Martial Arts Incredibles: An Interview with Philip Sahagun

Philip Sahagun is a martial arts champion in both forms and fighting. He has a background in Shaolin Kung Fu, Wushu, Kickboxing and American Kenpo. He’s been a National Weapons Champion 7 times as well as a Martial Arts Council Grand Champion 3 times. He started his training at a young age, appearing several times on reality TV programmes in both China and the United States, such as “America’s Got Talent”.

Pursuing his passion down the years, he has been initiated as a 34th Generation Disciple of the famed Shaolin Temple and has performed, as well as choreographed and coached for Cirque Du Soleil.

Cirque Du Soleil is known worldwide for its vibrant productions that shock and awe audiences with spectacular acrobatics and death-defying stunts that push the limits of what the human body can do. This Montreal-based company only accepts the best of the best to meet their rigorous physical standards, and this is where Philip shines in his element.

The connections he has forged over the course of his career extend far and wide – even to the extent of working with the illustrious Jackie Chan Stunt Team (JCST) on previous (and upcoming) projects.

Philip joined Kung Fu Kingdom recently in fabulous Las Vegas at his newly opened K-Star Academy, where he hopes to inspire a whole new generation of martial arts action performers.

Greetings Philip,

Thank you for taking some time to chat with us, that’s much appreciated!

It’s a pleasure to be here!

To kick things off, and get your views briefly, what do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?

Kung Fu Kingdom; sounds like empires, sounds like dynasties, sounds like classic China. It’s pretty cool!

Martial Arts Background

Thank you! So for those who may not know your story, what is your background and how did you get started in martial arts in the first place, who were your inspirations as a kid? I understand it’s the family business?

Yes, so martial arts was the family business. I grew up in it, so I was kind of unaware of anything else at the time. It was everything that I did after school, it was everything that I did before I even remember going to school.

In terms of inspirations, I guess my parents because growing up I think a lot of people will aspire to be like one member of their family, at least before they get tired of that, right? You always find someone (hopefully) in your household to aspire to. Other than that, as I grew up in the 90’s, the Ninja Turtles were big, Power Rangers were big, all that stuff. There was this huge influx of media.

Major Influences

Pop culture certainly does a lot to influence people to get on to this path.

Definitely. So, like maybe a generation before me it was Bruce Lee. Then you had the Shaw Brothers, but for me it would’ve been the Power Rangers. Got to find inspiration when you can, especially when you’re not sure about who you could be, you know?

Discovering Shaolin Kung Fu & Wushu

Right, wise words. How did you first encounter Shaolin Kung Fu and Wushu, which eventually led to you becoming a 34th Generation disciple of the Shaolin Temple?

Wushu came about because I was training with my family and I had an interest in weaponry. I was at my family’s place and basically in the summer time, there was nothing to do. So I would have to go with my parents to the studio and would just be hanging around bored all day until classes started in the evening because we really didn’t have any morning classes going on much.

But my mom had an accounting practice, so she would do her accounting and the studio would just be there. So one day my mom was tired of my harassing her, so she unscrews a broomstick and says ‘Here, this is a weapon!’, and I take it and say ‘No it’s not, it’s a broomstick!’ And she goes ‘No, it’s a staff!’, and starts to show me a bit of movement. She didn’t know a lot of staff movement, but she just kinda showed me how to spin it, etc. I became intrigued, and it was like giving a stick to a dog! (laughs).

Pass Me the Nunchucks, Mom!

I would just go and play and constantly play and constantly play. So then I became obsessed like ‘Can I have nunchucks?’. That’s my conversation with my parents; it’s not ‘Can I have a bike?’ or something, it’s ‘Can I have nunchucks?’

My father saw that I had an interest in this, so around my teenage years (probably around 15-16 years-old) we started talking about it and he says ‘Well, you know, there’s this art called “Wushu” and I think you should try and take it up’. So it was under his recommendation, I didn’t even know about it! Although I had seen kung fu in tournaments and stuff because I was competing heavily as a child, that’s how I was first exposed to Wushu.

So training Wushu for a few years eventually opened the door for me to understand that I could go and possibly train in China, and my first encounter with Shaolin Kung Fu was in China.

I see. During this time it must’ve been rare to see Wushu, as it hadn’t become popular just yet?

