Salvatore Pace, or Salvo for short is a 3rd degree black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu and owner of Gracie Barra Bath, the Head Quarters of Gracie Barra in the South West of the UK, Gracie Barra West Wilts and co-owner of Gracie Barra Gillingham. He is a two time NAGA European Champion and Grappler’s Quest champion. Salvo grew up in Sicily and had a passion for martial arts as a young boy, practicing everything he could get his hands on, from boxing and Kung Fu to wrestling, and then MMA in the emerging combat sports scene in the UK, but it was his first encounter with Brazilian Jiujitsu and his main teacher Professor Carlos Lemos Jnr, that changed his life forever and put him on a plane to Brazil and then the USA, where he trained with some of the biggest names in the sport.
Returning to the UK Salvo had a dream of teaching jiujitsu for a living and set up Gracie Barra Bath in 2007, back when most people hadn’t even heard of Brazilian jiujitsu. And that’s where our paths crossed, I first met Salvo way back in 2011 and I’ve been with him ever since, getting all my belts from white to black from his hands and it’s been a pleasure to watch his students and academy grow and develop and expand to new locations around the South West.
It’s time to say something slightly controversial, and I apologise in advance for the click-baity feel of the headline, but there’s no way to sum up a nuanced argument like this in less than 10 words. The thing is that there’s a real fascination these days with delving into Karate kata or Kung Fu forms and discovering the ‘real’ applications, hidden in plain sight, which are, always, wrestling moves, which were hidden away in the murky depths of time for vague and unspecified reasons.
This marital arts version of a conspiracy theory is a really popular idea at the moment, because, frankly, the wresting interpretations work a lot better than most of the applications of striking you see in these arts. However, that doesn’t mean its true!
Here’s a current example:
Now look, I’m not saying that there are no throwing or takedown applications to Karate and Kung Fu moves – of course there are! But just because you can re-engineer some wrestling applications out of what are obviously supposed to be strikes, does not mean that those are the ‘original’ or ‘real’ applications. They are certainly an interpretation, but to claim some sort of historical precedent is going too far for me.
I would call my view somewhat heretical to modern orthodoxy based on the amount of comments I see under videos of people revealing the ‘real’ application of Kung Fu or Karate moves. It’s almost 100% positive, along the lines of “finally this move makes sense!”. I refer you to my previous point – just because these moves work better than the wacky traditional blocking and striking application usually taught does not mean these are the original applications. It’s a logical fallacy. A better question would be to ask, “why did they simplify or dumb these forms down so much that they’re unusable?” But I guess that’s a different topic…
Another reason why this wrestling-first approach is so popular is that learning real grappling or wrestling is just too much like hard work for some people. You’re going to need a working pair of knees and a body that’s probably 20-30 years younger than the one you’ve got, especially if you’re starting grappling from scratch. For the ageing martial artist the idea that they can just keep doing the katas or forms that they already know and now they are somehow also doing grappling is very tempting. As somebody on the wrong side of 50 I can see the attraction of this idea myself! But like all shortcuts, it cuts out the years of experience and hard work you’re going to need to put in if you want something you can use.
Wresting is, of course, older than martial arts, like Karate or Wing Chun, by thousands of years. This is not disputed. It seems that wherever men or women gathered, in any country, and conflicts needed to be resolved, wrestling naturally appeared as a way for this to happen, or as a way to keep people entertained, build a community connection, or in good physical shape for battle. It was a multi-purposed activity. For example, there has been Mongolian Wrestling for pretty much as long as there have been Mongolians. And it’s a tradition that has survived.
Cave paintings have been found in the Lascaux caves in France that have been suggested to depict sprinting and wrestling in the Upper Paleolithic time period, which is around 15,300 years ago.
This Egyptian burial chamber mural from Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s tomb dates to aroudn 2400 BC.
Almost every traditional culture has, or had, some form of indigenous wrestling. Many cultures that have evolved into living in villages, then towns, then cities have managed to maintain their wrestling traditions, even to the modern day. But most we have lost. For example, Collar and Elbow Wrestling was hugely popular in Ireland in the 19th century and spread to America where it again proved hugely popular with thousands of people coming to watch matches (even President Abraham Lincoln was a practitioner!)
