Taking up kung fu in 1984 at the age of 14, David travelled to Canton to seek out kung fu at the source. There he met Deng Jan Gong, a fifth generation kung fu master of Hap Gar, Hung Gar and Taijiquan. Fluent in Cantonese, David became Deng Sifu’s indoor disciple and the only non-Chinese to have learned the entire Deng family Hap Kune system
In 1995, David opened his school Rising Crane teaching Hap Gar, Taiji and MMA alongside an acupuncture clinic. David has coached nine national and international champions in Hap Gar, Taiji and MMA, and has had students win competitions in Europe, Hong Kong and China.
David has been studying no-gi grappling with Braulio Estima since 2005, incorporating what he’s learned into his school’s curriculum. He has also trained in MMA camps in USA, Thailand and Hawaii. Since visiting Burton Richardson in Hawaii, David teaches his kung fu techniques and weapons in a functional, sparring-oriented way using modern protective equipment and safe weapons.
Rising Crane now has a thriving MMA competition team, drawing on the best of the traditional and modern approaches. The Rising Crane facility exemplifies this: downstairs is a modern MMA academy, upstairs is a traditional Mo Kwoon.
David talks about how he got into MMA; what his Hap Gar teacher thinks of the UFC; why MMA is greater than the sum of its parts and should be taught as an integrated discipline; why wrestling is not necessarily the best base for MMA; the importance of focusing on natural movements rather than styles; the application of science to fighting; how to spar intelligently; similarities between the street and the cage; qigong for recovery; why MMA fighters would pick up a traditional style quicker; and why we should let go of tradition in order to evolve.
How did you start out in martial arts?
I started martial arts when I was around 7 or 8, Judo, then Karate and boxing, but I was not serious. I’d seen Enter the Dragon and the Kung Fu shows. I enjoyed Jackie Chan movies. I remember going to a TKD class and asking when I was going to learn the tiger and crane and they said, no that’s kung fu. I didn’t know much. Then when I was 14 I finally found a kung fu class and was immediately hooked and began training almost every night, and I’m still doing it over 30 years later.
From then on, all the time I was at school I spent my time reading Chinese philosophy, Chinese medicine, Buddhism, Daoism. When I left school I was supposed to do the academic thing, but by that time I was so into Chinese martial arts I just wanted to go to China. And that’s what I did.
The primary reason for going to China was to find something to unlock it all, to help me understand all this stuff. It was a self development thing. I was trying to develop and learn more. I was never competitive, that wasn’t my motivation. I just wanted to learn, it was like a puzzle, and I wanted to get at it.
When I went to China the first time, I was open to whatever experience was going to happen. I was lucky that the sifu I found was very much into the practical stuff. I trained with several teachers and Deng Jan Gong’s name kept coming up. I went to his school, we got talking and straight away it clicked and I knew I really wanted to study with him.
In China, his branch of Lama Pai is known for its emphasis on practicality, for guys who’ll get in there and mix it, very heavily into the sanshou and the lei tai. They’ve always had a reputation for functional fighting.
I asked him questions about the more esoteric aspects and he said I needed to learn the difference between the fantasy and the reality of kung fu. At that time I was like everyone else, looking for the magic stuff.
If I had met the wrong teacher I’d probably have gone down a very different path. I don’t think I was particularly looking for the practical stuff, but once you’ve been exposed to it and you’ve done some sparring and tried the stuff out, you can’t really go back.
The whole thing was a quest to find the truth. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to delude yourself about a lot of things, but hopefully you’re gradually peeling that away and getting closer to the truth. That’s what the process has been for me, but whether I had to go to China for it, that’s another matter, but that time, that culture, that was where it was at, so that’s where I went.
What drew you to MMA?
I saw the original UFC 1 and 2 on VHS tapes I bought in London’s Chinatown. And I watched them with some interest. I remember taking the tapes with me to China and showing them to my Hap Gar sifu and asking him what he made of it. He watched the fights with rapt concentration. The whole three hour tape he didn’t say a word.
