1. As a quick intro, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your school? When, where, how and why did you start practicing?
My name is Rocco Ambrose and I’ve been involved with martial arts for over 40 years, most of my training taking place in the Detroit area.
Over the years, my motivation evolved from “something to do” to a quest for real self-defense. Before finding Wing Chun Do, I trained with Grandmasters Sang Kiu Shim and Jay Jun Kim training in Tae Kwon Do, and Moo Duk Kwan/Tang Soo Do, respectively, and Southern Shaolin with Master Leonid Shaykhet.
His focus on the practical self-defense aspects of Shaolin inspired my quest for a truly practical martial art system.
That Shaolin experience cemented my interest in Chinese styles. I found them to be softer and more fluid than the Korean styles I had been studying.
In 1979-80 when my Shaolin instructor left town I was at a loss for places to train. I was certain that I wanted to continue to train in some style of gung fu but, at that time, there weren’t many Chinese martial arts in the area.
I wasn’t sure which art was right for me so, I did some research into gung fu styles and found that Wing Chun was considered to be a fairly practical fighting art.
In fact, it was called the “Hong Kong street-fighter’s” style. But I held out little hope of finding a wing chun school in Detroit. Then one day in 1981, while thumbing through an issue of Inside Kung Fu Magazine, in the school directory I found a listing for Wing Chun Do in Monroe, Michigan (a 45 minute drive).
After evaluating time and distance, I visited the kwoon of Sifu James Clark, an early instructor under Sijo James W. DeMile, original student of the legendary Bruce Lee and creator (Sijo) of the Wing Chun Do gung fu system.
What I witnessed during that one visit impressed me more than any other martial art I had seen. And so, I started training in WCD in late 1981. I trained diligently and in 1984, when I was a green sash (level 6) I had the pleasure of meeting Sijo DeMile, further cementing my excitement for and dedication to the art.
He had come to review the kwoon and present a two-day seminar and I was blown away. The next year, I joined the instructor training program and began my real journey and a great adventure that would take me around the country and abroad.
I received instructor certification in November of 1988. Since then I have received many accolades within the WCD system – Senior Instructor, Instructor of the Decade, the coveted Sijo Award (for my contribution to the growth of the system), Director of Instructor Training – culminating in August of 2016 with Sijo DeMile bestowing upon me the supreme honor of Grandmaster/inheritor of the Wing Chun Do gung fu system.
Over the years, through association with Sijo James W. DeMile, I was introduced to and trained with such notables as Jesse Glover and Dan Inosanto and Relson Gracie.
Then, through our affiliation with Jujitsu America, I had the opportunity to train with such martial art celebrities as Tony Maynard, Dave Castoldi, Remy Presas, George Dillman, and the celebrated Professor Wally Jay, creator of Small Circle Jujitsu. (So much for name dropping.)
Our school, Ambrose Academy of Wing Chun Do, has been in business since November of 1988. After occupying three rental spaces, in 2012 we purchased our current home in Livonia, MI. We offer classes for children and adults.
The Adult program is pure WCD, although adults may also participate in specialty classes, featuring weapons, grappling, chi sao, and classes covering use of the mook jong and spring loaded dummies.
The children’s program is entertaining and engaging – providing a more varietal martial art experience featuring elements from some of my previous studies.
First and foremost, it stresses the practical self-defense elements of the WCD system. This is infused with a variety of kicking techniques to promote balance and flexibility and mat work gathered from our experience with the US Sport Jujitsu Association along with a few BJJ techniques (learned from our mentor Relson Gracie) and even a few parkour elements.
We also offer Women’s Self-defense courses, after-school programs, field-trips for our “Intro to Martial Arts”, our very popular “Stranger Smart” program and our unique “Second Sight Self-Defense” for the blind and visually impaired.
2. What are the most common mistakes, or assumptions, you’ve encountered during your years of teaching?
Relaxation and flow are primary tenets of Wing Chun Do. The most common mistake in WCD training is the common pre(mis)conception that kinetic force is necessary when dealing with an opponent.
The truth is, “force against force” is counterproductive and a dangerous concept as it gives the larger person the advantage. Inherently, a larger individual has the potential to generate more force than a smaller person.
