Something in the Water: The Past and Present of Hawaii’s Warrior Spirit

By Eric Stinton Jun 2, 2017


“It’s in the water. It’s in the Hawaiian water.” -- former EliteXC champion K.J. Noons

A faint glow pulses in liquid darkness like the first heartbeat in a mother’s womb. Ever rising, it reveals itself to be lava leaking upwards from beneath the Earth’s crust. Its searing heat clashes with water cold enough to freeze if not for its salinity. Solid earth forms and pushes upward. Miles of black, cold ocean weigh on it heavily, but it continues to ascend until it pierces open air.

Solid land stretches out on top of the ocean surface. Powerful waves rear up and sculpt the shoreline. Distinct islands drift away from each other, netting floating debris and hosting seabirds for brief rests along their transcontinental flights. Seeds nestle into the nutrient-rich volcanic soil, sprouting into a diverse, pullulating oasis, more untouched and isolated than anywhere else on the planet. The islands settle into their edges and wait. Seafaring Polynesians arrive, pragmatic with details and romantic with ambition, brave brilliant and foolish enough to voyage into the distant horizon with little more than their knowledge of submarine rivers and extraterrestrial bodies. They bring more animals and plants with them, and a new set of life takes root. They are the first to cultivate civilization from the naked, Edenic land.

Communities across the islands grow into large, independent societies.They remain divided until European explorers drop anchor. Armed with superior technology, a renowned warrior and son of a nobleman conquers and unites the islands. The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi breathes its first breath. Waves of immigration from Europe and America crash ashore, bringing with them a new religion and way of life. The new residents start plantations, businesses that require labor, prompting more immigration from Japan, China and the Philippines.

The Kingdom thrives, so much so that a group of businessmen backed by the United States military lock Queen Liliuʻokalani in her palace and institute their own government. This government, absent any Hawaiians, opts to become a U.S. territory and eventually the 50th state of America. She is the last monarch of her country, unceremoniously under house arrest while her nation slips away into foreign hands.

From Hawaiʻi’s underwater inception to its birth as a modern metropolis, the pacific waters, like an amniotic ocean, carried with them the physical struggle for new life. As that life has been created and recreated over time, the confluence of opposites -- darkness and light, hot and cold, ocean and land, native and foreigner, struggle and survival -- has defined the Hawaiian identity. Hawaiʻi is and always has been a land of conflict.

* * *

“We grow up fighting. We use our fists from the time we’re young. It’s in our blood.” -- “The Ultimate Fighter 3” winner Kendall Grove

You know when fighters are from Hawaiʻi. Even if you do not recognize the Hawaiian flag draped on their shoulders or the pidgin verbiage or the lilting cadence, you still know, because they let you know. In interviews or press conferences, fighters from the islands are quick to mention the place they represent.

Since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament, fighters from Hawaiʻi have been visible on the biggest stages of the sport. In his 2012 book “Fightnomics,” Reed Kuhn calculated that Hawaiʻi has been the most represented state in the history of the UFC, with 15 professional fighters for every one million residents. The next closest state -- Iowa -- registered about nine and a half per million people.

Why Hawaiʻi? What is it about the “Aloha State” -- this small, unassuming archipelago nicknamed after the Hawaiian word for love, compassion and kindness -- that lends itself so seamlessly to the most unabashedly violent sport in the world? It is complicated. When fighters are asked, they will point out the fight-first mentality of their upbringing. When local fans are asked, they will talk about the pride of the Hawaiian people. When outsiders try to explain it, they will dole out clichéd “warrior spirit” sentiments without any context or explanation as to what that means. Those answers may not be wrong, but they do not offer much insight, either. The truth is that the story of fighting in Hawaiʻi, like the story of the islands themselves, is complex and tangled, involving centuries of cultural and political undercurrents. By most accounts, that story began sometime around the 12th or 13th centuries.

