by Frank Thiboutot
In The Middle Kingdom, there is no sky. At least there’s no sky as we know it. Just a gray and orange layer of smog blocking the sun and eliminating any view of a blue sky even in the countryside. China is experiencing its own industrial revolution with coal smokestacks extending toward the heavens to perhaps someday catch up to the west in wealth and technology. For now, it seems to be the thinking of their leaders that the environment might have to be sacrificed in order achieve that standard of living found (but not admitting exists) in the west. Hong Kong and certain parts of Beijing may boast its ultra modern and high tech office buildings, hotels and businesses, but its the exception rather than the rule.
In early December, I was contacted by the ShanXi Fighting Tackunobo Association to organize a team of kickboxers from the U.S. to compete for the first time in TaiYuan City in ShanXi Province. There was also a team of Japanese invited to participate as well. After two months of phone calls and a stack of faxes an inch thick we made the historical journey having obtained our visas only one day before we left for Beijing on February 8th.
It’s every martial artist’s dream to visit the region of China where our sport has its roots. But, because China had been basically closed to the outside western world since the communists took over in 1949, I personally didn’t think I was ever going have that opportunity. I am an experienced traveler having been to approximately fifty countries in my lifetime. I had been all around the region from Hong Kong to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan after a two year stint in the Peace Corps in Korea in the mid-seventies. Even though we didn’t quite make it to Henan Province, where the original Shaolin temples once stood and another six hour ride by bus, to me, this trip was an opportunity of a lifetime. I also had no trouble soliciting my good friend, Bruce Marshall, of Marshall’e Kenpo Karate in Newburyport, MA to accompany me as a coach and for him to convince Jonas Nunez, America’s Finest Karate and Kickboxing in Elizabeth, NJ, to come along as a trainer and chief second.
The problem was in convincing the fighters that we could actually pull off this trip. Those involved in the fight game recognize it’s pitfalls pertaining to matchmaking let alone some guy from Maine calling them to travel half way around the world to fight in a communist country. This lead to a number of anxious moments even on the morning we left from Logan airport. We hadn’t heard from Felisberto Fernandes, Dorchester, MA, for a week despite numerous phone calls and then he was late in arriving because he went to another terminal. It wasn’t exactly a Kodak moment, but it sure was a relief that he and John Hunt, Watertown, MA, both made the plane with Bruce and I to JFK where we were to meet up with the other half of the eight man team and all fly together to China. Maybe it’s because to me they’re just kids, but it never fails to amaze me how oblivious fighters seem to be about time, deadlines, and making phone calls to let you know everything is on schedule with them. I guess if promoting and matchmaking were easy at this level, everyone would be doing it.
Speaking of promoting, a Boston based TV crew boarded the flight before we took off to film a family who was going to Nagano to watch their daughter play for the American Women’s Hockey Team. After this was announced by the stewardess and they received a polite applause, I asked her to make the announcement that half the members of the U.S. Kickboxing Team were on the plane as well and were on their way to China. They received a rousing applause and were asked to stand to identify themselves. Only a few years ago, most people would not even know what kickboxing was……..Making progress.
At JFK, Peter Kaljevic, by way of Yugoslavia who now makes his home in Queens, was the first to arrive along with Orlando Cintron, the Bronx, and Olando Rivera, from Staten Island, and the man who pulled it all together for the New York contingent, Jonas Nunez. I felt as though my job was done just before we all boarded the United Airline Flight to Tokyo which was full because the Winter Olympics had just started in Nagano. My thoughts were on how hard our travel agents Samantha and Rene in Hampton, NH worked to help us put this together. If someone hadn’t shown up for whatever reason, I wasn’t going to go myself because I would’ve lost face by not being able to deliver what I promised our hosts in China. I distributed the red, white and blue USA team robes and cornerman jackets that were express mailed by Ringside Products only one day earlier. High fives were given all around, “now I could relax”, I felt…………….NOT!
