Discussions on the Future of Martial Arts.
I first heard of Antonio Graceffo through his book The Monk from Brooklyn: An American at the Shaolin Temple. After reading it I became a fan, and found out that Antonio is an adventurer of sorts. Since 2001 Antonio has been living an Asia, studying, researching, teaching and competing in various forms of martial arts.
I would like to thank Antonio for his time and insights.
*The opinions expressed in this interview are solely that of the interviewee
Can you give us a sense of your martial arts background? What styles or systems have you studied?
I started with the Fire and Water system, an American kung Fu system, when I was 12, in Blountville, Tennessee. The school focused on fighting, rather than forms. And back in 1979, it was one of the first schools to have full contact sparring. I had no talent for forms and martial art, which was fine for that style. I also didn’t kick well, so my teacher, H. David Collins, had me concentrate on my boxing. He encouraged me to emulate my Italian boxing heroes, Rocky Marciano and Jake LaMotta, The Bronx Bull. To this day, if you watch me fight, you can see their influence.
I stayed with David Collins, learning boxing and kickboxing, until I left for the military, at age 17. When I was 21, I had my first professional boxing trainer. And for the next many years, I boxed competitively. I had around 45 fights in the military. Growing up, I had fought in smokers and intra-school tournaments and things, but I never count these in my fight record. After the army, I boxed both pro and amateur till I was around 30 years old. That’s when I saw my first UFC video and I really wanted to try and fight MMA. But I was so far away from the skill set necessary, that I really thought it would never happen.
In 2001, I began learning Muay Thai in New York City. After September 11th, I quit my New York life and went to Asia, to learn martial arts. In Taiwan, I spent about 18 months living and training with a national TKD team. Parallel to that, I learned twe so (pushing hands) and went on weekends to fight in open fights, where mostly foreign residents of Taiwan met for sparring in boxing, kick boxing, and other stand up styles. There was a BJJ team there too, but I wasn’t ready to think about learning grappling yet.
After my first year and a half in Taiwan, I went to the Shaolin Temple, in Henan, China, where I studied mostly san da for 3 months. Shortly after that, I went to Thailand and lived in a Muay Thai temple, studying with a monk teacher, named Pra Kru Ba. We lived up in the mountains of northern Thailand, near the Burma border, sleeping in huts and training and praying multiple times per day. During my stay there, we went to fight in a professional fight in Chiang Rai. My fight was boxing, not Muay Thai. I was paid 300 Baht, about $9 USD, which was given to poor hill tribe families.
After I came down from the monastery, I hung around Chiang Mai for months, learning Muay Thai at various gyms. Then I moved on to Cambodia, where I would stay for the next year and a half. In Cambodia, I very quickly met Paddy Carson, this was in 2004. He became my boxing trainer and as late as 2012, any time I had an MMA fight coming up, I would fly back to Cambodia so Paddy could tune up my boxing. We had a great relationship. He trained me hard, several hours per day, five days a week. I flew to Thailand for one pro fight during that time. I also fought a lot of challenge fights in the gym. I was doing movies, so I also had to learn movie kung fu. I took lessons in between my boxing sessions. The boxing gym also had pro Khmer boxing (Bradal Serey) and I would cross train with those guys a lot. So I learned some Khmer boxing, which is similar to Muay Thai.
The whole time I was in Cambodia I was looking for an ancient Cambodian martial art, called Bokator. Eventually, I found Grand Master San Kim Saen, who had recently opened the first Bokator School in Cambodia since the beginning of the civil war and Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
I went home to the states in 2005 for a bit, and then returned to Asia, to Korea. In Korea I studied Kuk Sul Won, which is similar to Hapkido. I also was exposed to and took some lessons in Ssireum; Korean belt wrestling.
In spring of 2007, I left Korea and went back to Thailand and studied Muay Thai. I had an opportunity to go do some journalism work in the Philippines. While there, I studied Escrima and more boxing. Afterwards, I was back in Thailand, doing Muay Thai. Eventually, I made it back to Cambodia to train full time and complete my black belt in Bokator. For my test, I had to show knowledge of the fighting components of Bokator, including boxing, Bradal Serey, and wrestling. For the wrestling training, I trained a bit at the Olympic center in Phnom Penh, then went out to a traditional wrestling village and wrestled in the dirt against all comers, as a kind of proof before taking my black belt exam. I lost all of those wrestling matches in the village, which was expected, they had been wrestling a lifetime. But the wrestling coach went with me to report back to the grand master and say if I had heart or not. I guess I did. I passed the black belt.
