Wrestling the Monkey Master

In Martial Arts on February 6, 2009 at 12:40 am


wms141By Antonio Graceffo


Telling the world that traditional Kung Fu could be win MMA, Master Hisham, one of Taiwan’s only remaining Monkey masters, shows the Brooklyn Monk his ground game.


“The MMA people say to me, ‘you have no ground game. You can’t fight.’ But I tell them, ‘you haven’t seen my style yet. How can you know?’


Master Hisham takes a break from his rigorous training schedule to teach me something about Monkey style ground fighting. After an afternoon of training, to quote Mr. T, “I pity the fool” who gets in a ring with Hisham. The man is strong, fast, and powerful. He can hit like a ton of bricks, and he can wrestle to the death.


Using Monkey style on the ground, Hisham says, “You have no idea what is coming next. It could be a sweep, a fist, like ground and pound, or a kick. It could be an attack on a body part that normally doesn’t get attacked.”


Hisham tells me to lay on my back and get in the guard. “I see the MMA guys try to push the feet out of the way and attack the man on the ground. But I would just strike the acupuncture points and not bother to move the feet.”


Hisham has a license for Chinese medicine and acupuncture. He says this training gives him specialized knowledge into the body’s pressure points and wear to direct his strikes.


With his feet up in the air, defending himself, the opponent leaves himself open to Hisham’s brand of attack. “There are many points of attack on the back of the calf or the Achilles tendon. They are extremely painful, and makes it impossible for the man to stand afterwards.”


The Sambo fighters, Russian submission wrestlers, also attack the Achilles tendon, but they do it with a grab of the ankle or top of the foot. Hisham explained we shouldn’t grab the foot at all, just strike.


“I can strike with my forearm.” Hisham’s forearms are like stone. Getting hit anywhere with his forearm would be like being hit with a baseball bat. A well placed strike would be crippling.


There are few kung fu styles that can fight off of the ground. According to an old book Hisham found, there was one called, The Great Earth Style, but it has nearly died out. “The monkey incorporates these techniques. You see so many rolls and ground attacks in monkey style, and only in monkey style. The Tiger doesn’t have many. The Praying Mantis has very few, and so on.”


If you look at Shaolin Monkey forms, they do rolls and jumps. Hisham sees practical applications for these techniques.


“There are even Monkey techniques in some forms of wrestling. In Pankration (the ancient Greek martial art which combines wrestling and boxing) there is a monkey roll which leads to a knee bar. You take the leg.” Hisham constantly reads books about Pankration and ancient Greek and Roman martial arts. His wife also helps him to translate antique Chinese Kung Fu texts which they find at specialty shops around the island. “In Pankration, there is a technique where you grab your opponent’s foot, roll into him, and now you have him in a leg submission.”


“Another technique is that when you are thrown, you grab the opponent and roll with him. So, there are many aspects and movements in monkey that an experienced fighter can recognize. Once I showed my uncle, a master of traditional wrestling, the monkey low stance. He said ‘this is a wrestling movement.’ I said no, this is from Monkey style kung fu. He said, for him, it was wrestling. He watched the form and said all of the movements were attacks and counters for wrestling.”


“In Shaolin and Wu Su there is very little left of the original style, only acrobatics and show. There are very few teachers who remember how to use the monkey to fight. Your martial art must not only be good looking. And, you must not only make funny faces and noises. The monkey contains good fighting techniques inside, and you must be lucky to learn these techniques. You have to be lucky enough to find someone who can teach you. Next, you must have the body for the style.”


“In China, small boys are taught Monkey style, usually from ages six to eight. For adults, normally, rolls are too hard to learn. The ligaments and tendons are too hard. The rolls don’t only work the body, they are a form of internal massage which works on the organs. Practicing Monkey is a good way to massage the inside of the body. I have no interest in learning these types of styles. It is very hard to learn, and you can get injured. It looks nice but where is the application? This is only artistic, and you can’t do artistic stuff anymore when you are 60. For ground fighting, however, there is an old master in America who could still choke people out into his sixties.” Hisham was talking about JudoGene LeBell, a contemporary of Bruce Lee whose martial arts career spanned more than 350 movies and TV shows and fifty years. Hisham also spoke of world martial arts legend, Dan Inosanto, who was took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) when he was sixty. “They had experience and could look at an art and say what is usable what isn’t.”


