After several periods of intense study in the US, Alan mastered the Chu Sau Lei system, and returned to the UK to train a small but dedicated group of students in London and York.
Word swiftly grew that here was someone who could not only teach his students to fight against a truly committed attacker in whatever arena, but could also impart the depth and subtlety associated with a traditional Chinese martial art.
Ever the pragmatist, Alan recognised the lesson presented by the early UFCs: that no matter how skilled on the feet, a fighter must know what to do on the ground. Alan explored Catch Wrestling before becoming a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under four time world BJJ champion Leo Negao.
Meanwhile, as his early students grew increasingly confident in the stand up skills they were learning in the CSL Wing Chun system, Alan began coaching a team of fighters, the Iron Wolves, who have since gone on to success in MMA in the UK and more recently, New Zealand. Alan also promoted his own successful MMA show, 10th Legion.
As well as being a black belt in Escrima and Kalis Illustrisimo under Mark Wiley, Alan is also a qualified acupuncturist and Tui Na practitioner. He now lives in Tauranga, on New Zealand’s North Island where he runs a fitness and martial arts gym. His distance learning site, the Alan Orr Wing Chun Academy, can be found here
Here he talks about the importance of moving beyond drills and chi sao in order to teach Wing Chun correctly; testing your Wing Chun skills in a full contact format; how learning the CSL system transformed his confidence in hi abilities; the evolution of CSL to express ‘internal’ skills; how grappling skills fit with Wing Chun; what chi sao is really for; the central importance of the ability to break an opponent’s balance; how to spar; the meaning of ‘qi’ and force flow; traditional arts in the UFC.
What’s the martial arts scene like in New Zealand?
Where we are there’s four BJJ clubs round here: it’s probably the most popular, well established martial art, although MMA’s becoming more popular. I have some dedicated Wing Chun students,, but generally people don’t want to train hard, they want shortcuts. In MMA, you can hit pads and think you’re good, but in traditional martial arts you can’t do that. It’s a dying breed.
Would you say that with traditional arts like Wing Chun you have to dive in deep before you get to fight whereas in MMA there’s an expectation that you should fight after only six months?
I teach a lot of fighters, but I also teach a lot of people who don’t want to fight, at least initially. For me, it’s about where you start. You’ll come full circle at some point. You either start from the traditional point of view and go down that route: forms, chi sao, and then you spar and build your confidence up and you end up with the deeper skill levels and you can fight.
On the other side, there are people who don’t want to do all that stuff, they just want to fight. With the structure we have, we have the ability to teach the basics and become very functional, but then if the guy starts performing well, they then want to know how to get better. But you need to do all the traditional skills, because that’s where all the deeper layers are. I have a few guys who’ve been training MMA with me maybe a couple of years and now they’ve started to learn Wing Chun because they’ve got to the point where the people they started with who were learning forms have become more skilful, and are beginning to give them a hard time. They realise the traditional path will give them deeper skills, while the modern MMA path will give you quicker results.
The guys who are less confident are usually more attracted to the traditional arts, because they need more resources to build that confidence up. I appreciate that. I came from that to a certain degree. I could fight, but I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. Learning the martial arts in depth has given me the confidence to feel I can do it.
You believe a traditional martial art like Wing Chun can teach you to fight if taught correctly?
That’s the important thing: was it taught correctly? Unfortunately it’s usually not. For most traditional martial arts,it’s a very low percentage of people who will be able to perform at the correct level. And Wing Chun is probably one that suffers the most, because if you look at Wing Chun’s paradigm, it’s a very fast art so you can get away with being mediocre, you can fool most people, and if you’re demonstrating with people who aren’t very skilled it can be very flashy.
Wing Chun’s success is its failure, because there’s no testing ground to test a lot of things you’re learning. In Chu Sau Lei we’ve developed tests, to understand how every aspect links into your mental, your physical, your emotional wellbeing, so you have all these relationships that you test all the time. We stress test the art at every level, either by testing the structure, or by sparring or pressure chi sao, all these things will give you feedback. Without that feedback, you can’t really say you know if it works or not.
The problem with traditional martial arts is they have the right modalities in terms of learning forms, structure, movement, mobility, but the problem is they’re removed from the application. When people see my guys fight, they sometimes ask where’s the Wing Chun in that? I’ve said it a million times, you don’t see a boxer bring a speed bag to the ring. You do your forms, these are all training tools, to develop timing, position, awareness, sensitivity. All these things are not fighting. The training is not the fighting. The fighting is punching and kicking people and doing it well. Having superior conditioning and timing and awareness.
The application of the art isn’t doing chi sao with someone who doesn’t do chi sao, right? Chi sao is a fantastic way to get feedback from the body, but it’s not fighting. Can it enhance your fighting? Yes immensely if you do it correctly, but if you don’t it doesn’t mean anything. A guy who can swing punches at you will take you out because you don’t have that bridge between training and application.