I was back in Philippines and learned Kuntaw. I lived in the Grand Masters home and practiced twice a day. In between, we watched UFC videos and kung fu movies, and talked about fighting.
Then in Vietnam I shot videos about a number of Vietnamese martial arts, but I didn’t actually study them. I just trained a few days, to get a feel for them. At some point I went back to Philippines for my black belt test. Part of my test, I had to wrestle these huge dock workers. This time, I won easily, because of the years of training. In fact, the master didn’t even make me kick box with them, because he knew I would win. While I was in Philippines, I also trained a little Yaw Yan which is Filipino kickboxing and shot video about Yaw Yan hybrid which is MMA.
In Saigon I shot another show about MMA. In Taipei, I shot two shows about MMA. I still hadn’t studied MMA, but I was getting closer.
I spent several months back in Thailand, studying Muay Chaiya, with Kru Lek. That is when my Muay Thai really improved. I sparred a lot with Tae, who is the best Muay Chaiya fighter and the star of the Thai movie “Chaiya” and a number of other movies. We did an on camera fight scene for a Thai TV show which lasted 25 minutes. It was all one take. My arm was nearly broken by one of his kicks in the first few seconds of the shooting and I fought through the remaining 24 minutes in excruciating pain.
In 2010, I was in Malaysia; I did shows on a whole bunch of martial arts urban combat, Wing Chun, Silat, Tomoi, Systema, Krav Maga, and more Muay Thai. I stayed in a Tomi gym for about three months and studied full time with Kru Jak Othman. I studied Silat Kalam with Guru Mazalan Man and was awarded the rank of Palawan Kalam (kalam warrior) in a large public ceremony, sponsored by the government. I was the first non-Muslim to be given this honor.
At some point, went back to Cambodia and Paddy Carson, who is a 4th dan black belt in karate and a leading Bradal Serey and pro boxing trainer, tested me and awarded me a black belt in Bradal Serey. Muay Thai, Chaiya, Tomoi, Bradal Serey, and Bokator are all related, so at that point I had been studying the related arts for many years.
In 2011 I signed for my first pro MMA fight. I went to K-1 Fight Factory in Phnom Penh and they trained me full time for one month. I flew to Malaysia and fought two fights in one day. I won the first one and lost the second. Then I moved into the Ultimate MMA Academy, in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and studied full time with coach Melvin Yeoh, who is now a One FC fighter. I slept on the mats, beside the cage and trained twice a day, six days a week for a year. I had 9 pro fights, and I won 8 of them.
I took a year off of training to go work as a university teacher in China, while preparing for a national Chinese exam (HSK 4). I passed and was accepted to a PhD program at Shanghai University of Sport, which is where I am now, training and studying full time. I am on the university traditional Chinese wrestling team (Shuai Jiao), the first foreigner ever. I just won the silver medal in my first ever wrestling tournament. At the university, I cross train in San Da (Chinese kick boxing). To prepare for this training I spent the summer of 2013 at the Shaolin Temple, learning San Da. Then I went to Beijing, to live in a traditional wrestling school.
Now, it is December, and I have been back in full time training for about six months. Sometimes, if I have free time, I go to Fighters Unite, an MMA gym in Shanghai, for MMA sparring.
From 2007 to present, I have hosted Martial Arts Odyssey, a very low budget martial arts show, which follows me training and fighting different martial arts in Asia. To date, the show has run well over 200 episodes. And I don’t know how many martial arts we have covered, but it was a lot. Many of them have never been covered by other documentary series.
-Over the course of your training, has there been material or methods that have been more “in” than “out”? Have you seen different things being focused on at one time that maybe are not now?
Honestly, the biggest changes have been with me in that I moved from all striking to almost all grappling. So, my training changed a lot. What I have seen as a global change, however, is the growth of MMA. The first time I was at Shaolin temple, in 2003, no one had heard of MMA. Now, 2013, everyone knows about it. Some of the Shaolin schools are looking at expanding their San Da team into an MMA training center. Xian University of Sport has already done this. There are a lot of good Chinese MMA fighters now, coming out of sports schools where they have learned San Da since they were children.
In Malaysia, nearly all of the Muay Thai schools have converted to MMA schools. In Cambodia, when I fought for team Cambodia in 2011, even the journalists covering our fights didn’t understand what MMA was. Now there are at least three or four professional MMA schools in Cambodia.
