Sometimes I’m shocked at the shear ego and hubris of Martial Artists. Especially since letting go of ego is such a huge part of Japanese Budo. But some people, talented or not, are completely wrapped up in themselves.
And my recent exchange might take the cake. I’m not here to publicly shame anyone, but rather share something we can all learn from (and maybe be a little entertained by).
So we’ll call this person “Shihan M”.
Since this person thought it appropriate to respond to this article by publically naming me and sharing my picture, as well as directly insulting my wife, I’ll share his name: Melvin Williams from Chicago. I’ve also updated the other instances of “Shihan M” with his real name as well as other updates since the original article posted.
Bad First Impressions in Japan
I met Melvin in Japan. In Someya’s class, we were doing a short lesson on how to properly pass a real katana. This was not new to me, nor my students, as we had practiced this at the dojo at home. Also, this lesson had been covered in a previous class on our current trip.
Melvin was at the end of the line as everyone took their turn taking the (sharp) katana, handling and inspecting it, then passing it along. There was about 20 people before it came to Melvin. And when it came time to handle the katana, he completely blew it; he seemed to be oblivious to any of the etiquette about holding the blade in a safe direction, and how to pass it.
It was so bad, everyone audibly groaned as he tried to pass it in a dangerous manner. Someya pulled a student aside, and asked them to show Melvin how to properly handle it.
I tried not look down my nose at him – he may have never had that lesson before (plus this was my second time seeing it in a week). Instead I took note and explained to our students what to do if in the same situation; observe what others are doing and attempt to follow along.
Then in Soke’s class, Victoria, my fiance, trained with him. At the break I could see the frustration on her face. So I asked why:
[Victoria] “He seemed like he was trying to prove that nothing would work on him.”
He was actively resisting technique. While that can be a powerful learning tool, it wasn’t appropriate. Also, he likely weighs 230lbs while Victoria weighs 110lbs soaking wet. The perception she had was that he was trying to show her how much he knew. And how little she did. But in training everyone takes turns. So when it was his turn to do the technique, she resisted right back.
“I said to myself, ‘if he wants to play this game – alright – I can play too.'”
She effectively neutralized every move he attempted and in general was an uncooperative uke. Eventually, he became frustrated to the point of walking away and finding a new partner. And then proceeded to full force chuck him. Now I’ll often test things with resistance in the dojo when the time is appropriate. But not in Soke’s class. Not when that’s NOT AT ALL what is being shown or taught. On face value, it seemed like he was showing off.
My suspicion was essentially confirmed. In one of his posts he bragged that his wife told him that Soke never took his eyes off of him the entire class. Now that may be true (possibly exaggerated), but if the teacher is staring at you in class – it’s probably not for the right reason. Usually the nail that is sticking out is the first to be hammered. Maybe he was sticking out like a “sour thumb”. Or maybe he was staring in his general direction. But his statement screamed of someone wanting validation.
Facebook (apparently not) Friends
After returning from Japan, I added him as a friend on Facebook. He then added me to a Facebook group. Sometime later, I ran into a Facebook post he wrote:
“My name is my rank…no my ability to beat your ass on the mat is my rank!”
The “my name is my rank” is in reference to something apparently Takamatsu once said, and something Shiraishi Sensei repeated when someone asked what his (official) rank was. He replied “I’m Shiraishi”. Shiraishi sensei, like Takamatsu, was alluding to the fact that the rank you’re given has little to do with who you are or your ability per se. People don’t go to Shiraishi because he’s X dan/degree, but rather for his ability both technically and in teaching the art. It’s his reputation – not his belt – that matters. Nagato echoed this sentiment when he questioned “Why do Jugodan train with me? I’m the same rank.” They go to him because he’s Nagato sensei. “The ability to beat your ass” part is all Melvin. Yes, this is a Martial Art, so having the ability to execute violence is essentially what we’re learning. Then again, it seems like he is trying to prove something. Frankly, if you want to prove how tough you are, go join the Military or join an MMA competition. I have been around some tough martial artists, SWAT and Military. Usually the most dangerous and accomplished don’t brag. Because they don’t have to. I continued to see this pattern of posts and statements. Things like “no one in the Bujinkan trains with resistance [like our dojo does]” or “too many are trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese.” And I partially agree. I don’t think we test ourselves enough. And maybe sometimes we try too hard to be Japanese even though we can never be. But then again – Melvin IS in the Bujinkan! If you really feel that way, maybe it’s time to study a different art? But that’s not my place to say, so I bit my tongue (despite how irritating I may find it). He’s on his own path and needs to find his own way.
