How did you first get into the martial arts and why did you choose Wing Chun?
I grew up in NYC, Chinatown. My next door neighbor was a Shaolin Kung Fu Sifu and I used to play with his children. He started teaching us Shaolin kung fu. I used to play animal kung fu games with his kids. He trained us from the time I was four until I was 13 years old. He went back to China, so that was the end of that. When Bruce Lee came on the scene, everything was about Wing Chun. My old sifu, Lee Wuen, introduced me to Duncan Leung’s school when I was a young boy and that’s how I got hooked on Wing Chun, but all Duncan did was talk about the great deeds of William Cheung. When Duncan left NYC in 1979, I still trained with two of his senior students, the Young brothers. Then in 1983, they invited William Cheung to New York and by coincidence, I’d just read an article about him being awarded the Black Belt Hall of Fame Kung Fu Artist of the Year.
In your time as a Wing Chun instructor, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about combat?
Traditional Wing Chun’s ‘Five Stages of Combat’ strategy, which is based on attacking the weaknesses of the opponent’s Balance (B), Openings (O), the position of the Elbow (E) and making their Arms or Legs Cross (C) — BOEC. Also, that the exponent must protect his own weaknesses of the Balance, Openings and Elbow, and keep his arms and legs from Crossing.
What important lessons has your Wing Chun experience taught you about life?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is accountability. You have to be accountable to your teacher and your students. As Grandmaster Cheung instructed me from an old Chinese saying: “When you drink the tea, never forget where the water came from.” This means that you should always respect your teacher, because he’s the one who gave you your skills.
What role has competitive fighting played in your development as a martial artist and as a person?
I have competed in full-contact and no-holds-barred (NHB) fighting and I think being a professional fighter really teaches you a lot about yourself. It helps you develop your heart and teaches you to go beyond normal limitations. I fought for Extreme Fighting and won each of the three times I competed. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to fight any really notable competitors. I also won my qualification fights for UFC. I had signed a contract with Extreme so there was some politics at that time over fighting in both. Then Art Davie, who then owned UFC, was going to put a show together: Team Wing Chun Vs Team Gracie. But unfortunately that never came to fruition.
What is your opinion on the place of tournaments in students’ development?
I feel tournaments help students to develop confidence. It helps to bring out their courage and it also gives them a chance to test their skills.
There is often debate about the best tournament format for Wing Chun practitioners to test their skills. Can it be done and what’s the best way?
I really don’t feel there’s one best [format] for a Wing Chun practitioner. Through my years of training and tournament fighting, I’ve found that you can apply Wing Chun in all areas of combat. I have trained students who have become world champions in all aspects of tournament competition, ranging from point competitions to NHB. My teacher, Grandmaster Cheung, taught me that you must train the way you’re going to fight. You just need to apply the principles of Wing Chun to the type of competition you’re competing in. I’ve trained four NHB fighters who have become champions: Claudio Martinez, Luis Medina, Bryan Ayers and Radek Lakomey. They have competed under vale-tudo rules, pankration and also in Chinese san-shou and gua-shou fighting. The only type of adaptation training required was to get them used to fighting with the particular glove they’d have to use, and fighting barefoot. (Traditionally in our school, the people wear shoes.) I feel fortunate that Grandmaster Cheung has shown me to use the system. So I train my students the same way. The only real difference is the intensity with which the fighters train, compared to regular students. The problem with the way most people train martial arts is the lack of reality when it comes to real-life self-defense. Especially in the late 1970 and early 1980s, kung fu schools became very commercial and got away from realistic training.
Is it important for students to train or compete with those from other martial arts?
Yes. I feel a problem with most martial arts, the way they’re taught today, is that they’re living in a box. Some martial arts only compete and train within their own system. So, when they face opponents from other systems, they have a difficulty applying what they’ve learned, in an unfamiliar environment. I believe you should be able to apply your martial arts in any environment against any type of opponent, and the only way to truly know if you can do this is by testing your skills against other arts.
A student of yours recently won a WBC boxing title — can you please tell us a little about him and how he trained for the fight, in particular the role of Wing Chun in his training and strategy?
His name is Prince Badhi. He won the WBC Light Heavyweight Championship in December 2004. His next goal is now to unify all the boxing belts in his division. We have taught him to apply Wing Chun principles in the ring. We’ve helped him by developing his eye training, taught him how to watch the elbow, and to cover the leading arm. We’ve also increased his conditioning programs and he’s doing iron-palm training. [Interesting fact: Australian boxing World Champion Kostya Tzyu also employs iron- palm methods – Ed.]
How big a part does iron-palm training play in Wing Chun, for the majority of practitioners?
I feel iron-palm training is a key component to the art, but I don’t believe you need it to be an effective Wing Chun practitioner. It’s a necessary tool if you really want to develop strong striking power quickly, especially if the practitioner is small or of a slight build. A lot of street people in the States say martial arts don’t work. But instead I believe the people don’t do the work to make the martial arts work, like developing the power from the iron-palm. It’s a commitment of time to develop the palm. You stand in your horse-stance for an hour and apply different striking methods on bags every day. Not many people want to make that commitment and of those who do, not many follow through until the end. When I was a young boy training, we had to hold the ma-bo stance every day for long periods of time. This made so many people quit. But if you didn’t do the stance, you would not develop the power in your legs for footwork and kicking.
Submission-grappling has become huge in the last decade, with martial artists world-wide acknowledging the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu techniques in one-on-one combat. Has your organization altered its training in any way to counter or utilize such methods?
There’s an old saying — there’s nothing new under the sun. Even though Mixed Martial Arts has grown recently, it has been around since the beginning of time. All martial arts should be able to apply their techniques whether standing up or on the ground. Going back to one of our previous questions, it’s in the way most people train their martial arts. Grandmaster Cheung has based our training on Traditional Wing Chun principles. One should be able to apply the principles of the art to any situation. My fighters train daily on ground- defense. I apply more from ground to stand-up with the fighters. I have them spend a great deal of time on stopping the takedowns and getting out of arm- bars and chokes. Predominately they’re strikers, but Wing Chun also has arm-bars and chokes and sweep takedowns. So in sparring they spend a lot of time countering these techniques. I have a lot of students who have jiu jitsu backgrounds, as well as wrestling. One student was an American Olympic wrestler and several others were college wrestling champions. One student, Sonny Palumbo, held the record for the fastest pin in the state of New Jersey. I have a lot of them work with my fighters, putting them in arm-bars or chokes, and the fighters spend a lot of time countering them as well as preventing takedowns. My philosophy is to apply my own strategy to the fight and force my opponent to fight my fight, not me fighting his. When UFC first came out, when fighters who had no grappling experience were grabbed, the first thing they did was grab right back. It seemed anything they learned about being grabbed and how to counter it went right out the window. I go back to my original statement that up until just recently, people got away from realistic training. Also, today I see people spending what I consider too much time with ground-work and getting away from their kicking and punching. I believe that a person needs a balance to his training and must focus on each facet of fighting. I hear a lot of people say 80 per cent of fights go to the ground but people forget that 100 per cent of them start standing up.