Right. It was just prior to the influx of Wushu interest and it becoming popular in the United States, which I think has now swelled back down again.

Training in Various Martial Arts Styles

You’ve trained in several styles throughout your life, such as your familial Kenpo Karate, Boxing, Kickboxing, Shaolin Kung Fu, and Wushu. When you cross-train all these different styles, what among them do you recall as being very difficult to learn?

Every style has its own difficult thing to learn. So, for instance, if you’re doing Boxing, you have different footwork from Kickboxing because of the fact that you don’t have to worry about being struck on the legs, so the weight-bearing system of transferring your weight left to right is a little bit different. The head movement is a little more aggressive, a little bit more complex, I would say, but then again in Kickboxing you have more things of concern and more weapons to fend yourself against.

Also physicality-wise and flexibility-wise, Wushu is a whole new challenge. I remember in the first classes I had I thought ‘You want me to do what, a split with my hands out, and don’t even touch the floor?!’ Like this is ridiculous, but of course if you have time and patience, you make improvements over time.

Appearing on Reality TV Shows in the USA & China

That’s the real meaning of ‘kung fu’ afterall! Mastery of skill over time with dedication. So, you’ve appeared a few times in the past on reality TV, such as “China’s Kung Fu Star Global Contest”, “Jackie Chan‘s Disciple”, and “America’s Got Talent”. You were the only Caucasian contestant on the former, so how did that opportunity come about? Those times must feel like a lifetime ago, and I understand that you’ve maintained some connection to the Jackie Chan Stunt Team.

Yes. Jackie Chan’s show came about because I did the show the year prior called “Kung Fu Star” and that competition was viewed by 300 million people in China. And so Chinese producers saw that and thought ‘Oh that’s something that can potentially make money, I suppose’, so there were lots of spin-offs in the following years to kind of create something similar because for Chinese television that was the first time they had ever tried something like that.

On “Kung Fu Star”, we were tested in four different fields: empty-hand forms, weapon forms, sparring capability, and extra talents or skills. Those were the main things we were judged on, so it took half a year to get that done. With that being said, because I ranked really well in the show, I actually called the “Jackie Chan’s Disciple” people the following year and said “I saw the ad and I’m interested in going but it says ‘Asians only’, is that true?” There were tryouts all over the world, and I was speaking in Chinese to them (I speak Mandarin) and they basically said ‘Well…what color is your face?’ (Laughs).

They said, “You’ll be fine, it’s ok, you’re born in America right?”

I said, “No, no I’m American, like I’m Caucasian”.

The person on the phone froze and literally just says, “Well…what color is your face?”

And I go, “I’m full white”.

So they say, “No no no, you can’t come.”

So actually what happens is that I show up to the audition with friends of mine who were Asian and were going to go and compete. So they went to compete, but it just happens to be a Beijing television producer sitting there on the bench. He recognized my face and asked “Are you Philip from Kung Fu Star?” I said, “Yes I am.” Then he asks, “How come you’re not auditioning for this?” I said “I called and you guys said only Asians.” So he pulled a few strings and got me on the show because he wanted me on the show.

Descendents of the Dragon

What were they really looking for? Asian faces but American-born?

Well the Chinese name of that show was “Descendants of the Dragon”, so there’s this very Chinese connotation because they say that the first emperor of China has a mystical legend attributed to him; that he was born out of the sky, that he was part dragon, etc.

So the whole idea was that these were Chinese people from anywhere in the world that are going to become disciples of Chénglóng, which is Jackie Chan, who is also a “dragon” in of himself! [Translation note: Jackie Chan’s Chinese name, Chénglóng, literally means “becoming the dragon”.] So it was a play on words, but it was a very patriotic title for the show. Originally, that is what they were looking for: a new successor to follow and study with Jackie Chan.

I can’t read Chinese. I’m self-taught, it’s hard, too many characters right? So. Many. Characters. They’d be handing me scripts and I’d have someone translate it into Pinyin and help with my tones. Reading’s tough. All respect to the Chinese people reading and out there who can read, that’s faaantastic! (Laughs)

Working with the Jackie Chan Stunt Team (JCST)

When it came to the Jackie Chan Stunt Team and getting to work with them, who did you work with and who did you gel with the most?

