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Jump High, Fall Safely (Unabridged edition)

by Gene Ching Kungfu Tai Chi Magazine March / April 2011


Imagine meeting Beyonce and Jay-Z backstage. Cool, right? Now imagine meeting them while wearing feathers, squirrel tails and a thong. For Philip Sahagun, it was another surreal moment of his extreme warrior's journey. In 2009, Philip was a performer for Tina Turner's eight-month, eighty-show World Tour. He was part of a four-man troupe of martial artists including Justice Smith, Xin Wuku and Danny Sre, dubbed the "Ninjas." "We had to do this number called Thunderdome, which was a Mad Max parody," recalls Philip. "We would do two minutes intro-ing her song with weapons and crazy acrobatics. The curtain would close and then I would see it and cut it down with a sword. And then Tina Turner would be in the middle with the whole band. That was cool. Then we'd do stuff around her and finally, after that scene, there was fireworks and it was halftime. So we go to the back, myself, Xin and our friend Justice, this huge, huge guy. And we're wearing these squirrel-feather costumes, Velcro across the body, thongs in the back with these like Capri-looking pants. We busted through some double doors, open it and there's Beyonce right there. Beyonce looks at us and she's like, 'Oh my goodness!' And we're going, 'Oh my gosh. It's Beyonce.' We just kept walking by. And Jay-Z was around the corner and it's like, this is a really crazy gig."

Touring with a diva like Tina Turner, Philip met celebrities like Oprah, Denzel Washington, Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. After Philip complimented Cruise on The Last Samurai, Cruise told Philip, "I really like your swordwork, and when you wield that, it makes me want to go back and practice." As a 7-time National Weapons champion, a 3-time International Martial Arts Council Grand Champion, and a two-time member of the USAWKF Traditional Wushu Team, Philip has earned plenty of accolades on the tournament floor. With roots in Kenpo Karate and kickboxing, he found the transition to modern wushu challenging. His evolution to a martial arts performer was completely unexpected. "I feel really lucky to have fallen into this strange niche where I can do stuff like that," adds Philip. "I'm real fortunate."

From Kenpo Karate to Modern Wushu

In China, being born to a martial family is commonplace amongst champions and masters. It's unique in America. Philip's father is Joaquin Sahagun, a 6th degree black belt in Kenpo Karate as well as a boxing and kickboxing coach. Philip admits, "I was really bad at martial arts when I was little. I didn't think I had talent. My family didn't really think I had talent. I actually lacked a lot of discipline. And I had to test for my orange belt about six times. It took me about six years to get an orange belt. That's also because my dad was a teacher. It was pretty hard."

But Philip stuck it out. He fought in the martial arts circuit, but was never completely satisfied with competition fighting. "When you're part of that in competition, you're ultimately trying to hurt people," says Philip. He didn't feel bad about fighting, but he also didn't feel that such competition was the best measure of his skills. Slowly, he felt himself drawn to forms competition and the Chinese martial arts. He was happier working weapons than donning gloves. Of course, that didn't sit well with his father. "It had two sides to it because my father is a very traditional karate and boxing guy," says Philip. "He always wanted me to fight. When I found the weapons and things, he was happy, but every other day he would be like, 'Stop swinging that stick! Get in the ring!' Sometimes I would be okay with it. Sometimes I would be really hurt because I put a lot of time into practicing." Eventually, his father saw his son's passion and did what a good father master might do. He sent Philip to China.

Philip went to train under one of Shaolin's leading folk masters, Zhu Tianxi. It was a revelation. Philip recalls, "I went to China and saw a little bit - the spirituality and the things that surrounded wushu practice - that it really wasn't about fighting. It was about the hardship. And the hardship can teach you a lot because when you're 70 or 80 years old, all of your fighting skill will fall victim to your age. We can be overtaken by someone half our age. What's left? Why train martial arts and beat up your body to get such high levels - the iron skills and things - and you're left with nothing? So eventually I found that there was more for me - not to say that there's not more for others - in Chinese martial art practice than there was in Kenpo and kickboxing. But I definitely respect what it taught me and I've kept that training with me because it helped enrich what I took out of Chinese martial arts."

