Chi Sau “Challenge Matches?” Please….

On the right, engaging in an applied close-quarters self defense drill utilizing the Wing Chun concept of forward pressure and  centerline dominance.  Drills are just that-DRILLS. Chi Sau is a drill, not a fight.  Always keep that in mind.

We all know people who have gone through a little bit of martial arts training at some point in their lives, which is precisely the reason that as I get older, less and less people know that I train.   I choose to keep both my involvement in Wing Chun and my close-quarters self-defense training to myself.  I’m not hiding anything, nor am I actively keeping it from anyone-I just choose not to bring it up unless asked directly. 

Now part of this is the maturation process that comes with not seeking anyone’s approval the way we do when we are young, but the other part is much more selfish. 

The main motivation for my choosing not to yap about my self-defense and Wing Chun training is for the simple reason that one of three reactions almost always presents itself:

  • Someone will tell me about how they took 3 months of karate and were a yellow belt when they were 10, which I’m happy for them but to be frank couldn’t really care less (sorry, it’s true).
  • Someone will tell me about all the fights they used to get into, how much ass they kicked and how they were a real Billy Badass back in high school- which, once again I couldn’t care less.
  • Someone will inevitably ask me to “spar” with them, which is code for “I want to see what you’ve got.”  That’s not sparring, that is a challenge.  Now I’m no dunce and I can read if someone is just giving me shit in a lighthearted way, good-naturedly busting my chops (which I have no problem with and will join in on the gag) or if someone is pushing a bit further through their tone, demeanor and other nonverbal cues.

Just to clarify, I don’t and won’t chi sau or “spar” with you unless you are someone I like, I trust and I can work on strategy and technique with.  Regardless of your words or polite manners, if you’re giving off the vibes of a disrespectful douchebag with a bad attitude and a chip on your shoulder, I won’t “spar” with you.  I will politely decline.

Is this because I’m scared of you?  Nope.

If I am to be honest I will admit that for a long time that did present as an intimidating scenario for me but, as my training has evolved to address the non-physical aspects of Wing Chun, full-contact fighting and self-defense, my fear has been replaced by a quiet confidence in my abilities.

A Rose By Any Other Name

There will always be fear of any physical conflict, consensual or otherwise, but proper and progressive training replaces ego-based fear with healthy levels of both respect for one’s opponent, the situation itself and one’s own abilities to handle whatever scenario should arise.

If I politely decline an invitation like that it’s because I either don’t like or don’t trust your intentions to spar with me and if I don’t trust your intentions to “spar” with me, the only other option is fighting, not sparring.   Eyejabs, throat strikes, ripping, tearing, all of that stuff.

There’s nothing fair about any of that and you know what?  I don’t give a shit.

If you are disrespectful enough to push for a “sparring match” right after meeting me and interrupting my training, you deserve to get your eyes poked or your balls grabbed.  As they would say in the Old West “go heeled (wear guns) or don’t go at all.”

Now just incase my last statement is misconstrued or misinterpreted I want to be crystal clear on this point: the only way I will engage in a scenario like the one I just described is if you are the only thing standing between me and the exit to safety.

I will bow out, walk away, “play the role,” stroke your ego and then I will leave.  If you will not let me do so, you have made my choice for me.  I can assure you if that be the case you will not like what’s coming up next and, as Forrest Gump would say, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

Doing “X” Without Calling It “X”

There are several “Wing Chun Vs.” clips on YouTube-mostly to discredit Wing Chun-and yet I have no problem with them.  Why?  Because I am not a representative and have no staked interest in the ability level of whomever is chooses to engage another stylist or fighter in the sparring match I’m watching; that’s on them.

The video clips I am referring to; the ones that I shake my head at are the ones where 2 Wing Chun guys who obviously have a trumped-up beef over something stupid like lineage or methodology engage in a thinly veiled polite conversation (which we all know are just empty and insincere formalities) before agreeing to do a little chi sau rolling or engaging in a “friendly exchange,”and very quickly it degenerates into a sloppy mess with plenty of full-contact strikes fueled by bad intentions and the structure of an 80 year old with rheumatoid arthritis.

Why does this rub me the wrong way? Simply because what these two dumbasses are doing is engaging in a passive-aggressive way of trying to do one thing but call it something else, which I think is a load of bullshit.

When I watch a video like that I want to tell them that if you want to fight, cut the act and standard false humility and just go at it.  Don’t call it one thing and do another.  But that would require putting their egos on the line…and we can’t have that, now can we?  It’s a lot easier to hide behind the facade of a mutual, honest and open exercise instead of calling it what it is and acting accordingly.

In Wing Chun circles, it seems to me that asking someone to”roll” or “do a little chi sau” has become the de facto way to passive-aggressively challenge someone.  I mean, it’s the perfect opportunity to try to get a hit in on someone without appearing like what they are – which is an arrogant ass – and on the flip side of things, it’s the perfect “out”  for someone to justify why they got smacked around, so they can say, “I was doing the drill; he was too tense and stiff, he broke structure,” or whatever other bullshit excuse they tell themselves to save a little self-respect and justify their coming out on the losing end of the interaction.

I guess I tend to view the concept of Chi Sau “Challenge Matches” in the same pathetic vein as that one guy in your high school that always played really aggressive in gym class but never went out for any sports – what a douchebag. The way I see it there’s Chi Sau and there’s fighting.  2 friends or even 2 strangers with the right intention can have an aggressive yet productive chi sau session; approaching chi sau with the attitude or intention of fighting is like playing a game of running bases or home run derby and then treating it like Game 7 of the World Series.

Er, NO.

Butch’s Wisdom

While training at the old Chicago Boxing Club on 35th and Halsted, a gritty, no-nonsense 2nd floor gym just blocks from Comiskey Park (I don’t care what name it is now, to true White Sox fans it will always be Comiskey Park and nothing else) there was a trainer named Butch.  Butch would walk around, offer a tip on a how to hit the bag or adjust your foot as he offered a squirt of water in your mouth while you did your thing.  Appearance-wise, Butch reminded me of an old-timey boxing version of Ed O’Neill from Married With Children with the mannerisms of Stallone from the original ROCKY flick, complete with the flat-brimmed “old man” style cabbie hat to boot.

The old Chicago Boxing Club, 35th & Halsted on Chicago’s south side.

One Sunday morning as I was going through my workout I saw a guy tearing up the bags, really going to town.  I stopped my workout for about 10 seconds to watch him.  As Butch walked by and gave me a squirt in the mouth from his water bottle I gestured over at that guy and said, “wow! that guy is good.”

Butch just shook his head, said “hitting the bag ain’t boxing,” shrugged his shoulders noncommittally and went on his way making the rounds.

So simple and yet so true.

Kicking and punching pads is not kickboxing; working the mitts and the bag at your local gym is not boxing.  Chi Sau is a drill to be used to hone your fighting skills; it is not a fight.  How do you apply those fighting skills?  By FIGHTING.

Now that doesn’t mean it has to be an all-out brawl or street fight.  Full-contact sparring or combat sports training offers the same lessons with none of the legal repercussions-but the same core lessons are there to be gleaned: endurance, fear management, confidence, courage and killer instinct.

My Rule of Rolling

My standing rule of chi sau rolling is this: I will only roll with those I like, trust and can learn from.  I am an open book in my mind and a sponge ready to soak up useful info when I am training.  My mindset is different when rolling; although I will always maintain an aggressive position in any training, I am there to learn, apply and refine my Wing Chun skills.  I am not there to “hit at all costs” or to break structure based on aggression.  I am here to sharpen my Wing Chun “axe” so that when I really need it, my skills are razor sharp.

Real-world scenarios demand adaptation and in many cases, momentary deviation from according-to-Webster Wing Chun proper, if only to readjust and get back into your Wing Chun “bubble,” as Sifu David Peterson (one of the Wong Shun Leung system’s most gifted practitioners and instructors) calls it.  This is on a situational basis and requires years of dedicated, progressive and purposefully directed training to apply.