But huge changes in where people lived and worked lead to its demise until it vanished completely even in its native country. It seems that whenever a country experiences its industrial revolution, requiring massive shifts in population distribution, the folk traditions tend to die off, and wrestling is a folk tradition.
But that does not mean it is the original of Karate and Kung Fu.
I appreciate that you might not agree with me, so let me give you an example.
This video is comparing a karate technique to a Shuai jiao wrestling throw:
Yes, the movements have a physical similarity, but you are never – never! – going to learn how to do that throw by doing that kata. I mean, you could make that work so long as you only wrestle fellow karate practitioners and never ever get in a match with somebody who actually does wrestling. Then you’ll be fine. 🙂 Was this the original application of this kata? Who knows? But to assume ‘yes, it must be wrestling’ is such an illogical leap that to me it’s going too far. If you want to learn wresting, then just train wrestling. It’s that simple.
Here’s the Karate Nerd with a similar take on Karate Kata. Now, I quite like the Karate Nerd, so this is not an attack on him, but rather just an example of the current trend in marital arts regarding wresting applications and where it’s going.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve made my point and I’m just repeating myself now, so I’ll leave it there. But let me just recap one last time. Yes, there are some wrestling application in Karate and Kung Fu, yes you can re-engineer pretty much any movement to make it into a wrestling move, and no that does not mean that “it’s all wrestling“.
You know those wooden toys that have cutouts of shapes and a hammer for the kids to bang the right shape into the right hole? Square, circle, star, that sort of thing.
Martial arts techniques are a lot like that. You can have the best technique in the world, but if you’re doing it at the wrong time it’s like trying to hammer the wrong shape into the wrong hole. It ‘ain’t going to work not matter how hard you try…
Throws are a really good example of this. Throws work best when you try and throw the person in the direction they are already going. For example, if a person is basing backwards (moving their weight to their heels and sinking down) then it’s going to be really tough to throw them forward with say, a hip throw. Of course, if you’re a lot heavier and bigger than your opponent then it becomes possible, but we want good technique here. Good technique would be to take them backwards with some sort of inside trip.
In internal martial arts we call that ability to sense where the other person’s weight and direction is going ‘sensitivity’. A lot of times people in wrestling and throwing arts don’t train sensitivity as a separate quality, you just kind of pick it up as you go through drills or live sparring against real resisting people. In martial arts like Tai Chi you can spend a lot of time specifically training sensitivity where it’s called ting jin – to listen. I’m pretty sure I used to think that the more intellectual Tai Chi approach was superior, but now I’m not so sure. If you naturally acquire sensitivity over long periods of time through resistant sparring then you kind of own it in an authentic way. It’s yours. You worked for it and its real. I’m not saying you can’t get that through the push hands approach, but the problem with shortcuts is that they’re exactly that – a shortcut. Something is always missing. You need to put in the hard physical miles in if you want to get something tangible in marital arts. I’m not sure there are really shortcut to some of these things.
My martial arts mentor Damon Smith, who I do the Heretics podcast with, often says there is no such thing as good technique, there is only appropriate technique. He’s talking about banging the right shape into the right hole at the right time.
Our new podcast is out! I talk warriorship with the esteemed Matthew Kreuger of the Walking with the Tengu podcast, as part of the #warriorshipconversing project started by Kung Fu Conversations podcast. We also talk about Shuai Jiao, Iaido, BJJ and professional wrestling. You’ll find us on iTunes and Spotify. Search for The Tai Chi Notebook podcast. Enjoy!
I’ve written quite a lot on this blog (and upset plenty of people in the process!) about the deep connections between performance, ritual, religion, theatre, entertainment and martial arts, particularly in the Chinese martial arts traditions. But it’s not only the Chinese martial arts that function as this one-size-fits-all container for self defence techniques, self development techniques, pugilism and good old-fashioned raucous entertainment. There are strong traditions of wrestling-based entertainment in almost all cultures. Whether it was the gladiators of Ancient Rome or the Jujitsu mania that swept early 1900s Victorian England and America alike, or the recent ADCC 2022 grappling championship with a 14,000-strong audience, for as long as men (or women) have wrestled, sparred or boxed there have been other men working out ways of getting people to pay to watch it.