It was a challenging transition. Being brought up in American Kenpo barely prepared him for China. "Chinese martial arts and Kenpo, at least from the wushu standpoint, is world's apart. There's a lot of systems in Chinese martial arts so we're speaking about wushu specifically. If you touch your toes in Kenpo, you're fine. And in wushu, it's like the first day, 'Let's drop into the splits, everybody.' I was like, 'What's that?' That was a really big transition. And it was a bit of a culture shock, to be honest, because you're used to stances that are so high and all of a sudden you're dropping down low. It hurts and you don't really understand why. It's like, 'What is this training for?' I know a lot of very progressive martial art thinkers who kind of cast away that type of basic training and say it's unnecessary and it's impractical because you can't fight in these stances or you can't do your techniques. But for me, I found after going through that type of basic training - drop stances, empty stances, things like that - when I moved back into the fighting arts, I was greatly advantaged in terms of speed and things like that. So I give it a lot of respect, but it was a very hard transition."

Kung Fu Star

Philip's life skyrocketed with a reality TV show, a martial arts contest called Kung Fu Star, or K-Star for short. K-Star auditioned talent from all over the world and was a huge hit in China. It was also a big hit with Philip's dad. "I don't think I really got acceptance from him until I entered Kung Fu Star. That was 2006. I was actually encouraged from my father and my friends to do it. I didn't want to do it at first. I thought it was kind of cheesy. The whole concept was some kind of martial arts tour, going to different places, where they were trying to pick out martial artists to send to China. I was like, 'Well, what are they going to do there?' They said, 'We are possibly going to have you fight, do forms, do weapons, do extra talent.' 'Well, what's an extra talent?' 'Well, sing or dance or do something like that.' 'Singing or dancing? No, that doesn't sound right.'(laughs).

"I didn't want to do it but ultimately I went to see what it was about. I met some really good martial artists there - D.Y. Sao and Jack Tu ended up going with me. I developed some good friendships. That show had about 300 million viewers and we had to do a lot of live performances. We went down to the Shaolin Temple.

"When I came back, my family was pretty proud of that. They didn't expect that. They were like, 'Philip did what? He went to China? I can't believe he even went to China! That's pretty good.' I went there for training before but never as a representative for something. And though a lot of people have a lot to say about what K-Star was, I think it was an amazing experience. For everyone involved that I know who made it to China, it changed their lives - the way that they practice martial arts and the way they do stuff. It's very different now."

Jackie Chan's Disciple

K-Star wasn't the end of Philip's Chinese Reality TV competition career. Philip elaborates, "After K-Star, all of a sudden a flyer came through and Jackie Chan has his own. I was like, 'Man, K-Star was so much fun. Maybe I should just try it.' But I saw that Jackie Chan only wanted Chinese people. I called the executives and said, 'Hey, what's the deal with this competition?' I was speaking in Chinese. They said, 'Oh yeah, you can come over and do the tryouts. By the way, anyone that you bring'- because I said I wanted to bring some friends - 'has to be Chinese.' 'Well, I'm not Chinese.''What? You're not Chinese?' Ultimately I wound up bringing some friends of mine who were of Asian descent - Urban Ninja and a couple other Shaolin practitioners. I went with them to the trials. They hired one of the executives from Beijing TV and he sees me sitting down and he sends someone who speaks English to come talk to me. They said, 'Come here,'and they sat me down at the table and said, 'Aren't you Philip from the Kung Fu Star?' I said, 'Yes.' They said, 'Oh. Are you going to try out for this?' I said, 'I can't.' They said, 'Well, you did Kung Fu Star. We know you're good. It's okay. Just try out. You can tell us you're Chinese.' I was like, 'Come on. You can't fake that.' They said, 'No, no, no. Just go do the trials.' I was like, 'Oh. Okay. Cool.' So I was dressed in my normal clothes. I said 'alright'and I did.

"I was the only non-Asian in Disciple. It was kind of funny. It was kind of hard too because everyone was looking at me saying, 'Who is this guy? How did he get by?' And at that time, some of the contestants knew about K-Star and said, 'Okay, he's done this before.' So then the first night when I performed, I got really sick. I got the flu. I have a bad tendency for going overseas and getting sick. I'm trying to talk to the judges, trying to introduce myself, and they're like, 'We can't understand you.' And I was like, 'I'm just going to do this whip form and I'm going to start, alright?' 'Okay.'

