A Brooklyn Monk Trains Burmese Boxing

Boxing The Vietnamese

Antonio Graceffo Trains Burmese Boxing

An old man slapped me under the chin with the palm of his hand. My head whipped back, and I saw stars.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Asked my Vietnamese friend and guide in Ho Chi Minh City. “I guess I did, but I hadn’t counted on it hurting so bad.” I answered.

To understand why I was in Vietnam, we have to go back to why I was in Cambodia. And that adventure started in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had been studying Muay Thai Boran in a forest monastery on the Burmese border for three months. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I emerged from the jungle to take a shower, sleep in a bed, and eat at McDonald’s. A few days of rest, and I got restless. What was next? What would be the next obscure martial art in a remote location?

Burmese boxing looked really interesting. It is, to my knowledge, the only place in the world where people are still fighting with absolutely no rules and no gloves. They are even allowed to head-butt.

Burma, now called Myanmar, lay just over the border. I could see it from John’s Cafi in Mae Sai, where I where I would pick up stories from the road during my monthly visa runs. But Myanmar was fraught with political issues. A civil war had been burning there for about fifty years. Most of the boxers I had trained with in Thailand were actually Burmese refugees. Burma didn’t look like a viable option. I am a fighter, not a soldier.

“Every Asian country must have martial arts.” I surmised. So, I went on line looking for arts I had never heard of in the surrounding countries. I did Google searches for martial arts in Lao and Cambodia. Eventually I found a name, Bokator, a nearly extinct martial art in Cambodia, believed to be the origin of all Southeast Asian martial arts. And so I hoped on a bus and I went. Three days later, I was in Phnom Penh, looking for Bokator. It took me eighteen months to find the master. That began a three-year-long odyssey of trips in and out of Cambodia to train with Master San Kim Saen and to document the art so that it would not be lost from the Earth.

After I earned my black belt in Bokator, I began looking for the new, new thing. Back to the Google search, I found a slue of martial arts in Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (by plane this time, now I was a famous martial arts writer), I began looking for the arts. What I found in Vietnam was similar to Taiwan and other developed countries I had trained in. The main focus in the society was economic development and advancement. Parents pushed their kids to excel in school, study English, and make money. Martial art was low on the priority scale.

Most Vietnamese said to me, “But why do you want to waste time on martial arts? You could teach English and make a lot of money.”

Research told me that the Vietnamese had a traditional wrestling form which seemed to have disappeared or may still exist in remote provinces, so it may take me month or even years to find it. Historically, there was also a Vietnamese kickboxing art, similar to Muay Thai or Khmer Boxing, Bradal Serey (Pradal Serey). But, as far as I was able to find out, this art has died out.

The two main arts I was able to find were Thieu Lam, Vietnamese Kung Fu, and Vovinam, a hybrid martial art, invented in Vietnam in the 1920s.

The Thieu Lam master is the one who slapped me under the jaw, so I focused most of my energy on Vovinam.

Vovinam is taught everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The practitioners see it as a matter of national pride, similar to the way Koreans view Tae Kwan Do. Vovinam is a very complete martial art with elements taken from many styles. There are kicks from Tae Kwan Do, but also a limited number of shin kicks and knee kicks. There are grapples from Hop Kido and throws from Judo. There are also a limited number of elbow strikes. They train with an array of weapons, taken from China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

Because Vietnam is still a communist country, there is no professional fighting at all. So, the Vovinam guys weren’t ready to go fight in the UFC. But, with a bit of tweaking, the style looks like it could be modified to use in MMA competitions. As far as traditional martial art (TMA) goes, Vovinam was a lot more interesting and complete than Tae Kwan Do. Anything that includes a grappling component is more multi-dimensional than a stand up kicking art. Unfortunately, because Tae Kwan Do is now part of the Olympics and the SEA Games, there is a huge push, particularly in Communist countries, to build world class teams. The cost is that the local martial arts are dying out.

In Cholon, Saigon’s China Town, I found a massive sports center. In the basement there was a full weight lifting gym. Gyms in Vietnam were quite complete and training was cheap. Membership in a gym costs les than $10 per month. The other five floors of the building were dedicated to martial arts. Walking up the stairs, I felt like Bruce Lee, climbing the tower in Game of Death.” On the first floor there were about a hundred people doing karate. On the next floor, Kung Fu. Up a level, Kendo and Aikido. On the next floor, Karate and Tae Kwand Do again.

The price of martial arts training was $6 per month.

On the top floor, I found my home, boxing.

I was in Vietnam to learn something new, so I concentrated on Vovinam. The problem with most TMA is that there isn’t enough of a cardio component, nearly no strength component, and no toughening or fighting training. So, I set up a training schedule of weights in the morning, followed by Vovinam in the evening and boxing at night. The boxing was the perfect addition to make my training day complete.

In Ho Chi Minh City people, go out late, study late, and train late. The streets are full of cars and motorcycles, at all hours. Boxing started at 7:30 PM, which is amazing, because in Cambodia, no one would ever consider going out that late. Even more amazing, as I was leaving the two hour workout, people were coming in for their martial arts lessons.

