Part Two of an interview with a good friend of mine, Thomas Holtmann is one of the main guys “keeping it real” in the Praying Mantis world. Besides being a formal disciple of Seven Star Master Zhong Lian Bao, he is also a full member of the Dog Brothers, a hardcore group which practice full contact weapons fighting. He is also a black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu, the German Chapter Head of Libre Fighting (learn more about that here: Finding Libre – My Life in the Martial Arts) and a guardian of the Piper Knife System. He teaches these arts in Hagen, Germany, you can visit his webiste here http://www.qixingtanglang.de. If you missed Part One then read it here.
From your experience at the Dog Brothers Gatherings, have you found any gaps in the traditional training approach? Have you had to develop your own methodology?
Well, you might call it a gap, but the art of fighting with TCMA weapons is mostly dead. At least most approaches I see tend to lead you to a what I would like to call a “wrong direction”. But that’s not just a TCMA problem. All traditional weapon arts are dead. How many times do you fight with your Dao, Jian, Gun, Katana, Bolo, Daab…nowadays? Do you think Kendo resembles the way how traditional masters fought with a Katana? Do you think competitions where guys are complete padded up and hit each other with soft weapons resembles how the weapons were used on a battlefield? It’s a dead art. There are some Masters out there who still know how to use our traditional weapons, but finding one is very, very difficult. The Dog Brothers have a beautiful slogan:”If you see it taught you will see it fought.” Which in our case means against a guy who is skilled in his weapon and who is not holding back with a minimum of protection. People tend to think that our fencing masks are helmets, which is not the case. We mainly use them to protect our eyes. We have knockouts, broken arms, hands, fingers… So going against a guy who is using full power to hit you is a different story. It’s not a Dui Da Taolu! After the first clips appeared where you can see me using TCMA weapons some so called Shifus were inboxing me to tell me that I would use the weapons wrong. I should use it in this or that manner…that my BJJ saves my butt since I don’t know how to use the weapons properly. Right, like Shuai Jiao was never used in Chinese arts. Lots of negativity, you know, like always inside the TCMA. I asked them if they ever tried that against another guy who is using full force to hit them? And that they are always welcome to visit me or to show up at one Gathering and show me how it’s done. I am always happy if I can learn… Well, no one ever showed up. Just a lot of talking. To make that clear, I would never think that what I do is the best way of doing things or that I am a tough fighter.
BUT I am at least going out there and testing it under conditions which are the closest you can get to a real fight with weapons without risking serious, life changing, injuries. As long as you don’t have the guts to do that, well, maybe you better keep quiet. Dui Da Taolu are a show which incorporate some kind of applications from techniques. But it’s not a real fight. Can they help you to prepare for one? Yes! All kinds of precognitive drills can help you to get better in using any technique, with or without weapon. But it’s not fighting or how in my opinion they used the weapons in the old days. Dui Da Taolu can teach and let you build attributes you need for fighting, but if you can’t use them in free fighting they are useless. It’s like those masters of the Iron Palm you see nowadays. If you can’t fight, what use got your Iron Palm? And if you think you are so good and can use it in a real fight, why don’t you do it? Fight MMA and make lots of money by KOing one guy after the other. But than they tell you it’s against the principle of Wu De. I personally rather get a wake up call and my butt kicked before I live in a fantasy world. Losing is good, it shows you where you need to work on. I always learned more from my losses than from my wins.
I would not call it my own methodology, but yes I have a certain way how I prepare for a Gathering and how I teach my students how to use weapons. I am lucky that my Shifu supports me 100% and always helps me to analyze my mistakes and help me to become better. One time I fought a tough fighter who was using a Katana. I was not pleased how I used the spear so when I talked with my Shifu about it he showed me some things I wasn’t even thinking about in that moment. Like I said before I am blessed to be the Baishi Tudi of Zhong Shifu. He helps me a lot by always listening to my nagging questions and supporting my personal development inside the TCMA.
Generally speaking, how much time do you feel should be put on solo training, and how much on partner training? And what should each one focus on most? How can we maximise our efficiency in gaining skill?
Well, I think it’s pretty easy. Your solo training is what you do when you are alone, your homework. I never understood why students should do push ups in class? What for? Isn’t that your homework? Whenever you have a partner you should focus on training with him. But, the most difficult thing to find inside the martial arts is a partner who is willing to put his own ego to the side and help you to grow. There is way too much ego involved. One day you are the hammer, one day you are the nail. It’s simple as that. TCMA got many facets, so I can’t tell you what to focus on.
Generally speaking you should focus on all aspects. But do it in a smart way. You maybe don’t like kicking, well, focus even more on that. Sooner or later you will find your own way. But the most important are the basics! People always neglect the basics. Basics wins fights! For me Martial Arts are like a language. You need to know the Alphabet. Once you know that you can start to write words, sentences which are equal to sequences of techniques and so on. We all have a different handwriting, but we all teach the A in the same way. It’s the basis which is important. Without that everything else is a waste of time. Not everybody is a fighter. We all live different lifes with different goals. As long as you don’t sit on the couch and go and train you are doing it right. For me as a teacher of the TCMA things are a bit different. It’s not a question if I for example like the Jian or not. I have to know it at least so much to teach my students. And once a student who wants to just focus on the Jian reached my level than it’s time to send him to a Gong Fu brother who’s Sword skills are better than mine.