At the end he turned around and said, ‘OK so these Gracies, they don’t strike with intent to hurt, they’re striking with intent to take you to the ground.’ That was his first observation: ‘They need to have more intent in their punches and kicks’.
And he said: “The wrestling’s not that high level, but the ground stuff, there’s some interesting stuff there.” In one of the fights, one guy was mounted and stretched his hand up. The guy on top span and took the arm and won the fight. Sifu said to me: “Ah, but he had to wait for him to push his right hand up, because if he’d already done it three times with his left, so the guy obviously hadn’t practised that move on the left enough.”
I didn’t understand ground fighting, so I rewound it and watched it again and he was absolutely right. I think he understands fighting, the core of fighting, and he can spot stuff like that. As I took back more tapes, and then DVDs, and it got to about UFC 40 or 50, he was saying, ‘This is getting good now, they’re getting it’. He appreciated the fact that it was real. He liked that, he said ‘This is real kung fu.’
Now he’s really enjoying it, always asks me to bring more over. He felt this is where it should be going when he saw the earlier ones. He had a sense of what a real fight should look like and he appreciated the fact that it evolved towards that.
The Chinese may not have had ground fighting, but they had an integrated approach to striking and the grappling. They understood the essence of what a fight should look like. If a modern MMA fighter was to compare UFC 1 to the Chinese sanshou competitions from the same time, I think he’d say the sanshou was the more evolved martial art. At that time it was ahead of the prototypical MMA.
But you were becoming dissatisfied with the purely traditional approach?
My club had won forms and sanshou competitions, but I didn’t like the way it was going. The forms were becoming too gymnasticy. As for sanshou, people often refused to enter the competitions because they said the big gloves stopped you from grabbing.
So along comes MMA and I thought, perfect, there’s no excuse now, we can do this. But then they always seemed to find some reason why MMA was not real or legitimate. In the traditional martial arts competitions there’s always someone trying to skew the rules in a particular direction. Even judo has done that recently, taken certain throws out so the wrestlers can’t use their techniques. As soon as you have to change the rules to make the fight look like you want to make the fight look, you create an artificial environment. Basically, everything else felt a bit fake. I felt if you really want to know, you’ve got to test it.
I started training in BJJ with Braulio Estima in 2005. I spoke to him on the phone and asked if he taught no gi. He said yeah, no problem. I turned up in t shirt and shorts, with no idea what to expect, and had probably the same experience every martial artist has when they come against a really high level BJJ guy which is: lying on your back, flapping around, feeling like you’ve never had a lesson.
I remember him saying let’s start with some sparring. I was like, Ok, but what to do I do? He said, ‘Anything but don’t hit me. Anything else is cool.’ Sparring without hitting, that was a strange concept. I ended up having private lessons with him for nine years.
I don’t have any ranking in BJJ. I’ve never put the gi on, I’ve never competed and I don’t claim to be an expert. I learned it from Braulio so I could understand the positions, how the ground works, and how to use that to fill out the gaps in my knowledge.
So how do you coach MMA?
My approach is a little different. I view coaching MMA from an educational perspective. It’s similar to how kids learn a broad curriculum at school, and then narrow it down and go deeper. You take your A levels, then go to university, then when you do your PhD you’re going extremely deep into one area.
The problem in MMA is that people think you have to go very deep into the separate arts, and I think that’s backwards, it’s a mistake. If you’re learning rugby, you don’t say I need to do two years of basketball to learn how to throw, two years of football to learn how to kick and then I’ll put them together.
MMA is a completely separate system. In MMA, you have all the five elements you have in Chinese martial arts: kicking, striking, wrestling, seizing, falling. If you train the broad basis of each, not to a high level in boxing, but high enough for a fight, not to a high level BJJ, but high enough for a fight, same for wrestling, same for kicking, then you have a system that’s coherent and integrated.
Adults MMA is divided into a ground class and a stand up class. The stand up class we wrestle in the clinch, we fight against the cage, we punch and kick, I might use techniques from Taiji in the clinch and boxing. Then the ground class is always with striking, but always controlled, especially the head contact, but the actual grappling is hard. So we get in positions and strike light, we defend the submissions.