To hear back from quite a lot of people that they can’t see the Wing Chun is really disappointing, because that shows you that what they’ve been taught is not teaching them how their art is applied. That’s the real problem with traditional martial arts, there’s not that clear pathway from what people are being taught to how it’s applied. They get caught up in the idea that the training is the application.
That’s usually because the teacher’s learned the forms and drills, and then they start teaching. Which is like teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu after doing 10 lessons because you know what the guard and the mount are. You know the positions so you can teach. It doesn’t make sense. Each position has reversals, applications, techniques, combinations. There’s so many layers of skill that you get from doing competitive martial arts and they’re missing in a lot of traditional martial arts.
What’s the difference between Chinese boxing and Wing Chun?
There’s no difference. It’s just a label to encourage the students that don’t want to learn traditional Wing Chun to engage with a different way of striking. Our philosophy of striking is a bit different because it’s all Wing Chun orientated. As soon as boxers see how effective the way we punch can be, how it controls the body, then they start training. Once they get good at it, they ask how come this guy’s better at it, and you point out all the form training, the detail they get from the traditional aspects, and then they want to learn that.
‘Chinese boxing’ is a way of getting people to accept there are other things you can learn from traditional martial arts. On the other side, it’s a way to get the guys who are learning the forms and chi sao to start trying to express themselves in a live environment where they can build some confidence under pressure when things are not in a set format.
You learn drills in a set format and then you learn to make it alive in chi sao, but it’s not really alive in chi sao, because the guy’s working in the same paradigm as you. When you get someone swinging punches at you, there’s a difference. You need to get used to working in both environments.
Chinese boxing allows you to have no rules and then to take control of that situation with your skill and then dominate with what you want to apply. A lot of martial arts are about who can take control and take the opponent off centre, off balance. In all the throwing arts you have to unbalance someone to throw them right? Wing Chun striking is the same thing: if I control your balance, then I can apply my art. To get that point of control is the key: and that’s what we mean by bridging skill.
Often when people talk about bridging they mean the opponent puts his hand out and you touch them and you bridge. But people don’t hold their arm out for you while you do your technique. People come throwing multiple punches. So the Chinese boxing is a way to put it into an environment where you have to deal with real time combinations, movement, stuff that’s really going to happen to you.
Do you train differently for the street than for MMA?
There’s a difference between how you apply your art on the street and how you apply it in competition, sure. But the differences are really like having a drill and having different drill bits for different jobs. The drill’s the same: the mechanics of your body movement, the timing, all these essentials are exactly the same.
So if I have no gloves on I’d be more likely to palm you straight in the face than punch you straight in the face because I’ve less chance of hurting my hand. But there’s a few things on the street that are applicable in an MMA or sport environment that you’d do differently, but they’re only small differences. If you make major changes to what you’re doing then there’s something wrong with the core part of your art.
The engine of the art, how you get power, take balance, that’s where people go wrong, they think on the street they’re just going to jab someone in the eye and that’s going to finish the fight. For sure, that can happen, but you’re also escalating a very violent situation. If someone tries to jab you in the eye, you’re more likely to want to really hurt them and so you’ve got to understand the situation. If you jab them in the eye and it doesn’t work for you, then you’ve got to fall back on what you’ve got left. And if that’s all you’ve got then…
Most people who’ve been training a long time, have been poked a few times, and it doesn’t necessarily stop them. They’ll probably become more aggressive and try to hurt that person quicker. You’ve got to understand the other person can do what you do too.
What was your path to uniting tradition with application?
When I first did Wing Chun, finding a teacher who could perform well and teach well was hit and miss, there was no real benchmark for who was good.I was lucky I found Derek Jones, who was known as a street fighter and notorious for being able to handle himself.
After Derek passed, I did various martial arts, and then found Jack Kontou. He’d trained the ultra-traditional path for 20 years: he’d done Siu Lim Tao for three years before he was shown anything else, rolling with no techniques for five years, that real hardcore traditional path. But this had given him had real skills. Everything he did, worked. I found that old slow training gave me a lot of benefit, but it was quite boring. I spent 10 or 12 years without even learning the second form, just the first form and chi sao.
Back then, we’d have people come to challenge us. They’d come down and I’d be thrown in against someone, thinking ‘Oh my god this person knows the third form and the dummy!’ But I’d chi sao with him, punch him twice and he’d fall over. I couldn’t work it out. I thought, ‘What happened? This is crazy, I should have to use some advanced techniques on him!’
