The rise and fall of US Sanshou/San Da

9 May

In Asian, the only form of competition that Chinese martial arts knew was full contact fighting. Though rules were unclear and inconsistent, under the umbrella term of “Lei Tai” many events were held. American students of Chinese martial arts got their first experience with these events when their sifus took them to Asia to compete. For example, the late Dean Chin took his students to Taiwan to compete.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s Fu Jow Pai sponsored full contact events in the NY area. While back then kung fu was called “soft style”, it is important to remember that at the time the ONLY full contact martial arts were these Chinese sponsored events.

NACMAF reintroduced full contact fighting to the Chinese martial arts community in the 1990’s with their national tournament in Baltimore. As Jason Yee noted, the rules were thrown together and had no bearing on either the Lei Tai events going on in Taiwan or the Sanshou events going on in mainland China. A team of Russian sanshou fighters were invited to compete against a US team and it was immediately apparent that the US fighters were poorly prepared.

Eventually a real Sanshou circuit was set up, especially when NACMAF became the USA WKF. I begin putting students into these events in 1996. However, I was never that fond of the format. I didn’t like the Lei Tai stage. I didn’t like the “push out” rule. I found being told you couldn’t punch the head in what was being billed as “full contact” absolutely ridiculous. . That particular rule was so wildly unpopular (and illogical) that even the IWUF eventually was forced to abandon it.

The IWUF continues to ban the use of the knee strike. Chinese martial arts have long recognized the value and power of the knee strike. In the past, many Chinese based competitions have allowed the knee strike. It appears that the only reason the IWUF initially excluded the knee from San Shou competition was political, to differentiate San Shou from Muay Thai (Thai boxing) in its quest for Olympic recognition and inclusion.

My first “challenge” to the established powers was setting up an event in 1995. It followed the established rules and was held on the Lei Tai stage, but instead of a tournament I had single prearranged matches like a boxing card. I was told that it would “never be popular”! Of course, later on it was the most popular form of Sanshou/ San da competition and that is what made it popular with people outside of the very small kung fu circle.

In 1997, I promoted the first professional match (where people were paid to fight) and introduced a format with knee strikes. This was a good year and change before China’s “Sanda Wang” events. I was increasingly having issues with the USA WKF and how they were mismanaging sanshou.

Shawn Liu was appointed US national team coach, though no one could ever explain why with a straight face. Shawn Liu had arrived in the US a complete unknown. He was shown around the country by Sifu Tai Yim, a very respected traditional teacher, as a courtesy. At that time, Shawn Liu was introduced as a WUSHU COACH. He never been able to acquire a full time position in China and thus had come to the US seeking opportunity.

Shawn Liu first became “infamous” when he acted as Chinese Wushu Association president Xia Bahua’s translator. Xia Bahua discovered to his horror that Shawn Liu was not translating what he was saying and was in fact pushing his own agenda. Professor Xia complained through the Chinese Wushu Association. This forced USA WKF president Anthony Goh to demand Shawn Liu issue a formal apology.

Shawn Liu set up an institute in the United States but his students never made a dent in the US San Shou community. Even at his own event, the US Open, they lost consistently to other teams, even non “Big 6” people. A former national San Shou coach said of Shawn Liu, “he’s a nice guy from the same province as me.” but when asked about his skills and accomplishments as a fighter? The coach said he had no comment. Why was a man who has never produced a champion the US team coach?

Some appointments are “political” but Shawn Liu never had influence to help out a US Team member when the IWUF was trying to do them wrong;
– Not when Cung Le was wrongly disqualified in Italy.
– Not when Ray Neves was lied to and then dropped at the last worlds.
– Not when Albert Pope was robbed at the World Cup.

He isn’t a great trainer, hasn’t produced any national champions of his own, and has no influence with the IWUF. Thank god he was Chinese we guess?

After some back deal negotiation that no one was privy to, Anthony Goh’s USA WKF, abandoned San Shou entirely and handed it over to Shawn Liu. The decision was made to let Shawn Liu administer all IWUF related San Shou activities; the team trials were made part of his event, he retained power to pick the final composition of the team and he continued to serve as the head coach of the national team. In addition, the USA WKF dropped San Shou from their national competition in favor of letting Shawn Liu run his own “national tournament”.

All of the coaches of the traditional “Big 6” protested. They all contacted Anthony Goh not only to protest but also with constructive suggestions. They were all given nothing more than lip service and ignored. Cordial language was exchanged and handy phrases were used, but was the decision really in the best interests of the sport?

Subsequent events begged the question, had Shawn Liu gone power mad?
He refused to attend either the US Wushu Union or the Arnold Classic sanshou events (the Arnold being the LARGEST EVER SAN SHOU event in the US to date) because he didn’t get “a special invitation”. Shawn Liu had already arranged for the USA WKF to drop San Shou and for the team trials to be held at his event. Shawn Liu also originally scheduled his event in conflict with Cung Le’s.

At one event, when a coach of one of the super fight participants argued with him, Shawn Liu’s answer was to have security remove him from the building. Did we mention that the coach in question was correct, and that Shawn had acted against the terms of a contract IN WRITING.

Have we mentioned that Shawn Liu never paid many of the coaches and athletes the money he has promised them for their participation in his events?

Finally, let us never forget that at the 2001 US Open in Atlanta, Shawn Liu told the coaches of the “Big 6” San Shou teams that the new federation was for them and that he’d only act as an “advisor”. However, he appointed himself president and CEO. Did anyone vote for him? Was there a vote?

The Chinese martial arts organizations either completely ignored sanshou or failed to promote it properly. The traditional “Big 6” eventually became so frustrated they moved on to mainstream fighting organizations and other formats like Muay Thai and MMA.

There had been a bright window, a small window, but it closed rather quickly. Today, sanshou is dead in the US. Contained here are a few of the reasons why.


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