The history of Hawaiian settlement is hotly debated, but it is believed that at least two distinct waves occurred. The first arrived from Samoa and the Marquesas Islands sometime between 300 and 1100 A.D. The wide range in dates is a testament to the volume of competing theories. Regardless, what we know about those earliest settlers is that they were talented sailors and fishermen who lived in such physical freedom and abundance that the concept of war was absent from their culture. They worshipped gods of creation and agriculture -- not gods of war -- and for the most part lived peaceful communal lives independent from each other.

This was before Paʻao. A high priest from Tahiti, Paʻao came to Hawaiʻi around the mid-1200s. He introduced the war god Kukaʻilimoku -- “Ku, the Snatcher of Land” -- and instituted a much more rigid social order. Hawaiian society fundamentally changed. Sacred places of worship became off-limits to commoners when they were once open for everyone, and human sacrifice was ritualized to appease the new war god. More importantly, social stratification bred hostility towards the Tahitian priests, who were viewed as foreigners by the communities that were already established. Conflicts broke out as different groups fought for political power. When the dust settled, the society that emerged held wartime talents in esteemed regard.

Warriors ascended the social ranks. They became guards in the royal courts and taught the chiefs how to fight. As instructors of warfare, they almost exclusively taught royal families,which consolidated political power; when the ruling class is also the warrior class, it takes an added ounce of courage to defy them. Since only the royal families had access to this training, the chiefs became the best warriors. Thus began the Hawaiian warrior culture.

Over time, this training would become more and more refined. It involved weapons training, as well as various hand-to-hand techniques, including striking, wrestling and joint manipulation. In many ways, it was an ancient iteration of what is now called mixed martial arts. Practitioners would train with each other, put on exhibition matches for spectators and seek out other warriors for one-on-one contests. This Hawaiian martial art, called “lua,” arose from interconnected developments in culture and politics and would come to underpin ancient society in a lasting way.

* * *

“I ka nana no a ‘ike. I ka hoʻolohe no ka hoʻomaopopo. I ka hana no ka ‘ike.” -- By observing, one learns. By listening, one remembers. By practice, one masters.

“Two men enter, one man leaves!” Before “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” made famous the phrase that early UFC announcer Rich Goins would appropriate, Hawaiian warriors had already crafted a similar message hidden in the name of their martial art. The word lua carries with it multiple meanings, a distinct characteristic of the Hawaiian language. Lua is the shortened form of “elua,” the number two. A lua is also a hole in the ground where “kalua” -- baked food -- is cooked. Lua: Two men enter battle. One leaves. The other goes into the lua and becomes kalua. One word can speak volumes.

Lua enlisted techniques familiar to modern martial artists, mixed or otherwise. These techniques were called “ʻai,” which also carries with it a double meaning. ʻAi literally translates into “to eat, destroy or consume,” and while there are stories of warriors eating their defeated foes to absorb their “mana” -- power -- those were the exception more than the norm. Mostly, ʻai refers to one’s ability to consume enemies by killing them. The most famous lua stories are about warrior chiefs going from island to island challenging other warrior chiefs to fights. The winner would absorb the land, resources and power of the fallen, as well as increase his own personal fame, which was valuable currency. The style of fighting, as noted by anthropologist Kenneth Emory, emphasized close-range combat: “It was the aim,” he wrote, “to come directly to blows.” Lua practitioners utilized any part of their body that could inflict damage: closed fists, open palms, side-hand chops, outstretched fingers, knees, elbows and all parts of the foot. Lua incorporated eye gouges, chokes, pinches, holds and strikes -- whatever it took to remove an adversary from being able to fight back. In fact, lua was most noted for its emphasis on breaking bones at their joints, small and large, not unlike the principles behind jiu-jitsu; enemies unable to use an arm or a leg or a hand, no matter how large they might be, are enemies at a disadvantage.