But at the time, I got frustrated because I’d do my chi sao test and fail my test, even though no one could touch me in chi sao. There was no structure as to how we were being tested on what we were learning. It was great that as a traditional school we were doing things really meticulously and developing really good foundations, but often you’d thing ‘I’ve earned this progression, I should get it,’ but you were in no man’s land. When I delved into Filipino martial arts, I found you learned things much more quickly: you pick up a stick, learn your drills and you’re sparring. Great. So FMA filled a gap for quite a long time.
You took a detour into FMA?
I got to brown belt in Pat O’Mally’s Rapid Arnis system. They were the leading guys in the country at the time, and even now they’re still leaders. They’d been to the Philippines numerous times and learnt multiple systems, so you got a really good mix of different systems. At the time that was awesome because I got a really wide view of FMA from them. And they were very competition based. I can remember going to class one day and being suited up and thrown in for a grading, which I didn’t know I was doing, and going full contact with armour and then take that off and go again with no armour. I was like ‘Jesus, this is crazy.’ But there was something enjoyable about those days, because you really felt you were progressing while you were doing it. You were learning while you were actually doing it. There was so much flow involved.
I could see the benefits of both ways of training, but I still didn’t really feel confident in myself. And that was what I was lacking: the feeling that I knew what I was doing, I knew how to do it, and I knew it was going to work. That’s the bit that was always in my mind because I never really had that. Then I went to Los Angeles to meet Robert Chu.
How did that come about?
The reason I went was I saw his book and I looked at the pictures in his book and the way his body movement was, it was really powerful, even in a picture. But when I read the text, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I thought ‘Well, I need to check this, I need the answer.’ I went to see him and really everything he showed me, all about structure, and body positioning and how you use your body, it was all stuff we’d never looked at before, we’d been told to do the forms, told why we did the forms, but we never knew how to really make them functional.
Everything he did was in reverse: ‘If you don’t understand it, don’t do it. And when you can do it, then you’ve got to use it.’ Everything was live, about using the stance, how you test it, how you use it.
Straight away I felt my confidence change. Overnight I felt I had the answer to what I was doing. Everything I did had a purpose. So the empowerment of that purpose, really improving your resources, reducing your insecurities, because you now knew the answer. Before, I felt I had a lion chasing me, and I was fumbling through 20 keys to get through a door, and now I had a keypad and I knew the code, and I was punching through. The difference in confidence came overnight.
With the CSL system, our main emphasis is the body structure. In the last 15 – 20 years, lots of schools have taken up the idea that structure is the most important thing in Wing Chun, but when I look at what they’re doing, it’s clear 90 per cent of them have no idea what structure is. They might use their own structure, but it’s not what my teacher taught me. A lot of people are saying structure’s here, structure’s there, but often what they’re talking about is positioning. That’s just one part of what we’re talking about, and even that has many layers.
CSL is still evolving isn’t it?
Indeed. Hendrik Santo, who’s been friends with Robert for 20 years, has been researching the Yik Kam system. Some people say it’s the original Wing Chun system or not, but to me it doesn’t matter. It’s a classical, older Wing Chun system. It shows a lot of the roots of Wing Chun, being one form rather than three forms. It has all the classical training elements that are missing in modern Wing Chun.
So my teacher and Hendrik worked together over the years, looking at this classical training. They came to the realisation that the Wing Chun maxims have the structural system hidden in them. Hendrik has modernised that into a new approach, with the six core elements as one of the main things he’s exploring in our art.
The six core elements add depth to the concept of body structure. They start with the physical, the body, but the other five are the mind, the breath, chi, force flow and momentum. All these elements together are body structure.
Body structure, doesn’t just mean positioning, that is just the lowest level of body structure. What you want is a dynamic physical structure. And for that you need to know which vector force is applicable at what time.
There are so many layers for each element. And then having an understanding of how your mind is affected by your structure, how your mind is affected by your intention. And then your breathing, making sure you’re relaxed when you move.
And the force flow is really what we used to call linking and delinking skills. When to link your body, when to delink your body. When to use the connection of your joints and how to use them, in what order. We call that the seven bows: how you use your different kinetic joints in the body, how you store force and release force and return force. And then momentum, if someone puts pressure towards you, how you take control of that momentum. How you hold it, release it, when do you guide it.
All those attributes and elements are integrated into one thing: someone punches you, you unbalance them and hit them. It all seems very quick in combat. But there’s a sophistication in that, and our job is to make that become simple, so it becomes normal.
So the structural method is all about relearning how to use our body. Most people sit at a desk all day or they drive, using their body less and less correctly. When you say to someone ‘OK we’re going to roll in jiu jitsu,’ they can’t move around, they can’t move their hips. If you see them in a year’s time, they’re moving much better, because what they have to do is relearn how to use their body.
It’s the same in traditional martial arts: we’re often taking someone who’s forgotten how to use their body correctly, how to relax, and we teach them how to use their body, how to produce power in the body, how to counterweight pressure with their body.
