I had never seen anyone quite like Ken Shamrock, who at 6 feet 1 inch tall and 217 pounds handily dropped opponent after opponent in World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) matches. An Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran, Ken Shamrock brought a unique style to the pro-wrestling milieu in 1997, combining wrestling with martial arts acumen to produce a new kind of gladiator—a combatant whose martial arts agility would launch a mini-revolution in the wrestling world. This crossbreeding has produced interesting results and a host of new fighting styles. Sure, the outcome of pro-wrestling matches may be fixed in advance, but to parrot an old aphorism, it’s the journey, not the destination. These days, the average mixed martial arts fight looks more like a traditional wrestling match than what you might see in a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. And in pro-wrestling contests, you’re just as likely to see a spinning back kick as the more tried-and-true suplex and clothesline. Martial arts and traditional wrestling have more in common than you might guess. In both, the goal is to get your opponent to submit through physical restraint or to knock him to the ground. Both involve grappling and jostling for position to put your foe off-balance. In this way, judo and wrestling could be said to be first cousins. The relationship between wrestling and martial arts actually reaches back to ancient times. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob grappled with God’s angel; he was renamed “Israel,” Hebrew for he who “wrestles (or strives) with God.” And in antiquity, hand-to-hand combat—both wrestling and formalized martial arts—was popular in the Greek, Etruscan and Roman empires as mass entertainment. Fast-forward to 19th-century Europe. Boxers regularly clashed against more traditional wrestlers in fierce, no-holds-barred fights. The largely unsanctioned contests were as vicious and brutal as their historical counterparts, with the loser often winding up in the hospital or worse. In England, a style called bartitsu was founded; many consider it the first formalized mixed martial art because it incorporated elements of Japanese and European disciplines. In America, the first fight between a wrestler and boxer probably occurred in 1887 when heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan was bested by his trainer, William Muldoon, a Greco-Roman wrestler, in less than three minutes. Around the same time in the Far East, MMA contests came to be known as merikan, a Japanese word that loosely translates to “American-style fighting.” MMA largely faded from view after World War I, with wrestling diverging into two categories—real or “shoot” matches, and “show” contests, the forefather of scripted bouts. It would take four decades, but eventually the divorce of martial arts and wrestling began to crumble. In 1986 WrestleMania 2 saw Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. T duke it out in a boxing match in New York. (Rowdy Roddy Piper lost by disqualification.) Later in the ’80s, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling was founded in Japan to showcase more extreme combat, but in 2002, the organization ran into financial troubles and went bankrupt. Despite those false starts, MMA returned solidly with the debut of the UFC in 1993. Boxers, martial artists and wrestlers were all tossed into the ring, with no one style or discipline providing a clear advantage. It wasn’t about training but about how that training was applied against each opponent. As Royce Gracie trounced the competition to become the first champ, there was instant recognition that something very new (or very old) was happening. Since then, MMA has experienced a meteoric rise in the United States, where its popularity often comes close to that of pro wrestling. And for those who favor martial arts over traditional wrestling, take a look at the stats: Wrestlers won five of the first 10 UFCs, while Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters took three. Even former heavyweight champ Randy Couture competed in collegiate and Greco-Roman wrestling before coming into his own in MMA. As with Ken Shamrock, many MMA fighters eventually leave pro wrestling entirely. Former All-American Brock Lesnar shot to overnight WWE fame and was arguably Vince McMahon’s biggest star for a stretch in 2002 and 2003. After legal battles with the WWE, Brock Lesnar jumped to the UFC. (At the time of this writing, Brock Lesnar was scheduled to fight Randy Couture on November 15, 2008.) So, as in ancient times, wrestling and the martial arts have once again united. No less an authority than Bruce Lee said, “The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style.” Perhaps that’s why in 2004, UFC President Dana White called Bruce Lee the “father of mixed martial arts.” (Eric Althoff is a freelance writer with 20 years of martial arts experience. He holds a third-degree black belt in isshin-ryu karate and has studied modern arnis.)
