When it comes to martial arts, fighting styles, and self defense, an array of information along with misinformation can be found in abundance. Many teachers of many styles can be found across the Great Lakes Bay region alone; however, few are familiar with the true powers of the science based art of Wing Chun. Though there are many variations by different teacher lineages; within Chinese Kung Fu systems, it is predominantly recognized as a superior fighting system.
Many talk the talk, but few are the proven real deal like Saginaw born - Sifu (Chinese for teacher) & Grand Champion Robert Hannon. I sat down with him to find out more about both his training and fighting history.
While Robert has studied in many arts including Filipino Martial Arts, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and Silat, at the young age of eight he started his martial arts groundwork in Taekwondo. About a year later he dropped from classes to pursue his other childhood passion - ice hockey. When he was 15, Hannon’s interests returned to Taekwondo, and he has since never stopped training and expanding his now vast knowledge and experience of martial arts.
After joining the Army and completing infantry school in 1983, where he was introduced to military combat system which was for the most part a mixture of Karate and Judo, Hannon felt lucky to be stationed in the demilitarized zone at the North and South Korean borders. While there he was a member of a platoon performing reconnaissance patrols in the DMZ.
In his off time, he was able to study at the heart of where Taekwondo was born and reached the American version of red belt under his Korean teacher. “This was a more militarized version of Taekwondo than taught in America,” Hannon explains. “It was less flashy and more direct. In fact, this was about the time Taekwondo was introduced as an Olympic sport, and my teachers were happy to see Taekwondo recognized, yet upset not agreeing with the version of Taekwondo that was in the Olympics which involved much more kicking and less handwork.”
He also participated in the All Military Martial Arts Tournament at the World Taekwondo Headquarters where he took 3rd amongst the other TKD practitioners, which were primarily Army, and Air Force. “I think there were a few Marines that came as well,” he recalls “I took 3rd in that competition.”
After the service, Hannon, still in his early 20’s met Eddie Chong, then in his 50’s and a master of Wing Chun. “His speed and power was unbelievable, I immediately wanted to learn it,” Hannon says “We had a class with somewhat of an understanding of Wing Chun as Eddie Chong would come here every 6 months and hold a Friday, Saturday, Sunday workshop. What really helped me out, is when he moved to Flint, Michigan for about 6 to 9 months, and I would travel down there and train almost every day. That’s who I first completed the Wing Chun system with was Sifu Eddie Chong.”
“Then he (Chong) traveled back to China and learned the Ponam Wing Chun, the Bak Mei systems, and I started searching out there for different things going to various seminars by prominent Wing Chun instructors throughout the U.S.”
“I read an article inside Kung Fu Magazine about Benny Meng and the Moy Yat system. They were in Ohio, so I ended up traveling down there with a training partner for a day lesson with him.”
“After 1 day down there, playing kung fu with the students, and what he taught us the first day, we found our learning was all wrong. It came down to the details of the system, learning the nature of the system and how it actually works; being aware of what you’re doing with the system.”
“After a few months, Benny had a session I went to with Grandmasters Moy Yat, Ip Chun, Ip Ching, Hawkins Cheung, Moy Bing Wah, and Mak Po,” Hannon reflects “It was then when I came to the realization to master Wing Chun I had to let go of all my previous training and rebuild from the ground up. It was a hard decision letting go of the past 15 years.”
Compared to other styles, Wing Chun is unique, and very physics based - known as the science of in-fighting, and the economy of motion; focusing on being as efficient in motion, time and energy as possible. By using the body to create specific machines such as inclined planes, wheels, axes, and levers, a smaller force can redirect or dissipate a stronger force. One of the most profound differences of Wing Chun to other systems is the use of relaxation or soft force. Soft force benefits the practitioner in many ways, but notably in quicker speed, faster reflexes, and avoiding body manipulation by an opposing force.
“I don’t get too deep into the origins, there’s a lot of research into it and disagreements, but a lot of people think the system was created by a woman. There may be some truth to that, because when I get a female in class, they pick up the relaxed force much faster than guys do.” Explains Hannon on the hard-to-master soft force technique, and that legends claim the fighting style was invented by a woman.
After Moy Yat died in 2001, Benny Meng became Grandmaster of his own Wing Chun family. Hannon continued training under Benny, polishing his art and training under him for a total of 15 years; all the while putting his Wing Chun to the test, entering competitions wherever possible. “I took my lumps and bruises,” he says of the matches he was bested, “but even with the students I’ve had compete. When we lose, we never blamed the system, we blamed ourselves. We went to the drawing board to see what we were doing wrong. Wing Chun is a very internal system.”
