By Antonio Graceffo
For the first time in about a year, I had no classes, no work, and no wrestling team practice for three days. So, I took my san da training mates and my wrestling teammates from Shanghai University of Sports to Fighters Unite MMA gym. In one night, we did boxing, san da, MMA, muay Thai, BJJ, submission wrestling, and freestyle. People from about 10 countries exchanged martial arts, techniques, and culture. It was an incredible experience for everyone involved, a chance to get to meet and train with new people, from different countries and different martial art backgrounds.
My wrestling teammate, Zheng Tong, has wrestled from age 9 to age 20, living first in a sports school, and then in the sports university. He was once a national high school champion in Greco Roman wrestling, but then because of a back injury, he was bedridden for two years and had to stop competing. Eventually, he trained his body back to some semblance of health and can now compete on our university’s traditional wrestling team (Shuai jiao), which is the “B” team at our university. The “A” team is the Greco Roman wrestling team, which competes at national and international level.
He has no chance of moving up to “A” team. And after 11 years of doing nothing apart from wrestling, I suspect he is bored. So, he began cross training in san da. We actually met in a san da class, before our wrestling team began training last year. From the first time I met him, he has continually asked me about MMA. When I fought a few months ago, he asked if he could also fight on the same card. But with no boxing background, no submissions and really terrible san da, I didn’t think it was such a good idea.
About a month earlier, he received permission to begin training with the university san da team. The san da team is unique in that, although it is a university team, it is professional, not amateur. And the fighters fight in competitions for money. Most of them come from sports schools, where they learned nothing but san da for years. A few come from Tagou, a big san da school at Shaolin Temple. No matter where they come from, however, the one thing they have in common is that they have been doing san da their whole lives, much the way Zheng Tong has wrestled his whole life. Getting a late start makes it very unlikely that Zheng Tong could catch up.
On the way to the MMA gym, Zheng Tong took me and my san da training mate, Jiang Huaying to meet a retired san da champion. He had been retired for ten years, but he still looked powerful. His head and neck were perfectly square. His arms and chest were big. But his belly hung over his belt. He poked at it and said, “I really should start exercising. But I don’t want to. I don’t even want to work. It’s too hard.”
When Zheng Tong told him that I was 47 and still fighting, he instantly said, “You see! This is the difference between us and the foreigners. The foreigners have the inspiration to fight. But with us, Chinese people, someone has to make us fight. And we only fight for money.”
I told him that I once fought in Thailand for three dollars.
The retired san da champion had an amazing way of reading people. When I sat down, he said to me, “Your legs are very powerful, but have no flexibility, so your kicking must be very bad. But, your entire body is proportionate, your shoulders, arms, and back are all as large as your legs, so you are probably good at wrestling and boxing.”
He had apparently watched Zheng Tong learning san da at the university and said, “Zheng Tong is very powerful, but he lacks movement, flexibility, techniques, and mindset to learn san da. He can never do it.” While I thought that was a bit harsh, I agreed. My guess, however, was that Zheng Tong could learn MMA, and I told him so. In addition to his wresting skill, Zheng Tong has two very positive attributes. He is strong and fearless. I really think you would need a very large gun to stop him if he decided to come after you. With minimal boxing training…correction, not boxing, just punching…with very minimal punching training, I believe Zheng Tong could learn to use his wrestling, take guys down, control them on the ground, and ground and pound them to take the win.
The retired san da guy had apparently watched a lot of MMA videos. MMA seems to be a staple of the new, younger generation of Chinese athletes, especially the fighters. He understood some of what he watches and he said. “I believe the most important skills in MMA are wrestling and boxing. I think kicking is almost useless because it’s too easy for people to catch the kicks and just take you down.”
He was an interesting guy, with a lot of opinions and a lot to say about fighting, strategy, mindset…He reminded me of one of those old kung fu masters in the movies, except that he was only 32 years old. He poured tea and told us the facts of life, san da style.
“In a fight, you have to relax. Just relax and breath. If you are too nervous or too excited, you will use up your energy too quickly.” He explained. “People think fighting is physical, but it is mental. You can’t just be like a muscle machine. You have to use your brain and think. You have to see how your opponent is, what he does, and adjust your techniques.”
The retired fighter cooked us a huge meal, which we appreciated. Living in the dorms at the sports university, we don’t get home cooking too often. Afterwards, we headed to the MMA gym.
That night, I got to spar about 6 rounds of stand up, 1 round of MMA and countless rounds of submission wrestling, where I was submitted, an equal number of times. It was cool seeing my SUS teammates and classmates sparring and training with the MMA guys. A lot of foreigners who live in China live in a bit of a white bubble, where they don’t have much quality interaction with Chinese people. Other than their girlfriend they may not have any Chinese friends. So, I was glad the western students had the chance to meet my awesome teammates. Similarly, my Chinese friends were so happy for the experience. At the university, I am the only foreigner in wrestling. And my friend AJ and I are the only foreigners in San Da. It’s still a novelty for the Chinese athletes to train with foreigners. Afterwards, I heard Zheng Tong bragging to some Chinese friends, “I sparred with foreigners. There was even a black guy.”
