A Journey to Wing Chun, or Watching The Magnificent Seven in London
If you want to find your true self, you need to challenge yourself by getting out of your comfort zone. My passion and drive to improve myself took me to London, for a Wing Chun seminar with the provocative teacher Nino Bernardo.
At his seminars, as long as you keep an open mind, you can always find something unexpected, only to realize that this has been the exact thing you’ve always needed! At least that’s what happened to me.
When I arrived in London the sun was smiling at me, which wasn’t typical for the end of November. And despite the big city’s dynamics and inequality, people on the street were smiling warmheartedly. It all boded well for a wonderful seminar – something I soon found out for myself.
The people who practice with Nino are always really cool, fun and intelligent. But I’m always on my guard because I know that his older students are great Wing Chun experts with frighteningly good skills. Something like a cross between Bruce Lee, Ip Man and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to my mind at least.
For a long time, I’d been hearing Nino’s recommendation to try and find as many of his old students as possible, from the time of “The Basement” – his famous London school, so that I could see and feel the high level in Wing Chun. Without underestimating his recommendation, I didn’t realize that those students that he had spent so much time telling me about, are actually a bunch of sixty-year-old “boys” who are masters in Kung Fu. In all the time I’ve trained with Nino (around 18 years now), I’d never had the chance to see more than one or two of them in the same place. But at his seminar in London this year (2022) I met a whole five of them – Chris (Holmes), Dougie (Douglas Allen), Segun (Johnson), Guy (Cofie) and Kenny (Kenneth Robinson). In addition to them, I also met two of Nino’s mid-generation students who also impressed me a lot, because they’re also great Wing Chun experts – Benji (Benjamin Edh) and Jimmy (Georgiou).
Around 30 people from 7 different countries took part in the seminar. I saw how old friends get together in a spirit of elation. Some were talking, happy they were seeing each other, while others started practising without waiting for the seminar to officially begin.
I was thrilled to see Benji – my friend, the head of one of the Swedish schools, who – given his height and Viking build – is really hard to go unnoticed! It goes without saying that my first “touch” was with him. Despite his impressive size, Benjie is incredibly skilled in Kung Fu and he has a big heart and a kind soul. While having fun playing Sticky Hand with him, I was trying to use his beautiful play style to get as many ideas and details as possible.
Then, I had the chance to play with Chris – the organizer of the seminar who’s part of Nino’s “Old Guard”, from the time of The Basement. A very skilled and experienced fighter, Chris is a good partner with quick reactions. He’s very observant and technical, and he’s very helpful by directly pointing out your weaknesses.
Jimmy was my next partner in Sticky Hands. We’ve had a long-year friendship which started in the house of our teacher Nino. In addition to Wing Chun, we both have a passion for grappling and Eskrima which he teaches in his school in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. After practising with him, I always take with me a load of techniques and ideas for my own training, which he always shares unreservedly and from the heart.
Even though Benjie and Jimmy are newer compared to our “older brothers” from Nino’s school The Basement, I think that they have a deep understanding of the system, and have amazing skills that it’s absolutely worth it to learn from.
Dougie – another old acquaintance from Nino’s Basement students – was also at the seminar. He has a serious, solid and dynamic style of play. An experienced fighter who I also respect greatly. I knew him and had played with him before in Ibiza, and his very presence completed the colour and quality in the training hall.
After another change of partners, I had the honour of playing with Segun – one of Nino’s first students, who teaches in London. In the beginning, I approached him with some trepidation, because his reputation as a great fighter from the old school preceded him. In Sticky Hands, whenever you touch a fighter who’s better than you, you immediately feel the difference in skill level.
This is what happened with Segun. He didn’t need to tell me who he was, I already knew.
In fact, my surprise was even bigger than expected, because I met a dynamic player who was listening to me, waiting and observing, almost watching from the sidelines. Immediately, I felt the attitude of a tiger who was letting the cub play with him – letting him pull his tail and whiskers without showing the slightest bit of nervousness or aggression.
He wasn’t scolding me, he wasn’t acting like a superior or someone who was trying to be better than me. He was just being himself! He was giving me the space to express myself and was watching me, and the entire time I was feeling the holes and gaps in my structure and movements because he was marking them by repositioning and leaving me in an uncomfortable position.
He was stopping and outrunning me without rushing, and he was always on time. And sometimes, when I became more stupid than usual, I clearly saw his punches there, where I least expected them. His only tell that he thought that something could threaten him – he is human, after all, and he does make mistakes – was an approving “Oho!” that he gave me as feedback.
In the way he played, I didn’t see even a drop of rudeness or trying to prove himself. And I never saw any sort of condemnation of my mistakes or lack of skill! Truly amazing!
Kenny was my next Sticky Hands partner. I still hadn’t gotten my bearings after playing with Segun, and I had to face a new challenge. Kenny is also from The Basement era and currently teaches Wing Chun in The Unit in London. From the start, I felt his remarkable calm and the lightness with which he was moving his body.