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
Part historical epic and part superhero tale, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010) has Yen in the titular role leading a resistance to the Japanese occupation of China. In addition to leading the underground movement, Yen adopts the costume of “The Masked Warrior,” which looks suspiciously like Kato’s wardrobe from The Green Hornet, to fight the bad guys and their henchmen.
The fight scenes are beautifully shot and choreographed, and some credit must go to Yen, as he is the film’s action director. The climactic battle between Chen Zhen and the students of the karate dojo quotes from Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury/Chinese Connection (1972), including a steady stream of opponents and a thumping nunchaku.
Kung Fu Killer
In Kung Fu Killer (2014), Yen is an incarcerated ex-martial arts instructor who makes a plea for an early release to help catch a killer who is targeting martial artists. The killer is selecting experts in disciplines as they relate to the use of weapons: boxing, kicking, grappling, weapons and energy. Yen is again the action director for the film, and he creates exciting on-screen battles that are always interesting. The story provides some great twists and turns, and the overall theme of the “true meaning” of martial arts is an interesting one.
Of the three films mentioned here, Flashpoint (2007) is my favorite. Directed by Wilson Yip, director of the Ip Man series (Ip Man - 2008, Ip Man 2 - 2010, Ip Man 3 - 2015 and Ip Man 4: The Finale - 2019) and other pairings with Donnie Yen (Kill Zone - 2005, Dragon Tiger Gate - 2006). It is obvious that Yip and Yen make a great director/actor combination, not unlike Scorsese and DeNiro. The film pits Yen’s rogue cop “Ma” against a trio of ruthless gangster brothers.
With plenty of gunfights and ample punching and kicking, what sets the film apart is its use of grappling. The battle between Donnie Yen and Collin Chou is truly epic, and it expertly displays ground-grappling techniques that are rarely, if ever, used. Flashpoint is one of my favorite Donnie Yen fight films overall and definitely worth checking out.
Currently, you can stream these movies on Amazon Prime, but also check your favorite streaming service for availability. Ready? Point, click, wait for that progress wheel and enjoy.
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Dr. Craig’s Martial Arts Movie Lounge
Executioners From Shaolin
Executioners From Shaolin / Lau Kar-leung
(1977—Hong Kong): Toward the end of the Ming dynasty, there were four main groups of Shaolin fighters: Five Ancestors of Shaolin; Five Elders of Shaolin, i.e., Wu Mei, Bai Mei, Feng Dao-de, Miao Xian and Zhi Shan; 10 Tigers of Shaolin; and 10 Tigers of Canton. After Song Shan Shaolin Temple was burned down in 1736, two Ancestors, Tsai De-zhong and Hu De-di established Jiu Lian Shan Shaolin Temple in Fujian that became the base for the Elders. Zhi Shan had nine students, eight became 10 Tigers of Shaolin, and one a 10 Tiger of Canton. Bai defected from Shaolin, joined Wu Dung and learned xiao jing zhong (little golden bell), which made his body impervious to punches and kicks. He also helped the Manchus find and raze Jiu Lian Temple, where only the Five Elders and 10 Tigers of Shaolin escaped where one Tiger, Hong Xi-guan, hid among the boat-traveling Red Junk Cantonese opera troupes.
Executioners opens with Jiu Lian burning and Hong (Chen Kuan-tai) escaping to the Red Junks, where he marries entertainer and white crane expert, Ying Chun, who bears him a son, Wen Ting. Director Liu Chia-liang outdid himself choreographing a charmingly adorable bedroom brawl between Hong and Ying on their honeymoon night that leads to the consummation of their marriage. The film centers around Hong’s attempt to kill Bai (Lo Lieh). Refusing to learn Ying’s white crane, Hong uses his tiger style to develop a must-see unique training device he believes will help him find Bai’s weak point, thus breaking his chi flow, ergo killing him. Hong miserably fails and son Wen combines his mum’s white crane and dad’s tiger to kill Bai; it’s the birth of Hong jia chuen. Historically, Hong learned Ying’s white crane, died at 93 in 1821 and Elder Feng killed Bai.
