He may be from suburban Chicago, Illinois, but 32-year-old American Navy Master at Arms Joel Champ is a master at silat, a form of martial arts that hails from the Melayu Archipelago.
After 12 years of training, Champ is now ready to move from second degree black belt to third degree black belt. And this can only be done in silat’s spiritual home – Malaysia.
Champ’s journey to learn from reclusive practitioners of silat in Malaysia is captured in the National Geographic documentary, Fight Masters – Silat: The Deadly Art, which premieres Aug 31 on the National Geographic Channel (Astro channel 553) at 9pm.
The American picked up the finer points of this art form from Shiekh Shamsuddin Salim (or Cikgu Sam), the founder of The Silat Seni Gayong Federation of the United States. Cikgu Sam holds the rank of Harimau Pelangi Cula Sakti (black belt) in the Gayong Malaysia hierarchy and carries the title Ketua Kalifah (Chief Caliph).
He studied under the late Datuk Meor Abdul Rahman, the legendary mahaguru of silat who established the Malaysian Silat Art of Seni Gayong, the first officially recognised silat system by the Malaysian government.
A computer analyst by profession, Cikgu Sam has been living in Chicago since 1984 and conducts silat classes in his spare time.
He was introduced to Champ’s father at his martial arts school in Lisle, a suburb of Chicago.
"When my father found out about his silat background, he asked Cikgu Sam to come teach at his school," said Champ in an email interview. "Cikgu Sam is one of the greatest teachers and an amazing pesilat. I feel he embodies all the qualities of a true modern-day silat warrior. He is a man of honour and is very humble and true to his word.
"He is a family man and a great friend. He has always openly shared his culture and vast knowledge of Silat Seni Gayong with me and because of him, many doors have been opened for me. I’m in his debt."
Champ and his older brother were exposed to martial arts at a young age at his father’s martial arts school. The boys would watch their father teach hapkido and they, eventually, took it up.
"That was the old school of hard knocks, losing teeth and bleeding in training. When I met Cikgu Sam at my dad’s school and watched him teach silat, I was very impressed by what I saw. It was deadly and unorthodox from other things I have been exposed to and it seemed to blend a bit of everything I had done in the past."
At 1.8m tall, Champ experienced some difficulties perfecting certain moves. "I’m taller than most practitioners of silat or pesilat. It was only an issue when the techniques involve very low stances – you try and match the person you are training with and that can pose an issue when your height is an issue and you’re taller than the rest."
In Champ’s opinion, silat isn’t that different from other forms of martial arts. "Different arts may emphasise on certain aspects more than others (such as grappling, kicking, weapons, etc). [But] all are physically so close to each other [that] it is best to recognise similarities.
"I would say that silat has an attitude about it and an approach to self-preservation that stands out, but I feel that [it] is because of years of [fighting] invading forces from various nations ....
"When a people is colonised, or when others attempt to colonise them, they will naturally develop an art form that is deadly with elements of stealth and hidden trickery. They will also incorporate elements of their environment and spiritual aspects to help them in their defence.
"That being said, I also will physically compare [silat] to a blend of Thai boxing, jiu-jitsu, escrima and kung fu. That is my style of silat – Silat Seni Gayong."
This is not the first time Champ has been to Malaysia. "I have always been treated more like family than like a guest. Cikgu Sam’s family has always been so kind and PSSGM (Persatuan Silat Seni Gayong Malaysia) welcomes us with smiles, food, and excellent training every time we come to Malaysia.
"I would like to go out and see more of the silat scene in Malaysia. I only have been exposed to Silat Seni Gayong and Silat Melayu Keris Lok 9."
Champ personally believes that it is good that people are taking up martial arts. "I do think though that the Melayu people and Melayu youth should take a vested interest in silat.
"There is such a beautiful and powerful treasure in silat and it must be preserved! I would like to see it preserved by the people where the art has its origins and roots."
By S. Indra Sathiabalan
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