|Amongst the Greats
Past, Present, and Future
I owe many things to my involvement in the martial arts. I was asked once to define the most
rewarding thing about my experiences, and without hesitation I started to name off all of the
wonderful people I’ve come into contact with… fellow students, teachers, and masters. I am
blessed to have met and trained with some of the legendary masters. I will be able to tell stories of
meeting Dan Inosanto, training with Jerson “Nene” Tortal at one of his seminars, and share the
many fond memories of Ernesto Presas. I have been humbled by being in the presence of legends,
and I look forward to being one of the guys who is able to talk of the time “when I saw GM do the
most amazing thing”…
As time has passed, so have many of the lauded masters. It makes one wonder what lies ahead for
the future of our arts. Who will the storied masters of the next generation be? It occurred to me not
long ago that these are the people that I am fortunate to be associated with today. I feel a renewed
enthusiasm knowing that if I’m fortunate enough to live to an old age, I will be passing down those
stories to folks that can’t wait to hear them.
I could write many chapters about all of the wonderful teachers that I hold in this regard. People that
I regard as teachers and friends; guys like Grandmaster Steve Todd, founder of the 5 Way Method
who’s pragmatic approach to a fighting systems simplified things to such an extent that many of us
felt almost silly not having figured it out. I can’t even quantify everything he’s taught me.
Grandmaster Jeff Sprawls, co-founder of the 5 Way Method, whose explanations of Silat caused
many understandings to finally take root in my thick skull. Jeff is still one of my favorite people to
train with, and I always look forward to his stories about Pendekar Willem DeThouars as well. Both
Steve and Jeff are listed on “Uncle’s” final list of bestowed teachers as is the man that I most
commonly refer to as “my teacher”, Shelley Millspaugh.
Shelley Millspaugh, the “Grandmaster Student”
Shelley can’t even be referred to as a future great; he has been great as long as I’ve known him.
He’s just one of those guys who “has the knack”. He has proven this time and time again, going
forth to experience something new, and then somehow being able to catalog it to memory for his
own use or to teach it at a later time. I think of all of the things Shelley brings to the table, I am most
awed by his appetite to learn. He is so good at everything I’ve ever seen him execute, and yet he
will jump at the chance to go learn something new. He has spent a considerable amount of time in
the Philippines , made countless trips to places within the United States , and recently ventured to
Indonesia . His amazing aptitude for the arts and his astonishing retention have earned him
teaching credentials in more arts than I can remember. I used to think it was impossible to know
that many arts and keep them all segregated mentally; Shelley is proof otherwise. It’s almost
spooky to watch him switch from one to the next, seamlessly but still keeping each of the arts intact
Impressive as his martial resume is, Shelley is constantly evaluating that which he knows. We
began discussing some of the weaknesses in some of the things that we’d been taught, and while I
had recognized them myself, Shelley had already developed counters and covers to them. It is this
constant need to evolve that spawned the creation of his own art: Kadena Kruzada. While many of
the arts that we teach are meant to protect the against the incidental rogue threat; Shelley’s art has
purpose in dismantling other high-end fighters and systems. It continues to evolve as well, just like
I find myself telling “Shelley stories” all of the time to my class and my friends. And since I was
probably one of his more difficult students, I have many of them to tell from first-hand encounters. I
can only guess how Shelley describes me to his students in Kansas City; not sure I want to know. I
had a gift for pulling Shelley aside in class and getting the proof that his techniques were on the
level and effective. On one such occasion I annoyed him past the point of warning, a particular
strike he taught us that I honestly wasn’t buying, and told him he was going to have to show me the
goods. To this day, I can’t seem to wrap my mind around the internal side of the arts, but back then I
was even harder to convince. I poked and prodded, and probably even insulted Shelley a bit in an
effort to see this shot in action. Finally he shrugged his shoulders, and said “OK… hit me.” So I
tossed out a lackluster shot, to which he said “No, really… hit me.”
Now I had already been his student long enough to realize that despite a considerable
height/weight/reach and every other conceivable physical advantage, Shelley could pretty much hit
my off button at will. I should have been concerned about the invitation to swing away, but even
though I’d heard that curiosity killed the cat, I’d never seen the dead cat… just heard about it, and
that wasn’t good enough. So I swung – hard. Of course, I missed him. I remember him hitting my
arm, just about where the shoulder meets the bicep. I stood up, initially unimpressed and started to
say something. I think it went something like “Well that wasn’t so…” before the pain set in, which
interrupted me. I seriously thought I was going to throw up on the spot. I looked back up at him, he
looked back almost comically and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Well?” I just said “OK… got
it.” I don’t know how I made it through class, as my arm became less and less functional. He asked
me several times if I was OK, and I lied. The contact point had already started to discolor in a very
The next morning, I stumbled half awake into the bathroom to get ready for work. When I saw my
arm in the mirror I let out a string of obscenities, genuinely frightened. I got to work, and called my
instructor long before he was due to wake up. He spent the next several days applying a stout Jow
mix to my arm and scolding me for my stupidity. People at work weren't sure if I'd been bitten by
something poisonous or hit by a truck. I have not since asked him for a full power demonstration of
anything. Lesson learned.
Shelley continued to teach me and bring me up through the ranks of Kombatan. I continued to test
his skill and his patience the entire time, as any was necessary for furthering my education and
respect. He showed up once coughing and snorting and just looking like I used to when I lived in the
Fraternity house upon awakening. I’d consider the fact that I was in relatively great shape, no vices,
stronger and faster than I’d ever been, stoked on vitamins and supplements, and feeling fabulous…
today was the day I would show my teacher that I could hang with him. I’d spend the next half hour
throwing everything I had at him while he (in true Filipino Master form) laughed, evaded, and
redirected my attacks… usually into my own head. It always ended the same way: I’d be soaked in
sweat, tired, frustrated, bleeding on a few occasions, but having enjoyed every second of the
training. Shelley, by contrast, would always be standing there smiling, untouched, and asking if
anyone else was hungry.
I could write a very entertaining book about my teacher and friend. So many good times with
Shelley. So many times he left me in awe. Since he has moved to Kansas City I don’t see him like I
used to, and I miss that very much. These are the stories that I will tell my students, my children, and
hopefully they will pass them down as well as having their own experiences with him. Since Shelley
is younger than I am, I hope to someday have my son share my teacher. I look forward to visiting
Shelley with Johnny in tow, and then telling my son stories about my teacher “back in the day” while
we drive home. Shelley Millspaugh, legend in the making, and I was fortunate enough to play with
him in part of his prime.
I consider my relationship with Shelley a gift. Part of that gift has been in the people I’ve met through
Shelley, including his teachers. After all, one doesn’t become great without great influences. A few
years back, he introduced me to a Filipino phenom who gave us a new perspective on many things
martial; a young man by the name of Style Allah.
Master Style Allah, the Prodigy
I first met Master Style in Kansas City when Shelley brought him in for a swordplay seminar. I did
not know what to think; he was not at all what I expected. He was accompanied by one of his
students that looked more the part; Ramel Lasala was big and sinister looking - obviously no one to
fool with and everyone in the room knew it. He was to Style what I am to Shelley, only much more
so. Style, on the other hand, was almost… well, silly. He had the most boisterous laugh I’d ever
heard. Constantly flashing a huge grin. Walking around in flip flops with no perceptible cares, just a
freakin’ happy guy. Really happy. His approach to training is almost playful, and it’s contagious.
He even made Shelley seem more lively. And that’s when it started occurring to me just how Style
was affecting everyone in the room. Shelley and Grandmaster Presas have the same affect on the
people they’re around, a positive energy that is tough to label. Fun, energetic, and inspiring. Lethal
people to be in proximity, but comfortable to be around. But Style was more. It would take me
awhile to really understand why.