Karate for Life
(1977—Japan): In Part 3 of Sonny Chiba’s continued portrayal homage trilogy to his sensei and founder of kyokushinkai karate, Masutatsu (Mas) Oyama, Karate for Life opens with an 8+ minute fight that to me is the best pure, sustained karate clash I’ve seen in Japanese film and is the best on-screen fight Chiba has ever done. As Oyama’s fame spreads, the Yakuza arrange for Oyama and tag-team partner Fujita, Japan’s No. 1 judo practitioner, to do pro wrestling-like matches with Westerners. When Oyama and Fujita refuse to lose and do serious damage to their opponents, the two must tag-tame against the Yakuza.
The opening fight, where Oyama takes on 100 karate students without a break is beautifully shot using mostly medium and wide angles, so each thundering technique is clearly shown to demonstrate the Japanese warrior maxim of one strike, certain death. Close shots emphasize the crunching force of Chiba’s strikes. When he blocks and strikes, he makes obvious hard focused contact against each opponent without using excessive body motion that American made karate style films commonly did to sell the impression of power. When oil floods the dojo floor, there are no tricky or neat-looking balance routines like seen in Hong Kong films. Chiba slides around the slick floor the way you’d expect him to until he uses his karate skills to adjust to the terrain’s reality. When I learned Okinawan goju ryu in the 1970’s we’d similarly train on frozen ponds and muddy hills.
Mantis Fists and Tiger Claws of Shaolin
(1977—Hong Kong): If you’re a fan of the 1950’s Universal Pictures horror films like the mummy, Dracula, werewolf, and Frankenstein classics of yesteryear, you’ll love the sheer audacity and creativity of this hidden gem, Mantis Fists and Tiger Claws of Shaolin, which opens with two cartoon mantises rollicking around then after they mate, the female eats the male as a voice-over explains that mantises are cannibalistic noting that this unsettling behavior is as disturbing as the movie itself. Warning, not for the faint of heart. Like many 1970s Hong Kong films did, the story begins with a beautiful woman being attacked in a forest where her screams are muffled by the trees and the gang of men seem to get away with the crime. As the thugs celebrate their distasteful victory, with the macabre of a Hollywood slasher flick, flying spear-like pieces of bamboo impale the evildoers like insects in a bug collection.
Enter the hero Bai (John Cheung), who swore to his dying mum he’d find his long-lost sister who was sold into prostitution. While rescuing her from the deranged sons of Hung Ching-piao (Dean Shek) who’s an insane unrelenting, spear-wielding alpha male, Bai is severely wounded by Hung and his fractious sons, one of which wears a freaky jacket that is covered in a sheet of spikes. When a government agent arrives to investigate the village’s gruesome killings, more rapes occur that initiates more savage bloodlettings in the village. What follows next gets more bizarre by the minute. This is certainly not your average kung fu film, it’s dark and creepy, wrapped in maltreatment horror, perverse progeny, and insect kung fu in way you can’t imagine.
Secrets of Chinese Kung Fu
(1977—Taiwan): Posture, posture, posture. When you watch kung fu films you can tell which stars practice kung fu and those that don’t; actors who hunch their backs, strain their necks, and let their arms flap in the breeze or dangle at their sides while fighting, don’t, and those keeping their backs straight and the non-striking hand close to the body, do. This film is a perfect example of a star effortlessly fighting with great kung fu posture. Even if you were unfamiliar with martial arts, you would still recognize how star Si Ma-long just looks right when he effectively battles one or more attackers at a time, keeping his back perfectly straight the whole time. Si was so heavily touted as being the Taiwanese Alexander Fu Sheng that when Fu Sheng passed away, Si’s career ended.
When former cruel convict Kang Ho (Lo Lieh) returns to his seaside home village he kills the owner of a local fish-canning factory and plans to use it as a front to smuggle drugs worldwide. Yet after sailor Chang Chi (Si) is rescued by a local fisherwoman, Chang’s white crane kung fu pecks away at Kang’s plans, forcing the villain to hire Japanese karate and Thai kickboxer experts to deal with Chang. The best fights are between Si and two Thai fighters and one karateka. The duels against the Thai warriors are smoother, with more circular kicks and punches, and against the karateka, the action looks more mechanical, with a strange sense of fluidity that is not inherently obvious until Si fights Lo Lieh. Lo’s performance depends on how busy he was (sometimes shooting three films at the same time) and if his limited skill could handle the choreo. You be his judge on this film.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
(1978—Hong Kong): Director Liu Chia-liang’s films deal with authentic kung fu training, skills, and virtues. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (COS) is based on the true story of Monk San De (Gordon Liu Chia-hui), one of the 10 Tigers of Shaolin from Jiu Lian Temple. It’s fitting that San De’s name means “Three Virtues.” Gordon told me Liu cast him as San De, because Liu saw him as a good student, obedient, and had a good attitude; three virtues. Gordon also said when he and Liu were returning home after shooting Challenge of the Masters (1976), Liu observed how a waterfall hit a round rock and created a halo above the rock, representing a bald monk training in the rain; it inspired the film’s opening.
This was an important film in martial arts cinema history because it was the first to open the doors to the secret ancient training methods of Shaolin. Prior to San De’s arrival, the temple had 35 chambers, each representing a spiritual, mental, or physical form of training. The story focuses on student Liu Yu-de who escapes Manchu execution and seeks asylum in Jiu Lian hoping to learn Shaolin kung fu. Through hard training we witness how Yu-de becomes San De, who by his desire to teach Shaolin kung fu to the laypeople, creates the 36th chamber.
Liu’s fights use authentic kung fu skills and real weighted weapons to add to the combat’s feel and reality. In films starring Liu, he rarely kicks and if so, they’re low. COS shows how San De invents the 3-section staff, yet the Song dynasty’s first emperor, Chao Hong-yin, invented the weapon in 360 A.D. Gordon added the bamboo-water scene took two weeks to complete and by then he learned how to ski across the water as the film depicts.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow
(1978—Hong Kong): Directed by Yuen Woo-ping and starring Jackie Chan, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (SES) was the progenitor to Suexploitation via Woo-ping’s dad’s Beggar Bai character. SES features Hwang Jang-On as eagle claw assassin Shang out to kill all snake stylists, his next target being an old snake master who unbeknownst to Shang, disguises himself as beggar Bai. Meanwhile, Orphan Chien Fu (Chan), a poorly treated kung fu school janitor/dishwasher who’s the whipping boy for smaller students eager to boost their egos, tries to bravely protect Bai from street punks. Using a heart-warming unique piece of choreography, Bai sneakily helps Chien defeat the thugs. Chien befriends Bai, takes him back to the kung fu school, insists he sleeps on his bed, and feeds and takes care of him. After a day of being a human punching bag, the downtrodden Chien lights up when Bai does juggling tricks with a bowl and challenges Chien to take the bowl away. Chien’s childlike wonder and innocence endeared Chinese audiences, showing that in a cruel world there was always hope. Chan infused this country bumpkin sensibility trait into all his other film characters since. Hope grows as Bai teaches Chien snake fist to fight back. The training bits are an integral part of Chien’s coming of age and his friendship with Bai; the evolution of faith in learning kung fu.
One day as Chien is fighting back, Shang sees the snake style and proves to Chien that he’s Bai’s friend by defeating Chien using snake fist. Though telling Shang where Bai is, Chien is bothered by how easily Shang defeats him. After Chien watches his pet cat kill a cobra, he creates a new form of kung fu, snake fist combo cat paw. And not a moment too soon because just as Shang is about to kill Bai, Chien arrives with his new snake-cat skills to overshadow Shang. This is Chan’s first important film as each fight reveals Chan’s kung fu know how, athleticism and introduces a landmark new style of rhythmic-bobbing fight choreography that was copycatted repeatedly until exhaustion.
