I.W.F. WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
NOTES FROM MACAU, 2003
by Josh Bartholomew
This was a special year for athletes participating in the International Wushu Federation (IWF) Championships. For the first time in history, female San Shou fighters were allowed to compete. Unfortunately, despite this and other new improvements, many political ghosts and outdated judging practices continue to haunt the sport, particularly in China. The following is an account of the US San Shou Team's play-by-play experiences with team trials, pre-fight training, travels, fights, unfair treatment, losses and wins in Macau, from beginning to end.
WHO WILL MAKE THE US TEAM?
Between the time we hold team trials in June and the time we fly to the world championships in November, obstacles arise. The first roadblock is selecting the team. The judges selecting the team do not name the final member of the team until after the event. It turns out to be a difficult choice -- the final spot on the US team comes down to a choice between James Fanshier from Cung Le's team and Patrick Berry, a student of Coach Shawn Liu. Although James had tiebreakers over Patrick by the selection rules established for the event, the selection committee picks Patrick. This decision turns out to be a good choice in hindsight since Patrick eventually goes on to win a silver medal.
"WHO WILL COACH THE US TEAM?"
AND OTHER UNFORESEEN OBSTACLES
The next obstacle occurs when Shawn Liu steps down as head coach and there is a scramble to find out who is going to replace him. Eventually they name Mr. Mei Jian Gao, the 1991 Chinese national team coach, as the US Team's head coach. While Gao is well known in China, almost none of the US team members know him at all. Yi Yuan Lee (Ian) is also named assistant coach, and he isn't known to the to the team members either. Brent Hamby is the only coach that the US team members know well. Needless to say, the US team feels apprehensive from the start. As it turns out, both Ian and Gao are excellent coaches who provide assistance when asked and let the individual coaches guide their athletes.
Mei Jian Gao is very well-respected at the event and even scolds the officials when they complain that some of the US athletes do not have their passports at the weigh-ins.
The final barrier the team has to breach is a tragic knee injury sustained by Russ Middleton from Oakland just 10 days before we are to leave for China. Russ rests his knee for a few days but is not able to move without pain, so he must withdraw within days of the event; sending Cung scrambling to get James Fanshier set up to go. Fortunately, James has already been training for a "King of the Cage" match and is in shape. James leaves for Macau on three days notice.
MORE SURPRISES IN MACAU
Once in Macau, the first hurtle for the US team is the dreaded weigh-ins. Most fighters were able to make their weights with minimal suffering -- with one exception: Patrick Berry. Berry, in the 90kg (198 lbs.) category, gets off the airplane at 217 pounds. That is 19 pounds overweight with only 44 hours to weigh-in. Normally, this would not exclude him from fighting, because in the past fighters have been allowed to fight in the next highest weight class if it is open. But, as is often the case when dealing with IWF officials, the rules have changed without us knowing. He has to make weight or he is out.
THE TEAM CAPTAIN STEPS IN
With 20 hours to go, Patrick gets down to 212 and is already suffering, unable to lose any more weight. He is starting to lose hope when team captain Albert Pope tells Pat in simple terms, "Here is what you do if you want to make it: Put on all your work out clothes and work out for two hours tonight. Keep the sweat going the whole time. If you can make 204 by tonight; you can do it." Patrick has his doubts but goes into the last workout dressed like an Eskimo. Brian Madigan, the alternate for the 85 kg class who is in Macau to support (he thought) his teammate Russ Middleton, joins the night workout just in case he needs to step in for Patrick. After the workout, a very weary Patrick steps on the scale and is 203 pounds. When Patrick gets off the scale, Pope says, "Congratulations, you get to compete at the world games. Now go to bed and wake up at 5 am and do it again." At 8:00 am, a miserable Patrick weighs in at 197 pounds. Twelve hours and several meals later he is 212 lbs!
WHO FIGHTS WHOM?
THE TEAMS DRAW FOR MATCH-UPS
That night we get the draws and there is some good news for the US team at last! Patrick and Elaina Maxwell have been placed in the semi-finals. Patrick gets a bye into the semi-finals in a division of six fighters and will fight the winner in the Portugal vs. Romania match. Elaina is put into the semi-finals because there are only four women in her division. So the US has at least two bronze medals without throwing a punch.