Not everybody wants to become a teacher, not everybody wants to become a fighter. The most important part is to be happy! It is impossible to be on a high level in every aspects of the TCMA, one life is not enough. BUT, there are exceptions of this rule. There are some Masters out there who really deserve to be called Master. They gained the highest level in all aspects of the TCMA, like my Shifu and some other people I was fortunate to meet. But even if you ask those Masters they will tell you that they have focused on a specific weapon or skill. Maximizing the efficiency in gaining skill is probably the easiest part: Just do it! Not once, not twice, do it till you get it right…And then do it more. I still remember when I was told that westerners “can’t eat bitter”. I don’t think it’s about where you are born, it’s about your attitude. If you don’t want to work hard on a daily basis, don’t train TCMA. Don’t train martial arts in general. It’s not a hobby like collecting stamps or playing video games. If you want to gain skills, you HAVE to work hard for it. There are no short cuts! Little by little you will achieve your goal. They say repetition is the mother of perfection. I would just like to add that just repetition of correct technique will lead to perfection. And never box yourself, I can learn from everybody. That’s why I always like to see other martial arts or styles. I attended seminars which were the worst ever, so I still learned that I will never be back.
In your experience, have you found much of a relationship between empty-hand fighting, and weapon fighting? Also, what is the biggest difference between them?
In the development of your own Gong Fu both compliment each other. Like you as a Mantis guy know the power of the hips are very important in Mantis. I mean for sure the hips are important in all Martial Arts, but for example in Seven Star Praying Mantis the power of your hips are one of the four essential ways how we generate power in our techniques. We have lots of exercises for that. But one of the tools which helped me the most was the Shuang Shou Dai, also called Pu Dao. When you train that weapon you use a lot your hips. So while training a weapon I worked on my empty hand skills. TCMA are a logical system. Those guys back than were not stupid and knew a lot about body mechanics and how a body works in general. TCMA are very technical and can generate lots of power when done right. Besides that you can see often that the Shi looks the same with or without a weapon. For sure this depends a lot on the weapon, but if you for example do a Pi Chui in Mabu and than do the same with a Dao…You see what I mean?! There must be a reason for that. Nothing changes except of the tool you are using. I remember that I asked my Shifu over 10 yrs ago if he would also teach double daggers? He just looked at me with that look where you imediately know that this was maybe not the smartest question. His reply was: “No, why should I? I just do the same I always do while holding two daggers.” We like to keep things difficult. The human brain is a muscle which loves to work and get challenged. All those beautiful, flashy moves, all those difficult templates which will never work in a real fight, all that makes the brain happy. If you just step back and look at it through the glasses of simplicity, bare hands and weapons got lots in common. Just keep things simple. Footwork, targeting, how to generate power, the keywords, theories,…besides some exceptions most of them are the same no matter if using a weapon or not. Well, sounds like a stupid reply, but the main difference is the weapon. People don’t want to realize how brutal TCMA are. A weapon changes everything. Marc Denny, one of the founders of the Dog Brothers, always likes to say: “In stickfighting things can turn pretty ugly pretty fast!” Trust me, getting hit by a stick, getting stabbed or getting hit by a fist are complete different things. Not just on a pain level, I could be dead if I would not have done what I was taught to do (I will always have that scar as a reminder). A weapon changes everything!
And my final question, do you think there is value in forms?
Yes, absolutely! When done right it’s an important part of your training. The problem is that nowadays most people got no idea what they are doing. So training Taolu becomes an exercise, like running. For example, a Mantis is pretty fast, right? So I have to perform the Taolu as fast as possible since I am a Mantis Kung Fu guy – Wrong! Speed and strength are the first attributes you will lose when you get older. But correct technique, the correct angle, the correct body mechanics, the intent to harm and to kill will stay with you for the rest of your life. Like I said before, if you got the chance always train with a partner. But inside the Taolu is a lot of knowledge hidden in plain sight. For example there are certain parts in the human body, if hit correctly with a weapon it will result in an ,what we call, instant drop. Meaning that your body shuts down immediately. For this you need the right tool and the knowledge how to hit that spot. This is what you can see thousands of practitioners doing when they train their weapons, but do they know what they are doing? No! Peoples expectations are molded by movies and two men sets (which mostly just show the most obvious application). So the same move which you might think is a block with the flat side of the blade is in reality showing you the exact angle how to penetrate certain areas which will end a life in a blink of an eye. Always keep in mind that TCMA were meant to maim and to kill. So Taolu are very important if you understand them. You need someone to give you the keys so you can break down the code. Otherwise it’s just a beautiful dance. 很好看，没有用