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Shaolin Kung Fu in London

Shaolin Kung Fu in London: Interview with Master Shi Yanxiu

London Shaolinxiu Culture Centre is an overseas branch centre of the Shaolin Temple in China.

This is one of the most famous and historical Buddhism temples in the world, and also renowned for its martial arts and warrior monks.

The London Shaolinxiu Culture Centre was founded 12 years ago. Miranda Cui recently interviewed with its founder Master Shi Yanxiu. He shared his experience of teaching Shaolin Kung Fu in the UK and his understanding of Shaolin culture.

‘I just want people to see me as a good fighter, not a disabled one’

Despite having cerebral palsy, mixed martial arts fighter Jack West aims to turn professional at the end of the year. By which point he says, his doubters will have been forced to accept him.

At the BST MMA Gym in the heart of Northampton town centre is where you’ll find ‘The T-Rex’ five nights a week, practising his skills and gaining respect with each passing fight.

As we sit bare footed on wrestling mats, the thud of blows being landed on a chained heavy bag resonates through a space whose sweat-soaked atmosphere captures years of primal aggression being channelled into physical prowess.

The man responsible for the noise is Jack’s main coach, former World Cage Warriors and British Tae Kwon Do champion Danny Batten, snapping a series of unrelenting low kicks into 180lbs of leather and sand.

West tells me: “My coaches and training partners are the best about. Technically, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better in the country.”

Physical pain

As well as being his coach, Batten also plays the role of sparring partner from time to time.

Attesting to his ferocious abilities, West speaks of the pain he often endures after training.

“With my condition, I have restricted use of my right side with little range of motion. It’ll usually cause me pain after training, but I’ve never known any different.

“Submission wise, because I don’t have full extension of my right arm, anything on that side I’ll tap to immediately, unlike my left arm where I could possibly twist and wriggle out. I’m not going to risk it.”

‘People don’t want to fight me, and I get it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them’

Despite being born with a hemiplegia of the right side, West has managed to make a name for himself in the amateur ranks of MMA.

With a record of three wins and one loss so far, it’s hard to deny his talent, although some try to.

“People don’t want to fight me, and I get it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them. Losing means they got beat by the guy with cerebral palsy. Win, and it’s only a guy with cerebral palsy. There’s little to gain from their side.”

His solution to this problem? “If I keep working, at some point I’m going to be of the skill level where they’re forced to accept me.

“When I turn pro, I’m going to be there through ability not sympathy, and they’re going to have to fight me.”

Currently, there is no MMA organisation that has disabled-specific platforms for fighters. As a result, West has always trained and fought with abled-bodied competitors and says he’d not have it any other way.

“I don’t want to be known as a disabled fighter. I want people to say ‘he’s a good fighter’ regardless. I want people to see me as a good fighter in spite of my disability.”

Overcoming the odds

Ahead of meeting West, I was slightly nervous and unsure as to how I’d approach the topic of his disability. Rightly or wrongly, I adopted a position of sympathy.

My perception shifted dramatically when after a toilet break, I returned with two packets of dry roasted peanuts for us.

After passing West his and then woefully attempting to open mine, I felt a sudden rush of anxiety and thought ‘I should’ve opened the bloody nuts myself.’ I looked up to find him making light work of the wrapping, utilising his teeth and self-proclaimed ‘piston’ of a left hand.

“I call it the money-maker,” he tells me in jest.

“I know that sounds silly, but my condition is something other fighters don’t have. When we step inside the octagon together, I’m beating you even with cerebral palsy. I have an obstacle to climb that you don’t.

“I’m as good a fighter as anybody that I’ve stepped in there against. I have obvious disadvantages, but I make up for them in other ways. Fighting is what I’m best at.”

Researching cerebral palsy threw up a list of problems associated with the condition including poor co-ordination, stiff and weak muscles, bad posture, problems with balance –  all things you’d assume mitigate against a successful career in combat sports.

West is, however, made of sterner stuff. “Everything you’ve said there is true, but I’m overcoming it.

“I’m just as capable as everyone else. When I first started in MMA, that was exactly what it was – showing I’m just as physically capable as you lot.

“I’m actually good at sport. I can’t kick a ball to save my life, but I’m a good goalkeeper!”

Anxious

Having joined a boxing class with friends at the age of 13, West continued even after his mates lost interest. He then transitioned in MMA and found his “calling”.

“I loved thinking I was the man,” he tells me. “Playing sport (at school) people would say ‘sit down’ or whatever but I knew my potential. I knew I was strong.”

