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Jow Ga: The Navy SEAL of Kung Fu

Friday, June 5th, 2009

The U.S. Kung Fu Exchange is rapidly approaching two-thousand members worldwide. Of those 2000, less than 35 people have earned the title Jow Ga. That’s not even 2%.

Now think about how many people are in the U.S. Military and how many of those (who have the desire) become a Navy SEAL? Considering that the six-month BUD/S training is known as the most difficult military training in the world, and has an 80% failure rate, I bet it’s less than 2% as well. The United States Navy SEAL is by far the best of the best. When you want to be the best, you emulate the best. That is why I use the analogy of the SEAL to the USKFE’s Jow Ga.

Google SEAL and see what is required just to “try out” to become a SEAL. One requirement report I read was three pages long! And once you make SEAL, that’s when the training really begins . . . and continues until you retire. Same with Kung Fu. Earning a black sash is simply the basics.

What is Jow Ga? In Mandarin, the English spelling is jujiao, meaning junior teacher. We use Jow Ga, more of a Cantonese version and explain it as a disciple of a kung fu system. Someone who pours their heart and soul into learning 7-Star Mantis and becoming the very best they can be at it.

When John (Sifu Cheng) and I were young, we traveled with Sifu Fogg to train with his kung fu brothers and with his Sifus, both in Wah Lum and 7-Star. What an awesome experience. From New York to Florida, we (John more so than I) had the opportunity to meet and fight with the best mantis fighters of that time. Only a handful of Fogg’s students ever had that privilege. I’m eternally grateful to be one of that few.

Once Sifu Cheng and I had our own schools, we wanted our students to have those opportunities as well, to pursue excellence way beyond black sash. So, with the help of Sifu Jeff Hughes, we developed the criteria to become a Jow Ga as well as a training regimen to achieve that goal.

The first step is you must be black sash and have held that title for 12 months. Second, your sifu recommends you as a potential Jow Ga to the USKFE board, again, akin to SEAL. A soldier’s immediate Chief must recommend him for the SEAL application process.

Third, in keeping tradition with my and Cheng’s experiences in fighting other mantis brothers, you will then touch hands with other Jow Ga candidates from across the States. In 2007, in Hollywood CA, we had thirty Jow Ga candidates. That’s a lot of people to fight! Now you see what drives me to keep in shape.

The icing on the cake however, is a Jow Ga candidate has the opportunity to engage in combat with a sifu! This is great fun, although often extremely painful for the student. Jow Gas have a separate code of conduct and are held to a higher standard than other kung fu students. Jow Ga is not for everyone. Neither is SEAL. The training is brutal and ruthless but the end result is a transformed individual who is the best at what he does.

I’ll share the training requirements with you later as well as some of my own experiences in training with the legendary Fogg-Man.

As a side note, for some great SEAL reading, check out novels by Vince Flynn and Brad Thor.

Boxer Rebellion v2.0:

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

…”Dude, you’re in my room.” I had to get my legs untangled from my sheets. I wanted to kick him in the head first.

“Screw ‘em,” Jeff shouted. He lunged and smacked the guy closest to him in the jaw.

Then all hell broke lose.

As Jeff swung away, I dove off my bunk and landed into a mosh pit of fists. Before my feet touched the floor, I was blocking punches and kicks . . . all in my florescent boxers. It was so crowded the frat boys were hitting each other. It was complete pandemonium. I dodged tackles, blocked more blows then shoved the clumsy drunkards toward the door, hoping my bare feet didn’t get trampled on.

At 6’2 and 190 pounds and being a football player, Jeff mowed his way to the door before three guys tackled him right outside. All but two of the pack followed Jeff out. Crooked-Nose and Fat-Boy were still inside with me. We stared each other down like old western gunfighters. I even had the urge to hold my hands next to my hips and flex my fingers, ready to draw. It was mid November and the night air blowing through the door was freezing and I really wanted to put some clothes on. I scanned the room for a shirt but Crooked-Nose took a sloppy swing at me. I ducked. His fist collided with my metal-framed bunk bed. He howled like a wounded animal and collapsed to the floor, cradling his bloody hand.

