Thursday, September 16, 2010
John Wolf and Aaron Cruz had no intention of qualifying for the World Martial Arts Games at Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas.
Wolf, 32, says last March they were just accompanying their friends and fitness partners Jim Romig and Robert Brister, who were trying out for the U.S. team, and got talked into it on the way.
Long story short: They all qualified.
“[The trials] were all conditioned to weed out the weak,” says Wolf, proprietor of an eponymous fitness studio in Salinas. “It was a grueling two days of work. A lot of bumps and bruises and smiles and exhaustion.”
Success favors the prepared. Wolf has been practicing martial arts since he was a child under the tutelage of local legend and community beacon Sinsei Eddie G. Stewart, who taught Bojuka-Ryu (boxing, jujutsu, karate) at his dojo in Marina starting in the early ’70s. When Sinsei Stewart achieved the pinnacle rank of 7th Dan, he became “the first American to receive such a rank of honor,” writes Master Chad Wissler on a Facebook page commemorating the school and the teacher.
“There are certain things you acquire when martial arts are in your formative years,” Wolf says. “[Sensei Stewart] was like a father, an amazing person. He taught me how to be an honorable man. He’s the basis of our program.”
That program is called Wolf Fitness Systems. Its founder likens it to turning people into strong wolves themselves, but it represents his non-combat side, focusing on a weight-loss “boot camp” and personal sessions with yoga and interval training mixed in.
The World Martial Arts Games, founded five years ago in Switzerland, rounds up many of the disciplines outside of the two accepted by the Olympics – judo and taekwondo – and that’s a lot: jujutsu, karate, kempo, kickboxing, kung-fu, sambo, wushu, grappling, etc. But the WMAG also showcases the breaking of objects and weapons routines and celebrity guests like Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris, amidst fight competitors from up to 50 countries.
It’s a three-day event, held in a different country each year, that navigates a line between traditional martial arts respectability and the mixed martial arts action of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
Three of Wolf’s colleagues will compete in the grappling division, where it is illegal to employ striking, pressure points, minor joint locks, neck cranks or “clawing of the windpipe.” Chokes, however, are fine. The matches are concluded by tap-out, disqualification, points, forfeiture or “unconciousness.” One can be disqualified for cursing.
Wolf and Cruz had to turn down the invite for lack of training time and to run their 4,200-foot studio inside the 2 Steps Ahead Performance Training space. But WFS coach Jim Romig, 26, and trainees “Woody” Brister, 32, and Cameron Stelling, 33, are in competition form.
Jujutsu artist and grappler Brister started training with the Wolf team in early 2009, and has only competed in two local tournaments, including Salinas’ Kugtar Extreme Challenge a couple weeks ago.
“Stelling lost 118 pounds since training with us in January,” says Wolf of the former hockey player and current ag chemical technician. “Part of his driving force was qualifying for the games.”
“Cameron [Stelling] did pro wrestling with Jim [Romig],” says Wolf, referring to the “sport” practiced by Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler. But they are serious fight athletes. They are training at Salinas’ Kugtar and Fighterz Corner and Hollister’s Main Street Kickboxing.
YouTube videos of Romig highlight his grueling training regimen, and grappling and MMA fights, including one at Rage in the Cage in Tucson, Ariz. Romig’s background is in sambo, a Russian wrestling technique practiced by Fedor Emilianenko, considered to be the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world – despite a surprise recent loss, his first in a decade. (Not coincidentally, Wolf was there to see it.)
In Vegas, Romig will also compete in a striking-grappling division, “like a light MMA,” Wolf adds.
Though none of the fighters know who they will draw, Romig has a game plan: “Constant pressure,” he said before leaving for Vegas. “Push the pace, overwhelm the guy. It’s a 3-minute round. I can go all out every fight.”
And his motivation is in place: “These are the biggest fights of my career. If I win I get my black belt. No matter what happens, I’m going to come out a better fighter. And it’s fun as hell.”