Giants walk among us…

‘We are standing on the shoulders of giants…

The metaphor above has been attributed to a number of intellectual ‘giants’ over the centuries; most commonly to the great scientist, Isaac Newton, but it’s earliest recorded attribution was to Bernard of Chatres.  ‘John of Salisbury. In 1159, John wrote in his Metalogicon:

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

On Sunday, 29th May, 2011 the greatest grappling innovator and teacher and one of the most influential martial artists of the last century, Prof. Wally Jay passed away after a short illness.  He was one of the great martial arts teachers of all times, and there are many of us who can truthfully say he carried us high and raised us up.

Professor Wally was my friend and mentor, as he was to so many others, including the late, great Bruce Lee. He was an extraordinary individual: driven; focussed; hard-working; ambitious; utterly confident in the quality and significance of his art and his work, and yet without a trace of arrogance.

Indeed, once you spent any time at all around the Professor, his humility was perhaps one of the most striking things about him. A flawless technician, he might have been forgiven for being impatient with lesser talents, such as myself, but he was unendingly patient, taking the attitude that his consummate competence shouldn’t bestow any particular special status, and that he was a human being like any other.

But those of us who had the privilege to get to know the man behind the martial arts master will testify he was quite the opposite – there was no-one quite like him, nor will there ever be. His son and successor, Prof. Leon Jay is a different individual, entirely worthy to succeed his father as the second generation Headmaster of the Small Circle Jujitsu system. Father and son, though different people, are nonetheless alike in drive and talent, and I know that Prof. Leon will continue to develop his father’s original concepts and, if it’s at all humanly possible, to go on as he has begun, continually improving upon them.

Prof. Wally could perhaps best be described in every way as a ‘thoughtful’ individual; he was always thinking, musing, considering and creating. We were on a train journey – the Professor, his lovely wife, Bernice and I – from London to Edinburgh about 24 years ago. It’s quite a long journey – at the time nearly 7 hours – and once or twice the Professor, then about 70 years old, appeared to doze off for short periods. Despite apparently being asleep, I noticed that his right hand, in particular, continually made repetitions of his trademark wrist and grip motions, as if applying a finger-lock over and over again. When he roused a little while later, I asked him something that had been bothering me for the couple of years or so that I had known him at that time, “How is it, Professor, that such a nice, gentle soul like yourself, can spend every waking hour thinking of ever more efficient ways of inflicting pain?” He didn’t reply right away, plainly considering the question in his usual thoughtful manner. The minutes stretched on, and finally he said, “You know, I really don’t know; it’s just what I’m good at!” Well, all I can say is, thank the Lord that he only ‘used his power for good’!

The question was only half in jest – this charming, dignified, good-natured man I’d come to know, respect and love had never shown a hint of intolerance, let alone irritation or ill temper while I had been around him. If you’ve experienced what the Professor’s students came to call the ‘Dance of Pain’, where you appeared to become a marionette with a few thousand volts running through you, as he made you stand up, lie down, roll over, flip to your feet, somersault, run in a crouched position etc., for what felt like hours, but was probably only a couple of minutes, all of this using only finger-locks, and even more impressively what he called ‘palming’, where he didn’t even bother to keep hold of you, just sensing where you were going and redirecting you while using only the pressure of his open palm, then you’ll realise that the mis-match between the excruciating pain inflicted by his art, and the charming, gentle creator of that art was downright surreal!

I have had the privilege of training with many great martial arts teachers, but the Professor remains the one I will continue to try to emulate the most. There are some wonderfully talented teachers out there, but often when one attends seminars with an acknowledged ‘great’, they spend half the time telling you about how extraordinary their art is, and by extension, they are! If you’ve been to Prof. Wally’s seminars – and he spent a good 30 years post-retirement running around the world for 10 – 11 months a year demonstrating and teaching his art, so there’s a fair chance you may have done – then you’ll doubtless recall he began each session by telling you briefly how he came to devise Small Circle Jujitsu, then getting straight into the teaching which he delivered with remarkable openness.