England is no different, and so I find myself at Total Chaos, in Kings Oak Academy, a secondary school in Bristol, England, for my first visit to a real life Pro Wrestling event. I’m here ostensibly because of my 13-year old son and his obsession with WWE, which he watches almost every day, but I can’t deny I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about myself; to see what martial arts looks like when the performance elements aren’t hidden, disguised or denied, but brought to the fore and celebrated.
It begins: the first match is between the heel – the obvious bad guy – Tate Mayfairs – and the face, the obvious good guy, Joseph Connors. In terms of audience participation knowing who you need to boo for and who you need to cheer for takes a lot of the mental load off you, and you can just relax and enjoy it going along with the various chants that spontaneously break out amongst the crowd. In that way it’s a lot less stressful to watch than MMA, and a lot more family friendly and less bloody.
And the skill level is really impressive. Mayfairs and Connors are engaged in a ‘strap match’, in which they are tied together with a strap at the wrist which they both utilise in very technical ways that reminded me of the rope dart techniques found in Chinese marital arts.
As a child I used to watch wrestling religiously on World of Sport every Saturday morning in the 70s and early 80s, when it was on one of the only 3 TV channels you could watch in the UK. That was the era of Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, Catweazle and Bid Daddy.
Things have come on a long way since then. Joseph Connors really looks the part of a modern day WWE wrestler: he’s lean, strong and his hair is long. Although Chris Hemsworth-lookalike Charlie Sterling who comes on next has even more hair, and even tighter pants.
There are surprises throughout the night. The central conceit of Total Chaos is that you don’t know who is coming on next, you have to see who the Chaos Generator throws out – we get to see current King of Chaos champion Danny Jones vs Mulligan (who was a properly nasty heel) in a match to be decided by who got smashed through a table first, and then there is the surprise inclusion of “Jack from the bar” a comparatively skinny teen who had been serving drinks all evening from a small hatch in the foyer. Jack gets thrown into the show to make his Chaos debut in a male vs female match against the formidable Ava White, which was great fun. The poor boy didn’t stand a chance, but what a way to go.
There was an all-female match up with Kanji vs Rayne “Make it rain!” Leverkusen, a tag-team event featuring the DEAD SAD BOYS and, surprisingly, 3 other wrestlers, (whose names, I apologise, I forget) and then a surprise final bout – Wait! It’s not over! – as “All Wales Champion” Brendan ‘Bronco’ White storms the stage to take on Eddie Dennis. These guys really brought the house down with incredible back flips from the top ropes.
Verdict: The athleticism and skill is real and it’s fantastic entertainment. There are moments of comedy, danger, tragedy, heroism and the wrestlers put it all on the line. Throughout the show the plot line of two rival wrestling factions, personified initially by Mayfairs and Connors, is weaved and developed into a feud, building to a grudge match tag team event bringing in Danny Jones and Mulligan, that will be decided in November at the next Total Chaos event: All or Nothing. I can’t wait! I just hope my 13-year old son still wants to go, or I’m going to have to go on my own…
But that’s not all – there are two shows that day with the first being to decide the new Maiden of Chaos Champion. Don’t miss it!
I got asked once by a CMA practitioner what the “Shen fa” (body methods) of Brazilian Jiujitsu were and I drew a blank. The only answer I could come up with was “we don’t have any”. What I think we have instead though are foundational movements. Let me explain.
While Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua all have “Shen Fa”, which are “body methods” that need to be internalised before the practitioner can be considered sufficiently proficient in the art, Brazilian Jiujitsu doesn’t have them in the same way. Instead, it has a series of foundational movements that crop up so often in techniques that they are considered the foundations of the art, and are usually done in class as warmups.
I taught an interesting Jiujitsu class this week. (Well, I thought it was interesting – I think you’d have to ask the students themselves what they thought!) I started with the group practicing the basic Technical Stand Up both forward and reversed (which is doing it backwards, so you go fro standing to sitting down), then with variations like a knee or an elbow on the ground instead of a foot or hand.
