Antonio Graceffo is an Italian American adventure writer and martial arts enthusiast who left a Wall Street finance background to literally dive into Asian adventures and languages.
I discovered him by chance while surfing the internet in Australia, and I decided that such an interesting character needed some space in the Monkeyrockworld. Adventure writer, martial art fighter and TV host, Antonio spent the best part of this decade living and studying Asian cultures and languages, abandoning a pretty well-heeled New York background. The myths and mysteries about him are all unveiled in this exclusive interview.
MM- Hi Antonio, please briefly introduce yourself to our readers unaware of the fact you are an unstoppable adventure machine…
My parents are Sicilian. I was born in New York. I grew up speaking English, Spanish and Italian. I started martial arts and boxing when I was 12. my first martial arts teacher was a returning Vietnam war veteran named H. David Collins who ran the American school of empty hand fighting in Tennessee. It was 1979. He was way ahead of his time. He taught us boxing and kickboxing as part of martial art and set me on my career as a fighter,. At that time, nearly no one in the martial arts community was doing real fighting. There were always stories of black belts getting beat by street fighters and boxers. Today, things are much different. But at that time, even guys like Chuck Norris, never had any real fights, just point fighting.David taught us a lot of military discipline and he is probably one of the big reasons why I joined the military when I was 17. I graduated infantry school and also graduated non-commissioned officers school. The next few years were blurry. I flunked out of college a couple of times, changed from the army to the navy to get a scholarship, which I screwed. I got my first pro boxing trainer somewhere around age 20 and started fighting and working construction jobs and in out of military and school for the next several years. When I was 24 I joined the merchant marines. I graduated their school in piney point and I went to sea as a wheelman on the SS Independence, out of Hawaii. That was probably my first big adventure.
In all of the branches of military I fought in the Friday night fights or fights on the base. I won 41 out of 42 fights. I ate like a fiend and went up to heavyweight division because in the military it is really the least competitive weight because a lot of the guys are blown up middle weights who stopped dieting or training. A lot of them were just tough marines with no skills. It was mostly pretty easy.
Eventually I made it back to college in Tennessee and majored in Foreign Language and English. I went to Germany and studied applied linguistics for four years and worked as a translator for some huge European companies. I spent a year in Costa Rica working as a freelance translator and then finally went back to New York and started a financial career, working as a Financial planner at Prudential. I put my fighting on hold during those years.
MM- You have been in different countries in Asia for the past 8 years now, what made you take this decision, and now, after 8 years, what do you think you’ve learned, and what changed inside of you since your Wall Street days?
The first two years in New York, working in finance were like a long slow nightmare, working 80 and 90 hour weeks with little no pay. But I completed a three year training program in about seven months and sold those skills to ABN Amro for 45,000 pay increase. I stayed with them for a while and moved to one of the largest private banks in America for a 60,000 pay increase. Things were good. Working in private banking I had a lot of free time and money so I started training and fighting again. I just kept dreaming of going to Asia and doing what I am doing now, but I thought I wouldn’t ever get here.
I was ion New York on 911. I decided I didn’t want to work in finance anymore and I also thought that my dream of going to Asia was never going to happen. So, I left. I went to Taiwan first, to learn Chinese and kung fu. Then I went to Shaolin temple in china. Then a Muay Thai temple in Thailand, and then Cambodia….I have spent significant time in about ten countries during the eight years.
I learned to live with almost no money. And I learned that the principle thing people want from money is freedom and freedom is something you can’t buy. You are only free if you can let go of everything.
So, now I am free, but poor. The first six years I thought “a lot of people back home have more money than me but I have freedom, so it is a trade off.” But after the world financial crisis happened I thought “They all lost all their money. So, now neither of us has any money, but I have freedom.” So, I win.
MM- You wrote a book, The Monk from Brooklyn, documenting your martial art training at the famous Shaolin temple in Hunan, China in a time when the country was still ?scary matter? for the West, and you were there during the SARS outbreak too. In light of such perspective, how do you relate to modern day China, and which differences can you draw?
Five of my books have been published. Number Six, “Warrior Odyssey” will be published next year. It documents my first six years in Asia. The Monk from Brooklyn was my first book and it is where I got my nickname. The book means a lot to me.
When I wrote that book, I thought there was no hope for China. Henan, where the Shaolin temple is located is so backward and undeveloped. But after writing the book I lived in Hong Kong, then back in Taiwan, and more Chinese studies and then living in various Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia, and I decided China is a Dragon Rising. It is a huge country with a command economy and a massive population. There is a tremendous Chinese Diaspora network throughout the world which is possibly China’s greatest asset. The Chinese outside of China are linking up. communities in Malaysia coordinate with communities in Cambodia and they sell products to China. Or buy products from China. The Diaspora are like massive tentacles of the Chinese economic machine. They are passive tentacles in the sense that they aren’t actively working for the Chinese government in any way. But they have found a good way of making money for themselves and their local communities. The ancillary benefit to China is that they get richer and more important in the world.
TO BE CONTINUED