The story of how he came up with the technical innovations that define Small Circle as a significant development in Jujitsu typifies the man. No single apotheosis, no ‘Eureka’ style epiphany with himself at the centre, bathed in the spotlight of reason, so typical of many other self-aggrandising masters’ stories. Instead a simple story: he is taking his blue-belt grading in Kodenkan Jujitsu (itself an innovative art taught by a great, non-conformist teacher, Prof. Okazaki), and despite the fact that he made a mess of one particular throw, which he had always struggled with in training, he finds that he has still passed the test. A perfectionist even then, he resolves to refuse the rank, but is persuaded by Ken Kawachi Sensei not to do so, with the promise that Kawachi Sensei will teach him how to be an effective thrower.

For those of you not familiar with Judo throws in any technical sense – and at this point in Judo’s development, it is not significantly different to Jujitsu, except for the reduced focus on particular skills – throwing techniques are problematic. Every individual finds some throws more difficult to execute than others, and some will remain entirely impractical for any given person no matter how long they train. For instance, it is generally an advantage – despite modern Olympic Judo being contested in weight categories – to be smaller than your opponent. The majority of the throws in Judo are based around the basic mechanic of first ‘scooping’ your attacker’s pelvis with your own, before directing where you want them to fall using your arms and the degree of rotation of your waist and torso. Therefore, it is generally more difficult for a taller man – and Prof. Wally, though not hugely so, was nonetheless fairly tall for a Chinese person of his time and lean in build – to throw a smaller, stockier person.

Ken Kawachi Sensei however, in addition to studying Okazaki’s Kodenkan Jujitsu was All Hawaiian Judo Champion, and regularly took on and trounced all-comers, of all weights, sizes and backgrounds, from huge American body-builders, catch-as-catch-can wrestlers to other Judo Champions several weight categories heavier, despite being a small man.
Kawachi told the young Wally Jay that the ‘secret’ lay in the wrist-action he used – instead of the push-pull mechanic employed by the arms, he used this ‘two-way action’ within the grip itself of each hand. Wally continued to work with the action and it transformed his performance of throwing techniques.

Fast-forward some years, and Prof. Wally is married to the lovely Bernice, with whom he has a young family and they have emigrated to the mainland, living in San Francisco. He continues to teach Kodenkan Jujitsu and to develop and teach his own style, while creating and coaching a Judo team. Unfortunately, the Judo team is beaten again and again in tournament – he knows that their technique is good, but the typical American opponent they face is significantly larger and stronger – and Wally has to suffer the good-natured ridicule of his Judo teacher friends and rivals.

The Professor makes no bones about this; he is quite clear that, good-natured he may be, but no-one likes to be humiliated, particularly not again and again. So, he went back to the drawing board and further developed the ‘two-way wrist action’ first taught to him by Ken Kawachi. He worked equally hard on the footwork – to the non-Judoka this may seem less significant, but if you’ve watched Olympic Judo for instance, you’ll have seen many tedious, indecisive matches where the opponents remain in ‘jigatai’ for the entire proceedings.

Jigatai is where the contestants appear to be grappling around an invisible column that sits between them, so that they are bent over double at the waist with their arms fully extended and their hips and feet as far away from the opponent as they can manage while remaining in physical contact. This is a tactic designed to prevent that crucial scooping of the hips and pelvis, but it is a ‘counsel of despair’ as, although it prevents the opponent from delivering a significant throw, it also prevents the user from doing so too. In short, it is about ‘not losing’, rather than ‘winning’.

He understood that in order to ‘win’, it was necessary to commit yourself to the technique; not recklessly, but when a clear opportunity presented itself, or could be created. Wally Jay’s solution to the problem was two-fold: he cut down the mechanics of the footwork entry – if you can’t put yourself in place to deliver the technique, you’ll never get to perform your throw – and the refined mechanics of his hands, in combination with sensitivity training, created relative safety on the upper-body entry by virtue of his control over his opponent’s mobility. The ability to minutely read an opponent’s movements when in contact allows constant redirection of his force, defeating them with very little energy.

There is a common drill performed by Judoka: pairs work in contact with one person initiating entry footwork, and the other ‘riding’ each attempt by slipping out of range, or foiling it by altering the angle of their own body to match the opponent’s. This is hugely refined in Small Circle, with relaxation being the key. Keeping the knees soft, and the grip light, but firm, a good Small Circle stylist is incredibly difficult to ‘shake off’, always there and at the same distance and orientation no matter how much you move.