Then Fat-Boy really ticked me off. He charged, cursing my mother. That’s not what angered me though. In his advance, Fat-Boy grabbed my only jar of Jif Peanut Butter off the top of our microwave and threw it at me. I sidestepped the creamy missile and the plastic jar exploded against the wall. My cherished peanut spread oozed to the floor in brown globs.

In college, peanut butter meant survival. Whenever my pockets were as empty as my fridge, peanut butter kept me alive. Now, it was lumped on my floor like a pile of manure. As Fat-Boy dove for my legs, I moved to the side and hammered his ear with a palm strike. He dropped like the Hindenburg.

“Let’s go. The cops are coming,” someone outside shouted.

Everyone scattered. Jeff and I threw Crooked-Nose and Fat-Boy out. I wanted to throw Jeff out. For the remaining semester, Jeff managed to avoid luring angry mobs to our room. I heard a rumor however that the real reason we weren’t attacked again is because everyone was so traumatized over seeing a skinny white guy duke it out in his boxer shorts.

Boxer Rebellion v1.0:

Monday, June 1st, 2009

You know when you have those dreams where you’re running around in your underwear? Well, that happened to me in reality.

One of the craziest experiences I’ve had defending myself was in college when my roommate and I took on an entire fraternity inside our Cracker-Jack-box-size dorm room. He was fully clothed and drunk. I was sleepy and wearing aqua-blue boxer shorts with orange palm trees on the front.

Returning from a long night of partying, Jeff, my roommate, who was also a frat-pledge at the time, threw open the door to our dorm room and announced he was home. I glanced at the clock from my top bunk; the green numbers glowed 4:01 a.m. He was actually early compared to other nights. I rolled over and buried my head in pillows, hoping to return to my interrupted dream-that didn’t happen.

I suddenly heard rumbling–well, more like an elephant stampede–and then angry shouts followed by crashing noises. Jeff was cursing, yelling for me to get up. I shot up, pillows tumbling to the floor. With sleep still clouding my vision, I had to blink several times to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Surrounding my bed was at least ten guys wearing matching fraternity T-shirts. They were all drunk and mad and said they were there to kill my roommate. I looked at Jeff. He was standing in the corner between his desk and closet with his fists clenched shouting, “Bring it on then.” He was saying this to not only the ten already in our room but to the other twelve crowding our doorway and spilling into the parking lot.

We lived in The Units; apartment-style dorms which were designed like old motels where you could park right outside your door. I heard tires skid and doors slam. More enemy troops had arrived. Through the dented window blinds, I could see the parking lot filling with people. The scene reminded me of those black and white horror movies when the bloodthirsty torch-carrying townspeople surrounded the castle, salivating to get inside to kill The Monster.

“What’s going on?” my throat was dry.

A dude with a scar on his chin and a crooked nose pointed to Jeff. “He’s talking —- (for the sake of any children or families reading this, I’ve activated the sensor button). “We’re gonna kick his —”
Considering that within the first five days on campus Jeff’s mouth landed him in five fights, this came as no surprise.

“It takes all of you?” That was the wrong thing to say but remember, I was delirious, my subconscious floating between the sleep world and the awake world.

“Shut up,” a short fat one said, squeezing forward, “this aint about you. But it can be.” …

Forms vs. Fighting

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

I get this a lot: “I just wanna fight. Not waste time learning forms.”

OK, I understand that way of thinking—for beginners. And I agree, however you will only remain a beginner if you keep that mindset.

That’s not true! What about UFC? Those guys don’t practice forms. They just fight and get better.” I hear that a lot too, or, “Bruce Lee didn’t do forms. He studied every art and threw out the unnecessary forms.” Both of these are false statements.

The whole forms verses fighting thing is really a moot point. The argument comes from totally misunderstanding what a form is. A form doesn’t mean hundreds of moves. A form is simply techniques linked together. Look at boxers. They don’t have forms per se but they shadow box with a flurry of hooks, jabs, crosses, uppercuts, and they do it over and over again. And guess what? Over time, the moves become totally embedded into their muscle memory, which is the point of forms or drills training.