We teach them these things in detail, structurally, and then we say now forget about it, just do it. You need to get to that level of conscious competence, where you don’t have to think about it. It takes a lot of time.
The traditional path is set up to do that, but a lot of the arts have forgotten how to follow that path. They think that by doing the form and drills you’re doing that, but you’re just doing the lowest level of the physical level. If you look at Bagua and Tai Chi, they’re doing much more of the layers than arts like Wing Chun. Some of the arts that people laugh about, saying they’re over-traditional, they don’t have any application, they do have the layers, they just don’t have the modern interpretation of how to apply the art. But they have the structural skills, it’s just bridging to the modern application of the environment you’re in.
Why does your school do MMA rather than boxing?
To put it into context, when I started teaching my first students, MMA was just becoming an interest and we set out to do MMA with limited grappling skills, just to test our Wing Chun. We didn’t do MMA to win titles. We wanted to test our structure, to see if we could use it to stop people taking us down.
Wing Chun people often say Wing Chun doesn’t need grappling because it doesn’t go to the ground: we’ll just palm strike them and stop the take down. You can’t say that. If someone’s going to take you down they’ll do it. You’ve got to have some skill in that format to stop them and then apply your art.
We had basic wrestling skills to start with as our main base to stop people taking us down, on the ground to pin them and control them. And in the stand up we had very limited wrestling and jiu jitsu skills, so we wanted to use our stance and use our position to strike well and stop people taking us down.
We had massive success. We started with amateur fights where you didn’t have head shots and that was actually harder than doing semi professional fights in some ways because people can get right close to you and get hold of you without getting punched in the face. It was testament to what we were doing because those guys couldn’t take us down so easily.
Obviously the sport developed and then the guys went into semi professional and professional fights, and they’ve had massive success. We’ve produced 10 title belts, had hundreds of wins. And we’ve had feedback from the guys: what I teach has developed.
We haven’t changed the engine, but we’ve had more sophistication in our tool box. We now know what works in each different thing that happens to you in that environment, so that’s the experience you get. The guys go out to hunt and bring back the food and we all eat.
Even the guys who don’t compete have benefited greatly from the guys that compete. In my group, only 10 or 15% of the guys do compete. There’s a misconception among some Wing Chun people that I’m purely a sport guy…but it’s nonsense, I’m probably teaching the most traditional format of Wing Chun because we have the core elements, we have the layers and that’s usually missing in most traditional Wing Chun. But we apply it in the modern world. That’s the missing part.
And it was the CSL ‘engine’ which prevented people taking your guys down?
One thing I’ve noticed at the higher level is how everything becomes the same. The more I’ve trained jiu jitsu the more I’ve trained wrestling, the principles and the way you use your body balance and your base and structure is all more or less the same if your art is correct. So our Wing Chun, the way we use our body structure is very similar to what someone would use in Greco or Judo to stop a hip throw. The more I look at the other arts, the more I see the crossover in terms of what stops that from happening.
It’s very much the same – there’s a generic skill in negating someone’s base or just being slightly ahead of them to stop them doing what they’re doing. Which is all down to the fine layers of skill, which is all down to understanding your physical body, your positioning, and then understanding how to control your momentum and how to control force flow. Force flow is really the ebb and flow of movement.
If you can move smoothly and freely and loosely and still have weight control, that’s a high level skill. If you look at the best jiu jitsu, judo and wrestling guys they all have great control of movement, weight and balance. That’s the key levels you need in the martial arts. And they only come from doing progressive training when you’re under pressure.
Now that doesn’t mean you have to be under life or death pressure or competing till your body’s broken, you can compete and create that environment at a lower level and still develop good skills. So in Chinese boxing we don’t spar full out hard, we don’t smash each other. We do a lot of soft training where we’re just tapping and hitting and moving.
A lot of my fighters when they train with me are surprised because we’re not killing each other. Yes, you need some conditioning when you get close to a fight but most of the time you’re training sub maximally, you’re trying to get to a level where you’re trying to get your nervous system to learn, not to damage your body while you’re learning.
Your body needs to get that flow of movement, to find your timing when you hit your target, all the things we do all the time. That’s really what you get from doing chi sao: learning how to target your opponent after taking control and off balancing them. So you own their momentum, you shut down their force flow so they can’t really control anything and you can hit them at will.
People tend to think chi sao is trapping, an immobilisation of the arms.
Chi sao is nothing to do with controlling someone’s arms. If I stand close to you and you can’t turn your body, then I’m trapping your movement. Any time I stop you moving freely, I’m trapping you. If I have cross body position in jiu jitsu, I’m trapping you. If I’m holding your elbow off the ground so you can’t turn your body, if you want to move, you need to free yourself up. In chi sao you’re learning to put pressure into somebody, or take pressure from somebody. And stop them from doing things freely.