With the Professor’s innovations in technique and training method, his teams soon began to win and become dominant in West Coast judo tournament circles. Characteristically, instead of becoming resentful of the ribbing of his fellow teachers, he used it as a spur to his creativity. He was honest about his competitiveness and his ambition, but it was directed at the perfection of art and self, not focussed narrowly against the relative development of any other individual, which leads me to another aspect of this remarkable man’s character.

This is Prof. Leon’s story really, but I feel sure he won’t mind me passing it along. Several years ago, we were talking about his Dad, as we often did, and considering what made him the special man he was. That combination of dignity and humility he had was something we both admired hugely. Leon recalled attending many a large martial arts gathering with his father. Now martial arts is not exactly devoid of ‘Type A’ personalities, and Prof. Wally’s world was full of highly competitive contemporaries – particularly as it is probably true that Hawaii and California are home to the majority of the advanced oriental martial arts talent the 20th century has seen. Many of those great masters were in direct competition for students and kudos – or at least their styles were – and this sometimes led to ill feeling and fallings out. As Leon puts it, “All that stopped the moment my father entered the room”; Prof. Wally was held in such high regard and affection, no-one wanted to be seen acting in a petty fashion when he was around.

He and his contemporaries were and are an incredibly tough generation of martial artists. I was made especially aware of this when I visited him with Leon in 2000, shortly after he had endured a major heart by-pass operation. I had never seen the Professor down-hearted, but it was hardly surprising given he was 83 years of age, had always been a picture of health and vitality and then experienced this sudden brush with mortality.
He and I were discussing writing his biography, and knowing he was thinking about this, I had brought a voice recorder. Sitting in his living-room in his pajamas, he transformed the moment he began talking about his martial arts life. He recalled the fun they had with martial arts demos both in Hawaii and California, and how he introduced a great deal of humour into the proceedings in the days when this just wasn’t done. Naturally irreverent he even wrote comic songs to accompany the ‘sketches’ that he used to demonstrate martial arts and self-defence moves; he recalled and sang some of these for me as he told me about the ‘old days’.

It was good to see his spirits rise, but what happened next shows the degree of resilience of a man who, perhaps two to three weeks earlier, had endured major heart surgery. Out of the blue, he asked me if I knew Bruce (Lee) had studied Judo for a short time, something I had never heard from any other source. He told me that Bruce had even competed on the West Coast circuit briefly, just for the experience. “Here,” he said, indicating I should stand up, “this is the first thing I taught Bruce”. Before I’d even registered that he had gripped me, I found myself high in the air, head pointing directly at the floor, before being slammed into the Jay living-room carpet – Leon nearly wet himself laughing, mostly because of ‘the look on your face!’

By contrast, a little over two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and I’m ashamed to say, I felt truly sorry for myself for a few months, before one day I heard myself moaning – I thought of the Professor and all that stopped! That was Prof. Wally for you; he just made you want to be a better person and live up to whoever it was he seemed to see when he looked at you.

A couple of days later, I had the singular privilege of teaching a session at the Jay home dojo – as far as I know, the only European instructor ever to do so. The walls are covered by signed photographs of the cream of Oriental American instructors who have taught there, not least of whom was Bruce Lee, so it was both a great honour and extremely daunting. Prof. Lee Eichelberger, who runs the day to day teaching at the dojo, and all the regular students were extremely welcoming. Norman Johnson, a senior student and a long-time friend of the family, and Leon’s friend since high-school, acted as my uke. Prof. Wally had taken the back stairs down from his office – the dojo is behind and beneath the house – and was sitting in his pajamas with a tracksuit over it and wearing his big, sheepskin slippers that Leon brought back from a teaching trip to Australia.

I wanted to put a smile on his face – as well as, truthfully, to impress him if I could with something he wouldn’t have seen before. As ever, Norman (probably the only person who has endured ‘the dance of pain’ as often as Leon!) was the one to suffer as I demonstrated a technique I’d created only after hearing I would be teaching a few days before. It’s called the ‘baby-crawl’, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. I asked Norman to just ‘punch me in the face’ as quickly as he could, then dropped below him onto all fours and, with one hand on the floor either side of his lead foot, proceeded to crawl forward at speed. Predictably, Norm was felled like a tree and various parts of his anatomy ‘tenderised’ as I made my way over the length of him on elbows and knees. I looked up to see Prof. Wally laughing so hard there were tears running down his face. It will remain one of my fondest memories of a great teacher and an even better human being.

