Antonio “The Brooklyn Monk” Graceffo is an American author, adventure traveler, martial artist, fighter, and academic, who dedicated his life to exploring and unpacking eastern philosophies, cultures, and techniques, especially how they relate to martial arts and fighting. He is one of the few Americans who lived inside a Shaolin Temple to study the art of Wu-Shu up close. Over the last 15 years he travelled to almost all asian countries to learn their traditional martial arts and document them in detail. He wrote 8 books and over 40 papers on eastern martial arts, culture, and economy. He is especially known for being the first foreigner to learn the lost traditional Cambodian martial art Bokator, which was believed to be extinct after the communist revolution in Cambodia. The Brooklyn Monk travelled to Cambodia to find the last masters of Bokator. This journey has been documented by History Channel and on his Youtube Channel.
I talk with him about his travels, his time in the Shaolin Temple, his best and worst moments, the clashes of culture, differences in training philosophies, about his fighting style, and of course about his adventure into Cambodia to re-discover Bokator.
We will find out in this episode :
- why he believes Western Boxing is the best fighting style in the world
- why asians are great martial artists, but terrible fighters
- how Shaolin Monks use video analysis
- what “discipline” means across the globe
- what elements of the Cambodian fighting style Bokator could be useful in Mixed Martial Arts.
You can find Antonios YouTube Channel HERE
You can find his Twitter HERE
Gerrit Keferstein: Hi! What’s up! Thanks for tuning in to The Order & Kaos of Human Potential. I’m Gerrit Keferstein and today I’m here with Antonio ‘The Brooklyn Monk’ Graceffo. As his name indicates, he’s originally from Brooklyn but currently lives in China. He’s a mixed martial artist, a student of the game and a professor of economics. And what I mean by saying he’s a student of the game is he dedicated his life in the past, at least, 15 years to travelling around the world and learning, studying and documenting martial arts. And today he’s going to share some of those great stories that he wrote eight books on that you can all find on Amazon and some of those great stories are about him living in a Shaolin temple, he’s actually done that twice and he’s lived there for many, many months and we talked about him learning different styles off martial arts around the world from Cambodia to Taiwan to Thailand to China and India. We talk about differences in training philosophies and how they relate to differences in culture ultimately and religion. Also, that’s one of the most amazing stories is he’s going to tell us how he went to Cambodia to find the lost and forgotten art of Bokator. There was only one master left that taught the martial art of Bokator and he was dedicated to find him and he actually he wound up finding him and he wrote books about it. He basically brought the art back to life and he did documentaries with Discovery Channel on that and it’s just an amazing story and he’s going to share that with us today.
I messed up with the sound actually. I turned down my microphone way too low. So, it’s really, really hard to understand what I’m saying during the conversation. I hope you forgive me and I promise to do better next time but I hope you enjoy the conversation with Antonio ‘The Brooklyn Monk’ Graceffo.
Antonio, you were living in the United States. You were successfully working at Wall Street. What made you make the decision to move out in the world and study martial arts.
Antonio: When I was in the military, I boxed, and when I left the military, I went through one year where I was not in the military and I was really kind of lost and I just did a lot of boxing, a lot of fighting and I was just like concussed like all the time. So, I was fighting two to three times a week. I would put ice in a bowl. My bed was on the floor. I put ice in a bowl at the end of the bed and I’d put my face in it, lay on the bed, put my face in the bowl of ice. I mean, it was nuts. And I was just fighting all the time and I think I was looking for something. And I used to dream. I remember when I was in the military I’d just lay in bed and had some dream about like going around the world learning martial arts and I remember in my head trying to put together what would be the right combination. This is pre-UFC. So, nobody knew. I was like “Well, I guess, I just got to learn how to kick, end up going to Korea or something.” I mean, I always wanted to live in a Shaolin temple, probably needed to learn how to wrestle and I remember just putting this odd mystic stuff together in my head. Then I stopped doing martial arts when I was at university. And then I started making good money. In my first couple of years working in finance I had no money and then finally when I started making good money on Wall Street, then I started using that money to start doing martial arts again. And then UFC had come out, I was watching UFC videos and I was taking Muay Thai, tried a couple of Jujitsu lessons but I didn’t like it at that time. And then 9/11 happened and when 9/11 happened, when you think you’re going to die, when you think it’s all over and you think about this …
Gerrit Keferstein: You were in New York at that time?
Antonio: Yeah, I was in New York City. I was in Manhattan. So, I really thought that I was going to die. And when that happens, one of the many things that goes through your head. Obviously, I wished I was with my family. That was number one. I wanted to see them before I died. And number two, I thought “I’ve had a lot of dreams, things I wanted to do and I had money. Why didn’t I do them?” I just put them off to like work more or to do something. So, one of the things since I was a little kid was I wanted to live in a Shaolin temple. And we used to watch the only non-karate thing that ever existed, right? So, there were the Bruce Lee movies but he died in 1973 and only one of his movies was actually a Hollywood, The Enter The Dragon it was called in the United States. I think it was called The Way Of The Dragon maybe in another country but that was the only one.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s the one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
Antonio: No, that’s Game of Death. The one where he goes to the island and he has to fight on this island. That’s the only one that’s Hollywood. And so, other than that there was nothing that was not called karate and there’s very little martial arts stuff anyway but it was karate, it was Chuck Norris but there was a TV show. Right after Bruce Lee died like a year later, I think, in ’73 – ’74 a TV show started called Kung Fu starring David Carradine about a boy who’s half Chinese half American who grows up in a Shaolin temple and I grew up watching that. And my first martial arts teacher was also obsessed with that show and he’s talked about it all the time. And then when I was taking martial arts, that’s when cable first came and then that show was on cable. So, I got to watch it again as like a teenager. So, that just stuck with me and I “Ah, I’ll go to the Shaolin temple, live in a Shaolin temple.” So, after 9/11 I decided I wanted to go to the Shaolin temple. So, I thought about it and at that time in 2001 it wasn’t very easy to just get on a plane in New York and fly to China. That wasn’t dead easy to do to inform yourself about pieces and how are you going to live and how are you going to pay. I really didn’t know any of that. So, I don’t know how I landed in Taiwan. I was Googling around online and I found Taiwan.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you just go or did you…?
Antonio: So the plan was I went to Taiwan, that was a compromise, I went to Taiwan, I taught in a school, I started studying martial arts in Taiwan, I started learning Chinese. And then from Taiwan I made my jump to China.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, basically you just packed your stuff. You didn’t take months of planning.
Antonio: No, I left in October. Yeah, I left in October. I remember celebrating Halloween with my students in Taiwan. No, I just left straight away, straight after that.
That’s a good question. I don’t remember exactly what day I made the decision. That was September 11 and already in October I was gone. So, it was quick. It was really quick. It was quick really. And with the plan I ended back online that I was going to live in a Shaolin temple but I want to Taiwan first and then from Taiwan I went to Shaolin temple.
Gerrit Keferstein: How was that? How did you get in?
Antonio: First, it was crazy. First time was like a movie. First time I just flew. Because internet was so new for everybody, I didn’t know much about the internet. Also, I worked in finance. We weren’t allowed to have internet. So, I was even behind what little internet there was. Even then I didn’t know like I’d never sent email or anything before. I didn’t know what a search engine was. So, I learned all this stuff. So, I’m in Taiwan, Googling around and I find out that Shaolin temple is in a place called Dong Fung village in Hainan in Tong Shan mountain. So, when I left, all I really did was I went to a travel agent in Taiwan and brought a ticket to what’s the closet airport to Dong Fung village.
Gerrit Keferstein: How much was all your belongings? Did you have an apartment still in New York?
Antonio: Yeah. So, I moved everything out of my apartment, moved out everything and put in my sister’s basement little by little over the years. She’s asked me if she could throw some of it away and I said yes. Yeah, and then I took a lot of crazy amount of stuff to Taiwan with me and then I left all that stuff. So, by the time I get to Shaolin, I just had two.
Gerrit Keferstein: Two bags. And you flew to the closest airport?