Take a look at the clip below: this is what a solid chi sau session should look like.  This is me and my instructor Keith, a former national Wing Chun and full-contact sanshou (Chinese kickboxing) champion getting in some solid extra training on a sweaty July night after class.

Note that all of the attributes of a fight are there: purposefully directed action, assertiveness, speed and force.  There is no soft touch, “internal force” esoteric patty-cake motion; just forward pressure, angle cutting and lots of contact.  What is missing is the wrong attitude.  We are aggressive with each other and are serious about our training yet the mood is light and not malicious.  While we are always training assertively and aggressively, we also recognize it as a drill and not a fight, and treat it as such.  This is how we grow in our skill and ability levels.

On the other hand, when I am ready to fight I don’t care what the end result of our chi sau session was.  You may be able to pak sau me at will, shut down every attack I attempt to enter with or slap me around whenever you please.  As far as chi sau goes, those lessons provide me with valuable feedback to adjust and hone my skills further but guess what?  Once we glove up  I’m coming in to hit you, and hit you I will.  Will I get hit?  Sure.  Do I care? Nope. When we train to fight, all pretense and ulterior motives you see in these thinly veiled  chi sau “contests” (which in most cases are nothing more than disrespectful challenges) gets tossed out the window: all that matters is jocking up with solid sparring gear (check out my top picks for your training regimen HERE) and getting to it.

My View On Fighting (And How I Arrived At It)

Now before you think I’m going off and sounding braggodocious or like a chest-thumping hardass, let me say that it took me a while (several years of purposeful and dedicated mental and physical training, in fact) to get to this point in my martial journey and is a position I had to deprogram several negative patterns from my subconscious mind, mired in a sense of fear and lack of confidence, to arrive at so believe me when I say that it is not a statement I make lightly.

Regardless, my position stays the same: you have to earn the right for me to touch hands or chi sau roll with you, since I am investing my time in improving my skills when I agree to roll with anyone.  If your request to do a little rolling with me is nothing more than a way to stroke your ego or try to engage in passive-aggressive behavior, nothing doing.  We either won’t do a thing or we will suit up and go at it.

If someone isn’t prepared to do that, save all this talk about “challenging” someone to a friendly chi sau session as a means for proving something for someone else.

The “Big Mountain” Way

Check out the following clip of controversial Wing Chun instructor Shannon “Big Mountain” Moore handling a well-meaning but somewhat belligerent attendee at a seminar who happened to be a karate black belt while explaining a particular drill.  Now Shannon is a very large man, so it can easily be misconstrued as him literally “throwing his weight around,” but if you really observe the interaction in its’ totality you will see that this is exactly the way to handle such a person.  I don’t believe that the black belt meant any offense and to many it may appear that Moore overreacted but I don’t see it that way.

Why do I say I do not think he overreacted?  Because this was not a “chi sau” challenge; it was a clarification of the ranges of combat and how Wing Chun can be used at long range to enter into trapping range.  This is a completely different scenario than someone who asks to “roll” or chi sau and then proceeds to deviate into a sparring match.  As Moore says in the video, “we’re talking about chi sau, if you wanna talk about something else we can talk about something else…” thus precipitating the skirmish.

This clip is not to discredit the karate stylist nor is it an endorsement of Sifu Moore’s approach since as we all know it is the fighter that makes the style, not the other way around.   Furthermore, Sifu Moore is a large guy – much bigger than the karate stylist – and that no doubt played a big role (no pun intended) in the outcome of this interaction, however it illustrates how he has figured out how to make the Wing Chun system work for him.  In my case, at around 220lbs it is nonsensical for me to try and emulate my classmates who are 140lbs.

Basics, Basics, Basics

This does not mean that as a larger Wing Chun guy I abandon the technical aspects in favor of just steamrolling someone; in fact, it is just the opposite.

The more I have delved into serious study of Wing Chun as an effective, practical and dangerous system of personal protection and self defense I have found I practice the fundamentals unaltered even more than I did when I first began the art, as I see the immense value in the system and the way it is structured (Click HERE for my picks on the best resources that reinforce the basics in  my own personal training regimen)

As the saying goes, “you have to know the rules backwards and forwards before you even think about breaking them.”