Taking the best from the Monkey style is Hisham’s focus.


“The leg stance is the most important in monkey style. If you watch BJJ they work with their legs and arms together. This comes from monkey techniques. I found an old book where they were doing triangle leg chokes and such with their legs in china.”


“There is an old Chinese art called Ro Su, which uses the same Chinese characters that the Japanese use for Jiu Jitsu. In this art, I saw the leg wraps, using the legs as arms, just like in BJJ. Ho Chuen Ro Su the art of monkey wrestling.”


The up kick has been very popular the last few years in MMA. Many fighters practice laying on their back and kicking up in the air and a few MMA fights have been won by knock outs from this position. “The up kick is already a technique which is part of monkey. The monkey is always low and strikes from low to up. There is no other martial arts style which has the ground punches and kicks that monkey has.”


Although Monkey and other arts have some ground fighting and wrestling, it still would not be advisable to try and wrestle with someone whose primary skill is grappling. So, we return to our strikes, our most powerful weapons. “We must practice punching from the ground.” Says Hisham. “If the man is on top of you, in your guard or past your guard, you can punch up and knock him out, but you need to practice it everyday, just as you do when you are working the bag.”


“You don’t need your shoulder for this. You need triceps, elbows and wrist power. Then you practice the explosive power of Bruce Lee’s one inch punch.”


Here again, Hisham’s teachings echoed lessons I had acquired in my martial arts journey, which now spans more than thirty years, the last seven of which were spent in Asia. When I first learned Muay Thai Boran, in a monastery in Thailand, I was impressed with the incredible number of elbow strikes which the art contained. Hanaman, the Monkey god is widely worshipped among fighters, and Hisham sees a connection between the Monkey of South East Asia and the monkey of East Asia. While living in the monastery, I worked a lot with my team mates, teaching them to use their devastating elbows to fight from and on the ground, and to use the sharp points of the elbow to strike pressure points.


Hisham always looks to the ancient arts for his modern answers. He spoke again about how the old Syrian wrestling masters would grab the opponent’s flesh, before throwing them. I had the same experience once, wrestling in Burma, when Kawn Wan, a young Shan Kung Fu master grabbed the skin under my armpit and threw me. He also showed me how he could force his fingers in, behind my jaw bone, and throw me this way.


Hisham had similar techniques. “In MMA or on the street, the opponent may not be wearing a shirt, which would be a disadvantage to BJJ practitioners, who base many of their throws on grabbing the opponent’s clothing. But for someone who is very proficient in Kung Fu, they would need only to dig their fingers into the opponent’s body, grab his flesh or his fat and use that as handle to throw him.


My friend Kawn Wan, the young Shan master, walked around the village making fists, opening and releasing his fingers all day, thousands of times, to strengthen his grip. Hisham and other Chinese masters use similar techniques. “All day when you have time you need to make fists and train your fingers.” Hisham said the old masters would be able to crush a coffee cup with their fingers.”


To train his gripping power, Hisham used a variety of balls, sticks, bundles of sticks, and heavy vases, which he would grip in various ways. He also used a windlass, a stick, with a rope on it. You hold the stick in both hands out in front of you and twist the stick, rolling up the rope which is attached to a heavy weight. I did that for boxing it was so painful.


In the west when people ask to see your muscles, you show them your bicep. When I was at Shaolin they asked to see your wrists. If your wrists were as hard as stone they knew your Kung Fu was strong, but if not, you had a long way to go.








Hsiham’s final words were. “I would tell the people of the world, don’t give up on your Chinese Kung Fu. The art is thousands of years old and has lots of techniques inside which you can use to fight. But you have to know how to condition and how to train.”





Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, click here.



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  1. maybe you should add more photographs or a video showing you how to do the moves

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