Little did I know that the total travel time, with layovers, was 27 hours from the time we left until we landed in Beijing. The worst leg was the 14 hour bedhead flight from JFK to Tokyo. We were met after we cleared customs at about 8:30pm on Sunday, February 8th by our interpreter, Wang Fei, whose American name is Danny and Huang JianFu, the coach of the Chinese team. I was reminded of Mr. Galacawitz in the Budweiser commercial when I saw the placard with my name on it, but instead of a limousine we had a comfortable mini-bus to take us to the Rainbow Hotel across town. I had expected the accommodations to be about the same as the hotel I stayed in while in Kiev in the Ukraine several years prior. But, this was surprisingly comfortable and about the equivalent of a Ramada or Holiday Inn.
I was also surprised that they had booked Bruce and I into our own separate rooms. This was indeed a happy moment since Bruce has been known to peel the paint off the walls with his snoring. We then had a brief meeting with Danny and Mr. Huang to discuss some of the business details and the rules for the event. We gave them copies of the rule books, world ratings, and catalogues in our possession to bring them up to speed with what is going on in the sport in the outside world. In our correspondences prior to leaving the States, we were under the supposition that we would be fighting Thai Style rules (without elbows) for these bouts, but that was to change. More on that later.
The next morning I got up at 6:00am to go for a run. It was still quite dark and eerily quiet in my room. There was no traffic noise which you’d expect even that early in the morning in a city with 12 million people. When I got outside, the streets were teeming with people walking and riding bicycles. If this were New York City, the horns would be
blarring. I’m assuming that the masses of Chinese, as I felt with the Ukranians, were simply less expressive (which could also be interpreted as more polite and better mannered) and were used to harnessing their emotions more so than people in the west. I also didn’t get the long stares and catcalls that I expected as I rambled along the streets and sidewalks in my colorful workout clothes. Is it a result of their subjugation by the
communists, I don’t know. I’ll leave those conclusions to the social psychologists, but, it
was certainly strange. At the beginning of my run, I saw Orlando Cintron who was on his way back from his run. Most of the guys went out early simply to flush their bodies, get their bodies back on track and keep their weight in check. And yes, I did see some elderly people doing light exercises and also practicing Tai Chi on the sidewalks in front of their shops.
After a solid American style buffet breakfast, we met as a group to do a little sightseeing. We were scheduled to see the Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City, in the morning and The Summer Palace in the afternoon. I can tell you this much (because you just have to see these places for yourself to feel the impact of their massiveness and beauty) all the work Bruce, Jonas and I had done for the past two months were completely wiped clean by these two tours alone. Spectacular and awesome don’t even begin to describe them…and it was in the middle of winter. I can’t imagine how beautiful these two places would be in the summertime! Bruce had repeated the word “Wow!” so often that I was beginning to think it was the only word in his vocabulary until he injected “Look at That” either before or after the “Wow”. I’m personally all in favor of a democracy over a monarchy except, of course, if I were the king! What a life that must’ve been. The Taj Mahal in Agra, India and the King’s Palace in Madrid, Spain were in first and second place on my list of all time most impressive sites that I had been fortunate to visit previously. Now, they’re in third and fourth place.
That evening after dinner in the hotel lounge, I met with Danny, Mr. Huang and the two Japanese coaches from Tokyo, Toshihiro Yamaki and Hiromasa Yaginuma. Having been in the Peace Corps in Korea in the early eighties, it gave me the opportunity travel to Japan. They also travel often to Korea for kickboxing events which opened a line of conversation for us. Later on, the U.S. and Japananese fighters would form an alliance against the Chinese fighters. How’s that for a turn of events in comparison to WWII? At this time, we were notified that the rounds were to be reduced from 5 three-minute rounds to 3 two-minute rounds, otherwise, the show would last all night with 10 bouts. It gave me cause for suspicion as to their experience and conditioning levels, but when in Rome………….
