Lots of rambunctious kids grow up wanting to be ninjas. Most of us can remember at least one hellion terrorizing the playground with his Power Ranger or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle moves. But for a legion of grownup athletes and stunt people trained in the art of martial arts tricking, or just “tricking” for short, ninja antics are a full time job.
Tricking is a high-flying combination of martial arts, gymnastics, and breakdancing. If you’ve seen any superhero movie in the last 20 years, odds are you’ve watched someone tricking—but you probably assumed the superhuman moves on screen were CGI or some other fancy Hollywood trick. That’s not the case. When bad guys are getting their asses handed to them, there’s almost always a stuntperson trained in tricking behind the hero’s mask.
Some of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have prominently featured trickers on their stunt teams. Chadwick Boseman's stunt double in Black Panther, for example, is Danny Graham—one of the greatest trickers in the world—and the film's fight team was rounded out by trickers Matt Emig and Micah Karns. The same goes for movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Deadpool, Iron Man—the list goes on and on.
On paper, tricking is just different combinations of kicks, flips, and twists put together. But in real life, watching an elite tricker means watching a human body at the peak of fluid ferocity. A burst of explosive energy will send a tricker skyward, her body transforming into a strange new constellation, before she snaps out a kick with destructive, awe-inspiring force. Tricking is an insanely impressive feat of strength and agility, and the sport evolved from martial arts disciplines that athletes have been honing for centuries.
Martial artists and acrobats have a long history of experimenting with moves that later came to fall under tricking’s umbrella. For example, practitioners of capoeira—a dance-infused martial art developed 500 years ago by African slaves in Brazil—were doing moves like the raiz way before trickers ever picked them up. And the Esan people of Nigeria have long performed a sacred ritual known as Igbabonelimhin, an absolutely insane display of acrobatic dance involving skills that trickers immediately recognize.
But it was in the mid-1900s that tricking-like movements first entered popular awareness. In the 1967 martial arts film Dragon Inn, for example, wires suspending the actors helped them execute some wicked flips during fight scenes. More modern uses of wirework—like in 1999’s The Matrix—inspired early trickers to attempt a variety of real-life, wireless moves that were previously assumed to be impossible.
“Tricking has expanded the possibilities of fight choreography,” said Travis Wong, a renowned SAG-AFTRA Stunt Coordinator. “It has allowed modern-day characters to perform maneuvers without wirework, bringing realism to the screen and helping bring superheroes and iconic characters to life.”
At around the same time, the earliest iteration of tricking was beginning to emerge within mainstream martial arts. Innovators like George Chung of Ernie Reyes’s West Coast Demo Team began including acrobatics in their competitive forms, creating a budding style of martial arts performance that soon made its way into American TV and movies. In fact, the son of Chung’s instructor—Ernie Reyes Jr.—played Donatello in the fight scenes of the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in 1990 and later starred in the sequel. The original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series in the early 90s also featured a distinctive blend of martial arts and gymnastics that would prove massively influential for an entire generation of trickers.
In 2000, the Blue Lightspeed Power Ranger happened to be played by Mike Chat, the martial artist who elevated Ernie Reyes’s creative karate to another level. When he created Xtreme Martial Arts (XMA), it was a martial arts revolution of sorts, because it didn’t just tolerate, but actively encouraged athletes to mix innovative flips and tricks into their performances. Among the early XMA competitors was a young Taylor Lautner, whose flipping skills came in handy in one of his first starring roles.
When a number of XMA athletes began to focus mostly on the invention and execution of these new tricks, the exclusive practice of these moves separated itself from XMA to become tricking, a new species of extreme movement structured only by the mechanics of momentum and the limits of imagination.
“Trickers are adults who have retained the childlike tendency to play, and to view the world with wonder and possibility,” said James Daly, the founder of Invincible Tricking. He’s got a point—as the sport has grown, trickers have often discovered a crazy cool move in a comic book, an anime, or a video game, then snatched it from the world of fiction and dragged it into the realm of reality.
Take one of Street Fighter’s most famous moves, for example—Ryu’s devastating hurricane kick. Graham somehow figured out how to do it in real life, then popularized it as one of tricking’s most impressive kicking techniques. It takes immense agility and strength. The tricker has to jump off one foot and spin two full times in the air, all while keeping his leg fully extended so it sweeps across his target three times, delivering three powerful strikes. Physics buffs will note that the leg extension makes it much harder to rotate all 720 degrees. Another Street Fighter move made an even bigger impact on tricking: Guile’s famous flash kick, which is basically a more hardcore version of a bicycle kick in soccer.
One other fun move inspired by fiction is the Iron Man flip, a feat of eye-popping power and control that would impress even Mr. Stark himself. After launching herself high into the air, the tricker straightens her legs and puts her hands down by her sides, as if she were Iron Man using the boosters on his feet and palms to lift off the ground. Then she spins a full 360 degrees before completing a flip on the way down.
Trying these tricks can be pretty scary at first. And they can be dangerous, so you shouldn't try them at home unless you're training with an expert and taking necessary safety precautions. But pros can tell you, with enough training and practice, the fear gives way to the exhilaration of feeling raw kinetic energy charging through your body. Channelling the momentum just right lays the tracks for a high-flying mini roller coaster ride. Mastering a move like the hurricane kick or Iron Man flip really does make you feel like a superhero and goes a long way towards bringing childhood fantasies of becoming a ninja or Dragon Ball Z fighter to life.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.