In Chinatown last summer at Tony Cheung's restaurant, Willy Lin passed along his tien shan pei grand mastery to sifu Dennis Brown. Maybe you read my Inside Kung-Fu story.
On that bright, hot afternoon upstairs in the third-floor banquet room, about fifty of us, including grand master Jhoon Rhee, witnessed History being made. Dennis Brown is the first black man to inherit the robe and bowl of a traditional Chinese art.
This great honor was well-earned. Among so many "firsts," Dennis Brown is the first African-American ever to have trained in China. Dennis has always been a pioneer, always stood for tien shan pei. His is the power of one life/one style.
Dennis and I go way back. I did his "Hall of Fame" write-up for Black Belt; and he rode shotgun as my color man back in the late 90s when we were broadcasting ESPN-TV's weekly Black Belts half-hour.
After the traditional tea ceremony, during the banquet that followed, I found myself sitting next to another old-schooler I call Joe Dojo. Old Joe is the opposite of Dennis Brown. I've lost track of what-all ranks Joe holds in how many different arts.
Joe and I played "Whatever happened to...?" But while we chatted and ate Tony Cheung's famous food, I could see Joe was not his usual, smiling self.
"What's eating you?"
"I feel like I'm at a funeral." Joe shook his shaved-bald head.
"The martial arts in this country are kaput."
I laughed. That's a German expression for "over and done with."
Joe was serious.
"America's fastest-growing sport is mixed martial arts. That's what's driving the last nail into our coffin."
"Then what drove the first?"
"Jhoon Rhee –" Joe pointed to the Korean legend seated at the head table – "and Educational Funding Company figuring out how to include kids in classes."
This is generally considered to be one of the triumphs of our industry.
"Yeah? Then what was the second nail?"
"Kimber Hill figuring out how to train three- to five-year- olds... that's a bad thing?"
Joe nodded his lean, gray, wolf's face.
"Joe, you got it backwards. Because of all the kids, there are more schools out there doing better than ever before. Millionaire owners are becoming almost commonplace."
Joe leaned forward, showing the sudden intensity that makes him, even today, a tricky sparing partner.
"In these big-money schools, what they're teaching Lil' Dragons is their last name, how to count to ten, basic shapes and colors, and how to call home on a cell phone."
"They're also exposed to basic kicks and punches and holds."
Joe's eyes sparkled with bitter amusement.
"Okay, and what are the older kids and the 'tweenies learning? Nonviolent conflict resolution, Stranger Danger, good study habits, clean up their rooms at home, respect for their parents..."
"Joe, today's kids train hard up through colored belts, just like we did, and nowadays they're much better athletes."
Even as I said "athletes," I felt a twinge of conscience. The guy who introduced teenaged Bruce Lee to Yip Man, Duncan Leung, wing chun's dark genius once laughed when I asked if he jogged or what.
"I don't run. I don't lift weights. I smoke cigarettes. I am not an athlete. I am a kung-fu fighter."
Joe dropped his fist on the table and rattled everybody's tea cup.
"And if these kids do get first dans at the age of ten, what is their belt in? A martial sport. Now tell me again, what's the name of the most popular new martial sport?"
I sighed. "Mixed martial arts."
"You mean Ground & Pound, don't you? Any second-rate Golden Gloves boxer laughs at MMA punching skills. 90% of MMA guys' kicks are the same front-round-house Uzbekistani judo guys use. And MMA wrestling chops come down to shoot and mount. Then it's left-right face-smashing."
A Net-video producer seated on Joe's right looked ready to cloud up and rain all over him. Suddenly, he spoke up.
"That's just... ignorant."
Joe raised his voice.
"The worst of it is the pro wrestling mouth on these MMA guys. There's no respect, no dignity, no honor. It's all masochists buffing up to show off their tattoos, auditioning for some damn reality show –"
The producer snarled, "Masochists?!"
Joe glanced over his shoulder.
"If these guys don't like to get hurt, what are they doing there? Martial artists train to get stronger and healthier our whole life. And the entire point of traditional training is to not have to fight at all."
"Now wait just a –"
"The truth hurts, huh?" Joe turned back to me.
"One more question: What's the millionaires' schools biggest student retention problem?"
But again it was the producer who growled, "Keeping teenage students."
This time, Joe didn't even look around, although the whole table, by now, sat, heads low, studying their fried rice.
"So at exactly the point when young martial artists are finally mature enough to be taught and to understand and appreciate their art's fine points, suddenly – wham! – they're gone from the school."
In truth, hanging on to teens is a huge concern, and some high-ranking masters are openly wondering where the next generation of instructors is going to come from if you can't hold onto the teens?
"And how many of the drop-outs go off to study MMA?"
Funny that Joe should ask. My 24-year-old nephew, a good kung-fu disciple who grew up in Bakari Alexander's Rockville, Maryland Academy, quit a couple years ago to train in MMA, and he had a few fights on the local circuit. After a lifetime of body conditioning and Chinese fighting smarts, he lasted less than six months.
"Do you personally know any MMA fighters?"
Now my nephew has permanently crimped lower spinal vertebrae – which will never get better and can only get worse – and also complains of "floaters" in both eyes. That sounds to me like at least one ring concussion. Not good.
Even so, by now I was angrier with Joe than with the MMA guys, who, at least, have hearts like lions and, in today's Chick America, are proud to act like men.
"Listen, Joe, I hear you. You think old-school training is drying up because of children in the schools and the sportsification of our arts. But you don't get it. From coast to coast, the traditional ways are still going strong, and it's the littlest kids making it possible."
"Whose tuitions do you think subsidize the masters' adult classes? And these classes are for hard-core grown-ups, just like us back in the day, only there are too few of 'em by themselves to keep a purely traditional school alive. In the States, there never have been enough Dennis Browns."
The other people around the table put down their chop sticks and nodded. Joe met their eyes with a shrug and finally broke out that game smile he always flashes when the going gets tough. I looked closer, and it occurred to me Joe is starting to show his age.
"Don't any of you get it? MMA proves to this generation that none of the martial arts is worth a damn in a real fight. And a few traditionalist students out training in somebody's garage is exactly where we started forty years ago. What did Dylan say? 'He who isn't busy being born is busy dying.'"
Joe got up, bowed to our table and threw Willy Lin and Dennis Brown the hand-over-fist shaolin salute. He left the restaurant, walking tall but looking somehow frailer.
The producer gave me a look. "Who is that dude?"
"Ever read Macbeth? He's the ghost at the banquet."