In every sense, Nick Osipczak has earned the title, ‘artist’.

As well as being a highly skilled and decorated Kung Fu practitioner, a trainer and mentor to combat athletes, a teacher and advocate of Tai Chi Ch’uan, and a former professional mixed martial artist, the 32-year-old also makes a living as a painter of psychedelic-inspired artwork.

I was delighted when the South Londoner, who lives in Oxfordshire with his partner and their two young children, agreed to be interviewed.

A journey through martial arts

At the age of 18, while attending Loughborough University, Nick joined the Hung Kuen Shaolin Kung Fu Club, quickly becoming a skilled competitor.  After earning his degree, he branched out into mixed martial arts at the highly-regarded London Shootfighters club, at the time, one of the UK’s most well known MMA gyms.  Their active fighters included respected Brazilian Jean Silva through to the UFC veteran Lee Murray and future reality TV star Alex Reid.

Back then, Osipczak lived on the opposite side of London, but still considers those regular treks across the capital a wise investment of his time.

“I travelled there to get some of the best coaches available at the time.  It certainly was an experience; it felt like you were going into the lion’s den.  They had a high wrestling pedigree, hence ‘shoot-fighters’.  There was always Eastern Europeans there, and even if they had not done MMA, they were good wrestlers.  That meant I was usually spending a lot of time on my back, so I quickly developed a solid (Jiu Jitsu) guard.”

With Kung Fu not widely accepted as an essential component of MMA, I wondered had his background made for an awkward transition when training with experienced combat athletes?

“I can understand (the question), because of the way it’s frequently taught and portrayed.  At the same time there are lots of open-minded martial artists who’ve been in the sport long enough to know that if even there’s only 10% of effective techniques from a particular martial art, those techniques could create a significant edge if utilised.  I wasn’t going around boasting or thinking I was all that amazing at Kung Fu because I never thought that, I just blended in and learned from the ground-up.   You quickly work out who to converse with more than others – you can’t convince everyone of everything all of the time.”

On turning professional

Rapid improvements in his striking and grappling and an opportunity to observe how he compared to professional teammates convinced Osipczak to begin competing professionally.

“I realised my skills were more than enough to compete, so I went from amateur, semi-pro, through to pro.  I already knew I would be more than all right at show time; it was just a matter of holding your nerve on the day.”

Back then, he supported himself financially by playing poker which added a psychological edge to his undoubted physical gifts.

“A huge part of poker is about staying cool, calm and collected.  I knew all of the pieces of the puzzle were there; it was just a matter of turning up on the night.  I understood whatever happened (in the fight) I had already experienced in training anyway.  I knew everything was there.”

On ‘The Ultimate Fighter’

In 2009, after three professional victories, UFC talent scouts saw enough in the young warrior to offer him an opportunity to compete on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ Team US vs. Team UK, the latest series in the promotion’s long-running reality show.

After earning his spot with an elimination round victory over Tommy McGuire, the 24-year-old found himself living in Vegas at the fabled ‘fighter house’ alongside UK teammates and their American opposition.  A philosophical and thoughtful approach enabled him to navigate a unique reality TV experience known to make many an athlete crumble.

“You always build things up in your mind to make them look more dangerous than they are.  But because I was auditioning with the other guys, doing the medicals with them, and living in the house with them, you soon start to think, ‘Okay, these guys, they are no different from me’.  We are all feeling the same stuff.  It doesn’t matter if someone has got the same skills as you in the gym if they are going to crumble on fight night.  So, mind games are going on, and that’s one of the things I specialised in, especially coming from a poker background.”

By being house champion in activities like chess and pool the Londoner transmitted a clear signal to his rivals; he was not there simply to make up the numbers.   All in all, he duelled twice while the show ran its course; a knockout victory over Chicago’s Mark Miller followed by defeat to Utah’s Demarques Johnson in a terrific bout.

Lessons in defeat

“Demarques Johnson had been training with UFC veterans Matt Hughes and Jeremy Horn in Utah, and I remember thinking that he was more experienced, and if I’d had one or two years more competing, I could probably beat him.   He was a little stronger, more aggressive, and faster off the mark.  That was my first ever loss and I had come really close to being stopped in the second round. After that, I knew I had the heart not to quit and could fight for a good 15 minutes. I recognised I was young and that I had given a good account of myself.  It wasn’t like I tapped out to strikes or anything like that.”

The ultimate proving ground

Those impressive showings in all three bouts (including the qualifier) convinced the UFC to offer Osipczak a contract.  By now representing Nottingham’s Team Rough House, the promise he’d shown during the show carried through to his bouts in the UFC.  Impressive victories over Frank Lester, a fellow contestant who’d also earned a contract, and a previously undefeated fighter called Matt Riddle, showcased his razor sharp striking, impressive Jiu Jitsu and an apparent zen-like calmness during battle.

