How Mario Napoli Beat Chen Village Taiji

Excerpted from Mario Napoli’s interview at Taiji Forum.

I was in a no man’s land concerning this art. I just could not get it! I was lost, demoralized and had [already] quit Tai Chi Chuan [once]. I only went back to it because I heard how good [Stanley Israel] was… so I figured I’d give Tai Chi Chuan one last try.

We hit it off instantly. After just touching him, I knew he was the one who was going to teach me. He made it sound, look and feel so easy. It was very refreshing and I felt as if I understood everything he said explained and showed! He made it fun for me to go to class. The work was hard, but I took to it like fish to water.

“Just push!”

We had many debates and Stan would always say to me, “Why are you so confused?”

It began after a pushing [hands] lesson when he said to me “Mario, just push.” and I would say, “What do you mean, just push? I mean I can push this way or that way…” Then he would repeat “Just push,” and I would again say, “But I may just end up shoving! Shoving is wrong, right?”

“Right! Shoving is not good but…Just push.”

I would reply. “As you can see I can’t push correctly…it’s not my fault… I’m doing my best… people are telling me this and that, or I’m doing it all wrong. Understand?”

I would say, “Are you telling me, it’s OK to be wrong?” Then he said, “All I’m telling you to do is just push!”

After many months of this back and forth, we ended up striking a bargain. I would do whatever I thought he meant, to the best of my ability; and if I was wrong he shouldn’t take it as a lack of trust on my part, or that I didn’t listen or didn’t care. And it was his responsibility to correct me and not assume the worst.

I was to abandon all thoughts of what was right or wrong and “just push,” whatever it meant to me that day! I no longer held any baggage of what “pushing the Tai Chi Chuan way” meant.

Hard work

After I began to do OK with this push hands thing, [Stanley Israel] used to make me do free-style push hands with a row of people. My job was to stay in the ring and play with as many people as possible. One day I did the whole row, without losing once! There were about 15 people.

So what did I do when that happened? I sat down, naturally! I was satisfied that I’d beat them all without losing. He walked over to me and said, “What are you doing?” Self-satisfied, I answered him. “I did them all Stan, so now I’m just chilling.”

He said, “Did you lose?” I said “Hell no! I wouldn’t be sitting if that happened! I beat them all,” and then jokingly, “I’m the king of the hill!”

[Stanley] said, “Okay kid, do it again, and see how long you last this time around.” So I went back and did some more.

After I’d beat maybe 7 or 8 people, I sat down again and was now really tired. Stan once again came over…

“Should you not try and finish the line?”

Chen village competition

I initially saw a video of the competition in Chenjiagou and I said to myself, I can take these guys…

Someone [named] Mike Sigman, a self-proclaimed Tai Chi expert, actually dared me to go and find out for myself how great these Chen folks were! (Actually, Mike was telling everybody that he was going to go and give it a try himself, but backed out at the last minute.)

Truth be told I never trained specifically for the Chen Village competition. We always trained hard on our own; it was our way. We had a small but dedicated group, and many people would come around to practice with us: wrestlers, judo players, Taijiquan teachers and such.

Our game was simple: we did freestyle push hands in a circle. Throw the guy down or out of the circle and you’ve won…that’s it! Pulls, trips, throws, body shots and such were allowed. Punches and kicks were not allowed.

If you won, you’d stay on the mat. Lose and you’re off the mat. We would train 3 times a week for about 3 hours a session.

As for the tournament itself, while I did enjoy it, and it was head and shoulders above any other tournament that I’d previously seen…it was still nothing special. When a guy with only one good knee, suffering from dysentery and not eating any food for 4 days, wins the whole thing, [that] should tell you something.

I beat Wang Zhan-jun and Wang Zhanhai, who were All-China National Push Hands champions. I beat the first one in the finals; the other one forfeited the match, saying that he was in no shape to play me.

In the main I was treated well afterwards, with most of the people there seeming to like the fact that I won. However, it was all made clear when the Chen officials went out of their way to put me down. Instead of being smart and saying yes, everybody has a chance of winning, they choose the lower road. I guess they felt really bad that a foreigner, sick and all, showed them how it should be done.

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