When you walk into a new martial arts school in Asia, there is always the thing about showing respect. They are sizing you up, so you don’t want to look weak. But you don’t want to look challenging either. If they think you have only come to fight, they may not train you, or they may hurt you. Or if they think you are showing disrespect, they won’t deal with you at all.

In boxing, there is none of this. The minute I walked into the boxing gym, the coach, Mr. Ahn, welcomed me with open arms. He was all smiles, asking me a million questions about my training and experiences in other countries. He called the boxers around to listen to the stories and ask me questions. With the martial arts guys, I have to build rapport before I can take out my camera. Mr. Ahn, on the other hand, immediately asked if the boys could take some photos with their new American friend.

As there is no professional boxing in Vietnam, all the boys were amateurs. Most were around 22 years old. They attended university fulltime and boxed part time.

I asked if I could fight in Vietnam, Mr. Ahn laughed and told me that in the whole country there were only four boxers registered at 81 Kgs, the highest weight division. At national championships they give one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. So, everyone wins.”

In Thailand I am always amazed at the steps they are taking to improve their training, such as brining in foreign coaches or sending coaches to other countries. Vietnam was the same. One of the team’s coaches had trained in Thailand with the Vietnam national boxing team.

We can learn from them.” Said Mr. Ahn. In the lower weight divisions, the Philippines and Thailand are the best in Southeast Asia.”

Philippine champion, Mani Paquoia (Pac Man) was almost as much of a hero to the Vietnamese boxers as he was to the Filipinos.

Talking about my Muay Thai experience, Mr Ahn told me, “We had kickboxing prior to 1979. But then it was banned. Now they would like to bring it back, but there isn’t even an association or a team yet.”
“Traditional wrestling is also dying out. Maybe it exists in the provinces, and probably not every day, just at festivals.”

The good thing about training in a socialist country is that the government supports sports and education programs. Sports are made available to nearly everyone, regardless of how poor they are. The downside, of course, is that while top athletes will have state of the art training and equipment, the average gym is not as good as one we would pay for in a rich country. Boxing training at the sports complex was free, but the boxing team had absolutely nothing. They had half a heavy bag and some rotting, smelly glove.

The bag was hung too high and not heavy enough for me to do body punches or low kicks. There were no coache’s mitts for pad-work. Mr. Ahn showed me where there had been a floor to ceiling bag, but it was broken. One very cool piece of equipment they did have was a makiwara board hanging on the wall. This padded boarded is normally used in karate and other martial arts to practice focus punching. The boxers used it for speed and power drills. One guy would stand at board, throwing one-two, one-two as fast and hard as he could for thirty seconds, while his partner shadow boxed. Then they would switch off. Thirty second board, thirty seconds shadow, alternating for three minutes. It was brutal! By my third rotation on the board I was completely beat. My arms would barely stay up.

During the drill, Mr. Ahn stood by, and made sure my hands were coming back to a proper guard position between punches, so I was punching off my face, straight through.

Usually when I train with amateurs the coaches leave me alone and let me train what I want, which is nice, if I am there for a short time. I like them to leave me alone because amateur boxing is so different from professional boxing. Fr example, they turn their hands over when they hook, which pros don’t do. I don’t want them to undue my skills.

But if I am going to be there for a year it is a problem because then I am not learning anything new.
Watching one of the best guys train, he was very fast and had good form and tremendous power or his size, but his hands were down at his sides, like Muhammad Ali, and he was wide open. Maybe he was fast enough that it didn’t matter, but I was shocked at how open many of them were.

The gym didn’t have a heavy bag, which would be the bulk of my training as a heavyweight pro. I got the impression that amateurs didn’t work the heavy bag the way pros do. Most of their work was shadow boxing and mock sparing. Amateurs I have trained with in Philippines, Vietnam and other countries did a lot of things we don’t do, such as sliding drills, punching drills, and blocking drills. Maybe we could benefit from these training techniques too.

After the board work, Mr. Ahn had me spar with two of his guys, one round each. We didn’t hit each other hard, just worked.

The second boy I sparred with had one hand on his waste, and punched off his hip. He did all right with it, but it still looked dangerous. The cool thing he kept doing was switching off, left and right hand lead. He didn’t actually change his lead leg, but would twist his body about 50% and lead with a right hand jab. It was tricky and kept giving me a new picture to look at.

They didn’t have a ring, so we were sparring on the floor. Normally I shepherd my opponent onto the ropes or into the corner and pound them. This is much harder to do in an open fighting situation. The speed and stamina of the smaller amateur is a bigger advantage in an open situation.

In pro boxing you are always looking for that knock out or a win by attrition. You lead with the left, but you are constantly trying to set the man up for the big right hand. In amateur boxing, you are trying to win by points. Throwing a flurry of punches, whether they are hard or not, will win you points.

Training with the Vietnamese was great fun, and I look forward to continuing my study of Vovinam, supplemented with boxing and weight lifting. Maybe I will find out who is trying to start the professional kickboxing league and I can help out. Maybe we can build a Vietnamese MMA team and take the Southeast Asian title.