Antonio: Yeah. And at that time like there were no taxis. It’s 2000 Won in China. First of all, parts of the country were using coins that parts of the country weren’t. I mean that’s how different things were back then. There were ATMs but they were only on Chinese networks like there were no international network, at least not where I was. So, I come out of the airport, there’s two taxis only and one of them, I tell him where and he went “Okay, okay, okay.” He takes me outside the airport and he stops and there’s like a hundred taxis out there. So, it turns out there were only two that had a license to go into the airport. So, he just drove me to the edge of the airport and then I paid the other guy and then they split the money or something. So, this guy takes me to the Shaolin temple. It’s all in that book there. It had taken really long but I get there and it’s like night time and I went knocking on the door. It’s exactly like in the movie except it didn’t look anything …
Gerrit Keferstein: Yeah, imagine you knock on the door and they say “You two, go fuck off” and you just stand there. You stand another day there. Next day you come and they say “Go away.” Stand another day. And maybe after 10, 12 days of just standing in front, they let you in.
Antonio: That’s what happened on the TV show.
Gerrit Keferstein: Yeah.
Antonio: It was sort of like that. It was like I knock on the door and they are “You can stay” and opened the gate and they just looked at me and they were like “What the hell? What is this foreigner doing here?” like “This is so weird.” So, they let me in. And I speak Chinese. So, they just let me in. And then I went up sleeping with the monks for like the first week, stayed in the monk quarters and then finally the monk said “Oh, do you like living here?” I said “Yeah.” He said “Would you like training here?” I said “Yeah.” He said “You have to pay me.” I said “Home much?” He wanted some insane amount of money, crazy amount of money. I don’t remember what it was, thousands and thousands, like something crazy. Although I was born in America, I’m still very Italian in a lot of ways.
Gerrit Keferstein: What would they use that money for? Use in the monastery?
Antonio: Prostitutes, I don’t know. Gambling? I don’t know.
Gerrit Keferstein: Don’t destroy the romantic [inaudible].
Antonio: Well, the monks inside the temple, there were 60 months but only 12 or 14 of them were Buddhist monks. Rest were Shaolin monks.
Gerrit Keferstein: What’s the difference?
Antonio: So, the religious monks, we call religious monks because they stayed and just practiced religion. They might also do Tai Chi or something.
Gerrit Keferstein: They were religious monks.
Antonio: Yeah I actually should have said religious monks, not Buddhist monks.
Gerrit Keferstein: Buddhist monks were more for the spiritual.
Antonio: Yeah, yeah but the Kung Fu monks will generally be communists as well. Kung Fu monks with their high ranking they have to be generally be members of the communist party. They’ll have to be otherwise they couldn’t rise.
Gerrit Keferstein: It’s more like it’s an island. Spiritually, economically, politically it’s a monastery. It’s a Shaolin monastery where they do their thing, they have their garden, they do their martial arts, they do their praying.
Antonio: So, you’ve preceded all of that description with, I imagine. I believe that’s how you imagine. No, it’s not. No. I mean, it’s all backed by the government. I mean, all religions in China, the head priest or the monk or whatever is appointed by the government. And they can only preach a government pre-prescribed doctrine. So, like the Catholic priests in China are not allowed to recognize the pope in Rome. So, by definition, how is that a Catholic priest. So, Shaolin temple is like that. So, the monks would be either party members or certainly supportive of the party. The warrior monks, the martial arts monks. The Buddhist monks may not be and that may be what the schism is that they want to follow some type of religious doctrine that differs from what the party is telling them. So, they’re allowed to exist but they don’t really have any power or authority.
Gerrit Keferstein: How’s life there?
Antonio: So, when I was there and this guy wanted all this money, right? And I said “No.” So, I was saying like “I’m very Italian and one of the things is that if the price you quote me is too far away from what I want to pay, I won’t even negotiate. So, I don’t see any point. If you want 10,000 dollars and I’m willing to pay you 200, there’s no point even having a discussion.” So, I just said “No, sorry. I can’t do that.” So, then he went and found another monk that was willing to take me for 200 dollars a month and I said “Okay, I’ll do that.” So, he moved me to a school that was just outside the gate. So, during the day I’d be inside the temple training with the monk and then at night I’d sleep in the school outside. It was just disgusting, 60 people in a house with no running water, 60 people in a house with no running water and it was just filthy. And we took showers once a week. Maybe we’d go to town and shower. And we trained three times. In that school we trained three or four times a day and then you’d sleep in your clothes like you just train in those clothes.
Gerrit Keferstein: That was daily routine where you had to wake up at a certain time?
Antonio: Yeah, yeah, you wake up in the morning. So, I had two training brothers. The three of us trained inside the temple and everybody else didn’t. So, me and [inaudible], we would get up in the morning, we’d go to the temple.
Gerrit Keferstein: What time did you wake up?
Antonio: Early, early, early. We may have started training at like 5:30 or something.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you have to do service?
Antonio: Yes, we three did. So, Niao Hai and Miao Ping were my two brothers and Niao Hai was more into the Kung Fu. Miao Ping was like really into Buddhism. So, the three of us, we’d go to the temple, we’d have to do certain prayers and then they have these like stupas like small shrines inside of the temple grounds and apparently each one, I guess, belongs like one of the monks. It’s like his responsibility. So, there’s one that was associated with my monk. So, the three of us would have to work there and if tourists came, we would do their prayers for them or help them with the incense or whatever and yeah, I just [inaudible] the money [inaudible]. And then because I was a foreigner in there, obviously people would always come and take pictures and whatever but anyway, we’d pray in the morning.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you shave your head.
Antonio: Yeah shaved my head, prayed in the morning, training, lunch, rest, training.
Gerrit Keferstein: What was training like?
Antonio: So, when I went the first time, I still had a mystical thing going on but I still believed that I was going to uncover something. There’s something in Asia that we don’t know in the West. Now, I don’t believe that. And I thought there was going to be something special and magical I was going to learn. So, I did everything they told me. The training was a lot of Wushu Taolu like the demonstration forms like you may have seen the other night, demonstration forms, leaping, stretching and all these things, prayer and all this other meditation.
Gerrit Keferstein: How long was practice in the morning?
Antonio: I think we probably trained about a total of about 5 hours a day in that school.
Gerrit Keferstein: And was there an instructor that told you exactly what to do?
Antonio: Most of them usually teach. Most generally they’ll check in on the school like a couple times a day to make sure it’s not on fire but other than that there’s like trainers, coaches that are promoted from among the students. And they carry sticks and they give everybody training they’ll hit you with sticks and stuff. And that was something, they went down the line, hit everybody with a stick and he got to me and I said “Listen, if you hit me with that stick, I’m going to kill you.” And he laughed. He laughed. It was a nervous laugh and I said “I’m not joking.” And he knew. I said “Do not hit me with the stick” but, yeah, those guys are pretty awful. Every monk I’ve ever known as an adult says to me “Yeah, when I was a student, the coaches used to steal all our pocket money” like that was just like a really common thing. As a kid you get pocket money from home. So, the coaches would come in and they’ll beat them with the sticks and take their money. It was just like really common. It just upset, really upset me. And they would just beat these kids. I mean, just horrible.
Gerrit Keferstein: You’re really destroying it for me, just destroying the romantic picture I have when I think of a Shaolin temple. I mean, it seems like it’s just most evil parts of human nature are still there.
Antonio: Yeah, and then because of UFC and because I always was fighting and I wanted to do MMA but I’d always been fighting, so when I was there, I would fight with those guys and I just found out straight away they just don’t know how to fight. You can’t grow up not fighting but somehow you know how to fight. It just doesn’t make any sense. It’d be like you studied law and then someone asked you to perform a medical operation.
Gerrit Keferstein: All the practice you did was more of forms, a lot of physical conditioning.
Antonio: A lot of physical conditioning and stretching.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you meditate? You did a course to meditate?
Antonio: Yeah, yeah.
Gerrit Keferstein: How many hours a day was that?
Antonio: For three of us it was a bit more than for the other students because we’d go in the temple. So, probably an hour or more of meditation and prayer more than an hour a day.
Gerrit Keferstein: But no real fighting.
Antonio: No. So, they would do Sanda a few times a week. So, I would fight with the teacher.
Gerrit Keferstein: You’re just the one fighting?
Antonio: Well, yeah. I mean, Sanda is more than fighting. Even amateur Sanda, you can hit with combinations. They don’t separate you every time you score a point.
Gerrit Keferstein: We did it two days ago and we used sparring and Sanda and we wearing sparring pads.
Antonio: That’s right.
Gerrit Keferstein: Would you wear sparring pads in a free fight with no protection?
Antonio: So, in Shaolin temple, I seem to remember that we didn’t have all the equipment and they certainly didn’t have my size. So, I didn’t wear. And I normally don’t wear it. At the university I don’t wear it but that night when I fought with the teacher, I just thought “I don’t know him and I don’t know how hard he’s going to kick me and stuff. So, I did wear it. In professional Sanda we don’t wear it. So, when I’ve professional fights, we don’t wear it obviously but it’s just part of the game. You wear this protective gear but it’s not point fighting in the sense of like Karate or Taekwondo where you hit one time and they separate. I mean you can hit with combinations and keep kicking and punching and kicking and punching till the round is over. They don’t separate you, yeah. And of course when you take them down, then there’s kind of a free flow because they separate you and restart you but, yeah. So, to me, I mean that’s a pretty good compromise between MMA and Taekwondo. It’s somewhere on the spectrum. So, I used to fight with the Sanda teacher there.
Gerrit Keferstein: At the Shaolin time why did they practice so much fighting without really fighting?
Antonio: So, inside of Wushu, it’s a whole philosophy and in the wrestlers dissertation book I talk about this a little bit and probably in the next book it’ll be a lot more but there’s a whole philosophy that Wushu is divided into several components. So, you’ve got Wushu Taolu which is the performance. You’ve got Sanda which the fighting. You’ve got Tai Chi. And then you could also say Tai Chi and Qui Gong go together or not, you separate them out.
Gerrit Keferstein: What is Wushu exactly? Is that a philosophy, martial art?
Antonio: The word ‘Wu’ means combat. ‘Wuchi’ is weapon. And ‘shu’ means art. So, it means combat art. Yeah, basically it means combat art. And they usually translate it as meaning martial art but it has a lot more implications but because of the character system in Chinese, like the word for art is really the same word for any other kind of art, painting. And ‘Wu’ is something that we always use for sort of combat things.
Gerrit Keferstein: Where does Shaolin fit in there?
Antonio: Shaolin is just the name of the location.
Gerrit Keferstein: It’s just the location.
Antonio: Yeah. So, Shaolin is the pine forest basically is what it means and it’s just that place was called Shaolin.
Gerrit Keferstein: They practiced Wushu styles.
Antonio: Yeah, except that historically they practiced Kung Fu. Although the words ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘Wushu’ could be used interchangeably, a lot of times today ‘Wushu’ means post-1949, post-communist martial art in China because it’s following a government-approved syllabus. So, there’s a lot Shaolins outside of China who claim that because they’re following the government syllabus in China, these other arts were lost but there’s a guy in Dresden, one guy, who’s lucky enough to be the only person who has that and he can sell it to you or he’s in Ohio. There’s those common stories if like fake martial arts and they all have this very similar story – “My master’s family were the last people who knew that and the government killed the whole family but my master escaped through Hong Kong and Taiwan and then made it to Dresden” or “made it to Ohio” or “made it to England” or wherever it is. And you go online and Google and you can find like a thousand of these guys around the world.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s been a recurring theme of Wushu though.
Antonio: Yeah, yeah, if you ever want to make up a martial art, that’s the back story but probably it’s true today. I mean, there’s some truth though. So, a lot of people use Kung Fu to mean sort of the pre-1949 and Wushu to mean post-1949 but there’s different definitions. So, inside of Shaolin temple you’ve got Wushu and Sanda Majors like people who study just that. They’re separated. So, there are some schools that are dedicated to only Sanda and that’s all they do. Everybody has a background in both but you have people that 90% of their time do Sanda. You’ve got other people that 90% of the time they’re doing Taolu, which is most people. There’s one Sanda school inside of Shaolin that has 8000 students and it’s basically they’re doing Sanda, 80% of their training is Sanda.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, you practiced five hours a day. How long did you stay there?
Antonio: First time I stayed about three months. I was going to stay longer. I actually considered staying a year but one, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to like. When I went back again in 2013, I liked it so much more.
Gerrit Keferstein: In the same temple?
Antonio: No, it was different school. I mean, it’s Shaolin temple but it was a different school and different master. Everything changed. When I went back in 2013, everybody spoke Mandarin. When I lived there in 2003, they spoke Shaolin dialect. Shaolin temple had its own dialect because it was a mix of all the dialects of China with a very Beijing accent.
Gerrit Keferstein: Let’s stick to the first time. First time you lived for a few months? What would you say something that you took away that was really positive?
Gerrit Keferstein: It sounds like it was the experience … and also you just destroyed my romantic image.
Antonio: Yeah, sorry.
Gerrit Keferstein: Don’t hit me with reality. At that time you got hit with reality too.
Antonio: Yeah. I mean the positive thing was it was the fulfillment of my dreams. So, it was okay. I mean, something you never really thought was ever going to happen and [inaudible] every day. I remember waking up and going “Oh my God, I’m waking up at the Shaolin temple. I’m eating steamed buns at the Shaolin temple. I’m having my hair cut at the Shaolin temple barber.” So, that kind of stuff was really cool about it. And my Chinese improved a lot. And then I got to see what Wushu was about.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you have any physical changes where you’d say “Wow, this is a impressive” or any emotional change.
Antonio: The big thing is it helped me narrow it down, it really helped me focus because then I knew I didn’t want to do Wushu Taolu and I didn’t want to do Tai Chi. So, when I first came, I was crazy. I remember I was in Taiwan, I was driving my motorcycle, I saw some kids walking with swords and I went zipping like I ran across eight lanes of traffic to talk to them “Where are you training? What is this martial art? What is that sword? I want to do that.” And there was a Chikwondo instructor in Taiwan. I would run into him and Tai Chi people in the park. You know what I’m saying? I was going crazy with anything about martial arts. So, that was kind of my first step of like narrowing down to what I wanted to do.
Gerrit Keferstein: Right. So, second time, what was better this time?
Antonio: Second time was so much better. Everything had changed. The kids all spoke Mandarin, everybody spoke Mandarin, spoke Beijing Mandarin, made it a lot easier to communicate. I mean, when I was here the first time, there were kids that translated for other kids. There were students who no one could talk to because they spoke some crazy dialect and then somebody else would have to translate for them because Mandarin, even in 2003, outside of Beijing, Mandarin was not … It was the national language, it was being forced, it was taught in schools but people weren’t speaking it on the streets. And that changed. That made it a lot easier. Every kid in that temple had a smartphone, 2013. Every kid had a smartphone and in fact they had homework. So, in addition to forms that they were learning, everybody learned together. The other thing was that the monk lived in the house with us. That was another thing. He lived in the house with us. That made everything much better. And he was very nice. He was a very nice monk. No, they still beat the kids horribly but he would teach everybody this form and then he would assign them individual homework forms and he would tell them the links online where they could watch them and they would study on their own by watching the forms on their phones. And then he would test them on them.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, you e-learning in a Shaolin temple.
Antonio: Yeah, e-learning, blended learning. It’s even more advanced. Yeah, it was really cool. It was just amazing. And a lot of the weapons, forms and things like they would watch them online and then he would test them on them.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s cool.
Antonio: Yeah that was cool. And we trained a lot more. We trained like five times a day. So, everything changed. In 2013 I definitely had a feeling but part of it was my Chinese was better and part of it was I was going in with a much more closed mind which is probably a good thing because I wasn’t looking for the spiritual crazy thing, right? So, because I went in there like that, I was a lot more factual but I just had the feeling in 2013 that people knew why they were there and they knew what they were doing. For one thing, when I was there the first time …
Gerrit Keferstein: And why were they there?