On Tuesday morning, we had breakfast and the U.S. team members had cranked up their diplomatic relations and cross-cultural experiences with the host country nationals, particularly, the waitresses. It was difficult to get them to smile and open up mainly because they’re still considered to be second class citizens with their roles clearly defined. It’s definitly a man’s world in China, but these Americans, who are are
naturally gregarious by nature, made it their personal secondary mission on this trip to promote how we do things in the west by sweet talking as many females as humanly possible in one week.
They also began their incessant harangues about the quality of the food. Chinese food in China is not like it is in the States. Our hosts gave us the best they had to offer and as much of whatever we wanted. Even our interpreters didn’t recognize many of the dishes we were offered. It was above their normal fare of white rice and vegetables. They did realize, however, that I was eating frog legs on one occasion, which I thought was chicken, but of course didn’t say anything until after I asked. For weight conscious fighters in need of carbos, most of the dishes were not suitable to their palats. It has always amazed me how conscientious fighters are about what they take into their temples (bodies)…prior to their fights. Afterwards, they force as much alcohol as posssible into that same temple without any reservation. Makes sense to me???
At 10:00am, we boarded our mini-bus to begin our 500 km. ride to TaiYuan in ShanXi Province where the event was scheduled to take place with the U.S. Team on one bus and the Japanese Team on another. Just about an hour later, on the outskirts of the city, we broke down. But, as luck would have it, we were picked up by a Greyhound style bus with available seats which was also on its way to TaiYuan. Better yet, we were also treated to a Jackie Chan film to pass the time.
The countryside is mainly farmland with villages (collectives) scattered here and there. It was difficult to tell what types of crops they grew since it was wintertime. Every available piece of earth was utilized, however. Even the sides of the hills had a stepped system with various sized patches of earth to plant crops. I was surprised that there was no snow even in the mountain passes. Must of been because of El Nino.
China is one of the top coal, cement and iron and steel producing countries in the world. It is also produces non-ferrous metals, petroleum and mineral products for chemical industrial output. Wherever there wasn’t a farm, there was a factory. As an outsider looking in, I had to believe that it was a very harsh and stoic existence for the ordinary citizen even in the best of times.
I noticed at the rest stops, a number of young Chinese men who seemed to be stuck in a time warp. They were dressed like 1920s style gangsters with black suits and white ties with the proverbial cigarette dangling loosly from their lower lip. Either that or they had seen too many low budget movies produced in Hong Kong. There were also virtually no women to be seen. I guess they still stay at home while the men conduct business. In Korea, they are known as pak-ay (outside) and an-ay (inside) serams (people).
We arrived in TaiYuan at the ShanXi Coal Tower Hotel and were greeted with a large banner over the front entrance and several TV camera crews. Again, it was an impressive 26-story modern hotel with an auspicious welcome to this small city of only 3 million.
We settled in and got ready for the reception dinner scheduled for that evening which
also turned out to be very inspiring. After so very many years of matter-of-factness whenever a kickboxing event takes place in the U.S., it was almost overwhelming to be treated like celebrities or royalty halfway around the globe. The members of the
Tackunobo Association gave us a standing ovation as we entered the room. There were
welcoming speeches from the dignataries followed by a first-class dinner.
Kevin Garnett gets a contract for 126 million dollars for 7 years to play basketball.
As much as I believe in capitalism and the free-enterprise system, I get awfully sick and tired of the whining, bad behavior, and often poor performances from the overpaid professional athletes involved in the major sports in our country. The fighters, trainers, managers, promoters and officials who participate in our sport, pretty much for the sheer love of the game, in comparison, are always clinging to the hope that we will eventually make our sport a financial success. These rewards may not come in our lifetime, but it does feel damn good when our efforts are visibly appreciated by some and that we can at least say we had a role in paving the way for those who wish to travel this path in the future.