Another of Leon Jay’s favourite stories about his Dad highlights Prof. Wally’s attitudes to his own, and all other, martial arts. The Professor was preparing to teach his part of a combined seminar with GM Remy Presas, his good friend. Remy was teaching and Prof. Wally was in the next room when an excited junior Small Circle student came to find him. “Come quick, Professor, Master Remy’s stealing all our techniques!” Prof. Wally leaned forward and in a conspiratorial whisper told the young student, “I know – we’re stealing all of his too; we call it sharing!” That was the essence of Wally as teacher: utterly confident in his ability and in the value of what he was teaching, but totally open to learning from others. GM Remy was typical of the type of talent Prof. Wally attracted to him; George Dillman sought him out because Bruce Lee told that “Wally was the best teacher in America!”

Rank was pretty much meaningless to the Professor. He was a genuinely democratic man – happy to teach as long as you had the desire and the capacity to absorb, and with the judgement to know when and where those limits lay. He was equally happy to learn from anyone else – if you had something to offer, then he was receptive, and indeed eager to learn.

For those of you wondering about the title of this piece – and American readers may well be puzzled by it – I wanted to address the issue of transition. In European tradition, the cry of, ‘The King is dead, Long Live the King’ was heard when the crown passed from one generation to another, and it’s an expression of continuity. Well, Prof. Wally handed over the reins of the system to Leon some years ago, but I wanted to talk about the long process that preceded it as yet another illustration of Prof. Wally’s character.

A small aside here – a few years ago, when I had moved to the opposite side of the country, an old friend and student whom I had lost touch with was trying to search me out over the internet. Googling my name, he found me mentioned on Leon’s website. Calling Leon, he was able to get my new phone number and called me one Saturday morning. Telling me how he had tracked me down, he became more excited as he told me about speaking to Leon Jay, “martial arts royalty!”

Given that the whole family trained in the family art, Prof. Wally could well be forgiven for taking the dynastic route that so many founders of styles and systems have taken, but this wasn’t for him. He was a meritocrat to his fingertips; when Leon and Sandra moved to the London area in 1987, and Leon decided he wanted to be his father’s successor, Wally was pleased but determined that no-one would be able to cry nepotism. So, Prof. Wally decided Leon would need to prove his commitment. Now, I’ve experienced that traditional process of approaching a teacher who refuses to teach you, going back again and again until finally they decide you are sincere and accept you as a student, and I suppose this was a variation on a theme. In order simply to be taken serious as a contender to succeed him, the Professor told Leon he ought to come and train with me.

Leon lived on the opposite side of Greater London, about a seventy mile round-trip, but good as his word to his father, he made the long, tedious trek to my place to train two and three times a week for about three and a half years, at the end of which Prof. Wally told him he would now be ‘considered as a possible successor’. Now, I don’t imagine for one moment that the Professor had his son train with a lesser martial artist in order to improve his technique! The point was as much to test Prof. Leon’s ego as it was his commitment, a test Leon passed with flying colours. Like his father, Prof. Leon doesn’t presume upon any entitlement to respect – he expects to earn it and prove himself on a regular basis, which is part of what makes him his father’s successor and plainly his father’s son.

Prof. Wally made me his ‘Technical Advisor’ in the late 1990s, though I was never sure what, if anything, of a technical nature I was equipped to advise him on, but from the day I met him and forever more, the mere fact of his friendship and the honour of being taken seriously by him will remain the greatest compliment I have received – or ever could – in my martial arts career and my life in general, with the exception of my wife agreeing to marry me, of course.

Having the opportunity to simply spend time with the Professor outside of the dojo was a particular privilege. He was always ready to listen and to offer sage advice, and he had a way of offering it that made needing it less of a failure – you were just two old friends ‘shooting the breeze’; he might just ‘happen’ to tell a pertinent story from his own life that seemed to offer a lesson. As a mentor he was – I won’t say a father-figure, for that would dishonour my own much-loved Dad – certainly a wise uncle, and I’m sure an ‘older brother’ to his many friends and contemporaries.

