My name is Willard Ford and I am the owner and one of the coaches here. My first introduction to the martial arts was when Paul Le Mat (John Milner in American Graffiti) held mitts for me and I went through the basic punches of boxing. Jab, straight right, left hook, and uppercut. To be honest, it didn't really hold my interest.
To my young mind, boxing could not compete with the pull, complexity, and mystery of kung fu. The 1970s were awash in Orientalism: we watched Godzilla and ate sushi, Bruce Lee was cool and kung fu was real. A small but pugnacious kid, I chased the black belt and built myself up into my image of a tough guy, complete with a black uniform and hundreds of deadly techniques at my disposal. David Carradine reminded me daily that nothing was as deadly as the splashing hands of China.
I was convinced that through my kung fu training I was a skilled and lethal weapon. Then it happened. I went to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class and was thoroughly humiliated. I was choked, arm barred, and smothered into submission. Despite years of what I believed was hard and realistic training, I was beaten badly after a few seconds on the mat. So I went back to the drawing board, studying BJJ, judo, Thai boxing, and more realistic kung fu styles in the quest to redeem myself. After years of immersing myself in eastern methodologies, I regained my confidence and thought I had it all worked out.
Ironically, it took me going to Japan to begin to understand western martial arts. In 2002, I went to interview and train with Kazushi Sakuraba, the shining star of mixed martial arts (MMA). The few hours I spent at Takada Dojo watching and working out set me on a new path and informed my study for the past 12 years. At the time I was deeply committed to the study of BJJ and believed it the ultimate martial art, having proven itself almighty in the Octagon. Five minutes on the mat with Sakuraba told me a different story. His movement was foreign, more complete, and every move a setup or trap that led to a finish. From standing to rolling I was completely helpless. I was once again humbled by my single-minded focus on looking eastward for answers. The irony was not lost on me that a Japanese guy doing western wrestling was beating an American obsessed with Brazilians dressed in Japanese kimono and doing judo.
I returned to the US determined to find a place to train that captured both the spirit and movement I experienced that day. I read about Frank Trigg and Rico Chiapparelli in an article from the now defunct Grappling Magazine. It detailed their methods and training at the R.A.W. (Real American Wrestling) Training Facility in El Segundo, California (now called R1 Gym and located in nearby Inglewood). The article described a style with wrestling as its base and Chiapparelli as the maestro who had figured out how to apply wrestling to the emerging MMA game. A mere 20 minutes away, I grabbed my gear and drove to the gym. At R.A.W. wrestling connected the space between striking and ground fighting so it was elevated, not avoided. Each movement was designed to achieve dominance. While all techniques were considered, they had to fit into the wrestling and vice versa, and they had to represent the most current and informed practices.
So this all begs the question. Were my failures mine or was my training inadequate? After a few months at R.A.W. things started to click. I could go into any school and participate and even beat some guys. I’m no great athlete or competitor, but I could see it was working. And I could see the professional fighters in the gym prove the methods in front of me, taking on all comers from all styles. These guys were real martial artists who lived the gym maxim, “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere.”
When I opened Strong Sports Gymnasium in 2009, it was to provide the most informed and expert training possible. I brought in professional coaches and ex-pro fighters like R.A.W. alumnus Frank Trigg and Vladimir Matyushenko, current fighters Jamie Yager and Kengo Ura, as well as the highest level of trainers for each facet of the program. With the integration of western wrestling and boxing as its base, the curriculum of Strong Sports Gymnasium is research-based and committed to the best and most effective practices, in contrast to the hodgepodge of technique and thinking that permeates the martial arts landscape.