Review: @chaos_wrestling , Bristol, September 2022

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.

A section of Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) court painter Lang Shining’s painting depicting a wrestling contest in the royal court, performed as entertainment for the emperor.

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.

Tate Mayfairs about to be thrown by Joseph Connors

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.

Charlie Sterling being dropped by Sam Doyle

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.

Ohhhh Jack from the bar-ohh.

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!

Shuai Jiao – fact or fiction?

By Metatronangelo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22973514

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:

The Azure Dragon and Shuai Jiao

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:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/73-the-azure-dragon-and-shuai-jiao

I’d also recommend a listen to Byron Jacob’s Hidden History of Shuai Jiao, which we reference in the episode:

Wrestle with your hips, wrestle with your body

Saeed Esmaeli is my favourite wrestler, so I thought I’d share a couple of clips of him. I love the fact that he’s currently working out of a church with his classes, as you can see in his Instagram clips:

I like the way he’s emphasising using the whole body in his movements, not isolated leg and arms, much as we are encouraged to do in internal martial arts. “Wrestle with your hips, wrestle with your body”.

Wrestling arises spontaneously in every culture all over the world. Saeed’s branch has its roots in Iran. The story of how he comes to use a church is explained in this article from the Bristol 24/7. “THE UNLIKELY BOND BETWEEN AN IRANIAN WRESTLER AND A BRISTOL VICAR”

“Rather than striking, Pahlevani wrestling teaches students the art of grace under pressure, a great metaphor for dealing with the pressure that life can throw at us and one that reverend James Wilson can get on board with.

St Gregory the Great on Filton Road in Horfield officially opened its heavy oak doors to Wrestle for Humanity, a unique community Olympic wresting club and mental heath intervention service run by coach Saeed Esmaeli, whose mission is to make wrestling accessible and to help people feel good and perform well both on and off the mat.

Having experienced war, revolution and poverty, Iranian-born Saeed has overcome racism, bullying and grief and understands adversity. He brings a message of hope in his ‘infused psychology’ one-on-ones and in every community wrestling class.”

Bristol 24/7

As for the connection between martial arts and dance? Check it out!

Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

Take it outside

Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

Another thing that sword practice does is force you to practice outside. Practicing martial arts outside is not something that’s popular in the UK. Village halls and sports centres across the land resound to the sound of a million “Ki-ah!”s, but if you practice martial arts outside you are instantly branded a weirdo.

If people in the UK see you practicing martial arts outside they shout stuff at you, or do a Bruce Lee impression. It seems to be part of our culture. It’s not like this in other countries. Inner Mongolia is a great example – its indigenous wrestling culture stretches back to caveman times, and is still practiced to this day outside on the grass.

“Inner Mongolians live a simple life that’s rich in human connection, connection with the earth and sky. This is something that wrestling brings us closer to.”

Sadly, today not only is Mongol language and culture under threat from the Chinese state, of which Inner Mongolia is a region, but wrestling itself is also under threat. As the Monogol language, identity and culture is destroyed, so people lose motivation to wrestle.

As this article on Bloody Elbow says:

“Em adds their thoughts to this with, “Mongols all over, especially the Mongols in the grasslands and the smaller towns, are depressed and sad. There’s a hanging feeling of hopelessness. It’s made wrestling difficult to do. People aren’t motivated to train, nor are they mentally focused. Their thoughts are elsewhere, which distracts you from having that ‘feeling’ during a match. Yet, the show must go on and a few Naadam have happened recently and it’s allowed wrestlers to get back to competing, uniting, and sharing a common goal of keeping their culture alive. Wrestling is one way to do this. Winter Training began in October and there is an even greater push to spread the art and culture internationally too.””

But the outlook does not look good.