“The one thing I didn’t have was complete confidence in was my fitness, which was probably partly down to the weight cut in hindsight.  My way of dealing with it was to stay as calm as possible, to make whatever conditioning I did have go further.  With Frank Lester, I had to take the approach of staying calm and using my superior technique.  It all worked out, round one, done.”

Riddle was a raw but undefeated fighter from Pennsylvania who would likely look to use a powerful wrestling base to dictate the action.

“He was a big, strong guy, and fit, but I knew he had no ability to finish me because of the way the skill sets matched-up.  I figured in my best outcome I was going to stop him, in his best result, he was going to win a decision.  I focused on my strength and conditioning in that fight.  In the fight, it quickly dawned on me that he was wearing himself out more, all he could really do was get the takedown, but even on my back I was scoring more damage than he was.  He was wearing out and my conditioning was holding up just fine, so it was almost inevitable that I was going to get him, it turned out to be the third round.”

After that promising beginning, three decision losses in highly competitive bouts, two by questionable split decisions, saw him exit the promotion at the end of 2010.  His final match came against striking standout Duane Ludwig.  After scoring knockdowns in the first two rounds, he survived a severe third heat, only to walk away with an agonisingly close decision loss.  I wondered if he’d become frustrated by how he’d departed the sport’s biggest promotion.

“Yes and no, it was never my dream to be a UFC champion, so when those losses came about, on some level, I knew that it was time for me to move on to doing something else.  The big desire was never there, so I didn’t have a big disappointment.  In hindsight, I was part of my process in bringing about my exit, and it’s not like I was knocked out or submitted.  I eventually departed on those terms.  I was almost relieved when it came about, and there was more freedom and space to put into other projects.”

On Ayahuasca and the internal arts

At 26, a profound experience with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic shamanic brew, eventually led him to the internal martial arts, revisiting Kung Fu, and taking up Tai Chi Ch’aun.

“Ayushacha was the turning point that led me into both sacred geometry (which now informs his art) and Tai Chi.  It was a life-changing experience. It was from that I knew what the saying ‘everything is one’ meant and could feel see, experience energy transforming, knowing how energy interacts, regardless of the perceived physical barriers.  I started having thoughts and seeing concepts in terms of shapes and patterns and shapes morphing into one another, and that’s when I started painting them.

“I found a guy in London called Jeffrey Sutherland who has a school called Jasma, and he started teaching me in Battersea Park.  I read about the internal martial arts previously, and had a sense there was something to it but, hadn’t (until that time) been ready to delve deeper into it.”

This newfound application on gentler art forms helped Nick raise awareness of the wear and tear that years of MMA training had inflicted on his body, creating the foundation for healing to take place.

“The main thing I became aware of was how beat up my body was from MMA training.  It showed me where all the aches and pains were, the back problems, shoulder problems, knee problems, the blocked energy.  I became more aware of the damage, and what I needed to do to smooth and balance it out.  It’s hard to pinpoint any single discipline, as I was doing yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, meditation, and less extreme training in general, but my awareness and feedback from my body were increasing. I found myself getting back to a neutral, balanced state, and moving better. So, I decided to follow the internal martial arts path, which is a never ending path.”

On Chi

“It’s a tricky one; I don’t want to put certain words and labels on to detract from other aspects and areas.  As soon as you say one thing, people have a preconceived notion.  What I can say is that all aspects of my life were improving. You can begin to attract certain things on your wavelength and move away from other things that aren’t.  You start to appreciate things more.  Chi can’t be put into words where you can get a satisfactory answer; it’s a feeling and people have different feelings, so either you have felt it, or you haven’t, and you won’t know what it is from someone’s description.”

On connectivity 

“For me, it comes down to connectivity; how in harmony and flow you are with things, the more you are in flow, the more connected you are, the more you can appreciate and see the beauty in things.  Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, how isolated you feel, that ‘me versus the world feeling’, a lack of love and connection. On one end of the spectrum, you have health and vibrancy, on the other, anxiety and depression.”

On energy and meridian pathways 

“Everything is made up of energy, and energy follows certain paths and routes – hence the sacred geometry in my artwork.  In the body you have the meridians, they are the routes the energy flows through.  Tai Chi, yoga and Qigong are some of the internal practises that open those pathways, so your energy can flow more freely like it’s supposed to.”

Understanding Chi in an MMA context

Due to some widely discredited videos featuring martial art ‘qi-masters’ causing students to fly through the air with the flick of a wrist, I wondered how he was able to educate on misconceptions, and make Tai Chi Ch’uan apply to his and his students’ martial arts training.

“Those videos of supernatural feats you might see on YouTube feature a teacher and a student, not a non-cooperative, aggressive person, so you have those elements of subliminal messaging, hypnosis, wanting to please the teacher; ignore those videos.

“When you do proper internal martial arts it’s going to look like a perfect execution of more familiar techniques.  It’s going to look like two animals fighting in terms of immediate reactions, excellent coordination and use of body mechanics, and maximum effect as a result.  It works by removing anything unnecessary and excessive and keeping a balanced body, everything in right relationship to the rest of the body, the mind in the right place, the spirit in the right space, optimising what we are capable of; so, for the guys I train it’s about helping them become efficient, releasing unnecessary tension; they are more aware, more present, more balanced.”

Scratched surfaces and deeper possibilities

“There is much depth to Tai Chi… with improved physical capabilities, the strategy involved in combat changes.  Overall, in the next few years, you are going to continue to see MMA fighters get better and better and then in a few years when they have raised their movement ability, that’s when you are going to see more of the strategy aspect come in to play.”

On UFC champion Conor McGregor and movement specialist Ido Portal

“I have watched Ido Portal for years and been a fan; he has also trained in the Internal Martial Arts.  As soon as I found out Conor McGregor was working with him I was excited and pleased because I knew it would pay dividends. I picked Conor very early on as someone who would go far, because  he was talking about the other fighters following a particular mould.  It’s one thing sparring with someone and figuring them out, but on the night you only get one take, it’s hard to make those quick adaptations, so I knew he was going to do well, and I’m glad he’s bringing movement to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Tai Chi as an applied philosophy

“A big part of Tai Chi is understanding yin/yang.  They are opposites but they have mutually supportive relationship.  You start to see yin/yang in everything, learning more about the transition and the flow.

“What I find is that the more I understand those concepts, the more I can spot patterns in my everyday life on a month by month, or even moment by moment basis.  Then you can begin to tweak things to cause change by applying less effort but causing a bigger reaction, as you operate closer to the centre, with a more acute understanding of timing.

On slowing down

“A large part of what I’m working on is about learning to hold back a little bit, to do things at 70% -because slow and steady wins the race.  This can be a bit counter-intuitive for professional athletes, because that is all about extremes – because athletes train to peak at a particular time, and a certain date for a certain rule set, so they need to push things and go crazy.  But, in the long term, that (intensity) is going to affect your results.  One thing that I promote and educate on is how to achieve that balance and think more long-term.”

Chi and fatherhood

“My practice adds balance to all areas of my life and increases patience.  Patience is the most difficult aspect of parenting for me, and it often feels like I am always in need of some more;  having a greater understanding of movement and fear has helped me raise my sons to be more fearless and physically advanced compared to most their age.”

Daily practice

“Typically, I spend a few minutes loosening the joints, followed by 15-20 standing practice, a further 20 minutes loosening, followed by Forms for 20 minutes.  Everything after that is a bonus, split between moves and techniques, sparring, or doing some bike riding or swimming.  It’s not only about doing it just because I think I should be, I want to enjoy it.  I’m in a fortunate position where I get to train full-time, but I don’t have to train for something particular.  I can do what I want rather than what I have to do.  I’m outdoors each day, and at the same time; I am trying to harmonise more with the seasons, more rest and reflection in wintertime.  It is about year-on-year tweaking and listening to feedback.  Being outdoors charges my batteries and helps bring me to a neutral state.”

Not so strictly business

“I earn my living through teaching martial arts and selling my artwork, but that is beside the point of how I got to be in the position of training how and when I want, because I think that could be done right now by anyone, regardless of finances.  It’s a choice.  The money side of things (is more likely) to take care of itself by prioritising the things you want to be doing and that are benefiting your life and health the most.

“To make it work, you have to learn to listen to the feedback you are getting from life because it’s not a fixed formula.  I may be happy today, but if I wake up unhappy tomorrow, I’ll need to look for how to change, and be willing to make those changes.”

Now and in the future

“My current focus are my Intensive Workshop.  This year I will be teaching in Germany, America, Goa, and in Oxfordshire in June.  People will get a feel for my approach, and after they leave, it will change the way they train forever, expending less energy in their sessions and getting more out.  We train mostly outdoors.

“For the next 3-5 years I will be concentrating on passing on my knowledge of movement and the Internal Arts, teaching many, far and wide.  Then, I see myself reigning in the number of Workshops to maybe 2-3 each year, allowing me more time to tend to my land and spend with the family.  I will be teaching a free weekly Tai Chi class for my community, as well as a kids class once a week, and work with only a handful of students to pass on the martial side of Tai Chi Ch’uan.  I will continue to create and sell my Artwork, which I suspect will evolve away from only paintings, and into the realms of woodwork and clay, amongst other materials.”

On connecting and beginning your own journey

“A good starting point is my instructional videos on YouTube, to get a taste of what is going on without any of the esoteric talk.  They touch on a few key areas which anyone can benefit from, such as footwork, spine, and basic ground movements.

“There are things you put into your own training from just a ten-minute video, and when you recognise the value – you will be wanting to learn a lot more.”

On synchronising movement with life 

“Movement is synonymous with life.  There’s a lot of lot stagnation in the world; people are sitting too long, staying in the same jobs too long, so we need to move around, let all the cells of the body have their full range of expression.”

Connect with Nick Osipczak

By Paul Concannon

Sincere thanks to Nick for being so generous with his time.