Big Land Flying Eagles
Big Land Flying Eagles / Tsai Yang-Ming
(1978—Taiwan): When I saw this film in 1979, and to this day, it has one of the best single fight scenes of all time, not because of the great choreography, camera work or sword skills from the actors, but the duel’s deep-seeded philosophical significance, something I’ve never seen in any film. Big Land Flying Eagles is a typical wuxia film loaded with characters, double-triple-crosses, love duets and triangles, mixed loyalties, clan rivalries, avenging villains and lots of poisonings. Fang Wei (Wang Guan-xiong) is the best swordsman in the Wu Lin world (swordmen part of Jiang Hu), the cruelest man known to mankind, Lu San, wants to kill him, and famous swordsman Du (Lin Yun) want to challenge Fang so badly that he hires Fang to assassinate Du.
As Du battles a Lui Si Ma Buddhist monk (monk for 20 years), when their swords collide amid flying sparks and loud echoing ringings, the monk’s sword spirit, a glorious ceremonious chorus of voices well up. Face intensely calm, the monk lowers his sword. Du attacks for all he’s worth, monk in a trance effortlessly blocks each attack with his sword. With their final sword clash, the force’s impact knocks Du to the ground. As Du gazes up at the monk, the monk’s head silhouettes against a bright light while dramatic smoke passes over his body. Chinese characters appear on screen saying, “While hearing the sound of the swords clashing, the Lui Si Ma monk understands Ch’an [Zen], and has received the way.” In awed reverence, Du bows on one knee saying, “Gong xi Fa Shi, ni cong jian zhong wu dao (From the sword, you have realized the way.)”. There are no clues in the film this would happen. The point is, you don’t find the way, it finds you. I cried during Du’s revelation.
The Seven Grand Masters
The Seven Grand Masters / Joseph Kuo
(1978—Hong Kong): For centuries, many kung fu styles have disappeared or dwindled because a sifu doesn’t always teach everything in case a student turns on and tries to kill the sifu, so in this way a teacher knows things a student didn’t learn. Unfortunately, if the sifu dies, so does the skill. To retire from fighting with a clear mind and accept the emperor’s accolades as being the best martial artist in Kiang Nan, Bai Mei kung fu master Shang Guan-cheng (Jack Long) must accept the challenges from seven grandmasters and defeat them. As Shang meets, greets, and beats these mostly honorable masters, a happy-go-lucky orphan, Hsiao Ying (Lee Yi-min), begs Shang to teach him. Though a wayfaring stranger encourages Hsiao’s efforts in persuasion, Shang is wary of taking on new students because when he was a student, his kung fu brother Ku betrayed their teacher and stole three pages of a book entrusted to Shang, 12 Strikes of Bai Mei.
After Hsiao saves Shang’s life, Shang becomes his sifu and teaches nine strikes of Bai Mei (three missing). Hsiao turns on Shang because he thinks Shang killed his father, yet it was Ku behind the murder plot who now wants the rest of the manual. It’s new twist on the term bookie, where taking on a new student can be a gamble. The fight choreography, kung fu actors and martial skills in Seven Grand masters are superb. Each style and weapon technique are clearly translated onto screen and the actors move and fight just as one would expect according to their styles. Jack Long has an old face and with his wig, brings life to old sifu Shang’s many years of injuries and fights. The weapon sequence between Shang and Hu Bei (Corey Yuen) is sooo smooth and the ease of beautiful transitions from weapon-to-weapon reveal both of their Beijing opera backgrounds. As many kung fu films do, when the 12 strikes of Bai Mei are used, a voice-over explains each movement.