“There is no doubt that if the PRC continues its forced assimilation of Mongolian culture, that this wrestling art will become forever changed. In turn, it can also impact the competitive landscape of Sumo, Judo, Shuai Jiao, Freestyle, and others. Bökh is simply too intertwined within what it means to be Mongolian, for the sport to not feel massive ramifications from cultural turmoil and forced influences from outside traditions.”

But to get back to weapons. Weapons make you practice outside, so you discover your own connection to earth and sky. Just try swinging a sword around inside for 5 minutes and you realise why.

Of course, in the UK it rains a lot. I find that I’m ok with practicsing fast moving arts like Xing Yi sword outside in the rain. It doesn’t seem to bother me. Slow moving Tai Chi forms in the rain however are miserable, and as for Zhan Zhuang standing practice – forget it. 

When it’s raining, that stuff belongs in the Ger.

Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

Why so many grappling styles stop when things go to the ground

If you throw your opponent to the ground in almost all of the old, traditional folk wrestling styles then you win. That’s it. Game over. To modern day martial artists that seems very odd, as we’re now all used to seeing MMA and BJJ fights on the ground, sometimes lasting minutes. But in olden times, if your shoulders touched the ground or you were pinned (or some version thereof), it was all over.

Why is that?*

Photo by Alan Stoddard on Pexels.com

You’ll find the answer in the latest episode of the Sonny Brown Breakdown in which he interviews Ruadhán MacFadden of the Hero with a Thousand Holds podcast.

“I talk to Ruadhán MacFadden. He runs a project titled The Hero with a Thousand Holds which looks at the culture and practice of folk wrestling styles around the world. In particular the people and places that the styles have emerged from and not just the techniques which they used. We discuss some of the mythology and culture behind these styles and what the future holds for them. And we get into some of the particulars of Icelandic Glima and Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling and Scuffling.”

* Ok,I’ll tell you the answer, (or one of the possible answers anyway). Wrestling between males (and sometimes females) was often used as a form of socialisation, and entertainment in tightly knight communities, or as a way of settling disputes without recourse to serious violence. Killing valuable members harmed the community’s chances of long term survival. In any case, there was nothing to be gained for the community from people getting seriously hurt either, so there had to be a simple way of declaring a winner without things escalating to the point that somebody was bludgeoned to death with a rock. Hence, once you landed on the ground, it was over.

Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling, (back from beyond the grave)

collarelbow

Collar and Elbow match, Dublin 1878

I’m a big fan of the Hero with a Thousand Holds podcast, which looks at relatively obscure wrestling styles around the world.

The first episode is devoted to the now lost wrestling style called simply, Irish Collar and Elbow.

What’s fascinating about this style is that it used to be huge. Thousands of people would turn up to watch a high profile match up over a century ago. It also spread to America where it became equally popular. Even George Washington was a practitioner!

However, it was superceeded by other styles of wrestling, and cultural and societal changes in its birthplace involving the industrial revolution (if I remember correctly) and the rise in popularity of boxing that resulted in its decline and eventual demise.

Ruadhán MacFadden, who runs the podcast, however, has been trying to recreate what it must have looked like based on his research into accounts of Collar and Elbow matches and his knowledge of contemporary grappling styles (he’s a brown belt in BJJ).

At a recent BJJ Globetrotters Summer Camp, he conducted a seminar showing what he’s discovered about this lost art. BJJ Globetrotters have now put the seminar online, so you can glimpse through a window into the past and see what this style of European martial art would have looked like:

 

 

The Tai Chi Miasma, or “No, the fight is not over just because you’ve got me off balance.”

pangu2

I had an interesting chat with another Tai Chi teacher this week. Generally, Tai Chi teachers are nice people who have trained hard at something for a number of years and developed a lot of skill in it. They’re often not that into the martial side of the art, (even if they say they are), yet they’ve managed to pick up a lot of what I call “Tai Chi Miasma” along the way.