On Tuesday, we spent some time walking around in the area of the hotel where we saw people playing billiards on tables on the sidewalks. We then wandered into a shopping district filled full of small shops, push carts and restaurants. We sensed that they knew who we were because they were very friendly and were very accommodating about having their pictures taken. It was truly amazing and I personally felt, at that point, that, “Hey, I’m really am in the heart of mainland China!”
That evening prior to it opening, we met in the disco to workout and flush out the cobwebs. It was great to sweat and try to keep up with those half my age. It felt so good to skip rope, shadowbox, hit the punch mitts and do some light sparring mainly for calming the nerves and keeping the fighters’ weights in check. Because the dance floor was slippery, I worked out barefoot for the first time in 15 years and it promptly tore the skin off my feet, but it didn’t matter, it felt g-o-o-d to get some real exercise!
Even though I’m heavily into kickboxing for fitness, at 48, I couldn’t help but get the sinking feeling that the game itself, in the physical sense, has passed me by. I ate a few of Jonas’s sidekicks when we went one-on-one, but that didn’t bother me since I do that all the time in my classes, too. While watching the fighters shadowbox, I was thinking how extremely talented these high caliber athletes are and that they deserve more recognition and support. These days, I can only make an impact on the game in an administrative capacity. I was also thinking that at some point, Jonas, too, will have to also confront these demons and make the break from hangin’ and messin’ with the fighters to more of a management position…..which is hard to do, especially when you absolutely love the game as much as he does. I even had to chastise and threaten him that I wouldn’t take his photo because in every picture he was in, he was in some sort of fighter’s pose or karate stance. The break, however, will have to come sooner or later.
On Wednesday morning, I read my clock wrong and got up 6:00am instead of 7:00am. Incidentally, it was a travel alarm that I picked up in a Rite-Aid before I left which was
“Made In China”. I had a chance to channel surf the TV which included a program that was an MTV imitation, some cartoons, along with the news and weather. There was also a montage of activities on one station that included T’ai Chi, synchronized swimming, figure skating, and Chinese couples dancing latin style dances in a competition on a basketball court. “The best of the west has come east”, I thought.
Wednesday turned out to be The Festival of the Lanterns thus explaining all the brightly colored paper lanterns hung everywhere. The weigh-ins at 7:30am went well with all of the U.S. and Japanese fighters making their agreed upon weight. Some of the Chinese fighters were delayed because their train was late and had to weigh-in on the day of the fight. The weigh-ins are another behind the scenes thing that is an integral part of our sport about which the general public doesn’t have much of a sense. It’s best described as a ritual with an aire of tension as the fighters and trainers try to size each other up with their game faces on. Finally, there’s a huge relief by the promoters, officials and fighters alike when all the weights are verified and recorded.
Breakfast consisted of fried eggs, rice soup, rice cakes chicken wings and warm milk, but was welcomed by John and Olando who had been particulary worried about making weight. Felisberto, who looks like a mini-Evander Holyfield, never gave it a second thought, knows his body and ate pretty much what he wanted throughout the week. But, both Peter and Orlando had lost weight from their disinterest in the style of food, but there was no lack of what we had come to know as “Stormisms” from Orlando “The Storm” Cintron. For examples, a fork = technology (as opposed to chop sticks); his idol = Ghengis Khan; the Japanese fighters = Remember Pearl Harbor . Don’t ask me to clarify them. In context, they were really funny quips that came naturally one right after the other from the dynamo from the Bronx.
After breakfast, we all went as a group to check out the arena. It was primitive in its naked state by our standards and only had a capacity for 3,000 spectators. The association intended to give away all the tickets to dignataries and associates for this first time event.. The ring was small with the ropes being approximately 14’ x 14’ inside. They were in the process of setting up the lights for TV production, but the fighters climbed into the ring anyway to get a feel for the canvas…..another long standing ritual.