So, yes, I would say the biggest change in Asian martial arts has been the growth of MMA, and the parallel growth of BJJ and Muay Thai. As these countries become interested in MMA, Muay Thai and BJJ schools tend to open as well.
-Why do you think certain styles or techniques are at times more en vogue than others?
I think the single largest influence on any aspect of culture today is the internet. These kids in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam are watching MMA fights or Muay Thai or whatever it is, on the internet and they get interested in learning. Also, I think as real fighting rises, a lot of the veil of mystery and magic is lifted off of the traditional arts, which means less people will study them. Ten years ago, at Shaolin Temple, they told me they were the best fighters in the world. This time around, they were very clear about the distinction between taolu (forms), San Da, and MMA. They were very open about the fact that taolu is not fighting.
-What are some key trends that are taking place in the martial arts world that could change martial arts in the future?
I know people don’t want to hear this, but MMA is going to kill off the other martial arts. Taekwondo and Judo are safe, because of the Olympics. But so many black belts of other arts have made comments to me about how they studied a lifetime and could get beaten by a kid who studied a few months of MMA. Young people enjoy watching the MMA fights on TV. And many of them see no point in spending harsh, long hours learning forms. In the old days, and by that, I mean when I was a kid, you believed your martial arts instructor was the baddest man on the planet. And many of them even claimed to be. Today, even an eleven year old would then ask him, “If you’re so bad, why your name and fight isn’t record on Sherdog.com?”
-What may be some trends or shifts taking place outside the martial arts world that could have an effect on martial arts in the future?
We are at a point in history where a huge percentage of martial arts fans and fight fans actually go and fight. If you went through the audience at an MMA event, I bet significant percentage of them have had fights. Whereas, if you went to the Garden on the night of a Muhammad Ali fight, very few of the people in the audience actually fought. At the same time, most people probably don’t fight a lot. Maybe they have one or two fights as an experience, but the fact that they can now participate in the art that they admire changes everything about the dynamic. And of course, martial art is HUGE business now. There is so much apparel both for training and non-training, there is fashion, oxygen deprivation masks, TRX and other stuff that hangs from the ceiling, videos, online courses…. and martial arts schools are proportionately much more expensive than they were when I was a kid. In the 1980’s schools were like $30 a month or $200 for the year. Now, my nephew’s Taekwando costs about $3,000 a year by the time you pay for belt tests and competitions.
-What is the some of the biggest uncertainties the martial arts world is facing?
I really don’t know how the traditional arts will survive. In Asia, as people become more and more prosperous, they want their children to study and go to university. They don’t want them going into martial arts. In countries with well developed pro fighting circuits, like Thailand, no one sees the point of practicing martial art, apart from fighting to earn money. In richer countries, MMA and Muay Thai are popular among the children of the well-off. But traditional arts are dying. In Japan, there is almost no new crop of young kids learning sumo, for example.
And the issue is still, as I have said above, because of MMA, we know what styles work and which ones don’t, so why would anyone study a style that falls in the “doesn’t work” category?
-Ok, the big question! If we were to extrapolate all the changes you mentioned, what does the future of martial arts look like to you in 10 years time?
I think that MMA will rise a bit higher than it is now, but no sport will ever be as big or important as boxing was in the golden era. Muhammad Ali was a household name while he was fighting. In fact, up until Mike Tyson, the unified heavyweight champion of the world was a celebrity. Today, if I say Jon Bones Jones, on a New York City subway car, probably 93% of people wouldn’t know who that is. And Jon Bones Jones made less than one million dollars in purses in 2012. Mani Pacquiao gets over ten million per fight. MMA will never be what boxing was. BUT, I am afraid that MMA will kill all of the other arts.
In Malaysia, when I was shooting my Kyokushin episodes I commented to the sensei about how incredibly painful (and I didn’t tell him, but it was also very unpleasant) Kyokushin was. He told me he could never have more than 30 students, because they all eventually leave to go learn Muay Thai or MMA because it is more fun. You get to wear fashion that you chose. The gyms play music. Muay Thai and MMA are very vogue, your status among your friends goes up when you tell them you are training or fighting MMA and Muay Thai. With Kyokushin and other arts, you simply suffer.
I hope TMA doesn’t die out, but my prediction is that TMA will just get smaller and smaller. One more prediction, Wu Shu may eventually be added to the Olympics. If that happens, then Wu Shu will survive and grow.
-Thanks a lot Antonio!
Antonio Graceffo can be reached at http://speakingadventure.com/