Interview with Ralph Figueroa

Back in 2014, we interviewed Master Miguel Quijano, who belongs to an elite class in the martial arts world – specifically, one of only a handful of people in the English-speaking world to master the mysterious art of Juego de Mani. Today, we speak with one of Master Quijano’s leading students, Ralph Figueroa.

Starting the day with a little bag work

Starting the day with a little bag work

Ralph’s art which he passes on to his students primarily focuses on Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do, and more specifically on an esoteric methodology of martial arts that he calls “Deep Level Training”. Placing a major emphasis on the mental side of martial arts, Deep Level Training as Ralph teaches it gives students the tools to unlock their fullest potential, bringing the mind and body together to elevate the Deep Level practitioner to the highest level of focus and skill they can possibly reach. In this interview, Ralph gives us a glimpse into the world of Deep Level Training, a realm of training only open to students who prove their character and ability to synchronize with the principles of this unique art.

Hi Ralph, great to connect with you and welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom!

Thanks Brad, it’s a pleasure.

Let’s start off by asking the basics; when were you born and where do you come from originally?

I was born on Jan 10th, 1968 in New York City.

What is your height and weight?

I am 6ft (1.82m) tall and weigh 15st (95kg).

How did you first get into the martial art, and at what age?

My father got me into martial arts. I first stepped into a dojo at the age of 7.

What was the first main style you trained in and how long have you been training?

I’ve been involved in martial arts close to 30 years in total. My father started me in western boxing. He later started training in Taekwondo, and I later took it up as well. I also studied Jeet Kune Do for 6 years, Wing Chun for close to 8 years, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for about ten years. And, of course, I’ve been doing Deep Level Training Systems for the past fifteen years.

Who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts, who were your masters and teachers? Highly respected Master Patrick Strong who was one of Bruce Lee’s very first students training between 1960-1966 in Seattle, is one of your teachers, can you tell us a little more about this connection?

Well, like he’s been for so many people, Bruce Lee was a major influence for me. My father himself was another one, as well. By far my most influential mentor is my current teacher, Master Patrick Strong. It was game changing when I met him. I’ve had many teachers in martial arts, some famous, some not so (by choice at times). Patrick first began training under Bruce Lee in Seattle and they remained in contact for the rest of Bruce’s life. He’s also trained with other very famous martial artists from the late Ed Parker, Bong Soo Han, and Hawkins Cheung etc.

Escaping a clinch with a finger jab

Escaping a clinch with a finger jab

Who are some of your all time favourite martial artists that you highly respect?

Oh, so many, including the aforementioned ones! It would take two pages to name them all but off the top of my head: Ip Man, Ed Parker, Fook Yeung, My Si Hing Master Miguel Quijano, James Yimm Lee, Greg Lee, Jessie Glover, Mike Stone, Hawkins Cheung, Phillip Romero, Lasse Juhnler, Wong Sheung Leung, Joe Lewis. There are so many I admire and respect. My brothers overseas Juhnler (the Romanian Group), My Si-Hing Manami Batani etc. I apologize if I left anyone out!

What level have you attained?

I am a full instructor in JKD, and Deep Level Training systems. I am a black sash in Wing Chun (Ip Man). I also hold black belts in Kenpo and TKD just to name a few.

You’re very experienced in JKD, what are the most significant ways in which JKD differs from other mainstream martial arts?

Well, there are so many out there. Really, it comes down two main schools of thought – original or concepts. Bruce himself came from a Tai Chi (his father) and Wing Chun background, which is what we’d call “original”. The other one is concepts, which has a more Filipino art flavor and more cross art training per se being it’s headed mainly by Guru Dan Inosanto who was Bruce’s assistant instructor at the Chinatown school in L.A. Jun Fan (Bruce Lee) JKD differs from mainstream martial arts in its eclectic approach, not one size fits all. It is an actual art and Philosophy.

Some other differences – Most arts/systems even today fight strong hand and leg in the rear, where as in JKD, it’s the strong side forward. It may seem trivial but when one sees the speed of a finger jab and the power of a straight lead it becomes clear why this is important. Bruce believed in the ‘two guns’ theory. What this means is if you put your best weapon forward, then the weak side will become stronger from having momentum and body weight mechanics from the rear side. The JKD straight lead is not a jab, like so many think it is. It can actually be a KO punch and do a lot of damage. Some boxers and MMA fighters have actually adapted the strong side forward approach. Another difference is the mix of Wing Chun simple trapping with Boxing footwork movements and fencing principles. The footwork is a mix of systems and can be different from most classical systems out there. These are just a few ways JKD differs from other martial arts systems.

