Words: Chuck D ( Probably not his real name)
One man’s journey through 40 years of Martial Arts training and how it shaped his life.
I consciously remember making a decision to pursue Martial Arts at the age of 9. It started with a pair tired boxing gloves.
My older brother John was in boarding school at Kakamega High School in Western Province and he brought home two pairs of boxing gloves. One was red and the other blue. The red ones were ill fitting boxing gloves. They were smaller and very stiff with duct tape holding the insides together. This was my ﬁrst introduction to any sort of ﬁghting art or sports
And so John taught us the basics of boxing, throwing a straight punch, keeping your guard up and ducking or you would get hit hard.
I joined High School a few years later at Sawagongo High School, deep in the bowels of Siaya County. Here, I met this intriguing but humble guy, an A levels student called Were who was well-versed in the style of Goju-Ryu Karate. I became his student and leant this style for a year.
The operation was very clandestine. Students were not authorized to practice Karate in the school and so we found secluded spots outside of the school compound and practised in total secret. We were a closed circle who could keep our mouths shut and hardly anyone knew about our practice sessions.
Our main cover was the training session. Everyone assumed were aspiring athletes who loved to run long distances and once we were out of sight, we became karatekas.
Were, the de-facto leader of our motley crew left after graduating from the 6th form but as luck would have it, another student joined us as a form two. Like Were, he possessed the same humble demeanour and was called Allan Babu Nyamori better known as ‘Oswadga de Ombothro”
He was a guy of “Mta” and quite good in Shoto-Kan karate. A very good instructor and ﬁt as hell. This would become my introduction to physical conditioning at the age of 13 and I still carry the same principle at the young-old age of 51.
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face- Mike Tyson
Under Sensei Allan I learned the basic foundations of Shoto-Kan Karate and blended it with Goju Ryu. The practise session continued to be held in clandestine locations and in secret. Our membership started to increase but new members did not just get to walk into the brotherhood untested.
They were subjected to vigorous physical fitness tests, in keeping with our high standards. We were looking only for the serious folk, the ones who had a strong will and wouldn’t give up easy. We were completed devoted to our training sessions and maintaining our ﬁtness levels.
Our morning workout started at 05:00 before the school awoke and while it was still dark. We called it “roadwork” and it began after we had assembled at a designated meeting point outside school. We liked to leave when it was still dark to protect our cover.
When we returned to school an hour later, we would always split up to avoid drawing any attention to ourselves. We kept this secret alliance going until we started itching for competition and decided to enter a regional contest.
To do this, we had to travel to Kisumu on the weekend for the first real graded fight in front of an audience in a social hall.
I know karate, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jujistu and 28 other dangerous words.
Our naivety was revealed upon arrival. The rules stated that only teams registered as a club could compete. We pleaded our case and they were probably impressed by how eager we seemed.
We were not allowed not to register as individuals but as a school. Our outfits, mostly track bottoms and tees were out of place. We were not wearing a Gi (the karate white pants and white top) neither did we have belts, since we had never been graded. We had one redeeming karate top that faded to a light shade of brown. We kept it clean but it was not as apparent at first sight. All those years of washing white cotton in muddy rivers was showing.
The ﬁrst instructor refused to accept a “dirty Gi” but we really did not have anything else to wear. We pleaded our case again. They let it pass reluctantly and we took turns wearing this “light brown” crumpled top. Most other teams had nice clean white uniforms and we looked so out of place.
Real hard core renegades we were. The competition started with individual Kata (forms) test. But the part we were waiting for was the Kumite (ﬁghting forms). We had come this far to fight but the rules got in the way. I got points deductions for sweeping, grabbing and kicking on the back.
This is how we sparred back in school and we had absolutely no grasp of the competition rules. This kind of competition fighting was ceremonial and very different from how we trained.
We didn’t stop when one “scored” a point. It was always intense freestyle sparring which lasted about three minutes or longer as you would have in a boxing round. We even used ground techniques. When I think of it now that was basically something between Jujitsu and what we now see in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) ﬁghts.