It’s not really lap sao, pak sao techniques. Those are beginner’s techniques. A lot of Wing Chun people get stressed when I say that, but it’s not advanced training. Trapping’s a misconception.
I was in America once at a camp and there was someone there teaching ‘advanced trapping.’ He showed me some trapping drills. I said there’s no such thing as advanced trapping, there’s just being better at what you do. Doing drills is beginner’s training. You do a drill to learn basic positions and timing and then chi sao makes that timing more alive. I didn’t train with him, I went to Renzo Gracie seminar instead, to train with someone who really understands how to do ‘advanced trapping’.
Would you say the way you do chi sao has some overlaps with Greco wrestling?
Kind of yes and no. If you look at Greco, there’s a goal to dominate your opponent. When we do chi sao we want to physically take control of their centre, and strike them at will. But most Wing Chun is about trying to hit the person faster and quicker, and if you tag someone you win. But in a fight, you can hit someone and they’re ready, they won’t necessarily go down. So if you can take their balance first, it’s a more guaranteed way to make sure your strike’s going to be efficient and hurt someone.
Our chi sao is more robust. In some ways, it’s softer. If someone pushes me, I’ll redirect them very quickly. So I don’t feel pressure. It’s like rolling on the ground with someone who’s very good. That person may be on top or underneath you but they’re not tense. They’re using muscle at the right time to take your balance or sweep you or control you.
When I roll with someone on the ground, I’m very relaxed. As we say ‘relax but don’t collapse’. I’m using muscle tension at the right time. It’s the same in chi sao. I’m doing the same thing: relaxed but not collapsed, I’m controlling your weight and momentum, controlling the force flow, controlling what you’re doing, so you’re always in the past trying to get back to the present.
That’s the same with wrestling and jiu jitsu. We’re always looking to have control of the environment and have minimal tension. Too much tension and you’re going to gas. That’s why you see guys who do chi sao and they spar, they’re red and puffing because they’re not using their engine properly. They’re not used to controlling themselves, so they’re feeding oxygen to their muscles and they don’t burn themselves out. Chi sao for me is the same as rolling on the ground or sparring, it’s all the same in terms of efficiency.
If we’re on the ground and I’m on top of you, and I tense myself you can throw me off very easily. You can feel my weight, my joints, where my pressure is, so you can read my centre of gravity very easily. But if I’m relaxed, you’re carrying my full bodyweight, and I’m able to react to your movement very easily because my nervous system is relaxed. If I’m tense my reactions are much slower and I’ll tire out and gas out.
Same in chi sao: if I’m tense, I’m using too much oxygen, stiff in my joints, it’s easy to pull someone around if they’re stiff. If I’m too relaxed you can manipulate me and pull me around so I need a certain level of tension. And the tension is more in the tendons and positioning, keeping the muscles relaxed until we need them. Because muscles are really for locomotion and protection.
When we get hit, we need to sink our diaphragm, need to contract a bit, take pressure through the body, but between that muscles are for movement, so the more I can move, the more I can move you, the more efficient the muscle movement is, the more efficient I am.
If you have to muscle a kettlebell up, it becomes heavy. If you use momentum, body control and timing, it becomes light. And a lot of that is efficiency in movement. That’s the key thing for martial arts.
It seems there’s a lot of people doing Wing Chun and BJJ, people increasingly see the similarities between the two.
Yes and no. There’s a lot of people doing BJJ who do Wing Chun. Some of them still have very basic Wing Chun and better jiu jitsu. It doesn’t necessarily mean those skills are going to cross over, although often the guys can spar and fight better as a result of doing BJJ. But their Wing Chun as an art is still quite weak.
There’s a couple I think are good, but in terms of the core elements and the layers, I don’t think there are many that have the full picture. There’s a lot of frustration out there. I get accused of being a know all, of being arrogant, and yes, maybe that’s true to a certain degree. Maybe I do think I know it all, because I’ve done it for 30 years and I’ve checked the systems, I’ve done them all.
These guys have been training for five years doing one thing and they’re telling me I’m arrogant. Well, I’ve trained to a high level in five martial arts, so it’s not arrogance. I’ve checked it, and if you can show me something better, I’ll learn that as well.
People take things too personally, which isn’t helpful. I’ve been a black belt in jiu jitsu for two years, and I’ve learned more about jiu jitsu in two years than I did in the first ten because you carry on learning and refining your skills and to perform at a good level, so you work harder.
It’s a different mentality, I’m always learning and improving. I think the short answer is yes, it’s good that a lot of Wing Chun people are doing jiu jitsu. It is going to help, because they’ll learn more about momentum and position and relaxation and there’ll be a crossover in that their Wing Chun will become better for it. But Wing Chun has a different engine to perform at that level. There are a lot of generic skills that cross over, but if you don’t understand the Wing Chun engine itself and how to use that, you’re still going to get stuck. You’re retrofitting something when you should already have the answer. If you look in the right direction the art is already there. There is a quicker path.
