Confronting Wing Chun Skepticism

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

Probably the first truly impressive con man I ever got to see up close was the gray-haired Korean man who ran the Tae Kwon Do studio I went to when I was a kid. With the wisdom of age I understand now that those posters of him breaking two bricks with a jumping split kick over the back of a blazing tiger were probably made up in a Illinois Sear’s portrait studio, but the man still strutted like he could claim the right of droit du seigneur with any student’s daughter. And when it came time to clean the place, teach classes, or take care of whatever else the sensei needed, a lot of those students hopped to with the free labor. I still never saw him do split-kick, though.

One of the benefits of the rise of MMA is that a lot of the veneer of mysticism so useful in selling yourself as a fighting god has been stripped away. We know now which fighting styles work and which don't. If you’re at an MMA gym and one of the reasons they charge you $200 a month is because the coach is a professional fighter, there’s a good chance you’ll see that coach in competition sometime and find out just how much of an expert you’re paying for. Better yet, get in a fight yourself and find out what you’ve learned.

But for Danny Horgan, a 23-year-old Boston media personality and self-described “former street fighter,” there’s still one fighting style whose secrets have stayed hidden, and he’s using his video camera to separate the real brawlers from the ones who just know how to strut. Horgan is going across America to get a glimpse inside the Chinese art of Wing Chun--what he calls the “world’s least transparent martial art.”

“More than anything, I have been looking for sifus (masters) who are willing to put their theories and skills to test on camera,” Horgan tells Fightland. “Wing Chun practitioners generally tend to talk a lot about their ‘deadly’ fighting techniques, but very few are actually willing to test themselves on camera for the world to see.

“Boxers and mixed martial artists put their skills and reputation on the line every few months in sanctioned fights. World-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners are constantly rolling with each other to demonstrate superior technique. Even Tae Kwon Do fighters spar and compete regularly. Wing Chun is one of the world’s few martial arts where its practitioners are not willing to put their reputations as fighters at risk.”

Horgan’s being more gracious than some. UFC commentator Joe Rogan doesn’t miss a chance to call out a fighting style he thinks is ineffective at best and a scam at worst. There are very few MMA fighters who claim Wing Chun as one of their disciplines anymore and none with championship belts. Phrases like “impractical” and “total bullshit” get thrown around a lot.

But the mysterious, nearly mythic, stories behind Wing Chun--and especially Bruce Lee’s association with it--still resonate with some martial arts fans and practitioners, even if you never actually hear about a Wing Chun fighter fighting. 

Though Horgan is cynical himself about the value of Wing Chun, he clearly wants to believe. He came up boxing in Boston and says he was drawn to Wing Chun because of the hand-striking techniques. He’s hoping his project will make a case for the art while tearing down the phonies with their flying kicks and their busted bricks.

And so the main criteria for fighters on Horgan's show is that they can prove themselves in front of an audience, and aren’t afraid to fight with the host. “I am a hands-on host, meaning I actually go against my interview subjects, he says. The first episode of Horgan’s show, Wing Chung Blast, centers around a Chi Sau hand-fighting drill with Illionois-based instructor Dominick Izzo.

“Very few ‘masters’ of Wing Chun are willing to perform the Chi Sau drill with resisting partners on camera because of a fear of criticism from the usually harsh Wing Chun community,” Horgan says. “Many fall back on the fact that Wing Chun is a self-defense martial art and not a form of sport fighting. While that is true, it does not mean that you can’t demonstrate Wing Chun skill through Chi Sau.”

Over the next few weeks, Horgan’s crew will be filming episodes around America, including stops in Boston and New Jersey and a meeting with Wing Chun Sifu legend Jin Young in Los Angeles, whose straight punch has been viewed by 460,000 people. If the show is successful, Horgan plans to visit with fighters in China and England.

But until Horgan captures on tape a real fight in which a Chi Sau master holds his own, the debate over the value of Wing Chun will continue. Still, there’s nothing fighters like to fight about more than how to fight. 

Check out these related stories:

The Grandmaster: The Art of Kung Fu - Wing Chun

Bruce Lee Comes to Harlem