TAPPED OUT: An interview with Matthew "American Shaolin" Polly
by Gene Ching
In 2007, Matthew Polly wrote American Shaolin. It is a unique snapshot of Shaolin Temple in the early nineties. Matt was one of the very first westerners to study at Shaolin for an extended period. Buddha smiled on American Shaolin, as it became a national bestseller and one of the most unique and successful American martial arts books ever.
In 1995, Buddha smiled on me too, as Matt was my guide for my first trip to Shaolin. The following year, he assisted with my Shaolin discipleship ceremony. I believe it was Shaolin karma that brought us together and I will always look to Matt as my elder Shaolin brother and dear friend.
On November 17, 2011, Matt's new book, Tapped Out, comes out. I've read it and love it, but confess I'm rather biased. Matt's new book gave me an excuse to check in on an old friend and talk martial arts. Such opportunities are never to be missed.
GC: So, you've traded your robes for rash guards. What would your master, Abbot Yongxin, say?
MP: (laughs) I think he would say, "What do I get? Do I get a percentage?" No, sorry. (laughs more).
I think it's interesting to watch the evolution of martial arts. That's what I was fascinated by. Certainly when you and I were into kung fu - and still are - it was a bit of an outsider's thing still in the States. MMA went mainstream so it's fascinating to see this sport where people actually make a living fighting, which is not what you could do as a sanshou or sanda kickboxer.
GC: Going from Shaolin to MMA is like ancient to modern - the Alpha and Omega of martial arts. I found Tapped Out structurally similar to American Shaolin even though the topics are like opposite sides of the coin. How would you compare Shaolin and MMA?
MP: What's interesting is that MMA is completely Americanized in the sense that it's very much about this progressive sense or this evolutionary sense. So it's looking forward. Anything that someone does - there's the next stage. Someone's going to develop something new.
Shaolin is very much about looking towards the past and trying to see whether or not you have perfected the art that was before. And also there's this big question of whether or not what we see today represents what it was in the past. In many ways, kung fu is about keeping a lineage and holding up tradition.
I think MMA is very much about what can come next.
GC: Is traditional still relevant to you?
MP: The questions are: What are you trying to do with traditional martial arts? Are you keeping up a past tradition? Or are you trying to see what's the best unarmed way to fight? The one thing about MMA is that it offers a forum - I would say a petri dish - where you get to test stuff out. So that's why a lot of things have changed. Certainly from the UFC 1 until now, they're not the same type of fighters. They don't fight the same way. What MMA is has evolved and changed. One of the things about traditional arts is it's about the tradition. And that's what's beautiful about it - keeping up the tradition. There are many aspects of it that are unique and kind of special - and are great fighting stuff. But if you're trying to uphold what the master did eighteen generations back, that's different than if you're trying to figure out how to get on TV and make a million dollars. So the goals are very different.
There's a spiritual element, I would argue, to kung fu. I do believe it's moving meditation. And Shaolin, the forms themselves, are about a kind of physical manifestation of Zen Buddhism or Chan. And MMA is about being a sport. It's about winning a fight. Often times, I felt this regret that the "art" to the martial was sacrificed for the martial itself. There is no spiritual element. They're not meditating. They're only starting to delve into the aspects of the mental and the spiritual. So much of the focus is purely physical.
GC: You went to Shaolin as a religious studies student. One of the things I really liked about American Shaolin was that you showed these pedestaled monks as very human. In Tapped Out, you show MMA fighters in a more intellectual light than the stereotype might expect. How did that spirituality play out in the cage?
MP: I actually think we are going to see more of the art and less of the physical. If you maximize the physical, you're looking for that extra 10 or 20 percent. I thought Randy Couture was very interesting because he wasn't the best physical specimen. He was forty-four years old still winning championships. And yet, he was beating younger, bigger, stronger guys because his strategy and his tactics - but also his sense of calm - was better. He enjoyed it. There's a phrase he used once which was, "The training is 80% physical and 20% mental. You just show up every day and you do it. Fighting is the opposite. It's 80% mental and 20% physical." One of the things I found in that last fight is that it's about getting your head straight and the focus. I don't know if spiritual is the right word, but there's that kind of Zen centeredness. So when I was in the ring fighting that guy, nothing else existed. It was just me and him and it was about as pure as it gets as far as a heightened awareness. And I do think there will be more talk about that later as we get past the whole who has the best conditioning and who has the best muscles. That only gets you so far. That will get you a long way, but that doesn't get you to the championship level.
GC: Today, conditioning is so scientific. It's at the highest level ever. We have vitamin regimens that never existed before.
GC: And so, where does that go?
MP: Well, we're also seeing that with the testosterone replacement therapy, so we're also seeing a kind of "Lance Armstrong" issue. Some of these guys have been doing - not to name names - but they're doing all the kinds of chemical things to enhance their bodies to the maximum.