Zheng Tong and I did both MMA sparring and boxing. And in both cases, I really couldn’t believe how bad his boxing was. He just ducked his head and ran at me swinging wildly. Then he would crash into me and try to take me down. In MMA, he would get the takedown, but from the ground I would always take him down and get the win. In boxing, when he crashed into me, we would have to break. Each time we broke and reset, I would get about two really solid, clean punches on his face. Then he would crash into me again, and we would break and reset. Eventually, those two solid punches, every thirty seconds or so, added up. I could see the retired san da guy shaking his head, like, “This is never going to happen.”
Afterwards, the retired fighter scolded Zheng Tong. “Your legs are too strong and stiff, so you can’t kick. Your movements are all wrong because you have been wrestling your whole life. And you can’t learn the san da movements because it’s impossible for you to undo what you have practiced for so many years.”
Once again, I mostly agree with the retired fighter. I don’t see how starting at less-than-zero Zheng Tong is going to be able to learn san da well enough to compete against guy who have been doing it their whole lives. But, in MMA, if he can get the takedown against me, he will definitely get it against guys who have less wrestling training. And as I said, I was usually only able to hit him twice before he took me down. A better fighter might be faster or more accurate and could maybe KO Zheng Tong on the way in, but we could teach him to cover up. Also, he will improve in his speed and takedown ability. We were sparring with boxing gloves on. With MMA gloves, he may get the take down faster.
The other guys I brought with me that night was my san da training partners Jiang Huaying and Ren Zhiying, The san da guys at the university have all heard of Muay Thai, but never got a chance to see it up close or experience it. Ren Zhiying really enjoyed learning some techniques from the Muay Thai coach. Nowadays, some san da tournaments allow knees. So the Chinese fighters need to learn them. But the Thais are the real masters of the knee. The Muay Thai coach showed Ren Zhiying how to step out at a 45 degree angle with the back foot, before throwing a front knee. This takes you out of the way of any answering punches, and puts you right in your opponent’ blind side, for your follow up punches and kicks.
The huge, powerful, hard-core Muay Thai coach, Karl, was willing to get in the ring and spar with Jiang Huaying, who only weighs about 65 kg. One of the big differences between Muay Thai and San Da, which the coach was able to teach Jiang Huaying was to catch and kick.
In san Da, they practice catch and throw drills a lot. When you catch the opponent’s kick, you throw him to the ground. In Muay Thai, they use some of the same catches, but when they catch, they often kick the base leg. This was new for my training mates and they instantly saw what a deadly weapon the catch and kick was
Next, Zheng Tong did submission wrestling with my MMA coach Silas Maynard. Everyone was impressed that Zheng Tong. With no jujitsu experience at all, he was able to get the take down and stay in dominant position, holding off the submissions for a long time. All of the Greco guys on my wrestling team have a handful of power submissions which come from Greco Roman wrestling. The most common ones are a kind of arm triangle and a couple of neck cranks, which cut off your breathing. But the Greco chokes, while scary to normal people, usually won’t tap out someone with BJJ or MMA experience. Bjj/MMA people know to just relax. On top of that, the Greco choke is not tight enough to completely stop your breathing. Zheng Tong got one of these chokes on Silas, but obviously, Silas was able to wait it out and escape. At one point, Zheng Tong wrapped his arms around both of Silas’s legs, lifted him off the ground and slammed him. In the end, Silas won each of the submission rounds, usually with a neck crank. But it was clearl that Zheng Tong could learn MMA.
I wrestled both Silas and one of the students, named Tyler. Silas choked me, neck cranked me, and otherwise submitted me every single round, and was never in any sort of danger. Tyler got the better of me in most of the rounds we wrestled because we were both confused about the rules and both were disqualified several times. We only did one round of submission wrestling, and I won, largely because I controlled his legs. When I was at wrestling camp in Cambodia, earlier in the year, they taught me how to grab the opponent’s legs, continue to hold the legs, and use the legs to control and pin him. I wasn’t sure if holding a leg was such a great idea in BJJ, because maybe you were setting yourself up to get submitted. But once we started wrestling, I saw that if I controlled the legs, I avoided triangle chokes and arm bars. So, I snaked up Tyler’s body, controlling the legs the whole way, till I found full mount.
On our wrestling team at the university we often cross train in shaui jiao (traditional wrestling) and freestyle wrestling. Most of my teammates have a background in Greco Roman wrestling. A lot of the guys ask me to teach them some MMA wrestling, and a few, like Zheng Tong and me, cross train in San Da. With guys like Jiang Huaying, who only learn san da, I teach them traditional wrestling or MMA techniques that they can use in San Da to get a better takedown or as a better defense against the takedown. Brining these guys, with all of these martial arts backgrounds to the MMA gym, where they were exchanging techniques with Muay Thai, BJJ, and submission wrestling was the truest spirit of mixed martial arts. I am seriously grateful for this opportunity.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
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