The truth is that it’s hard to describe such a light contact and precise control. I tried to go in and lead the game, but each time I felt that the path was blocked, as if someone was always there, waiting for me because they had received a warning.
Other times, I was literally feeling the lighting-fast hands of the otherwise relaxed Kenny. Even though I have more than 30 years of Wing Chun experience, my sense of self-preservation was constantly warning me not to be too self-confident because I was sensing my partner’s higher skill level.
Kenny was playing in the silence, and through it, he was teaching me his skills. Instead of using unnecessary explanations, he was doing it directly, without words.
Even though he wasn’t too impressed with me, he wasn’t hitting me to show me my mistakes. He was leaving the opportunities opened by my carelessness to speak for themselves. I understood that if I was too pushy, I would get hit. So I approached with caution.
The overall feeling of playing with him was that he wasn’t exhibiting any emotional or physical effort. Absolutely stunning and unexpected!
I already knew Guy because I had seen him at seminars in Ibiza, and I knew that he was also from the time of The Basement. His current school is called The Warehouse in London.
Now we met again and from the very start of the game he sincerely told me: “Correct me if you see anything wrong!” This was a nice compliment, but I immediately responded that I knew my place and that I would never dare to!
For a long time, I had waited the moment to meet him and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity by acting superior. When I’m playing with Guy I know that he’s a high mark. So I didn’t waste my time and immediately started asking him about different aspects I was interested in, and he gladly took the time to help me in my process of self-improvement.
He shared with me his thoughts on my tactic and structure which opened new horizons for my future training. Sometimes he was illustrating his ideas with lightning-fast and impossible-to-catch techniques, which he controlled perfectly, despite his laid-back and relaxed play style.
I had always known that I was younger than the “old dogs”, but I was very surprised that none of them showed disregard for me or my technique. They were “teaching” me in a very unobtrusive and nice way, each in their own way.
The entire time I had a feeling that they were there to see each other, have fun, spend a bit of time together and show respect to their teacher. Just like a real family. I’m amazed at how Wing Chun has influenced and developed these distinct personalities, each with their own charm, and all of them intelligent, fun and wonderful.
I hope my teacher can forgive me for almost not mentioning him during an article about his own seminar, but in an attempt to gather his knowledge over the years, I got the unexpected chance to travel back in time and meet these titans.
Nino – with his infallible sense – felt that this was a unique moment. And he was guiding the natural flow of the seminar, allowing for an exchange of experience between the generations.
He often says: “Our most powerful tool is our ability to think!” And it was at this seminar that I finally realised exactly what he means. Meeting these gentlemen showed me their depth of knowledge and skills, and this in turn showed me how many levels of knowledge my teacher has.
I was amazed by the casual and natural behaviour of people with such a high level of professionalism, without an ounce of a feeling of superiority. These days, it’s hard to find such skilled people who don’t try to show off any chance they get.
Now, as I sit and write these lines, I fully realise what I experienced. Without any planning, coming to see one Kung Fu master, I had the chance to meet and learn not only from him but from seven different great – at least to me – masters – a “Magnificent Seven”, if you will!
The strange thing is that all of them were so bright and different from each other that the only things that united them were their mutual teacher, Wing Chun, and their high quality. Each of them had their own different penmanship in their own personal Kung Fu.
The entire seminar passed imperceptibly, filled with fun and jokes. It turned out that the good martial arts masters not only have iron fists, but they also know how to have fun. After all the jokes, at the end of the seminar, all of us had face injuries… from laughing!
You go to a martial arts seminar, and in addition to techniques and strategies for future training, you get a cross between a stand-up comedy, Zen practice and an old Kung Fu movie.
The official closing of the event didn’t mean the end of play – no one stopped training. Instead, everyone tried to catch up by training with the people he didn’t get a chance to during the seminar. It all looked like a salsa night, where some people stand to the side and discuss, others are changing their clothes, while the dance floor is alive with dancers.
Of course, afterwards, the fiesta carried over to a restaurant where the participants take part in a sort of inter-cultural contest, where everybody demonstrates their culture’s peculiarities, special dishes and drinks. At the very least, you learn how to say “Cheers” in at least 10 different languages.
This cultural amalgamation is very typical for Nino’s seminars, and it always leaves a mark on my heart and mind, making me feel free of my limitations, happy and thankful for everything that I have – amazing friends and like-minded people in the things that make me truly happy – Wing Chun and martial arts.
P.S. This story is just my personal view of things, and it’s not meant to engage in any way any of the participants in the seminar! I’d like to thank and apologize to the rest of Nino’s students with whom I trained at this seminar, but didn’t mention here. This isn’t because I think they don’t deserve it, or because I haven’t appreciated them. It’s because I couldn’t find the time or space to do so in this article