This negates the possibility of overpowering him. Instead, one must learn to maximize and focus one’s “natural” strength and reject the temptation to try to “manhandle” an attacker. Choosing the proper target and utilizing proper mechanics and focus, anyone can easily generate sufficient power to neutralize the threat.
How do you maximize natural strength? The essential first step is to relax. Relaxation allows you to transition from technique to technique with speed and natural flow.
In fact, the indisputable key to both speed and power is relaxation.
3. Movies such as “Yip Man”, “The Grandmaster” and such are probably one of the reasons many people start to practice at some point. Since reality is mostly not matching most of these movie scenes, what are some key aspects a beginning martial artist should focus on?
Wing Chun Do does not seek to reconcile life and the movies. The primary goal of WCD training is self-defense, but we are dedicated to the total personal growth of the individual.
We work hard to help each student take physical, intellectual and emotional control of his/her life.
The first priority of a new student (especially if they have trained in other martial arts) should be to empty his/her cup, as it were, allowing himself to comprehend and assimilate the science behind our unique body mechanics.
Once this is accomplished, there are three important aspects of early training which are essential for success: footwork, necessary for precise distance control, the perimeter concept, which promotes efficient control of your personal space and relaxation for flow.
Precise distance control ensures maximum efficiency when applying both defensive and offensive technique.
Proper distance affords defensive control over the opponent, minimizes his counter-offensive potential and allows you to generate maximum power.
Perimeter control reduces reaction time and ensures efficiency of movement. And relaxation allows you to flow, spontaneously, around any resistance encountered.
4. How can Wing Chun be used in an educational, non-martial arts setting?
We administer a variety of programs including our popular Stranger Smart program as well as after-school programs both at our facility and at local schools.
And, while a major benefit for the student is self-defense, our goal is to aid in the development of confident, effective people with the courage to try new things, the patience to reach for longer term goals, the discipline to follow through and the determination to succeed.
5. The internet has completely changed our lives over the past 10-15 years. We now have access to lots of information (both good & bad) and connections like never before. How do you feel about this evolution and its impact on Wing Chun?
I don’t believe that one can really learn to apply a martial art by watching video especially if, as in the case of wing chun or WCD, it is highly tactile. To acquire any genuine skill, you really have to touch hands with a qualified instructor.
The internet does allows us all to share info and technique with the public but, from a Wing Chun Do standpoint, much of the technique available on line, even from wing chun sources, is incongruent with our unique body mechanics.
For WCD, the internet is a very valuable tool. We are able to reach interested individuals the world over with our downloadable extension learning programs for both students and instructors. (Learn more at wingchundoassociation.com.)
In addition, we offer Sijo James W. DeMile’s superlative Personal Developmental Programs inspiring and empowering people world-wide with practical techniques to spur positive change, personal growth and evolution. (jameswdemile.com)
6. What direction do you see Wing Chun or martial arts, as a whole, heading in?
This is an interesting and perplexing question. The popularity of MMA has all but eliminated the purity of many martial arts. In order to stay current or popular many have been spurred to hybridize in an attempt to create a sport version.
WCD is specifically suited to our primary goal which is practical self-defense. The beauty of our program is that, while learning to control a volatile situation (a very important product of our training), throughout the journey each student’s personal triumph is control of him/herself.
7. To end this interview in style, what is the best wing chun or martial arts advice you have personally ever received and what is the best advice you would give to our readers?
The best piece of advice I’ve heard comes from Bruce Lee. He said that one should learn to express oneself “honestly”. No matter their success, do not try to emulate others in expressing your martial art.
Because you are unique in your experiences, physicality, attitudes and temperament, if you try to be like others (20% this black belt and 20% that and 20% the instructor, etc.), your progress will be slow and your success uncertain.
But, if you concentrate on being the best “you” that you can be, maximizing your natural gifts and talents, you will be unstoppable.
Over my many years in martial arts and the thousand-plus students I’ve guided, I have learned two important lessons, related not only to martial arts but to life in general.
First, as both a student and teacher, you must develop patience – patience with yourself and those around you because patience allows wisdom. Second, express your gratitude – gratitude toward everyone who aided you in your development (acknowledging their value), even if, in the case of some, that value was simply helping you to learn patience.