Interview with Antonio Graceffo: The Shaolin Monk from Brooklyn

April 5th, 2010By Category: Uncategorized

Before sept 11th, you were a successful investment banker in NY. What prompted your decision to leave it all behind and dedicate yourself to martial arts instead?
Going to Shaolin had always been a dream of mine, as had completing the martial arts training I had begun as a kid. 911 made me realize tomorrow might never come. I always told myself I would build up a successful financial services business and then retire young and go pursue my dreams. But leading up to 911, all during my financial career, I used to meet with individuals and companies and look at their finances. I got to know my clients and pieced together the events of their lives. Basically, everyone, except complete dullards, starts out with dreams. And then they graduate college, get a job, get married and ALL of their dreams go out the window. I didn’t want to see my dreams out the window. Financially, I saw people in New York working 45 – 60 hours per week, commuting an average of two and a half hours per day, earning an average of 7,000 USD a month, and having nothing but credit card debt and a massive mortgage payment. They sacrificed their dreams their health and their families…for what? To live at high levels of American poverty.  When 911 occurred, I realized 3,000 Americans would never complete their dreams. That was the final nail in the coffin.

What it hard to switch lifestyles?
The main thing that was hard to loose was my attitude. I was a very aggressive, very arrogant new Yorker. And you have to be, to succeed in finance. But in Asia, I needed to tone it down, because I was bulldozing people. I was working full time as a teacher, in Taiwan, for the first year and a half, and I still had money from New York. Plus I had brought crates of stuff with me from New York, silk shirts and everything. So I didn’t need to buy anything and I always felt like I had tons of money and free time. Later, after Shaolin temple, I got stranded in Hong Kong, because of the SARS epidemic, and couldn’t return to Taiwan. By November of my second year in Asia, I had liquidated the last of the money I had in New York. After that I had some really rough, really lean years.

At this point, How many martial arts have you trained in, and what would you consider to be your base?
It’s not so clear to say how many martial arts I have trained in, because there are some I have done for years, and adopted to my own fighting style, and some I have done just for videos or movies or magazine articles. My base is western boxing. Then I adopted Muay Thai, Khmer Boxing, and Bokator as my base. And those are the arts I consistently train in for my own fitness and fighting. I also train a lot in Muay Chaiya which I love. I earned a black belt in Kumdus, a Kuntaw derivative martial art in the Philippines, where I train with my teacher, Grand Master Frank Aycoccho. I like Kuntaw and also Bokator because they encompass my kickboxing arts but add in stand up grappling and even simple ground submissions. They wouldn’t hold up against BJJ or modern MMA but it is nice to learn a traditional martial art that recognizes the importance of ground fighting.

Of every martial art that youve trained in, is there one that you would consider to be the most applicable to self defense?
The basic positions or attacks that self defense classes teach are someone choking you from the front with two hands, someone grabbing the front of your shirt, snatching your purse, bear hug….i don’t know that these situations actually occur in real situations. Whether they do or not, it is impossible to teach someone “simple” or “tricky” twists and bends and throws in a short seminar. In a crisis, your body only does what it is trained to do. If you haven’t actually trained it, you can’t do it. For self defense whatever you trained is what will save you. Even a tae kwon do person should be able to use those high kicks to defend himself or herself. But as a simple answer, I think the best stand up fighting arts are Muay Thai and Khmer boxing, and the best grappling arts are BJJ and wrestling and Sambo. The best all around art is Hybred Yaw Yan.

What was your most raw training experience? How did you get through it?
Shaolin by far was the most privation I experienced during training. It was cold, dark and dirty. It was snowing when I first started training and the dormitories weren’t heated. You wore like ten layers of clothing, sweated and trained for 8 hours each day and then slept in those clothes for a week and only bathed on Sundays. It was disgusting. The monastery in Thailand where I learned Muay Thai was also cold and difficult, living in the mountains, sleeping in the jungle in winter.

What was your best experience?
The monastery in Thailand was one of the best experiences and stays with me forever. The other extremely unique experiences were that I was the first foreigner ever to witness Khmer Bokator and Shan Lai Tai kung fu. And Derek Morris and I were the first foreigners ever to earn black krama (black belt) in Bokator. My black krama is in  bokator fighting only. And to this day, I am the only person who has completed that program. In 2007 when I first went into Burma and trained with the Shan State Army rebels, that was an incredible experience. It was sad to see how many people had been killed and were being killed in the genocide in Burma. Martial art was a vehicle that took me so many places. In Burma, martial art took me to the brink of humanity.