In the UFC, each week these great athletes train like crazy, repeating the same techniques in the air, on bags, then on each other. Is that not forms training? And Bruce Lee did Wing Chung, a style which has forms. Wing Chung gave Mr. Lee his base as a fighter. Without forms training, how else would those techniques have gotten into his body? Michael Jordan practiced millions of free throws without even holding a ball. Tiger Woods practices his swing without hitting a ball.

Do you see the point? Forms training is fighting. It’s putting the techniques into your body so you don’t have to think about them. Many times, in fighting with my kung fu brothers or my students, I’ll do something and say, “Whoa, where’d that move come from?” It came from forms. I didn’t make it up. The problem is when an instructor can’t pull the moves from the forms and then show you how to actually use the techniques in combat. In that case, yes, from a fighting perspective, forms are useless.

Black Rings – Dying but Determined

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009
This is the final post in the Black Rings series. Thank you for stopping by.

Finally! I collapsed to my knees and was ready to crawl out the door when I realized that if I left, Sifu would see me as a quitter. I struggled back to my feet and began again, but Sifu said I would have to finish outside because he had to leave. I followed him outside, each step sending my legs into crippling cramps. He told me again I could go home, the words taunting me like a cup of cool water to a desert wandering man. Every quaking cell in my body wanted to say OK but I shook my head “no” and continued. It took another thirty minutes to get to 350 and to redo the twenty Sifu told me were terrible. My dad was a great support and agreed to wait for me. He took a nap inside the car while I was out on the hot asphalt under a streetlight with June bugs dive-bombing my face, feeling like I was slowly killing myself.

Finished, I dragged my body to the car. I removed my jacket and squeezed it out like a wet rag. My white t-shirt was practically transparent and my pants clung to my quivering legs. I slid into the passenger seat and reached to close the door when something caught my eye. At first, I thought it was a shadow cast by the car’s interior dome light, but upon further study, I realized I was looking at the same black rings around my socks that I had noticed earlier around the other students. I smiled, though I couldn’t believe I actually had the muscle capacity to do so.

The black rings were from sweat dripping off the bottom of the black Kung Fu pants and staining my white socks. I closed the door and melted into the seat. I glanced at my socks again. How cool was this. I was one of them. It was awesome. I too had earned the black rings.

So, what’d I do? The natural action any twelve-year old boy would do. I hid those socks under my bed until the next night and wore them again. That went on for about three days until I was afraid the socks would disintegrate from compounded funk. Now that I think about it, that explains why at the end of the week no one in Kung Fu class wanted to be my partner.

Black Rings – Muchacha…

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
This is the third post in the Black Rings series. Check back tomorrow to continue the story.

     By bow one hundred, my right leg was on fire and I thought any more pressure would cause the knee to buckle. By one-fifty, every muscle in my back was in spasms. By two hundred, both legs were numb and I could barely lift my shoulders. My throat begged for moisture and my tongue felt like someone had wrapped a thick towel around it. Sweat stung my eyes. I didn’t think I could do one more, and the thought of cheating was extremely tempting. Why was I doing this?

     Gaining strength from watching the other students, who had presumably gone through this same torture before me, I continued, but by number two-seventy-five, everyone was leaving. As much as my broken body could, I pushed it to go faster, but on number three-hundred, the lights went out and Sifu said he had to lock up. With my voice box parched and barely functional, I told him I was on three-o-five in hopes of receiving his admiration and the OK to quit. Instead, he told me the last twenty bows looked terrible. Those words hit me worse than a kick to the stomach. Sifu watched me do maybe ten more then said he’d seen enough. He said I could leave.


Black Rings – The Bow

Monday, May 11th, 2009
This is the second post in the Black Rings series. Check back tomorrow to continue the story.

      His voice startled me. I had no idea he was standing behind me. I turned and looked up. Master Fogg was a tower of a man, lean with ripped muscles on top of more ripped muscles.

     “Yes sir.” I was almost too excited to speak. I had mowed over forty lawns that summer and saved all my money inside a Nike shoebox to join Kung Fu. I couldn’t wait. I just knew I was going to learn all the cool moves I’d watched on Kung Fu Theater. Sifu would probably start out teaching me the sword form. Then we’d move on to some joint locks and throws. I would then finish up with iron body training and join the guy hitting the swinging log. My heart was pounding with anticipation. Man, was I clueless.