Actually how that came about is that there were two old students of mine who became very popular on social media and they had this dream to work with the Jackie Chan company.

I’d maintained some connections from all the way back in 2007 with a handful of them, one of which whose family operates a performance team for Jackie Chan. Anytime Jackie Chan makes a public performance, they go out and do kung fu, etc. They also do stunts in his movies as well. Anyway, I called that guy and forwarded videos of the two students and they said they liked it! So then they invited everyone to come and train.

Funny, that’s very much in line with Chinese culture; it’s always about connections and you know a guy who knows a guy, etc.

Well, you gotta stay helpful and be kind to people and eventually those connections will manifest, right? And you can’t ask for favors too much, because then you overwork your guanxi (Chinese concept of a system of social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and other dealings), like you have a ‘guanxi debt’ sir (laughs)!

How was that experience; what did you learn, and what surprised you?

Oh, it was great. What surprised me the most is that they’re relatively open-minded and lax in the training process in terms of curriculum. But once they get going, I mean they really just go fast and hard, they’re a machine! They know how to move, they know how to make films. And I was also invited to spend a few weeks with them on the set of “Project X-Traction” with Jackie Chan and John Cena.

Seeing them on set versus in their training hall was completely different because they definitely have this well-oiled machine in terms of rigging and presetting everything. I really feel that they’re a little more versatile than US stuntmen because in US filmmaking typically you have everything separated; rigger is a rigger, a stunt performer is a stunt performer, coordinator is coordinator. Here [with the Jackie Chan Stunt Team] everybody is doing everything, even setting up gear. Everything is a bit more homogeneous that way.

Working with the Main Man, Jackie Chan!

How were your interactions with Jackie Chan; what interesting or unique stories can you relate?

Oh man, Jackie Chan is of course an interesting guy and the thing about Jackie and his group is that it seems like it’s really a family, but it’s a family where it’s almost like “Yo, don’t go talk to dad for no reason”, haha, like don’t bother Jackie for no reason, right? Like you wait for Jackie to make a move, and then you move.

One fun thing was when I was sitting on the set of “Project X-Traction” and the stunt coordinator of the film, He Jun, sent a messenger to tell me to get dressed. And I’m thinking ‘I’m not supposed to shoot’ but they said get Philip dressed for a stunt, they need you for a stunt. I go ‘Are you kidding me?’ but ok I’m here, so I go and get dressed and they say “You’re gonna do a stunt with Jackie right now”. And I’m like ‘Oh my God’, I had no mental preparation.

So, the stunt was very simple: I had to climb a water tower as Jackie Chan is climbing up on the other side and then he runs across the water tower and he steps on my head, without giving too much away (probably won’t see my face, probably won’t make the final edit, hehe!). So with that being said, he was nice though because we talked it over, and he asks me:

“Do you have a pad?”

“A pad? What do you mean a pad?”

“Like a pad for your head. Because I’m gonna step on your head.”

And I look from the water tower and the pads are maybe 100 feet away, like far away. I’d have to go all the way down there, and they’re about to shoot. I was like ‘I am not about to get a pad right now and be this wuss”, haha! So I just say: “Sir, I am fine. You can step on me all day, no problem!”

That was a fun and memorable experience for me, getting stepped on by Jackie Chan.

Working with Cirque Du Soleil

That’s hilarious! How did you get noticed by Cirque Du Soleil? What was that process like? What’s it like working for them? I’d imagine their standards for performers are extraordinary.

In 2007 I did a tournament and Cirque had a scout there and they were looking for people to join KÀ. So I did win the tournament, I got grand champion for that day, and someone came up and basically said ‘Hey I think you might be a good fit for this show we have called KÀ’. We talked about it for a bit, but ultimately I was 19 at the time and thought I wasn’t ready to try and move away from my hometown and just go join the circus; I mean that sounded a little crazy. Even though I had traveled to do similar things before, to be permanent, fixed in one spot, I was unsure.

However, I kept the relationship open with Cirque and stayed in communication. What actually happened, around 2012 I believe, is that Cirque came to California and we hosted a sort of little martial arts pre-audition. The talent scout came to our studio, looked around at the talent, and we had an official audition at a different location. I took a handful of students, and the talent scout asked, “Well Philip, aren’t you going perform for us today? Like try out?” I said, “No, not really feeling up to it.”

