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Interview Grandmaster Keith R. Kernspecht

Dai-Sifu Keith R. Kernspecht

Dai-Sifu Keith R. Kernspecht,

The Father of WingTsun in the Western World,
10th Grandmaster level WT,
Founder and Chief-Instructor EWTO

Keith R. Kernspecht has nearly 40 years of martial arts experience. At the end of the Fifties, he began to study various Western and Eastern martial arts including Freestyle Wrestling, Pro-Wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Kempo and Shaolin Kung Fu. These were followed by Shotokan and Wado-Ryu Karate. He has established the Leung Ting System of WingTsun (spelled as one word and abbreviated as 'WT') in all European countries on behalf of the IWTA in Hong Kong and there is a current total of more than 1,500 associated schools in Germany, Austria and Switzerland alone!
The EWTO (the Western section of IWTA founded and led by Kemspecht) is the world's largest professional martial arts association and has branches in all the continents except in Asia where Grandmaster Leung Ting is in charge himself.
Since 1982, Kemspecht's organization has published its own magazine 'WingTsun World', which appears twice a year.
From this year on, the charismatic German with English ancestors is in charge of Grandmaster Leung Ting's British and Irish WingTsun Association. He will start entirely from scratch and he will do it his way, combining Chinese ingenuity with Western proficiency.
Although Kemspecht's best-selling book ON SINGLE COMBAT has only recently been published it is already in its 2nd edition. It is Kemspecht's 9th specialist book on the martial arts. Endorsed by Geoff Thompson, it is probably the very first comprehensive treatise on the phenomenon of individual combat including aspects such as strategy, tactics, psychology, physiology, law, history and philosophy. It undertakes to show how the complex processes occurring in a combat situation dictate the reactions of the defender and therefore circumscribe his actions. In his book, Kemspecht takes a critical look at the real combat value of the conventional martial arts and self defense methods, and is not afraid to slaughter a few sacred cows in the process!
On 26 and 27th September 1998, Professor Kernspecht will hold a seminar in London for everyone interested in the original WingTsun and in the future of the GB WingTsun Organization. Not only will Grandmaster Leung Ting be present but also the future branch leaders for Scotland and Ireland as well as many international instructors such as Emin Boztepe from the USA. And of course Master Bill Newman himself, the EWTO Chief Instructor of Europe for Latosa-Escrima, will also be in attendance. All departments will be presented to the participants including WingTsun Anti-Ground Fighting and WingTsun for Health.

Combat: Why did you take up martial arts as opposed to, say, soccer?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Team sports have never been my cup of tea. I prefer to rely on myself and to accept the whole responsibility for victory or defeat. My uncle was a wrestler and so my first martial art was wrestling - the oldest fighting art in human history. I learnt Graeco-Roman, Free Style and later, Persian wrestling. A neighbor ran a professional wrestling team that traveled Europe and I was asked to travel with them. I fought quite successfully in several tournaments.

Combat: Did you have a wrestler's name?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Yes, I was known by two titles. They named me 'Lord Keith' because I have British ancestors, and 'Strangler Keith' because I used to finish my opponents by choking them. I was quite strong at that time and one of first modern power-lifters in Northern Germany. My specialty were dumb bell flies with more than 150 lbs. in each hand!

Combat: I have seen photos in your best selling book ON SINGLE COMBAT in which you are using about 450 lbs. in pressing movements for reps. I've also seen a photo that shows you lifting up a training partner with one arm. Have you always been so strong?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Not really. I was tall and skinny as a teenager but I always loved comparing my skills with those of my schoolmates. I never lost, even though were usually stronger and heavier than me. I was very creative and invented lots of techniques myself before I learned anything from my instructors. I always used grappling techniques because I never wanted to make my friends bleed or really hurt them. I never had problems with boxers and if you read my favorite book BLUE BLOOD ON THE MAT, you will know why!

Combat: Why did you take up weight training, then?
Keith R. Kernspecht: I am the excessive type who can never get enough of anything before he has had 200% of it. So at the age of 15, I began to transform my skinny body by very intensive and progressive power training. In the end I had multiplied my power and stamina without losing speed. My training partners were Eberhard Schneider (who later became one of the most famous German experts on power training) and G. Rohrsch, the World silver medallist in Olympic Heavyweight lifting. So I had enough inspiration to pull through.