Antonio: They were there because if they graduated Shaolin temple and they got their certificate, they could go to the police, they could go to the army or navy, qualify for sports universities.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, it was like a good private school.
Antonio: It’s just like a private school. So, these were parents who had enough money to pay for this but the parents were all uneducated and probably didn’t think in terms of “Well, I’ll send my kid to an international school and have them learn math.”
Gerrit Keferstein: Do you think all or the most Shaolin temples in China are this way now?
Gerrit Keferstein: Are they more like private schools.
Antonio: Yeah, yeah, and they’re all, I mean, these Wu Shaolins are like martial arts school, school meaning like a kindergarten through 12th grade kind of school. They’re all over China.
Gerrit Keferstein: You know parents in Europe, when you see your kid, 12-year-old, hanging out with a smart phone all the time, playing video games and you think “Well, I got to send this kid to somewhere away learning sports.” And you think it’s going to the Shaolin temple is probably not the solution?
Antonio: No. And there are these schools are all China. There are actually so many that they can’t be counted. There’s actually many of them all over China but the kids knew why they were there a lot more because when I was here the first time, there were guys in their 20s that were still hanging around, some guys were still living there and some were just hanging around. And I’m like “What are you doing?” They were actually a very negative influence. So, they were kind of hanging around.
Gerrit Keferstein: Were they not training?
Antonio: No, they were just hanging around. They kind of like we graduated and they were just like hanging around and it’s like “Why don’t you go back to your village?” and they’re like “For what?”
Gerrit Keferstein: I imagine it’d be a place for discipline.
Antonio: Yeah. I mean, you have to find discipline. Chinese concepts of discipline are different than ours.
Gerrit Keferstein: Discipline is you do something now that you don’t like to get something later that you would like. So, it’s like you’re able to push yourself in the things that are not comfortable because you know they will improve you. Training is sometimes not comfortable but it will make you better.
Antonio: That’s Western concept. That’s Western concept.
Gerrit Keferstein: What’s the Eastern concept?
Antonio: Somebody told you to do it. Somebody told you to do it, so you do it; and if you don’t do it, they’ll beat you with a stick. I was in the Army for a long time and I remember a lot of people say to me “Oh, you know, my son went to the army and he learned discipline and when he gets out, you know, I think he’s going to work really hard” or whatever and I’m like “You send him to really learn discipline.” They’re like “He gets up at 5 a.m. now.” And I’m like “Yeah because somebody makes him.” “His clothes are always pressed.” – “Yeah, because somebody makes them. When there’s nobody there, tell him to get up at 5 and he’s going to go back to do what he did,” a lot of people. So, it’s all you. It’s all you. That’s my belief. I honestly believe you have your nature. If you’re a disciplined person, you’re a discipline person. If you’re not, you’re not. And I don’t know that you can do much about it
Gerrit Keferstein: Well, I’ve seen people that from the outset wouldn’t have any discipline and at some point they got involved with an activity and they get this feeling of self-efficacy. When I put work into something, it makes me feel better, it makes me improve my outcome which I haven’t done before, I’ve [inaudible] fights which I haven’t won before, just by pushing myself.
Antonio: Apply that to other areas of your life.
Gerrit Keferstein: I don’t believe too much in the concept of discipline which is just about doing stuff that’s uncomfortable. I believe more in the concept of discipline where you love, you enjoy pushing yourself out of your comfort zone because you know it’s good for you.
Antonio: Yeah but that’s also Western. That’s also very Western. Yeah, you’re right, some people definitely can improve themselves. I don’t mean to say people can’t improve themselves but let’s just say though in general that I believe it has to come from inside.
Gerrit Keferstein: Yeah just by having a teacher that hits you, yeah, it does change.
Antonio: And you maybe go the other way. The minute he’s not there, you’re sleeping until 11. So, when I was going to martial arts, when I found that martial arts school basically, then I had to figure out how to go there because it was like 12 miles from my house. My dad wouldn’t drive me. So, I had to make that happen. Every day I had to find some way to get there and some way to get home and all that. There’s a discipline in that whereas my nieces and nephews, when they joined martial art, they joined something, their parents paid a ton of money, drove them back and forth and I was wondering “Are they really learning discipline?” or like when I was in high school, I was on swim team, I used to coach organizer training and organizer competition. When I graduated high school and I wanted to continue competing, I found out “Well, I have to go do research and find out where the competitions are and apply and fill out the applications and plan and all these other things.” And I did it but I could see where that would be the end for a lot of people.
Gerrit Keferstein: I think you knew why you would do it. You saw your life and that made it easy for you to drive many miles, find a way to get there, wake up in the morning, train every day. You knew why. You knew how it would make you feel better in the long run. You knew that.
Gerrit Keferstein: And you made it to a point that in the way that the Shaolin monks hits the students with the stick, they maybe from the outside they do the same stuff but this isn’t personal too but from the inside, because they don’t see the why really, they just do it because the teacher tells them.
Antonio: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
Gerrit Keferstein: It’s a different thing.
Antonio: It’s a different thing.
Gerrit Keferstein: As soon the teacher is gone and what not…
Antonio: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And, again, it depends on the person but one of the most heartbreaking experiences I had when I was a students at the sports university, one of my friends was fighting and they asked me to go be the commentator for TV in China. So, I was commentating this fight. So, this kid comes out to me and he’s clearly a gangster in Shanghai, like a gangster like a low-level scummy person that’s a gangster with hair down to shoulders, fat, disgusting looking guy, comes up to me, he calls me by my Chinese name and I’m like “Excuse me, do I know you?” and he said “Yeah. Of course you know me. I’m so and so” and I’m like “I don’t recognize you.” And he said “Do you member Shaolin temple? I used to throw the darts that would go through the glass?” And I go “What are you doing in Shanghai?” And he said “Living.”
Gerrit Keferstein: So, that was from the outside looking in, discipline kid in Shaolin temple.
Antonio: This kid use to do these daily and they’re online actually, they’re online, I have them online. I actually filmed it. They used to do this thing where he would throw darts and they would go through a pane of glass without breaking the glass, I mean, make a hole in the glass but it wouldn’t like shatter the glass. It would go through and like pop a balloon on the other side. And just his Shaolin skills were just amazing.
Gerrit Keferstein: And that’s the story of the kid that had really strict parents and as soon as he leaves the house …
Antonio: Basically, accepted, but he’s even worse because he’s had 20 years of Shaolin training. So, what does he do? He goes to the city and becomes a thug, working for gangsters.
Gerrit Keferstein: Freedom, finally freedom. That’s amazing.
Antonio: That was unbelievable. I felt like showing him those videos and just going “This is you. I mean, look at you.”
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you stay in contact with that guy?
Antonio: No. You know what, I didn’t start using WeChat at that point. The one major regrets that I had, I didn’t start using that until like toward the end of my university. I’m so sorry about that, just [inaudible] to be in context with all these people today.
Gerrit Keferstein: We talked a little bit about sports and all this concept of discipline and translating that to sports. I was thinking about this yesterday actually. When you look at Chinese sports, they’re really successful in some of the sports and they’re really unsuccessful in some other sports. One of the sports that they’re really successful in, there’s sports that has no reaction component involved, there’s no partner that you’d have to react to. Let’s say you jump into a pool. There’s nothing you have to react to.
Antonio: You mean, diving.
Gerrit Keferstein: Diving. You know what you’re going to do, you do it and you do it perfectly. Just take the opposite, play soccer. In soccer you can’t just do it your way and the way practice it 10,000 times in the last five years. You got to do it the way that’s necessary in that moment. I have the ball and you’re my opponent who’s trying to defeat me. I can’t just go through the movements I’ve practiced the last 15 years. I have to do the correct movement at that particular millisecond that gets the pass-through. And it seems like the Chinese are not that good at these sports that need creativity, that need reactive components, that need “I see what’s happening I’m aware of it might. I perceive it and I’ll find the right solution to it.” Finding your own solution in the sport doesn’t seem to be a strength in the Chinese.
