Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sonny's birthday promotion ceremony

Yesterday there was an event for Sonny Umpad at US Karate in Hayward, owned by Joe Olivarez, one of his longtime students and associates. This was both a certification ceremony for some of Sonny’s students in his Visayan Corto Cadena system, and also a 58th birthday party for him. As those of you who read here know, Sonny is dealing with cancer, and this was an opportunity to present some of the legacy of his style.

The list of guests in attendance was a tribute to Sonny’s presence in the martial arts community, with strong representations in particular from Kajukenbo, Jun Fan/JKD, Small Circle Jujitsu and FMA affiliations. A few of those present included grandmaster Felix Macias Sr., Gary Cagaanan, Greglon Lee, Greg Lagera, Robert Hodge, Wade Williams, Carlito Bonjoc, Ben Pagtanac, hosts Joe Olivarez and Crystal Suan-Olivarez, noted author Sid Campbell, and many others whom I’ve missed (my apologies!)

Things began with a short form by his youngest pupil. Next some of his students took turns in pairs, sparring with either barongs or sticks and demonstrating the flowing footwork that is a trademark of Sonny’s system. This was highlighted by a similar demonstration by Sonny Umpad and Joe Olivarez.

After the demos, students received certificates of rank denoting proficiency in his system. This was followed by an excellent buffet and chance for everyone to socialize. This is a region rich in martial arts heritage, with many practitioners from the 1960’s and 70’s, whose roots go back to the founding legends of martial arts in this country. It’s always an honor and a privilege to be around people like this.

Ours is a culture that places so much premium on newness and youth, but the martial arts continue to be a place where experience is a valued asset. An important part of this is the sense of community and brotherhood that is bonded over time through common interests and shared histories. Many who are new in martial arts see only the technical side, but it is in the cultivation of spirit that the art transforms its practitioners, deepening them as humans. We get to see not just how the man does the art, but how the art has grown the man.

Yip Man talked to his students about the “kung-fu life,” bringing them along to the teahouses to meet his contemporaries. To some this might be boring, hearing old men talk, but often in these exchanges are nuggets of wisdom to be learned. Knowing the history of the arts, how they evolved though various practitioners, creates roots by giving depth to what seems new and unique to each individual who comes to this path. It is those who stay and listen who grow to carry on the art to the next generation.

Simply being there is an opportunity to experience and learn. Once those moments are gone, they become a part of history, a bond for those who were there and something that can never be as complete an experience for those who were not. To those who make the martial arts a part of their life, the meaning of such connections becomes clearer with time. We are not alone in our learning; we do not progress solely on our own. As Silat teacher Roberto Torres used (and perhaps still does) in his online signature, this Sufi saying: “As iron sharpens iron, so man sharpens man.”

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