I’d known that talent scout for a while and he just kinda pulled me into doing it. And then man, two years later (they weren’t specifically looking for anyone for a role then), because I did that performance for them I got called for a show.

It’s a crazy experience. Actually, I just got a gift from them recently [to celebrate 5 years with them]. I didn’t realise it’s already been 5 years working with Cirque. So I did the first three years as an artist, then I worked in casting, and then as a coach too.

You mature a lot; it’s hard to do 300-and-something shows per year you know? Being openminded to change your discipline to fit the stage is also a component, because you have to be able to present yourself, not just your art form, but yourself as a character who is expressing an art form. And that becomes a unique artistic challenge, and I actually cross-trained (most people don’t know this) 3 years of ballet as part of my training and to improve my Wushu to improve my jumping.

Cirque, in general, has fantastic artistic directors, fantastic people who I think really can cultivate you, so I matured a lot through the process.

Philip’s Advice for Budding Martial Arts Performers

For anyone who’s seeking to make a career out of using their martial arts ability, what’s your advice to them?

I think now it’s easier than ever before and actually you don’t need to know much martial arts to start your career. Because now there is so much media that has action involved in it, so if you’re trying to do film, do television, there are a whole bunch of avenues that weren’t there before. Look at, say, those Marvel movies, they all have action scenes; everyone’s kicking and punching, everyone’s doing some form, some vague resemblance of martial arts, right? So that’s one thing.

Learning Your Art & Staying Flexible

First, educate yourself and don’t think things are gonna be super, super traditional. You have to be modified to the point where you are able to accept and take on multiple disciplines to be efficient if you wanna make it a job. But if you’re talking about a career, you have to be able to change your skill sets in a way that you can adapt through time. So, for instance, when you’re young and you can do certain jumps and specific things that you cannot do when you’re older, you have to be able to change that.

Next, like I mentioned with Cirque, I have been an artist, I have been a coach, and I’ve worked on casting, but yet in each it’s martial arts consulting. It’s all about martial arts, but it’s about using your knowledge in various ways, to different degrees.

So in that way, I’ll say, if you wanna make martial arts your career, you’ll need to have the right tools for the job and see what aspect of martial arts you want to use a career. Do you want to perform on stage? If so, you have to be very, very good, because there are no hidden angles with a camera on stage. You’re 100% exposed, people will see you.

Difference between Films & Stage Show Performances

Great insights. On a related note, what marks the difference between being on stage versus on film? Besides the obvious like you’ve already stated with the magic of angles and editing.

Again, just like in film, it depends on what type of character and the type of film you’re making, right? That’s a component. On stage I do think it’s quite difficult, because you must have the full performance.

So let’s say you’re doing a 3, 5, or 6-minute act. That’s you undisturbed for 5 or 6 minutes. If you make a mistake, you cannot take it back, right? You make a mistake on set, the crew sees it, but in the final product it’s not going to be shown. So there has to be a certain level of perfection that goes with being on stage, and also you have to know your body a little bit more, because it’s year-round. You’re not shooting for 3 months then you’re done.

You’re going to do these shows every single day, whether you feel good or not, whether you’re sick or healthy. I’ve seen artists at Cirque who had terrible head colds and they’re doing full hand-balancing routines. You can imagine how hard it is just to walk around with a head cold, but to be upside down and holding with that much power; that’s very, very challenging.

That said, people in film also show up to work when they’re tired, etc., everyone’s a professional. The unique part is the filmmaking process, that’s very unique.

Bruce Lee 101: How to Make a Fight Scene Spectacular

True. You’ve choreographed a lot, so in your opinion, what makes a fight scene spectacular versus mediocre? And how does the game change when you include weapons?

Fight scenes are made through story-telling and emotional content. When someone moves, they have to have feelings behind the movements, like what Bruce Lee says, right? “We need emotional content…”, etc. This is all true, because when you’re watching a person doing what’s called “martial art”, the art form is very broad, so when you’re watching someone move on film, what supports that movement? Okay, you say maybe the editing does, the music does, but also, the person is the lead. All the other things are supporting. So the sound effects are supporting, the music supports the lead, and the story is also driven and told by this character. So yes, when you’re doing a fight scene, besides the choreography, we have to show what the movement means to this character.