What was it like being a westerner training at the Shaolin Temple?
It was rough, and cold. There was no heating in the buildings, no running water, and you used the bathroom in an outhouse. Food was dirty and consisted of rice with shaved potatoes.  You train 10 hours or more per day. My Chinese improved a lot when I was there and I got very fit but I really prefer fighting. So I am considering going back this summer, but if I do, it will be at a san da school to learn Chinese kick boxing. If you are going to Shaolin you really need to be able to speak Chinese. I met four or maybe six other foreigners who were living at Shaolin schools at that time and their grasp of what was going on and the depth of their experience and friendships with Chinese students was extremely shallow because they didn’t speak Chinese. You live and train with these people 24 hours per day and you may be the only westerner. You need to be able to have real conversations with them or you will be bored and lonely.

What would you recommend for those interested in coming to SE Asia for martial arts training?
You need to finish your BA and have a clean criminal and drug record. All countries in north east Asia and east Asia require you to meet those requirements to get a work permit and none of those developed countries will let you stay in the country for a long period of time if you aren’t working or going to school. In south east Asia, nearly all countries are cracking down on visas and the requirements are approaching those of north east Asia. In Thailand it is difficult to stay more than 30  or 60 days without a work permit. They have really cracked down on renewing 30 day visas, they simply don’t want people hanging around doing nothing. Cambodia is still easy on visas, as is the Philippines. If you want to train in Asia, it is important to learn the language. Also any program you find online which advertises in English is only for foreigners and obviously more expensive and less “authentic”. When choosing a school you need to ask yourself, what is your goal? Is your goal to come here and get more proficient in martial art or to have a cultural experience? The two may be mutually exclusive. People write me all the time and say “I want to come to Thailand and learn Muay Thai in a real Thai camp with Thai people, not a camp for foreigners.” There are a million camps like that in Thailand. Obviously they don’t have websites so you have to find them yourself or get a referral. The coaches won’t be able to speak English, so your learning will be slower. The boxers won’t speak English so you will be lonely. The coaches won’t have modern or international experience so your overall training wont be nearly as scientific or good as going to a big commercial camp like fairtex. If you go to a commercial camp, they know how to train foreigners, are experienced, and they can make fights for you…etc When I lived in the Muay Thai monastery I learned a lot of Thai language and culture but I didn’t really learn much Muay Thai until I moved to Bangkok and started training at a professional school.

Do you have any advice for up and coming martial arts and or fighters?
A publisher asked me to write a motivational book, telling people the secrets to success in martial arts and languages. But my reply was too short for a whole book: “Work your butt off and don’t stop till you are done.” People don’t want to hear it. But the only secret is to just work and work and work. That’s it. If you need motivation to keep working, then you obviously don’t want it. So just quit. You will be much happier if you just let it go.

Do you plan to stay in SE Asia or do you plan on coming back to the states at some point? What do you think the future holds for you?
I plan to stay on my path. It may keep me in southeast asia or it may take me to central Asia or South Asia or to Africa. I don’t know what is next. I have dreams about going back to Korea and Vietnam to finish learning the language. I want to go study in Mongolia and back to china and eventually Japan and Indonesia… the world is huge. There is a lot to cover and you are only one person with one life time, so you need to spend it wisely.


Antonio Graceffo is a regular contributor to black belt magazine. He speaks 8 languages and is a recognized expert on certain martial arts, linguistic theories, and ethnic minorities. He has also published 7 books so far, writes about 70 articles a year for various magazines and news sources, and has over 100 videos up on Youtube. To see the complete transcript of this interview with Antonio, please visit my website and check out the ‘news’ thread on the main page.   To see more of Antonio, visit

Author of this article

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson is a Martial Arts Instructor/ Action Film Actor based in Tokyo, Japan, and Michigan, USA. He has been teaching for 16 years, holds ranks in Taekwondo, Judo, Capoeira, and Karate, and is an experienced bodyguard. He is also a member of the Screen Action Stunt Association, and Society of American Fight Directors. Additionally, he has 10 years of ELT experience, and is the developer of Phat English, a system that uses specialized hip-hop music to teach the subtle nuances of GAm English pronunciation. For more information, visit or follow Chuck on twitter at chuck_n_action

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  • n/a says:

    Very big respect to Antonio, not only because he's a “cool kung-fu kid”, but because he managed to do something what majority of the people would never have the guts to do. Dropping his career and lifestyle, so wanted by many westerners, to pursue his dream in countries completely different from his home in US. Going from relative luxury to complete poverty as he describes the conditions in which he lived, without giving up! The whole story about turning ones life by 180 degrees, just to try to fulfill ones dreams is just fascinating for me. Especially since you’re leaving everything what western society considers as a top career, going broke in just 2 years, being able to find your way eventually. Again Antonio bravo!