(If you want to know what a Miasma is, I do a podcast about the subject and how it reverberates through human history. Click the link above. A brief summation of Tai Chi Miasma would be, “a set of unconscious and often faulty assumptions about combat influenced by Tai Chi training”, but I’d also have to include a lot of Chinese miasma about yin and yang, qi and tao that was incorporated into Tai Chi by the influence of the Neo Confucian Zhu Xi amongst the intellectual class.)

For example, I find that there’s a pervasive belief amongst Tai Chi practitioners that the fight is effectively over once they have taken your balance. They’ll say things like, “once I’ve got you off balance I can walk you around the room”.

I’m sorry to break it to you (pun intended) but no, the fight is not over just because you have broken my balance!

It’s not over even if you get me off balance and whack me in the face, unless I’m unconscious or too hurt to continue by your deadly 5 point exploding palm technique.

Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen your master controlling people with the lightest of touches and walking them around the room in a wrist lock or arm control of some kind, but that’s happening in a controlled training environment. In real life, it’s not like that.

Just watch any combat sport with live training against resistance. Say wrestling or judo. The players are in a constant state of flux. They are losing their balance and regaining it over and over. Often they willingly sacrifice their balance for a superior position.

giphy-1

Judo. It’s crazy.

They get thrown, they get taken down, they get pinned, but they fight their way back up and go again. The fight is not over just because one person takes the other’s balance, however skilfully or with the lightest of touches they did it.

“Ah!”, they say, “but once you get them off balance it’s easy to keep them off balance. ”

No, no it’s not.

Just look at MMA. MMA is an even better example than pure grappling arts because it involves strikes. Sometimes the strikes are controlled and orderly, but a lot of the time, especially after people get hurt and tired, there are wild punches being thrown looking for a KO, resulting in people falling all over the place, people slipping, kicks missing, etc.

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MMA. It’s painful.

The 80/20 rule.

In grappling sports, people spend a lot of time training what to do after the balance has been taken – or “finishing moves” if you like. That’s where 80% of the training is, because they know it’s not easy and they want to secure the win.

In contrast, Tai Chi partner work seems to be 80% about balance taking and 20% about what to do afterwards… if you’re lucky.

That’s fine if you are aware of that, but not fine if you then start to make grand pronouncements about what would happen in a combat situation because you’ve been told about what should happen next in the method you are teaching, rather than your direct experience.

Yes, I’m making a huge generalisation, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to YOUR school. [wink emoji for sarcasm] But allow me the exaggeration to make my point.

By the way, I’m sure I have my own martial arts miasma too. We all do, but what I’m saying is that we should be aware of it.

Catch yourself saying these things about what should happen next, or what would happen next, if you can. Let your actions speak, not your words.

There’s nothing wrong with focussing on balance breaking. It’s fun, and skilful, and nobody is getting hurt, but also make it a point to spend significant time sparring with resistance.

It keeps you honest.

 

Mongolian Wrestling

A new Heretics podcast episode is up that covers martial arts – specifically Mongolian Wrestling – which I thought you might like.

We cover Mongolian wrestling, culture, writing, language, rivalry with the Chinese, wrestling techniques, Sumo, the three ‘manly’ arts (which are also practiced by women) and female wrestlers.

“Mongolian Wrestling is one of the three warrior arts of the Naadam that originated from Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. In this episode we explore the history, techniques and links with Shamanism of this surprisingly extensive and complex art which has produced both Sumo grand champions and Judo gold medalists.”

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/11-mongolian-wrestling

Here are some videos that go with the episode:

Mongolian Wrestling highlights:

Asashoryu, the famous Mongolian Sumo wrestler we mention:

 

Mongolia’s first gold medal in Judo at the Olympics from Naidangiin Tüvshinbayar, Beijing 2008:

 

D. Sumiya has won a gold medal in the 2017 World Judo Championships in Budapest, Hungary, becoming the first Mongolian female gold medalist at world judo championships:

Let’s explore the Mongolian national wrestling with Stephen Pera: