Today we meet Alex Richter of IWTA family, the biggest Kung Fu School with branches over 65 countries and over 4000 branches.
Can you tell us something about your life? When did you start with Martial Arts?
I had a very unique upbringing – born in Los Angeles but I grew up here on the east coast. I am half-Cuban and half-German which has given me a unique perspective on life to put it mildly. I can be very passionate and strong-willed towards my goals (the Cuban side) and yet very analytical about everything as well (yes, the German side). As for my early martial arts training, my mom brought me to a local karate school at the age of eight after a neighbor bullied me and punched my tooth out. After a few weeks of karate I punched him back and he joined the class too. After that we became friends. A few years later my mom switched me to taekwondo under some very brutal Korean instructors. I eventually earned my black belt a short time after that.
With whom where you introduced to the WingTsun style?
I can actually credit my father with getting me started on wing chun, indirectly I suppose. One day when I was about nine I was sick and home from school. My dad brought me Enter the Dragon from the video store. I immediately fell in love with kung fu! I started to imitate Bruce Lee’s movements in the mirror and I knew I wanted to do kung fu. There was just no kung fu where I grew up in New Jersey. It wouldn’t be until I was 15 years old that I came upon a “non-classical gung fu” school near Seattle where I was living at the time. This style of “gung fu” (alternate spelling of kung fu) descended from some individuals who learned wing chun from Bruce Lee in the years before he moved to California. I practiced this style of wing chun for about three years before I came to the Leung Ting WingTsun (WT) system. I have been practicing the WingTsun system since 1998.
Who were your Masters in the past? And now?
During my time in Germany at Langenzell (1999-2002) I trained with all the masters who taught class there on a regular basis. Sifu Thomas Schroen (7th PG) was one of my main trainers and to him I owe quite a bit of my success. The late Sifu Bernd Wagner influenced me a lot at that time and he taught me many things and gave me some very useful advice that I use to this day. Sifu Kaspar Nielsen used to throw me all over the place too. I was also able to learn from many guest masters, including some of my early WT heroes such as Sifu Thomas Mannes and Sifu Frank Ringeisen. Sifu Rainer Tausend (7th PG) was fantastic and very recently he even visited my school in NYC while on business here. I consider him a good friend. Of course my own Si-fu, Keith R. Kernspecht was an influence on me whenever I was able to see him at seminars in Germany. To this day he is very supportive of me and my efforts to promote WT in NYC.
After I returned to the States in 2002 I entered a new phase of my WingTsun development. Since Grandmaster Leung Ting is the chief-instructor for the USA, I was able to learn directly from my Si-Kung during his instructor tutorials and also during private lessons. It was also quite a shock for me – I saw my Si-Kung in Germany in the company of hundreds of WT practitioners, and then suddenly he was coming to my own school every year. It’s an honor and a privilege to have such access to the source. My Si-Kung has taught me a lot, not just directly, but even when I see him teach the students of various levels. I love watching him teach a brand new beginner – he has such a streamlined and experienced way of doing it simply, in the true spirit of WingTsun.
Another great influence for me is Sifu Carson Lau, whom I invite to my school twice a year. Sifu Lau is the highest ranked WingTsun master in North America. I have had the chance to learn with Sifu Lau in NYC and in Toronto both in seminars and privately for the last seven years. Sifu Lau is a very patient and detail-oriented instructor and has really exposed me to some training methods that have helped me tremendously. I have also had the chance to learn from Sifu Elmond Leung, one of the most senior WT instructors. He is really amazing! A true insider tip. I have also been very lucky to have the chance to take lessons in Hong Kong from Si-Suk-Kung Cheng Chuen Fun and Si-Suk-Kung Leung Koon among others. Basically I have been raised by the whole WT family and not just one instructor.
How someone can become SiFu in your association?
One must have at least the 2nd Technician Level and have teaching experience in his/her own school and be a reliable and responsible person. This will insure that WingTsun is passed on with quality and integrity. I’m excited for some of my own To-Dai to become Si-fu’s themselves hopefully soon.
Can you explain us what happened into “Fight Quest” (you were there, right?)?
Ah, yes – Fight Quest. I was there! In fact there is 3.5 seconds of footage to prove it (laugh). FQ could have been one of the best shows on our art ever but unfortunately the production company involved really ruined something that could have been great. I feel very disappointed because I was the one who set up the deal and met with them here in New York. I was so hopeful because the production company really listened to my ideas and they really enjoyed the WingTsun they saw at my school. But then when we got to Hong Kong everything changed.