After that, you can learn to specialise. You can go to a jiu jitsu class and work on defending arm bars, or to a boxing class and learn how to slip punches. Because you already have a system, what you’re learning has a framework, you know where it fits. Rather than getting these parts which don’t work together, don’t integrate.
For example, in BJJ you may have several submissions that win competition in sport BJJ, but they’re not the same submissions or takedowns that win in MMA. Why train separately as a wrestler? Why would you spend your time bent over at the waist with your chin sticking out? It’s a different posture from MMA, the set ups are different, the shots are different. So I do it backwards.
The book Fightnomics is worth a look. It’s a statistical breakdown of every UFC fight from the beginning to the present. It shows there are four submissions that account for over 80% of the submissions in the UFC: rear naked choke, arm bar, triangle and guillotine. Therefore those should therefore be your fundamentals, the ones you teach in your beginners’ class. Why spend the class learning stuff that isn’t high percentage for MMA if your goal is MMA?
When people come to my school they say, don’t you teach BJJ? And I say if your goal is to win a competition BJJ, go to an expert in that area. We’ve had people in very short time win titles in MMA with this kind of approach. It’s working very well.
Take GSP’s use of wrestling. He wasn’t a high level wrestler initially, but in MMA sparring he could take all the MMA guys down, even though they were supposedly better wrestlers than him. That was because it wasn’t pure wrestling, it was takedowns in an MMA fight. He knew how to set his takedowns up. He’d throw a superman jab, fake the double leg, switch hit, other side, knee tap. He understood how that would flow from an MMA perspective, not a pure wrestling one. They’re not the same thing. Therefore he was getting a high percentage of takedowns.
Anyway, specialisation is not the right way to go for normal people training MMA. We’re an amateur club. We have guys coming in who only train four or five hours a week, so I want to know how to get normal people in a functional level of conditioning, striking, grappling, on the feet, on the ground, against the wall, whatever it is, in a reasonable time frame, like one or two years. And I don’t think learning separate martial arts is the most efficient way to do it.
Later on I send guys out to cross train. People misunderstand me, they say I don’t want my students to cross train, but that’s absolutely not true. What I don’t think is useful is getting too much stuff that doesn’t fit together before you have a grasp of the overall system. Then when you go and train with other people, you will know what will work for you, how to get it and how to apply it. Otherwise you’ll just get confused. The student comes back, they’ve learned something else, and they can’t make the two things gel and it’s sometimes not very useful at that stage in their training.
That’s certainly very different from all those coaches who talk about wrestling as the best base for MMA….
You must not confuse correlation with causation. In the US, you’ve got a big talent pool of wrestlers There are a lot of them. I’m not doubting their effectiveness at all, but try this thought experiment: what would happen if 100 wrestlers went through wrestling training, and 100 other guys went through an integrated MMA training? After five years, test them against each other. Who will win in MMA?
When people look at all these elite wrestlers and say, ‘Therefore wrestling is good for MMA’, that’s like looking at elite basketball players and saying basketball makes you tall. It doesn’t. The tall guys win in basketball, basketball doesn’t make you tall. So when you see these elite wrestlers, yes, they’re great fighters because you have to be a great fighter to win a wrestling competition at that level.
If there was amateur MMA in high school where they were teaching kids really good MMA fundamentals from a young age, they would beat the wrestlers in an MMA match. It’s not right to say because the wrestlers are winning in MMA, you should take up wrestling.
Historically, wrestling and grappling had an advantage in that you could compete hard and not get terribly injured. The interesting question is if Shaolin monks had had padded wall, padded floor and gloves, shinpad, helmet, do you think they wouldn’t have worn them, that they’d just have done pre-arranged drills?
The protective equipment enables us to take our striking up to the same level as the wrestlers and jiu jitsu people, it enables us to have a more realistic practice. I think that’s why in the older times, before the invention of gloves, the wrestlers had the edge, because striking’s very hard to train.