Public Shaming for Your Own Ego
That is until someone posted a video of Duncan Stewart. Melvin and what I assume are his students began to tear apart his technique. Now I’ve met Duncan; he’s a really cool guy and very humble. He also LIVED in Japan studying for a number of years. Someone called him “Nagato’s Shadow”. I’ve shared a number of his videos showing his very solid basics and form as what to emulate. Here is a video montage of his training at his dojo:
The video below is the particular video they were trashing, where Duncan is teaching Nagato movement. It seemed solid enough to me, given that it’s a clip of him teaching. However Melvin began saying how the uke could “walk out of the technique” and that “he had no flow, no bite.” He also made sure to throw in that he of course had much better technique since he has so much “fighting experience” and “natural ability.”
I pointed out that it was Nagato movement, and to be overly critical of Duncan is by extension to be somewhat critical of Nagato. He went on to explain that he, Melvin, is a Nagato student (which I knew, I study under Nagato too, and that was part of the point I was making) and that his movement was much closer to Nagato than Duncan’s (meh, don’t particularly think so).
I said that maybe he’s right but the bragging wasn’t helping his case – it wasn’t coming off as impressive. He then went on to say that “he wasn’t in Budo to make friends.” And he wasn’t going to “pretend to be humble.” He was a “bad man with a nasty flow.” Good for you.
I explained that I really didn’t care – all that maybe true – but was just being honest and letting him know the bragging was off-putting and worked against his criticism: self aggrandizing makes it sound like you’re simply tearing someone down to make yourself look better – and deflates any perceived legitimacy to your criticisms (valid or not). So I left the conversation. I saw he was the admin of this particular forum, and left that as well. I figured I wasn’t a good fit if he was the moderator.
Making it Personal
Then began the messages. He said that maybe we got off on the wrong foot (that’s an understatement). He then repeated about not being humble, nasty flow, etc. (Still wasn’t impressed). Then he sent me a video of himself and asked me to offer criticism as a sign he can take it as much as he can dish it out.
Here’s the video:
I watched the video. It was Nagato movement; I recognized specific things that Nagato does. It didn’t blow me away. I think Duncan’s movement is far better. His uke seemed to be shorting the punch a bit. But again, a video isn’t the best way to size up someone’s ability. (I also found some elements of his Japanese pronunciation a bit cringy, especially since he would criticize my lack of Japanese later on.)
Either way, I wasn’t going to engage. First, critique should come from his teacher (Nagato Sensei) not me. Second, I’m still learning and it would be presumptuous to critique someone who isn’t my student, much less from a video. So I was just going to ignore and move on.
However, he decided to message again with some of MY videos and explain how there was a lot wrong with my technique, and offering “his assistance”:
[Melvin] “Not to trying to be a dick but in your video: https://youtu.be/YQXeZpxthks @0:10-0:14 the uke at anytime can just walk out of your technique! And thats one of the biggest issues in the Bujinkan! The uke stands there and larp and let you kick his ass! Its a few other things in your technique that wouldn’t work against resistance and with your ura gyaku you’re relying on muscle instead of taijutsu. For what its worth your movement while using weapon is pretty good! But if I say I can give yuh some pointers and help improve your taijutsu by following specific methods you’ll probably tell me that I’m bragging even though I’m not. You might won’t like my personality but you gotta respect my taijutsu and I make valid points. Are you worried about a person’s personality, or are you worried about a persons skill? Best regards”
And that was the kicker. He has never trained with me. He hasn’t been to my dojo. Yet he was qualified to size me up from a montage of a few gata I did – filmed sometime ago. Plus you know things are going to be great when you open with “Don’t mean to be a dick BUT…” He’s an idiot. So I responded:
[Me] Thought you weren’t in the art to make friends? Don’t really care what you think – didn’t ask your opinion. Granted, I’m fully aware there is much I need to work on. But you’re not the only one that has had real experience, trained with people with real experience, or had students who had to use this in real life. I study with Nagato, Shiraishi, Someya, Noguchi, Seno and Ishizuka. I’ll ask them for what I can improve on. Btw, that’s gata your critiquing – by a video. You might not be trying to be a dick, but you are being one. And no matter how great a fighter you become, it doesn’t change that man. Check ya ego, and don’t worry about me.
