Podcast here: Alex
It was around 1994 and I was just beginning to get involved in competitive martial arts as a Tai chi forms and push hands player. It was at a Koushu tournament in Baltimore Maryland, where I first saw Full contact Kung fu guys fighting on a raised platform called a Lei Tai. It was very new and it wasn’t until about 15 years later I had the courage to go on and fight on it. There was a team that captured my attention from my home town San Diego. They were the Hsingyi team coached by Sifu Mike Patterson and they were a very strong team winning many championships. Having had a coach that taught all three internal arts of Tai chi chuan, Pakuachang, and Hsingyi chuan, I had never actually seen theses martial arts used in actual tournament or street fighting. It was quite impressive to watch some of these fighters successfully take these classical styles and adapt them to modern competition . I spoke with Sifu Mike Patterson and he gave me some direction about fighting and suggested to learn Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) . Alex Shpigel was a multiple time Lei Tai heavy weight champion and also got his Masters of TCM at Pacific College of Chinese Medicine. It was around 2007 that I took a trip to San Diego to go to an open house at Pacific College of TCM. I met, trained some Hsingyi, and visited Alex at his clinic in downtown San Diego at that time. We recently reconnected via Facebook where I asked him a few questions:
Q: Alex, how many fights did you end up doing over the span of your fight career and what was your fight record?
A: I fought in 7 tournaments, one of those being the world championships. I don’t remember exactly because these tournaments started with a group of fighters in the same weight and they were paired off against each other until the 2 remaining fighters were matched against each other in the last round. If I remember correctly, I had around 13 or 14 fights. I stopped fighting in 2000 with an un-defeated record.
Q: Name any championship titles you might have:
A:I was the 1995 west coast champ, 1995 and 1999 nationals champ, 1996/1998/2000 International champ and 1996 world champ.
Q: what was it like doing Lei Tai in Taiwan?
A: It was pretty amazing to go to Taiwan and represent the US. It was a bit different than before because it was not only my school brothers but also everyone from the US and the camaraderie was great. I met a lot of really good and talented people and was lucky to be able to compete along side them. It was in a stadium, so much different than the hotel hall in Maryland with a bigger crowd. What I still remember were guys from other countries I had fought before who were not there send their wishes through other fighters and judges who came from their country. It was a bit intimidating being in another country but once the fights started, all that went out the window. A major difference was that here in the US, all the fights were in one day so the injuries and aches really didn’t have time to set in. In Taiwan, the fights were spread over 4 days so getting up every morning was a challenge.
Q: How were you able to balance training as a fighter and going to Pacific College for TCM?
A: It was an easy mix. My teacher Mike Patterson was a great tui na practitioner, his teacher Hsu Hung-Chi (from what I have heard and read) was an amazing tui na practitioner and herbalist and his teacher Hung I-Hsiang was an acupuncturist, herbalist and tui na practitioner. So the combination of being a martial artist and healer has a long tradition. I would train in the morning, then go to class and clinic, then come back to school to either teach classes or train again, then finish up my day with studying. The problem was not as much balancing the two but staying awake in some of the classes and trying not to have a visible injury so I don’t have to explain to my clinic patients why their acupuncturist has a swollen nose or shiner.
Q: You were featured with Mike Patterson in Inside Kung Fu magazine on “Mike Patterson’s winning secrets”, where he mentioned some of the training of the Hsingyi team. In the article, Mike Patterson mentioned he had his fighters working on a steady amount of Tui shou (push hands), Rou shou (Pakua push hands), and An Shen Pao (Hsingyi partner drills). How much did the Internal arts play in developing your strategies as a fighter?
A: The Internal Arts were the only training I had ever had to that point so that was the only strategy I had. Our team consistently made a strong showing, even the new fighters, so the Internal arts played a key role to our success.
Q: What is your current training like these days now as a retired fighter? What kinds of training are you currently doing?
A: I still keep up my training, although not nearly at the level as during my fighting days. Training for a fight is one thing, but training for knowledge and longevity is another. The great thing about the Internal Arts is they are not only for fighting or their martial aspect but if you look into them, it is a way of life. The discipline and confidence will transfer into every aspect of life. The forms keep your body supple and the qi gung keeps your body healthy. I teach class here in San Diego a few days a week to a good group of students and do my own practice including forms, meditation and qi gung on a regular basis.