For example, let’s just say if you wanted to show frustration, you’d have to learn how to do a set beat of movements in a way that is frustrated, that you’re holding something back, but you also want to strike, but you’re not sure. Are you pensive? Are you aggressive? Are you reckless? And you have to showcase that without breaking the choreography and without injuring your opponent, which can also be very challenging.

In film, it’s hard because you often don’t have the luxury of fighting someone who also knows martial arts. You have to make someone who maybe doesn’t know martial arts look good, yet could otherwise be a fantastic actor. You have to strike a fine balance with both because sometimes an actor can make a whole martial art look bad because they don’t know how to inject enough emotional content.

When weapons are involved, the weapons have to become an extension of you, which creates more distance between yourself and the opponent. And that distance that you create cannot be ‘dead space’. It has to be a living space that is occupied by the intention of the weapon holder. So for instance, if your sword is held outward and pointed straight at the person, the intention cannot only be in your eyes and the threat be the tip of the sword, but it has to emanate through the entire shape, including the distance between you and the person you’re pointing at.

Philip’s Two Main Babies

Very true. What recent or upcoming projects would you like to share with us?

I’m working on this new studio and new academy in Las Vegas which I’m very excited about. That’s the big project, the big baby. I also have a baby that was just born, a two month-old son, so that’s a big project, probably the biggest project I will have because I’ll be working on it for the next 20, 30, 40 years maybe. (Laughs)

How Martial Arts Positively Influences Parenthood

Of course, congratulations on your second son! How has martial arts served your parenting style in your experience so far?

Thank you! It teaches me mercy now, compassion. Because if I did martial arts, but also did not become a parent, I may not be as compassionate. Depends on who you are naturally, right? But I think in my case having kids gives you a sense of compassion, because you know that a kid without your attention, love, or help would die, right? A child, a baby, if you didn’t take care of them, would pass away.

So with that being said, we all needed that much love, subsistence, and energy to make us adults, to make us live this long. In coaching (I was talking to a student recently about it) my style within the last 10 years has changed a lot where I believe in time more. I have a little bit more patience.

I do also believe in consequences; that if you were to do something wrong, there will be repercussions to face. You have to have the ability to understand why we do things. That’s important, because we have to educate others.

Philip’s Reflections, Warrior Wisdom & Message to KFK’ers.

Kung Fu Karma in other words…I see. In your life, what sort of warrior-wisdom quote or philosophy has helped shape you into who you are today?

I have a lot of respect and love for the old masters. I grew up reading many, many martial arts books and philosophy books. With that being said, one that sticks out to me in this moment right now is:

“If it interests your heart, it is not a waste of time.”

Great one there. So as we come to a close, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your followers about KFK’s Mission: to inspire 100 million people around the world to take up martial arts and all the benefits that come with it?

That’s a tremendous mission. I want say I hope everyone stays inspired and thank you for taking the time to read this. And if you love martial arts, follow Kung Fu Kingdom and keep sharing the happiness!

Thank you! Is this something you want your two sons to carry on into the future?

Yes, if they love it. I’d be more interested that they carry character attributes rather than merely the physical skills. I’d rather they have social skills than physical skills. (Laughs)

Well Philip, thank you for talking to us today, it’s been a fascinating insight and truly a great pleasure!

Philip Sahagun’s aim, like KFK’s is to inspire a whole new generation of martial artists and action performers. Maybe you’re one of them in the making You can follow Philip on Instagram @kungfuphilip to discover more and definitely check out the excellent K-Star Academy website for more information.

Tell us what you connect with most about Philip in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram.

For more REAL-LIFE I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-E-S check out the ever-growing FU-niverse packed with exclusive interviews, movie reviews, news, Top 5’s, Top 10’s, become an Official KFK’er in your own choice of gear and subscribe for all kinds of incredible martial arts on YouTube!)

Leon Xu

Leon has been training since he was 15 with a Shaolin monk and has travelled to China to train at the Shaolin Temple. His main specialty is Sanda. He avidly consumes martial arts action, whether it be film, news, video games, etc. Currently mastering Master Raven in "Tekken 7". His fiancée is a 3rd degree black belt in Taekwondo and yep, she can beat him up!

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