Practicing Baguazhang in Beijing: John with Master Liu Xinghan (1988)
"Stories from the Path" Weird Stories and Collection of Anecdotes by John Bracy
As I pushed at George, he somehow, without my awareness that it was happening,
got my arm in a kind of joint lock that is called a “come along hold.”
Almost ten years ago, George Drasnar (Jiri Drasnar) acclaimed Czech writer, martial arts master, and my friend, passed away. A few years ago, one of his friends and martial art student from the Czech Republic asked me to contribute to a website he was forming to commemorate George’s life by sharing a story or anecdote about the man. This is what I wrote.
George trained with me for several years in the late 90s / early 2000s. He was a true master of martial arts in his own right, and I also learned a lot from him. I was also privileged to call him a friend and we enjoyed too many tall glasses of top quality vodka together.
I was asked to share a story about George and this one immediately came to mind.
Around early 2003 George met me at a doctor’s office in Los Angeles for private training. I was was treating patients at the office and that location was much closer than my studio in Orange County which, depending on traffic, could be much more than an hour away.
The events after one session with George left an indelible impression. At the start of our session George had promised to buy me a tea at the Starbuck’s across the street from the office. But he forgot. When we walked out of the building and were about to go separate ways, I teased George a bit. “Oh, you were going to buy me a tea!” I joked.
He answered, “Let’s go now.”
I answered back in a teasing way, “I don’t want it now.”
But, he insisted. “No, let’s go.”
I answered back, “No, forget it.” and I playfully pushed him away.
What happened next was one of the most memorable martial art moments in my life.
As I pushed at George, he somehow, without my awareness that it was happening,
got my arm in a kind of joint lock that is called a “come along hold.”
I was trapped! And I didn’t even feel it was happening!
So, here we are at a busy street intersection in the west side of Los Angeles. The light to cross had changed to green, and Master George walked me across the street in front of all the stopped cars. It was embarrassing but I was laughing at the same time. I wondered what all those people in the cars must be thinking as I was walked past them totally under the control of George and his aki-jutsu.
However, the most amazing thing was that I didn’t feel him put the joint lock on me. I’m really good at joint locks and have taught all sorts of them for decades. How was it possible that I didn’t feel him putting it on me? The lightest touch with total control. Now, that is true mastery!
I was privileged to have George in my life for those years. He is still missed. I am grateful for the support and friendship he offered during difficult times. Maybe I am imagining it, but sometimes I still feel he is around and offering advice. Wherever he is, I am sure he is still practicing martial arts.
An interesting combat match in Taiwan
by John Bracy
My most interesting –– sort of real –– combat match took place when I lived in Taiwan in the 1980s. I’m not a full contact fighter. I don’t train in that class of a fighting and I don’t believe full contact approaches are important, nor necessarily represent the ideals of the internal martial arts, which I see as a yogic-spiritual path.
One day in the early 1980s in Tai-chong city, Taiwan, I had just finished training with one of my teachers, Yi Tien-wen. Our class had taken place the judo room of Feng Chia University. Occasionally, as on this occasion, a senior student of a popular Korean style approached me for help with translating portions of a training manual he was writing. He asked for my assistance with the English translations for what such and such a strike, or punch, or kick was called in English. He asked for my help because I was both a martial artist and spoke some Chinese.
Although I valued what I was learning from my teacher, my training at the time was mostly solo practice with and without weapons. Back home in California, throughout the week, nearly every week of the year, I had practiced sparring with partners and I really missed it.
In fairness, the translator didn’t know that I had a solid and advanced background in training. I wore no rank on my uniform on that early Friday evening, only black workout pants and a black t-shirt. After he asked a few questions, I asked him one.
“nimen yuo mei yuo dwei da?” (do you guys have sparring?)*
he suddenly got very excited, and became quite animated,
“ni jende yao dwei da?” (do you really want to spar?)
- Recently, I was told the term, duei-da might mean something more serious than I called “sparring.” If this is the case, it is possible that I initiated the misunderstanding that followed. This needs a closer look
I told him that of course, I did. He asked me once again, this time with even more animation and excitement. And, once again, I reassured him.
His animated manner continued, only now he was looking at his watch.
I was then instructed to follow him to a martial class that was taking place on the university’s basketball courts.
We walked across the campus together, eventually arriving at the basketball courts.
Ominous thoughts encroached. “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into.”