Q: How did you mentally prepare for fighting on the Lei Tai?
A: Everybody had his or her own way. I had my music, movies (Conan was always a favorite), and visualizations of getting up on the Lei Tai and finishing up with having my hand lifted.
Q: With the explosion of the UFC and MMA, what do you think might be lacking with the amount of fighters rushing in to fighting in the cage?
A: Although I really enjoy watching these competitions, the skill and endurance is amazing. However, what I think is lacking is the art. I can only speak for the students at my school and myself, but today there is very little art and tradition taught at these schools. They put out great fighters, grapplers, kick boxers but there is no substance to the actual art. Obviously from my time on the Lei Tai, I really enjoy that aspect of the martial arts but it was more of my own way to test the system that I had learned and apply the combat part of it. But now that my fighting on the platform is over, I still enjoy training for health and longevity. I know quite a bit of MMA fighters that are in their mid 20’s-30’s and are constantly injured and in pain. I treat guys in their 20s for torn ACL’s, dislocated shoulders, hyper-extended elbows. The training might be fun but not the best for the long term on the body. They are missing the yin aspect of training, that part that you keep training after your fighting and young days are over.
Q: Do you see any advantages that MMA guys are doing in their training these days (like kettlebells, conditioning circuits, cross training) that might have helped you in your fight events?
A: Absolutely!! The kettlebells would have been a great compliment to our training. I add kettlebells to my workout regimen now and see an increase in connection and power. This is like a martial art, a full body workout and can only improve your training. As for conditioning and cross training, that is something we always incorporated into our workouts.
Q: On Facebook, you share many articles on western medicine and recent studies, what kinds of western research have you found relevant to your eastern TCM training?
A: More research is going into herbs, vitamins and supplements. Also, much study is going into trying to figure out how acupuncture actually works, whether its cell, nerve, blood vessel mediated or a combination. I think looking at acupuncture through this model can be a bit dangerous though. The use of acupuncture this way and westernizing it too much so that its fundamentally a therapy used adopted to western medicine might loose the basic principles and functions of how the medicine was developed.
Q: What were some of the techniques you used on injuries when you trained for Lei Tai or after fighting?
A: EPSOM salt was a staple in my house. I would soak almost every night. I did some self massage and Shrfu Patterson was a very good tui na practitioner so he kept us pretty healthy. Also, we had different jiao’s (hit medicine) and medicated oils to help heal up quicker.
Q: Are you currently coaching any fighters? If yes, what are you doing differently than how you were taught?
A: No, between my clinic and teaching I don’t have time to coach or train any fighters.
Q: Did you have any special TCM herbal formulas, diet, or receipts in the weeks training for a fight?
A: We had several jiao’s and herbal recipes for various injuries. These were always used after training on injury’s either old or new. Yunan Pao is a great formula to take internally after any full contact to help speed up healing. As for diet…well, I was young and more resilient. I usually walk around 210 and fought at 180 so the months and weeks before the fights were pretty much salad/vegetables, chicken, rice and whey protein with water and protein bars and can I say that the protein supplements have come a LONG way in taste since then.
Q: any final thoughts on the 3 internals (tai chi, pakua, hsingyi) as effective martial arts in modern times, any additional things you would like to share or add?
A: I think the Internal arts are very effective fighting arts. Hsing-I has a 800-900 year history of fighting, Pa Kua and Tai Chi about 400 years I believe. It might take a little longer to learn the fundamentals, but once learned they are very effective. But for modern times of weapons and stress, I think these arts will prove to be more important in terms of health and longevity than self-defense. As I am sure you know very well, we learn the arts so we have control and not have to fight. As my teacher said many times about his skills “it is better to have and not need than need and not have”. That is what I think about these martial arts. We don’t want to fight, nobody wins…even the “winner” might walk away with the worry of injuring someone. So from this aspect, since we are training not to fight, it is the deeper and “Internal” aspects of these arts that makes them important and valuable today.
Alex Shpigel, L.Ac.