The first time I trained in Malaysia was in August of 2009. At that time my Chinese-Malaysian friend, Sheung Di, arrange for me to train and film at several locations and in several arts in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. On that first trip, we hit: Boxx Warrior, Kru Jak Othman Muay Thai, Silat Guru Azlan Ghani, and Silat Kalam with Guru Mazlan Man. On my return trip, in March 2010 I revisited each of them and added several new ones.
We began our Malaysian martial arts odyssey at Boxx Warrior, Ampang which is a pro Muay Thai gym. The owner, Kirsty, a bright, and educated Malay woman is a huge fan of Thai boxing. She brought four trainers from Thailand and runs her gym exactly like gyms in Thailand. The Gym opened at 5:00 PM. I went in, warmed up and worked the heavy bags. Next, the trainers, who were all happy to talk to me in Thai, took me on the pads for three rounds of Muay Thai and two of boxing. What I really appreciated about the training was that the trainers made corrections. They watched my form and explained to me where I was off and what I need to improve on.
Kirsty told me, “My instructors know if they aren’t good, I will send them back where they came from.”
After pad work, we sparred. Once again, the trainers were excellent sparring partners, making you work for your supper, but they didn’t injure me or any of the other students. Of course, out of frustration, I often took cheap shots.
In addition to taking their fighters to Thailand for competitions, Boxx Warrior, Ampang is involved in promoting professional Muay Thai tournaments in Malaysia. Their leading boxer is Ediey Selendang Kunning (born Moho Zandi Bin Mohd Zawawi) from Kelantan, where all of the great Malay boxers come from. He weighs 63 Kgs of solid muscle and zero fat and has had 55 fights with only 4 loses. He fights often in Lumpini stadium in Bangkok, and during my second visit to Malaysia Ediey fought, and defeated Zidov Dominik, the Croation Muay Thai fighter who was featured on the TV show “The Contender Asia”.
Next, we trained with Kru Jak Othman who owns a chain of Muay Thai schools. Kru Jak is also a recognized, high level Guru of many Silat styles. So, we shot multiple shows with him. Kru Jak and I hit it off extremely well, because he had trained in Kelantan, which is the fighting region of Malaysia. Kelantan, in north Malaysia, borders on Thailand and Muay Thai or Tomoi as the Malays call it, is extremely popular. He grew up training Muay Thai and could also speak Thai. So, when we met, we were able to connect on the basis of both having been fighters and on understanding Thai culture.
Because of my first book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” my nickname on the internet and in the press is often, Brooklyn Monk. Kru Jak is funny because he insists on calling me Monk. He also tells his students, “When the Monk is around, show him some respect.” Kru Jak also gets a kick out of the fact that I always call him Kru, which is the title for a Muay Thai teacher, and never Guru which is the title for a Silat teacher.
The Muay Thai program at Kru Jak’s place was really interesting. His students were primarily college students or working young people with executive jobs who needed to release stress. “They come to my club and punch it out.” Said Kru Jak. Jak knows that it is an interest in hard-core professional Muay Thai that brings people into the gym, but in his words, “If you put them through a real Muay Thai workout on Monday, you’d be all alone on Tuesday.” He recognizes that Muay Thai training is hard and injuries and pain are inevitable. The only reason Thais, Khmers, and Kelatanese do it is because they need to go fight in a ring to earn money. But middle-class Malaysians aren’t motivated by a need to earn $60 USD in a fight. They want to have fun and get in shape. If the program was as injurious as pro Muay Thai training, students would quit right and left. And Chinese parents would never allow their kids to practice a sport where they might get kicked in the head.
In response to the needs of the students, rather than to the stated needs of the students, Kru Jak developed an innovative training program to suit the modern educated, city dwellers. The program starts with Phase One, where students learn cardio kickboxing. I say cardio kickboxing, but this isn’t Thai Bo. They actually learn real kicks and punches and use the pads and gloves, but the intent at this level is to teach very basic techniques and fitness. At Phase Two, students put on belly protectors and body guards, and they practice hitting each other with set combinations. Eventually, at Phase Four they start sparring and can also fight in professional or amateur Muay Thai competitions.
In addition to Muay Thai, Kru Jak has special evening seminars where he teaches Muay Boran or ancient Tomoi techniques to his students. He also teaches Silat Tomoi. Many of the Silat styles taught in Malaysia involve one or more blades. Kru Jak’s hands move at the speed of light, and with a knife in each hand he absolutely shreds anything he attacks. In Silat Tomoi, the same techniques are added to Muay Thai. So even in unarmed combat, Kru Jak moves in close and shreds his opponent with his hands, elbows and knees.
In the old days, in Kelanatan, this is how professional fights were done. There were no gloves. Fighters wrapped their hands with cords and then they fought, using kicks, punches, knees, elbows, grappling, and Silat style, ripping and tearing.
One of my projects on this second trip to Malaysia is that Kru Jak and I are producing a professional quality DVD on Silat Tomoi which should enjoy a US and Australian release in June of 2010.
Another Silat teacher I trained with on my first trip was Guru Azlan Ghanie who teaches Silat.Melayu, an internal style of Silat which is good for health and could almost be considered a Silat version of Tae Chi. In addition to his special style, he was knowledgeable about a number of Silat styles and weapons. In fact, his office looked like a cutlery factory, with swords, knives and bladed weapons of every description.
