Bokator. Antonio Graceffo

Antonio Graceffo – Brooklyn Monk, Dr. Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., China MBA, writing China economic research reports.

You were born into a Sicilian family. How do you think your Italian roots have influenced on your life? How it influenced on your activities in the martial arts?

Growing up Italian-American, living in New York, I was always exposed to foreign languages, as well as immigrants, and people from other countries. As a result, I was interested in traveling the world and learning languages. And this interest fit well with my interest in martial arts. I could travel to other countries and use martial art as a way of achieving immersion, getting closer to the local people, and learning their language. It also worked in reverse, learning the language allowed me to communicate better with my teachers and training mates, so I could learn martial art more effectively.

Ph.D. Antonio Graceffo

– In 2007, you became one of two Americans to receive the Black Crum title at bocator on the same day. Why did you decide to practice bokator?

When I came to Asia, in 2001, starting with Taiwan, I had a vague notion of going from country to country, learning their language and their martial art. I lived in Taiwan from October 2001 through February 2003. Then I was in Shaolin Temple, then Hong Kong. I moved to Thailand and lived in a monastery, up on a mountain, studying Muay Thai. When I came down from the monastery, I realized I had very little interest in learning conventional Muay Thai or remaining in Thailand. So, I went online to find out what traditional martial arts existed in the neighboring countries. This lead me to one or two mentions of bokator in Cambodia, so, I went to Cambodia to look for the master. It took me a year to find him.

– What is the philosophy of brokator’s martial art? Which master could you achieve as an accomplished success?

Grand Master San Kim Saen was the man who brought bokator back to life, after it had slept for centuries. Before practicing, the students show respect to Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who completed Angkor Wat, Bret Brom (Brahma, the patron saint of bokator), and to the bokator ancestors.

Bokator has three basic components, animal forms, kick boxing, and wrestling. The kids who were just children when I started, are now in their thirties and they have not only grown up with bokator, but taken it to a new, incredible level, particularly showcasing it in the Cambodian movie Jailbreak. Dara Bokator became a leading stunt trainer and movie star in Cambodia and  Tharoth Sam has taken bokator around the world, including appearing in the movie First They Killed my Father.

The young people have done a great job of establishing new clubs, teaching in public schools and putting on grand demonstrations, with hundreds of practitioners. I am very proud of what they accomplished.

– How would you characterize the propagation of bokator in the world today? How effective is Bokator in military, police, self-defense on the street?

Tharoth Sam and Dara Bokator have both been trainers for the police and army. Tharoth, in particular, now holds a police rank, I believe, and maybe teaching bokator in an official capacity.

The art is still only slowly spreading outside of Cambodia. There is a federation in Ireland. One in France and one in India and one in the Middle East. In total, there are three American black belts and it was always Grand Master San Kim Saen’s dream that one of us would open a bokator school in the US. But the other two seem to have stopped practicing martial arts, as soon as they left Cambodia. And I am always living and training and teaching in different countries, rather than opening a bokator club in the US.

The art was featured in some very large events around the world but, there are not many places to learn it, outside of Cambodia.

Stone carving of two Cambodians defending a lion attack alluding to bokator’s genesis. Located in Sambor Prei Kuk.

– You have written a Wrestler Thesis, which is a study of Chinese and Western wrestling. Could you briefly describe please the difference between east and west wrestling?

From a technique standpoint, Chinese shuai jiao wrestling differs from Western wrestling, in that you wear a jacket, similar to judo, and the opponents are allowed to grip each other’s jackets. And the win is assessed as soon as an opponent touches the ground with anything other than the souls of his feet.

This is very different than Greco-Roman or freestyle wrestling where you cannot grip the clothes and where wins are assessed by points or pin.

A central theme in my book is that all people have two arms and two legs, and the same techniques work on everyone. So, the reason the arts are different from country to country must be because of differences in culture. In western countries, we expect our wrestlers to be tougher, more aggressive, to control and pin the opponent. But in China, it is just a game, I make you fall. Or, you make me fall. This is part of why I believe that Western wrestlers transition so much better to MMA, rather than Chinese wrestlers, most of whom don’t even think of themselves as fighters.

An ancient Khmer warrior using a thrust kick on Rahu in a bas-relief from the Banteay Chhmar temple

– In Warrior Odyssey: A Martial Arts Master’s Travels Through Asia, you describe your journey, the journey of search… What do you think is the most effective martial art in the world for self-defense? And why? You are constantly learning new MA. What is the next martial art you plan to study?

The most effective martial art is the most frequent question people ask me, but the answer is so simple and has been proven thousands of times now, in the cage. And the answer is wrestling. Many heavyweight boxing champions have taken on mediocre wrestlers and all lost, except Jack Dmepsey, who managed to KO his guy. But even Jack Johnson and James Toney, lost in seconds, against a wrestler.

When you look at MMA champions, the vast majority have been from a wrestling background. Khabib is an exception, in that he never actually competed in wrestling, but somehow, his wrestling was incredible and of course, he won his fights largely on his wrestling ability.

Currently, I am in Mongolia, doing Mongolian wrestling and MMA. I am not sure where I am going next or what I am doing next because I really like training in Mongolia. It is the first country where I had so many, large-sized training partners, with such great skills. I do not have a burning desire now to move to the next martial art, because I feel I am running out of interesting destinations. Maybe sambo next, but I could do that in Mongolia or in Russia. Maybe back to India for more kushti wrestling, maybe back to New York and just really focus on judo and try and earn a black belt. Not sure. But I am hoping to have a few more fights before I retire completely from fighting. So, that would mean going back to Malaysia and fighting in the cage, which unfortunately depends a lot on covid lockdowns.

The one powerful dream I have left is lucha libre wrestling in Mexico. I would love to go down there, train to be a babyface, hero, take on some bad guys, and defend the weak and innocent. I love the literary aspect of professional wrestling, good vs evil, and heroes vs villains.  

I am currently working on two books, one about Mongolian wrestling culture, which I may not finish till next summer, and another about my experience at Shanghai University of Sport, which I am meant to send to the publisher this month. The other book I would love to write is about lucha libre, the culture, history, and traditions of la lucha.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

Robert Frost

Author: Myroslav Bekchyv