If you go to that Fightnomics book, and look at the percentage of successful takedowns, the British fighters beat the American fighters! Just look at the figures for numbers of takedowns attempted compared to numbers of takedowns achieved. So if the British don’t do wrestling, how come we get higher numbers? I don’t have an explanation for it, but that’s the statistic.
Don’t get me wrong. The takedown is a very important, integral part of MMA. Who controls the clinch has the decisive factor about whether it’s a stand-up fight or a ground fight. That’s not in dispute. But wrestling in the sense of Olympic wrestling, is that necessarily same thing as takedowns in an MMA environment.
Of course, there’s going to be crossovers and if you’re a very high level Olympic wrestler you’re going to pick up MMA easily, because you’re going to be that kind of athlete. But that’s correlation not causation.
To what extent do you ‘mine’ your Hap Gar for MMA techniques?
It’s not a matter of deliberately taking a technique from a Hap Gar set and applying it into MMA. I don’t really have that thought process anymore. Ten or 15 years ago I was breaking the forms down and saying this is a knee tap, this is an arm drag, this is a pummel. When you see a movement, you have an assumption as to what it’s used for. There’s a danger you try to make it fit something when it wasn’t intended to be like that in the first place. You assume it was a block, when it was actually meant to be a grappling move.
For example, in Hap Gar there’s a move where you push your hands in one direction and kick in the opposite. If you don’t know what it’s for you end up with silly applications. Like this one guy I saw who used it to punch one guy while kicking another. That’s silly. It actually makes more sense as wrestling: you’re pushing someone’s upper body in one direction while sweeping his leg in the other direction.
Having said that, there are some movements in Hap Gar that I still don’t like. I remember saying to my sifu, ‘I can’t see myself using this one’, and he just looked at me and said ‘Not every movement in every set is going to suit you.’ In each set, there’ll be some bread and butter things, and also some lower percentage stuff.
I don’t think like that anymore. Now I’m finding the common themes, natural human movement, principles of balance, how the body works. I don’t have an ulterior motive to make it a style, to say ‘This has to look like Hap Gar.’ It’s just natural when you’re in the clinch, a lot of the tie ups are like in Taiji, cloud hands, striking tiger, single whip, because that’s how my body wants to move. Thai boxers might have similar moves, but with different names. I’m not trying to make it look like Hap Gar or Taiji.
If you see a round kick, some people say it’s a Muay Thai kick. If you see an arm bar, some say it’s a BJJ arm bar. But is really different from a Hap Gar round kick or a judo arm bar? The cap choi is one of our bread and butter techniques, but to everyone else it’s just a haymaker or a big overhand right.
The scientific approach sees it as a punch or kick or takedown and saves the cultural stuff for outside of the fight. There’s too much baggage when it should be really simple. I know when I throw an overhand right and cut in on a triangle step, I know that’s a movement pattern from Hap Gar. I don’t think if you taught Mike Tyson that an uppercut was called pao choi that would make it any more effective. It’s just another name, or culture.
The Hap Gar is long range. In the Hap Gar, the first principle is evasiveness, the footwork is about finding the angles. MMA has gone that way. If you look back 10 years, in the open phase of combat, MMA guys stood very square like Thai boxers. Now everyone’s using triangle stepping and angles.
I’m not saying they’ve all gone to kung fu, I just mean that everyone will stumble across the same stuff because everything works, regardless of the culture or the time. They come up with the same thing. If you look at TJ Dillashaw, he’s using stepping and angles. In boxing that wouldn’t be so useful but put the takedowns there, and it changes everything. I can come in and fake a strike and now I’m in a perfect position for a double leg.
In MMA the range is a bit more than in boxing because of the kick and shot. That means you have to stand a bit further away, use more extension. When you watch a lot of MMA guys on the pads, they’re hitting like boxers. But when you see them in the cage, they look different. So there’s a disconnect between how they train and how they fight. They’re learning a lot of small, boxing head movement, but when the fight happens that’s out the window, it’s all long range.