CSL talks about ‘the snake body.’ What is that and does it transfer to jiu jitsu?
Yes, very much so. If you look at jiu jitsu they often talk about being like a snake, an anaconda…so it’s always been jiu jitsu’s thing to have that rubbery relaxed strong body. And it mkes sense. The body should be muscular and strong like a snake, not angular and stiff.
Wing Chun is snake and crane. People look at a snake and crane fight and think that’s how it developed. All that stuff is nonsense. The idea to me is that it’s a metaphor for types of body movement. What we realise now from looking at Hendrik’s work, for us Wing Chun is mostly snake body.
The body should be pliable and be strong and have good movement and be loose. The crane part of the art is really about vector force and angulation and position. So if you’re close to me and I sink my structure, my tan sau and fook sau and positioning will be crane body. That’s the position that gives me maximum vector force control.
But as soon as you touch me, I have that snake body, I have to soften. I can’t maintain that angle in a stiff tensile way, I have to be pliable. So there have to be fractals of movement inside that position, you can’t hold it. There has to be that smooth rhythmic movement. That’s the snake body.
But a lot of Wing Chun people tend toward the crane body, because they’ve been taught the forms and drills but not the essence of the art, how to train it and apply it. A lot of people do Wing Chun for two years and set up a school and they’ve only done the forms. Doing the forms isn’t learning the art.
There’s a lot of Wing Chun that’s very crane orientated, very stiff. They think they should hold their tan out to stop the punch. That’s a position it doesn’t mean anything. The snake body is the body being alive, dynamic, in flow. I think a lot of that is missing. They’re so drill orientated, and so stylised they’ve lost the application.
It seems to me that CSL Wing Chun is very good at stuffing takedowns and then rather than throwing in return, Wing Chun punches them to the floor…
Yes, the thing is once I have your balance I can do what I want. If I have your balance I can throw you very easily. Often when I chi sau people with no structure, they fall over all the time, they don’t have any balance control. As soon as I attack their balance before I hit them, they fall over. And when I hit them, they’re off balanced and with the power seems very hard to control because they don’t have any defence left.
When I chi sao with my guys, because they’ve got the balance, we’re not able to throw each other so easily because everyone has good balance and good dynamic force flow, so those skills are cancelled out.
If you look at two good judo guys, they might go for a whole match without throwing each other, but they’re trying 100 times, right? If you’re untrained you won’t see it, just two guys pulling each other’s jackets. But if you know it, you’ll see ‘Ah, he nearly got it,’ you’ll see these different nuances. And then damn, someone gets the throw. It’s a lot of work to get the throw. The throw came from the point where the person gained balance control and momentum control and was able to perform the throw.
So it’s not the technique which gave them the throw, it’s the breaking of balance and the timing that allows them to perform the throw. It’s the same in chi sau: if they don’t have structure, as soon as I pressure them and take their balance, they fall over. It’s easy. If they have good structure it’s hard to throw them. Just as it’s hard to throw someone who’s very stiff, they’re tension makes it harder to play the game. You have to set it up more, say be striking them. If you strike that upsets you and I can control and throw you.
How often do your classes include sparring?
We spar every day, every lesson. But sparring is not always hard. For me, you have to learn how to use your body by doing your forms, learning chi sau, which is learning how to control your opponent, and then for the sparring we have a lot of drills we do to understand what’s the likely outcome of each scenario and make them live.
Every day we spend time on each area and then have three to six rounds of sparring. Sparring rounds vary in terms of pressure and intensity. We work high intensity and with high pressure but not hitting too hard and looking for the shot when the person’s out of balance and you know if you hit them then, you’ll take them out.
And if you tap the person with that shot, you’ll get a grin from them ‘Oh man that would have knocked me out.” We’re trying to create the sucker punch. My job is to get the guys to create the position when they know they can unbalance someone and take them out. Because if someone’s bigger and stronger than you, you don’t have much chance of knocking them out by just punching them. But if you unbalance them, hit them when they’re weak, then you can control them.
I’ve got guys in my class who are 20 or 30kgs heavier than me and very strong and they’re always shocked by how I can throw them around and hit them at will. And they’re also shocked by how hard I can hit, even though I don’t hit them hard, they can feel the potential. When they start learning the system, they’re like “Ah that’s how you’re doing it.” That’s what I’m looking for. Now they’re starting to see why we’re doing it.
Yes, I cheat all the time. Everything I do is a cheat. I’m using the skills. That’s the key: the skills allow me to cheat, to appear to be stronger than I am, to have more power than I have. I can’t benchpress my own bodyweight! I don’t do that kind of training. I’m strong in my whole body, but it’s the timing that makes them weak and makes me look strong.