In creating JKD, Bruce Lee obviously drew from a wide range of many different martial arts. In your opinion, which arts had the greatest influence on the development of JKD?

By far, Wing Chun had the biggest influence on JKD, no question about it. Bruce was heavily influenced by Master Wong Sheung Leung who went by the nickname “King of Gong sao” or “Talking hands”. He was very highly respected in the Ip Man Wing Chun clan. Bruce really looked into Western Boxing later which had a big influence on his Jeet Kune Do. Bruce would also read all kinds of books on boxing and watch Muhammad Ali on film from a mirror so he would look southpaw. fencing ideas and principles are also big in Jeet Kune Do. Bruce wanted to incorporate western boxing elusiveness, evasions, angles and footwork as well as some of the punches. The fight with Wong Jack Man influenced him to look into western boxing tactics and training methods again for angles and footwork. Bruce started training like a pro boxer. Of course he liked fencing and incorporated its ideas into his empty hand. Still with Wing Chun, Bruce understood the importance of ‘internal structure’, and the principles of body mechanics, posture, and energy all stayed with him. Bruce was a great athlete and dancer, but I think his understanding of structure and mechanics gave him that superhuman power so many talk about. 

The essence of Bruce Lee’s JKD philosophy is that, technically speaking, it can include anything; punching, kicking, grappling, trapping, etc. What’s your interpretation of JKD’s essence?

The JKD I learned = Simplicity, Directness, Fluidity, “Wu Wei”, or “spontaneous reactions”. To me that’s the essence of JKD, so to speak. Also, JKD is about what works for each individual, because no one size fits all. You have to discard what is useless in all aspects of one’s life. Find out what you do best and perfect that all the while training your weaknesses so there are not any glaring gaps in what you do. Ultimately, Bruce created JKD as his own interpretation of martial arts, and anyone learning JKD has to develop their own interpretation of it.

Ralph with one of Bruce Lee's first JKD students Sifu Patrick Strong

Ralph with one of Bruce Lee’s first JKD students Sifu Patrick Strong

Have you ever encountered the conflicting mindset that JKD is meant to be interpreted in a specific way among other JKD practitioners? 

Most definitely. You can talk to ten JKD sifus about a certain aspect and maybe get 10 different answers. It’s a personal art so there can be many conflicting ideas. Those of us in second generation of JKD are working hard to clear up a lot of the mess and conflicting views that have not been cleared. Bruce Lee did not want to create clones. He did not want a classical art in the sense where everyone does exactly what the teacher says. At the same time there are core principles that should remain intact. I’ve seen people training students in JKD like they’re doing a classical style, which is fine, yet by the same token it’s not what Bruce himself wanted.

The base style to me is Wing Chun in Bruce’s own method of JKD. To me, if someone wants to go Bruce’s route in JKD, they should seek good basics in Wing Chun. The concepts side of JKD, however, may look at it completely opposite, and that’s fine. I’ve practiced both branches and no one has all the answers, just pieces of the puzzle. So yes, to me what Bruce was doing, what Pat does, and what I do, the backbone of it is in fact Wing Chun but this does not automatically make a JKD practitioner into a Wing Chun practitioner, because there are other elements to JKD, i.e. western boxing and fencing.

Another conflicting mindset is JKD is the same as MMA. That you can just mix anything and it’s JKD. You actually can do this but without structure it’s no longer really JKD at all. For example if someone is doing away with JKD principles like economy of motion and strong side forward then you’re not really doing JKD. If someone’s goal isn’t to cut off and intercept, it may be good but it’s different. Bruce had ideas for street fighting and sparring competition, so this only adds to the confusion of many. Ultimately, everyone’s JKD is as different as their personalities. 

Describe how the skill level of JKD practitioners is determined for those who may be unfamiliar. Does JKD operate by any kind of ranking system? 

I can’t speak for everyone in JKD. Different camps do have different ranking systems. Again, there are so many factions and interpretations of JKD and not all are the same or view things the same. There are things a person who trains JKD should be able understand and apply. Most of all they should be able to apply what they know under hard sparring, or swimming in water as Bruce would say. A teacher of JKD should also be able to explain as well as demonstrate the principles of their art to both the advanced student and the layman, I believe.

Bruce Lee, with the eclectic mindset he established in JKD, is often described as “the father of MMA”.  Do you see any philosophical similarities between JKD and MMA?