‘I’m not scared, and my mum sees that. She sees that I love it’

Now, if you were to ask most parents which sport they’d least like their child to show an interest in, MMA would probably be right up there. Add in a serious birth defect, and West admits his mother was initially extremely anxious about her son’s passion for fighting.

“When I began training at 13, obviously like most mums she was worried. Like most people, she was unaware that there is an art to mixed martial arts.

“Soon enough, she stopped worrying and just watched. Now she’s a fan of the sport.

“It’s like, if she saw I was scared, then she would be, too. But I’m not scared, and she sees that. She sees that I love it.”

No limits?

Although Jack’s situation is rare, he’s not the first disabled mixed martial artist to fight inside the cage.

Nick Newell, formerly of America’s XFX fight organisation, tasted success when he defeated Eric Reynolds to become champion of the world in their 155lb division, despite being born with a congenital amputation ending below the elbow on his left arm.

Newell is a hero to West, who takes much inspiration from his example.

“He’s someone I look up to massively. We’ve actually exchanged emails on various occasions and he’s wished me luck for upcoming fights and stuff.

“When I was younger, it was a dream of mine to fight him. I’d still love to. We’re basically the same weight.”

In 2015, Newell retired from MMA despite winning a unanimous decision in his final fight. West explained how following the American’s career opened his eyes to his own limitations.

“There’s a ceiling. It’s important to not be deluded about this. He knows, like I know, that there’s a limit to what we can do with our disabilities, and I think he’d reached his.”

Two fights prior to his retirement, Newell lost a bout to Justin Gaethje, a top fighter who currently poses a challenge to UFC superstar Conor McGregor’s lightweight crown. West remembers it vividly.

“It was tough to watch. He obviously took a proper beating, but it goes to show that there really is a gap, and that’s cool.

“I’m not ever going to get lost in the emotion of it and think ‘I’m going to be the next UFC lightweight champion’ or anything. I know what I’ve got.”

Newell held an impressive 9-1 professional record, with nearly all of his victories coming via submission. I, like most, interpreted this as Newell recognising his disadvantage on the feet (having one arm significantly shorter than the other). West’s victories, however, have come via KOs and TKOs.

“Stand-up fighting is what I’m best at. I hit hard, I know that. Everything I’m doing is setting you up to land my big left hand.

“I don’t want to use the ground and for people say I’m just using it because I can’t stand. I’m a good striker and they learn that quickly.”

Perspective

A habitual reader and appreciator of philosophy, West’s outlook and demeanour took me back, admittedly. Articulacy accompanied by a defiant aura, I had no qualms in telling him I felt he’d go far.

“That whole philosophy that Conor McGregor holds of ‘believe in your surroundings’ is one that I share and agree with wholeheartedly. This is a gift.

“You have to love yourself, and every part of you.”

I end our interview by asking where he sees himself in the near future.

“I’m looking to turn professional at the end of the year,” he replies.

“Then from there, I can hand on my heart say I’m going to be world champion. I believe that, absolutely.

“When I retire, maybe I’d like to start something to help others in my situation. I’ve been approached before about teaching a disabled class. That’s something I’d love to do in the future.

“Right now, I’m fighting.”

‘Jiu Jitsu made me a better me’

“It’s definitely something everybody should at least try.”

So says Farhana Khatun, an amateur Jiu Jitsu fighter who took up the Japanese form of martial arts after signing up to a club at a university freshers’ fair.

“After attending the taster session I was completely hooked”

Khatun, 21, believes that Jiu Jitsu is not just a hobby but more a way of life which has helped her overcome personal issues and gain confidence.

“I have lost weight, grown tougher and more resolved as a person. I used to be a very emotionally charged with mild depression,” she explained.

“With Jiu Jitsu I feel like I’ve got a handle on things. It has taught me to be patient with hurdles and transition smoothly between each one.

Invaluable

Khatun enjoys the combative nature of Jiu Jitsu and believes it teaches students discipline, kindness, tolerance as well as patience which are skills useful in all walks of life.

“I have lost weight, grown tougher and more resolved as a person. I used to be a very emotionally charged with mild depression”

“The sensei at the club (Saeed Jbr) always teaches us to take care of our partners whilst training and even though it is a contact sport with a risk of injury, being there for someone and knowing how to deal with people is an invaluable experience.”

She went onto say that knowing and keeping an observant eye out for human behaviour is definitely something that comes in handy when dealing with people away from the mat.

Competition

Recently Khatun competed in her first in-house tournament where she won half of the bouts she was involved in. It was the first time she fought in front of anyone besides her class partners.