Sure, the fight was fight was fixed. I fixed it with my right hand- George Foreman
Anyway after quickly adapting to the “competition rules” I won both my ﬁghts against senior ranked opponents. My other mates Hamisi Sumba, and even Dan Odindo did very well. Hamisi almost got disqualiﬁed for hitting too hard. Hamisi always hit hard even when we were sparring. Even though he was my good friend, it counted for squat when we were in a ﬁght.
We were then graded and I received my ﬁrst belt, “7th Kyu” belt in ShotoKan Karate. I don’t remember actually ever wearing a coloured belt afterwards because we didn’t wear uniforms then, but I felt proud nevertheless.
Any 14yr old would have been but we couldn’t tell anyone.
After this tournament we returned to school hoping the incident would pass off quietly. But since we did so well in the tournament and placed highly in the provincial rankings, it was promptly reported in the press. To the horror of the authorities, we had participated in an “illegal” tournament in a “banned art” and also out of school without permission.
The charge sheet was very long with everything from a misdemeanour to a felony, and a breach in our parole status which we had for some hours on the weekends. The direct consequence was that we were suspended from class awaiting expulsion. We were not allowed to attend lessons and given “manual work” as punishment.
Eat, Train, Sleep, Repeat
On the ﬁrst day we given a ﬁeld of long grass to slash the grass. For us it was just another reason to train or ‘tizi’ as we called it. We completed it in record time to the amazement of the teacher! Although it was difficult work, we slashed through that grass with zeal, making up for the fitness hours lost with our suspension.
More physical labour was piled up. We dug a farm and after that had to uproot a tree trunk. We finished that in a record 2 days with stone-age tools but only because we mobilised Form One students in the dead of the night to lend us a hand.
Fortunately for us, a progressive younger teacher saved the situation. He pleaded our case and stopped us from being expelled. Shortly thereafter we were allowed to operate a club in the school premises and the same teacher arranged to have us presented with the certiﬁcates we had won in competition, in front of the whole school in the morning parade!
This was a highlight and one the proudest moments of my High school days. After I left Sawagongo high school, I was transferred to Usenge High School near the shores of Lake Victoria, where the conditions were even tougher.
I did what I know best and started to run a secret Karate club totally undetected. At the age of 16, I had become a full-fledged instructor. The year was 1980 and I had come into my own as a fighter.
Wearing a Black belt does not mean you are invincible
After I left high school, I came into contact for the very ﬁrst time with Tae Kwon Do. I lived in Upper Hill in Nairobi and one day I saw a guy in a white karate type Gi doing kicks in the neighbouring backyard across from where we lived. I was impressed by the fluidity of his style.
Turned out to be a guy called Patrick Ngana and I found out that they had a group training at Upper Hill School. Ngana was the instructor, and among the dedicated students I can remember a guy called Kam Kong. One of the phrases that he loved to use was “ok piga na left” (change and kick with your left leg).
I was curious about all these other martial art styles. At the Holy Family Basillica I found another humble man called Raymond “Mzee” an instructor. The Karate I encountered there was quite different from the Karate that I practiced. This was rigid and stiff, but the instructor was very kind and his lessons were very harmonious and grounded.
I was seeking and searching a lot during this period in life. I tried at bit of Judo and was surprised to see that they had very thick cotton uniforms. They even bow with their legs apart and they had mats on the ﬂoors. This was all very new to me.
Growing up I had a cousin called Liz who had a blue belt in Judo but I had never seen her training. One day, the son of a family friend called Osunga Okello, came on a visit after I had just come from my daily “roadwork” and we talked about martial arts.
And that is how I got to know of a group he was training with privately and started doing Tae Kwon Do with a guy called John Nandwa. We used the gym at Uniafric House in Nairobi (Tae Kwon Do headquarters) in the mornings.
The gym was very well equipped and it was the ﬁrst time I had ever used any protective gear for sparring other than boxing gloves. They had shin guards and body pads. It always felt so unnatural wearing these things, because of the added weight and they restricted my mobility.