Antonio: No, no, I believe that. I know that even some of the Sanda fighters, they’re phenomenal fighters, they’re really good, they’re great but even some of them when they were getting ready to fight MMA or they wanted to fight MMA and they were asking my advice and I’m telling you things like “Well, let’s look at your opponent. Is he taller than you? Is he stronger than you? You have to do this, do that.” And they actually even told us “No coach has ever talked to me like that before.”
Gerrit Keferstein: So, no coach ever told them that you have to adjust your game to your opponent. And they’ve been practicing this for how long?
Antonio: Their whole life. That’s the only thing they’ve ever done. I mean, they went to these schools when they were 6, 7 years old, 7, 8, 9 years old. Some of my teammates, they were living in the Shaolin temple already at 9 years old.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, when you compete for so many years and you lose some fights, you must ask yourself “Why did I lose that fight?”
Antonio: Because you didn’t run enough miles. You didn’t do enough pushups. You didn’t punch the bag enough times. They would just punch the bag that many more times. And I’ve seen, it’s not just China, it’s the whole of Asia. I’m just finishing actually reading a book about Kushti. I was in India wrestling last month and I’m debating if I’m going to want to do a book on Kushti or not but there’s very few books. So, I’m reading everything. So, one of the points that he brought out was that Kushti wrestlers are phenomenal, they’re world class and yet India does terribly in the Olympics and why. And so one of the points he brought out was that the average the training method in the Akhada, in the wrestling schools, is that they come, they spar for like 45 minutes straight and that’s the main thing they do. And a strict coach will be like “You do 5000 pushups and 5000 squats.” And when people talk about their coach, they’ll be “Oh my coach is so tough. He makes me do 3000,” “Oh, my coach makes you do 2000” and that’s like the only difference was how many squats and how many pushups they were doing.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did I understand you right? This one school, 45 minutes of sparring and the other school …
Antonio: No, no, no, no, every school in India basically does 45 minutes of sparring and like thousands of pushups and thousands of squats.
Gerrit Keferstein: In sparring you have to [inaudible].
Antonio: No, no, they’re good but the point is that the training is almost the same everywhere and, again, if you lose a fight, they’re “Oh, you need to more squats. You need to do more pushups.”
Gerrit Keferstein: They don’t go out like “You lost the fight and we’ll do more sparring in a special situation where you learn to defend the takedown. You’ve been taken down so many times last fight, you got to work on defending the takedown and I’m going to throw different opponents at you that have different styles of takedown. I’m going to teach you how to jump defend all those.” They don’t do that.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s what’s wrong.
Antonio: Yeah, to the extent that I can judge because I don’t want to claim to be an expert on what goes on there, I wasn’t there that long, but from what I could see, I don’t think they do that. So, you and I have done jujitsu together and you know that, for example, because I’m a wrestler, I don’t know how to get past the feet when people are laying on their back or sitting at the beginning of the match. So, there’s guys, I’ll say to them “Listen, I’m too tired. I don’t feel like sparring but can we just practice that I try and get past your feet.” And I don’t think that they do that. I don’t think that they’re picking very specific areas in practicing there.
Gerrit Keferstein: You’re saying you probably weren’t long enough to judge there but you were long enough around the world, I mean, the last 10 years you were around the world watching different fighting styles, different school.
Antonio: They’re not doing that anywhere except in the West. The West is the only place.
Gerrit Keferstein: There’s not too many Asian people in the UFC.
Antonio: No, no. And in fact, the Asians that have ever come close to being champions or to being relevant fighters are basically it’s a bunch of Japanese, a few Koreans and then one or two Chinese have done well but nobody lasts. So, you can’t train that way. There’s a rumor, and I can’t verify this, there’s a rumor at the sports university where I graduated from the Korean wrestling team was there training with them for a week but I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. Allegedly in the friendly competition they had at the end of the week, the Koreans won every single bout or almost every bout. So, the Korean coach said to the Chinese coach “How many hours a day do your guys train?” and the Chinese coach said “Six.” And the Korean said “We train four.” And it was because they were using more modern, because being in Korea, I’m sure that they learned more from the United States, from Europe, whatever. They’re more open and they’re probably using more advanced training techniques than just “I’m going to lift that many more weights, do that many more pushups and spar that many more rounds.”
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s amazing. I’ve worked in pro sports in Germany in the last 10 years, mostly ice hockey but also some badminton and one continual theme across these sports is, especially in badminton, they look at what Malaysia does, badminton looks at what China does.
Antonio: Right, right, right, right.
Gerrit Keferstein: And ice hockey, they look at what Russia does. It’s the similar philosophy. And all ice hockey players and all these ice hockey coaches, they have the story and the story is almost similar across the board that some guy 20 years ago, his name was, some Russian or Czechoslovakian name, and he was the toughest sonofabitch ever, he was the toughest coach ever and they would take not regular hockey sticks, they would take like iron sticks which weighed like 5 kilos and they would have to practice for that for three or four hours. After that they would go out and run 400-meter laps, 20 of them, 20 of them. And then they would go up the hill and jump and jump and they’d be like “Yeah, I was in the shape of my life.” And this theme team continues and I hear those stories every time but I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that that’s the reason why those Russians are good at ice hockey. Those Russians are really good at hockey because they play the game since they are young and they play it every day. They love the game. The lakes freeze over, they go out there and just play. They’re creative. What the Russians made so good at hockey and we saw that when they played in Salt Lake City against the United States is they dance hockey.
Antonio: Right, right, right.
Gerrit Keferstein: It’s an art. It’s an art. And you don’t learn that art by just conditioning yourself.
Antonio: Right, right, right, right, right.
Gerrit Keferstein: They’re conditioned, yes, but they’re good at the art. And same with the badminton. They are very good at reading the game. They see where the thing is going before you hit it.
Antonio: Yeah. And, again, those Kushti wrestlers in India, they’ve been practically living in the Akhada, either living in it or practically living in it since they’re very, very young. And also they compete a lot which is another reason why China hasn’t done as well in the Olympics. Because China won the Olympic medal count in 2008, people are under this misconception that China does really well in the Olympics. No, actually that was the first time China has ever done well in the Olympics and then they didn’t win the medal count.
Gerrit Keferstein: 1.3 billion people to choose from.
Antonio: Well, you know what, you say that but that’s actually part of what I write about is that China, yes, they have 1.3 billion people to choose from and people always criticize my country, they go “Of course, you have nice medal count. You have the biggest population.” And I’m like “Really? India’s bigger than US. Yeah, India is bigger than us. Why isn’t there medal count bigger.”
Gerrit Keferstein: It’s 90 million? You’re doing pretty good.
Antonio: Oh yeah, exactly. And if the medal count were to line up by population, Indonesia would have high … So, that’s not the answer.
Gerrit Keferstein: Bottom of the tier.
Antonio: Right. What I’m saying is if the medal count followed population, China should be number one, India number two, US number three, Indonesia would be like number six or whatever and that’s just not the case. So, that’s not the answer. It has nothing to do with the size of population. In the US, we have scholastic sports, right? So, you start already in elementary school on a team training five days a week, going to competitions and that starts in elementary, starts in junior high and by high school you have to qualify for the team or you can’t be on the team. So, by the time you finish high school, then you qualify for the university team. That’s where the best athletes are. And then from that you choose for the Olympics. So, for the US, wrestling is the eighth most popular sport for boys. There’s a quarter of a million wrestlers in the United States, a quarter of a million. And from there you have to choose 20 for the Olympic team. Okay, that’s the number. It has nothing do with the population size. China has population of 1.3 billion but they have a thousand wrestlers in the whole country, a thousand wrestlers and they’ve to choose 20 from the Olympic team. And Germany is one of those countries like Canada and Australia winning a lot. For the size of that country, they’re phenomenal, but even in Germany you have sports schools but you don’t have scholastic sport. We’re the only country in the world that has that where we’re actually utilizing our whole population.
Gerrit Keferstein: For most sports, except soccer, we have this problem, we just don’t have enough athletes.
Antonio: Right, right.
Gerrit Keferstein: Now, there’s just not enough people that practice the sport. So, Germans have to be really creative – “How do we make those few people very good?”
Antonio: Right, right, right.
Gerrit Keferstein: And we did that with sports like judo. We did that with sports like, okay, in ice hockey for the size, we’re okay at basketball for the size, we’re okay with many other sports like tennis, table tennis, the ski sports. We only got one part of Germany where you can actually ski and we’re pretty good at it across the world.
Antonio: No, Germany is impressive but you guys also got a lot of research that suddenly became available in 1991. That’s amazing. I was reading some papers that were published on a research that was done by the East Germany. Unbelievable. East Germany, in my opinion, and possibly we could prove it mathematically, East Germany is the single most successful country ever in the Olympics if you compare medal counts to population.
Gerrit Keferstein: You can take East Germany into account. And I did a seminar on this like four, five years ago. You can take East Germany into account. That’s true. Did you say East Germany was a part of Germany?
Antonio: Oh, no, no, no, if you take East Germany just as a country, it’s still, I think, to this day, like the number five or six or something. It only existed for 50 years.
Gerrit Keferstein: There are many other things going on but we got German Sports Science up to a certain point, I wouldn’t say it’s true now but up to a certain point German Sports Science was definitely the best in the world.
Antonio: Yeah, Yeah. No, no, no, certainly it’s world class. Germany, yeah.
Gerrit Keferstein: The other thing, when you look at the United States, what you guys do is just what you described, getting people to move at an early age, getting many people to move and then put in systems where you find the best guys where it’s like “Let’s create 10 million people that play American Football and let’s choose at certain levels.” I played American Football in college. I played D3 in Wisconsin and D3 is like third league. It’s nothing compared to D1 but still at our school we had 265 kids coming on first day of camp and then it took two weeks and within two weeks we had to cut down to a hundred.
Antonio: And they qualified for the camp which means…
Gerrit Keferstein: Qualifying for the camp is big.
Antonio: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you actually started with tens of thousands that you never met. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Gerrit Keferstein: Never there.
Antonio: You even got to 265. You started with tens of thousands.
Gerrit Keferstein: And within two weeks we got to a hundred and then we got down to 60 which are allowed to play at the games. For every single player that’s up in the big leagues, there’s so many that’s just not there. And [inaudible] guys do really well on their sports level but for individual it’s …
Antonio: Football, I don’t have a number but for American Baseball it’s 15 million people playing on teams of the United States, 15 million, counting baseball and softball because girls play softball. I mean, the numbers are staggering. When you look at swimming … because everything’s more popular than wrestling. Wrestling’s number eight. So, you look at American Football, it’s the biggest. And I don’t remember the number off hand but that’s why we win in the Olympics and it’s one of the many reasons that China is not going to win in the Olympics. The Chinese use the Soviet sports school system. So, you identify people early based on just their natural, how they were born, long arms, long legs, heavy, whatever it is, you pick them out as children, you put them in a full-time sports training. They don’t even learn to like read and write. And then you select your Olympic team from that. And that’s a Soviet system and China has adopted it.
Gerrit Keferstein: A friend of mine worked in Chinese diving, Olympic diving and you hear those stories and I never thought they were really true. They go out in the country and pick up kids. They’re like “Okay, let’s try you if you could dive.” And the first year they would just have to practice the running, the running up part and if they were not good at that, they were sent back to their communities out in the countryside where they had nothing.
Antonio: Or sometimes they moved them to another sport which is also really funny because they would do the running up and then they would go “Oh, he’s not good enough for diving but maybe that running up is useful in like track and field or something.” That happened with one of my friends. So, my judo coach was actually picked because he was fat. In third grade he was like a fat little kid. So, they put him in wrestling and he wrestled probably two or three years and he didn’t like it. And then he saw there’s judo team and he said “I think I would like that.” So, they moved him to the judo team and now 20 years later he’s still doing judo full time.
Gerrit Keferstein: One more question regarding that topic before we change gears a little bit. What do you think is a good synergy between the Western approach and the Eastern approach when it comes to sports development? Is there something we could take from the Western approach and something we should toss from the West approach, something we should take from the Eastern approach and something we should toss from the Eastern approach.
Antonio: I think, honestly, and this is going to sound biased but I’ve just done so much research, I mean, I just think the American system is just brilliant also because it’s inclusionary, everybody gets to play on a team and train, who wants to, get that experience. So, my country has 20% obesity, 22% obesity. You start looking at data around the world, almost the whole developed world is approaching 22% obesity and urban obesity around the world including Asia, urban obesity is 22%. So, we are famous for being fat but we also have the most athletes and we have people that can grow up in sports if they want to and I just think that’s great. So, in China, my teammates lived in a sports school or lived in a Shaolin temple their whole lives and the guys that I met at my sports school were the best ones, lucky ones because they got into a sports university but most guys won’t and they don’t have any education and they can like barely read.
Gerrit Keferstein: Some died in the countryside, do farming.
Antonio: [Inaudible] in the countryside, they’ll be farmers or truck drivers and that’s really sad. And in America, you’ll meet an accountant who’s like a good accountant and makes a lot of money and he lives with regret because his third year of playing sports at college he got injured and didn’t get to finish the season and it’s like “Yeah but you came out with a degree.”
Gerrit Keferstein: You came out with a degree and you had the opportunity to stay active.
Antonio: Yeah, of course yeah. In my new book there’s a chapter on disabled athletes because part of my PhD program I had to take course on disabled athletes and turned out so much of this book I wanted to balance like how much I wrote about America, how much I wrote about the West and China and so much of it, there was just nothing in China. One of them is like “China now is winning the Paralympics” because they want to win everything which is great but I couldn’t find anything about disabled wrestlers and I couldn’t figure out why I can’t find any. And then I looked it up and it turns out the Paralympics doesn’t have wrestling. So, so on the one hand they say to the world “Look, how we’re treating our disabled people. We’re helping them play sports” but “No, you’re helping the ones who can play sports well enough to win the gold medal for your country” but in America like blind wrestling, disabled wrestling is a huge thing. So, I’ve got a chapter on that.
Gerrit Keferstein: Even if you’ll never win a medal for your country.
Antonio: Of course.
Gerrit Keferstein: We still would like to push.
Antonio: Oh my God! And the thing is like if you look at the stories, one of the stories in my book, there were these two kids, really, really bad neighborhood, I forgot what the state was and the city, but just a terrible ghetto where they were growing up, poor, kids getting shot, the high school had a graduation rate of like 40% of kids would even graduate. One of the kids was missing a leg and these two kids get to be friends. So, the one who has two legs, he carries the other one around on his back all the time and they’re both on the wrestling team and he would carry because the guy even with missing a leg he was still a really good wrestler, he still won a lot of matches but he felt like a crippled if he had to go out to the mat in a wheelchair, right? So, this friend would carry him and it made him feel better. Anyway, so I’m reading the stories and I get about halfway through and I’m going “This is amazing.” And by the way, the guy who was carrying him was blind.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s symbiosis, man.
Antonio: It’s symbiosis. And then they both graduated high school and then money just poured in from everywhere, then the story broke, people just started sending money. So, one of them went to college, the one with one leg went to college and he’s like a web designer and the other guy stayed in sports and he went to … I guess, in blind Olympics and Paralympics they don’t have wrestling. So, he took up Judo and he won medal twice now.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s amazing story.
Antonio: I couldn’t find anything like that in China which was a shame. And it hit me when I was taking that course on disabled sports, we didn’t have any disabled students at the sports university, there were none and when I used to train in New York at the university, I remember running on the track and they would say “Oh, could you guys run in the outer two lanes today because the wheelchair guys are practicing” because they were practicing for their races. And that’s a normal thing. And in Germany, I know you have lots of really good protections for disabled people but China didn’t have that. And then as I was writing that, it hit me and I went “Wait a minute. At the university where I teach economics, I’ve never seen a disabled student.” So, then I did research and they’ve done some really horrible stuff.
Gerrit Keferstein: People can criticize capitalism and the Western societies as much as they want and it’s like you have the divide between rich and poor. Yes, that’s there but the things is the poor still the get help, they’re still wanting to play along while in some communist situations, we might not be able to talk about it. It’s even harder because you can’t play along if you’re not winning medals for the country, it’s harder for you to play along.