As a practice meant for actual wartime combat, weapons training was also a distinct part of lua. This included spears, clubs, slings and rocks, fibrous cords for tripping and choking and other stone-age weaponry. The most visually iconic piece of Hawaiian violence, the “leiomano,” was a wooden club lined with tiger shark teeth, used for stabbing and bludgeoning.

Lua was refined in secretive schools and training centers called “pā.” They were open only at night so that students could go about their work during the day, as well as to keep hidden the techniques being taught. Students took turns guarding the premises of their pā to prevent commoners or rival schools from spying on their training. The facilities themselves were organized similarly to MMA gyms now, with different areas sectioned off for different purposes: sparring, technique practice, spiritual rituals and studying. The general areas of combat training were more or less the same from one pā to the next, but different schools would specialize in different areas. That is to say, while every pā to some extent taught boxing, wrestling, joint manipulation and weapons training, some masters were more renowned in one area than another. It was common for students to complete training at one pā and move on to another to further their knowledge.

War is not solely a matter of fighting, though. Lua students also studied diet and nutrition -- which foods to eat for what purposes. They studied botany and how to identify and classify plants based on their functions for healing. They studied anatomy, specifically the skeletal, muscle and nervous systems to learn how to attack and how to recover. They studied “lomilomi,” how to massage an ailing body. Perhaps most impressively, they incorporated endurance and cardio practice, agility and flexibility exercises, strength training and hygiene. In a lot of ways, the Hawaiian training camps from 500 years ago were more comprehensive than the early days of organized mixed martial arts.

The goal of every student was to become a master, or “ʻōlohe.” The word ʻōlohe literally means hairless, since warriors would remove all hair from their bodies and grease themselves before battle to make it harder for enemies to grab onto them. To become an ʻōlohe, students had to pass a number of tests. How they were tested depended on the master, the school and the specific student, but some graduation tests included killing a tiger shark, standing firm with outstretched arms while other students walked along them -- shades of the “Scarecrow Challenge” from Season 2 of “The Ultimate Fighter” -- or being asked to kill a member of one’s own family, who afterwards would become a protective spirit to watch over them. Masters usually reserved some techniques for the final test, a one-on-one match against them. That way they could always surprise their pupils, and if the master was defeated anyway, it proved the readiness of the student.

Aside from dedicated training camps and the blending of different styles into a single martial art, lua has more pronounced overlaps with modern MMA. Most notably, lua cultivated competitive matches. Some were dire -- the whole “go into the lua and become kalua” thing -- but some were meant for entertainment. These exhibition matches often took place during Makahiki, a traditional four-month festival that celebrated the labor of farming and fishing. The festival highlighted hand-to-hand bouts, as well as contests where warriors would have spears thrown at them to either dodge or pluck mid-flight.

These matches regularly drew crowds of spectators. Fighters had their own type of walkout music via individualized chants from members of their pā. The fighters would then size up each other and antagonize one another by chanting back and forth. One such recorded chant went:

Kekipalaha o Ku lelepo e (May the foe be flattened like ti leaves),
O heleleike oho (May his hair fall out),
O ka auwaelewa (May his jaw loosen),
O poʻoi la lea (May his skull be exposed to the sun),
O ka wahai mu ia e ka ilo (May his mouth be infested by maggots),
O ka ihumanumanu (May his nose be cut down),
O ka maka o koʻonamimi (May his eye sockets be pockets for urine),

Many of these lines had double meanings, where the message of the chant was also the name of specific techniques from their pā. For instance, “o ka ihumanumanu” -- “may his nose be cut down” -- was the name of a technique that involved countering a straight punch with an uppercut to the nose. It was next-level trash-talking, dressing up strategy in wordplay to see if the opponent was smart enough to figure it out. This was done to intimidate the opponent, but also to entertain the people.