When I look back at our early high school karate sparring sessions, I always marvel that we did full contact sparring and shrugged off the bruises on our shins. Once in a while you got kicked in the nuts and somethings you never forget.
The training with Nandwa was very intense and the transition to this style was not too drastic, but what I could never do was put my guard down as you would see sometimes see in Tae Kwon do during close quarter combat. I guess this is a carry-over from my boxing days. I did not like getting punched in the face.
Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own. Bruce Lee
On some evenings I would watch the regular classes at the gym, Patrick Ngana and a guy called Alfred Thuku who were red belts at the time. I never trained with the regular classes because I could not afford to pay for them but they were a pleasure to watch. I liked that guys doing Tae Kwon do were always laid back but deadly.
I started training brieﬂy under a black belt called Dan and it became more extensive under a South Korean instructor called Choi. Choi was an older Korean man who hardly spoke any English. Choi would sometimes even consult a English dictionary before the lessons.
He was very strict and keen on the little details and would say things like ” Kiki difesha, kiki defesha, at mospidi, Gu Style” (kick, defend, kick defend, add more speed, good style). Meaning, “Kick and recover your guard quickly”.
Then came along a young Korean guy called Park who had been an Olympic silver medalist in his weight. Damn, I felt like I was being trained by Bruce Lee himself.
As all this was happening, I was involved in running a karate club in Kibera with a guy called Henry who was a photographer. The original club had been stared in Kibera some German aid worker. We moved the group to Hall in Woodley behind Adams Arcade where would train them in Gu style in the evenings.
Years later, I met one of the students, a guy called Oketch. This was in 1994. He was Black belt and had a group in Utalii College. He invited me to come to his school and I did a Kung fu presentation.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
We wake up. We brush our teeth. We do Kung fu.
I went to the US in 86 for university and didn’t do any martial arts while there at all. I found martial arts was very commercial. You could drive by a dojo or gym and pretty much all out on display. When I was in Rust College in Holy Springs Mississippi, I privately taught some students, then I decided to apply to open a club at the college. I had to write a formal application letter to the dean of students. It was approved.
I was running, as in long distance athletics for the college at this time, as any good Kenyan would so it didn’t leave me much time for the club. The interest level was also quite low. Most people preferred guns as the ultimate weapon of choice for self defense or the numbers of their brothers in the fraternity.
In 1988 I decided to leave the States for Sydney in Australia. I had been reading magazines like Black Belt and seeing all these other styles. The one style that really fascinated me for some reason was Bruce Lees Jeet Kune Do concepts. I thought it was a very technical and practical approach to combat incorporating the different ranges and angles.
Bruce Lee famously said this “Jeet Kune Do favours formlessness and so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in all styles”.
Using no way as way. Having no limitation as you only limitation. Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do.
I was becoming interested in weapon based systems. As a perennial seeker, I eventually joined a Kung fu Club in Sydney’s China Town. Jin Wu Koon, Australia Shaolin double dragon. With Sifu Cheuk-Fai.
I liked the style, very practical and the school also taught Kick boxing, Muay Thai style. Here I learnt Thai Boxing and conditioning. The school had ﬁghters taking part in completions. At one competition I saw a demo by a grappling expert, an ex-student of Bruce Lee called Larry Hartsell.
Larry trained under Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto, served as a military police and was in Vietnam. Pure badass! Hartsell had taught self defense and combat courses for the Navy Seals and police ofﬁcers and god knows who else! He was credited with writing books on Jeet Kune Do and grappling.
Grappling can be described in Jeet Kune do as one of the ﬁghting ranges just as the kicking range, boxing range and the trapping range. Hartsell was charged with developing grappling techniques in the Jeet Kune Do after Bruce Lee died.
He may have had a pot belly but was he extremely dangerous. He gave quite an impressive demo. I also saw for the ﬁrst time a Wing Chun guy face off against one of our own. He didn’t do very well but his style was the most unusual!
I Find Your Lack Of Wing Chun disturbing…
So I decided to look around for a Wing Chun school. There was one in the same district. I found it and I was surprised to see that they wore shoes in the gym. It was very clean and the ﬂoor had carpeting.