MP: Well, juicing is legal if your testosterone level is less than a certain percentage point. Then you're allowed to do what essentially Arnold Schwarzenegger did back in the day. I do think, though, that the difference between the champions and the second tier is mental and spiritual. And I think that's something that will come back from traditional martial arts - that kind of mental focus - the meditation. I think we'll be seeing a lot more people talking about that because the human body only maxes out at a certain point.
Once everybody knows the same techniques - that was also what I thought was interesting about MMA over the last 15-18 years - people didn't know the techniques. So a lot of the progress was people learning, "Oh, this is a rear naked choke." Suddenly someone figured out, "Oh, a jab is really useful," right? (laughs) Things that have been around for a long time, they've been picking up and putting back in. But I do think we're getting to the stage with guys like Anderson Silva and GSP, this point where it's not just how hard your work. It's working smarter. And also, I do think there's some spiritual element that was lacking when I first started and now I'm starting to see a little more of that.
GC: Compare your sanda fight in American Shaolin to your MMA fight in Tapped Out.
MP: Ah. I fought a couple times in sanshou. The last guy I fought, as you know, was the national champion. And he just was much better than I was. The person I fought against in the MMA fight - technically I think I was more skilled, but he was much younger and more vigorous. And he caught me a couple of times where he almost took me out. I think the difference was this time I was the "old veteran" and he was the young guy. The last time I was fighting somebody who just had much more experience. That was the difference in the two fights. The first time I didn't know what I was doing. Tactically, I got out-thought. This time, I was fighting against someone who was younger and didn't have as much background. When I was meeting him and talking to him, I just thought, "I've fought the national champion of China. You haven't done anything like that." So just had that kind of level of - confidence is not the right word - that kind of experience.
GC: Your coaches had some disdain for your opponent's practice of aikido.
MP: The interesting thing about MMA is that there are certain traditional arts that are treated with respect. And there are other traditional arts that are not. Aikido is treated as something of a joke. Sanshou or sanda is not. That's taken quite seriously. Many of my coaches were like, "Oh yeah, I've watched some of the sanshou fights. Those guys are fast. They catch kicks well." It'll be interesting if China ever gets into MMA to see what these guys can do with it. Aikido, for whatever reason, is treated as a little bit silly. Certain arts, well, you don't see any taiji masters inside the cage.
MMA is a very external art. I remember talking to one of the guys - he read American Shaolin - and he asked, "Do you believe in qi?" And I said, "Yeah, I do. I just think sometimes it's over-exaggerated." And I go, "Do you?" and he's like, "No. It's just physics."
GC: How did your sanshou training help you in the cage?
MP: One of the best things about sanshou is the ability to avoid being taken down. Because so much of sanshou is about the takedowns, I can keep the fight standing, which was crucial because I didn't have any background actually fighting off my back because they don't do that. So, when I was training, when I was on the ground, people were like, "Okay, you're a beginner." When they tried to take me down, they were like, "Oh. You actually know a little bit." So that helped a lot.
The second thing is the sanshou kicks are really good. So that front side kick, which I didn't use in the fight, is very useful. With kicks in general, I just had a really strong background there. So the kicks and the takedown defense were the things I used the most. In my MMA fight, fortunately, I didn't have to go to the ground. If I had, it would have been much easier to stop it.
GC: What are you training next?
MP: I don't know. I'm officially retired.
GC: From fighting.
MP: Yes. From fighting. From getting hit in the head. At a certain point in life, you're like, "I've only got so many brain cells left."
There's a gym nearby where I live and I go out and hit the bag, jump the rope, kick the pads, but I don't do any of the sparring stuff. I'll probably end up doing more jiu-jitsu. I'm sure it's my kickboxing background, but I find it uncomfortable. I'm long and I'm skinny. I want to use my advantages, so most of my jiu-jitsu training was defensive. My coaches were like, "Yeah, you don't really like this. You need to figure out a way so they don't use it against you and then stand back up."
GC: Fight to your strengths.
MP: Exactly. Which is one of the interesting things - because MMA has so many different aspects, people are specialists in one thing, and then they got to learn the other thing just so they can avoid it. Obviously if I were young enough that I were thinking I would go pro, I would have to work much harder at these things. Almost all of my training was trying to avoid the huge gaps in my game.
GC: Ever dust off your Shaolin forms? You were never much of a forms man.
MP: No. I know. You were the forms man.
GC: (laughs) Thanks.
MP: No! (laughs) Forms are great. That's the art really. Truth be told, of people that studied at Shaolin, I'm much more likely to be attracted to MMA because I was more interested in the one-on-one unarmed sports version of it, as opposed to the traditional art. So to go from sanda to MMA is not that big a step, which is different from if I had been a forms guy.