Antonio: Yeah. Well, in China Gini Coefficient – so, Gini Coefficient is economic measure of the disparity of wealth – so it tends to be very high in countries like Uganda but in US it’s the highest one of any developed country and China is on par with the US, the Chinese Communists, but then they have this massive divide between rich and poor. I went to Tennessee during Christmas. So, you’re in Tennessee, you’re poor. You’re in your own home, every member of the family has a car, all your children go to school. Okay, that school is not as good, admitted. It’s not bad but the school is not as good as a school on Long Island in New York but it is good and the teachers have proper qualifications, they graduated university, they’re licensed, whatever. I mean, it’s decent. And it’s air conditioned, it’s heated, you get food. They have free lunch program for poor kids, free breakfast programs. And that’s what being poor in America means, except for like the bottom like 3% or 4% which is really a shame but the average person who considers himself poor, this is how they’re living. And then you go to China and poor means you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you don’t even know anybody who owns a car and there may only be a junior high school and not a high school nearby and you’re certainly not going to university, not even entering your head.
Gerrit Keferstein: I’m totally with you. I think we can agree disparity is getting larger and it’s not good and we have to do stuff about it and we don’t want people completely poor. Everybody should be able to play along and sometimes it’s not the case and we’ve got to find solutions to that but the solution should not be to just overthrow the whole system and look East.
Antonio: No, no, no because East doesn’t do it. Taiwan and Thailand are the only countries I’ve lived in, other than the US, where people allow their religion to dictate their morality and how they behave. So, in Taiwan I would go mountain climbing and there’d be some old grandmother, grandfather standing and handing out tea half way up the mountain for free or food even for free. I stayed in hotels for free in Taiwan when I rode my bicycle around the island. There was like a Buddhist hotel. It’s like pay if you can. It was like a really nice hotel, like a three-star but other than that, most of Asia you’re just going to find …
Gerrit Keferstein: Why do they do that?
Antonio: In a lot of ways they kept all the good things about traditional Chinese culture and then didn’t have the communist revolution that destroyed it all. Taiwan is like that. Thailand, to an extent you’re going to find … Certainly in Thailand like I’ve lived in temples for months at a time and they would never ask you for a penny and they would share whatever food they had. There’s countries like that but for the most part in Asia you’re going to find massive wealth disparity. Indonesia has huge wealth disparity. So, I don’t know that we would look East at all. I don’t see any point there. I think they need to look West and they are.
Gerrit Keferstein: Why Let’s change gears a little bit where it makes sense to look East because you wrote about all the stuff in books, so many interesting crazy stories but one story that fascinates me so much and you told me about it was you went East, you looked for something and it was in martial art that you basically rediscovered and basically you found it and you went to the country in very adverse and difficult times just because you wanted to find what’s hidden behind find it.
Antonio: You’re talking about Bokator.
Gerrit Keferstein: Yeah I’m talking about Bokator. For people that don’t know what Bokator as I didn’t know certainly when you told me about it but the story is just amazing.
Antonio: So, the traditional martial art of Cambodia is called Bokator and what happened was in 1975 there was a communist revolution in Cambodia, Khmer Rouge, followed by the genocide.
Gerrit Keferstein: Red Khmer.
Antonio: Yeah, yeah, Red Khmer. So, they executed about 20% of the population including all masters of traditional arts – painting, singing, dancing, whatever. So, there were rumors that a martial arts master had survived. And I was in Thailand and I had heard the rumor and I felt like one thing knowing about it and I just went to Cambodia.
Gerrit Keferstein: When was that?
Antonio: 2004, yeah. 2004, spring. I’ve been living in a temple in Thailand, came out of the temple. I was hanging around Chiang Mai for about a month and then I said “Okay, you know, I got to move on.”
Gerrit Keferstein: I got to find that guy.
Antonio: Yeah go find that guy, yeah, yeah, because Thailand was something like I had seen this monk on TV. I was in Taiwan, I saw a monk on TV that lived in Thailand that was teaching Muay Thai. So, I went all the way to Thailand to find him and I didn’t know anything, I just had a picture of him I downloaded off the internet. I just walked around showing it to people. And they said he went to Cambodia. Checked into a guesthouse and I just looked for a year.
Gerrit Keferstein: Did you take a picture? Where’s that guy? How did you approach?
Antonio: The one in Thailand, yeah, I actually …
Gerrit Keferstein: No, the one in Cambodia.
Antonio: Oh, in Cambodia. No, no, I just kept asking people, just kept asking everybody.
Gerrit Keferstein: So you knew the name of the guy.
Antonio: No, I knew the name of the martial art.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, all you had to do was ask like “Where are people that know Bokator?”
Antonio: Yup, yup, yup and it was always in the next village, in the next village and the one after that.
Gerrit Keferstein: “This guy is in the next village. Just go there.”
Antonio: “Oh, but he’s dead.” It took a year and then it was really funny when I decided to leave the country, I was driving my motorcycle one day and I saw this old like advertising …
Gerrit Keferstein: So, you were there for a year.
Antonio: Yeah, I almost gave up. I thought he was dead. I thought he was gone.
Gerrit Keferstein: And you almost gave up.
Antonio: Yup. Then I saw this faded tattered little advertisement like “lost puppy”, that kind of thing, hanging on a street like on a lamppost on the street and it was advertising for Bokator and I was like “Come on, come on. This has got to be a scam.” So, I went there and it turned out it was him and it was the last master basically. So I did a book later and I interviewed all the living masters.
Gerrit Keferstein: It turned out there’s …
Antonio: About 10 but he was really the only one that had a school and he sat down and he codified and that’s the thing. He set down in codified the art which no one else had done. He set down and drew out pictures – “This is what the movements look like. These are the names of the movements. These are the movements” – and he documented about 10,000 movements.
Gerrit Keferstein: Wow! What’s Bokator about? What’s the essence of the sport? Is it a fight. Is it a fight thing? Is it an art thing? What is it?
Antonio: It’s everything. It’s culture, it’s art, it’s fighting. So, the Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism but the country used to be Hindu. And Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple originally. Then it came Theravada, then back to Hindu and then later Mahayana briefly and then Theravada again. So, Theravada Buddhism is very close to Hinduism like Shiva, Nandi, all the gods, Krishna. You see a lot of the same Gods, Hanuman especially. So, the God of Bokator is Brahma and he’s a warrior. So, every time when you practice Bokator, you do your prayers and then they pray to Brahma, they pray to their ancestors. And then the art itself, there’s animal styles, there’s animal forms, there’s a horse, there’s a crab, there’s like a dragon states, all these different animal forms, there’s performance, there’s fighting. It includes all the movements of Khmer kickboxing which is really the national sport effectively is Khmer kickboxing which looks like Muay Thai and it’s like all the elbows and knees and striking. And then it’s got wrestling.
Gerrit Keferstein: It’s got wrestling?
Antonio: Yeah. And then later when I went for my Black Belt, I studied with him on and off for a period of years. And then each time I go to Cambodia, I’d stay for a while. And then one time when I went there for Discovery Channel for like several months I was in Cambodia, I trained with him every day. And then as part of my Black Belt I had to learn Khmer wrestling. And this was before I actually knew how to wrestle. So, he sent me to this village that was really the last wrestling village in Cambodia where every man, woman and child in the village knows how to wrestle. That was awesome.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, you just take down a random woman and she would smack you.
Antonio: Yeah. So, then I only fought guys because I knew I was going to lose. Yeah, I know, it was pretty [inaudible] because I went there and I wrestled with them and I trained with them at the end and it turned out that the guys who are doing the Olympic wrestling are mostly from this village. So, they invited me to the Olympic training center. And so I did training at the training center with the wrestling team. And then I had to wrestle as part of my Black Belt test. I got through it.
Gerrit Keferstein: Then you did the Black Belt in Bokator.
Antonio: In Bokator, yeah.
Gerrit Keferstein: You’re the first [inaudible] Bokator Black Belt.