It was hard to understand what they were doing. A lot of hands making contact and everybody looked quite relaxed. I got to meet the owner, a humble older Chinese man, called Sifu Jim Fung. He asked me where I was from and we got to talk. I never joined this school but my curiosity remained.
I later moved to Adelaide, a city in South Australia. I got to find a club that taught Kali, Escrima and Jeet Kune Do concepts. It was my ﬁrst encounter with a weapon based system. I visited the Wing Chun School, and to my surprise I meet the same Chinese guy I had met in Sydney.
I was to ﬁnd out in later years that he was the late Grandmaster Jim Fung, founder of the ‘International Wing Chun Academy’. His master, Tsui Leung Ting was once a closed door student of the legendary Yip Man ( Ip Man).
He owned both schools and I think some others in Australia. We became friends and we talked at length about Kung fu and martial arts. There was also another Instructor of a Kung fu /Muay Thai School who became a good friend too, the late Jo Man Fai Ip, known as Sifu Jo Ip.
Joe Ip had been a stunt man in movies. He was also a kick boxing promoter. His guys were quite tough ﬁghters. I knew his guys because some of them worked in security. I was working as a Radio deejay and bouncer on the side and I got to see them a lot on the scene. I’d also seen some of them during competitions.
I was not a student in his school but I watched him teach quite a few times and that’s how he came to notice me. I was that black guy who used to watch from the sides. In early 90s there were very few Africans in Adelaide, so I made friends easy. People always remembered “the black guy”.
You Can Only Fight The Way You Practise- Miyamoto Musashi
I came back to Nairobi in 1994, and Tae Kwon do had changed and spread out. Although it was a very different breed, I wondered how some of those folks I saw fight could be Black Belts. I reconnected with John Nandwa who was running a little club at Ratna Fitness Center in Lavington area.
I had started a Tae Kwon Do group in Kawangware, at Kabiro Ftness Center which was mostly a boxers den. The boxers trained inside while I trained the Tae Kwon do team outside. I’ve always liked the boxing training from my boxing roots, and also the stop watch system where you really get to know how long a minute is in a combat situation.
In Nairobi, my training got quite intense’.
On Mondays I trained Shoto khan karate, Tuesdays I taught a private group, a self defense system based on boxing, judo and karate and elementary weaponry, on Wednesdays I did some training with Harlequins Rugby Club on Ngong Road.
The ﬁtness of these rugby guys amazed me. To date, I have a lot of respect for rugby players, their physical training is like some form of a boot camp and you have to use your mind a lot to overcome the pain and exhaustion.
Even for a guy in my height of ﬁtness, it was amazing what they did. I was used to doing like about 50 push ups (maximum) non-stop. Here they did 30 times 10. On the ﬁrst session I lost count at about 200! The coach was a guy called Ham Onsando. He became the Kenya National Sevens Coach at one point.
On Thursdays I did Tae Kwon do with John Nandwa and the guy was just insane. John is one of the ﬁttest guys I’ve ever met. Once a white guy came to train with us. I recognized him from the Harlequins rugby guys, he was equally surprised to find me there. I had no idea he was also a martial artist.
Funny that he seemed to be doing exactly what I was doing, cross training. Jamie, I think was his name and he looked English. He did everything well in our training session, I honestly didn’t think anyone could cope with our intensity but I forgot, he was from the Quins boot camp!
Fridays I run my club in Kawangware.
All Chan and Shaolin Kung Fu practises are to find your heart- Shaolin Monk Shi Yanxu
I left Kenya again in 1997 for Stockholm, Sweden. In Stockholm I started training in O Sin Chuen, which is a traditional ﬁve animal, Shaolin style. I had previously studied Jin Wu Koon (Shaolin Double Dragon) and this was more of a progression than a transition.
I also went to a Ninjitsu School, and was surprised that from first impression, it looked just like Karate forms and training only that the Gi they wore was black.
My search for a system that did not rely on brute force or kicks brought me ﬁnally to Ving Tchun Kung fu.