First of all, when I first met with the producers in my school they were listening to my suggestions and seemed to be on board. I suggested to them that the final fight should be on a rooftop as that is something well known in urban legends about Hong Kong. Then I suggested to them that the fight should be between WingTsun and other kung fu styles, not WingTsun versus WingTsun. According to legend, WingTsun was created to fight against other styles and everybody knows that WingTsun versus WingTsun sparring (with full equipment on and newbies in mix) is not going to make for an exciting or good looking fight. How cool would it have been to have Doug and Jimmy from FQ learn for three days and then have to represent “WingTsun” (or wing chun in Doug’s case) against trained fighters from Hung Gar, Choy Lay Fut, etc.? That would have totally rocked!! This is what we agreed to at first, this is not what happened as you can see. The only suggestion of mine they used was fighting on the rooftop…haha.
Before I go any further I do want to say that Doug and Jimmy are both super cool guys and absolute professionals and tough-as-nail dudes. Jimmy was very respectful to Grandmaster Leung Ting and I really enjoyed my brief interaction with him. I trained for weeks getting ready for this show just in case I would need to fight or be a sparring partner to Jimmy. All this was in vain as the producers (who asked me to come to Hong Kong to be on the show) told me I couldn’t be on because I was not Asian! This angered Grandmaster Leung Ting who threatened to quit the show coming to my defense. I was very proud and happy to see my Si-Kung take these guys to task on their ignorance.
For the first day we gave one of the best WT performances I have ever seen or been part of. It was filmed in Victoria Park on the Hong Kong Island side. I was so proud to demo the chum kiu with all my Chinese si-hing-dai. My Si-Dai Haw Kuo and Sifu Jung Soo demoed blind-folded chi sau, my Si-Hing Alan Wu broke a bunch of Chinese roof-tiles dangling on his outstretched arm with an inch punch. Female WingTsun instructors Ming Li and Doris Chan did a very cool women’s self-defense demo. I did a demo with my student (Sherlock Holmes stuntman) Mike Yahn showing WingTsun versus MMA punching, kicking and grappling attacks. Grandmaster Leung Ting demonstrated the Bart Cham Dao versus Sifu Yan Yiu Wing with the long pole. It was such an awesome collection of demos and they used a scant few seconds of it in the opening of FQ. They used only one shot of me and Mike. It is a pity. I do have most of the demo on film with my own camera, it is a treasure I will hold on to.
For the final fight scene they decided just to do “WingTsun versus WingTsun” (although Jimmy was the only “WT” to fight, I’ll explain later). Despite the fact that I think my idea of fighting other styles would have made for much better TV, I think the idea of teaching someone for three days, making them part of your kung fu family and then suddenly having to fight against him is very strange. Why don’t they at least have us fight Sifu KCK’s (the WC instructor) guys and then also vice versa? As you know from the interview with my friend Paul Corti (also on this blog), the producers were not too keen about having Jimmy fight Paul. This is a shame because they seemed perfectly OK with letting Jimmy fight Chinese guys half his size (remember the equipment and rules make it a sport, not a street fight!) but did not want to let Paul fight because Paul was “not Asian”. Seriously, with the face cage on the helmet who would know? Seeing Paul Corti fight Jimmy Smith would have been amazing. So instead Jimmy fought the students of Sifu KCK. This is a very important point that some people don’t understand. No WingTsun (Leung Ting system) fighters fought in the finale of FQ! Sifu KCK’s students had black shirts similar to ours and this gave people the impression that it was our WT guys. This was not the case! The producer did not like the fighter we produced for him (laughs). Additionally they tried to make it seem like Jimmy “lost” one fight to one of Sifu KCK’s guys. This was not the case either. Jimmy won all of his fights, FQ producers just rigged the script and used editing to make it seem like he lost. I filmed Jimmy’s fights from the other rooftop and have this all in my personal collection. Jimmy wasn’t great at WT after three days, but he’s a fighter and he could definitely step in and bang.
The experience wasn’t all bad though, I did have the chance to finally meet Sifu Jung Soo Park, the chief instructor for WingTsun in Korea. I had been a big fan of his for a very long time and it was great to get to know him. I had the chance to stick hands with him for a while and he is truly one of the most skilled I have ever felt. He is definitely pound for pound one of the best WingTsun fighters.
By the way, check out the WingTsun episode of “Kill Arman”, it’s way better than FQ was.
How many hours do you train?
I train a minimum of two hours per day, often more. I use a concept called GTG (grease the groove) to train optimally. In fact, I train much smarter now than I did a few years ago. For that I can thank my good friend Doctor Mark Cheng. When it comes to optimizing training and body mechanics the man is a stud.
Have you ever fight on a sporting contest? When, where and with which results?
Yes as a matter of fact I have. When I was very young I competed in both karate and taekwondo tournaments. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost – I think this was between the ages of 9-11, so it was nothing serious. But when I was a teenager, around 16 years old I competed in a sport jiu-jitsu tournament in the school of Sifu James DeMile near Seattle, who was one of Bruce Lee’s early students. This was a very big deal for me because I had been learning the non-classical wing chun I had mentioned before and I had done a little bit of grappling with my sifu at that time. Honestly I think my “grappling knowledge” at that point was just a couple escapes and maybe one armbar and a choke, so I was really going in there as a “wing chun” person and not a grappler. I was really nervous because I was testing myself against jiu-jitsu people and I was not very experienced. I remember the night before reading some lines from Bruce Lee talking about dealing with fear and it really helped me.
