Muhammad Ali first said ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ when he was being interviewed for his fight against the then-champion of the world, Sonny Liston. Sonny was a large, muscular, intimidating champion and Ali (then still Cassius Clay) was an arrogant, brash, unrepentant rookie known as the ‘Louisville Lip’. He was fast but he was small and compared to Sonny, almost no one held any hope that he would be able to win. In fact, one reporter before the match was quoted as saying ‘about the only thing Clay can beat Sonny in is reading the dictionary’.
They would meet two times in their career, and Ali said this before their first match. He went on to win in the opening of the seventh after clearly dominating and brutally punishing Sonny in the sixth. Their second match was a phenomenal-sized debacle, embroiled in racial tensions, allegations of fixing and ties to organized crime, and poor interpretations of rules and protocols.
There is a lot to say about a smaller, faster, but still strong fighter being able to take down a much larger opponent. Politically, personally, militarily, metaphorically, we all love an underdog story. We want to see the small guy win but we also want to know why and how it’s possible.
Take for example, the (in comparison) much smaller native Indonesian who for more than three hundred years, had to ward off the much larger and more domineering Dutch colonialists. How could they, not in spite of but because of, their size find a system of defense and attack that would help them equal the odds and effectively protect themselves. The same situation would be true of Filipinos against the Spanish, Vietnamese against the French, etc etc. The system of martial arts developed in Southeast Asia that addressed these size and strength discrepancies and were rooted in very savage, very brutal, and very practical matters of survival, became known as kuntao.
Last night I had the immense, incredible pleasure and honor to attend a private seminar/workshop with one of the last great living masters of this primal way of martial arts, Willem de Thouars (or Uncle Bill as many of his students have come to affectionately know him). He grew up on the tiny island of Java and experienced firsthand the tensions between the Indonesian natives and Dutch. He was a street fighter, merchant marine, but most of all, always a martial artist. Uncle Bill is in his 80s now, and of course we all don’t know how much time we might still have left with him, and this was all part of what will most likely be his last tour of the country teaching and demonstrating. I was fortunate enough to be invited by a friend who happened to be hosting Uncle Bill and holding the workshop in his private studio.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have been doing martial arts since I was a child. Close now to almost 20 years. I’ve studied ba gua, tai chi, judo, weapons, but I’ve never experienced anything like the kuntao silat of Willem de Thouars (of which the school, and style, are named after his teachings). It’s fast and it’s fierce and rooted in practicality and lethality. Compared to the now centuries-old polished traditional Chinese martial arts, kuntao has not lost its basic roots. It looks sloppy and almost dirty, but it’s freeing and characterized by this ‘dangerous playfulness’. Over the course of just one night I was learning some pretty cool but definitely crazy things. I was on the floor, rolling to the side, doing leg locks, ankle breaks, practicing with knife and stick with both open hand and armed defenses, I was getting closer to real fighting and yet feeling more at ease and more relaxed, comfortable. He had us act and fight like monkeys, letting instinct and the sheer mechanics of it take over.
It was absolutely amazing and an incredible opportunity. I was mentioning before wanting to be able to share more of my passions in the company of people who would reciprocate? Well I was surrounded by some unbelievably talented and gifted martial artists last night. Some came as far as Arizona just to see Uncle Bill in what may be the very last time. I was able to spar and push with every one of them and each had such a different style, different perspective, and I got to learn so much by being able to put what I had against them. As Uncle Bill would always tell his students ‘if you don’t train physically…it’s not going to work’. Most of all though, I think I learned two incredible things that I could carry over into my everyday life and not just in martial arts.
- Sometimes in life, to tackle a problem, redirect it and then get low. I am a tall person. I’m 6′. Kuntao was designed to fight against people like me. The average Filipino is 5’3″ and the average Indonesian is 5’2″. So most of kuntao is designed around when a punch is coming in to first redirect it (as overpowering it with a straight block would be too difficult because of the difference in body type) and then attack the person’s root (by either going for the knee, the ankle, the thigh, or the groin). Being on the receiving end of this can be scary and jarring. One minute you’re punching straight at a person, the next they’re suddenly below you either breaking your ankle or striking your groin. Now imagine if someone my height did that. It’d be just that much more shocking. To lose sight of a 6′ tall man might be enough deterrent against any future attack. But I can see this working in any sort of obstacle. Because of my height I am used to physically going against people. Because of our positions or attitudes or good fortune in life, we might have always enjoyed the ability to face problems head on. We might take a few good hits but we always know we can handle it and bounce back. But sometimes we are in positions where we have nothing left. Where we cannot afford to lose anything else. We can’t keep running into the wall and hope it falls down. But we can dig underneath it and get below its foundation and topple it that way. In one exchange, my partner was around 5’5″. We had practiced together before and I would usually stay my ground and sort of bat him away with sheer physicality. I wanted to embrace this kuntao way, so when he punched I ducked under, rolled, and ended up behind him. I could kick his knees, roll his ankle, or sweep his leg from under him. He had no idea how I ended up there and told me that it was absolutely disconcerting to have lost me that way. When presented with a problem, remember there is more than one way to face it. Be smart. Know how to assess a situation or problem. If you can’t stay on top of it, get below it, change your perspective, attack it from a different angle, go where no one expects you to go.
- Struggle can be playful. Uncle Bill’s teaching style is very old-school. He would show us a few techniques, discuss the principle behind it, and then leave us to, as he says ‘struggle with it’. Unlike modern schools and teaching, Uncle Bill believes the best teacher is the self. The second best is a willing and receptive partner. What he really wanted for us was not to struggle in the sense of obstacle and pain. He wanted us to have a problem to solve. Something to wrestle with. ‘Here I have someone coming at me with this particular problem. How do I use the tools I have to fix it.’ Every punch was a new opportunity to play, every attack and counter-attack was meant to be a different puzzle. Because of this, I never felt stressed or upset when something didn’t work. I went right back to it, tried to understand it, and tried again. He doesn’t get too bogged down or concerned with the mechanics or the ‘technique’ but rather wants us to focus on the feel and the moment. Uncle Bill would say ‘techniques get you killed’. Uncle Bill talks of pain and struggle with a smile and a slight giggle. He understands something that many of us don’t because of the good fortune of our lives. Living in the jungle, facing harsh environments and even harsher peoples, Uncle Bill has struggled his entire life to enjoy and be happy. He has come out of it successful and healthy and therefore has come to understand that struggle can be a positive thing. The ‘sting of pain’ can be happy. Here I am, seemingly recovering from a bad breakup, and I once thought I had nothing to do but lick my wounds. Even in reflection before the workshop, I’ve been slowly coming to the realization that there are some incredibly positive and uplifting and encouraging things that have come from my pain.
I am so glad I signed up for this seminar and I’ve learned so much. I feel inspired, encouraged, but yes also if you ever happen to try and run at me with a punch or a stick or a knife, I will whoop. yo. ass. Hahah. Terima kasih, Uncle Bill. Thank you.
Man: 151 Loneliness: 31