March 17, 2010

Martial Arts Ace

Medical student Cyril Chen stays on top of his game

By Bruce Morgan

Strength isn’t everything when it comes to winning at mixed martial arts, says Cyril Chen, M12, and he should know. He has been a national champ in an American sport that combines elements of wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing and kick-boxing. Tactical depth is the key. “If a guy shows up at the ring and he weighs 190 pounds and he’s all buff from weight-lifting, that doesn’t matter,” says Chen. “He will get handled by this 140-pound guy who has five or six years of experience.”

“You put in that effort, and the payoff will come,” says Cyril Chen. Photo: Alonso Nichols  

Chen started studying karate when he was eight years old, growing up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. In high school he tried wrestling. He says he was “not too successful” at wrestling, but struggling with other guys in the ring planted the seed. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2005, he devoted two years to training and competing on the martial arts circuit around Chicago. He won the North American Grappling Association title for Submission Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu twice in 2006, and was runner-up in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In addition, Chen earned global distinction by placing sixth in the 2006 PanAmerican Jiu-jitsu Games.
Mixed martial arts is hard to describe if you’ve never seen it, and even harder to fathom once you have. It looks like a combination of slapping and dancing, with lots of quick, grunting reversals down on the mat. To the average viewer, it’s impossible to tell who is winning.

Chen stays fit these days by visiting a local gym two or three times a week for two hours each time. He suggests that martial arts and medical school make a natural, almost-perfect pairing, with each venture precisely repaying the time that is invested. “You put in that effort, and the payoff will come,” he says. Apart from the cumulative gain of confidence in his body and its capabilities, the martial arts training has taught him patience, he says—patience and faith in an ultimate reward.

A surprising number of his classmates want a taste of that nectar, too. After Chen and his fellow martial arts enthusiast Roger Wu, M12, put up a notice in the Sackler gym offering a beginner-level class in their specialty, some 35 people signed up for the chance.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2010 Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at

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