Combat: Do you think that weight training is a must to be successful in martial arts or in self defense?
Keith R. Kernspecht: It is definitely a short-cut for beginners and helps you do things which normally would require a much higher level of skill. Most martial arts depend on strength, although instructors do not admit that openly. Most styles need power because they rely on prearranged 'dead' or fixed techniques to break the of the opponent. Very few styles borrow the force of the opponent and use it as both an impulse and for speed and power. Therefore it is most unusual that I, the former powerlifter, after having studied Kempo, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Shaolin Kung Fu, Shotokan and Wado-Ryu Karate, Taekwondo and Muay Thai, at the end of the Sixties discovered a love for the intelligent and flexible methods like Aikido and Wing Chun, and later, for WingTsun.

Combat: You began martial arts at the age of 14 and have been practicing for more than 37 years, so you must be over 52 years of age by now. Yet you look very young and fit! I guess you must be 6'2" and over 180 lbs. of muscle? How many hours a day do you train with weights to keep in such good shape?
Keith R. Kernspecht: In fact I am much lighter than I look - I'm only 165 lbs. Although we do not think it is necessary for the scientific art of WingTsun, I admit I love working out every day! But instead of weights, I move my own body, doing push ups, dip chins and sit-ups with the occasional weights attached. Only from time to time do I test my bench pressing power (and I can still move well over 300 lbs. for reps, which satisfies me!). Contrary to what I thought when I was very young, I now believe that it is better to use your own bodyweight as resistance because it is more natural, and maybe the other 'secret' is the special Chi-Kung Breathing Form of the Leung Ting System which prolongs life. So I am positive that I will live to be over 100! Dai-Sifu Keith R. Kernspecht

Combat: Do you follow a special diet?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Yes I separate carbohydrates from proteins, eat only fruits from morning to afternoon and eat fish or fowl plus plenty of vegetables for supper. For the last six months I have refrained from alcohol - which is hard for me because I live one third of my time in Tuscany, where there are great wines that go so nicely with the food there .....

Combat: Before we talk about the Leung Ting WingTsun system that you teach, do you practice other martial arts and if so, what do you think about them?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Since 1975 I have practiced only WingTsun or WT as we abbreviate it, and some Escrima. WT gives me everything I need. And being the WT-Chief Instructor for Europe and Grandmaster Leung Ting's representative /coordinator for the Western world my techniques must be pure WT and not mixed up. But I like and respect other martial arts like wrestling. I rate Escrima very highly - especially the Combat Escrima of my friend and former instructor, Rene Latosa. Also, I can appreciate realistic martial arts like Muay Thai or Ling Lom which I studied myself in the Seventies under my friend, Master Sunthus Supasturpong. I have students who are World or Vice World Champions in karate, Taekwondo, Thai and Kickboxing as well as in boxing and wrestling, so I can spar and compare techniques with them. All these styles have their strong points. But only he who knows himself and his opponent win be successful in the end.

Combat: Which English martial artists do you know?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Unfortunately very few. I highly rate Master Bill Newman the Father of Escrima in Europe, his assistant Steve Tappin and Geoff Thompson. All are top-notch experts in their chosen fields, and I am honored to call them my friends. I also met Derroll Connery - a very good Jiu Jitsu instructor while I was teaching a seminar to German Jiu Jitsu black belts.

Cover Combat Magazine

Combat: What do you think about the standard of martial art practice in Britain?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Oriental martial arts had been introduced to Britain before ever they found their way to Germany. As a university student I went to England where I had a chance to continue my study of karate under Enoeda-sensei and Suzuki-sensei. The first Wing Chun I saw was from Sifu Cheng Chun, whom I liked very much. I was one of the few non-Chinese who had the privilege of being admitted to Sifu Cheng's class. Whereas the first non-Chinese, I believe, must have been my friend Alan Lamb, who later went to Hong Kong to train under Sifu Koo Sang. Sifu Cheng introduced me to Grandmaster Leung Ting and I can still remember the time when both Chinese Sifus were sitting by my bedside in a London hotel, using their Chinese medicine to try and heal me from an illness I was suffering from. In 1976 I studied Escrima under Grandmaster Rene Latosa and his master-disciple, Bill Newman (who is also a former Wing Chun man).