Sure, there is a lot in common, although I wouldn’t call Bruce the father of MMA. The way MMA fighters train and the rules of competition, it’s a lot like what Bruce was espousing. Take a look at “Enter the Dragon” when Bruce spars Sammo Hung. It looks like an MMA fight, even down to the gloves they use. I would have to agree Bruce Lee has influenced a slew of fighters in MMA. Both JKD and MMA believe in having a base art and working off that. A person could be okay in one area but still train around their flaws so as to not have a glaring weakness, and both JKD and MMA seek to make people well rounded. Both believe in being in the best shape you can be in. However, although JKD has a similar philosophy to MMA, the delivery systems can be different. MMA focuses in winning a fight via KO or submission. In JKD those are good options as well but it’s ultimately about looking at doing anything to come home that night, even if it means using illegal tactics.

Ralph with martial legend Mike Stone

Ralph with martial legend Mike Stone

Obviously, Wing Chun is major part of the ancestry of JKD. How would you say Wing Chun manifests itself in JKD?

For the JKD I teach, Wing Chun will manifest mostly in the form of fighting principles. Most of the trapping hands in Jun Fan JKD can be found in the mother art, Wing Chun. However, some reputable teachers in Wing Chun think it’s the same thing. Classical Wing Chun does not mean you’re doing JKD anymore than JKD means you’re doing Wing Chun. Wing Chun, for example, follows the 70/30 rule – 70% hands, 30% kicks. JKD is more 50/50 with punching and kicking and more a long-medium and close distance system where we train all those distances equally. However, a person can have a preference in both approaches.  You have to put it in the lab, so to speak and dissect things. Wing Chun is helpful and a fantastic art on its own and the basics can give a JKD player a solid foundation. I will say JKD, for the most part, can be more aggressive in nature. Wing Chun is a little more reserved but again it really depends who is doing what. Both systems also use the four corner simultaneous block and attack. Both Wing Chun and JKD also have Pak Sao as a staple technique as well as a concept and principle. Pak Sao means to ‘cut off’, which can relate to and is pretty much the same as intercepting. Bruce once told Master Hawkins Cheung, his personal JKD is “Pak Sao and Hip”. He did not mean this just in a technical sense. He meant it’s a way of cutting your opponent off before he proceeds with his intended movement.

A big part of what you teach is called “Deep Level Training”.  Can you tell us what the essence of DLT is?

It’s actually the main part of what I teach. It’s an umbrella term of all we do. Wing Chun and JKD can be included though everyone in DLT comes from varied backgrounds. DLT is Pat’s take on things, which can be pretty unique for most who see and feel it, very much on the same paths as Wing Chun and JKD  but with a deeper emphasis on imagery, visualization, mechanics, and structure in all its aspects to remove “mental governors which can impede things we strive to do”, as Patrick says. We specialize in this as opposed to techniques. Like Bruce, Pat has taken this to an extremely high level and has trained with a who’s who in martial arts. It’s about the person first and foremost and is both an internal and external art that is meant to be adaptable.  Our aim for our DLT students is to be prepared for all situations, to be spontaneous in their action, and to be instant and dangerous at all times. DLT is big on what Pat learned from Bruce Lee.

How does Deep Level Training differ from conventional martial arts training?

For one, its devotion to development of visualizations to help enhance attributes and delivery, paying attention to small details and being in the moment, as opposed to taking a one size fits all approach. It’s about having spontaneous, correct reactions using all the tools at your disposal with full body unity, speed, and power, and is meant to connect to everything we do. For us if you have to think about a reaction or a technique, it’s too slow. We strive to be dangerous at all times in all distances, to be able to go from zero to 100 in a split second.

It is different than most in the sense where most arts are purely physical in nature, DLT is about the connecting with the internal, with what we call energetics as well. These help remove what we call ‘mental governors’ or barriers. Most people short change themselves simply because they don’t think they can achieve it.

Strong low attack

Strong low attack

The focus in Deep Level Training seemingly leans towards the mental and physical side. Is this mental aspect meant to compliment the physical side of martial arts?

Oh yes, it’s definitely meant to fortify it and make it more potent. Without sounding too esoteric, the spiritual/internal really amplifies everything we do.

What can a typical beginner expect when they first start Deep Level Training?

Let’s just say a typical beginner and even an advanced artist can expect to be super impressed with how quickly we can help them connect the pieces of the puzzle. Beginners will be impressed with instant speed and power behind body unity, and find themselves able to do things they thought they never could.

What’s most emphasized in DLT – speed, strength, flexibility, punching, kicking, upright or ground-grappling? What would you say is typically the hardest or most difficult aspect or skills of Deep Level Training?

Well, it’s different for each person depending on their background and level of experience, but I would say speed and the power of body unity are some of our biggest areas of emphasis. One of the hardest or difficult aspects is for a person to stay loose instead of tense when in a threatening situation. For example, it’s very natural to tense up. When you’re tensed up and unable to control the adrenaline pump through events, it can really slow you down.

