The Travels of Antonio Graceffo: The Brooklyn Monk, Part II
Shuai Jiao Realist
By Antonio Graceffo
On deciding not to wrestle in the Chinese national shuai jiao championships:
My eighth month aniversary is coming up now, eight months that I have been on the Chinese traditional wrestling (Shuai jiao) team at Shanghai University of Sport. Before joining the team, I had spent one year training and fighting MMA fulltime, in Malaysia. The final half of that year, I actually lived in the MMA gym. So, I had picked up some grappling, but I had never truly studied wrestling or Brazilian jujitsu. In fact, the only, actual wrestling training I had before becoming the first foreigner on the universityteam was a three week traditional wrestling camp in Beijing.
Most of my teammates at the university grew up in sports schools in China. My best friend on the team, Zheng Tong, for example, lived in a sports school, from age 9, learning Greco Roman wrestling. The other guys on the team have similar stories. The ones with the least training spent 5 years learning Greco, before coming to train at the university. One of the guys actually grew up in a sports school where he majored in Chinese traditional wrestling. So, he has the best traditional wrestling on the team.
During my first seven months on the team, while we were supposed to be doing Chinese traditional wrestling, the coach would often give us a choice of what to work on. And we all inevitably chose freestyle or Greco Roman wrestling. While I tried to learn as much of the Chinese wrestling as I could, I simply liked freestyle better. Freestyle just seemed to focus on effectiveness, rather than tradition. Because we have three codes of wrestling on our team, four if you count MMA wrestling, we are constantly exchanging techniques, and mixing and matching them when we wrestle. And this is exactly what happens in MMA gyms. So, I felt very much at home with my team.
The difference between Shuai jiao and freestyle wrestling, to me, is analogous to the difference between, say karate and MMA kick boxing. In Karate, you do a movement or us a kick simply because it is karate, and not because you have evaluated it and determined it to be the best way to move or kick. In an MMA gym, on the other hand, fighters take from all disciplines, based on effectiveness. When we practice kick boxing, although most gyms will tend to have a Muay Thai base, they will add in EVERYTHING; kyokushin, 70’s style kick boxing, taekwondo…whatever techniques the MMA guys see and like, they simply add to their arsenal. Here in China, we all cross train in san da, Chinese kick boxing, but, we don’t throw away the muay Thai. Some of my MMA training partners have kung fu or wing chun backgrounds. One was even a savat competitor. And we simply take the best of everything, add it together, and call it kick boxing or striking for MMA.
The university wrestling team is like this too. The guys are really good at upper body control because of the Chinese wrestling training. But they can also do upper body strength throws from Greco. They add in leg grabs and shoots from freestyle. They all have good leg hooking, sweeping, and tripping from Chinese wrestling. Next, I came along with my MMA grappling and a number of the guys have adopted the BJJ sit through takedown and a few others that I have shown them. Some of us have had san da training, so we bring the san da throws to the wrestling room.
But true Shuai jiao is different. It’s not just about taking your opponent down. It’s about mastering the real, Chinese traditional techniques. And that takes practice. It starts with ji ben gong, basic kung fu style exercise, and evolves into drills and throws. Until about a month ago, in our sparring, and even in a huge tournament that we competed in, we all just used whatever techniques we wanted, as long as they didn’t break the rules. My teammates always joke with me that I am the king of the one point throws, for example, because I always go down with my opponent, resulting in a one point penalty, reducing my two-point throw to a one-point throw. While going down with the opponent is frowned upon in Shuai jiao, it’s a good habit in both MMA and freestyle wrestling.
Looking at the photos and videos from the tournament, I see my teammates doing body slams and body locks, saltos, a lot of lag grabs and high crotch throws… all sorts of freestyle wrestling techniques that are legal in Chinese wrestling but that are not real Chinese techniques. On the same videos, I see the kids from the sports high school utilizing the traditional Chinese throws.
Due to my age, 47, and the accumulation of injuries which severely limit my range of motion, when the team is doing Chinese drills or acrobatics, the coach excuses me from regular training. Instead, he chooses one of my teammates to free spar with me, until the team is ready to change into their Shuai jiao jackets. Then I rejoin the team for Shuai jiao sparring.
The other day at practice, while my team worked on techniques for the national championships, I did free wrestling with Chen Zengxin, who has been training and competing in Greco Roman wrestling since age 4. He is 22 now and has just retired from national and international level Greco competition. He has just started studying at the university and has only been on our team for a few weeks. When we trained together that day, we didn’t wear jackets, because he doesn’t know Chinese wrestling yet. We just trained freestyle. Or, more accurately, he told me I could do freestyle and he would do Greco. It didn’t matter. I never managed to take him down or even take his leg. I learned a lot from him. And obviously, he took me down at will. I did manage to pull him down with me once or twice, but as a rule, he could have literally killed me with his Greco skill at any moment.
I was so grateful to have a chance to work with a championship level wrestler like Chen Zengxin. And I felt that experience had more impact on my life and development as a wrestler/fighter than would one more session of Shuai jiao.
This realization was like a wakeup call. I don’t seem to be learning Shuai jiao anymore. I am just learning more and better wrestling, which is fine for my personal goal of being a better wrestler and fight. But I need to be realistic about my involvement in Shuai jiao.
Over the last two weeks, as my team has been concentrating on the national Shuai jiao championships, they have been training in traditional wrestling with ferocity. And, I realized I have no place in the national championships. I almost never do traditional wrestling. Every session that I am given a choice of what to work on, I opt for freestyle. My freestyle is really coming along. And even freestyle wrestling I learn for the purpose of being a better MMA fighter, not to really compete in freestyle wrestling. So, I think none of my styles is pure.
After free that day, we sparred 8 rounds of match sparring in Chinese traditional wrestling, and this confirmed for me that I have no idea what I am doing in that sport.
Looking back over photos and videos of training and sparring, I see that it is incredibly rare that I even grab my opponent’s jacket, which is the whole point of Chinese wrestling. Instead, all of my throws are from body locks and taking a leg. Until a few weeks ago, my teammates were fighting that way too, using a combination of Greco and freestyle. So, it just seemed to be the normal culture of our team. But now that the nationals are just weeks away, the guys are all strictly adhering to traditional rules. In fact, when we were choosing partners today, Wang YeChao, the team captain and one of my best friends, actually refused to partner with me. He said, “I want to train for nationals.”
That sort of hurt.
The coach doesn’t want Chen Zengxin to wrestle in nationals because he has only been with our team a few weeks and has literally zero Chinese wrestling skill, although he can still win, using Greco. We had a guest trainer that day, and he kept scolding Chen Zengxin because his techniques all came from Greco. The trainer kept yelling, “Grab the jacket! That’s what it’s there for.
As for my personal development as a wrestler, even now that my teammates are ratcheting up their skills and that I am no longer allowed to break the rules at will, I get some points from reversals. The thing I am proud of is that even though they are fighting with real intensity, I still manage to turn most of their two-point throws into one-point throws by pulling them down with me. All except Chen Zengxin, that is. He probably threw me about 25 times that day. About 70% of those throws, I managed to hook an ankle or a leg and throw him over my head as I fell, and YET, he would simply land on his feet. He is really amazing.
As for Shuai jiao, I am writing my doctoral dissertation on the differences and similarities between Chinese Shuai jiao and modern freestyle wrestling. I think today was one of those “Ah, ha!” moments, where I just discovered a new aspect of wrestling culture to explore. Different from freestyle wresting, traditional wrestling means “traditional wrestling.” It can’t change. It can’t be added to or taken away from. And no matter how many matches you win, you are either doing traditional wrestling or you aren’t.
Backing out of nationals changes very little about my training. I will continue to train hard with the team, and learn as much as I can. I simply won’t go to nationals. I think in proper Chinese traditional wrestling competition with rules that say you can only clinch for 3 seconds before taking someone down, or can only hold a leg for 3 seconds, or where they may penalize me for throwing from body lock or from sacrifice throws, I think it would just be a terrible experience of getting both beat up and demoralized to wrestle in a code where I am powerless against the best guys in the country. After all, it’s their sport. This decision may even be mute as the nationals seem to be right around the same time as my dissertation proposal defense. When I get the official dates, it may turn out I couldn’t have done both anyway.
I have about 5 weeks of school left. After my proposal defense I plan to shoot off to Cambodia and Singapore to train in freestyle wrestling and MMA for most of the summer. At some point I want to learn judo. Also, if I had a chance to study Greco, that would be awesome. So much to learn…
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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