(1978—Hong Kong): Drunken Master is a milestone movie in the kung fu film genre and one of Jackie Chan’s best films. Chan plays Chinese folk hero Huang Fei-hung not as a heroic defender of the downtrodden or a healer of the poor. Chan’s version is a cheeky, fun-loving upstart teen whose kung fu skills often inadvertently land him in trouble. Serious overtones are further distanced when characters lack the required-by-law queue hairstyle of the Ching Dynasty. Director Yuen Woo-ping casts his dad, Yuen Xiao-tian, as the legendary Su Qi-er, (Beggar Su; one of the 10 Tigers of Canton), who teaches Huang drunken fist to control his aberrant behavior. Huang resists with extreme callousness until he’s humiliatingly defeated by a Ching agent assigned to assassinate the 10 Tigers of Canton, which includes Fei-Hung’s father Huang Chi-yen.The film’s key and most impressive scene is when Chan beautifully demonstrates the spirit and distinct skills of the eight drunken immortals, mythological gods or fairies who can transfer Huang’s power into a tool used to give life or destroy evil: allegorical leader Lu Dong-bin, known for his Yellow Millet Dream and bears a sword behind his back to ward off evil; Chuan Zhong-li, who carries a fan; Cao Guo-ji, the newest of the immortals, known for his jade tablet; Iron-Crutch Li, who after being reincarnated into a crippled beggar fought with a limp; Lan Cai-he, maybe a boy or a girl and depicted as wearing one shoe; Han Xiang-zi, known for holding a flute; Elder Zhang Guo, the only chi gong master immortal; and He Xiang-gu, the only true female immortal, who carries a lotus flower and the one style Huang has difficulty with. Yuen’s Beggar Su’s gray hair, floppy hat, holey shoes, shabby clothes, and fights when drunk as a skunk caricature propagated the Suexploitation genre. Many characters popped up using similar old age makeup that made it easy for anyone to be a double.
Kung Fu vs. Yoga
Kung Fu vs. Yoga / Mang Hoi
(1979—Hong Kong): “Plenty good, plenty good.” If you’ve seen the film, you’ll get the quote. Kung vs. Yoga is one of the wackiest kung fu films out there and some of the most bizarre fights and training sequences I’ve seen. Hats off to the choreographers who made the utter weirdness of the film’s combat look possible. Tiger (Qian Yue-shing) and Wu (Alan Hsu) love kung fu and love arguing about whose kung fu dreams are more realistic. To prove he’s better, the ugly Tiger enters a street kung fu contest, beats three experts and is mortified to learn that his prize is to wed the beautiful Ting and freaks out that he’ll have to consummate the marriage. To avoid consummation her father assigns Tiger to accomplish three impossible quests: steal a secret kung fu manual from a vicious monk; obtain two jade buttons off the chest of a transvestite prostitute; and steal a rare ruby from the turban of the Indian yoga master Dal Bashir’s (Dunpar Singh).
With Wu’s help, Tiger accomplishes the first two quests. Yet as the Chinese say, the third quest is like a rat pulling a turtle, which leads to the last immaculate nine minutes of the film. This is when Wu and Tiger run into a man who can take his right leg, curl it up behind his back, put it on top of his left shoulder and kick Wu running toward him from the left side. No special effects, real physical ability. In a word, OMG!
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Nothing beats experience.
Seeing Rickson Gracie when he dominated his matches in MMA, watching Eric Knaus of the Dog Brothers when he would stick-fight an opponent to the ground or witnessing a boxer come back to win a bout after getting knocked down shows grace under pressure.
It is the ability to remain calm in the worst circumstances. The best fighters make it look simple because they have been in such situations so often.
Some martial arts teach students to use meditative techniques to enhance relaxation and increase their performance under pressure. As useful as meditation may be, if it is not combined with realism-oriented competitive drilling, it might not be able to override the emotional response you experience in a life-threatening situation.
To be continued.
About the author: Erik Petermann teaches martial arts in Cape Town, South Africa.
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