Further good news is that none of the US fighters has drawn a known "killer" in the first round. Albert Pope draws Sri Lanka, Mike Norman has Greece, Max Chen has Kazakhstan, and James Fanshier gets Poland. Our women know little about their opponents, as women have never competed before in the World's event; but we are confident with Van Do fighting Romania, Jenna Castillo versus Vietnam, Susan Paschkewitz versue Philippines and Elaina Maxwell set to fight Poland.
LET THE FIGHTS BEGIN!
As I hoped, Albert Pope is the first to fight in session 1 on the first night. With the captain and most experienced fighter going first, the US hopes to send a solid message of who we are. Pope dominates a game but less experienced Sri Lanka and knocks him out with a right round kick to the head with seconds left in the first round.
Mike Norman is slated to go next in the morning session on day two. Mike is the second most experienced fighter on the team, and he easily beats his opponent from Greece. Four fights later, Max Chen wins a tough battle with Kazakhstan followed by a solid win by James Fanshier over Poland in the last fight of the session. The US is 4-0, which is the best start we've had since 1995.
In the night session of day two, the team's success in the morning is all but forgotten when Van Do losses a tough three-round fight to a much taller Romanian fighter. Van fights valiantly and wins the first round, but as she tires, she can no longer overcome the considerable reach advantage of her opponent.
Our optimism returns in lieu of the next fight because Jenna Castillo faces off with Vietnam. Jenna, arguably the best US female San Shou fighter, is the spiritual leader of the women's team. As the first round gets underway, it becomes apparent that although Jenna is very tough and well versed in ring-style San Shou, she is having trouble with the international Lei-Tai style. Vietnam is not more powerful or in better shape than Jenna, but she is scoring more with sidekicks. In the end, Jenna is out-scored and frustrated with her two-round loss.
DAY THREE MORNING SESSION
Susan Paschkewitz has the first fight of the morning session on day three. She was visibly shaken by Jenna's loss and fortunately did not fight that night. By the morning her determination has returned, and after losing the first round, she fights back, out-punching her opponent from the Philippines and taking the fight in two rounds to one. This means she is guaranteed at least a bronze medal.
Things are looking good again for the US Team, until ... the age-old specter of political favoritism collides with the sport -- and many see it happen.
POLITICS AND SPORTS -- A DISGRACEFUL MIX
Pope's second fight is against France, and although his first round looks close, we think we have it. Instead, the first round goes to France. Ok, Pope is in shape to go three rounds, never mind two, so he goes out and in workman-like fashion appears to clearly outscore France by landing an abundance of sidekicks. Then, as his corner gets him ready for the third round, the team looks on incredulously as the round is given to France. The US team is stunned. Pope's sportsmanlike response is to take his bow and rush back to help Mike get ready for his next fight.
Mike comes out determined against a shorter fighter from Egypt. Again it appears that Mike has the edge in a close first round, but it goes to Egypt. We get the sinking feeling that we're in trouble no matter what we do. In the second round Mike dominates Egypt and scores several two-point take downs, as well as outscoring Egypt at range. Mike kills off the clock at the end of round two to save energy for the final push in round three, but there is no round three. Egypt wins and the US team -- as well as several other teams in the stands -- jeer the call. (I want to say that the Egyptian team was very gracious, as most other teams were, to the US team and our opinion about the score is in no way intended as a slight to the Egyptian team or the quality of it's fighters).
When Max Chen fights his quarterfinal match four fights later, we fear the worst. Max fights the best two rounds that I have ever seen from him, but he suffers some sweeps in the second round. Although it appears that he has outscored his opponent in spite of the sweeps, he also loses two rounds to none.
RUSSIA SUFFERS AN INJUSTICE
The most clearly biased fight of the whole tournament comes when Russia fights China. The Russian "killer" Salikov Muslim (at 80 kg) fights Hailong Liu, the reigning King Of Sanda champion, and Muslim destroys Lui in the first round. All but one judge calls the round for Russia. The fact that even one judge calls it for China draws jeers from everyone in the crowd who knows anything about San Shou and is not a Hailong fan. During the second round Lui fights better but still clearly loses. The judges astonishingly call it 5-0 for China. All we think is: "What? Are you kidding me?" The crowd showers the lei tai with whistles and boos. Muslim's confidence is gone as he must know the only way to win the fight is to knock out Lui. He tries, but doesn't knock him out and Lui wins the third round and the fight. Muslim gets a loud standing ovation as he leaves and Lui gets an even louder chorus of whistles and boos as he leaves.