After we returned to the hotel, Bruce, Jonas and I met with the Japanese trainers, the Chinese coaches, Jian JianGuo and Huang JianFu, and the chief referee for the bouts, Liu YuFu, for an explanation of the rules which we then learned were the Wushu Shan Shou system of fighting. Their scoring system was cumulative over the three rounds (which was originally scheduled for five), not the 10 point “must” system that we are accustomed to using. Points were awarded similar to a point karate tournament with two
points for a kick or punch to the body and one point for a punch to the head or a kick to the legs. Takedowns were emphasized. In fact, two points are awarded for a takedown or throw, which is illegal and considered a foul in international kickboxing rules. What were we going to do now? Go home? Again, it’s never easy when you’re first at anything.
Afterwards, I had a private meeting in my room with a reporter from the press explaining the need to standardize rules. When boxing is mentioned to a person even only casually interested in the sport, he has an understanding of the rules. The word kickboxing, on the other hand, conjures up all sorts of notions and I’m not even bringing the various karate style tournaments into the mix. Above the waist kicking, leg kicks; elbows, no elbows; clinching, no clinching; long pants, short pants; now, takedowns. And then we have grappling and shootfighting to explain to the public. Where’s it going to end? No wonder the sport continues to struggle. I think I’ll get into the golf business…..
I decided it was time to introduce Bruce to the public bathouse. He had obviously heard about it from the fighters who manage to learn the lay of the land much more quickly than us old folks. Because I had spent time in Korea over 23 years ago, the concept was not new to me yet, it was also remarkably vivid. Now, don’t get any ideas; it’s really a legitimate bathouse that is usually located on the floor beneath the lobby in most hotels. Most of them are now called saunas in China. In the States we call them spas and charge
exorbitant fees for the same services.
There are also free-standing saunas for the general public who can’t afford a full bathroom in their home or apartment. I’ve also only been to the ones that are not co-ed. It’s a great treat for the body for approximately $4.00 plus tip. It was also one of the only things that weren’t paid for by our hosts. That and any souvineers that we wanted to take home with us. First, you take a shower and then make the circuit from the sauna or steam room to the hot tub, and then cold tub once or several times. A washdown by a male attendant does not sound very enticing to those who are as comfortable with their manhood as Tim The Tool Man Taylor. However, for those willing to go for it, like someone who is as shy as Jonas, the rewards are worth it. The attendant washes you down while at the same time, with a coarse towel, he scrapes off all the old dead skin which is visibly apparent on the towel. When finished, you’re completely relaxed. Afterwards, you shower, put on a robe and sip tea in a recliner until you stop perspiring so that you can get dressed. The pleasure police in this country, the ones who don’t want you to go to the beach without sunblock, or to eat movie theater popcorn or drive SUVs, would be clamoring about the bacteria in the water, too, if this luxury were common here. Suffice it to say, thankfully, that the oldest continuous civilization with a history dating back 5,000 years continues to retain this custom, at least out of necessity.
At dinner that evening, we were informed that there was no opponent for Stormy. By the look on his face, I actually thought he was going to break down at the table. He was so discouraged at the thought of having come so far for nothing…the training, the money lost from the time off from training his personal fitness clients and then having to explain that he went all this way and there wasn’t an opponent to be found among 1.2 billion Chinese??? See, I told you my job wasn’t over after I got on the plane at JFK.
Well, we had to scramble at that point and plead for the Chinese to find us a fighter. As it turned out, there was one available at 126lbs. while Storm weighed in at 117. That’s quite a spread for people in that weight range. These aren’t heavyweights. I left it up to Storm and Jonas and it was decided they would go with it. It’s never an easy decision one way or the other, but these guys are warriors, no questions asked.
Finally, February 12, 1998, the day we’ve all been waiting for, had finally arrived. Now, would you have waded through this whole narrative if I had posted the results of the bouts at the beginning of this article?
We had a police escort on the way to the arena. When cars would get in the way, the driver blarred over the loudspeaker to clear the way. Apparently, there was an accident somewhere up ahead and some resourceful drivers decided to drive on the sidewalks to avoid the tie-up. As we pulled into the driveway, there was a company of soldiers standing at attention in the parking lot. “Whoah,” I thought.! “I guess there won’t be any antics by our cornermen like Lou Duva might pull, if we happened to receive a bad decision”.