A Technical Stand Up is a way of going from sitting on the ground to standing up that exposes you to the least risk if you’ve got an aggressive person attacking you. It minimises your chances of getting kicked in the head and also affords you the ability to kick back at the attacker’s knee, possibly hyper extending their leg painfully.
Once everybody in the class could do a Technical Standup well enough we went on to practice applications that utilised it as part of the technique. A good example is a basic X Guard sweep, or a way of returning to base after completing a tripod sweep. (I’ll not explain what those are here, because I don’t want to get lost in the details of these techniques in this post, because that’s not what this is about.)
Foundational movements in Jiujitsu include the aforementioned Technical Stand Up, but also things like a bridging movement, a hip escape (shrimp), a triangle, a forward (and backwards) roll and an inversion. If you can’t perform these basic movements correctly then your chances of doing any technique correctly are going to be severely limited.
In contrast, Chinese martial arts “body methods” include things like dantien rotation, opening and closing the chest and rounding the kua. These body methods are postural observances and ways of moving that need to be kept in place during all movements.
Why one art should have developed body methods, and the other not even have that concept, is worth thinking about, and I think it relates to the role of form in Chinese martial arts. Practicing solo movement in the shape of a form done in isolation from other people allows the possibility of subtle things like body methods to be developed.
There are no forms in BJJ. Sure there are solo exercises you can practice to warm up or condition the body, but they don’t have the same function as form (tao lu) does in CMA. BJJ is heavily partner orientated. All the drills and sparring need another person physically there to do it with. To practice BJJ we literally have to get together with other people in nice matted areas and throw down. There is no other way.
These body methods in CMA have resulted from forms, but my suspicion is that this was never planned, rather they have grown out of a situation that happens when you are required to practice forms. Why CMA started practicing forms in the first place is a different question – there are some clues as to why that might be in the video I shared the other day by Simon Cox on the Taoist concept of the Subtle Body.
It’s analogous to the situation in China between Shuai Jiao and Kung Fu (Wu Shu). Shuai Jiao has no extended tao lu (forms), like Kung Fu does, but it has an awful lot of solo conditioning exercises with and without weights and belts. I’m not a Shuai Jiao practitioner, but I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Shuai Jiao has Shen Fa in the same way that the various Kung Fu (Wu Shu) styles do.
Is one approach better than the other? I don’t know. They’re just different and personally I enjoy practicing both.
I’ve been meaning to write a post on Shaui Jiao, the Chinese wrestling style, for a while now. We covered Shuai Jiao in one of our Heretics Podcast episodes a while ago, but you can’t say that it was a particularly good primer on what Shuai Jiao is. As usual, Damon found an obscure angle and the episode is really more about the strategies associated with the Azure Dragon in China, and linked somewhat tangentially to Shuai Jiao.
Shuai Jiao is wrestling. It’s done in a jacket, which can be gripped, and consists of a variety of throws and trips, the aim being to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet. It’s popular in various parts of China and regional styles have sprung up in different areas.
Almost any book you buy on Shuai Jiao will inevitably start with a history section, where the author links Shuai Jiao back to various ancient Chinese wrestling styles from different points in time – things like Jiao Di (‘Horn butting’) get mentioned. The idea is to establish a link between the Shuai Jiao practiced in China today and ancient wrestling arts spanning back several dynasties. The propaganda arm of the Chinese government would really like you to know that Shuai Jiao is 1) ethnically, Chinese, the ancient art of the Han peoples, and 2) Old.
Unfortunately, neither of these things are true. While things like Jiao Di, and actual wrestling styles existed in the past, there is no connection between them and Shuai Jiao.
Shaui Jiao itself is neither ancient or “Chinese” in origin. It has no direct connection to anything practiced by the ethnic Han Chinese. It was actually imported by the Manchu, the northern tribe who invaded China, overthrew the Ming Dynasty and started the Ching dynasty from 1644-1912. Like the Mongols before them, the Manchu loved wrestling as a form of strengthening soldiers and entertainment.