The courts were full of students—more than a hundred were there practicing their art —all in their white uniforms and lining up for their class in their martial art. I suddenly felt like a cast member in that famous Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon, where all those combatants in identical uniforms were about to challenge that “one guy.” But, this time, that ONE GUY was me.
The ambiance and early evening mugginess were just right to induce such an experience. Six or seven college student black belt-instructors with too much testosterone were running the class and the senior / older / experienced master was absent. The conditions were right for a perfect storm.
The younger black belts had decided that the agenda for the night was to, in a martial art challenge way, to deep fry and embarrass the white guy. The plan was to demonstrate their art’s superiority over Chinese kung fu and prove to the class that, after all, “a white guy really can’t do martial arts.”
I was taken to the front and center and the large group of students gathered around. (reminds me of the time in Bora-Bora, we were surrounded by thousands of hostile natives…the Queen had sent a special case of scotch… sorry, inside joke)
While standing center with the group of students and instructors around me, I tried to talk my way out of the mess. They weren’t having it. At the same time, just off to the side a minor argument was taking place among some of the black belts as to who would get the privilege of humiliating me. In short order, it was determined that I would have to fight the most experienced fighter, who was also a fighting champion.
Next, three or four of the Bruce Lee movie cast members took my arms and stretched them outward so that two other cast members could put this cumbersome body armor on my body.
I protested. I told them that I didn’t want to use it… (I never had used body armor before). To no avail, I was told that I “didn’t have a choice.” I tried to protest further, again, but with no success. The bull who had won the toss to fight me was in front of me in his armor and my translator “buddy” who had brought me, and who spoke some English was the referee. I really didn’t want anything to do with this.
In sync, the class attendees formed a circle around us. The signal was given for the match to start.
At that moment, the full charging power of an experienced martial artist and tournament fighter came barreling toward me. Throwing all his might into the attack, he launched a powerful punch and kick combination at me.
Something took over my movements. To this day, that feeling still amazes me. However, there was the very clear feeling that some other intelligence has taken over and I could only observe what was happening. The entire experience was fascinating and surreal. The result: My opponent couldn’t touch me. Not once. Not with his foot, nor with his hand. More attacks were repeated with the same results. He never touched me. Not even once.
How my mind and body performed was something else, and I will never forget the experience. It felt like — and maybe I heard a voice tell me — that my “higher mind” had decided that it couldn’t trust me with the decision-making process at the moment, and it was taking over.
Objectively, my movements and martial art skill became very precise and efficient. Every aspect of movement was more exact than anything I had ever experienced.
In response to my opponent’s attacks, my defensive movements did not involve normal dodging and quick back and forth movements, as one would expect. Instead, every single move I made was precisely timed and placed with extreme efficiency. There was no dodging. There was only precise placement.
However, the super effective defense caused a problem for the referee, my challenger, and the other black belts who were watching. A serious loss of face was taking place while their hundred plus students watched. This kind of “loss of face” is very serious in Chinese culture and they have a name for it, mei mien.
The only thing my referee buddy could think about doing was to stop the match for a moment and try to intimidate me. During those pauses, attempting to scare me into less efficiency, he told me,
“now he is going to use full power.”
As my opponent continued to be ineffective, the referee’s pausing the match and cautionary — hopefully fear inducing — words to me would be repeated several times. He didn’t know what to do.
I began to feel sorry for my increasingly frustrated black belt instructor-challenger.
As the match continued, he actually began to scream as he charged at me.
The warnings had no effect on me, except that I felt increasingly detached and increasingly like an observer to what was taking place.
I watched my hands and body move on their own. I had no control over them. It was, indeed, a fascinating experience. In reacting to my opponent, I didn’t dodge out of the way for full power kicks aimed at my head. Instead, I only shifted very slightly. My movement calculated so exactly, that the lunch or kick missed my head or torso by a fraction-inch.
The sounds and sensations and the “swoosh” as some of those attacks barely missed my face and ear are still remembered to this day. In response to one of those attacks, my foot barely went out to meet his foot with a light, but, again, too perfectly timed, movement that sent him crashing to the ground.
During the match, and especially after the “now full power part,” on one or two occasions, I remember watching my closed fist deliver a punch into the lower part of my opponent’s body armor. I thoughts, , “I can’t believe that I’m hitting him that hard.”
While becoming increasingly frustrated, my poor opponent kept trying.
The situation was becoming increasingly dire for my challenger, fellow instructors, and those many students watching.
Eventually, I stopped the match and took off my body armor.