How does Wing Chun fight at distance?
Depends which Wing Chun you train. I hear people say at distance I use boxing. I think that’s crazy. Wing Chun is a Chinese boxing system. You have your forms, you have your drills, your chi sau, and then you spar. And all these things are like a sphere. They should expand and contract. As you get good with your chi sau, as you gain distance you still have the feeling of the position and line of attack.
You need to spar to develop that timing to bridge the distance and achieve what you want to achieve. If I want to hit that line of attack and hit, I need to understand the distances involved and the only way you can do that is sparring.
And if you don’t spar, then yes, Wing Chun is very limited to being in contact already. But I think that’s a waste. Because I want to feel comfortable at any range or position. You need to have that bridge. Otherwise what you see a lot is someone puts their hand up and someone just punches over their hand because the person hasn’t dealt with someone swinging at them before. Yes, some Wing Chun does fall into that trap, unfortunately.
Do you have any specific strategies for getting in close?
Well, whereas a boxer might guard his head and chin with his fist and forearm, we would try to offset their balance with that block. We treat that position as a version of tan sau, spreading hand. We would try to spread the hand back a bit, just a small movement to unbalance the opponent, and return the punch to them. We train that a lot and it’s one of the most successful things we have…when someone hits us, they’re losing balance, losing position.
The thing is in a fight you will sometimes get hit. It won’t always go your way to start with. Watch the best boxers in the world. They get hit. Everybody gets hit. It’s how you deal with it. The ebb and flow of getting hit is just as important as hitting somebody. You want to minimise the hits you take, obviously, but if you’re not used to being in that stress environment, you’ll freeze, so learn to be in the grind so you can learn confidence, to control the range and the distance and understand how to apply the techniques in the environment you’re in at the time.
What does the concept of qi mean to you?
Everyone knows that when you first learn to grapple, you end up nearly passing out or puking up. And that’s because you use so much muscle power that you’ve burned your oxygen and you’ve exhausted your mitochondria and your body’s shutting down. It seems simple, but it’s very important that under pressure and stress that you can breathe. If you can’t breathe, you can’t fight.
We need to control our heart rate and breath, to be relaxed, but not collapsed. Learning to breathe properly and deal with pressure and not burn your oxygen is super important. So in a traditional form, people will do a breathing exercise, learn to relax their diaphragm, that’s all very important but the thing is you also need to do that in a stress environment.
There needs to be a connection to how you use your breath. Qi just means energy. Energy and breathing are two separate things. You can gain energy from breathing, from food, and from resting.
Again energy relates to how much energy do you use to perform something. If we’re grappling and I have to benchpress you off me, I could probably do that three times, then after that my arms are going to be exhausted. I have guys who are rugby players, they can do that once then they’re knackered.
So you go to knee on belly then back to cross body. They bench press you again, and you do the same, now they’re knackered and can’t move. Their energy’s gone. The ATP in your body only lasts 10 seconds then you’ve got to recharge it. So if you use explosive energy to get out of situations, you can only explode a few times and then you’re done.
Learning how to use your energy properly, how to move and flow, when you look at someone who’s good at jiu jitsu they can grapple for an hour no problem. They’re using their cardiovascular system, but you’re not overloading the ATP or anaerobic system too heavily because they’d build up lactic acid and get tired.
They did that test with Randy Couture where he was choking somebody. An average person’s ATP finishes and then it’s the anaerobic system and the lactic acid’s going to kick in and he can’t hold it any longer. But Randy was able to hold it all day long because he’s learned to relax different parts of the body and muscle fibres to maintain position. That’s our goal too.
When I hold a choke position for two or three minutes I don’t burn out because I’m not holding as tense and hard as I can, I’m tensing, releasing and relaxing, linking and delinking my muscle fibres to achieve that position and wait for the perfect time to increase my muscle fibres and make that choke.
Same in chi sau, when we’re rolling I want to control your body, control momentum, take you off balance, but I don’t want to do it tense, start building up lactic acid and I don’t want to be over explosive so when I do want to explode I don’t have nothing left, so breathing and qi is very tangible element we’re using.
How do you define force flow?
Force flow is the ability to understand the structural mechanics and manipulate the balance of weight and control. So force flow and momentum are very much used together. If you show me a ball and I catch it, I have to calculate in my mind’s eye how much weight is coming towards me. If this is a tennis ball, I catch it with one hand. If it’s a medicine ball, I’ll catch it with two hands and I might sink my weight beforehand to catch it. I’m making assumptions about that ball and weight before I catch it.
On a subconscious level we’ve already taken in a lot of information and we’re already applying a lot of that information without thinking about it. If I throw you a cricket ball, you identify as heavier than a tennis ball, the way you catch it is different from a tennis ball.
