The Revival of Bare-Knuckle
An unexpected component of Wing Chun.
Most people today think of fighting systems as Asian. Some also even think of
Brazil or Israel, but most donít think of martial arts as being European or
Some have heard of Bare-Knuckle Boxing but donít equate it with other martial
arts. They really donít know how effective and brutal a street-minded European
boxer could be. In fact, Bare-Knuckle Boxing was once considered one of the most
effective empty hand systems in the Western world for self-defense.
When we think of Bare-Knuckle Boxing we envision the sport scene more than the
self-defense aspect of the system. We think of the Queensberry rules and black &
white visions of fighters who stood in a strange looking, more upright, primary
fighting stance. People today consider the system a rather antiquated form of
boxing which has grown to become a high level sport. That is exactly what it has
become; A SPORT.
There is a large gap between sport and self-defense, however. As a self-defense,
todayís boxing has lost much of its street effectiveness. The Bare knuckle
fighter of the past could handle himself quite well against any would-be
Early in the sport, men still used illegal techniques that they learned from
their own fathers and brothers or from the street. These fighters knew how to
hide illegal techniques within legal ones like the straight right hand that
would slice the opponents lips to ribbons or the eye gouge hidden within a jab.
These guys knew all the brutal, vicious, fight-terminating shots. In fact,
before rules were in place and before todayís boxing methods were birthed in the
ring, men were studying boxing as a self-defense science. The practice of
bare-knuckle boxing dates back to ancient times and was unparalleled during the
Renaissance where fencing science and human biomechanics were meticulously
applied to the system.
European bare-knuckle boxing is an almost forgotten, yet very effective street
self-defense system. It is the original form of boxing, more closely related to
ancient combat systems. It involves sophisticated self-defense using fists,
fingers, elbows, knees, feet and even the head.
Bare-Knuckle Boxing or Western boxing or what I call Long-Bridge Boxing at my
school is our indigenous fighting system and is every bit as effective as its
oriental counterparts. It also makes up a large part of our martial heritage.
The western art of boxing has also had a huge influence on most other martial
arts. One system in particular, some believe, that was greatly influenced by
Western boxing is Wing Chun. A look into Chinaís past will tell you that Chinese
practitioners had many encounters with Western boxers.
They encountered a system of fighting they hadnít seen before because they were
used to fighting people of their own stature, not the taller Europeans.
These Europeans kept their heads back, with their weight on the rear leg.
They punched straight and took small, shuffling steps, with a few low kicks or
none at all. This was totally different from the Chinese methods as they used
low horse stances, with wide, overreaching punches. Needless to say the
Europeans beat many of the kung fu fighters. This is a matter of great
controversy so we need not say that this is indisputable. What I submit to you
is that Wing Chun would be greatly improved by incorporating certain key
principles of Bare-Knuckle Boxing.
Bare-Knuckle Boxing came to our line through my Si-Gung, Karl Godwin who with
his own teacher went in-depth into the study of the roots of the worldís martial
arts. In particular those of Western fighting arts, their development and
finally, their compatibility with Wing Chun. As a result, my teacher, Bill
Graves, an early, senior student of Karl Godwin, spent much time developing and
refining his Western influenced Wing Chun. He then passed it on to me where this
innovative method has continued to blossom.
The compatibility of Wing Chun and Western boxing is nothing new however. It has
been recognized before. Bruce Lee, an early Wing Chun practitioner, found that
boxing could fit the principles of Wing Chun better than any of the Asian arts.
However, he failed to take note of the pure street aspects of the system and
incorporated some sport postures and methods.
So my early training in Wing Chun was a combination of undiluted Leung Sheung
(Yip Manís most senior student) Wing Chun as a skeleton with the Western boxing
expression. I learned the sets without alteration but when it came to sparring
and ultimately fighting it was certainly pre-sport Western boxing. The posture
was tilted back with the arms extended upon interception keeping the head away
from the opponentís fists. All of Wing Chunís concepts were in place but the
emphasis was certainly a polished Long-Bridge Boxing articulation. Back then
drawing blood was common. Bloody lips and black eyes and cheekbones were
expected. There wasnít a night that I wouldnít go home without some injury. Of
course the way I train now is much different. Itís all advanced, short range
centerline control. It is the opposite spectrum of my early training and is
considered advanced Wing Chun. Our training methods are unique to our line and I
believe it is the ďLittle IdeaĒ that Wing Chun can and should be.
