By: Bennett J. Lee
This year, I went to Los Angeles to meet my teacher’s training partners. My teacher is Sifu Phil Romero of the Hawkins Cheung lineage. There’s not much about them, so there was a certain mystique about them. Hawkins is highly respected in the US (Inside Kung Fu’s Man of the Year), being an original student of Ip Man, and Bruce Lee’s close training partner. Hawkins is a unique fighter being 5’1”, 100 lbs and is reported to have taken on fighters 2-3 times his size. This article isn’t about Hawkins Cheung, Wing Chun, or styles. This is about fighting and what happens when you do a lot of it.
In the early years, Hawkins rented space at the Inosanto School. Bruce had publicly declared the Inosanto School as the Mecca of JKD. In the Wing Chun world, Hawkins was a god, but in America, he was unknown and overshadowed by his landlord. His master plan: he would train a new generation of fighters to quickly build his reputation.
Hawkins knew how to take anyone and turn them into something dangerous. His 1st generation students included: Phil Romero, David Scott Cole, Robert Cortez, Chris Ambarian, Wallace Nakagawa, Greg Ng, Charley Lu, Clarence Potter, Marty Conn, and Big and Little Ronnie.
The students were all shapes and sizes. I met Little Ronnie at his vintage clothing store by Venice Beach. He was about 6 feet tall with a lean, athletic build. I sheepishly asked, “Is that Big Ronnie?”
“That’s Little Ronnie…” Phil said.
“How big is Big Ronnie?”
“Big Ronnie’s 5’9” and 375 lbs…”
Phil was 5’6” and only 135 lbs. The kicker was that they all had to fight each other. Size and natural abilities were problems to be solved not limitations. Hawkins had to survive and so did they. With no rules to protect you, the fight game completely changes. This was unfathomable to me, a modern UFC fan. It would be like putting Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson against Brock Lesnar!
Hawkins had accumulated tricks from his years of fighting and had a special ability to take an ordinary human being and turn them into devastating weapons. The effect was akin to giving them a super solider serum. 20 year-old boys come in and then their speed and power were magnified. Even the smallest fighters could hit like Muhammad Ali inside a year or two of training. I’m surprised a General at DARPA didn’t kidnap Hawkins for these results.
One of the early students, David Scott Cole, “Scottie”, had trained with Olympic caliber boxers. He was 6’1” and 200 lbs, the ideal athlete. Hawkins polished his technique and gave him the Wing Chun structure for extra power. Fights wouldn’t last 2 punches. The first would knock them out; the last was for show. Recently, he came out of a coma and on his way to pick up medication, 7 thugs attempted to jump him. They didn’t last 10 seconds and he was at 40%.
“No more than 4, preferably 1. Otherwise, you failed!” Hawkins would say, referring to the number of strikes it should take to win. This was the standard. No excuses, just results.
Kung Fu culture typically reserves the best secrets for last after taking in “closed-door” students. This case was special since the secrets were out and the students were still young. In early China, Hawkins students would have been forbidden to learn since they weren’t pure-blooded Chinese. Hawkins didn’t care much for tradition, the students just had to prove their teacher was the best.
A later student, Phil Morris said in an interview, “They weren’t the most dutiful students, in that they’re trying to be perfect in their form. They were like their Sifu. They wanted to know what works? How do we make this come alive?”
They were mischievous, hyped up on testosterone, and knew they were invincible. Culver City was a busy place and the group didn’t just like fighting. They LOVED fighting. It became an addiction. It became an obsession. They weren’t interested in fighting in a ring or octagon. The rules would just restrict them. They were fascinated with pure combat at the highest level and they were still young and very curious curious.
The secret was the timing. Street fighters have impeccable timing and often beat lifelong martial artists, even black belts. Hawkins and Bruce had played with it at their time. Since Bruce died, Hawkins’ students perfected it. It was the quickest way to turn them into elite warriors and word quickly spread that they were the toughest kids on the block. Hawkins’ class concomitantly grew and he eventually opened up his own Martial Arts Academy in Culver City. Mission accomplished.
For good or bad, this little experiment had unintended consequences. What happens when you give a group of 20 year olds a concentrated dose of the best fighting experience of the era? They, of course, abuse it.
Challenge fights were frequent as everyone wanted to take on the Bruce Lee Kung Fu family, but that problem had been solved. It wasn’t just about fighting a boxer or a karate guy. These were old problems. They wanted to beat anyone, anytime, and anywhere. Hawkins’ fighters needed more. They took fighting to the clubs, the beach, and even under a pier for free cheeseburgers. Anywhere was fair game.
Phil Romero would go clubbing on the weekends, and loved instigating fights. Anyone who knows him knows he loves trash talking. Fighting had to work even if he had near zero space to work with, so he modified the start timing and stance to work in a small crowded setting. The result: in between beats, the lights would flash and someone would be unconscious.
Winning was simple; humiliation became an art.
“What happens when you know the first hit will knock someone out?” I asked.
“I kicked a guy into a urine trough”, Sifu said.
“You mean that giant tub where everyone pisses in?” I cringed at the thought, and mentally vomited.
“Yup, just flew right in while everyone was still taking a leak, haha”
The time in LA was special because the mysterious Hawkins lineage became something believable. There wasn’t anything mystical like how kung fu is portrayed today. There wasn't an obsession with the centerline theory, the perfect tan sau, or advanced Qigong. It was just martial artists perfecting their craft. It was just about what works.