When I trained with him, Guru Azlan asked me to get him various wrestling holds, and in spite of being much smaller than me, he was able to break free. It was a very interesting style and reminded me so much of Chinese styles where old men and women are able to preserve their health but also break free of the grip of much younger assailants.
On that first trip, I also trained with Guru Mazlan Man, who teaches Silat Kalam, a highly practical fighting form of Silat. Silat Kalam included a lot of grappling and locking, as in Hop Kido and practical, no energy throws, like Aikido, but the locks and finishing holds were very unique, different from any other martial art or MMA style I had been exposed to. Guru Mazlan was very religious, a devout Muslim, and only agreed to let me train with him after a lengthy interview process. During that interview, he told me that everything we do in life, all good things, are because of God. “We breath because of God. We walk because of God. And we can use Silat, because of God.” I liked that phrase and it became the title of our video, “Martial Arts Odyssey Because of God.”
Guru Mazlan Man invited me to return to Malaysia and become his full-time student and work as his assistant. And that is what I am doing at the time of this writing. Each day, I train with the Guru in the afternoon, then I train with Kru Jak Othman, learning Muay Thai and Silat Tomoi. Guru Mazlan’s style includes a limited number of movements and only takes a few months to learn, but of course, to truly use the techniques you need to practice intensely and over time. The Guru wants me to be ready to help him teach courses to the Malaysian national police force, beginning in two months time.
One of the very special aspects of my relationship with Guru Mazlan is that he has never agreed to teach his style to a non-Muslim before. I feel very honored. And we both agree that his teaching me sends a signal of inclusion to the different races and religions of Malaysia and to the world. Right now, the government of Malaysia is pushing a slogan of “Satu Malaysia”, or “One Malaysia.” Malaysia is an amazingly unified and stable country, considering that it is home to some many completely different languages, races, and religions. My association with the Guru embodies this spirit of unity.
Because the art is so closely tied to religion, I also receive daily lessons in the religion and language of the Muslim people of Malaysia. I feel extremely honored and lucky because not many westerners have had an opportunity to be so closely associated with this important world religion which plays so deeply on our foreign relations.
Guru Mazlan hopes that we will be doing a series for Malaysian TV about my training with him. After that, in addition to working as an instructor here he hopes that I can spread the art outside of Malaysia. “Send it to the world.” He said. “You will spread the teaching, either through your direct teaching or through your videos and books.”
In doing Martial arts Odyssey, I travel form place to place, meeting different masters. Some I film with and interview. Others, I actually stay and study with. The brand new styles that I have added to my own repertoire during these many years include: Khmer Boxing, Bokator, Kuntaw, and Muay Chaiya. But now I have added Silat Tomoi, Silat Kalam, and Kyokushin Karate to my list of arts I am actually studying and hope to absorb.
On the Malaysian Island of Penang, I met with Grand Master Anbananthan, a teacher of the Indian martial art of Silambam. Silambam is an Indian stick fighting art, which has nearly died out in India. In all of the research I have done, every source has credited Grand Master Anbananthan and his team in Penang as having preserved the art. The Grand Master returned to India recently and said that the Silambam he saw practiced there was no longer pure, it had become influenced by other martial arts and possibly movies.
Silambam is a very unique form of stick fighting in that the stick is an odd length. In most other martial arts, you use a long stick, such as a staff, which is close to the height of a man. The stick is held in three sections and is wielded with two hands. Or you use two short sticks, one in each hand. But the Silambam stick is shorter than a staff but much longer than two short sticks. It is also wielded with two hands, but normally the two hands are close together and you swing the length of the stick at your opponent. The practice is all about learning to control and direct the stick on these huge, lightning fast swings.
Finally, on this trip, we visited Kyokushin Karate and I immediately added it to the list of martial arts I am now practicing. My first exposure to Kyokushin came from my Khmer boxing trainer, Paddy Carson, who is a Second Dan or second degree black belt in Kyokushin. Paddy loves western boxing and had been involved in professional western boxing as well as kick boxing, Muay Thai and Khmer Boxing for more than forty years, but he always spoke with love about the ten or more years he was involved in Kyokushin.
Kyokushin is full contact karate. They fight barefisted and they kick with their shins, like Muay Thai. The only thing they can’t do in a fight is punch in the face, but they can kick in the face, and they whale on each other’s bodies with punches, knees and kicks. The founder of Kyokushin is Mas Oyama, who is on my list of top five greatest martial artists who ever lived. His personal training regime was insane and I never tire of reading biographies about him.
In Malaysia the primary Kyokushin school is located in Selangor, minutes from my apartment, and is run by Shihan Michael Ding. Before we began training, I watched Michael doing his conditioning work. He was pounding a bamboo post with his shins and fists to harden the bones and toughen the skin.
In my training with Shihan Michael and a senior student named Chris Tan, I was asked to do countless knuckle pushups on the hard, wooden floor. I say “asked” because I only manages about fifty, when I thought my knuckle bones would come through my skin. After that, we did a number of painful drills, including drills where you stand still and let someone kick you and punch you. Then you switch, and your partner stands still and you kick and punch him.
It was brutal, wonderful, and tough. I loved Kyokushin and now I am making arrangements with Shihan Michael so I can train on a regular basis while I am in Malaysia.
I took an apartment in Selangor, right behind Kru Jak’s club so I can train everyday and also so I can attend practice for the DVD filming. The apartment is near the train, so I can go see Guru Mazlan each day. Hopefully we will find an acceptable way to work Kyokushin training into the routine. And, of course, I continue to do Martial Arts Odyssey episodes about other martial arts.