Wing Chun competitions differ from most other fighting tournaments, in that they openly welcome all other styles to compete with them. In fact, in a bit of a shocking standout memory for Hannon, he recalls when he first went to a Taiji International Wing Chun competition in Dallas, Texas in 2003 - “It wasn’t actually my fight, but a guy was facing off against a guy who did a Muay Thai Kickboxing, and he did an overlying kick right in the leg - broke his leg.”
Hannon went on to take Grand Champion of that tournament in 2003, and also returned in 2004 and 2008 reclaiming the Grand Champion titles. He also took Grand Champion of the Arnold Battle of Columbus in 2005. Robert casually brushes off these achievements “I had kung fu brothers who traveled more, and took more titles than me.”
Though after his win in 2008, he was told of the most elite Wing Chun competition in the world to take place for the first time in 2011 in Foshan, China (considered to be the birthplace of Wing Chun). All the best fighters from the different variations of the different families within Wing Chun would be there. Presented with the opportunity and challenge, Hannon found himself, at 46 years old, traveling to Foshan, a city about 60 miles outside of Hong Kong, to compete with the best practitioners in the world, some of them, half his age.
“I was the only American,” he says “and there were other very good styles of Wing Chun there like the Red Boat Opera family and Gulau family”
Hannon placed 3rd in Foshan, ending his career of 30 tournaments never placing worse than 3rd. When asked what he considered the best fights were amongst all the competitions, his surprising answer was those fights outside of the competition: “At some competitions, various teachers might rent a hall for us to spar in. Other places, it was the alleyways in between buildings. This is where some of the best fights happened. It was all respect, but some matches between rival families would get pretty rough.”
Hannon now teaches Wing Chun in Saginaw and notes his enjoyment is both discipline and carrying on the art “Sometimes introducing people to Wing Chun, it’s the discipline they need that helps them in other areas of their life. And other times, just to see someone go far with it, win Grand Championships, or pass the art to others.”
Even outside of class and competition, Hannon is a nurse during the day, and in his personal life, he finds the benefits of Wing Chun are widespread, “The relaxation and clearing the mind is pretty helpful in dealing with stress,” he explains.
He talks about some of his top students, one who has won a grand championship and another who almost did “I’ve had one student who won Grand Champion. And another who was close… She took 1st in everything but the wooden dummy form, because she hadn’t learned it yet. She would’ve definitely taken Grand Champion the next year, but she got married and had a kid, so that was the end of that,” he laughs.
He points out his own challenge in mastering the art had a lot to do with learning it right. So many that are teaching or practicing it wrong. “It’s so watered down out there now, I hate to see what it’s going to look like in another 10 or 15 years.”
Fascinated on the different lineages, I ask him what styles were it that bested him in China? Maybe I worded it wrong, because he asks for clarification. “Was this single or dual elimination?” I ask. “Who did you lose to?” Then he nonchalantly reveals, he didn’t lose, he ran out of time.
“Yea, I wish they didn’t put so much time into the festivities and honoring everybody. It was cool, but it wasted too much time and didn’t leave enough for fighting. I had to get back to Hong Kong. I had a plane to catch.”
Yet he still ranked 3rd in the World? Not bad.
Sifu Robert Hannon teaches Wing Chun at 8:30PM on Mondays & Wednesdays at Flowing Chi Dojo, 604 Oak Street, Saginaw. Prospective students should be at least 16 years old, arrive early, wear comfortable clothes, and clean gym shoes.
The History of Wing Chun
Though the history is debated by scholars, some saying it was the secret style of Shaolin, others claiming it was invented by Triads/criminal element. However, most accept the story presented by Great Grandmaster Ip Man. An educated man, Ip wanted the following to be remembered as the story of its origin to such a degree, he had one of his top students, Moy Yat, etch it in stone:
An Abbess by the name of Ng Mui, who had been trained by four Shaolin masters, was fleeing through the wilderness after escaping a Shaolin Monastery destroyed by invading forces when she came upon a fight between a crane and a snake. It is from this fight that inspired many of the efficient movements and theory that make up Wing Chun.
Ng Mui later taught the style to a woman by the name of Yim Wing Chun (whom the style is named after), who used it to publically humiliate and fend off a warlord trying to force her into marriage. Yim eventually married a man she loved, a Shaolin disciple, whom she taught the style to, they further developed it, and they taught it to the Red Boat Opera, a group of revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the government. The Red Boat Opera furthered the style by creating the famed wooden dummy, and weapon systems.
The first outsider the Red Boat Opera taught to was Dr Leung Jan, then another four generations later and it was passed to Ip Man. Ip Man, was the first to publicly teach Wing Chun, fearing the art would be lost forever.
In his last days and final stages of cancer, Ip had the only film of him recorded performing some of the Wing Chun forms. Since too many had not completed their training, and were now teaching distorted versions of the Wing Chun system, Ip again feared the art would be lost forever, so in a frail state, he recorded some of the Wing Chun forms to preserve for future generations.