Seven Star Praying Mantis with Dog Brother Thomas Holtmann (part 1)

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. Stay tuned for part 2, in the meantime, you may also like my interview with Brendan Tunks.

 

How did you get into martial arts?

As a kid I was always attracted to the martial arts. I can’t even explain why. But I was absorbing anything martial arts related like a sponge. There was a TV series “The Water Margin”, which was a Japanese series based on the 水浒传 and I loved every minute of it! So when my mom asked me if I would like to enroll in Judo I was more than happy to finally start to train. That was the starting point and I never looked back. I was seven at that time and I am now training 39 years martial arts.

What attracted you to Praying Mantis?

To be honest, it was not that I had so much choices back than. Nowadays people got the opportunity to choose between different striking and grappling arts. Back than we didn’t had that luxury. I was a brown belt in Judo when a friend from school told me that he started to train “Kung Fu”. At that point I had seen all HK Kung Fu movies which I could get my fingers on at least three times. So I was pretty excited when he told me that. After he showed me some moves it was pretty clear that he was training in the Mantis style which I always loved to see in the movies. So Mantis style was taught in my hometown? I had to go there and check it out. I will never forget what I saw: Punches, kicks, locks, weapons and they were fighting. The training was hard-I loved every minute of what I was seeing. The week after I started my training in the Seven Star Praying Mantis system. That was in 1989.

Can you tell us a bit about your experiences coming to China and trained under Master Zhong Lian Bao?

Like you maybe know I got a MA in Chinese literature, Chinese history and Chinese language. I have lived and studied in Shanghai where I trained Ba Gua Zhang and Xing Yi Quan and before that I was a couple of times in Beijing where I also had the chance to train a bit Ba Gua Zhang. So being in China was not something new for me. But training under Zhong Shifu and being accepted as a Baishi Tudi, well, that’s another story. I met Zhong Shifu for the first time in Germany back in the year 2000. At that time I was training in the HK lineage from the Seven Star Mantis system for over 10 years, I was international German Sanda champion and I thought I would knew some things about the Mantis system…Man, I was so wrong. After my first training with Zhong Shifu I knew two things: The last ten years were just good to build some kind of base. I HAVE to learn the system Zhong Shifu teaches. So I stopped to train the HK system and started as a beginner again.

In February 2011 I was invited by my Shifu to come to Yantai to become his Baishi Tudi. Since than I travel regularly to Yantai to continue my training under the watchful eyes of my Shifu. Training under Zhong Shifu is hard and we train at least four hours a day. Zhong Shifu got a very specific style of teaching. It is always very well balanced between explaining the theories and training the applications and the variations of those. His Qin Na is amazing and a light slap feels like you get hit by a sledge hammer. At the same time he is soft like silk. He tosses me around like a little kid and I am always happy if he uses another guy to show the techniques hahahahaha. I got no words to describe how grateful I am to be his student.

How did you come to join the Dog Brothers?

Let me ask you a question: Did you never wonder how your weapon techniques would work in a real fight? I mean we see all those beautiful Taolu, performed in flashy silk uniforms, with weapons which don’t even weigh half as much as the original ones…. That’s beautiful and I am happy for those people that they love what they are doing. BUT, can they fight with it? And I am not talking about being padded up and using some kind of soft plastic weapons. TCMA are about fighting, they were used on battlefields. So what happened?! That was my motivation to fight at my first Dog Brothers Gathering, to see how my weapon techniques work under pressure and to kind of “defend” the honor of the TCMA. People were thinking that our weapon techniques are weak, that i.e. the three sectional staff ist just a show weapon… Well, I think I proved them wrong. So back then I contacted Lonely Dog who is the European leader of the Dog Brothers and one of the best stickfighters out there and asked if I could fight at the Gathering. He was happy that a guy with TCMA background wanted to fight since most of the guys, like 95%, have a strong FMA background.

At that time my son was just one month old and it felt kind of weird to leave my family to go to Switzerland with the idea to face people with minimum protection (we just have thin gloves and a fencing mask) who wants to literally beat the living crap out of me. After the Gathering I was invited by one of the founders of the Dog Brothers and their guiding force Marc “Crafty Dog” Denny to come to LA and fight at the so called Tribal Gathering. We Dog Brothers see us as a tribe and we have three ranks: Dog, Candidate Dog Brother, Full Dog Brother. Once you become a Dog you are a member of the tribe and can fight at every Gathering. There is an open Gathering which anybody can attend and a tribal gathering which is just for members of the tribe. So I felt pretty honored to get invited since I was just a “TCMA guy” and no member of the tribe. Becoming a Full Dog Brother is not an easy task. If you think about how long the Dog Brothers exist the list of Full Dogs is quite small. It can take years and numerous Gatherings till you ascend to Full Dog status. After four Gatherings in two years, altogether six days of fighting, I had the great honor to become a Full Dog Brother. Every Dog Brother got a Dog name, since I am a TCMA practitioner I chose the name “Gong Fu Dog”.

I know you really like the spear, which I feel is the most important weapon in Kung Fu. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences using the spear, and what you think is the most important points.
Yes, the spear is my favorite weapon! There must be a reason why it’s called the king of all weapons, right? I completely agree with you that it is the most important weapon in Gong Fu. Not just because I personally think that it got an advantage over all the other weapons, it’s because pole weapons in general help you to develop good Gong Fu. Please let me first make clear that I would never say about myself that I got any good skills with the spear or in Mantis. First of all I am and will always be the student of my Shifu. I am nowhere near what he is capable of doing with a spear. The power, speed and accuracy he displays when using the spear always makes me speechless!
For me the most important point are the basics! Nowadays people just wanna learn Taolu. They are like little kids for me who compare their amount of toys. I could not care less how many Taolu you know, or how beautiful and “powerful” they look. Can you use the techniques in combat? Meaning against a resisting opponent who is trying to rip your head off? I never understood how people can judge the fighting abilities of a person by seeing him hitting, kicking, punching, slicing, thrusting the air?! But that’s another story. So by knowing the basics I mean that you can perform them and understand them. You have to understand the keywords. What is the difference between a Pi and a Dian? Can you explain that? Can you show the difference? Zhong Shifu got a traditional way of teaching. He always explains you each keyword and adds Koujue, which are in my eyes very important inside the TCMA.
Partner work is always important. No matter what you do, bare hands or weapons, you need partner drills. But especially if you wanna fight with that weapon you need to get used to the impact. Dui Da Taolu are fun, but they never prepare you for the real impact which happens when someone tries to hurt you. That’s why fighting at the Dog Brother Gatherings were so important for my personal development. No Taolu can prepare you for that. So you take your precognitive partner drills and take them to the level of free flow. That will help you to hopefully respond with the correct answer while fighting. Another Important aspect is the Yongfa, the applications. You need to know why you do things in a Taolu. If it’s TCMA there must be a reason for it. And don’t box yourself for just one application for each movement. Nothing is fixed, it’s a fight! Once you did your homework it’s time to spar. There are lots of ways how you can do that. Me being a Dog Brother I am not a great fan of being all padded up since it takes away the reality check. But as long as you spar you do more than most other so called traditional schools out there. I would also like to mention the importance to train with different Spears (length, wood, spear tip). It will help you a lot to bring your spear techniques to the next level and to understand the soul of the spear.

 

So of course my focus is on Chinese Martial Arts, so I want to kn
ow what you think, as a fighter, CMA’s biggest value is? What makes it different to other fighting styles?
Well, that’s a tricky one. First of all you need to find a teacher who can teach you TCMA for fighting. That’s the biggest obstacle if you ask me. I mean why do the TCMA have such a bad reputation? Why people give you that smile when you say you train Gong Fu…? Because most of those so called Shifus are a joke and got no clue about how to use TCMA for fighting. Altogether we have three kinds of approaches inside the Gong Fu world: – The first group is the worst. Running around in silky uniforms trying to mimic the movements of animals while jumping around and slapping each other. Unfortunately the majority of Kung Fu Schools are like that and those are the ones who gave the art we love so much a bad reputation.
 The second group are the ones which spar regularly but got no clue about how to apply the principles of the art they train in. So the sparring looks like some kind of kick boxing. Which is good, don’t get me wrong. It’s always good to get punched in the face and to return the favor. But why bother with all the other stuff like Taolu if you don’t use it?!
 The third group are those who were the ones who got lucky in finding a teacher who taught them how to apply the principles, theories and keywords in their art. We just got two arms and two legs, so we are all the same. BUT, the principles, the keywords, the theories, that’s where the styles differ. Those schools are the most difficult to find, but it’s worth to look out for them! In my opinion the biggest value of TCMA are that they were used in some form or the other on a battlefield ones. People used them to protect their loved ones. They were meant to finish a fight quickly in brutal fashion. They were not meant to be a sport, something to make you happy or healthy. They were created to harm and kill. Unfortunately lots of styles lost that original purpose and drifted to the “health spiritual group”. Nothing wrong with living the life of a Daoist, but you don’t need to castrate Tai Ji Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan for that. That CMA helps you to live a healthy life is a beautiful add on which makes them also special among other fighting styles, but it was never the purpose.
In my honest opinion it’s all about what you are searching for. There is no better or worse style. By the end of the day you have to be happy. If you want to have something which teaches you how to learn fighting in a fast way, do Boxing. It’s awesome and you can learn it, not master it, pretty fast. But don’t try Gong Fu. You will be disappointed. It’s not the fastest way to learn how to fight, but it’s the way I chose. On a side note I would like to add that everybody should learn the BJJ basics. If you want to be a complete fighter you need to know groundfighting. At least so much to get back to your feet again. And I don’t care what other people say: TCMA got no groundfighting, fact! Do we have fighting on the floor and from the floor? Yes! But once the clinch happens and you go to the floor the only thing which will save you is some old school BJJ.