After the soldiers marched into the building, we followed them in and discovered that all three teams would be using the same locker room. Another first.
After marking our territory in a corner of the room, we began to get ready and started taping the fighter’s hands. The trainers kept their suits and ties on since all three teams had to march into the arena promptly at 7:30pm. It was a smaller version of the opening ceremony of the Olympics and just as tasteful. After marching into the auditorium and positioning ourselves in front of the dignitaries, speeches were given including one given by myself with the aid of Danny, our translator. Gifts were exchanged with the Japanese presenting a beautiful honorary title belt to the Chinese coach. We presented PKF Certificates and tee-shirts….what a surprise! Our team received a beautiful gold
warrior statuette that the team awarded to Jonas as the chief second which he would later place in his karate school in Elizabeth, NJ.
The arena certainly looked different when it was filled to capacity than it did the day before. It takes nerve to do what we do in this business anyway, but in the middle of China? Talk about a “homecourt” advantage. I can only describe the fights when the Americans fought because I didn’t leave the locker room to watch the Japanese bouts.
As the event progressed, a bond and comradery developed between the Japanese and American teams pulling for each other against the Chinese team members.
Both the Japanese and American teams only won one out of five bouts under the Shan Shou format. The Japanese coach certainly had less than fond comments and felt it wasn’t kickboxing as practiced worldwide. It could best describe it as “free-style kickboxing with an emphasis on takedowns and throws.” Plus, it wasn’t as “pretty” to watch from a spectator’s point of view. The flow of action was constantly interrupted with the fighters going to the mat and getting up off the canvas, and re-starting.
Chinese Team U.S. & Japanese Teams
Cheng Qingshen def. Ishibashi Tomokazu
114 lbs. Japan
Tang Feilong def. Orlando “Storm” Cintron
126 lbs 117 lbs.-USA
Even though Storm had wrestling experience and was strong for his weight, the 9 pound differential was too much to overcome. His energy was sapped from not having enough to eat during the week and lost the decision. If this were straight-up kickboxing, I have no doubt that Storm would’ve won.
Liu Wen Chong def. Yamaguchi Tetsuo
123 lbs. Japan
Liu Ya def. Felisberto “Chongi” Fernandes
132 lbs. USA
Chongi’s boxing skills and movement were far superior, but he had trouble getting inside. We felt if he pressured his opponent more, he would’ve won. It was a close and competitive fight, but Ya got the decision. Chongi will do well in boxing, kickboxing or Thai style kickboxing as a professional.
Liu Wei def. Asami Masayuki
138 lbs. Japan
Zhao Zhiqiang def. John (Fairtex) Hunt
143 lbs. USA
John, aka, “GQ”, was our most experienced Thai style fighter, but he also, coincidentally, drew their fighter with the most experience as well which made for a great matchup. I thought John won the first two rounds by forcing the action. In the third, he got caught with several lead leg side kicks that didn’t do any damage but built up points for the Chinese fighter who was awarded the decision.
Li YongLiang def. by Ito Takashi
Yang Zhiqiang def. Peter “TKO” Kaljevic
154 lbs. USA
It’s the age old amateur pace vs. the pro pace that were at odds. Peter is a slow starter and used to the longer rounds rather than getting it done in three rounds. Just as he was getting cranked up, the bout was over and the decision went to the Chinese fighter.
Cui Shengyi def. Tashiro Yoshiharu
165 lbs. Japan
Zhang Hesong def. by Olando “Warrior” Rivera
176 lbs. USA
This is the bout we needed in order not to get shut out and the K.I.C.K. World Light-Heavyweight Champion delivered. Olando’s reputation was that he doesn’t seem to get motivated until he gets hit. In this case, his opponent tried to push Olando over the top of the ropes above our corner in the first round. This definitely got his attention. In round two, Olando worked the body while inside not giving his opponent an opportunity to clinch and try to take him down. Towards the end of the round, Olando backed Hesong into his own corner and landed a stiff right hand on the button and followed it with a left hook afterwhich their corner threw in the towel to end the only bout that didn’t go the distance.
