The man behind bloodsport?
Written by Mark Grzic
Full-contact fighting pioneer Peter Ralston...
Fighting in a competition that had previously been marred by the deaths of competitors, in 1978 Peter Ralston became the first non-Asian to win the full-contact Martial Arts World Tournament in China.
It’s said the movie Bloodsport was inspired by his efforts, rather than those of another controversial martial arts figure, Frank Dux. A martial artist from a very young age, Ralston grew up in Japan and had Black-belts in Shotokan karate, judo and jujitsu before discovering and devoting himself to tai chi.
After his victory in China, Ralston founded Cheng Hsin, a system developed out of this broad experience. He has since authored several books on his method — ‘the art of effortless power’ — and teaches at seminars around the world or at intensive camps at his ranch in Texas, USA.
Peter, why did you go to the world tournament?
I was sick of tournaments where the results were based on the rules and opinions of the people watching. The karate people would watch what I did and because I had moved on to more fluid stuff, they would claim I had no power. I told them that I could prove them wrong if they would let me hit them. The tournament in China was full-contact and that aspect of it appealed to me, as the results would be plain to see. I went there as a middleweight, but after a 22-hour trip, I had put on so much weight from the water and food that I was overweight. When they discovered the problem, they were concerned, so I told them to put me into heavyweight. I didn’t mind; it didn’t matter who I fought. In the end, I ended up in the light-heavyweight division.
Were the other fighters doing single forms or did they do various styles like you?
Single forms, as far as I could tell. I didn’t ask them but just watching all the fights — you don’t have much else to do — it looked like they were all pretty much in their own thing.
I believe your first opponent didn’t even show up?
Yeah. A Korean. I was warming up, getting ready to fight and I had this student, an ex-karate guy, helping me. He had a badge on his uniform. I had him hold his arm up to block me, so there was almost no space between his arm and his badge. I would hit him twice before he could move his arm. I think the Korean saw that and decided to not fight me after all.
And you didn’t lose a fight in the five days?
No, if you lost, you were out. One opponent had won his way through to my round by making an illegal move. When I asked about it, they told me that the other fighter couldn’t continue and they expected that at this level that fighters would be able to stand up to this sort of thing. In another fight, the fighter had big gnarly legs and he kept trying to break my knees. It was okay in the rules, so I was fine with it.
How tough was the final?
My opponent was encouraged by his corner, filled with his supporters. It was clear to me that he couldn’t beat me, and I made that clear to him as well, but he was pushed to continue. To bring it to a close, at the end of the last round I kicked him in the body and could feel I did significant damage to his internal organs. At this moment I backed up, since in no way did I want to be forced to engage and do more damage. After this match his teacher and trainer wanted to have me in a picture with him. I told them to take him to the hospital since he was obviously injured, but they insisted on the picture. I figured it would be faster just to get it over with rather than to argue. He was having trouble standing up and was pale and bleeding from the mouth from internal injuries.
You didn’t contest the title a second time?
No, this was for free. As anyone who does fighting can tell you, it’s rough, psychologically and physically. It can be quite brutal. I had done what I needed to do. If they wanted me to do it again, they would have to pay me. I wasn’t going to do it for fun, and besides, I’m not particularly interested in going around beating people up. Winning’s nice but I had already made my point there. To do it again I wanted to be paid. It’s the same with those fighters in the UFC. Full-time training costs a lot: ring time, managers, gym space. And so when you are only getting $50,000 for a fight, it’s just not enough. You attract only the people who want to prove something or just like fighting, which is fine, but it’s not going to attract really intelligent people who could make a better living through other means. As the money gets better, we’ll see better, committed people coming in. The money is getting better, especially with the audiences growing as they have been.
In your book Cheng Hsin: The Art of Effortless Power, you critiqued other martial arts and said that many of them needed a reality-check. What did you mean by that?
I’ve been doing martial arts since I was nine and I have studied almost every martial art there is. I could beat almost every teacher, eventually, that I had. There are many kinds of martial arts where they just play games, where they just do sets of movements. Sometimes they just do techniques, depending on the art. Some play games but they are limited to what the games are about. Most don’t have serious or realistic competition so they have no idea if their art is viable or if they can use it. Doing sets absolutely doesn’t teach you how to fight. It teaches you how to move your body. That’s good, but they don’t teach you how to fight. There are real martial arts and non-real martial arts. Aikido, nearly all the kung fus and karates, kempo, are all non-real martial arts. A real martial art is where you accomplish a result against the other person’s will. In judo, you accomplish a real result. You throw them or make them submit. Boxing, Muay Thai, all produce a real result.
And the MMA format does this too?
The MMA format is more realistic. It is actually doing something. You accomplish something. If martial arts aren’t fighting, they are not a martial art. Some are just focused in one area. Judo is focused on throwing and choking, boxing is only hitting, so they have trouble crossing over to the UFC. I crossed over, a lot; lots of Western boxing, kicking, throwing, grappling. I had developed Cheng Hsin to effectively cross over. At the time though, you didn’t often have the chance to use all those skills in the one tournament. This is something MMA is trying to cure. They allow effective crossing over with a clear result.
So what is the future of MMA fighting?
When UFC started, all the other martial arts paled. The only time martial artists won was against other martial artists; as soon as they came up against an actual fighter, even just a good wrestler, they got creamed. And so really early on, the word was out. The other martial arts don’t work. The early years the grapplers won, so then people set out to learn grappling, either judo or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu — though let’s be clear, Gracie is just judo, though they wanted to include punchy-kicky stuff so they called it Jiu-Jitsu. Over the years, everyone learned enough to grapple, then the Gracies started to lose. Now people have started punching. Chuck Liddell made people realise that if you hit someone hard enough, they go down. So now more and more, the punching and kicking is coming in, though they aren’t very sophisticated yet. They are focused on simply the knockout. They are focused on hitting them as hard as they can. Kicking, most people aren’t good. They are just lucky if they pull off a kick. I have fought people who kick and they don’t know how to kick and what’s more, it’s not necessary either. You can keep people from being able to throw kicks. At the end of the day, fighters will become more sophisticated with their striking arts. As long as they keep the fighting and don’t let it devolve into the ‘act’ or pretense that professional wrestling is, it’ll remain grounded.
Any suggestions for those wanting to be MMA fighters?
When you deal with most people, weight, strength and crude ambition win, but when you start dealing with real fighters, if they can get beyond the crudeness and start to think, then the other stuff doesn’t matter as much. As for training, learn boxing from boxers, grappling and throws from judo; if you want kicks, go do some Muay Thai, but it’s not necessary. Train with the martial arts that actually fight.