[Melvin] I’m not here to make friends as I exposed earlier I’m brutally honest. Just because Im speaking to you bro doesn’t make us besties! You study with do many different teacher prehaps you only need to study with one! You called me egotistical… But yet a you’re speaking to a person that’s been Where you’ve been (taijutsu wise) but instead of saying which part am I pointing out you are quick to say, “I’ll ask the Japanese” Dude you don’t even sprak z Japanese but not even that if someone can point oit a mistake in my movement I would listen! Maybe you’re the one with the ego homes.
I find the last part funny, because I speak some Japanese (nowhere fluent). Yet when Someya was without a translator, and we were all trying to translate (it was a mess) he wasn’t necessarily johnny-on-the-spot. But whatever. I told him “yes I’m the one with the ego, so you shouldn’t waste your time on me.” Yet, he kept offering several criticisms and hinting at secrets he knew about how my taijutsu was faulty. I finally responded:
[Me] “Didn’t ask your opinion. I’ll keep practicing. Thanks for your concern.”
He seemed to be getting more agitated, so he took a few more digs.
[Melvin] Tell your uke to fully resist you! I bet you wouldn’t be able to execute that on your weakest student.
Again, the video was a demonstration. Of Gata. We do work in resistance in training (I wrote a whole blog post about it). But I’m more interested in teaching our “weakest” student how to use their body and leverage against our “strongest” student, rather prove how tough I am. He threw in one more thing:
[Melvin] You couldnt point out one error in my technique! That speaks volume!
I couldn’t resist using a bit of sarcasm:
[Me] Yes your technique is perfect. You should be Soke. Good luck.
Now let me first say, Melvin might very well be an amazing and talented fighter and practitioner of our art. I doubt it – not from what I’ve seen. But I’m not particularly great myself: I still have tons to learn. However, he is for sure very talented at feeding his ego. And by extension, that attitude will be passed on to his students.
After I wrote this, he decided to write a whole post criticizing me on his facebook forum. He also decided to share my name, website and picture. I messaged to notify him that this was A. inappropriate and B. I would like to respond publicly in the forum. After making the ridiculous offer of him posting on my behalf, I shared the article (which at the time did not expose his identity) as my response.
He then decided to tear apart my wife in the messages, and even decided to do it in a public post as well. The line was crossed when he said:
You’re setting her up for failure. [Paraphrased] She’s going to get killed. And just so you know, I was taking it easy on her.
And that pissed me off. Really off. Criticize me. But not my wife.
Yet the subsequent updates he posted seemed to suggest he was starting to lose his grip. In response to my post he said SWAT are cowards because they carry guns (right because no one has a gun behind a door being kicked down). He also implied he was gang affiliated . In general, he seemed a bit unhinged.
Soke on being a Martial Artist
This reminds me of something Soke once said about being a practitioner of Budo. He said there are three things most important to a martial artist: 才能 (Sainou) “Ability”, 器 (Utsuwa) “Capacity”, 心 (Kokoro) “Mind/Heart”. Of these three, he said having a good mind or heart, or a good 魂 (Tamashii) “Soul” was most important. There are those with great natural ability. There are those with huge capacity to absorb information. But it is most important to have the right mindset or a good soul to study Budo. Melvin is missing the right mindset. I’m not suggesting he is a bad person, nor that he lacks ability or capacity. But his ego is standing in his own way – and likely his student’s way as well.
The Big Takeaway
You will always run into people like this while training any art; those who are most concerned with projecting how tough they are. Those who tell you everyone else is wrong and only they know best. Those who criticize not for the purpose of helping themselves and others grow, but to simply tell others how much better they are. And they will attract a certain type of person.
What gets under their skin the most is when you simply aren’t impressed. Melvin is somewhat correct though – many martial artists inside their dojo and lose touch with reality. Many forget that our art is a fighting art. Yet those like Melvin forget that there are many ways to approach training, and no single one of us have all the answers. But they end up missing out on some of those answers while their busy explaining how they’re better than everyone else.
One things for sure though: no one can win any battle alone – you need friends to help you. And when you’re a dick, no one is going to want to help. It’s a bit ironic, given the opening prayer of every class, the Tadashi Kokoro no Kaisetsu:
Chihayafuru kami no oshie wa tokoshi ni tadashi kokoro mi o mamoruran. Shinken Haramitsu Daikomyo “The blessings of Divine teachings for eternity is a righteous heart will protect the body. Epiphany Clarity Enlightenment.”
So to answer his question:
“Are you worried about a person’s personality, or are you worried about a persons skill?”
I’m not worried about either. But I choose to associate with those who have both.