Zhao Heng started his career in entertainment showing Shaolin martial arts across the United States with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus — and this weekend Heng and seven other Shaolin warriors will perform with the motocross madness of the Nuclear Cowboyz at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The addition of the Shaolin warriors to this year's popular freestyle motocross show brings a new Eastern theme for the pyrotechnic-heavy Nuclear Cowboyz show, where riders play out a narrative in the air, on the tracks and with a maze of synchronized and choreographed tricks.
For the script this year — its fifth in Tampa — the good freestyle motocross riders set out to defeat a sorceress and her minions hell-bent on total domination.
It wasn't Heng's original goal after years of study to master the kung fu style. Still, the travel suits him and he enjoys showing his skills to others.
"We all studied at the Shaolin Temple," Heng said through an interpreter, when the circus producers came and recruited them from China. "I like Florida," he said. "But my favorite American city is Washington, D.C. It's beautiful."
Heng and crew perform sword stunts, an amazing metal break with bare hands and fantastic fight sequences to fill the spaces between motorcyclists jumping a ramp and doing seat grabs usually reserved for the X Games.
Jeremy "Twitch" Stenberg, a 16-time X Games medalist, returns to the Nuclear Cowboyz show as leader of the good guys after leaving for a time to be with family.
"I wanted to be home with my kids," he said. "They let you travel home in between tour dates, but I wanted to take a break for them."
Back in business, his motorcycle has been given a golden paint job, a designation that allows viewers to follow the show and identify the leaders even when they have their helmets on.
"It's so comfortable because I'm out here riding with guys that I've known for years," Stenberg said. "There's a level of trust that goes into it."
The trust is never so apparent as when the Cowboyz perform quad jumps — jumps where four riders power up the ramp at the same time and then attempt seat grabs while hurtling through the air next to each other.
One foot of imprecision could cause a deadly wreck.
During the 12 days of initial practice and staging in December, stunt choreographer Micky Dymond said the riders' focus helped the rehearsals progress without a single accident.
"The biggest thing is remembering the next trick," he said. "So I created cue cards for them to glance at when they come back into the tunnel."
Adding to that chaos, the Shaolin warriors had a language barrier that made it difficult for the director to change blocking quickly.
"They were very patient," Heng said. "It's interesting to see what they do."
The interest goes both ways.
"The warriors fit well into the show, I think," Stenberg said. "They help tell the story in a different way this year."
Tampa is the eighth stop in the 15-city tour that was mounted at Palmetto's new Feld Entertainment Studios, which houses Ringling Bros. and several other live touring shows. Expect fireworks, flaming motorcyclists, tricks you shouldn't try at home and a loud pulsating trap/dubstep/metal soundtrack.
The choreographed nature makes the show extremely kid-friendly, but the tricks can stun adults as well. Riders won't be the only ones grabbing their seats.