On the other hand, however, to deny the physical advantages my size and strength give me in favor of trying to emulate someone like Ip Man who probably weighed around 110lbs after hitting up a Golden Corral buffet is both foolish and dangerous.

Responding to a “Request”

So, how do I respond to such a “request” by a stranger to “roll” or chi sau?  This is something I have had to deal with on more than a few occasions so I’ve been around the block a time or two on this.

It starts as soon as someone walks in the door.  Based on attitude and intention, if someone comes in, demonstrates genuine interest and acts respectfully towards myself, the class and the art I will have them join the class and observe how he interacts with all of us before making a decision to indulge them in a round of chi sau or otherwise. If I determine his intentions are sincere and he is someone I can glean a good experience from, I will roll with him and we both will emerge better for it.

Conversely, if said person instead swaggers in the door, plops down in a chair, crosses his arms as he watches a class flashing glances or rolling eyes- and then asks me with a hint of attitude in his voice if I want to “roll” with him,  I will politely decline.  If he asks for an explanation  I will keep it as brief and cursory as possible since, based on his actions and attitude, this guy has not shown me that he deserves anything from me other than a “hello.”


Once again, much like my thoughts on “sparring” above, chi sau is a DRILL.  If I don’t trust your intentions, I won’t entrust you with my time.

My intentions when engaging in chi sau are different than my intentions when gearing up to engage in a round of aggressive Wing Chun sparring with gear on, and they’re sure as shit a lot different than if I am forced with the possibility of a real altercation.

When chi sau rolling, I am seeking to develop attributes like sensitivity, assertiveness, forward pressure and clean techniques against the backdrop of mental detachment and no-mind-ness, to let my hands, as Bruce said, “hit all by themselves.”

When preparing to Wing Chun spar full-contact with gear on, my intentions are different.  I now seek to channel all of the attributes of my chi sau training into an expression of controlled cruelty; killer instinct tempered with surgical precision.  I take my training very seriously and will not be distracted for anything less than sincere motives and beneficial use of my time.

When training Wing Chun as a close-quarter system of combat and self-defense, my intentions change again.  My mentality shifts to one that is best summed up by another quote from “The Man” Bruce himself:

“Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life! Do not be concerned with escaping safely- lay your life before him!!”

The ONLY Way To Approach Chi Sau

The only way to approach chi sau is the way I have described earlier: as a drill.  An essential and aggressive drill that is as crucial to developing Wing Chun skill as eggs and flour are to a cake, but a drill nonetheless.  This is precisely why I won’t play someone else’s game.  Much like training structure throughout your forms or maintaining your inner tension on your thighs during the stepping drill I will not fall into your framework, I will make you conform to mine-and this goes not just for the act of rolling or sparring but the tone and direction of our interaction and conversation.

I have found that this has been very effective in de-fusing the majority of “innocent requests” for a roll by someone I have never met who just happened to swagger into the school and decide that he wants to touch hands with me while I am teaching to “see what I’ve got.”

After shutting their request down as I have described most would walk out, chest out and nose up, feeling like I pussed out.  Fine.  Go right ahead.  As I said earlier, I couldn’t care less.  I don’t know about you but I’m not tipping my hand just to satisfy the ego of this mook.  You want to see my cards?  You’re gonna have to pull a chair up to the table, Kenny Rogers, ’cause I ain’t giving it away for free.

Remember the old saying (and anyone who knows me knows I love old sayings), “an uninvited guest often departs unnanounced.”

Keep your end goal in the back of your mind always as you give your attention fully to whatever training task at hand-everything else will take care of itself.

Don’t let ego, pride or insecurity detract from that.  That’s the other guy’s problem.  Just do you, and make the decision as to how to proceed when a situation arises.  I know how I am going to react; I’ve been doing it that way for years and don’t plan on changing anytime soon.



Train Smart, Stay Safe

Sifu Bobby



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