Since it was the last bout of the night, bedlam and exuberance broke out with everyone glad to have the event behind them. No one got hurt and we made a good showing. “GQ”
said that in every fight he’s had previously he had at least a few bumps and bruises, but didn’t get a single ding in this one. No fighter likes to lose, but under these circumstances everyone was a winner for participating in such a historical event. There were TV interviews by the press and team photos. The Chinese youngsters were wide-eyed at seeing Americans in the flesh and we encouraged them to have their pictures taken with the fighters. I said to one reporter that I wasn’t sure if I were willing to help promote Shan Shou internationally, but if invited to organize another team, I may change my mind.
On Friday morning, before leaving, Bruce and I personally met with General Secretary, Mr. Yin Xiping, “a very powerful man in ShanXi Province”, and we were presented with two more statuettes of ancient Chinese warriors. By now, we were a bit weary of the private meetings which were significant in number, but it gave us an opportunity to personally express our gratitude to the leader for being invited to compete in this event.
We then departed for Beijing on a large bus with both teams. This time we saw the uncut version of the Big Boss as well as a movie that had a scene with a real dog fight in it which was quite brutal. It was a comfortable ride, but the fighters were obviously a bit bummed at losing. How do you explain the outcome when you get back home? What’s going to be reported in the karate magazines? The results may just perpetuate the myth that since the martial arts originated in China, they were still the best fighters on the planet. Without sounding that I’m whining or that this is a case of sour grapes, I think the Americans are as good, if not better than anyone at this game. The Thais excel in Muay Thai, The Koreans excel in TaeKwonDo, the Americans, Canadians, Europeans and C.I.S. fighters excel in Full-Contact (international style kickboxing) and the Chinese excel in Shan Shou and so on. It’s my personal belief that it’s the fighter not the system that he trained under that makes him great or not. It’s like comparing rugby to American football; differnt rules, different contest. The challenge is to get everyone on the same page. That’s not easy as can be attested to by the traditional martial arts community in this country when its time to enter an open tournament. What’s a legitimate point?
That night, after arriving in Beijing and back at the Rainbow Hotel, the fighters went to the night clubs in search of what they do best, act as ambassadors of the U.S. to improve diplomatic relations between themselvess and as many young Chinese women as possible. Bruce, Jonas and I were invited to have dinner with Mr. Lei Wei, President of
the China Xinghua Group who was one of the sponsors of the event. Jonas declined the invitaton and went with the stormtroopers. It’s his perogative since he is still on the bubble between retiring as a fighter and moving into a role as an administrator.
It was at this time that I became aware that there are definitely two distinct Chinas. The one which is very old and traditional but economically poor, and the other which is very modern and high tech and run by the crony capitalists. (It’s a descriptive term similar to our limousine liberals here in this country). The city is, and I’m guessing now, about 70 miles in diameter. It took us almost an hour to get from our hotel to the China World Hotel passing the infamous Tiananmen Square on the way.
I couldn’t believe how many modern hotels and office buildings there were. The whole area was lit up and reminded me a lot of Hong Kong in some respects and Tokyo in others. It was impressive. I’ve been told that ShanXi with a population of 20 million is in an even a bigger building boom with skyscrapers going up all over the place.
The hotel was impeccable. The lobby was tastefully done in rich Chinese traditional colors and decorations with all marble floors and beautiful carpeting. There was a quintet of musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments on the way to our private room and dinner with Mr. Lei. I’ve been in a lot of high class hotels all over the globe, but this was outstanding especially since it wasn’t your typical Intercontinental, Hyatt or Marriot cookie cutter interior design.
Danny and Mr. Huang accompanied Bruce and I and the five of us sat down to dinner.