We hit the pads the same way we fight. It does resemble Hap Gar, no question, that’s my background. There’s a lot of turning, extension and continual barrage type of attack, simultaneous attack and defence. In that respect, it’s very much the same. And everything has to be powerful, the kicking, the waist motion.
Taiji is more about the principle of tying up, unbalancing and hitting in the clinch. Taiji is predominantly about dirty boxing: tying them up, unbalancing them and hitting them. That’s the fighting concept of a lot of Chinese arts, especially the ones that use the concept of the bridge. They are always looking to unbalance. You haven’t got to do a picture perfect judo throw. Even if he slightly loses balance you can land a shot to the chin. That’s going to be good enough.
When we do MMA fights, you’ll see a lot of guys that we fight against, they have two modes: they’re either in striking mode or they’re in grappling mode. There’s very few that are controlling and hitting at the same time. Instead, they’re looking for opportune takedowns, and if it doesn’t happen they go straight back to punching again. Whereas you look at traditional Taiji it’s all about that integration of striking and unbalancing in the clinch.
The problem with the way Taiji is practised now though is it overemphasises relaxation which is a mistake. My sifu would use the word ‘sung’ in the sense of loose, relaxed, but not go floppy like a noodle. You see these Taiji zombies, and you know if they entered any kind of a tournament they’d get mashed. The Chen family put on some good pushing hands competitions, but all the other Taiji people say ‘Ah, that’s just wrestling’. But maybe wrestling’s something they should look at, maybe there’s a reason why it looks like that.
Yes, you often here ‘wrestling’ used as a derogatory term from Chinese martial artists. But dress it in silk pyjamas and suddenly it’s subtle skills…
We all have our branding: BJJ has a branding, kung fu attracts a certain kind of person, it’s inevitable. But if you’re really trying to understand fighting you have to go away from that, you have to look at the fight itself. Steve Morris talks about that, using the fight as the reference.
Burton Richardson is really ahead of the curve in applying the scientific method. He’s testing stuff and he’s finding out that a lot of what the old guys taught worked really well, because they tested their stuff.
The value is your own experience, that’s the original concept of JKD, but it got lost. Instead of ‘Liberate yourself from the classical mess,’ some schools of JKD have got caught up in about 10 or 15 classical messes.
I love the whole cultural side of it. I’ve studied Hap Gar, Hung Gar, Taiji, but I don’t feel in any sense constrained by it. When people from traditional styles say things like ‘We don’t elbow’, I wonder what do you mean? On our planet we don’t have elbows? It’s bizarre how people use ‘we’ for our style, as if that defines them or what they can do. When somebody says ‘We believe this’ or ‘we don’t believe that’- it means they are letting somebody else do their thinking for them.
I think Burton was talking about just going out there and testing stuff, so he influenced me in that. The other thing Burton really helped me with is, you can test the weaponry the same way as the empty hands.
It’s kind of obvious, but in China we’d done a lot of drills. My sifu’s grandfather was a stickfighter, so he had a lot of experience. The stuff we did was too dangerous for practical practice without getting injured. We had to everything either as a pre-arranged sequence or very much hold back contact.
Whereas Burton tells you to put on gloves, padded stick, helmet, and go for it. That’s good. I think if my sifu had had that equipment, he’d definitely have said that’s the way to go. Yes, Burton’s knife defence stuff is the best I’ve seen for knife defence, but for me, Burton’s influence on me wasn’t so much the techniques, but the mentality, the idea about how to test stuff. Then I applied that to what I’d learnt from my teacher.
How do you approach sparring?
You’re looking at the traditional keywords. The first is the mindset, the intent. That’s the hardest thing. Maybe it’s best to develop that on the pads or bags, because you don’t want to use that mindset in sparring. People get injured. That’s where I’m different from my sifu. In sparring he was really rough, really hard, and I always thought that was not very constructive. My approach is always, can we use more protective gear, can we go lighter? My teacher’s idea was ‘You fight a rabbit the same as an elephant.’ It was overkill. Phenomenal to watch, he scared the pants off me, but it’s hard to train that way. That’s why you end up just doing forms because you do get injured. It’s not a practical way to train day to day.
Traditionally, in China, the inheritors of the system were the ones who survived the training. Were they good fighters because of the training, or that they managed to stick around longer? It takes more skill to take people who aren’t fighters and turn them into fighters. That’s what I’m interested in.
So for the most part we go light. Every now and again you have to test it hard to make sure you’re going in the right direction, but that doesn’t even have to be a weekly thing, it can just be a few times a year. As long as you’re testing it in real time, 30 per cent contact, but because you regularly either do the real fighting or students compete in the cage, you have a meta reference of what the fight’s like and it doesn’t go too far away. If you don’t spar regularly, it gradually becomes unfamiliar, so it’s something you need to regularly come back to. But it doesn’t need to involve weekly head trauma.
Do you prepare differently for self-defence ‘on the street’?
MMA is the same as the street. When my guys have their first fight, they say ‘Sifu, I don’t know what to do’, and I say ‘Be first, land the first shot.’ Usually when that happens, everything falls into place. I don’t think that’s so different from the street. Of course a street fight is different in that he might have friends, there’s no padded floor, you’re not going to be rolling around looking for a submission, you’re going to be trying to get on your feet as quickly as possible, you’re looking for weapons, whether the other guy is looking for a weapon, for multiple opponents. I’m not saying it’s the same, I’m saying the essence of the fight is the same.
Going first doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win though. Burton Richardson told me a story about a friend of his who was a Thai boxer who was attacked in the street by someone who was on drugs. He laid into him, kneed him and ended up pounding him so badly he made himself physically sick. But the guy kept coming. Burton said maybe you should have rear naked choked him. The guy immediately gave up Thai boxing and took up BJJ. I don’t think giving up Thai was the way to go, but it’s true there are appropriate levels of response. It’s good to have both the striking and the grappling.
Think about it this way. You practice push hands or chi sao, gently. Then you’ve got something more serious like sanshou. Then you go as far as MMA. But then you’ve got this mythical idea that there’s another level, the street, where you’ll use techniques the MMA guys wouldn’t dare use, because if they punched like that they’d take each other’s heads off. But I don’t think there is another level. If there is, I’ve never seen it. The ‘deadly stuff’ is what would happen after the referee stops the fight- when the opponent cannot defend himself. But you still have to get him to that point first.
In MMA, with the equipment and the way of training, gives you a way of training realistically. If you put in hundreds of rounds, you’re going to be more experienced in some respects than someone who’s had 10 or 20 streetfights. Maybe not in the psychological sense, but in terms of reaction training, sensitivity. My students who train like this all the time should be better fighters than the previous generation. It should be an evolution.
My sifu could fight very well because he’d had lots of fights. He knew what worked because he had a mass of real fighting experience. I hadn’t had that experience, so for me everything felt second hand until I discovered MMA. And everything my teacher told me has been born out. I didn’t get it, now I’ve had my own experience I get it. I’m trying to find my own way rather than just following a tradition. That’s the evolution.
Is there a place for qigong?
I use the Hap Gar qigong for the joint mobilising aspect. MMA guys go very hard, they use too much power too quickly and hurt themselves. Some of the qigong is great for opening the hips and shoulders. The breathing exercises for controlling the breath, controlling the heart rate are very useful for grappling, for recovering between rounds, calming the mind down. So there’s no aspect of it that isn’t useful somewhere. In our Fighting Fit class we use kettlebells, hit the bags, and then we’ll finish with five minutes of qi gong or the yoga type stretching exercises from the Hap Gar.
If you hang around long enough it all comes back round again. You’re seeing coaches use prehab movements, exercises to prevent injury. They’re using them to improve range of motion, activation drills things. That’s very similar to all the esoteric hand wiggling stuff that people laugh at in kung fu.
But you have to understand what the movements are for: this is for ling gong, this is for neigong , this is for meditation, this is for direct combat. Rather than mixing it up and trying to use it for something it wasn’t intended for that. It’s not necessarily the movement that’s silly, just that the person’s interpretation is wrong.
Some of the movements from the Hap Gar forms are very similar to gymnastics. You had GSP training gymnastics and bodyweight exercises and saying it was the most functional training for a fighter. Suddenly they’re all doing backflips and handstands, which is the very stuff people were laughing at in the kung fu forms.
Do many of your pupils train in both Hop Gar and MMA?
A few of my guys cross train in both. Like me, they started off with one interest and it changed as they went along. They thought, ‘Oh now I know how to look after myself, I’m confident I can grapple, I can punch, I can kick, is there anything else to learn?’ Yes, Hap Gar.
Or some come from the other way round, maybe they were a bit scared or intimidated by the MMA, but after a while they want to test their Hap Gar. So I say ‘Try it out, they’re a nice bunch, they’re not going to kill you.’ Then you get that cross pollination which is really good and healthy.
Then again if someone’s coming along with a shorter time frame, to win an MMA match, learning classical forms isn’t the way to go. I’m not saying none of the movements are useful, but it’s not an efficient way to learn.
I’d be hypocritical if I said to you ‘Oh you don’t need to learn wrestling or Muay Thai, but you need to learn Hap Gar.’ The system is something different from the fight. Learning the system’s useful for cultural practice or self cultivation, but it’s not necessary to take someone through the Hap Gar system to prepare for an MMA match.
It’s actually much easier to teach someone a kung fu form if the person already understands how to fight because I can say ‘This movement is for slipping the punch, you’re coming underneath here,’ and they’ll pick it up very easily. If they’ve got no reference to the movement, they’re basically following along, they’re miming it, but it’s fake. And when they come to spar they can’t use it.
Back in the day, you’d learn individual movements, how to use them and then how to fight. Only then would learn a form. That was true in Hap Gar up to about three generations back. That was normal. So someone coming from my MMA class should pick Hap Gar up quicker because their fundamentals are good.
Having said that, it’s important for MMA guys to develop good movement patterns. It’s difficult to get MMA people to practice the soft stuff, just as it’s hard to get the kung fu people to do the sparring.
The mindset of Hap Gar is the same as MMA. It’s a practical thing: if you take someone down in Hap Gar you’re not necessarily going to follow them down and look for an armbar if you’re in a streetfight. But the fight is the same. If someone’s trying to punch you, kick you, take you down, strangle you, then you have to stop them and you’re trying your hardest, there’s no sense that you’re holding back.
What about the idea that traditional arts are precious cultural artefacts?
There’s this sense that we have to preserve everything, that extinction is a bad thing. That’s not necessarily true. I asked my sifu about a sword form that had been lost for a couple of generations and whether we could piece it together. He looked at me and said ‘Why? You’d be better of making up a new one’. A student asked him about a particular movement in a form that he’d changed, and said ‘That’s not traditional’. Sifu looked at him and said if ‘I do it, it’s traditional.’ He really owned his kung fu! I aspire to be like that.
So I’m not sure it’s necessarily always about preserving stuff. Everything builds on the previous. Like science, standing on the shoulders of giants, you don’t necessarily do everything your teacher did: you respect tradition but at some point you need to let go in order to go onto the next level.
But some of things you have to let go of. It’s not always easy. You go to China looking for something that will unlock a mystery and you find out it comes down to sport science and athleticism. We’re looking for something special, our system, our tribe, but the scientific approach means you’ve got to go beyond that, it’s got to be true regardless of who does it.
Traditional martial arts is based on Buddhist and Taoist principles- from Taoism is the concept that everything changes. From Buddhism comes the concept of non attachment. Ultimately in Zen, there is no form. So why the resistance? Why the attachment? Ultimately, there is no self, no style- so if you have a big resistance to MMA, or feel it threatens traditional martial arts, where is that coming from?
Letting go of the idea that you’ve found something special is not easy for people who’ve come from a certain background. But most of the people who come into MMA are not that type of people, they have a different mindset. They’re athletes, rugby players, they’re not the geeky guys looking for the secret dim-mak. They don’t have that baggage and don’t have a problem with just going in there and doing the training. So yes, it’s challenging.