In this journey, it becomes inevitable for the journeyman to admire the greats – all the teachers, instructors, and masters, each kru, sensei, and sifu, every professor, priest, and coach who has walked the path before us. We borrow their techniques, we emulate their styles, we assimilate how they walk and talk in attempts to become something of our own creation.
So, when you hear a charismatic action movie star talk about flowing water and empty cups, and it all somehow speaks to you, it makes you feel like you’re onto something, no matter how abstract the metaphor for learning.
For as much as Bruce Lee talked about water, I’m convinced he was born of fire. I was drawn to Bruce Lee’s persona initially for his martial mastery, further because of his philosophies revolving around self-actualization. You lie to yourself enough, and you start believing it’s true. “As you think, so shall you become.” That was his fire.
All I want out of life is to feel like the king of martial arts. So I pulled a Bruce Lee, a Muhammad Ali, a Conor McGregor, and I tell myself that I am the greatest, the One True King. It’s still a lie, but I believe it more every day. That’s my fire.
Yet, for a while there, my journey revolved around another part of Bruce Lee’s philosophy – the cup of the mind and the water of learning. Empty your cup to learn more, fill it to become whole. My journey revolved around amassing cups and filling them all to the brim. But the problem remains – I accumulate this massive cup collection, but I only have two hands.
I started training in Shotokan Karate at the age of six under Sensei Ty Aponte. It began as a sustained practice of the only thing that I was remotely good at. Traditional sports never did and still don’t interest me, and other art forms seemed trivial or pointless. Martial arts were utilitarian, and its mastery was glorified by the books, movies, and video games I read, watched, and played. It was simple as that. This fundamental training cultivated the technique and work ethic that served as a foundation for what was to come.
Then, rivalries formed. There were four of us. One of them was insufferable. Superseding his size and natural talent became an obsession; it motivated my training both in and out of the dojo. I had to sweat more than him. I had to do more reps than him, and each move had to be executed stronger, faster, with greater range of motion. I became hell-bent on destroying him, and I hadn’t even sprouted armpit hair.
Contrasting this to the tenets of the dojo oath, it invoked in me the same question raised a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – the difference between justice and vengeance, and where in between lurked the Dark Side. But I am a Jedi. A Jedi is motivated, yet unmoved by the chaos of the world, and a Jedi draws on learning from every corner of the galaxy.
Under the supervision of Sensei Aponte and alongside Sensei Johnson, I supplemented my empty-handed training with Kobudo, developing a fuller understanding of Shotokan through the two styles’ applicative similarities. Sensei Johnson and I expanded our social circle by drilling with Kyoshi Anthony Marquez to further our aerobic conditioning and muscle memory.
With Sensei Aponte’s enduring blessing for my diversified training, I began training in Wing Chun with Sifu Tom Wong, adapting alternative strategies to training and fighting. The exercises I learned emphasized full-body conditioning, repetition, simplicity, and economy of motion to affect quick outcomes.
I took Jeet Kune Do classes offered at the dojo by D.M. Blue, whose instruction seemed to split the difference between the soft style of Wing Chun and the hardness of Shotokan. The principle that each individual’s Jeet Kune Do is biometric – calibrated to that individual’s unique anatomy and psyche – was definitive of the way I believed martial arts maximally benefited its practitioners.
In the midst of mixing it up, there came a point lost in memory when the rivalries ceased to matter, and my focus centered on defeating me from yesterday. Simultaneously, the Bruce Lee envy took hold. It started with the crude imitations, evolving into an alternate perspective of training. I was beginning a cup collection, and I couldn’t let the water grow stale. At the same time, the cups I had weren’t enough. I wanted to be a diverse fighter, a complete martial artist.
Kendo briefly supplemented my Kobudo training. I saw the charging combination coupled with a kiai to be a universal teaching in the Japanese martial arts.
My weapon of choice came to be after my longsword training under Wudang Priest Zhong Xue Cao, who focused on linking empty-handed body mechanics to the dynamic movements of swordplay.
After training in Pattaya, Thailand with Nuengpichit Sityodtong, I pursued Muay Thai back home under Alex Anoushian, adapting the style’s dangerous close range techniques and rigorous conditioning into my daily regimen. To improve my fight game, I studied in the house of another champion, Malaipet Sasiprapa, who taught me how to brutalize and psychologically break opponents while sustaining minimal damage.
At the same gym where I practiced Muay Thai, I trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Professor Wander Braga, who facilitated my submission grappling and ground game.
Black belt exams came and went, and I entered the tournament circuit, studying the intricacies of sport Karate with Sensei Stan Money and learning the hustle of practical Karate from Sensei Nathan Scarano. Moving from local competitions to the Junior Olympics, then the Ozawa Cup, I was able to find some success largely due to experience and exposure. Studying many martial artists of different styles during the most impressionable years of development proffered me two essentials – an arsenal and a target profile. I could analyze my opponents, and I had an array of weapons to address each of their own.
But at what point does it become enough? Do I group all the weapon styles into one cup, or does each weapon get its own? Is my ground game solid, or do I need another cup for another grappling style? Technically, isn’t an Ozawa Cup pretty much another cup?
That’s just it, though. For the perfection we strive for, it’s never enough, so it follows that I must be in need of more cups.
Yet, I’m happy with what I have – not the vessels of the mind, but the water within, the learning it represents. I’m grateful for each and every drop of water that every one of my teachers have bestowed unto me, because, ultimately, this has never been a story about the journeyman. It is about the journey – through the world, through each teacher that made the journeyman worthy of walking the path.
Now, I realize there was only ever one cup, for I only have one mind, one body to expend and exhaust in attempts to understand the martial arts. But the cup has filled with individual mouthfuls of water from every corner of the world, representing the learning I took from every teacher of every style of martial arts I practiced over the course of my life, and I present that learning, I offer that water back to my teachers in the form of tea.
Today, I raise my cup to the Yodansha, the greats who walked the path before me, and I pour its water into a teapot, letting my fire bring it to a boil.
The fire ignited in the scramble before college, when I learned Tai Chi and grappling from Sifu Sun Anguang, who redirected hostile force to the ground with lethal speed.
The fire rose as I took up the mantle of President of the University of Miami Karate Club and instructed my collegiate peers in Shotokan’s bare basics, despite pushback from the old guard.
I stoked the fire by training Kali, Capoeira, and Tae Kwon Do with competing organizations, then starting a “fight club” that united martial artists from every style and every martial arts club on campus in the heat of sparring.
I let the embers burn in medical school as I self-direct my own mixed martial arts training and bouts.
The flame gets hot as I remember the words a traditionalist JKA instructor told me, that my style was “not good enough because it’s a bastardization of Karate.”
I also remember the words of a more jovial sensei who said, “Whatever comes from my body is Karate.”
Kung Fu forms are often named based on the art’s physical attributes – Long Fist, Five Animal Style, Drunken Fist.
So, this is my style – Bastard Fist – a living tribute to the teachers that have touched my life.
This is my Karate. It’s good enough for me.
The fire rises. It burns hot. The water does too.
Today, the cup is empty, and the teapot is boiling over.
Your tea is ready.