I actually think forms are the core of the art.
GC: Have you been following the progress of MMA in China?
MP: Just a little bit. I know that there's some leagues starting up. The UFC's got some interest there.
GC: Oh yeah. UFC. Everyone wants to break into China's market.
MP: Sure, of course. (laughs) Siren song. There's money both ways. One thing we know about China is, how to make money is a crucial concern.
GC: Well, every country is trying to make money now.
MP: Yes, but China wasn't in 1960s. I do think there will be some interesting merger. Japan is the first one that caught on to MMA after the Brazilians brought it to America. They had a huge run, and then the scene collapsed as America took over. There's a couple Koreans that are into it, but it'll be interesting when the Yao Ming of MMA arrives at the UFC doorstep. I don't know if that's two years from now or five years from now.
GC: Chinese fighter Zhang Tiequan just lost his last UFC bout.
MP: Oh? I didn't even pay attention to it.
I do think there's going to be more. As we both know, if you have 100,000 kids studying kickboxing in Dengfeng County, you're going to have some bad asses. And so the question is whether or not, culturally speaking, they are going to change the kind of rules and the training in order to focus on this - the way Tiger Shulmann Karate is now Tiger Shulmann MMA. And that's happened over the last five or six years in America. Now, you can see a lot of people who know the MMA style. Even if they are not very good, they understand the basics of crash the cage, takedown, ground-and-pound. And sanshou or sanda is not something you do. But I do think the sanda fighters - I do think there will be a cultural shift and they will start shifting towards MMA.
GC: Where do you see MMA in 10 years?
MP: It will definitely pass boxing. I think MMA will start incorporating some of the traditional things that it sniffed its nose at in the beginning days.
GC: What makes you say that? The mental game?
MP: I think the mental game, but also newness. I'm forgetting his name right now, but there's a karate guy that did very well for a while. A lot of the traditional kung fu techniques, if you put them in the right context, because people haven't seen it before, are quite useful. And one of the problems is that once you get used to what someone is going to do, you're not surprised. So it's all muay thai roundhouse kicks, western boxing, and such. The most obvious example is that all the Brazilian jiu-jitsu chokes, arm bars and etcetera, everybody knows. They don't work anymore because everybody knows the defense. So I think in a weird way, it's almost like a maw - or a chewing machine - it chews up different techniques. So I think a lot of traditional techniques will come back like the crescent kick. I was talking to a guy who said, "Yeah I land this all the time because they have no idea which angle I'm coming from." And I met another guy who loves the axe kick.
I think the purpose is different between traditional martial arts and MMA. MMA is about winning and winning for money, status and fame. Traditional martial arts are, at its best, a spiritual progress. There's a difference between being a fighter and being a martial artist. Being the toughest guy on the earth isn't exactly what I think martial arts should be about, and at its best, is about. So I think there's always a place for martial arts in that sense. It's about physical development, but more importantly about spiritual and mental development.
And character. That's the other thing I thought was interesting. Because of the commercial thing, being a dick gets you more sales. So it's much more like boxing.
GC: Pro-wrestling. Trying to build a character.
MP: Yeah, trying to build a character. And you hear them and they do the thing and afterwards they're like, "Oh, I just did that to sell tickets," which is completely the opposite of the way you were taught. You're supposed to be humble. You respect your master. You never brag. All those traditional Chinese, or general Asian things - not that there weren't dicks who were in China too - but the general perspective, like what was expected, is different. I think there's a complete space for this.
It's like my indie band went mainstream. I kind of feel that way about martial arts like traditional kung fu. It was an indie band in America. And now MMA has taken it mainstream and you feel about it the same way you do about your indie band. They kind of sold out. They kicked their drummer. They got somebody new. Their songs are really popular, but it's not as unique as it used to be. Martial arts went mainstream. That's what happened.
GC: Will you do a book tour for Tapped Out? Are there even still bookstores?
MP: (laughs) You would know better than I.
GC: Don't get me started.
MP: No. The last time I paid for my own and it was not cost effective. The twitter and the facebook, and putting stuff on YouTube, is way more effective. But it's said because certain things happen on book tour where you meet people and they get really excited. Face-time. I'm going to go to Vegas and do the MMA media there. If I were a much bigger writer, a book tour might make sense, but I'd have to be much huger than I am. But I kind of enjoyed it, so you can hear the regret in my voice. A book every four years - I only got so many more of these in me.
GC: That's my next question. What's next?
MP: I don't know.
GC: Are you done with the martial arts?
MP: I'm getting out of anything that involves getting hit in the head.
GC: Any parting shots for our readers?
MP: Can you mention Everlast, my sponsor? I don't know if they are going to pay me or not, but was that good enough, guys?
|Discuss this article online|
|Tapped Out by Matt Polly|
About Gene Ching: