the basics than anybody else and to be able to do it from any position.

I was talking about the way we add variety to the rear straight. We also do that in our MMA and grappling classes. We focus on just a very few submissions but we want to be able to do them from any position. And we work a lot on positional skills.

How many times a week do you and your group train?

I practice daily. I’ll do my own strength and conditioning, do some drills on my own, or go to my strength and conditioning gym or my martial arts gym. We have three locations here in Prague. My wife has her own gym, and my martial arts school is 40 seconds from my apartment. My strength and conditioning studio is five minutes away. We have a pull up bar at home, stone locks, the punching weights, and stuff like that.

The Hung Kyun guys can visit the class twice a week or five times a week. Currently we have three MMA classes a week, and its just MMA because I think you have to integrate the punches, because it changes a lot on the ground. I like pure grappling, but I’ve not done it, and it’s not my focus.

We’re also have a programme called 10 Tigers of Hung Kyun. I’m preparing 10 guys for their first MMA fight. Most of them are my Hung Kyun students. Right now, they’re focusing more on MMA, but they still practice Hung Kyun on their own, teach Hung Kyun classes,. But when I teach I always make it clear if you were on the street you would do this, but for MMA you do this.

I watched the 10 Tigers videos on YouTube. I thought they showed really high quality, intelligent sparring and lack of ego. In two of the extended sparring matches, I thought there was a nice balance between going hard but without hurting each other as well as good integration of striking and throwing. And they knew what they were doing on the ground.

You said you liked it, but read the YouTube comments. It drives me crazy when people say “This is not traditional, you have protective gear. When we did it we had full contact sparring without protective gear, no cup, no gloves. We got broken ribs and broken noses, we got kicked in the nuts.” This is not my idea of good training. I don’t know whether these people enjoy getting hurt, but if I get hurt I can’t train. And then I can’t improve.

What is wrong with using protective gear? When you hit the heavy bag, tear the bag apart. When you certain sparring drill, you can go full contact because you need a certain type of pressure and power and aggressiveness. But most sparring is at medium pressure. Sometimes you go light, sometimes you go harder, but it never happens in sparring that you go lighter and lighter, right? Usually, the guys push each other and it escalates.

I’m constantly reminding my guys: just take it easy, just practice, try to use the stuff you’ve been doing in the drills, because if you don’t try to use the stuff in the drills, when it comes to free sparring, the stuff you drilled will be useless.

That’s another thing that drives me crazy in traditional martial arts: everything works in a drill, but my question is how will you pull it off in sparring or in a fighting scenarios where you have headgear and gum shield and can go all out? Show me how you can pull it off then. 

We reverse engineer most of the stuff that happens in sparring or fighting. I see something and I say “Oh this is the application for the move in that set.” A mirror block against a straight punch doesn’t make sense, so maybe it’s a stand up wrestling technique used for getting an underhook or going to the back using an armdrag. But people will say this isn’t traditional. Hell, I don’t care, I care about what works. And if it works for me, for my students, for the majority of people out there, then I’m interested. If it worked once for just one guy, I’m not interested.

I have a theory: a lot of westerners come to Asian martial arts from a culture which values striking at distance, boxing, kickboxing. Therefore when we come across  movements we can’t immediately identify, we are predisposed to see them as merely useless strikes when in fact they may be for grappling…

I think there was a certain period when we put grappling aside, and boxing, kickboxing and point fighting karate became popular. But the very first UFC showed that it was nonsense. I firmly believe you should work on your standup striking from various ranges, but it’s only one third of the game. You also have the clinch phase and the groundfighting phase. You have to be proficient in all three. Look at any Youtube clip: the guys grab each others shirts, clinch, headlock, bumrush, take down.

The clinch phase is the one that decides if the fight stays on the feet or goes to the ground. So at PHK we spend a lot of time in the clinch phase: out of the “Eighteen Application Drills”, six of them are standup fighting and all are designed to prevent you going to the ground.

The guys has say, double under or 50/50 clinch or a headlock, and I always show the danger of being in that position, that you might get thrown, and how to defend that. The next thing we look at is what to do if you do fall on the ground.

Honestly when I saw grappling in the first two or three UFCs, I didn’t know anything about grappling, so I was a bit bored. It was so much more entertaining to see guys punching and kicking. But when they are on the ground, if you don’t know anything, it can seem boring. Now I watch pure grappling matches, and I can appreciate the pass, a beautiful spin, how he goes for an armbar, it’s beautiful. But it’s just a matter of something you don’t know, you are scared of it so you talk bad about it, say it’s nonsense, it’s useless…just two men rolling around…

Would you say you’ve gone from being a traditionalist who disliked grappling to someone who appreciated it?

I wouldn’t say I disliked grappling. I always do my research. You can’t disagree with something that works. If the guy fakes high, goes for double leg, mounts you, strikes you and then chokes you, how can you disagree with that and say it doesn’t work?

People try.