In a journal entry titled “Description of a Boxing Match” from January 1779, British Captain James King wrote about the pageantry and spectacle involved in the fights: “They frequently eyed each other from head to foot, in a contemptuous manner, casting several arch looks at the spectators, straining their muscles, and using a variety of affected gestures … which usually excited, as was intended, a loud laugh among the spectators.”

Lua was not just a manifestation of wartime necessity or a catalyst of ancient Hawaiʻi’s warrior culture. It was a social institution that held powerful sway over the politics of the day. The most talented warriors ascended to the highest ranks of society, becoming “aliʻi” -- chiefs who ruled over villages, areas or even entire islands. The most notable of lua’s alumni, Kamehameha the Great, used his fighting knowledge and skill to become a military leader, eventually conquering and uniting all of the islands into a single kingdom. Yet despite its prominent role in shaping society, lua would find itself at the mercy of a new cultural and political order that would be established shortly after the kingdom was born.

* * *

“He pōuhe‘ei ka wawā.” -- The night becomes tumultuous.

History can be a messy affair. Though memorizing dates and timelines is the scourge of bored students in classrooms everywhere, it is a useful tool to help untangle events from the past. I will only subject you to a short one:

1778: James Cook lands in Hawaiʻi. He is killed a year later after attempting to kidnap a chief for ransom;
1795: After 15 years of conquest, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi is established under King Kamehameha I. Five of the seven populated islands are conquered. The remaining two join the kingdom through peaceful diplomacy in 1810;
1820: The first missionaries and businessmen arrive from America;
1893: The Hawaiian monarchy is overthrown by military-backed American businessmen. President Grover Cleveland condemns it as an act of war against a sovereign nation. Hawaiʻi is officially annexed as a US territory in 1898;
1959: Hawaiʻi becomes the 50th state of America.

A lot happened in those 181 years between the arrival of European explorers and American statehood. Population was decimated. Within two years of Cook’s arrival, it is estimated that one-17th of the population had died due to introduced diseases. By 1840 -- just 62 years after Cook, a single generation -- as much as 84 percent of the native Hawaiian population had been extinguished. It was unintentional genocide.Not until the 1970s did the Hawaiian population begin to rebound.

To add institutionalization to injury, traditional culture was criminalized as Christianity dug itself deeper into Hawaiian society. This included bans on dancing hula, speaking Hawaiian and lua, among countless other practices that were thought to promote heathen indulgences. It was a purposeful, systematic eradication of an entire culture, on the lands that birthed that culture no less. In spite of the consequences, many Hawaiians continued to pass down the traditional arts in privacy and secrecy, preserving them for future generations.

Land itself was snatched en masse, first by plantation owners and eventually by the American government. When Hawaiʻi was annexed as a territory, the land formerly owned by the royal family -- nearly 30 percent of all Hawaiian land -- was absorbed by the government instantaneously without consent or compensation. Of the top 10 landowning bodies today, only one, Kamehameha Schools, is historically Hawaiian.

One hundred years passed before the American government acknowledged any of this. The so-called “Apology Bill” -- a resolution passed by both houses of congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 -- stated: “The health and well-being of the Native Hawaiian people is intrinsically tied to their deep feelings and attachment to the land … the long-range economic and social changes in Hawaii over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been devastating to the population and to the health and well-being of the Hawaiian people.” These assertions are hard to contend.

Before the overthrow, Hawaiʻi’s independence was officially recognized by 18 countries, including America and every major European nation. It boasted one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and it had evolved out of many of its old, stone-aged institutions, like the brutal “kapu” system that, through punishment of death, forbade commoners from entering sacred areas or looking directly in the eyes of chiefs. The kapu system was abolished a year before missionaries arrived. It was not a perfect society, as no society is, but it was one that was developing on its own.