But as a teacher I have come to understand the importance of retaining that
early longer range Western Long-Bridge Boxing. My experience has been that
without its influence, a three to eight year practitioner of Wing Chun is
predominantly a mid to short range fighter who finds kickers and anyone who
fights at, or just outside of, boxing range to be problematic. I say this with
all due respect not wanting to ruffle feathers, but Iíve touched hands with many
of the major linesí practitioners only to find them wanting. They could not deal
with someone who kept them out of their comfort zone. In other words, I found
that their interpretation of Wing Chun was somehow limited by tradition. It
lacked presence and innovation. There is something else that eludes many Wing
Chun practitioners and that's the anti-grappling aspects of Wing Chun which is
an essential part of my system but whoís subject I will save for another
article. I am by no means saying that Western Boxing in itself is an unabridged
system. I am simply saying that the ability to reason like our Western fathers
has greatly improved our Wing Chun.
As a teacher I feel that the most important thing I can do is to look at my
students as people I can help. I put their needs first, so teaching the
Long-Bridge aspects of Wing Chun is first. To me itís all Wing Chun but I
emphasize the Long-Bridge because of its brutal effectiveness. Its emphasis is
on destroying the attacker efficiently and quickly at a longer range than is
traditionally taught to 99% of Wing Chun practitioners. This gives a less
skilled student more time to respond with adequacy by reason of distance created
by larger footwork and additional arm extension. The footwork is not different
than Wing Chun, just larger. Much of the training is efficient interception,
footwork and straight, leg-powered punches with simultaneous deflection. Keeping
your head away from the action and greater mobility is key. After they are
proficient they go into what we call mid-range (where most Wing Chun lives) and
then at higher levels to short-bridge or very close quarters training.
Innovation is a concept that we value, so as a system we view Wing Chun as
complete. That means that it works against boxers, kickers and grapplers, guns,
edged weapons and blunt instruments. I was not looking for Western Boxing when I
found my teacher but it was a pleasant surprise. One that I value greatly to
this day. We possess not only the skills of the fathers of Wing Chun but also
that of our Western fathers. To quote my Si-Gung, ďThe principles of both arts
combined, form the basis for a more scientific fighting method. The assimilation
of Western physics, philosophy, and other disciplines into the already effective
Chinese Wing Chun creates the potential to develop all of the physical and
psychological attributes of an individual. This combination of East and West
would allow Yip Man to be joined by Da Vinci, Vesalius, and other great thinkers
as the builders of the ultimate pugilistic system.ď In other words, there is
room for tradition but innovation should rule the day.
Although Bare-Knuckle Boxing is almost gone in the United States, it is still a
vital part of our training. More importantly, there is the idea of ownership of
our fighting system. The idea that Wing Chun serves us and not the other way
around. The tendency is to cry, ďHeresy!Ē, but the proof is there for all to
see. If you canít deal with various types of fighters and you get grappled down
and knocked out by a powerful right hand, then your martial art is useless. If
your Wing Chun canít deal with all comers then you should question it. I donít
mean change it. I donít mean alter the sets in any way, although some of you
have. I mean if you find a place of deficiency in your system then alter your
training methods and your manner of interpretation of the sets. We have not
altered the sets passed on to us, but certainly the training methods are up to
date and answer ancient-to-modern martial questions. This has created a seamless
fighting system whether armed or empty-handed.
A renaissance of Bare-Knuckle Boxing has taken place in our school and I intend
to conserve and develop it. This vital component of our Wing Chun has allowed us
to better appreciate Bruce Leeís efforts to incorporate fencing and Western
Boxing into his system. Tradition is good but if it begins to make any part of
the system ineffective then its got to take a back seat to well thought-out
training. I think thatís what Bruce Lee meant more than anything in his pursuit
of expression in martial arts. Not the technique of the minute or the
jack-of-all-trades mentality that is so prevalent in JKD today, but the concepts
of more effective training and the idea of a complete fighting system. This
unexpected component within our line and the mentality behind it, has
unequivocally paved the way to a Wing Chun that has come-of-age.
Centerline Academy of Martial Arts
Yip Man ->
Leung Sheung ->
Kenneth Chung ->
Ben Der ->
Ken Werner ->
Karl Godwin ->
Bill Graves ->
About the Author:
Armando Sainz has been involved in martial arts since 1979. He
is the owner and chief instructor of Centerline Academy of Martial Arts and
provides instruction for adults and adolescents in Wing Chun Kung Fu in the
Jacksonville, Florida and Beaches area.
He is the most senior student of Sifu Bill Graves and seventh-generation Sifu in
a line of senior students from Yip Man (Bruce Lee's teacher).
Armando is also skilled in Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Kung, Dragon PaGua
Chang, the classic Shantung weapons of China, Ju Jitsu, Western Boxing, Tae Kwon
Do, Filipino weapons fighting and Tang Soo Do.
Armando has had the privilege of training many Military Personal and Civilian
Law Enforcement including Military Police, State and Local Police and FBI.
Copyright (c) 2006 the Wing Chun Archive and
Armando Sainz 12/30/06