How is a practitioner’s skill level within Deep Level Training typically determined or tested?

Pat developed tests where a person right off the bat can see these principles in motion. What we talk about can be tested right then and there. For example with speed, one way Pat and I both test students is to get the fastest person in the room and test what they do versus what we do. They can see it right then and there. Aside from that, within our group, it’s determined by a student’s ability to apply the principles in a non-conflict situation.

What would you describe is the ultimate end goal of Deep Level Training for the practitioner?

It’s different for each person. I can only really speak for myself. The goal is mastery of oneself, as cliché as it may sound, to do what needs to be done in the moment. It can also be inner peace of mind, i.e. oneness, harmony, enlightenment.

Do you teach students, if so, how many students do you have? Where do you teach and where?

Yes. I do teach publicly. I mainly teach in my home, but we also meet at several other locations and different gyms. I have 12 adult students in Arizona and throughout the US. I’ve also taught after school programs, sometimes with up to 70 kids at a time. 

What kind of weapons do you practice?

Well, a weapon can be anything but I practice with butterfly knives, the long pole, kali sticks, the straight sword, knives etc. I do show my advanced students some applications, defence, offence using weapons of all kinds. Target practice with gun training is important as well I think.

Is there a textbook/reference guide or training video that best encapsulates and illustrates the art?

No, there’s no textbook on DLT. I also want to stress that although clips, reading and reference guides are excellent supplements, they can’t replace good old hands-on training with an actual teacher.

Ralph sports some KFK apparel!

Ralph sports some KFK apparel!

On martial arts movie actors, who impresses?

Very many! Bruce Lee, of course. I like Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins, Tony Jaa, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Ray Park. I also really liked Chuck Norris growing up. Van Damme, Brandon Lee, Benny the Jet, and of course, action stars like Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s just too many to name!

Which martial artists/actors would you be interested to work with?

So many! Action stars like Vin Diesel or the Rock, and also Jason Statham or Keanu Reeves. It would be a dream to be in on something like “The Avengers” or “Batman”, or the new “Star Wars”. That kind of opportunity would be an honor!

What are your top 10 kung-fu/martial arts movies?

Gosh, I like so many. Definitely Bruce’s movies. I loved all the chop socky flicks in kung fu theatre in the 70s, and the “Kung Fu” TV series. I really like “Ong Bak”, “Marked for Death”, “Kickboxer”, and “Ip Man”, I also like “The Matrix”, “The Last Samurai”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “The Raid”, “The Karate Kid”, “The Last Dragon”, and “Fearless”, really any movie that has good martial arts in it.

What is a typical workout for you?  Is it mostly martial arts or, do you combine weights or other types of exercises?

I do both and sometimes combine them. I do functional athletic workouts (to train attributes and sport related functional exercises); martial arts workouts, sparring, forms training and the conditioning that goes with it. Many martial arts instructors or trainers will sit back, but I like to participate and work out with some clients. I also like to incorporate the internal arts; meditation, yoga, tai chi, or standing meditations.

What’s your favorite exercise and what specific or special training techniques do you like and really find work to bring the best out in you?

I like synergistic type training, workouts that use the whole body. As a martial artist, you have to be able to use your strength functionally which to me is really what power is. I train attributes like speed and power to connect everything. My exercises vary and I change routines a lot. I like sparring but I also do train some forms.

Are you heavily into stunts, if so, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?

Not too much. I used to ride elevators and back of trains in New York when I lived there. I once jumped off a moving train going about 30mph, without a scratch I may add (laughs). I know someone was watching over me.

Fighting stance

Fighting stance

What was your most serious injury and how did you work around it?

I had a bad knee injury playing American Football, and I later injured it again playing Rugby. It’s very hard to work around that other than take time off. Aside from that I have been fortunate not to have anything significant. So far so good – knock on wood – I’ve been pretty healthy. Like most martial artists sometimes we may go a bit overboard, I certainly know I have. 

What do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity?  What do you recommend for those leading an especially physical and demanding lifestyle?

Nutrition, correct supplements, a lot of stretching and protein will help with the physical recovery. Then there is standing meditation as well, which can help organs, tendons and the body’s energies to recover. Yoga is also great for recovery. Hot baths, saunas and sometimes ice ones all help a body that’s sore. Also, sometimes just taking a day off, and getting plenty of sleep.

What kind of diet do you follow?

