It’s a mystical business we’re in. As you know, the martial arts were born from Asian mystics and passed on to a select few remarkable individuals. Mastery over the arts will grant you superhuman powers of telepathy, iron body, and no touch techniques.
Or so we’re told on occasion.
A lot of people are surprised at the level of flimflam that is around today, and are shocked that people buy into such “astounding” feats (like this one and this one). But if you think martial arts chicanery is new, think again. Consider the 70’s and 80’s when martial arts were just starting to reach levels of high national exposure. Bruce Lee had come and gone and left a tumultuous blend of eclectic “masters” in his wake.
One of those wannabe’s was a man named James Hydrick, or “Sum Chai” as he liked to be called.
Hydrick began his rise to fame in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he started his first martial arts studio. Therein he taught students how to control and enhance their mental abilities. Through a series of impressive physical stunts (like jump kicking a basketball net) and mental demonstrations (like making heavy bags sway without touching them), Hydrick became a local phenomenon.
In 1981 Hydrick’s true star was born when he appeared on a show called “That’s Incredible”. On the show he demonstrated his best techniques and astonished audiences worldwide:
Hydrick’s combination of physical fitness, Bruce Lee persona, and mental abilities caused him to become a sensation. It didn’t stop there though:
“The tabloid newspaper The Star quickly ran an article on Hydrick labeling him “The World’s Top Psychic.” The glowing account labeled Hydrick’s powers as “incredible and staggering.” Other newspapers revealed that Hydrick could cure headaches and colds with a touch and answer questions before they were asked. A scientist and electrical engineer from the University of Utah after much testing also concluded that Hydrick’s psychic powers were indeed authentic.” – Unexplainable.net
Here was a man that seemed to bridge the gap between the real and unreal. University-proven and publicly displayed, what was there to doubt about Sum Chai’s powers?
Unfortunately there was one man floating around who kept a close watch on claims of this nature. His name was (and still is) James Randi. Aka the Amazing Randi. A professional magician turned seeker-of-facts, Randi routinely busted metaphysical hustlers, faith healers, and mentalists. He went so far as to create a $10,000 dollar prize for anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers under controlled circumstances. (Later Randi would up the ante to 1 million dollars and establish his own educational foundation).
Taking note of Hydrick’s dramatic rise in popularity, Randi requested a demonstration on the “That’s My Line” television program wherein Hydrick could first demonstrate his abilities, and then try to recreate those results once Randi put down some simple scientific parameters. Watch what happens, and do take note of the host whom you might recognize:
Unseen in this clip are a few more details. First, Randi offered an alternative solution to the packing peanuts, in case they were indeed somehow ruining the psychic connection; he asked Hydrick to where an ordinary medical mask over his mouth and nose. Hydrick flat out refused. Furthermore, Randi had in place a sensitive microphone that was aimed at Hydrick’s mouth during a rehearsal the day before. During the test, Randi was able to detect strong gusts of air coming from Hydrick, even though they were visually undetectable.
Certainly Randi was no fool and had no concern about losing his money that day. He also went on to explain his theory as to how Hydrick operated: “Hydrick was simply blowing the page over, and he spun the pencil around by the same means. Not immediately evident are these facts, however: First, the blast of air from a half-open mouth takes time to get to the props, and Hydrick made sure he turned his head away from the pencil and the page after giving a sharp puff of air, so that he was facing away when the action occurred. Second, one blows not directly at the prop but at the table surface” – James Randi
The rolling dowel trick as seen in the “That’s Incredible” clip was also easily explained. The wood on which the dowel moved was slightly concave. As the dowel would reach the far end from the initial roll, it would slow down, allowing Hydrick to mentally “stop” it. Then he could draw it back since the dowel was naturally inclined to roll backward. The concavity was so slight however that the friction of the wood would allow it to stop at the close end without settling back into the middle.
Seemingly foiled, Hydrick began to realize his time was limited and that he had to make one last effort to regain his fame. A few month’s after “That’s My Line” he agreed to another test, this time with magician and investigator Danny Korem. It was during this interview that footage of Hydrick’s martial arts operation and personal physical prowess became available. It was also the last straw for his credibility:
In a move that is actually quite surprising for con-men, Hydrick fessed up to the ruse. He explained his system and his personal background.
As many manipulators and con-artists do, Hydrick came from an imperfect childhood wherein he was starved for attention. he also fell into crime and used his abilities to preserve his own safety in jail. It was this combination of want and reward that led him to create Sum Chai.
Currently Hydrick is serving jail time as a registered sex offender in possible connection with his kung fu students.
Certainly James Hydrick can serve as an excellent study in the mystery of the unknown and the willingness of people to believe. Furthermore, we should take this incident as a stern warning when studying the arts to question what we see and attempt to understand why we do what we do (and how we do it). Lastly, we should be very careful as to what claims we make, as James Randi is still alive and ready to make us prove it.
Read More / Comment
Do you remember when “Batman Begins” came out? Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan took a fairly cheesy, misguided franchise and returned it to its gritty roots. They examined the darker side of the dark knight and investigated Bruce Wayne’s ninjutsu background. What resulted was an impressive, martial arts laden movie series that experienced great success.
We may be seeing something similar with Robert Downey Jr’s “Sherlock Holmes” (coming out this December).
Based off of the classic texts by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Downey Jr (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), and director Guy Ritchie are attempting to put a new spin on the franchise. Although the old movies, comic books, etc have been well received, Downey thinks that they are a bit unfaithful to the original character concepts and believes that this latest rendition faithfully captures both the intellect and physicality of Sherlock Holmes.
Check out this interview where Downey (after putting on a little bit of the ham-attitude that he likes to do), talks about the tougher martial arts aspects of his character:
As someone who has never read the books, I was surprised and elated to learn that Holmes had a combative background. Curious as to what exactly he studied, I ventured into Wikipedia for the answer:
“In ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, Holmes recounts to Watson how he used martial arts to overcome Professor Moriarty and fling his adversary to his death at the Reichenbach Falls. He states that ‘I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.’ The name ‘baritsu’ appears to be a reference to the real-life martial art of bartitsu.” – wikipedia
Bartitsu is a historically established style created by Edward William Barton-Wright, who combined classic jujutsu, judo, savate, cane fighting, and western style boxing.
I wondered how this ‘new approach now integrated with martial arts’ might look, so I investigated a little further and found the official movie preview:
It comes quick, but you can definitely catch some hand-to-hand action and even a little Escrima stick fighting ala Rambo 3. Whether the Escrima has any textual precedence or not I don’t know. I think it can be assumed that they took liberties and hyped up the action for cinematic purposes.
The style and presentation of the movie definitely sets the stage for a grittier, more “real-world” Holmes. If done right, Guy Ritchie has the opportunity to create a remarkable mix of action and intrigue.
Personally, I’m excited for the movie. If they can learn the lessons of “Batman Begins”, use Downey’s natural humor and talent, and tell a compelling story, I think they could kick off an extremely successful franchise.
Read More / Comment
A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I don’t get off on hurting others.
They’re also skeptical when I say they don’t need to love violence to join a martial art.
In conversation I never debate if martial arts are violent (they are) or if there are violent martial artists (there are). Instead I suggest that you needn’t be driven by bloodlust to get extraordinary value out of training.
Unfortunately, in the world we live in, violence can be thrust on us at any given moment. Whether we like it or not, we can find ourselves in altercations, scrapes, and even life-threatening situations. The two options we have are to depend on the ability of others to help us (like police, security, etc) and to prepare ourselves as best as possible.
In feudal era Japan, a lot of martial art activity involved the desire to kill. A Samurai often increased his status and the prestige of his sword style by dispatching other worthy opponents. This became even more prevalent after the Warring States Period (when most soldiers and Samurai had constant conflict to worry about as opposed to focusing on duels).
Nowadays the closest thing we have (thankfully) is Ultimate Fighting. Martial arts are still a tool of war, just ask the marine corp, but they are also a method of civilian self defense. The shift has been made from glory-through-killing to life preservation.
I’m tempted to liken our situation as civilian martial artists to that of the old Okinawans. The Okinawans were simple farmers, fisherman, etc who developed karate and kobudo as a means to defend themselves with what they had: farming tools and their wits. If a ronin or pirate were to start trouble in their village, the Karateka did what he had to do to eliminate that threat.
I’m tempted to compare us to them – but it’s not the same. The Okinawan Karateka were civilians, policemen, judges, doctors, and spiritual guides all rolled up into one. We are civilians through-and-through and have a deluge of laws to live by. Although I feel as strongly as anyone that we must do all we can to protect ourselves and the ones we love, there are gradations to violence and repercussions that we have to face.
So What Are We?
We are law abiding individuals who realize that the severity of life and death still plays a roll in our lives. Guns make the line of survival only a hairsbreadth wide. That’s not a comforting thought, but what can we do? We can’t pack heat all the time – even gun enthusiasts with licenses to conceal can be caught unawares or unprepared. What we do have is martial arts and they are just as crucial for people who abhor violence as those that love it.
One thing that does concern me is the amount of individuals I hear talking about how much they love to fight/spar, and what a thrill it is to knock someone out. Of course I understand the feeling of empowerment a good technique or strike can give, but I don’t believe causing aggressive dysfunction in another person’s body should be thrilling, nor should it inspire unwarranted confidence in ability. The most effectively violent practitioners I have met are also the most reserved. Their abilities have to be used with care and control in a realistic environment. If that sounds like a tough mixture to obtain – care and control plus realistic aggression – it is. Damn tough, but worth it.
I think a lot of people (including myself) ask themselves from time to time – am I the right kind of person to be studying a combat art? Shouldn’t it be left to someone bigger, tougher, stronger, better?
The answer is no – you need to train and the rest of us need you to train. The people in command of any given situation need to be those that understand and respect violence; those that can use it, but don’t want to. In a world that can snatch everything away quicker than a heartbeat, it is up to each of us to do our best to persevere.
Train if the thought of violence unsettles you – train harder if it makes you shudder.
Read More / Comment