Candid Interview with Sigung Paul Vunak PFS: What was your first art? PV: Tae Kwon Do…I started at age 9 and studied for four years. PFS: Who was your instructor? PV: Actually, there were four instructors that ran the school. They were called the Yi Brothers – I believe their names were Yung Pok, Yung Kuk, Yung Ho, and Yung Chuen. PFS: Why did you leave the Yi Brothers? PV: After I finally got a black belt I decided to move on. I felt my kicking techniques were OK; however, I lacked good hands.
PFS: What was your next school? PV: Tiger-Crane Kenpo Karate…it was an offshoot of BKF (Black Karate Federation). A gentleman by the name of Al Fleming was my instructor. PFS: How long did you study there? PV: For roughly three years. PFS: Why did you leave? PV: Well, I ended up doing most of the teaching there and soon discovered that our school had turned into a childcare center. I had about 25-30 adults (mostly in their late twenties), and over 50 kids. My emphasis was on fighting, and not on running a business, so I got the brainy idea to close down the kids’ class. Three months later, our school closed down!
PFS: Why is it that you were more interested in fighting than business? PV: I grew up that way…I witnessed a lot of fighting starting from a very young age. I was living in the worst part of Long Beach, California. In my high school (Poly High), being Caucasian meant you were the minority. Not to mention growing up in an extremely emotional household with a Yugoslavian father and a Sicilian mother! PFS: Where did you go after the BKF school? PV: It was November 22, 1976 when I was first introduced to Dan Inosanto and the Filipino Kali Academy.
PFS: What was that like? PV: I remember there were some dividers separating the classes. Most people don’t know, but the old Kali Academy used to teach Kenpo Karate as well as Jeet Kune Do and Kali. I remember showing up on a Saturday afternoon during which there were no formal classes, just free workout time. I decided to spar with someone to confirm that this was indeed the school for me. PFS: What was the result of this encounter? PV: I picked the biggest, most serious-looking guy in the school and asked him if he would spar with me. My adrenaline was pumping and I was bent on taking this guy out. I also remember hitting this guy with a backfist…that’s the last thing I remember! When I woke up there was a bunch of guys staring down at me, and I remember my first words were, “Sign me up!” PFS: Did you ever meet up with this guy again? PV: (laughing) Yeah, we became friends and trained very hard together. His name was Torrance Mathis. I remember after he kicked my ass all over the gym, I had car trouble and he drove me home. I sat on my bed staring at a wall full of trophies and certificates until, in tears, I ripped every certificate off my wall. I vividly remember my Mom walking in during my adolescent emotional outburst and asking what happened to my face.
When I told her she said, “So I guess those two black belts and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee.”
PFS: So where did you go from there? PV: After about three years at the Kali Academy, I started teaching there.
PFS: What year are we in right now? PV: I was 19, so it must have been around late ’79.
PFS: What were your days like teaching at the Kali Academy? PV: Eventually I ended up teaching several classes daily. I opened the doors at 4:00 every afternoon, and our last class ended at 10:00 PM. A handful of us would stay every night until 2:00 AM talking to Dan.
PFS: So you spent 8-10 hours a day there, 7 days a week? PV: No, we were closed on Sundays.
PFS: Why the hectic schedule? PV: Well, I was basically supporting myself from age 17 on through teaching. During the time I was training and teaching at the Kali Academy I also had a Savate school with Daniel Duby from 1980-1984. [Ed. note: This was the first Savate school in the United States.] I’ve never had a real J.O.B. Actually, that’s not true…I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for 3 days. I was the Extra Crispy Man!
PFS: How long did you keep up this training pace? PV: Basically until the Kali Academy closed down…so, from 1976 – 1984. I then continued to study with Dan at Culver City for the next two years. That’s when I formed my own organization, Progressive Fighting Systems. However, I never stopped being Dan’s student.
PFS: How did you go about setting up the organization? PV: During the years I spent teaching under Dan, my private clientele had grown rather large. A lot of times, students would ask Dan for private instruction in certain specific areas, then he would direct them to the most appropriate instructors. For example, if someone wanted stickfighting, Dan would send him to Ted Lucay. For boxing, he would usually guide them to Richard Bustillo. For people interested in raw streetfighting, Dan would send them my way. Consequently, PFS is comprised of people all over the world with the same bent – the pursuit of pure fighting and self-defense.
PFS: How many people belong to the organization? PV: We have over 300 instructors and over 5600 students worldwide.
PFS: Could you explain your ranking system? PV: To understand our ranking system, you first need to understand the methodology of learning Jeet Kune Do. It has everything to do with the process, and little to do with the product! In other words, one becomes proficient in JKD through the process of self-discovery…and self-discovery is fueled by the process of teaching. This mentality started when Bruce Lee first came to America; he had his mother art of Wing Chun, but after discovering certain limitations he would essentially experiment on his students by teaching them. This gave him people to train with – absolutely crucial for him to develop! Dan Inosanto is the main link between us and Bruce’s principles and concepts. After Bruce passed away Dan was left with the mantle of “Jeet Kune Do” on his shoulders. In order for him to continue the growth of the art, he opened up the Filipino Kali Academy. This school was like no other; we were basically a giant garage full of hard-core students.