Understanding momentum and force flow is all about understanding how much weight is coming towards you, what vector it’s coming on, how do I deal with that, where do I put the weight? When it changes direction, how do I change direction, where do I put my centre? All these physical things have to be alive, this is where theory becomes reality. You have to be able to do it.
Why are so few people are taking their Chinese martial arts and applying it in their combat sport directly?
because it’s hard and its stressful. I’m lucky in that I have a lot of students who want to push themselves, to test themselves. Competing is a young man’s thing, and a lot of my students have missed the boat by the time they find me. I try to create an environment where anybody at any age can learn these skills at a level that won’t deteriorate their body and younger guys can go harder, and afford more wear and tear, so they can test themselves at the highest level of pressure, but it still works when you take it down a little.
Increasingly, MMA is a single integrated art in itself…you’ve still got the specialist BJJ guys, but also you have the ones who’ve just done MMA and nothing else. Meanwhile, you have a few guys, say Gunnnar Nelson, who has a base in karate
John Kavanagh focuses on developing really good skills. I was super impressed by how they coach and conduct themselves as a team. Those guys didn’t care if they won or lost, it was all learning. They’ve got a very good learning focus.
As Conor said, upgrade your software without damaging your hardware. That’s exactly how we train. You want to get the most out of your body, the sophistication of movement without damaging yourself, because if you damage yourself in training, your’e not going to be able to perform.
A lot of MMA fighters have gone down the route of over-training because they’re worried about the other guy doing more than you. But if your resources are good, and you feel that what you’re doing is working really well, you’re more relaxed, you don’t have to worry so much.
A lot of my fighters it’s about making sure they don’t train too much, making sure they do the right things, so when I make them work slower on skill development I can see they’re frustrated because they think they should go hard and bang all the time, when actually they need to learn to hit the target more accurately.
I have one guy who hits so hard, I told him all you have to do is hit the guy five or six times and you’ll win your fights. If you can just touch them …every time he hits it’s like a rock smashing your head. So that’s a smart way to train.
I love watching Gunnar and those guys fight, it’s nice to see someone who’s super skilled in jiu jitsu like he is, who is also working hard to transfer that skill into his stand up as well.
He had a good karate background, so he understands line of attack, has good power development, just becoming more relaxed, means he’s getting better every time he fights. Same with Conor. You can see he had a few flaws in his game, in terms of wrestling, but nothing bad.
How would you characterise the type of fighter that CSL Wing Chun turns out?
I’ve had a couple of guys who’ve been physically gifted which helps a lot. But a lot came to me with poor skills and none of the attributes you’d think you’d need to be successful. It’s a process of learning how to maximise your body, to learn how to use it as a weapon. Part of that is learning how to get your body to function at its maximum capacity.
I’ve got a guy who’s been with me for a year and a half and who’s done really well. At first he was just an average guy, doing a bit of jiu jitsu and didn’t strike, now he’s one of the best strikers, he’s a beast. And that’s all coming from learning how to maximise his body, to use his attributes in a way that produces what he wants.
You need an intention but you also need a method to make that work in the real world. The structure makes that tangible, it unlocks a pandora’s box into another level you didn’t know existed. So that’s the wonder of martial arts, there are certain things you can’t do unless you can do level 1, 2, 3. Unless you have them first levels, the rest doesn’t exist. That’s why with Wing Chun I used to think someone who knew the third form was better than me, but often they weren’t. Because learning the forms isn’t the levels. Having the depth of understanding in the form is the levels. The forms are just the frame, the start point.
There’s a lot of criticism of MMA among the traditional martial arts fraternity.
They say on the street it would be different. Yes, on the street you’d get killed because these guys will pick you up and dump you on your head. You’re talking about conditioned athletes who work really hard, who are doing the hard work, sparring, they’re tough guys.
You think they can’t fight on the street? Of course they can. It’s ridiculous. So I have massive respect for MMA fighters. For sure, street vs MMA, I’d rather be training in a conditioned way to deal with a street fight than to not be. These guys who aren’t in shape, but think because on the street they’d poke you in the eye they’d win a fight, it doesn’t work that way…
They also often underestimate the sophistication of MMA’s training methods, the sport science, the psychology…saying that MMA guys are just egotistical meatheads…
You know, any sport where being punched in the face, where you’re actually training sweat and blood, they’re mostly the nicest guys you can meet. There’s always a few around at a club who no-one likes, that always happens, but it’s the same in traditional martial arts classes, the guy who wants to prove themselves at other people’s cost. Those people don’t really last.
I’ve dealt with a lot of fighters and coaches and they’re very humble, they work hard and have to deal with loss, they’re exposing themselves, putting themselves out there and dealing with it. It’s very humbling. A lot of what people perceive as arrogance is people promoting the shows to make more money for their family. It’s apart of the sport, it’s entertainment. The fighters who entertain more, generate more draw and get paid more.