The tournament turned out to be a really important turning point in my career. In fact, I was put in a very bad situation because there were not many participants in this first tournament and I had to fight someone who was a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and he outweighed me by close to 30lbs! At 16 I think I weighed about 125lb. That guy really came at me with takedown attempts. I was able to frustrate him because I kept chain-punching like mad when he got close to me. Then the referee told me I was not allowed to chain-punch (!) and so he was able to take me down. I immediately reversed him and the crowd applauded as I recall. Using some rudimentary chi sau I was able to frustrate his attempts to do anything to me and I won the decision. My second fight was against another wing chun man and I was so tired from the first fight I lost to him. But I didn’t care at all because I had defeated the brown belt in jiu-jitsu! I think I won second place and the medal is somewhere at my parents house…LOL. James DeMile sat and spoke with me for one hour after my fight. He told me about Bruce Lee and what it was like to train with him. He signed a book for me saying “Alex, you will make a great champion someday!”. It was a great day for me. The fight was a turning point because it showed me that I could use my somewhat limited skills to keep a bigger guy from doing his thing. But I still felt that there were gaps missing from my wing chun after this fight. Later when I was introduced to the Leung Ting WingTsun system, I knew it had exactly what I was looking for. It answered all the questions I had from my previous wing chun training.
How many hours per week should a student train to make serious progress?
Well it all depends. WingTsun means different things for different people. For some people it’s just a hobby, for some it’s exercise and yet for others it’s a way of life. These people would all train differently as their interests are not the same. For a hobbyist or average person, a couple training sessions a week are probably enough. For more serious individuals it should be more. Many people don’t know that quality training trumps “quantity” training. If you read the book “Talent is Overrated” you will learn that “deliberate practice” is far more important than mindless repetition.
What are your thoughts on other SiFu and their methods of teaching, on others associations and Wing Chun’s families?
There are as many schools of thought, variations and interpretations as there are people teaching. People need to realize that everybody is ultimately searching for happiness or balance in their lives, and hobbies are usually the vehicle. Some people find it in one method, some people find it in another but at the end of the day we do what fits our personalities, interests and goals. We live in a very information-rich time and everybody is able to make better decisions finding the style that suits them the best. If you are happy with what you are learning and doing then what others do is not important.
Can we know what are the differences between your WingTsun and others interpretations?
Well like I said before, everybody has their own interpretations, strengths and focus in instruction. I would consider my interpretation fairly eclectic. Luckily in the IWTA we have a big family so we can easily train and exchange with each other. This open exchange of ideas in our kung fu family keeps us strong as benefits all of us. I get the chance to borrow and learn from the best! For example, my best friend and brother Sifu Kenan Yilmaz runs two very big schools in Berlin. We both train together every chance we get and the experience of exchanging knowledge and training makes us both richer for the experience. Different interpretations are not a negative thing when we can openly share.
Another example was last year when I had the chance to watch my Si-Hing, Sifu Robin Tsang teach class at the Hong Kong Baptist University. I really liked the way he managed his class and how he gave individual students attention in the group setting which was different than how I did it. Same thing when I visited Sifu Maday Norbert in Hungary and had the chance to hear him explain his thoughts on training Siu Nim Tau and Biu Tze. The ability to visit and see so many different instructors teaching our beloved WingTsun allows me to constantly tweak and improve my training and teaching protocols.
What are the fighting concepts that are focalized on into your School?
Regardless of how good ones techniques or fighting concepts are, I believe the right attitude is vital for success in fighting or self-defense. That is why I love the WingTsun motto “fight with no mercy, with mercy don’t fight!”.
Can you tell us something about ‘Luk Dim Poon Kwan’?
The WingTsun long pole techniques have become quite an obsession of mine over the past three years. Of course it truly is an honor to be able to learn the long pole directly from my Si-Kung and I know how rare it is in this day to have this fantastic opportunity. I practice the long pole just about every single day I am at my school (which is usually six days per week). The basic training, the forms, the chi-kwan and all the fun of making this seemingly unwieldy weapon natural is a really fresh challenge for me. I have rigged some pretty funny contraptions for my solo training – stuff that comes right out of a Shaw Brothers film.
It seems a pity that the long pole techniques are a dying art – many people don’t take the time to practice it because they perceive it as impractical due to its length and usage. While that can be argued, learning the long pole has many benefits in terms of understanding angles, force generation and simply making your body stronger for more powerful WingTsun. Besides, anybody who spends hours a day or week practicing a 300+ year old martial art should re-examine what the word “practical” means to them (laughs). We do it all for the love of this art. Period.
Can you tell us something about ‘Bart Cham Dao’?
They look beautiful on my wall.