Bruce was asked to select the wine and fortunately didn’t pick out a $1,000. bottle which probably wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow. He settled on a more moderate red cabernet for $93….twice. Then, they brought out the appetizers which included an uncooked lobster that was still twitching after its insides were laid open. The main course consisted of Peking duck which was perfect.
The conversation centered around President Clinton’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky and the American economy. I realized that our mainstream liberal media had done their job in defending Clinton when he said, Every man is entitled to one mistake.” (I was wondering if he personally knew Mr. “Charlie” Yah Lin Trie or Mr. John Chung, who were accused of funneling illegal foreign campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee, but didn’t ask). We learned that the Xinghua Group was a young company that dealt in technology, industry and trading services, but is also involved with developing business in tourism, real estate, advertising and marketing. Mr. Lei also has has an office in Los Angeles where one of his employees, Mr. Yong Gong, works. Mr. Gong helped us with the last minute details and preparations for this trip regarding our obtaining visas. In 1993, Mr. Lei’s company promoted the first and only professional boxing event in China known as “The Brawl at the Wall” held at The Capital Arena in Beijing. Muhammed Ali was the guest of honor and Michael Buffer was the ring announcer.
When it was revealed that the coach, Mr. Huang, and Mr. Lei were lifelong best friends, both Bruce and I gave it our best effort to pump them for information as to their future plans for kickboxing in China. Bruce was subtley bouncing up and down in his chair at the possibilites of where this meeting might take us. It was like playing cards with professionals, however, neither ever specifically revealing his hand other than to say this will be an annual event. When the topic came up that these weren’t the rules we were used to competing under, all Mr. Lei had to say was, “we needed to practice harder.” It’s safe to assume that their agenda is to promote Wushu Shan Shou regardless of the progress made internationally with the ISKA, WKA and KICK sanctioning bodies. The night ended with Mr. Lei giving us each a set of traditional hand painted eggs for a souvineer. After another of several cell phone calls came in for Mr. Lei, we shook hands and left. Now, it was my turn and all I could say was, “Wow!” This guy was younger than I was.
We left for the airport at around 7:30am. There were a few anxious moments because one of the fighters, who went out to a club and had met a young lady the previous evening, hadn’t yet returned. I wound up packing his bags for him, but he just made the departure of our bus. He paid me handsomely not to reveal his name.
At the airport, we were required to pay an exit fee of $12.00 per person which the Association paid on our behalf. There was then just a little time left to pick up a few tee-shirts which, surprisingly, were not readily available elsewhere. We left for our flight to Tokyo, picked up a few more souvineers at Narita Airport during the layover and then boarded United Airlines Flight 800 (uh, oh) to JFK where we would all once again blend back into the scenery, become non-descript ordinary citizens once again and get on with our day-to-day businesses. For a brief period of time, we feel like stars and and could escape the mundane routines of our daily lives which may also be one reason why we all continue to do this. Those who can keep their heads on straight make out fine after the spotlight is turned off. Those that continue to think that the sun doesn’t shine until they get up in the morning, eventually wind up in politics or try to become Hollywood entertainers.
The whole trip was an educational experience and conducted in a first-class fashion from our interpreters, to the sightseeing, and the ceremonies. Even the programs for the event, the gifts, the dinners, the meetings and so on were as they should be. To voice our displeasure at the outcome of the bouts, would only cheapen the stature of event. For a first-time promotion with athletes invited to a country that has been virtually closed to the outside world since 1949, would be totally disrespectful. Do the Chinese have their own personal agenda? Probably. Were they using us to further promote their own style of fighting? Definitely. Are they using sport to further the cause of Chinese nationalism and way of life? Of course. Every country does. Some just disguise it better than others. But, no one can deny that it was an experience that our eight man team will never forget.
Finally, these few words of wisdom: two Sominex, (not Melatonex, thank you) work just fine, if you find it difficult to sleep on a plane for a trans-Pacific flight……………