Attempting to extend my hand in friendship, I told the group of instructors that sparring should be done in a friendly –– as opposed to an aggressive –– way. I tried to draft one of the other black belts to work with me so that I could show how to practice sparring in such a manner.
I wanted to demonstrate how “fun” sparing should be done: A light and friendly exercise for mutual enjoyment and learning. Unfortunately, the second black belt I tried to work with wouldn’t cooperate. He didn’t let me near him. As I tried to get him to engage, he ran away. After a few minutes, I realized my attempt to show the new way of sparring was hopeless and I started to leave.
Adding insult to injury, as I left the match area, the students formed an open pathway that I walked through as they slapped my back with congratulatory remarks. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the affair. Two related events followed.
The first started the next morning. It was Saturday and when I returned from training with one of my teachers to my rented room, I found a note left for me tacked onto my door.
The man that you had a bout with yesterday
was injured and is in the hospital.
I briefly thought about how it was possible for my boss, Dr. Chan to find the room where I lived in town, my next thought was, “Oh shit.”
I immediately went to meet with Dr. Chan and explain what had happened. I found him and told him how we were both black belts and how I tried to resist the sparring engagement, and how I was, essentially, forced into the match. Next, I found a Chinese friend who offered assistance as a translator. Together, we went to visit the former night’s challenger in the hospital.
Visiting his room at the hospital, we found that my former opponent could barely walk. Reportedly, the night before, upon returning to his dorm room, he became increasingly dizzy, began to pass out and his roommates took him to the hospital. The diagnosis was a ruptured bladder. He later told me through my translator that, although he had been through a lot of competitive matches, that he had never been hit that hard. He was in the hospital for 10 days.
As a side note, after he recovered, and he ended up taking a few lessons from me.
For a while, I was worried about a potential lawsuit that the challenger’s parents had threatened. I had I started to prepare for a hasty, and early, exit from the country.
However, my opponent had resisted the impulse of his parents. The college paid most of the hospital bill, AND the remaining third of the bill was split between me and his parents. This, amount, especially considering the strength of the dollar and the low cost of Taiwan health care at the time, was relatively small. The challenger signed a release for me, which I still have somewhere.
The second potentially serious and related matter came a week or so later. It was an example of old-fashioned martial arts politics and a group trying to mitigate the loss of some serious face that the basketball court martial art group had suffered.
The event took place at the martial art school in town where I was renting space to teach my own martial arts classes.
A day or two after the sparring match, an unannounced and aggressive visitor appeared during the classes I was teaching at the studio. His mission: recover some of the loss of face the college martial art class had suffered.
The studio I had rented was on the fourth floor of a five-story commercial building. The building was set in THE typical style of buildings in Taiwanese cities at the time. Each floor was rung with a walkway that went around from the stairwell to three outside walls. The studio itself was barren but functional, the floor was tatami mats.
Serving as windows, there were these huge panel-optional openings in the walls of the studio that attempted to make the room temperature-tolerable. However, because of the tropical conditions, they were almost always open. The catwalk laying to the outside of optional-panel openings served as an observation area for visitors to watch what was going on inside.
The unannounced and aggressive visitor that day was a pretty tough looking and obviously military guy. It didn’t take a lot to put together that he was affiliated with the college martial art group that had hosted the previous week’s match.
He never entered the training area. But he was increasingly loud and rowdy as he paced back and forth on that walkway.
The visitor never addressed me directly. My Chinese wasn’t that good and I didn’t understand what he was saying.
Yao Ti Guan… Yao Ti Guan
I asked my Chinese students what he was saying, but they refused to tell me. No one would translate.
Well, I figured the guy didn’t come to the fourth floor to get fresh air. And I sensed that he was somehow connected to the previous week’s Bruce Lee movie. So, I thought I should put on a show for him. I gave a demonstration to my class of the most gruesome looking stuff I could think of…mock demos of eye gouging, testicle ripping, throat grabbing, arm breaking, etc.
Nothing more happened. The gentleman paced the catwalk for a while and eventually left. I suspect he was probably at least, to a minor degree, satisfied that he had made some kind of showing to regain at least a bit of that lost face. Who knows? Secretly, my heart was racing, and adrenaline was super-high. However, I was glad that the situation didn’t resolve through violence.
** Later a Chinese buddy told me “Ti Guan” was a traditional Chinese challenge.
If the master of the studio lost the bout, he would have to quit teaching
“Yao Ti Guan” meant that he wanted one of those.