JB: Correct me if I am wrong, but at this juncture in your life is when you started to shift your priorities in your training and teaching; focusing more on mechanics, body development, sensitivity etc.?
Mike: Right at that point I was still hung up on styles and forms because that was what was educated into me. I had to break that. It took some time. Teacher Wang is certainly the single most inspirational influence in my life to date. He has not only changed my outlook on the arts, but also my training and approach to the arts.
JB: How did the progression of change go about; via the push hands training, and San Shou training under Wang, or was it something else?
Mike: He went about it in a very nice way. Wang never knocked any style or teacher. After a few months of training with him I sat down for dinner at his house, and Wang stated that I was going about learning his stuff the wrong way. He said I was trying to use his ideas with the techniques and theory of what I had trained in the past. He said everything I had learned was good, but he also asked me to open my pocket and put it away for another day. Let me re-shape you, and when you open your pocket later you will see a whole new spectrum of colors. And he was right!
I was trying to use the technology without a decent engine. Wang wanted to build me a decent engine so I could then later go back and apply all the technology I had learned. It is like putting a Ferrari engine in a Tonka truck. If you rev that engine the Tonka truck will just blow up. On the flip side of that coin if you have a body that LOOKS like it will speed away, but have a weak engine inside, then again that is a waste.
And that was me! Basically at that point I had a Ferrari frame, but no engine. That was Wang’s point, I move beautifully but I am empty, I have nothing behind it.
JB: Can you describe some of the methodology Wang used to rebuild your engine?
Mike: Well he made me start by finding my body, getting in tune, truly in tune with my body. And he used push hands as the medium in which to get me in tune with my body. He started with my hips and the theory of Zhan Zhuang (Pile or Post Standing) via the Ba Shi (eight stances) of Babu Tanglang (Eight Step Praying Mantis) because I was familiar with this already. But you must understand Wang’s Zhan Zhuang is not about standing still, but it is about cultivating energy, this is very important. I asked him about Qigong, Neigong, all that stuff and he told me to forget about it because he does not do any of those things. Wang felt these exercises were a way for people to distract their minds and gives them fodder to argue about internal versus external, and it has nothing to do with hand to hand combat. Teacher Wang’s point was that their was none of this back in the day, you either practiced martial arts or you didn’t! All martial arts are based in combat. It would be like asking a boxer if he is doing internal or external training. It just IS boxing. There is no special breathing technique to make you better. All these skills are acquired via practicing with a partner. Different partners. Constantly interplaying with each person’s energy and technique. Knowing how to deal with force. This is how teacher Wang helped me to see myself, to see my weaknesses and strengths. Teacher Wang’s calligraphy hangs in my house and one of my favorites is “To nourish ones skill’s through combat. To complete ones training through the master’s guidance”
These paragraphs shed light onto some of the most important aspects of Mikes training in my opinion. All too often we get hung up on styles, or how something looks (IE. a certain posture). I too fell into this mind trap. We must remember that styles are simply a vehicle to understanding our bodies, and how our bodies work. We are all human; two arms, two legs, a head etc. We are all subject to the physical laws of the universe such as gravity, leverage etc. At a certain point in each martial artists career a light bulb clicks on and we discover that mechanics are where its at, not styles, or forms, or lineage. None of these things matter after a certain point. Mike was instrumental in helping understand mechanics and body usage.
This became difficult when trying to organize a seminar with Mike because how does one sell these ideas to get people in the door? So many people are hung up on styles and cannot get past that trap. For instance I have had people tell me, “I do not know/like Taiji, so what is the point in coming to a Taiji workshop?” Mike would simply tell them, “…look past the form, as the form is empty without mechanics and coordinated power. Posture, structure, and intent are key to your progression in the arts.” Tim Cartmell is all about this, and Mike had a huge amount of respect for Tim. I wish they could have met, as Mike really wanted to. I was actually in the middle of planning a seminar where my teachers would get together here in Seattle and offer a workshop together.
Another interesting point Mike makes here is the discernible difference between health maintenance and combat. Qi, and Qi Gong, have nothing to do with combat. There is nothing wrong with studying Qi Gong, but to do so and expect the results to be combative is foolish and dangerous! Mike knew this, and tried to teach the true way to those who had been led astray with other teachers. Mike and I share the same outlook on Qi… at a certain point in your training EVERYTHING becomes Qi Gong! Qi is in your body, otherwise you would be dead, so it is not as if you are doing Qi Gong only when you practice a certain Qi Gong set. Your awareness is actually the discernible difference in this regard. You must become aware of the energy inside of your body and then you can really start to play.
The “internal vs. external” debate is something we spoke about often. Mike and Tim both have the same view on it… by using your posture and structure properly, you are stronger and can issue force seemingly effortlessly. It has nothing to do with magic Qi balls from hell. It is simple mechanical physics. Mike cringed when he saw “no touch knockouts” type bullshit in the martial arts. It angered him because this was a false representation of the arts we hold dear, and makes the Chinese martial arts a joke to the majority of people grounded in reality.
Mike was quite candid in his conversation with me here. A true student who used himself as the example. How many teachers do you know that would say openly what Mike says above about being empty and no good!? One of the most admirable things about Mike was his brutal honesty, and though he dished it out to all, he was the first person to criticize himself and his shortcomings. “I will never make you do something I have not, or cannot, do myself Jake.”
A true warrior sage!
Okay, okay it is not a “lost” interview, but I got your attention didn’t I!? It is the only one I did (formerly) with Mike, and it sheds lots of light into the way Mike approaches his teaching and training that I have not seen with any other interviews. I wanted to share this special moment with you all so I will be putting it on in spurts, and editing a few things here and there. No magazine wanted the interview, so fuck em’… I am printing it for all of you online!