"And then all the Chinese competitors - everybody - were in that room because when we were doing the test shots, some were in, some were out. But when I was about to go, everybody was checking me out. Even the custodians were looking. It was kind of funny but I enjoyed it. It was good. We had to do some acting, which was weird. I had never done that, especially in Chinese, so that was kind of interesting. And you know how Chinese acting is. It was fun. I got to do an acting skit with one of the guys from The Karate Kid. He's now one of Jackie Chan's stunt men. He's a little guy but he hits so hard."

Ninjas and Kung Fu Heroes

After Jackie Chan's Disciples, Philip came home and considered pursuing college again. But he got a phone call from a friend who was the choreographer for Tina Turner's 50th Anniversary Tour. "He said, 'Tina Turner has this idea. She wants some guys like ninja people who can do martial arts. Do you know anybody like that?' I said, 'Yes, I think I know a few people.' So I send him a video of D.Y. and Xin and some of the guys from South Coast Martial Arts. They said, 'These guys are great. We're going to use you for James Bond because we like your look and everything.' I was like, 'Really? Okay. That's cool.' It was an amazing experience." To Philip, Tina was the best, most gracious host, who took great care of everybody on her staff. The tour sold out around the world and Philip feels blessed to have been a part of it. "How many martial artists get to do that?"

In 2010, Philip joined several like-minded practitioners to form Kung Fu Heroes. Adding to Philip's TV show resume, Kung Fu Heroes were contestants on season five of America's Got Talent. It was an extraordinary showcase for martial arts on American TV. The performance troupe managed to get as far as the semi-finals.

Wushu Jumps and Kicks for the People

Philip stands tall at six feet, taller than most martial trickers, gymnasts or aerialists. Typically, that's too tall to get the aerodynamics for extreme tricks. Nevertheless, like any wushu practitioner, Philip attempted to master the difficult moves of international competition (nandu). A failed 720 twist to splits brought him crashing to earth with a torn hamstring. "I liked the practice wushu was giving me - more flexible, stronger - so I'm going to go for the jumps. I'm going to try to jump the highest. I'm going to try and have a good nandu technique. Ultimately, I ended up getting injured. I tried one of those 720 twists to split, and at that time I was very ready - well, I thought I was very ready to do a lot of those moves. And with that young ego trying to throw the move, I was successful a couple of times. Then I got a phone call (I'm not going to say who called me) but I sat down for about 15 minutes, put the phone back down, went to go run it and throw it again - my hamstring instantly tore. I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' I couldn't really walk. I had trouble getting up. That really hurt. And it didn't go away for about 8 months. I had to do rehabilitation. Tried yoga. Tried a lot of things to bring it back. I couldn't lay on the floor and push my hips up off the floor using that leg. It was gone. It took a lot to bring it back."

The experience made Philip reevaluate his practice. "During that time I was really depressed. I cried to my coaches - I have a couple different coaches - and I was like, 'Is this really your practice? What's this all about?' I'm very much into martial philosophy and I was thinking where was I going? What's the point? Where's the martial in that? And what's the direction? One could argue that the martial in that was that you were self disciplining, getting that perseverance. And I agree to an extent. There is a martial focus associated with jumping. But you can't get lost in it. You can't let it overwhelm your practice." Philip decided not to pursue international wushu competition anymore. "For me, I still like jumping. I'm a performer. I perform a lot. So I keep it up. But I don't worry so much about 'let's make this do that.' All my friends blow out their knees or hurt themselves eventually. You have to play it safe."

Working outside the conventional martial circles, Philip discovered a keen interest in the jumps and falls of wushu. "In doing a lot of shows and meeting a lot of people, there's a lot of interest coming into the martial arts based on the performance side from a lot of different angles. There's the wushu guys who want to learn how to do a little more stunt-oriented stuff. There's the trickers who want to learn how to look a little bit more wushu. There's just the people off the street who look at it. There's the whole youtube phenomenon of 'martial artists are pretty cool. I like this stuff.'" In response, Philip developed the first instruction series on wushu jumps and falls that can be used by dancers, gymnasts, parkour enthusiasts and martial arts trickers from outside Chinese styles. "I think we did a really good job of breaking it down and making a good training program. I just want to make it really accessible, open to the public - purchase to learn or purchase to see the different kinds of moves that can be done through martial arts training and performance stuff.