Combat: We heard that you have a weakness for Britain and before you made WingTsun your profession, you used to be a university lecturer in English literature.
Keith R. Kernspecht: I have English/Scottish ancestors and my parents were very Anglophile - which you can see from my Christian name, Keith. So I regularly spent my holidays in GB. I love all things British! I restore and drive automobiles such as old Morgans, TR3s, early E-types, Astons, etc. If I did not have two wonderful dogs, which I hate to put under quarantine, I would have traveled to Britain much more often. My dream is to have a place in London where I would live for at least three months of the year.

Combat: Is it true that you divide your time between Kiel, old castle close to Heidelberg in Germany and Livorno in Tuscany?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Yes, I have to take care of nearly fifty countries in which my students have established WingTsun branches. In Europe the only two countries where we are not presently represented are Andorra and, I think, San Marino. So I must constantly travel! Every weekend I teach seminars in places where I teach and test students, and supervise the instructors. Kiel, Langenzell Castle and Livorno are my residences. There I stay and teach during weekdays.

Cover Wing Tsun World #12

Combat: You chose to become a WingTsun instructor but could you imagine being a karate or Taekwondo instructor?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Like I said, WingTsun is exactly my cup of tea and since I was the pioneer of it in the Western world, I've had the chance to design and shape it into the product it is now. My WingTsun is very, very realistic, but at the same time highly scientific and philosophical. I stress principles and concepts rather than techniques and love my students asking me questions and being creative. I do not think that I could have achieved these aims by teaching a different martial art.

Combat: Do you think there is something like the best self defense?
Keith R. Kernspecht: If there is something like the 'best driver' and 'the best car' - at least for a special purpose - then I believe there to be 'the best self defense'. But this 'best system' (which is WT for me), may be Thai boxing or Escrima for someone else.

Combat: What is your definition of best self defense?
Keith R. Kernspecht: The best method of self defense is the one which is able to cope with the most attacks using the least number of movements.

Combat: And in this respect WingTsun is the best?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Whilst other styles proudly boast that they have 6,000 or more movements, we believe that less is more and make do with only two active movements. To these movements you have to add four passive reactions, one passive emergency reaction and the WT concept that ties everything together with eight governing principles which are mostly derived from Taoism. So according to my definition - which might not be yours - I like to say that WT is the second best while I am still looking for the best (which can do the same or more but with less movements and less fuss).

Combat: What was it especially about WingTsun that convinced you to dedicate so much time to it?
Keith R. Kernspecht: In the middle of the Seventies I was a power-lifter, tipping the scales at 220 lbs. I was a black belt and instructor in many styles. However, the first master who offered to me to attack him in any way I wanted was Grandmaster Leung Ting. He did not say 'Give me a punch to the face,' or 'Kick me to the groin,' or 'Grab my arm,' or 'Try to bear-hug me'. He just said 'Attack me as quickly as you can in any way you like.' I tried my best but I couldn't punch, kick nor grab this 135 lbs. Chinese master. He neutralized all my vain attempts so effortlessly that I knew this was what I wanted - to be able to stand confidently facing my opponent, offering him the chance to attack me in any way he wants.

Combat: You are now Grandmaster Leung Ting's highest graduated disciple and hold the 9th degree master's qualification. When you began, did you ever believe that you would one day surpass all your WingTsun classmates in The West and in Asia? That you would become the most successful professional martial arts instructor in the World?
Keith R. Kernspecht: No, I never thought of it. And I never thought of becoming a full-time WingTsun instructor either! I was teaching German, Latin, Sports and English, and I was a lecturer at the university. I was never really interested in money but I had this urge to become really good at WingTsun and since I had to work for a living in Kiel, I had to invite Grandmaster Leung Ting to teach me privately in Germany. I arranged for him to visit me at least three times per year and to this day I still train with him three months out of every year.
To finance his flight tickets, hotels, meals and teaching fees I was obliged to organize seminars for him and to teach WT myself. This is how the German WingTsun Organization, later called 'European' and International WingTsun Organization came into being. Actually my Sifu, Leung Ting, must be the most successful instructor in the world. I am only ambassador and very much satisfied to be his sea command. And I have a lot of respect for my colleagues in Hong Kong, especially for my Sisuk Chen Chuen Fun, whom I admire not only for his skills but even more for his humanity and strong character.