     Sifu waved over another student to join us. He was a kid, maybe two years older than I was. I thought, cool, a sparring partner. His name was Drew.

     “He’s going to show you the bow,” Sifu said.

     The bow, no problem. I would just

     “Then you will practice it 350 times.” Sifu glanced at the clock with its cracked face hanging on the wall. “If you start now, you might finish by the end of class. But if you mess up, even on the 349th time, you start over. Understand?” He left before I had a chance to respond.

     The bow. Three-hundred and fifty times. For the entire class? My dream of fighting with a sword was just cut in half. Watching everyone else practice their cool forms, I followed the student over to the corner next to the dusty weapons rack. Drew demonstrated the bow and I felt worse. The traditional Kung Fu bow was not merely bending forward at the waist. It involved twisting the right foot to a 90 degree angle and sinking down on it before you shot out your left leg forward and then back again, all the while, thrusting out your arms like a double punch. I practiced a few times with Drew then he left me alone to begin the journey.


Black Rings

Friday, May 8th, 2009
This is the first post in a series of four. Check back Monday to continue the story.

     My first Kung Fu class was on a sweltering July night in 1982. I vividly remember the smell of the place as I entered the school. The air was heavy with sweat, Tiger Balm, Jow, soured carpet, and incense. I don’t know if you can actually smell testosterone, but I’m sure that was in the air as well. However, the one thing I remember most are the black rings.

     The Kung Fu class shared space with a gymnastics school, and we were crammed in the back of the building separated from the gymnasts by a floating wall of hole-riddled sheetrock. There was a fine layer of white sheetrock dust on the weapons rack and lying next to the baseboards were small chunks of the wall that had met their demise from the tip of a spear, rope dart, or staff. Chinese music was playing in the background along with the pained sounds of grunting, heavy breathing, and a rhythmic thump, thump as a senior student struck a swinging log attached to a rope with his bare arms.

     I ducked into a tiny, makeshift changing room—probably smaller than an airplane toilet’s—and ripped open the package of my uniform. It had that new clothing smell and the material felt stiff. I threw it on and stepped onto the training floor. Every student, around twenty of them, all guys, wore the same traditional kung fu uniforms as I did, but mine was clean, crisp . . . and dry. Theirs literally clung to their bodies with perspiration. I should’ve just worn my “rookie dweeb” sign.

     I wasn’t sure what to do. Everyone was training hard and I was just standing there looking clean. I saw a student stretching so I mimicked him. As I continued to warm up and wait for Sifu Fogg, the chief instructor, to tell me what to do, I noticed that everyone had black rings around the ankle part of their white socks. Kung fu pants have elastic bands in the bottom to hold them tight around the ankles and most everyone’s pants were too short so I could see their socks. I thought the rings were pretty weird, but by the end of class, I would know intimately how those rings got there.

     “Are you ready to begin?” Sifu asked.



Thursday, May 7th, 2009

     Yesterday two students came in for a makeup Graduation. Both students are adults and the test was on a Wednesday night at 6:30. Those details are important because that’s the point.

     Here are two adults. They have spouses, kids, jobs, “to-do” lists, bills to pay, and they’re tired and would probably rather go home. Yet they arrive at the kung fu school on a Wednesday night to sit in horse stance for two minutes, run a mile and a half, and demonstrate weapons and empty-hand forms—all with the possibility of failing—and still, they showed up. I’m blown away by their dedication.

     The moment reminded me of my dad, who despite having a full-time job, being active in the National Guard, having a wife and child to care for along with his widowed mom and three brothers, he still drove fifty, sometimes a hundred miles to earn his Masters degree in business (that was way before online classes).

     I see that kind of determination in my students.

     I had the luxury of youth when I began Kung Fu. The only hindrances to my training were eating, sleeping, or going to school. No mortgage to pay or a spouse to spend time with, I could do Kung Fu anytime.