Yes, people do, but hell, it’s not 1993, the first UFC when Royce Gracie pulled guard and did a triangle and people said “Wow what was that?” Now everybody knows or at least should know. We have excellent material out there. I just bought Erik Paulson’s Ground and Pound downloadable video. It’s awesome. He’s giving you all his wisdom.

I took some of the drills from there to my Hung Kyun curriculum because he’s using some of the techniques we do in Hung Kyun and it works perfectly. And I took some for my MMA class…it’s only $40 but worth every penny. In RBSD we have some excellent sources, so just study, visit different workshops. In China they say, “Practice one family, but observe 100 families.”

Erik Paulson has a submission wrestling background. In terms of your fighters, I would imagine that aggressive approach would fit the Hung Kyun strategy.

It depends on the student and depends on the part of Hung Kyun you emphasize, because we also have lots of Hap Kyun material. Part of Hung Kyun would be the aggressive approach which is Bik Da, press and strike. The other one is Sim Da, evade and strike. A bit like Phil Norman’s Ghost Boxing. It’s excellent, I love it: don’t get hit in the head, hit the guy. And when you hit him, you can hit him again.

What else is it that the long bridges of Hap Kyun are about? But Norman’s testing it in the ring and MMA cage. And of course he gets rid of what doesn’t work and keeps what does. His stuff is awesome. I took his course and took lots of notes.

His stuff is more like Hap Kyun, Sim Da. And then other approach is more Bik Da. You need to combine those because you don’t want to stand and whack at each other, close your eyes and play Russian roulette. No, you want to play in the MMA environment safely: first don’t get hit. Counter strike, hit the guy, score points. If you score more strikes and don’t get knocked out or submitted you win. It’s a sport. And then when you hit the guy and he’s rocked, there’s a place for aggressively entering and finishing him, right? Bik Da.

Hung Kyun as you describe it seems to be a very broad church. Your mission statement says ‘Full contact fight based on fundamental concepts of Hung Kyun.’ I thought I could see typical Hung Kyun techniques being used in the YouTube clips, long bridges, long over hand right, sweeping low kicks to the lower leg, lots of throws, but you’re saying it doesn’t have to be restricted in that way….

If I had to define Hung Kyun, I would put lots of emphasis on strength and power, we like to hit stuff and be strong. That’s one thing that defines us. The other thing is we work a lot on structure of striking. We want to have the mechanical advantage. Two main strategies that we can say are Bik Da and Sim Da, as integrated by Wong Fei Hung, press and strike and evade and strike.

For the self defence environment, don’t go to the ground, so in the clinch you have various strikes to the groin, pulling the hair, fingers to the eyes, but in MMA you know you might have to go to the ground, so you spend a lot of time training ground fighting because Hung Kyun doesn’t have ground grappling.

With our guys we therefore spend most of the time on positioning skills depending on who your opponent is. If he’s a brown belt in BJJ of course we’ll be no match with him in grappling, but we can still focus on ground and pound and not give him the opportunity to get a triangle or an easy sweep.

We can lay and pray on the ground: we end up in his guard, we can just ride his guard, not give him opportunities, so we can just let the referee stand us up.

It’s a sport fight so these things apply. On the other hand, if he’s a Thai boxer with limited ground fighting experience, I’m confident our guys will be able to do a good job on the ground.

Actually one of my students visited another gym and said he was doing better on the ground than the standup. It depends on the student and the opponent. Some of my guys really like playing it rough. Others are more cautious, they like to evade and counter strike, score points. Others are better in the clinch phase and on the ground. In the end, there is no such thing as a Hung Kyun fight, it’s a fight, it’s either on the street or in a sport environment. The rules or the absence of the rules define how it will look like.

If you take your gloves and shin pads and say strikes and kicks only, of course it looks like kickboxing. What are you expecting? Tiger claw, crane beak? You have gloves and shinguards, so you can only strike and kick. People are looking for differences, something special. We have some “Long Bridge” combinations we pull off, but generally because it is a MMA fight it will look like MMA. No wonder.

Why are there so few fighters from a Chinese martial arts background in MMA? There are loads of karatekas.

Well, there are a few guys who are on a similar mission as I am. Such as David Rogers, David Ross in New York, Chris Heintzman, Michael Goodwin, Tim Cartmell…

I wonder whether part of the reason is there’s such a richness in Chinese martial arts, so many different directions you can go in. You’ve really got to have some discipline not to get kind of lost in it…

Yes, and because there’s lots of great stuff that doesn’t work at all. In my opinion, you can take a number of different approaches. You can discard everything and say it’s outdated, it’s useless. Or you can believe it’s the magic secret stuff that works, use this technique and the guy will fly away.

Or you can test it, use the scientific method, test and retest. What’s hard to understand about that? You can do that in various different environments. Not just headgear and gloves, you can use various sparring drills, use various types of protective equipment or lack of protective equipment. You can have strike only, strike and kick, just stand up wrestling, stand up, wrestling with strikes, you can wear a good cup and add the groin strikes, add head butts, simulate eye attacks. There are many ways to test it.

