Flim Flam, Thank you Ma’am or: Spotting the Great American Con Artist

“Those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak.” — Lao Tzu

Over the last week or so there, has been a conversation going around my house circulating between the topics of “The average person can’t tell the difference between a con man and a real martial artist,” and how sad it is that the most popular “martial arts” in America are not even real martial arts but sports.  There is a rather cantankerous old part of me that would be perfectly happy to tear apart and stamp on the grave of the common argument that these sports are even better for teaching you fightin’ than a traditional martial art with all the zealot that a convert can muster, because in this case that’s what I am, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.  Please rest assured that I would be more than happy to rant about the fact that, while we are supposed to respect all martial arts, some arts really are better than others. That having been said, it is the teacher and the student and how much the practitioner puts into the art that is more important than the art itself.  I realize that I have just made a really large post so far about what I’m not going to talk about, but please bear with me.

Over the years, I have seen my share of con artists trying to pass themselves off as the real thing, so now I’m going to pass along some of the telltale signs that I have identified, or just immediately spotted when dealing with people who are masters of the mystic art of “Who Flung Doo.”

The number of teenagers I’ve met that claimed they had been adopted into the family of, and had been taught the style of, the Grandmaster’s family while overseas in high school when I already knew the white suburban middle class neighborhood they spent their entire life in up to that point, approaches the number of styles there are in Japan.  A frighteningly large number of them have been ninjas, but there have also been mafia hit men in New Orleans. (Both of the people who told me this story had the distinctive feature that I knew that they had never been to New Orleans, but I had.)  There is also the occasional master of 108 wooden dummy techniques style or whatnot. Remember, this is their super secret family style.

One outrageous claim that I have actually heard went like this: “My Master made us stack uncooked rice and peas alternating on top of each other with chopsticks until they were at least six inches high. It’s really a lot easier than it sounds.”  This same person told me he was a master of Ishinryu and demonstrated by slapping both hands on his chest and flopping them out in random directions over and over again like a sloppy drunk doing calisthenics. Even if I hadn’t taken some Ishinryu before that, I certainly knew more than enough martial arts to know that there was a tractor with a nitrous injector on the other end of the chain that was wrapped around my leg.

In another case, a person I knew in Little Five Points wanted me to check out this couple that were telling her they were Baguazhang masters and wanted her to come over to their place so they could teach some to her.

Yes, I had in fact been walking the circle for some time when this happened and, being a practitioner of Baguazhang, I was really hopeful that they were telling the truth.  As soon as she introduced me, they started telling me that they were masters of fire dragon bagua (there is no such thing to the best of my knowledge) and discussing its precise linear attacks while describing it like the karate Movie of the Week, right down to the special effects.

You might get the impression that con men assume that you are very gullible and ignorant and that anything flashy, real or not, will drag you in. You are right.  The problem is that there are people who have been adopted into traditional families and have been taught, and some martial arts have some extremely flashy techniques.

The good news is that if they are for real, they probably aren’t going to brag about it all the time.  It may come up in conversation, they may have pictures of them with their class on the wall of their school, they may have a copy of Inside Kung Fu or Karate Illustrated with them on the cover framed, or some famous martial artist might suddenly walk in unannounced into one of your classes, but most likely none of those will happen.  While they may never mention it, you may find out through word of mouth.  It is possible that this will come from one of the other students, but it also may come even more impressively from a teacher or student of another style.

As to gigantic flashy moves, well, there’s good news and bad news.  The bad news is that there are quite a number of legitimate arts and sports.  The good news is, big flashy moves are generally a sign that you are looking at an inferior art, if it is even real.  Unfortunately, those styles make the most money.

The harder thing for most people to spot are the quasi-real instructors. There are many examples out there of the classes that we refer to as the McDojo or the Black Belt Academy.  The cookie cutter McDojo is designed to sell things, but it is really just an after school daycare with uniforms.  The Black Belt Academy, on the other hand, is a term for a “school” where, as long as you regularly pay your enrollment fee and occasionally show up, you will automatically be advanced until you, too, are a black belt with no regard for whether or not you have actually learned anything.  Still more insidious are the schools that are teaching but don’t really know very much or are claiming to teach something that they are not.  In the 1970s, when Kung Fu became popular, an astonishing number of Kung Fu schools popped up overnight.  The years of dedication it usually requires for someone to learn any given style of Kung Fu was no barrier because these schools were being opened by people who had never even taken a class of Kung Fu.  Many were Karate practitioners, some were even Judo practitioners, and an incredibly high percentage of them were actually just dance instructors.  A similar thing happened with ninja schools in the early 80s, of course.  More recently, I found a school with an instructor claiming to teach Judo, Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Hapkido, and Taekwondo. Before you get too impressed, you might want to ask what this man’s qualifications were.  Upon investigation, it was revealed that he opened the school on the basis of the fact that he had been a policeman in this small town at one point, although if you really dug into his background, there were rumors that he had a black belt in American Taekwondo from somewhere.  I took some time out to observe his classes and never saw a single technique properly performed from any style.  I did, however, end up inadvertently picking up one of his students after they were injured in class and quit, but I did not actually know that until after the student’s first lesson.

One of the big giveaways that a school is not good, or is not planning to teach you, is that they will not give you a free introductory lesson.  This means they don’t want you to see what they are doing until they get your money. There’s an even bigger red flag if they won’t even let you watch a class until after you’ve signed up.  Another thing to look out for is if the head of the school never teaches the class, it’s always or almost always the top students who do all the teaching.  At one time, them wanting you to sign a contract was a way to know they wanted your money but didn’t care about teaching you.  These days, with the difficulty in keeping a school in operation, many people have turned to contracts in a desperate attempt to be solvent.  However, if they won’t actually teach you without a long term contract that is still a red flag.

As for me, while I have had many Masters, I am 85% – 95% self taught.  One elderly Chinese woman who was teaching me thought it was hilarious and would laugh every time I called her Sifu, because it means father, but she never corrected me because it was the correct title under the circumstances.  Please try and remember it is as much about the path to enlightenment as it is improvement in health, and that learning to kick ass really is more of an incidental benefit than a goal.  Be thankful, Grasshopper, for few learn so much of Ti Kwan Leep so quickly.


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