After the overthrow, native Hawaiian people faced tremendous adversity. A completely different set of cultural values and sociopolitical institutions were imposed upon them, and as more Hawaiians died from introduced diseases, immigration from America, Europe and Asia increased, drastically reducing their influence in their own land. Today, Hawaiians have the lowest family income of all major ethnic groups in the islands, and despite accounting for only 20 percent of the total population, Hawaiians compose 40 percent of inmates -- the highest rate of incarceration in the state. The residue of foreign occupation has had a lasting and devastating effect on Hawaiian people. A sizable movement continues to fight for sovereignty, and it is not uncommon to see the Hawaiian flag hanging upside down in front of houses or on the backs of trucks, signaling that the nation of Hawaiʻi is in distress.

That brings us back to the modern-day Hawaiian warriors of MMA. While not every professional fighter is of Hawaiian ancestry, being from Hawaiʻi exposes you to a complex atmosphere of ethnic, cultural and political tension. Hawaiians are simultaneously hosts and minorities, respected and disadvantaged. The role of native Hawaiians influences the collective consciousness of Hawaiʻi in a fundamental way. People whose great grandparents were either actively complicit in or tacitly approving of the overthrow have now lived in Hawaiʻi for generations. Who can say Hawaiʻi is not their home? At the same time, people of Hawaiian ancestry are more than justified in feeling that their home has been under prolonged occupation; it’s documented historical fact. It is only natural that this conflicted identity of Hawaiʻi manifests into actual conflict.

When fighters talk about growing up with a fight-first mentality, it has a lot to do with the influences of colonization, the same devastating “economic and social changes” for which the American government apologized. When local fans talk about Hawaiian pride, they are referring to the defiant dignity of a culture that survived a century and a half of deliberate attempts to eradicate it; and that oft-quoted warrior spirit of Hawaiʻi is a result of the lua-influenced institutions of the Kingdom, as well as the impact of the American-influenced institutions that forcibly replaced them.

Did centuries of cultural transformation and political tension culminate in the popularity of mixed martial arts in Hawaiʻi? Not exactly. That is an impossible claim that trivializes the real and deeply painful changes that were forced upon an entire civilization. It did, however, create an atmosphere where MMA could thrive. Among the dark clouds of such a history, this in its own small way is a glimmer of light that pierces through the storm beneath.

* * *

“There’s fighting in Hawaiian culture. This is in my blood. I was born a warrior. This is what we do. We’re modern-day Hawaiians.” -- UFC interim featherweight champion Max Holloway

The 1970s saw an unprecedented revival of Hawaiian culture. Coined the Second Hawaiian Renaissance -- the first one happened about 100 years earlier under the penultimate monarch King David Kalākaua -- traditional culture thrived like it never had since the missionaries arrived. Hawaiian language, hula and ancient navigational practices were resuscitated and celebrated, practiced freely by a new generation of American-born Hawaiians. Surfing, too, entered into a new golden age following the example of Hawaiian hero Eddie Aikau, one of the early pioneers of surfing the monster waves of Oahu’s north shore. Amidst the countless dashed hopes for a return to sovereignty, these were bold symbols of Hawaiian identity and Hawaiian pride.

There was one exception that evaded the renaissance: lua. In 1974, it was declared a lost art, as there were no known ʻōlohe alive. Of course, there was one -- exactly one. Born in 1907, Charles Kenn learned lua as a youth and continued to practice throughout his life. He taught five students who have since opened up pā of their own. Thanks to him, the legacy of Hawaiʻi’s warrior culture is no longer an area of academic study; it exists in concrete reality.

The MMA fighters from the islands now are throwbacks to the Hawaiian warriors of old, but they are also reflections of modern Hawaiʻi. They exist in both worlds, the past and present, honoring the old culture while simultaneously forging a new one. They are a new clash of opposites, creating through destruction, no different than the forces of nature whose wars with each other brought about the islands in the first place: the volcanoes, the ocean. Through them, the warrior spirit lives on. Though individual warriors come and go, the fighting tradition will never truly be gone, for it was there at the beginning. Just like the Hawaiian waters.

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