This young man has mad skills. Style can fight. I mean, really fight. This guy wields steel with a
relaxed intensity that you have to see to believe. His knife work is awesome. And he can beat the
hell out of me with his bare hands, too. But part of what Master Style has that is unique as far as
I’ve seen is scars. Real scars from real engagements. Just like the ones we hear about on the old
masters. He doesn’t talk about them much, but there is no mistaking that this guy has been in some
serious, serious situations.
His knowledge of the various systems in FMA is amazing for anyone… but astounding for a guy his
age. He shows techniques and gives credit to several different masters and systems, often
showing how one system counters the other and vice versa, explaining differences in weaponry and
techniques by region.
The more you talk to him, the more interested you are in what he has to say. The more you train with
him, the more you want to see and try yourself. So he came back to KC several times, and we
began to think of him as family. My job has a way of keeping me from attending these events, so
much to my chagrin I was missing much of the training even though some of my students were able
to go. As it happens, fortune would smile on me. Shelley allowed me to bring Master Style to
Wichita for a seminar here, and Style and his wife Sarah honored me by staying in my home. Only
then did I really being to appreciate just how extraordinary this guy is.
Having a guest of Style’s caliber for me is a huge exercise in restraint. When GM Presas stayed
with me, I often felt like I was bugging him asking questions and refrained from asking him to show
me anything. I would wait until he tipped his hand and then leap enthusiastically when he offered to
play. After all, you now play host to a Master who probably gets asked the same questions all of the
time everywhere he goes, not to mention “show me this, show me that”. You have to give them their
space. Style made the offer within an hour of being at my home. I even looked at his wife, who said
“yes, go play” verifying that I looked like eager child. And we did. And as he taught me things, he
would tell me about his training and his experiences, and they are amazing.
All of us in the FMA know the names of the famous masters. Presas, Canete, Luna Lema, Gaje,
Tortal, and many others… and some of us have even been graced to meet one of two of them.
Style has not only met them, but crossed sticks with many of them. He hasn’t just been to a
seminar; he’s been in their training facilities. He has seen the masters interact with each other. He
knows their family histories, and provided insight into why some of them act as they do. And he
speaks of each of them with deep and genuine respect. He is the only one I know that has trained
with the probably the most revered of the masters, Antonio Ilustrisimo. Master Style is especially
respectful when he speaks of “Tatang” and his visits to the park where the old man would train. His
admiration for Ilustrisimo is apparent as recounts seeing the master for the first time. The stories he
tells of his teachers are fascinating, and I could listen to them all day. The people he’s met, and the
things he’s seen and done… all of the skill he has and the passion that he teaches with, wrapped in
a man many years my junior. His humility belies his own abilities.
It finally dawned on me that my home felt like it had when Grandmaster Presas stayed with us, only
more so. Like GM, Style interacted with my families, martial and blood. In particular he spent time
with my son Johnny, who he refers to as “Little Brother” when he and I trade emails. So Style is
somewhat like having a much younger version of one of the old masters in the house; he has all of
their nuances and tales to tell, but without having the age that usually accompanies the experiences.
Amazing, amazing guys. One day I will be able to sit and tell tales about how I watched the young
masters trade sword strikes with each other in my driveway. I will laugh as I try and explain why they
both have a weak spot for Taco Tico food. I will tell how I once had a student named Cassie whom I
trained for a short time, and how she ended up becoming Shelley’s wife while her childhood friend
Sarah would end up married to Master Style shortly thereafter. I will recall Master Style training in
his ridiculous flip flops and still being able to outmaneuver me without trying. I will smile as I
remember bribing Shelley to train with our usual Triple Cheeseburger, tater tots, and a shake from
Walt’s, right across from the school when it was at the mall. And I was there, more or less, for all of
it. I’ll have to write all of this down someday so I don’t forget it.
Oh wait… I think I just did.