Let’s say you’re on a strength programme with the barbell. A deadlift programme. How do you test it works? If you lift more, you make a new one rep max, then it worked. If get worse and injured, then it didn’t work, right?

Use the scientific method, there’s nothing mystical about it. Martial arts are not a religion. They are practical stuff you can test. And you should. If you don’t, you are just believing in fairy tales.

Tell me about your role as strength and conditioning coach.

Yes, I coach a couple of professional fighters. Because of my original martial arts background, quite a lot of people from different combat sports attend our strength and conditioning classes. And of course my martial arts students all do StrongFirst programming. We have some new stuff that just came out: Strong Endurance. I think this is a revolution in conditioning training. It works like magic, it makes perfect sense and I’m amazed how clever Pavel is and how he came up with this stuff. This is really something.

Strong Endurance means exactly what it says. A fight lasts three, five minute rounds. At the end of the third round, you still want to be explosive, powerful and strong, right? But how you train and how you use that training are different. Most people think that if there’s three, five minute rounds they should train in sets of three, five minute rounds. But that just leads to burn out, they get sick and injured and their performance goes down. It’s similar to when you are on a deadlift plan and you’re lifting doubles relatively easily. And then you get to 150kg and that was your last double before you test your max, but then during testing you pull 180kg, which is 30kg more than your last working set. This is quite a big difference.

You see, there’s a difference between training, peaking, and testing. The fight is actually how you test your preparation. You shouldn’t train how you test, otherwise you’ll burn out, you’ll get sick and injured. This is not the way to go. So it’s very similar to strength training. 

Let’s say you think conditioning involves hitting the pads non-stop for three five minute rounds. You think this is the best way to prepare for a fight. But instead, you should do short intervals of say 10 seconds. You do combinations on the pads: 1,2,3, 123, 123 and then you rest for a minute. Then you shake it off, do some easy shadow boxing, focus on your breathing. When your heart rate comes down then you go again. You repeat this cycle, let’s say for 20 or 30 minutes.

Then just before the fight you get into the simulation of the fight. Maybe not exactly three five minute rounds, but maybe three five minute rounds at 80% intensity. Or you will get accustomed to what it is it to operate at that heart rate, and lactate level. Then you have your fight. It’s all about peaking for a fight.

We call it glycolytic peaking. You are not glycolytic training. You are anti-glycolytic training. You train using this glycolytic peaking approach, and then you test yourself in the fight itself. (Here’s a recent article about how this approach can be applied to the notorious StrongFirst snatch test)

This seems to go against the standard approach in fight camps, where the fighter might have to fight against a series of fresh training partners for many rounds, with very little rest.

This is the high intensity interval training approach, which was all the rage in the strength and conditioning world. But try it. You punch a pad for 30 seconds as hard and fast as you can, after the first 30 seconds the power is about half what it was when you started. So where’s the high intensity?  Strength Endurance is strength AND conditioning. It allows you to keep and even improve your strength but also develop excellent conditioning. It’s not only endurance. When you say endurance you usually mean ‘run 10km’, right? But Strong Endurance involves a hard exchange, followed by another hard exchange, grappling on the ground. There are some very intense parts  followed by some rest, and then you go again. But you keep going for a long time without a deterioration in the quality of your power, speed and explosiveness.

These same principles apply to the actual sparring?

Yes, sure. One of the best ways to develop your basal cardio is to do long rounds of rolling at very low intensity. Instead of going on the treadmill and running, you can just spar really lightly, focus on your breathing, your relaxation, your distance, your combat skills, still training the movements. That’s how we strike pads. I’m not interested in striking the pads for five minutes straight, MMA students come train on their own and they do say, three combinations of three on the minute for 20 minutes.

You’re applying this with the Ten Tigers? What’s the situation with them?

I’m preparing them for their first MMA fight and then we’ll see what happens after that. I don’t want to focus on  training MMA students and coaching them and being in their corner. First of all, I don’t have time for that and second, I think there are better coaches round here. I keep the MMA classes for my students because I like the sport side and MMA, but if one of them decides to become a MMA fighter, I will send them to another gym or some other coach whose speciality is preparing guys for higher levels of MMA.

We have a good group, we’ve had four months of training, right now there is a huge improvement. I’m happy with the group, happy with their improvement and we’ll schedule some fights in the summer possibly and we’ll see how the first fights go. There is no excuses: we’ll take part, we’ll win or lose. You lose you learn. It’s not a life and death battle. That’s one of the things that in my opinion the reason why there are not many Chinese martial arts people in MMA: the concept of face. Chinese culture believes that when you lose, you are a loser. But when you lose you have something to learn. There is always somebody better. There is nobody who never lost a fight. What’s wrong with that? If you keep losing, maybe your school or method isn’t good. Maybe your approach isn’t good, maybe you’re not attending classes, or maybe you’re not a fighter. And guess what, it’s alright. You’ll be good at something else.