That comfortable way of his made it very easy to learn from a great master while getting to feel that your ideas had real validity, that you were holding your own in admittedly exalted company. That relaxed facility gave all his interactions with his students a genuinely empowering, nurturing quality. I’ve been to seminars with great performers of their arts, and felt discouraged afterwards, feeling I’d never replicate their skills. Yet, despite his technical virtuosity, you always felt with Prof. Wally that if you paid enough attention, practised assiduously enough, for long enough, you might – just might – be able to do some, at least, of what he could. I’m speaking for myself when I say that is probably an illusion, but as I continue in my journey towards mastering Small Circle Jujitsu, at each small step I’ll know he’s somewhere smiling and I’ll hear his voice, saying, “That’s it, you got it!”

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “The greatest sophistication is simplicity”, and Prof. Wally always said that his art was simple. Of course, once mastered that’s entirely true, but understanding what he meant is the difference between complicated – which his art was not – and complex, which it most definitely is.  Perhaps one of Wally’s greatest achievements was to make his art uniquely accessible in spite of its level of sophistication.
He always said to me that he was “a slow learner”, in contrast to his much adored wife of 71 years, Bernice. Bernice apart from being perhaps the prettiest grandmother in existence is an extraordinarily talented martial artist; indeed she is one of those people who can just see movement, intuitively break it down and immediately replicate it, and martial arts presented no more difficulty in mastering than dance at which she is equally adept. Far from being a ‘slow learner’, as he characterised himself in typical deprecating fashion, Prof. Wally was a deep thinker; he was one of those artists who had to feel he understood something before he did it. Bernice Jay was the linchpin of Prof. Wally’s life – her support was crucial in his ability to devote time and study in creating the art, and he often gave her credit as his sounding-board as it developed. Her combination of abundant common-sense and technical insight made her his most important advisor.

So, I won’t say goodbye to you, Professor; it’s more of a farewell – we’ll meet again, I hope and in the meantime, it’s as if you’re just in the next room, you’re always just at the edge of my vision and I know I’ll go on hearing your gentle encouragement in my head whenever I need it.

Those of us that had the honour to know him will always miss him, but no matter how hard, better that then never having known such a remarkable human being. God Bless, your friend and student, John xx


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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4 Responses to Giants walk among us…

  1. John my dear friend and adopted brother, what a tragedy and such a loss to his family and the world is a lesser place wihtout him. I only had the privelege of training under “The Prof” twice but what a teacher, I learnt as much in those few hours as I had in many years. Please pass on my condoloences to Leon. There will be a two minute silence in my Dojo when we next train in honour of a truly unique human being, a great gentleman the epitome of what a martial artist should aspire to be like and sadly many of us dont, myself included. In my office I have a small photo of myself and Prof Jay its alongside another with myself and Larry Hartsell. They are amongst my most treasured posessions, but above all else I will always hold dear the painful memory of the ‘dance’ as the Prof used me for uke for some of his techniques those many years ago in the Docklands. I wish you and Ann all the very best and this old warrior will sign off now and reflect on how lucky I was to have met and trained under such a great man.
    Yours in freindship as always
    Gary Stringer

    • Gary, thanks, brother – I know your words are heartfelt, coming as they do from one of the truly great grapplers. We met Professor Wally on the same day all those years ago – makes you realise how important it is to stay close to our martial arts family; hope to see you sometime this summer to toast one of the giants of our world! God Bless

  2. enver says:

    That is sad news. Please pass on my condolences and best wishes to Leon

    • Hi, Enver – I know, it’s so sad, but mostly for all of us he’s left behind. He had a long, happy life full of accomplishment and the love and respect of his family, his peers and many friends and students. All long as we continue to respect and nurture his legacy – as a fine human being and an extraordinary, creative martial artist, he will always be with us. I’ve dreamt about him every night since he fell ill a few weeks ago, and I’ll try to live up to his memory. I’ll pass on your condolences and best wishes to Leon and the rest of the family.

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