     Now, I’m blessed with these great students who continue to “steal time” in order to practice Kung Fu. I am so impressed and humbled by their determination. Students often thank me for teaching them, but that’s backwards.

     I want to thank them for allowing me the privilege.

Soldier 101

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Lots of people have asked me what’s the craziest thing I’ve had to deal with since TKFF opened its doors. The following is probably it…except for the time I spoke with a ninja, but that’s another story.

It was the perfect Friday afternoon. Not too hot with a great spring breeze. I had an hour before instructing the next class and I thought I would enjoy my lunch outside. I had no idea that danger was lurking outside the door. I grabbed my sandwich and headed out back. The air was thick with fresh honeysuckle. One bite later, Elizabeth, our office manager walked out. She looked very disturbed.

“I really think you need to get up front and see what this guy wants,” she said. Her body language told me not to argue, so I sighed, took another quick bite, and went to meet our visitor.

“Hey, you the main instructor?” The visitor stood next to the front desk. He wore a faded camouflage shirt, baggy commando pants, and scuffed brown boots. His black greasy hair covered his eyes. With his arms folded across his chest and his head tilted to the left, he was trying to look intimidating. I thought he might fall over if he leaned any more. He also had a friend with him, a bean-pole of a guy wearing a purple shirt with the word “nasty” on the front. He was standing glued to the wall.

“Yes.” I said, still thinking of my sandwich.

“Yeah, I train with X (I can’t remember the name) and I did a tour for the U.S. Army. I’ve also trained with Chuck Norris’ boys.”

“Great, how can I help you today?”

“Say, look, I’ve been all over town and I’ve put down all the instructors.” He moved away from the counter and turned toward me. “That’s what I do, man. I go from school to school, challenge instructors, see if they got anything for me.” He started poking his thumb into his chest and began to strut. He looked like a drunken rooster. “So far nobody’s touched me.” Now he was doing a horrible version of an Ali dance. “I know 101 ways to kill, man. Got my skills from Uncle Sam, in the jungles.”

Again I said, “Great, how can I help you?” I was hoping this wasn’t going where I thought it was.

“I don’t see how that mantis bug stuff you do deals with real combat.”

OK, now I’m really upset. My lunch hour is slipping away, my sandwich is getting soggy, and my empty stomach is groaning at me while I am listening to this lunatic!

I grabbed a brochure off the counter. “Why don’t you come back Monday evening at 6:30 for our open class. That will give you an idea how mantis kung fu works.” I walked over, handed Soldier the brochure, and was on my way to the front door.

“See, all I gotta do is send my elbow into the throat.” Now he was shadow boxing. “So, I mean there’s no way you can handle me. I exterminate bugs.”

Before I reached the door, Soldier rushed me. I stepped to the side. His fist sailed passed me. I shot my left leg out and swept him off his feet. Soldier hit the floor hard. His partner, Mr. “Nasty”, just stood frozen to the wall with his jaw gaping open.

I looked down at Solder, “What are you doing?”

“Oh, man, just testing you. How’d you do that?” he asked, getting up.

“It’s time for you guys to leave.” I held the door open and Mr. Nasty quickly exited.

“No hard feelings, man. Just messin around.” Soldier regained his balance and charged again! I couldn’t believe it!

I ducked his punch, grabbed his shirt, twisted my waist, and threw him again, only this time out into the parking lot. I closed the door and stood in front of it. My heart pounded my ribcage and the rush of adrenaline burned my stomach. “If you come again, you will be hurt. Then I’m calling the police.”

“It’s cool, I’m gone. Some moves you got, man.” As Soldier and Mr. Nasty were walking off, he shouted, “You the man!”

Watching them walk away, I recalled some stories my Sifu told me that happened to him in the late 60’s and 70’s. In those years, lots of crazy people challenged instructors. I had thought those days were gone but Soldier proved me wrong. So, all martial arts instructors beware. The Soldier still lurks about and he knows 101 ways to kill.

* Side note. Since Soldier’s visit, I’ve replayed that day in my mind repeatedly and thought of several ways I should have handled it. I hate that it got physical, but I learned from it. As a result, we implemented new policies into our curriculum as to how to deal with whackos. We call our deterrent program Soldier 101.