The eye of the Pheonix |

The eye of the Pheonix

It took a flurry of stinging fists from a 176-pound Russian to wake the dragon in Joël Castillo, Aspen’s kung fu grand master.

He’d been fighting on an elevated 10-by-15-foot wooden platform at the seventh San Shou World Championships in Rome on Sept. 28. Apart from memorable schoolings administered by his “sifu,” Xing Wah Li, the Chinese grand master who trained him, Castillo had never lost a fight.

But in Rome, with the lighter, 165-pound American in black and the Russian in red, Castillo lost the first two-minute round, somewhat stunned he’d been hit that hard and well.

In climbing to this particular pedestal, or lei tai, for the full-contact kung fu world title in the revered 75- to 85-kilogram division, Castillo recorded three consecutive first-round KOs to open the one-day event. Against a Swede, a right-hook punch to the side of the head did the job; the Iranian defending champ went out in a cartwheeling, shoulder-dislocating toss from the lei tai; and in the semifinals, a reversal with elbows and uppercuts sacked an esteemed Chinese fighter.

Earlier, in two qualifying fights in Sacramento, Calif., Castillo beat one opponent on points, a second in four or five seconds with a round kick (striking with his shin bone) that fractured the man’s femur.

“All those years of kicking trees,” says the 28-year-old Castillo. “My teacher had me kicking trees since I was a teenager. I’d always ask him, because it hurt so bad, when I could stop? And my teacher told me, ‘When the tree dies you can stop,'” he continues, chuckling. “Well, the tree never died but my shins got tough.”

Still, Castillo was an unknown quantity in Rome. Steve Wallace, a teammate on the U.S. team, put it this way in a report: “Joël entered the event as a virtual unknown to most of his own team. All that was really known was that he was highly-trained and currently undefeated in open competition.”

Facing down the Russian, wearing headgear, open-palm gloves and pads on his feet and shins, Castillo unleashed his “best stuff” in the second round.

Describing it, Castillo gestures and strings together words like “jump heel spin kick, dragon sweep, and praying mantis strikes” to set up a “phoenix whip” palm-punch to the sternum that toppled the Russian off the lei tai.

But not for good. After a restart, Castillo defended for the duration of the second round and pushed the fight to a third, deciding round.

“I won’t let people hit me if I don’t want to,” he says. “When you punch in martial arts, that’s when you’re vulnerable. If you just stay in and block ” boom, boom, boom ” it’s a chess game.”

By this time, Castillo, who has been clocked punching 11 times per second (kung fu legend Bruce Lee was about 13, he estimates), knew he was faster than the Russian. Similarly, the Russian knew Castillo was right-handed.

“But I always switch my stance,” says Castillo. “Keep it eclectic, keep it different. My teacher always had me work with my left … and be confident with it. Really, it’s faith in my teacher that makes me stick to those principles, because I know he was right. So I switched up.”

After the final 30-second break between rounds, Castillo and the Russian fighter sprang at each other. In 2.32 seconds it was over.

Castillo shot with a left-handed tornado punch to his opponent’s chest, knocking him cold for 10 minutes. “That meridian is very vulnerable to a snapping, upwards blow, so a concussive hit going upward actually charley-horses the muscles around the heart for a second, squeezes the heart, and switches you out instantly,” Castillo says.

“Speed, that’s really my bread and butter in fighting. I’ve always been faster than my opponents; actually hit them before they see me move. … And that’s the looseness of kung fu, that’s what makes you fast.”

Castillo collected the world champion’s “silver cup” to a standing ovation at the awards ceremony, and became the first Yank to win a san shou world title. Castillo’s reaction was hardly celebratory, though.

“It’s an affirmation of the [White Pheonix kung fu] system, so it’s great for the system,” he says. “Even though it’s a Chinese system, an American has it and then goes and beats China and Russia with it. I’m honored that I can represent the United States in that way, but at the end of the day it’s really about the school and White Pheonix and my teacher and the whole lineage … and a testament to the continuity and quality of the kung fu after seven generations.”

