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The International Writers Magazine: Wrestling in China

Brooklyn Monk Takes on Four Fighters in One Night • Greg Isaacson
Not quite kumite, but a spiritual victory for author-warrior

Writer, polyglot and martial artist Antonio Graceffo fought four opponents, three of them professional fighters, in one night at a Shanghai gym.


In his first two matches at Fighters Unite, an MMA gym in the heart of China's biggest city, Graceffo took on Chinese fighters from a pro Sanda team, completing two takedowns against the first opponent and one against the second. In an MMA fight that followed, Graceffo took down a westerner who had not fought professionally before. Graceffo's fourth match pitted him against another Sanda team member in a boxing fight, which ended inconclusively.

Graceffo, who will turn 47 this year, is a PhD student at Shanghai University of Sport, where he studies Chinese wrestling and trains on the wrestling team. As he pointed out at the end of the night, exhausted but happy, he was older than the combined ages of any two of his opponents. “For me, it was just about trying to push myself as hard as I could,” he said.

Graceffo, who used to box professionally, has studied martial arts all over Asia, where he has lived for fourteen years. He trained in Muay Thai boxing and Cambodian boxing in Thailand and Cambodia, and from 2011 to 2012, he fought professionally in MMA in Malaysia, before taking a university teaching job in China. Last June, he went back into full-time training, studying basic Sanda at the Shaolin Temple in China's Henan province and Chinese wrestling at a school in Beijing. Except for a few small matches last year, he hasn't had the opportunity to fight since beginning his doctorate last September.

“I'm fascinated by the concept of the 100-man kumite, where you fight a hundred guys in one day,” Graceffo said. The 100-man kumite used to be a requirement of Kyokushin, an intense, full-contact style of karate. Australian Judd Reid, an inspiration for Graceffo, was the first non-Japanese to complete the three-year live-in program at the Kyokushin headquarters in Japan. He later endured a 100-man kumite consisting of 100 successive rounds of 1.5 minutes each in 3.5 hours. Graceffo asked Silas Maynard, his coach at the Fighters Unite Gym, to arrange a series of fights for him for one night. “I can't do a hundred,” he recalls telling Maynard, chuckling. “But maybe I can do as many as I can.”

Maynard wasn't able to find ten fighters to challenge Graceffo in one night. But he offered something scarier: a professional Chinese Sanda team. When they walked into the gym, Graceffo recalls, his blood ran cold. Although he cross-trains in Sanda at the university, he hasn't fought on a professional team. The self-proclaimed “world's worst kicker” would have to fight hardened professional kickers – and moreover, Maynard said, he wasn't allowed to fight them using MMA rules. In other words, Graceffo would have to take down his opponents within only three seconds of clinching or wrestling before the referee called for a restart, instead of the thirty seconds allowed in MMA.

Graceffo used what he calls a “Captain America style guard” – gloves held against his forehead, face protected by his forearms – to absorb his first opponent's powerful kicks to his face. He managed to tie up his opponent several times and took him down twice. The second fight was similar to the first, with Graceffo completing one takedown. Besides the takedowns, Graceffo also scored points from MMA-style dirty boxing.

wrestle Graceffo went into his third match planning to go easy on his inexperienced opponent, but found him surprisingly aggressive and decided he had to take him down. After the first takedown the referee, Maynard, restarted the fighters for a lack of activity on the ground. Immediately after the restart, Graceffo floored his adversary with a double-leg takedown and then pummeled his face and head, bloodying him. The defeated and exhausted MMA trainee was willing to fight another round, but Graceffo said he had had enough.

Graceffo said of his opponent, “I was proud of him for having the courage to get in there and fight. There's a pilot in Shenzhen named Fred Schroeder who has been telling me for a year that he's going to knock my teeth out and beat me easily, but he keeps backing out every time we set a date for the fight. All Fred Schroeder seems to be able to do is talk about fighting and send me detailed descriptions of how he violated my mother who died when I was a baby. But this opponent tonight, he got in there and fought. That makes him a man. And he didn't give up. I wasn't planning on hitting him so hard, but he didn't tap. Also, he asked Silas for another round, which he really seemed he wanted. But sometimes with newer guys, you have to be a like a parent and sort of make the decision for them, erring on the side of safety. He was already bleeding and looked tired. So, I thought it was better we should stop.”

After a couple of matches pitting Sanda fighters against Maynard and the Muay Thai trainer from the gym, Graceffo took to the ring again to box against a Sanda pro. Although he had boxed from the age of 12 to 36, Graceffo says, he had forgotten how to box. His almost exclusive focus on wrestling for the previous nine months showed in the ring, where he resorted to dirty boxing – holding and punching until the referee separated them – against his younger and faster opponent, since he was not allowed to throw him on the ground.

On a Sanda scorecard, Graceffo concedes, he may have lost all three fights against the Sanda pros, but he calls the night a “spiritual victory” and a great opportunity to test his own limits. The fight night also gave him a chance to deploy three out of the four codes of combat of his MMA training: Sanda, MMA, and boxing.

Graceffo plans to continue fighting – “probably mostly amateur fights” – and has more wrestling matches coming up with his team at the university, and more training in Beijing, Hanoi and Phnom Penh, and possibly Mongolia and Singapore. Would he ever try to train for the real 100-man kumite at some point in the future? “I'm still not ruling out the possibility,” Graceffo says.

About the author:
Greg Isaacson is a freelance journalist living in Shanghai. He writes about business, culture and politics in China. Greg enjoys Shanghai cuisine, though he misses American breakfasts. You can contact him at

Wrestling for San Da
Antonio Graceffo

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