“I don’t want to say I am a sore loser, but lose I did. Winning two out of four matches wasn’t bad, but I let the nervousness get the better of me. I was filled with so much adrelanine, I feel like I maxed out. Intimidation was one of the key factors as well.”

“It was nerve wracking. Even fighting in front of a small crowd at Kings for a friendly match definitely felt intense”

But she insisted she loved it and getting pumped on the excitement and pressure was a good feeling.

“It was nerve wracking. Even fighting in front of a small crowd at Kings for a friendly match – infront of my sister and brother – definitely felt intense”

A few minutes prior to the tournament Khatun was entered into the heavyweight category, although she’d been prepared as a lightweight.

“I fought against girls that were a lot larger than me and shifting from lightweight to heavyweight at the last minuted derailed me. But in the end, I’ve taken it as a learning experience and hopefully next year I win gold – or at least silver!”

Self-defence

Khatun feels self-defence is an essential life skill and doesn’t necessarily need to be violent or involve fighting but more importantly the ability to engage the mind, gain agility.

“Self defence teaches you how to defend yourself in public, but it also teaches you important values,” she told me.

The student who’s in her final year of university says there’s no greater thrill than rolling with someone who wants to submit to you.

“The best part of training is the ground work. It engages more of my mind and physical attributes.

“You build a bond with your team-mates, you strengthen and condition your body and with regards to emotions, you let the stress out on the mat.”

Khatun says there are no negative aspects regarding the Jiu Jitsu but frustrates herself when she doesn’t execute a move properly “with the right form” which could lead to injury.

She is next planning to take up a different form of jitsu known as 10th Planet Jitsu which is a non-traditional Brazilian style.

Respect is the key in taekwondo

When I saw my local taekwondo training centre was giving free try-out lessons, I had to give it a go.

This isn’t my first experience with a martial art or combat sport. Previously, I’d tried boxing, and before that I obtained a yellow belt in choikwangdo (CKD) which is in some ways pretty similar to taekwondo, so I didn’t feel intimidated or hesitant about giving it a go.

As it was a taster session, no dobok (uniform) was required and everyone was advised to wear flexible and loose clothing. When I arrived at the dojang (as it is called), the first thing that hit me was the temperature.

It was freezing, like Christmas in Moscow, which reminded me of how cold it had been doing my CKD classes. I don’t know if it’s a deliberate tactic, but it certainly encourages you to start the session with a good warm-up, in every sense of the phrase.

Respect

Before that, however, we were taught how to bow correctly, which was largely the same as in CKD; straight back, hands by your side, feet parallel and a nice, even bow.

The respect factor in martial arts is huge, and one of the key things that make them so popular all over the world.  Every martial art I have seen, particularly those with Asian roots, have a philosophy that encourages integrity, respect for your opponent and honour in defeat.

The warm-up began with light stretches and a jog of about 15 minutes, and judging by the sweat it produced, it did the job very well.  It may be necessary, but personally it’s the part of the class I enjoyed the least. Then again, who really enjoys warming up in a martial arts class?

Technique

We then learned the correct stance for hand strikes (very similar to the bow) – a complete contrast to the orthodox or southpaw approach in boxing – we were taught some basic defensive manoeuvres involving blocking with the forearm, which in turn lead to the most enjoyable part of the lesson, the art of the kick.

From that point, it was not long before we got onto the real business of the session: sparring.

Having learned the technique for sidekicks and front kicks, to finish off, we were asked to line up and test our capabilities on a pad which was a lot smaller than I had been expecting. Clearly, a high standard is placed on students and teachers in taekwondo.

Coming out of the session, I definitely felt like I had had a good time, and it had been a worthwhile way to spend an hour. Knowing techniques from CKD, which were so similar, definitely helped, but the fact I was so rusty meant I did not have a huge advantage on the other learners.

Value

As far as effectiveness goes, even though I only had a short time in there trying it, I came away feeling taekwondo was better than CKD due to the more precise nature of the techniques. However, I also felt both sports are inferior to boxing.

As someone who has tried all three disciplines, I feel boxing keeps you fitter and is more useful in a fight situation, as it teaches you correct ways to avoid being hit through movement of the head and feet, as well as superior striking technique.

That said, I would certainly recommend taekwondo to anyone considering giving martial arts a try for the first time. Free taster/beginner sessions are easy to find and widely available, particularly in London.

It was something I enjoyed, and I learned enough from it to ensure it will be one of the sports that I’ll be keeping an eye out for at this summer’s Olympics in Rio.

Image by M Shaff via Flickr Creative Commons