I found a club that shared premises with Krav Maga guys, an Israeli self defense system which is a version used by the Israeli military and special forces. I found Krav Maga very direct and extremely effective.
I took up Ving Tchun Kung fu, (Wing Chun) and for the ﬁrst time started learning a system that was built on certain principles and concepts. There was very little ritual. It was simply amazing.
I got to understand the principles behind things like the “one inch punch” that Bruce Lee became famous for, which I did not know originated in Ving Chun.
I also ﬁnally started to understand how Bruce Lee analysed ﬁghting forms, developed and changed them to be more effective and practical. I could now understand the relationship between the Filipino Martial Arts stick fighting style called Escrima and Ving Chun and the Olympic sport Fencing which has its roots in martial arts.
For example Bruce Lee’s ﬁghting stance in Jeet Kune Do (JKD) could as well have been adapted from Escrima or a Fencing stance. It allows you to transition from one range to another in the blink of an eye. JKD also uses the centerline principle which Bruce adopted from his teacher, Grandmaster Yip Man’s Ving Tchun.
I took another long break from martial arts in between raising a family and also learning a new language.
Don’t Think. Feel – Bruce Lee
Around 2004, I resumed Ving Tchun (Wing Chun) training. The spelling is different because of the lineage from Grand Master Yip. I also took up parallel studies in Escrima which is a Filipino weapon and empty hand ﬁghting system. A lot of people who take Ving Chun also study this system because it is also concept based and very direct.
I learnt stick ﬁghting, sword ﬁghting, knife ﬁghting (bladed weapons) empty hand (unarmed) ﬁghting and improvised weapons plus the transition between them.
Currently I still do Ving Tchun and Escrima. These systems are pure self defense systems with no adaptation to sports therefore they are very direct. Everything you do has a purpose, every movement follows a certain set of principles so there is nothing fancy but rather everything is direct to the point.
Ving Tchun has only three forms, and one wooden dummy form plus one weapon form. The ﬁrst form is calłed Sim Nim Tao, also known as the little idea. The form has the foundation of the whole system, it is described as the frame of the house where you build your Ving Tchun.
Do Not Fight with Strength, Absorb it as it flows, Use it- Yip Man
I have a lot of respect for martial artists and for the different styles, weapon based or empty handed. It’s one big family. My advice to anyone who asks this question,
“Which system is best?”
I think it comes down to you and how you apply what you know independent of the system. If you have been schooled well, you will win by walking away from the ﬁght.
If you study any system, try to study the whole system completely. To be in a position to see whether it works for you in different situations. Body mechanics plays a big role, because we have two hands and two legs, and any movement or combination of movements is limited to pure mechanics.
If we can exploit this, either your weight, heavy or light, your height, tall or short, your strength, weak or strong and apply certain principles or universal truths then any fight could potentially go either way. What might seem like an obvious advantage could end up being your downfall.
Size Does Not Matter, Time Does
You can’t always rely on your eyes for instance, they only see. Reaction is for the brain, the resulting action is what the brain tells the muscle to do, basically instructing a set of muscles that moves your legs or arms in any particular way.
If your guard is down, you might see the jab but your reaction to it might be too slow. In theory, you would say that that you are lost if you can’t see, but that is only half the truth.
There is a lot of ﬁghter sports on show these days. It is important to remember that these are very well trained professional ﬁghters and they still have rules and follow them even under pressure. Rules to ﬁt in the context of sports, otherwise someone gets really hurt or killed.
Check yo self before you wreck yourself” – Ice Cube
One other thing that is important is to strive to be a balanced person, one at peace with the self at a deeper level. You become a threat to others and to yourself if you are unbalanced and have this need to get into ﬁghts to ﬁnd this balance.
Also, never under estimate the other person in the conﬂict you ﬁnd yourself in, otherwise you might be in for the biggest surprise of your life, even if you are the MMA champion of your world.
I set some principles for myself at the age of 13 and I have stuck by them to date at 51.
No alcohol enters my system!
I suppose martial arts is not really about fighting. It is about building character, my friend!