Only by sparring do you have any true sense of whether or not you have usable skills in self defence. It provides a baseline for your progress and is ideally a regular feature of your training.

Having been raised on sparring before learning the Wing Chun system in Hong Kong, Barry Pang took the point of view that training should involve:

  • Sparring as a daily baseline of progress, and
  • Tournaments as the next-level test

To support this he helped establish the Australasian Kung Fu Championships in 1981, an all-styles competition that preceded the kickboxing scene that would emerge later. Students that excelled in sparring were able to test themselves beyond the confines of Wing Chun, in full contact matches.

Kung fu traditions

Wing Chun’s potential as a practical art is a popular topic of discussion that often points to the same two or three people as evidence. The catch is that kung fu, as with all martial arts, is an individual pursuit. Your natural talent, training, mindset and physical size will all influence the kung fu you produce. And sparring lets you know where you are on that journey.

With sparring you learn and adapt. In traditional Chinese martial arts training, however, free sparring in class was not included. This was true of Yip Man’s school and the Wing Chun Athletic Association generally, and is still common across schools today. It is therefore no surprise that standout fighters like Wong Shun Leung and Bruce Lee had prior experience in boxing.

The outcome of the traditional kung fu path was that if Chi Sao and other routines were the sole focus of partner work, then this is what the next generation adopted and passed down. Wong Shun Leung maintained that tradition. Bruce Lee took an adaptive path, breaking away from Wing Chun with his Jeet Kune Do and introducing sparring into his classes.

Sparring as a daily baseline of progress

Once skills have been developed through forms and drills, the natural next step is to test how they can be applied when the guardrails are removed. Free sparring practice simulates self-defence, but can be managed in a way that is safe enough to gradually build experience and increase the pressure. By pairing senior students with juniors, the risk of injury is reduced. Senior students can control the tempo and aggression, practising correct techniques whilst allowing their partner to try their basic skills.

Instructors that are comfortable with their abilities also participate in sparring. This is what Pang experienced in his early days, regularly sparring with Taekwondo instructors Yong Dai Cho and Jack Rozinszky. The experience directly influenced his focus on sparring when later designing his kung fu program, including the habit to spar directly with his students.

Hands-on sparring advice (2023)

Beyond sparring there is tournament fighting

The next-level test for experienced students willing to push beyond the relative safety of classroom sparring is tournament fighting. They might start with non-contact point scoring competitions, in order to face off against unfamiliar styles, before advancing to heavier experiences.

Barry Pang helped pioneer the first open-style, full contact championships in Australia. These elimination tournaments included prize money and were precursors to the kick-boxing scene that came later. A multitude of styles participated, entering their most experienced fighters, including boxers. It was a chance to see if you could attack with power (constrained by gloves) and defend against aggressive opponents using unpredictable techniques.

Pang and Cheung ringside (1981)

The trade offs included adapting to rules, wearing gloves and the risk of injury. All combat sports include rules to limit injuries, including the UFC’s 20-plus foul scenarios. Rules limit options that might otherwise be available in self defence. UFC fouls include groin kicks and pointing fingers in the direction of someone’s face (even without contact).

Gloves limit power and therefore require deviation from “proper techniques”. They hamper the usual wrist-work in Wing Chun techniques, including its basic punch, requiring longer movements to develop power. This means that short chain punches with elbows perfectly on the centreline are not an option. Without the normal stopping-power of a good Wing Chun punch, opponents trade blows, much like modified boxing techniques.

This is why you cannot expect to see “pure Wing Chun” in full contact scenarios, even from UFC legends with Wing Chun training like Anderson Silva. But you can expect mental toughness and physical fitness, including the ability to take a punch and deliver the next.

Tournament variety is important

To specialise in one form of tournament fighting is important for professional fighters. They are impressive, elite athletes earning a living in the combat sports arena. For martial artists wanting to develop rounded skills in self-defence, tournament variety is important. From the 1970s through to the 90s, Barry Pang gave his students opportunities to train for and compete in a range of tournaments as they evolved in Australia:

  • Non-contact point fighting (Late 1970s)
  • Kung Fu vs Karate – Bob Jones together with Richard Norton invited Kung Fu into their tournaments
  • Kick boxing – The early kickboxing scene allowed high-kicking with “safety kick” equipment (Early 80s).
  • Muay Thai – Allowed clinching together with elbow and knee strikes (Late 80s).
  • Full contact open-styles – Allowed low kicks (Early 80s and into the 90s).

Students had to adapt to a variety of conditions, equipment and rules. They also met challenges from serious fighters.

Referee attends a TKO

The Australasian Kung Fu Championships gave students the chance to face opponents with serious practical experience, including some with over 100 professional fights to their name. Styles represented included Praying Mantis, Wing Chun (multiple schools), Kick Boxing, Viet Vo Dao, Taekwondo, Choy Li Fut and professional boxers. Several of Barry Pang’s students won their weight divisions in full-contact tournaments across this era, including Anne Pang in the 1980’s and Scott Peterson in the 1990’s.

The full-contact fights were decided on points or by knockout. Many retired hurt or left the tournament with long recovery periods to look forward to. Scott Peterson won his championship after sustaining broken ribs in his first match up. He carried this injury throughout subsequent fights, eventually prevailing in his weight division.

After this period came the grappling-based fighting era. MMA and UFC became popular in Australia during the 2000s. Like professional boxing, these events required individual fighters to be rated and matched for single-event fights. These came after Barry Pang Kung Fu’s two-decades of tournament focus and suited individual rather than group development.

Wing Chun versus all styles (1981)

Beyond tournaments are practicalities

Tournament experience helps create adaptable and mentally tough students. But being rule-based, they do not hold the answers to everything. There are no rules, referees or weight divisions in self defence.

If your safety truly depended on self-defence reactions, there are certain techniques that are high-risk. For example, going to ground and grappling a single opponent. Given the likelihood of multiple opponents, gang fights, or just a friend waiting on the sidelines to step in and stomp, the ground is not the place to be. Instead, having mobility and the instinct to hit sensitive, fight-ending areas of the body is critical.

Summary

The benefit that every martial artist enjoys is health and fitness, which becomes more and more important as we age. There is also the enjoyable challenge of learning and understanding the techniques, theories and history. But at the end of the day, if you’re looking for effectiveness in self defence and the confidence that comes with it, sparring is the truth.

See also

Article: Written by R Zandbergs
Main photo: Karaman Gumus from Barry Pang Kung Fu (shirtless) versus Tom Petrovic from Australian Wing Chun Academy during the Australian Kung Fu Championships, 1981

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