High protein, moderate carb type diet for the most part. I am not super strict. I eat pretty much what I want in training. I just make sure not to eat too much processed or fast food and more organic high protein type foods. Fruits, vegetables, all that very important stuff. You are pretty much what you eat, and it can play a huge part in overall health and well-being. I feel people can heal most illness with proper nutrition as opposed to pumping people up with chemicals.

Which foods do you find work for you to remain at your most energetic, what’s the best fuel for your workouts?

For energy, complex carbs for the most part. For recovery, glutamine creatine, vitamins, some teas, etc. Sometimes all is needed is a good warm up. Then again as we get older, sometimes we need a good pre-workout formula, and there are many out there.

Do you take supplements, what do you recommend?

Yes, I believe you have to. It’s as important as we age. I credit my mother the most as she is a teacher in this respect with nutrition and holistic measures.  I would recommend a well-balanced multivitamin, recovery supplements, maybe a pre workout type formula. And a big one many people forget drink lots of clean, filtered water!

Ralph demonstrates some Wing Chun

Ralph demonstrates some Wing Chun

What’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?

I love chess, and I am actually pretty good at it. I had a student who was a chess master who would tutor me. I got to the point where I could play with him evenly and win half my games against him. I also love “Star Wars”, and I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books. I also love sci-fi adventure films and a lot of different comic book characters.

If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to possess?

Probably Batman, I like superheroes with little power because they have to use what they naturally have, but there’s also a few others. Who wouldn’t want to be Superman or Captain America? The Hulk would also be fun to have that type of unlimited power. I also like the idea of using The Force from “Star Wars”! There are so many cool superheroes, and I love all the new superhero movies coming out. They’re getting really good!

What hobbies do you enjoy, what do you like doing to relax?

Playing chess, reading, watching movies, drawing, writing, and I love dancing of all types, and sports, of course. I still play basketball and sometimes a turkey bowl – football on Thanksgivings, although not as much as I used too.

What do you think you would be doing if not for martial arts?

Good question. Probably something physical, like body building/power-lifting, and I’d want to be a trainer. I think most likely I’d have drifted into professional sports.

What in life do you really?

a) Like?

Just being alive and healthy for one. I enjoy my life and the ability to change for the better, to improve each day in every facet in one’s life. I enjoy my family, my health and well-being, my wife & kids, friends. Overall, just the ability to love and be loved.

b) Dislike?

Dirty politics, agenda seekers, tall tales, bullies, know-it-alls. People who assume, ignorant people. Bigots, people who are entitled or act like they’re owed, etc. I also really hate guys who lie about their credentials, like they studied with all of Bruce Lee’s students and have the ‘Power of Grayskull’ through osmosis because they make a stupid face.

What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?

I would say being a father to my kids and my family, as cliché as it sounds. My family is the most important thing to me.

A straight lead from Jeet Kune Do

A straight lead from Jeet Kune Do

What are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?

To really spread these beautiful arts and to become more financially independent. I have many projects I am looking forward to. To continue growing as a person in all areas of my life.

What advice would you give to a beginner who is considering taking-up a martial art?

Stick with it! Don’t give up, or you’ll never know what you can achieve. It does not come overnight for anyone. It’s all in mastering the basics. It takes a long time but it’s worth it. Videos and training clips can help but also confuse if you see too many, so stick with a teacher in person at and you’ll be able to achieve whatever you want from your training. 

What special message would you like to share with Kung-Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?

Share, grow, continue to train hard. Be safe, care for each other. Be true to yourselves. Know yourselves.

Which warrior-wisdom quotes, maybe something unique (from within) have shaped you up to this point, and have molded you into who you are today?

“Let the spirit out – Discard all thoughts of reward, all hopes of praise and fears of blame, all awareness of one’s bodily self. And, finally closing the avenues of sense perception, let the spirit out, as it will” -Bruce Lee

How can people keep in touch?

People can email me: Ralfigs@gmail.com

Thank you Ralph for your kind participation in this interesting interview. We wish you all the very best in your upcoming projects. Please keep in touch.

For sure my friend. Thank you all at Kung Fu Kingdom so much for this opportunity, it’s been an honor.

From the earliest days of childhood, Brad Curran was utterly fascinated by martial arts, his passion only growing stronger after spending time living in the melting pot of Asian cultures that is Hawaii. His early exposure developed into a lifelong passion and fascination with all forms of martial arts and tremendous passion for action and martial arts films. He would go on to take a number of different martial arts forms, including Shaolin Ch'uan fa, Taekwondo, Shotokan Karate and remains a devoted student, avid and eager to continue his martial arts studies. Brad is also an aspiring writer and deeply desires to share his love for martial arts and martial arts movies with the world!

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