It's easy to win when they will not let you lose. How can they get away with this? All it will say in the paper is that Lui won. The fights were not televised. One thing you will never see is a China vs. Russia King of Sanda fight. China wants no part of the Russian fighters on a public stage.
James Fanshier, our last chance in the session to stop our losing streak, also faces Egypt. James fights his heart out and leaves everything and more in the ring, but it is not enough today. Egypt wins in two rounds, but this time, at least, it is a clean win.
In the evening session Susan has her semifinal fight versus Vietnam. We know how Vietnam is likely to fight from watching her teammate fight Jenna. Susan manages to avoid Vietnam's sidekick and the two are even on all exchanges except for one big difference. Vietnam is landing a round kick on breaks that Susan is not answering. Vietnam uses that kick to outscore Susan and takes the fight two rounds to none. Susan gets the Bronze.
Next up is Elaina versus India, and the losing skid comes to a decisive end. In the first round, Elaina launches a far less experienced and smaller India off the lei tai twice in a matter of seconds. In the second round, after Elaina again pushes her off the mat, the head judge stops the fight and calls a TKO win for Elaina. Elaina is only the second US fighter to reach the Gold medal round since Al Loriaux's spectacular run in 1999.
Next, Patrick Berry collides with a monster from Romania. Patrick gets thrown a few times in the first round, but he manages to land some hard leg kicks in response. Romania wins the first round, but Patrick's heavy leg kicks are taking their toll. After a particularly hard leg kick in the second round, Romania quits and limps back to his corner. His surrender advances Patrick into the Gold medal match, guaranteeing the best-ever medal count for the US San Shou team -- no matter the outcome of his next fight.
GOING FOR THE GOLD
In the first gold medal match, Elaina faces a taller fighter from Poland. Poland, a full-contact kick boxer, lands some good jabs and straights in the early part of the first round, but it is clear that Elaina is stronger. Elaina puts the pressure on, and Poland is not able to keep up. Elaina wins and earns the first Gold medal ever for the US National Team.
In Patrick's gold medal match, he gets to fight the two-time world champion from Egypt. From the start it is a back-and-forth war. "Young versus old," "rookie versus veteran" -- call it what you like -- the fight drags on for three grueling rounds. The respect the two fighters have for each other is apparent as they repeatedly touch gloves and Egypt openly apologizes for an accidental low blow. At one point Egypt's head gear gets over his eyes when the two separate, and instead of the free shot that Patrick could legally have taken, he backs off and lets Egypt adjust his headgear. In the end the veteran pulls out the win. Afterwards, when Patrick is exchanging his team jacket with Egypt, the champion admits he spent hours watching the tape of Patrick's fight with Romania and did not sleep well the night before, worrying about the fight.
AN EVENING FAREWELL BANQUET AND GEAR SWAPPING
In the evening we have a farewell banquet. Some of the US team members trade clothing and pins with other teams. For Albert Pope, however, it is time to go to the market. Albert brought his team jackets from 2001 and 2003 as well as the wonderful team jackets donated by the Friends of Wushu. He also has his team fighting clothes and Boston San Shou gear to trade. After he scores the team jackets from Egypt, Vietnam, and Azerbaijan to go along with the Iranian team jacket he got at the San Shou World Cup the previous year, I asked him why he would want to trade away his team jackets? He replies: "There is nothing unusual about wearing a USA jacket in the US; but when I'm wearing the team jackets from Azerbaijan, people want to know where and how I got it." It makes sense to me, but I still don't trade mine. I have to admit, though; I will have my eye on Russia's team jacket in 2005.
The final medal count was the usual battle for second, with China "earning" a ridiculous 8 of 9 gold medals and a silver (Russia beat China in the 75 KG class in one of the best San Shou fights I have ever seen). Russia continues to produce one fantastic team after another, with Romania close behind. Korea was clearly the second best team at the lower weight classes, while Egypt and Iran looked good but without the depth seen in previous years. The US and France proved themselves teams on the rise.
The addition of women was a great improvement, though the numbers were understandably low for the inaugural event. The strongest women's teams were China, Vietnam, USA, and the Philippines in that order. These were the only countries to bring the maximum number of female fighters (4).
In the end it was an event of "what could have been," with Albert Pope, Mike Norman, and Max Chen losing controversial bouts, to "what was," with Susan Paschkewitz getting bronze, Patrick Berry getting silver and Elaina Maxwell getting gold.
About Josh Bartholomew:
For information on how to obtain footage of these fights and others, please visit: www.sanshou.com.