Truth be told, the world championship can’t be counted as Castillo’s greatest victory. That would have to be the clandestine “kumite” (pronounced coo-ma-tay) of 1996 on the top floor of a warehouse in Canton, China. The competition occurred some months after Xing Wah Li died, of natural causes at 88, having entrusted Castillo alone with the legacy of the White Pheonix system, a hybrid and secretive style of kung fu from 17th-century China.

From the branches to the root

Joël Castillo is a fighter, to be sure. But barring the unlikely debut of san shou at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics (kung fu forms, as opposed to kung fu fighting, is slated for inclusion), he has no plans to fight again.

Kung fu, if you haven’t noticed, is experiencing another renaissance (think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Kill Bill” or Jackie Chan) and pro fights of the san shou variety have cropped up in Las Vegas. But Castillo, who opened the first White Pheonix kung fu and tai chi academy in Aspen (or anywhere, for that matter) three years ago, sees himself more as a “sifu,” Chinese for teacher and mentor. He has 50 students in Aspen now, and five instructors.

With an honor and burden six Chinese generations old, Castillo decided to try to breathe new life into the White Pheonix system by sharing it.

“My teacher knew a lot of kung fu systems, but he would never mention that he had the White Pheonix under his belt,” Castillo says. “It wasn’t until later that he realized he didn’t want me to carry the same burden he was carrying ” but he didn’t want me to water it down, either.

“I used to be a staunch traditionalist, too. I didn’t want to teach anyone. It was about myself and keeping everything that my teacher taught me to myself. Keep it a secret. … But this is really about not putting myself in the same situation, at the root, like my teacher did.

“If the root is destroyed, the tree is dead.”

Castillo got his start in martial arts at age 8 in the Bay area, at a local “chop-suey” studio, as he puts it. A year later, he was introduced to Xing Wah Li. On and off through a turbulent adolescence, often at the same San Francisco park where some of kung fu’s greats practiced, Castillo trained and persevered under Xing. On three summer breaks from school, Castillo crossed the country and lived with extended family on Long Island, N.Y., riding the train to Penn Station in Manhattan to learn from a respected master of the Tiger Claw system.

“Xing put me through a labyrinth of kung fu,” says Castillo.

“He basically would teach me some stuff, and he hinted at the fact that this was a system … and then he would just change the curriculum one day while we were learning this new style. So I would learn and learn and learn, six or eight forms, and then he’d come up one day and say, ‘Oh, forget all that.’ He did that to me five times, with five different systems, but what he was doing was giving me the elements of the system.

“I would meet him at 5:30 in the morning in the park and if I was there at 5:31 he was gone. That was it. … I always tell people he spent the first two years trying to make me quit. … but I wasn’t going to. And finally, he showed me a form and I knew it was it because it was so eclectic and fluid, and it looked the way he moved when he would beat me up. Basically, at that point, he didn’t have to tell me.”

At 15, in a rite of passage that included, of course, a trial, Castillo became a disciple of the White Pheonix system. (Castillo changed the spelling to “Pheonix” from “Phoenix,” to distinguish his system from other martial arts movements.)

When Castillo was 16, he followed the 70-something Xing back to China, almost reversing the migration Xing and his family made when he was a teenager. In China, and on jaunts back home, Castillo trained with the dedication of a monk on a mountainside.

“He was one of those kids who knew, once he started, what he was going to do with the rest of his life,” said Castillo’s adoptive brother Adam Rosen. “Front yard, back yard, doing his forms or working on the wooden dummy or running around kicking trees, literally it was from sunup to sundown, every day.”

Castillo knew what he was working for, and about Kevin Chan, Xing’s anointed successor who had died suddenly of an asthma attack in 1975.

“[Xing] was still trying to warm up to me not being Chinese, and that was tough for him,” Castillo says, grinning, “but he saw my dedication and that was more important to him. So I stuck with it, and that’s why I went to China, why I dedicated so much of my life to it.”

During three years in China, Castillo learned to speak and read the language, but training dominated his time. On one trip home to visit family in California, he stopped in Aspen to visit a sister who was working for Jim Horowitz and Jazz Aspen. Castillo had been headed for the south of France, but he re-evaluated and returned to Aspen, picking up work at the former Revo store.