I will be adding some insights into the various comments he makes. I will put my comments in a different color, or italics so you can skip over them if you do not want to hear my input. I have tons of notes and what not from Mikes lessons both in seminars, also from the hours and hours of private lessons I took with him. It is solely my intention to share and hopefully give some insight into the man we love, and the teachings he graced us with.
The interview took place the night before Mike left in October of 2007.
Hope you can enjoy objectively!
Forever a Student:
An exclusive interview with Mike Martello
Interview by: Jake Burroughs
“The teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.”
I knew Mike Martello via e-mail and phone for several years before we got the chance to meet face to face while I was visiting Europe to conduct a seminar, and our friendship continues to grow with each coming year. Often criticized for his views and no nonsense attitude towards the traditional Chinese martial arts, Mike pulls no punches when it comes to skill and the development of martial artists. Agree or disagree with him one must respect the fact that Mike has dedicated his life to the martial way, and does not believe in secrets. Those who know him are familiar with the high energy, child like, enthusiasm he has for training. So when I sat down to interview him during a two week visit to Seattle, WA. (His only US stop), I simply let go of the reins and let him spew whatever was on his mind. The result is what follows.
All of his life Mike Martello has studied the martial arts, from boxing as a kid, to becoming an international form champion, to living and training in Taiwan to deepen his knowledge. Relatively unknown in the Chinese martial arts (CMA) circles, Mike has dedicated the rest of his life to studying under Wang Chieh of Taiwan. Wang is one of Wei Xiao Tan’s senior most disciples in the art of Babu Tanglang (Eight Step Mantis), as well as his families White Crane system.
Mike Martello is a typical New Yorker, a little brazen at first, but a sincere and dedicated life long friend once he gets to know you. He remains one of the most open teachers I have yet to meet, sharing everything in his art with anyone willing to sweat a little during practice. With this interview I hope to shed some light on one of the Chinese martial arts least known teachers.
Jake Burroughs: Why don’t we start with your background in the arts?
Mike Martello: I started boxing with my father when I was 3 years old growing up in NYC. Moved onto Shotokan, and TKD. When I was 11 I met a kung fu teacher (Teddy Wong), who showed me that the CMA were the best for me, not the best in general, but the best for me and then I met Su Yu Chang when I was in my early 20s.
I really enjoyed fighting, and being small all my life I had plenty of opportunities to test my skills against kids on the street. That is the reason my father started teaching me boxing at such an early age, as he knew I would be tested on the streets of NYC. But I also had opportunities to try my skills out in the ring where I mostly boxed, but I also competed in Karate tournaments, and a couple kickboxing events as well. I just wanted to go try what I had learned. My thirst for knowledge knew no bounds though, and so all of these situations were my teacher if you know what I mean. Every loss, every win, every hit taught me unforgettable lessons.
JB: How was it that you met your current teacher Wang Chieh?
Martello: I went to Taiwan searching. Searching for more martial arts. Searching for a deeper level than I knew. So I figured I would go to Taiwan and see what was there for me.
I met this lady teacher, Kathy Yen, when I was practicing in a park one day. Just fooling around doing some Piqua, some Taiji and what not. I saw this lady practicing with experienced men in the park, and she was throwing them all over the place. I knew these men were experienced because the previous day they had invited me to practice with them, and they proceeded to kick my butt all over the place.
Most of the people you meet in Taiwan are very friendly and open. Some practitioners are jerks though, so you have to be careful being a white guy from America. Some people want to tell you what you don’t know, and what you are missing. But few of those people will teach you the missing parts. So when Yen saw me the next day, she said “Lai, lai.” (which means to ‘come’ in Chinese) and proceeded to tell me that she had been watching my Taiji practice and while my form was good, she said my Taiji was no good.
I said, “Huh!?!? How can my form be good, but my Taiji is no good?” And she proceeded to push me gently in certain parts of my body to show how I had no balance, no root, no structure etc. So for 6 months I was practicing with her before she found out that I had over 15 years of experience in the CMA. She asked why I did not tell her sooner. And I told her I wanted to start fresh, as I felt I had a hodge-podge of techniques and forms but really did not feel I had much depth in any of my practice. I was there as a clean, open book to restart my training. I was excited about relearning something new.
So she says she knows a really great Mantis instructor that could help me more than she could. I did not have the heart to tell her no, so I figured I would go meet with whomever and see what came of it. It turns out I was introduced to one of the top Mantis teachers in all of Asia, Wang Chieh, one of Wei Xiao Tang’s earliest disciples.
I wanted to cry after touching hands with him the first time because I knew this man radiated something that I did not have, he was doing stuff all my other teachers would talk about, but could never do! I was emotional about it because finally, FINALLY, I have come this far, I had found what I have been looking for! His mechanics and structure was top notch, and keep in mind he was in his mid 70’s when we first touched hands!
This is a good break for our first foray into the mind of Mike. He had many a story ab out growing up on the streets of NYC, and his early training. Mike had many a good teacher, and a handful of not so good ones. One of the lasting lessons he taught me (as we had many things in common martially) was to learn and grow from even the bad experiences I have had. Not to be resentful, but to gain wisdom from such errors.
“Money can be made back. But time is lost forever (this comment is all the more poignant now). So do not waste your time being upset over the past, or because a teacher screwed yo u over. This happens. Learn from these situations so they do not repeat. Wasted time is wasted life, and we only have one.” – Mike Martello
Mike loved his teacher Wang Chieh no differently than a father. Mikes father died relatively young, so I think Wang Laoshi filled a void in Mikes life. Whenever he spoke of him the admiration, respect, loyalty, and love would emanate from Mike like no other.