People would come from all over the world to view Bruce’s art…professional boxers, Thai boxers, world-class Karate and Gung-fu men, and about every other style you can imagine. We had two words for anyone who came with a negative attitude: “Glove up!” I remember our school had a “bad rap.” People would say, “They aren’t martial artists, they’re just interested in fighting.” The floors had seen so much blood, we finally gave up and painted them red!
The Kali Academy was the laboratory in which the art that we learn now was developed. When the Academy closed and I started PFS, I needed bodies to teach, in order for me to personally continue growing. The only way I know how to teach is to get my students to a particular level and then allow them to take the concepts and principles and teach students of their own. By the process of teaching Jeet Kune Do Concepts, my students are accelerating their personal growth tenfold.
After roughly ten hours of very intense one-on-one training with me, I usually award an apprentice instructorship. This does not mean that these individuals are qualified Jeet Kune Do instructors! It simply means one has our blessing to teach what he or she knows, and to grow from the experience. (Hence the term “apprentice.”) After roughly fifty hours of private instruction with me (or 2-5 years of training in a group setting, and depending on skill and other factors), an apprentice will receive the first official rank of instructorship, Phase One Instructor. At this point, after several years of dedication to learning, to Dan Inosanto and to PFS, a Full Instructorship is awarded. All of my full instructors must not only have the physical side of the art groomed well, but the mental and emotional sides as well.
PFS: When did you start your Jiu Jitsu training? PV: June of ’83 was when I had my first taste of Jiu Jitsu. I was studying with Rorion (Gracie) in his garage. PFS: What do you remember most about training with the Gracies? PV: I guess it would be that wonderful feeling of training your whole life standing up, and then having someone completely play with you on the ground. Not to sound like a fanatic or anything, but I was reborn! Even now after 27 years of getting arm locked and choked by the entire Gracie family, I still feel like a student.
PFS: Which of the Gracies did you train with besides Rorion? PV: Besides about a year and a half with him, I worked with Royce for about the same amount of time, Royler for about 6 months, and Rickson for about three years. PFS: Why did you train with all four of the Gracies? PV: They all have a different “feel” and perception of how things are done. PFS: Not to play favorites, but did you “connect” with any particular brother in a special way? PV: Well, they’re all incredible groundfighters, but anyone who has ever rolled around for even five minutes with Rickson will tell you that he’s from another planet! Besides an intense appreciation for the years I had with him, I have no words to describe his skill level. There are certain athletes who defy description…Fedor , BJ Penn, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Rickson Gracie…I guess God was in a good mood when he was dishing out attributes for these guys! (Laughs.) PFS: Were other JKD practitioners studying Jiu Jitsu also? PV: Very, very few. I think that for most people who have dedicated years to the martial arts and are already teachers, it is too difficult to put on a gi, strap on a white belt, and start all over as a student. PFS: What was your next evolutionary phase? PV: Well, I got absolutely fanatical about Jiu Jitsu…I spread the word about Gracie Jiu Jitsu from South Dakota to South Africa. No one outside of Brazil had really even heard of the Gracies back then, so I integrated the training into all of my schools worldwide. Later the Gracies opened up a school, and then came the UFC. Now they’re a household name. I’m glad and honored that I got to train with them back when they were more accessible.
PFS: When did you start teaching the Navy SEALS? PV: They initially approached me in late ’88. PFS: Why did they come to you? PV: I have no idea. I was originally approached by a gentleman named Monty Trezise, who interviewed me extensively and then directed me to Frank Cucci. After an eye-to-eye meeting, Frank became very enthusiastic and spearheaded my relocation to Virginia. PFS: Which teams did you work with? PV: Mainly Team 6; however, I eventually got around to most of the teams in one capacity or another. We did most of the training on base; however, a few times I would work with teams preparing for more covert operations, and we would train off base in a banquet room at a nearby hotel.
PFS: How long did you stay in Virginia? PV: For a very long three years. Click to read the Letter of Appreciation sent to Paul Vunak from the Department of the Navy.Click here
PFS: Why do you say “very long?” PV: Because I really didn’t like living in Virginia. All we ever did was train all day, and go to biker bars and drink beer and fight every night. Those were dark days for me that I’m not particularly proud of. PFS: Training Navy SEALs and kicking butt sounds like a martial artist’s dream! PV: It’s very easy to romanticize things like that, but in actuality there’s nothing dreamy about waking up in jail with crusted blood, swollen knuckles, and dry heaves. PFS: So how did you end up back in California? PV: I actually had about six months left on my contract with the military, but I negotiated with the powers-that-be to delegate the rest of the teaching to three people. These guys had been my most persistent, talented, and dedicated students. They were Pat Bagley, Pat Tray, and Frank Cucci. I certified them as Full Instructors to carry on my art with my blessing. Thus I was able to move back home to California. Now I only go back occasionally when my services are requested for a special operation. PFS: Where do you see yourself heading now? PV: On a personal level most of my interests lie in music, I am a percussionist. For the last couple of decades, I have been following a very stringent diet and lifestyle that I feel is conducive to growing emotionally and spiritually. PFS: What are your aspirations from a business point of view? PV: On Jan 1’st 2010, myself, my partner Harinder Singh Sabharwal, Tom Cruse, and a staff of very dedicated folks are all going to be launching our new company. The details are a surprise.
PFS: In April of 2006, Black Belt named you one of the 20 Best Fighters in the world, how do you feel about that ?
I am flattered by the kind words, however, if you were to replace the words fighter with teacher, I think the quote would be a lot more accurate.