Combat: What is your relationship with Grandmaster Leung Ting? After more than 24 years, you must be old friends by now?
Keith R. Kernspecht: No! According to Confucius, friendship can only exist between equals, I am his kung fu son ('to-dai' in Cantonese) and he is my kung fu father ('si-fu'). I respect him very much for what he taught me and for what he still teaches me.

Combat: Do you always see eye-to-eye? Do you always share the same opinion?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Not at all! We are very different and argue all the time. And we are both very proud of our cultural heritage. I only have to mention jokingly that Alexander the Great or Marco Polo might have introduced some kind of WingTsun art to China and I have a war on my hands! So our relationship is never boring and leads to surprising results and solution when East and West meet. Western proficiency and Chinese genius - this is the formula for our common success. And this is what attracts our mutual students from all over the world to the EWTO.

Combat: Do you think that some people in the past found hard to co-operate with Grandmaster Leung Ting and so had to quit or were dismissed?
Keith R. Kernspecht: My Sifu is a very intelligent person with lots of humor but he knows exactly how he wants things to be done. And it is not easy to meet his high standards. But since we have known each other for nearly 24 years now, our relationship is very, very good and we can trust each other 100%. I, for my part, would never want another Sifu.

Combat: How is WingTsun organized or structured?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Grandmaster Leung Ting is the International Chief Instructor and the head of the International WingTsun Association (IWTA). And he is directly in charge of Asia and special countries like Poland, Rumania and Hungary IWTO and EWTO are Western organizations which affiliate to IWTA and which take care of the remaining countries. Altogether we have branches in more than 60 countries now. The strongest WT country worldwide is Germany which has well over 1,500 gyms.

Combat: And how about Britain and Ireland?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Britain was directly under Grandmaster Leung Ting because of its traditional ties with Hong Kong. But now it is no longer a British Crown colony and Grandmaster Leung Ting for some reason was not so happy with his former British representative, so he has put me in charge of it. WingTsun-GB is now part of the EWTO, the European WingTsun organization. I will personally run the EWTO-GB while Grandmaster Leung Ting helps me teach seminars and supervise future instructors. I will come with a team of experienced master instructors like Emin Boztepe (6th Master's degree) who teaches a club in London, a 5th degree Master will take care of Scotland while another 5th degree Master will run Ireland. We already have some small clubs such as the one in Stafford which is run by a 4th level instructor and another in London, taught by a Chinese student of Grandmaster Leung Ting's from Hong Kong. I hope all Leung Ting stylists in GB will contact me now to build up a new GB WingTsun Organization which Grandmaster Leung Ting can be proud of.

Combat: Will you admit ex-Leung Ting students who turned to other martial arts through lack of an original Leung Ting gym?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Everybody who wants to learn the pure Leung Ting WingTsun is welcome. People who for some reasons were unsatisfied with our former British organization are welcome to rejoin us. If they are already instructors or advanced students, then they may help us in building up the future GB-branch. We are just beginning and now is the best time for ambitious pioneers who want to grow with us to join the EWTO.

Combat: How about people from other Yip Man schools?
Keith R. Kernspecht: I hope we find a way to communicate and assist each other in making Yip Man martial art recognized as the great art it is. We should not allow technical differences and interpretations to split us apart. Nor should we continue and perpetuate traditional quarrels and fights that had their unlucky origins in Asia. We are Europeans and should understand that quarrels over who taught who more will not strengthen the image of Yip Man martial art. It is tragic that a Wing chun man gets better along with such as a karateka than with a clansman of the WingTsun-style. Familiarity breeds contempt and it is the little differences which seem to be harder to accept than the really big ones. I for my part do not want to be drawn into the vicious circle of style politics. I do not want to steal students from other Sifus. I would rather attract complete newcomers.

Combat: Why? Would it not be easier to recruit students from other Yip Man schools?
Keith R. Kernspecht: Maybe, but the Leung Ting system of WingTsun is very different from its brothers. The difference is not for the eye to see. While our techniques look alike - at least on the surface - our concept is often a world apart. To explain this to an enthusiast of another Wing Chun or Ving Tsun school is a hard and ungrateful job - like trying to convince someone to change his religion. I am a scientist and not a religious believer and fanatic. I try to convince my students by logic and not by beating them up.
I want to make friends, not life-time enemies in Britain! When I was young I believed that many enemies meant lots of glory, but now my thinking is different!

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