Byron Jacobs has produced an extensive history of Shuai Jiao over three videos that’s well worth a watch if you want to understand where Shaui Jiao really came from:
Of course, the origins of an art have no direct relationship to its effectiveness. As Damon says in the Heretics episode, being good at any form of wrestling is a big advantage in any martial art. Physical conditioning, being a strong robust person who is fit and good at physical alignment is a useful thing.
But wrestling often has more of a community function than other martial arts, and it’s the same in China as it is in the West – wrestling can be great fun. There is a Chinese Shuai Jiao tradition called Tian Qiao Shuai Jiao, which is an intangible cultural heritage of China. It’s a style of wrestling-based entertainment that any body who is familiar with the same tradition in the West will instantly recognise:
There seems to be a sudden influx of good things to listen to, so, rather than do individual posts on all of them, I’ve decided to round them up in a collection of Things You Should Be Listening To Right Now
1. Peter Lorge on Inventing Traditional Martial Arts
This was very entertaining. It’s a great lecture on the difference between traditional and modern in martial arts, and how ‘traditional’ is in fact usually created by the ‘modern’.
2. Lavell Marshall & Hohoo – Spirit of the Grassland
I loved this so much. It’s a look into Mongol wrestling culture. It’s from Byron Jacobs who filmed it on a recent trip to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia for a wrestling competition and features Lavell Marshal, who left his life in the west to move to the grasslands and practice Bökh.
“Bökh (Mongolian Wrestling) has been practiced by nomadic and steppe cultures for thousands of years. It epitomizes the culture of the Mongolian people and the spirit of the grassland.
Lavell Marshal (Hangai), left his life in the west to move to the grasslands of Inner-Mongolia to study the art under Ho Bagsh (Coach Hohoo), a well-known wrestler and former national Shuai Jiao champion.”
3. Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Damn Hard to Disprove, with Dr Hanan Bushkin
This podcast isn’t necessarily martial arts related, but a lot of martial artists seem to be the sort of people that fall prey to conspiracy theories. I know, because I talk to them. This podcast sheds some light on why that is.
“Dr Hanan Buskin is a clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In this episode we go deep into the benefits conspiracy theorist get from believing and sharing their crazy ideas and the long, difficult process required to gently wean them off conspiratorial thinking. “
4. Belts, Ranking, Titles & Hierarchy In Jiu-Jitsu With Priit Mihkelson
I had Priit as my guest in episode 5 of my podcast. In his most recent appearance, on the Sonny Brown Breakdown, he lays into the traditional structure of belts and titles in marital arts. He’s always worth listening to and I always find he delivers a fresh and interesting perspective on things.
“I talk to Priit Mihkelson, A Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt From Estonia and founder of Defensive BJJ. Priit always has a lot of interesting takes on the teaching, training & traditions of Jiu-Jitsu and after recently relocating his school I took the chance to ask him about his thoughts on belt rankings. We have a great conversation about how he has applied them to his Defensive BJJ system and set up his new school. We then move on to the use of hierarchy & titles like Professor and Master and their place in Jiu-Jitsu”.
5. Ken Gullette on internal body mechanics.
Finally, here’s another plug for my own podcast, The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast. I had Ken Gullette on recently who practices and teaches all the main internal arts but specialises in Chen style. Here’s the link to the podcast.
I really enjoyed this chat and although it becomes something of, “two old men talking about all their injuries”, at one point I think there’s a lot of value here. It also introduced me to a marital artist called Nabil Ranné from Germany.
Here he is teaching “Lazily Tying Coat” from Chen style.
In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.
Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.
To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:
There are so many things here worthy of note.
Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?
There’s a new episode of the Heretics podcast out. In this chat, Damon and I discuss Shuai Jiao, the popular modern Chinese wrestling style and try and separate fact from fiction. We discuss what martial arts it is related to and also if there is a connection to Japanese Kempo.
The best thing about this episode is that Damon talks a lot about Chinese cosmology, and how it may related to an earlier form of Chinese wrestling – we look at the cosmological concept of Qinglong, or the Azure Dragon.
The Azure Dragon on the national flag of China during the Qing dynasty, 1889-1912: