The Way vs The Person

I am reading a book now on Angelo Dundee who is the trainer for Muhammad Ali. Dundee mentioned that he preferred not to change any of his boxer’s personal way of boxing.

I can see the benefit of this approach as some students have certain ways of moving that is impossible to change. So instead of forcing them to adapt to the method it would be better to adapt the method to them.

But is this always the better way to teach a person?

If you believe in the raison d’être for lineage and transmission then customizing the style for the individual is to be avoided as far as possible. Each style has certain quirks, characteristics, feel, flavor and uniqueness that define it. So if we sacrifice some of these factors in the name of customizing the style to the learning of the individual then what is the sense of having lineage, tradition and transmission?

However, what if the student, no matter how hard he studies and practices the style yet he can never get it? Should he abandon the style? Or should then the customization route be followed even if at the expense of learning properly the factors that define the style as what it is. There is no easy way to answer this.

Coming back to the Dundee way of not messing with the boxer’s personal style. He does have a point. Sometimes no matter how the boxer is instructed there is something in him that does not allow him to change whether its inability to see properly, inner obstinacy, or whatever the obstacle is. Trying to change a boxer who refuses to be changed or cannot be changed is an impossible battle.

What if in refusing to change the boxer takes up certain bad habits? Perhaps the boxer does not recognize the bad habit as one. Or maybe his present superior physical skills allows him to get away with the opening that the bad habit is creating. In not being able to change this would mean that the bad habit is forever there, waiting for the day when circumstances change to make the bad habit become the boxer’s Achilles heel.

This was what happened to Muhammad Ali when he fought Ken Norton as you can see from the point made in the video below starting at 4:08. Note the point about Norton upsetting Ali’s game by jabbing him back by using the Split-Entry Jab that took advantage of Ali’s opening that came about by not having the habit of positioning the right hand properly.

Is Ali versus Norton a cautionary tale to students of traditional combat arts to render themselves subservient to the requirements of the style rather than try to do their own thing? Would this turn out cookie cutter robotic students?

Interestingly, the answer is no. Learning the principles properly is not asking the student to imitate lock, stock and barrel the movements of the teacher. A traditional art like Tai Chi can be restrictive yet be accommodating to changes. The key is to perform or use the technique in a way that allows for conformance to the principles.

For example, is keeping the elbow up in the air when striking bad? Certainly. One, it goes against the principle of keeping the elbow lowered. Second, it exposes your body.

However, does this mean that the elbow can never, ever go up in the air?

The contradictory answer is no. The elbow can go up but how it goes up is the key to going against or with the principle.

So a traditional art like Tai Chi is not necessarily restrictive. It can allow room for greater expression. How to keep within the boundaries of the art, yet go beyond it is a key to Master Tai Chi Today.

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