Antonio: Two of us were promoted on the same day, me and Derek Morris. He’s also American. Derek got the Black Belt for the whole Bokator system. So, he actually can teach all the performance and that animal forms. I don’t think he knows any weapons. I think he was promoted and he’s allowed to teach animal forms, I think, but he didn’t learn any fighting and he didn’t learn weapons. And I only learned fighting and to this date I’m the only person who was given the Black Belt where it actually says on the certificate “Fighting Only”, yeah. And to date there’s probably been about 10 foreigners that have finished it.
Gerrit Keferstein: You have an interesting documentary on your YouTube channel. Your YouTube channel is The Brooklyn Monk?
Antonio: Brooklyn Monk1.
Gerrit Keferstein: Brooklyn Monk1. And you have some video clips about this. You’re describing the [inaudible]. You even did a clip with the History Channel, right?
Antonio: So, I’ve done History Channel a few times. We did a show called Digging For The Truth. We did another one Human Weapon. I wrote an episode of Fight Quest for that production company and they were going to do Bokator episode and then it got cancelled because the insurance company wouldn’t cover filming in Cambodia. I did Samantha Brown’s Asia. We did that one in Thailand. Then I helped and consulted on [Inaudible] when he did Cambodia. And then I was on his show in Thailand and Taiwan, both I wrote and consulted notes on those episodes. We’ve done a lot of other ones too from other countries, Japan and different countries, Cambodia obviously.
Gerrit Keferstein: How does Bokator fit in the mixed martial arts world because you are an MMA fighter, you have some fights under your belt and 8 wins and 1 loss right now.
Antonio: Professional, yeah.
Gerrit Keferstein: So, how does Bokator fit in your MMA system?
Antonio: So, the first fight I ever did was in Malaysia. They called me to be the celebrity judge of an MMA, they were having the first ever tournament, 60 guys in this tournament. They called me and said “Listen, we’d like you to be a celebrity judge. You hosted martial arts [inaudible]. You can be our celebrity judge.” And I thought about it a minute and said “No, I want to fight in it.” I was 40 some odd years old. And they’re like “Are you sure?” and I’m like “Yeah.” So, I went back to Cambodia and we formed team Cambodia and it was the Bokator. So, three guys from Bokator and me and we prepared for that fight. We went together. It was a single elimination tournament. So, we fought the first fight that morning, me and two of the Bokator guys won our first fight. And then I think all of us lost our second fight. So, we had one win and one loss each but we were all really happy. I was really happy with mine because when they told me I had to get back in the ring and fight the second time, there was probably like a 20-minute gap between the two fights. And you just dump everything emotionally when you fight. There’s just nothing, there is nothing left, nothing left. I almost canceled the second fight. I almost just backed out. I was going to tell them I was injured or something but I thought “Well, I should go.” And I lost but thank God it worked out that way because I won the first fight and lost the second one, it’s perfect because that meant that for the rest of my career I never had to deal with being undefeated, I didn’t have that pressure and if I’d lost the first fight, I probably never would have fought again.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s a good way to think of it.
Antonio: As I won the first and I lost the next, it was like the best thing that could possibly happen for me. The Bokator guys, they didn’t fight again, none of them fought MMA again. 1FC was just starting then which is the Asian MMA league. So, through me they signed one of the guys because he did really well. They signed him and they never actually called him to fight but we were the first Cambodians to ever fight in MMA.
Gerrit Keferstein: Awesome.
Antonio: And there’s more now.
Gerrit Keferstein: What are some of the techniques that helped you? Is it the striking of Bokator? Did you integrate some of that stuff?
Antonio: Yeah. Well, the knees and elbows are a big advantage of being Cambodian. And actually the other Cambodians, when they got taken down … when I got taken down, I wrestled. When they got taken down, they were doing knees and elbows off their backs and like almost winning. One guy did win but even the ones that lost, it was like they almost won with knees and elbows up their back because you just beating the tar out of the guy that’s on top of you. And they didn’t know anything about wrestling, if you watch the video now …
Gerrit Keferstein: So, it’s close range striking.
Antonio: Close range striking. So, even though when the guy gets a single leg, the guy’s holding the leg and you and I watch it and we go “Hey, you better defend that single leg because you’re going to get taken down,” they didn’t even know that. So, they’re just hitting him and almost like killing the guy. They almost won, yeah.
Gerrit Keferstein: But I also saw some really nice techniques of deflection if somebody kicks you and use that kick to take him down from there.
Antonio: Yeah, yeah, yeah but now when I do it … You didn’t stay once I was assigned a fight the other night but not as a brag but just as a product of the sports university in China, we spent 70% or 80% of our training day on catching kicks and if you look at some of the fastest …
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s why you go against the Sanda teacher. I mean, he’s the Sanda teacher. So, you go against him because you followed him.
Antonio: Yeah. Well, we spent so much time … You figure at the sports university you have some of the best kickers in the world really, right? For them to be there, it means they’re national or international level kickers. And these guys would kick you as fast as they could. For 70% of my training on any given day was these guys kicking me and me catching. And so you just learn to catch. So, Bokator has a lot of those techniques where they catch the kick and do the takedown. The weakness of Bokator is that they’re not sparring it the way we did in China. So, on the Bokator test, they would say “Okay, this guy’s going to kick you 10 times and you catch 10. Show me 10 techniques” or something. It’s a little different than doing it at full speed. So, they were good. I mean, they were definitely good but they could be a lot better if they would get proper training.
Gerrit Keferstein: Awesome, man. I mean, let’s wrap this thing up. You can go to Jujitsu practice.
Antonio: I don’t want to but I’m going to. I’m going to. I just don’t want to.
Gerrit Keferstein: That’s a good sport for you. That’s interesting. You’ve seen so many things. Still this is a new sport and people do stuff too that you’ve never seen before and you’ll be like “Oh, okay, that’s a new thing.”
Antonio: Yeah, I don’t like it. I feel like I did when I was 12. When I was first started martial arts, I was the worst one. So, it feels like …
Gerrit Keferstein: You’re back out with your discipline card. Thank you, man. Where can people find your books? So, name your bookstores.
Antonio: Yeah, all my books are on Amazon.com. They did even an author’s page for me and you can see my YouTube videos on Brooklyn Monk1 and follow me on Twitter, @BrooklynMonk.
Gerrit Keferstein: @BrooklynMonk?
Antonio: Yeah, I think it’s @BrooklynMonk or @BrooklynMonk1, I can’t remember. You know what’s funny? I started all my social media before I knew how to use a computer and then I lost all the passwords. So, when I went back, I couldn’t use BrooklynMonk, that’s already taken. So, I did BrooklynMonk1.
Gerrit Keferstein: Okay. So, people find him on BrooklynMonk or BrooklynMonk1, find him on Twitter, find him on YouTube. You have a blog as well. You have another blog in there?
Antonio: Oh yeah, I do, I do. I just don’t use it anymore.
Gerrit Keferstein: Go check out his YouTube channel. Thanks for your time.
Antonio: Take care. Ciao!
If you enjoyed the podcast and the conversation, then the first thing you should do is subscribe to it on iTunes and you’re always going to be up-to-date when there’s new episodes coming out. And you can check out the home page at GerritKeferstein.com and my regular blog post where I give you updates on new podcasts I’m running. The other thing you could do is really leave a review on iTunes. That would really help me. If you find the podcast to be shitty, leave a shitty review. That’s fine. If you find it to be great, leave a great review and actually any review. I’ll be happy about any review. So, the shitty reviews help me to bet better and the good reviews help me to promote this podcast. So, it’s all good. And you can hook me up on Twitter @GKeferstein and shoot me message, give me feedback. What I’m always looking forward to is if you have suggestions for people that I should really meet, that I should go visit or I should invite people that have to tell a story that’s relevant to human potential. And if you want to find other ways that you can support this project and this podcast, you can always go to GerritKeferstein.com/Support. So, hang in there and I’m looking forward to see you next time.
Gerrit Keferstein is a Medical Doctor specialised in Performance & Functional Medicine. He is most known for his work on the optimisation of recovery and adaptation in elite athletes.