"In Part 2 of the DVD we're doing falls. That's something I feel has not been covered very well in the western market. When I went to China, I already knew how to fall and do falls. They were like, 'How do you know how to fall?' Well, my dad's my teacher and we would fight. He made me fall. He would throw me and stuff. You had to learn how to fall out of necessity. I had an affinity for falling over jumping for a long time because I knew falling. I didn't know jumping because that was closer related to Kenpo. In my mind, I hold falling in a little bit higher regard martial-wise, because I think there's a lot of discipline, more so than people might think when you're actually falling, because not only could you put yourself through that type of hardship, but it's a real mental character building thing. It's one thing to tell a student, 'Hey, let's throw 30 straight punches,'but it's another thing to say, 'Hey, you're going to jump and fall down, land straight on your back, and then kip back up.' That's a punishment that you have to endure, persevere and overcome. And then you have this confidence afterward. It's like, 'I can overcome that.' It's like the Shaolin guys who balance on spears. It's almost a doorway to that kind of thing. I enjoy that more than just the tricks and the nandu and landing something to horse stance. I think it's more close to martial arts."

Returning to Traditional Shaolin

From Kenpo to modern wushu to James Bond, Philip is now back to training the root of Chinese martial arts, Shaolin kung fu. "I love traditional Shaolin. To me, traditional Shaolin is that connection between my Kenpo and my wushu because before it's like English and Chinese. It doesn't make sense. That was the bridge that helped connect it. Shaolin kung fu, that's a culture. That's a real big culture, not just talking about wushu.

"Shi Yanxu is my current Shaolin mentor. He's opened up my understanding of martial arts and philosophy a lot. I remember the first form I had to learn was in K-Star, dahong boxing, in Shaolin Temple. Yan kuan taught it, who is now in San Francisco. Shi Yanxu was the head of the 18 Lohan, who were the warrior troupe at that time?He sought me out to say, 'Philip, you know when you came to Shaolin Temple and you learned the dahong boxing, you only were there for about 2 and a half weeks. I want to make sure that if you're running around, and people ask you, 'What did you learn at Shaolin?' you do it right. I'm going to help you with dahong boxing.' I said, 'Okay.'

So he started teaching me a little bit and I'm very grateful, but my Western curiosity started to get the better of me and I said, 'Come on, Yanxu, what's all this stuff for? It's kind of weird - punches like this (shows tight punch).''That's not punching. It's grappling. Well, it could be punching.' 'Well, how do we apply this stuff?' And he looks at me and he says in English, 'I don't know.' 'You're a Shaolin monk! What do you mean you don't know?! You can't say that to me! Burst my bubble. Don't say that!' And he goes, 'No, I don't know.' 'Yanxu stop teasing me. Be real. What are you talking about? And then he's like, 'Alright Philip, look. As a teacher, I could ruin your development if I tell you to do it this way. Because the minute I say to do it this way, I could ruin your chances to explore the possibility of discovering to do it another way. For instance, this is my favorite way to do this move.' And he shows me this application that I would never had thought of which was some kind of head grab throw - for that particular move. And then he's like, 'You can't do that if the person is shorter than you. You can't do that. I'm shorter. I can use my leverage. So for you, you have to flow through your moves, feel that possibility of change. What is my strongest attribute to create my form?'

"Then it started to make sense because I've met other monks and they always have their own versions and interpretations. So this martial art has to be my personal feeling that's based around the ancient structure of that. I gave it that respect, and for me that opened a whole other door to my Kenpo teaching. Because there's a lot of western teaching, they have the sheets. They have the 100 techniques - very clean self-defense movements and applications. But ultimately it's like how many moves or techniques can you do against a right punch? How many are you willing to keep? You have to throw away some anyways. So I think the Chinese approach is rather interesting. Instead of giving you a bunch of techniques and you only keep two, they give you two techniques and you're supposed to make a bunch of different uses.


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