It would be several years before he would open his kung fu studio.

“He thought there would be a lot of room to do kung fu there,” said Castillo’s mother, Maria Rosen. “And it would be a place to start because he loved the place anyway. So instead of starting the school here in California, he went to Aspen.”

Grand master, in a flash

In July 1996, Castillo was 22: “I got a shocking call that my sifu had died. And I also got, which was even more surprising, a letter in the mail from him officially passing on the system to me. To be honest, I flipped out. Me? Living in Aspen, working at the Revo store, I just felt like a loser. I didn’t deserve this. Maybe it should’ve been a Chinese person, still living in China on some mountain.”

Some weeks later, Castillo got another call from Xing’s family, relaying an invitation they’d received for White Pheonix to send a fighter to a “kumite,” meaning no rules, divisions or pads, held once every five years in Canton. Xing, as a young man, had won the competition himself. Invitations went out to respected martial arts lineages around Asia, with the knowledge, as Castillo puts it, “if you get hurt and you can’t walk out of there, you lie there.

“It’s not about killing each other, but to honor our systems we can’t fight with pads, we can’t fight with rules; if you do, someone can always use those rules to their advantage. … They do it out of respect for the systems, not out of bloodthirstiness. But at the same time these competitions are illegal ” we were fighting on the floor, no ring, nothing.

“There were a bunch of Chinese businessmen sitting around in a corner in suits and a couple of sifus and the fighters and a little table with the medals on it. There was nothing glamorous about it. This was not ‘Bloodsport’ with Jean Claude Van Damme,” Castillo says.

He had entered, after much thought, to “prove the system hadn’t died or hadn’t lost its integrity because it had been passed to an American.”

Action-flick details aside, Castillo had three fights and three knockouts. The Canton kumite’s first American champion victimized a 280-pound Japanese sumo; a Muay Thai fighter renowned for kicking coconut trees and opponents’ shins; and a Penjakate Silate fighter from Indonesia who had metal ribbon woven into his skin all the way up both forearms.

So, did any competitors die?

“I don’t watch fights,” he explains, “because I don’t think it does me any good. If I’m a real martial artist, I should be able to react to whatever they throw at me. Period. That’s my mentality and that was my teacher’s mentality. … But also because I didn’t want to see some guy be extremely brutal to somebody, watch them take this person apart and then be intimidated if I was matched up against him.

“My teacher always said a fight is a fight, a competition is a fight. That’s it. It’s no different than on the street. You’re going to do what you’re going to do; do what you’re going to do. If you’re not confident then don’t come; don’t consider yourself a martial artist.”

But did anyone die?

“Obviously, I didn’t go combing the alley to see, but yeah, I mean, logically, looking at the people that got hit, I’m sure somebody did. Yeah. Or was crippled. Absolutely. And myself, I was feeling more sick to my stomach than happy about it, because of the fact that I’d hurt a lot of people too.”

Passing the torch

When Castillo returned home to Aspen, friends and acquaintances urged him to start a class. Working as an optician at the time, Castillo began teaching students informally at Glory Hole Park.

Attendance spiked after Castillo won the 1999 U.S. Open Kung Fu Championship in San Ramon, Calif., without getting hit once. “I decided that, since I always wanted to work for myself and not necessarily be an optician, to open a kung fu school,” he says.

Castillo’s small Aspen studio is located on north Mill Street, near Othello’s SK8 Shop, a landscaper, a tile shop and a vacuum and electronics repair shop. Since Castillo opened the White Pheonix school in Aspen (complete with the 18 traditional kung fu weapons), no student has even sustained a black eye ” yet. After all, kung fu is foremost about conflict avoidance, then resolution.

In the next year, Castillo plans to open a second White Pheonix school in Sausalito, Calif. San Juan, Puerto Rico, will be the third and final piece. Ultimately, one of his students will become the eighth grand master of the system.

“Even now, White Pheonix has a life that it hasn’t ever had,” Castillo says. “My students have told me that this thing is here to stay. If I walked out of here tomorrow, I’m sure they’d pay the rent and continue. It’s got its own life now. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is

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