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A Personal History of the Martial Arts

As I was going through some boxes full of old martial arts gear the other day, I started thinking about all the trends I’ve seen in the martial arts world; how they first sprung into existence, the length and strength of their popularity and the manner of their ultimate demise.

As a starting point, I first became aware of the existence of martial arts when I was five years old, back in 1963 when my older brother Michael (“Mickey”) was in the service in Korea. He’d regularly send me little care packages from his time in-country, and I eventually built up quite a collection of letters, unit patches and pictures of him and his brothers-in-arms practicing some strange dance in their long white underwear. As you might imagine it was these latter items that truly caught the fancy of yours truly…

Mainly black-and-white photos interspersed with a few crude Kodacolor prints, they showed groups of tall, hefty American GI’s being thrown around the dusty ground by what appeared to be a much-older midget. The midget was always smiling, and the GI’s were always falling. So much for my earliest memories.

But then my brother returned home, and we began a long session of getting re-acquainted. One of my favorite things to do was go with Mickey to Van Cortlandt Park on the northern border of New York City, there to be thrown around by him for several hours each week. He told me this was called “Judo”, and I wondered at the strange movements that also seemed to be highly effective at dumping me on my posterior. One time a policeman mounted on horseback, charged I suppose with keeping the perverts out of the park, had stopped his patrolling, watched this big 25-year-old throw a then-six-year-old to the ground repeatedly, with both of us laughing insanely.

In the best tradition of New York cops, he watched for a while, shook his head and slowly rode on.

Then the trips to NYC’s Chinatown began. This was a mystical world, filled with alien sights, sounds and smells, and my juvenile mind was filled with wonder as I attempted to take it all in. Oh, the food was wonderful, if not exactly what Momma B. would normally offer up at dinner, but it was the book stores and martial arts supply emporiums that took my breath away.

At that time there was not the proliferation of DVD’s, videos, books and magazines that we have to amuse ourselves with now in the martial arts. In fact, DVD’s and videos, along with computers and the Internet, did not even exist at that point. We barely had color television, it seems. So, I was reduced to a few books by Bruce Tegner that served only to confuse me further. Should I copy the moves from “Karate, Judo and Self-Defense for Boys” or “Savate – The Art of French Foot-Fighting”? Decisions, decisions…

Of course at this time also the martial arts movies were making their tentative way into Western society. By the time 1968 rolled around, there were plenty of chop-socky flicks to be had at the Rialto and RKO theaters (yes, they were “theaters” back then, not “movies” – these joints even had velvet curtains and the remnants of vaudeville stages thrusting out from beneath the screen). Ignoring the drunks and vagrants sleeping in the darkness was easy when Bruce Lee was banging away at the bad guys on screen.

Along about this time in my life a gentleman named Hwa Yung appeared in front of me in a Chinatown bookstore, handed me a book, then disappeared again in a most inscrutable manner. Mickey claimed not to have set this meeting up, but I have serious doubts on that score to this day. The book that Master Hwa handed me was plain and titled “Tao Te Ching” – not exactly stimulating to my 12-year-old mind at the time, which was filled with visions of flailing nunchaku, screaming samurai and flying ninja.

But as destiny would have it Master Hwa became my first martial arts teacher. He truly opened the doors to a world that Mickey had pointed at, introduced me to and grown my fascination with, and introduced me to people, places and things that I had never dreamed of, let alone experienced, up to that point.

At that time, 1970-1978 or so, Black Belt magazine came into its own as the guiding light of the martial arts world. Sure, there were pretenders to the throne – Karate Illustrated and Kung-Fu come to mind – but Black Belt was THE magazine to wait impatiently for every month. Martial arts movies had become a bit more refined, but thankfully there was still a plethora of cheap Hong Kong celluloid silliness available to feed my ever-growing thirst. Also around this time Chuck Norris was the accomplished star of competition and was beginning his journey into the cinematic world; Bruce Lee had conquered that very art form, but passed all too quickly; competitions in the martial arts evolved from full-control, no-padding bouts to padded, semi-contact contests and ultimately to full contact, heavily body-armored clashes. Along the way the uniforms became gaudier, the pants legs longer, and the attitudes of the martial arts world reflected those of a teenager – not a baby anymore, certainly not a child, yet not a mature, responsible adult.

The wild and woolly 60’s gave birth to the maturing MA industry of the 70’s. My own preferred style, Taijiquan, was but a blip on the popularity radar of the time, first place being taken up with exotic forms of Bruce’s cinematic kung-fu, Chuck’s spinning roundhouse kicks and a legion of nameless bad guys that always got back up again to continue their evil ways.

Martial Arts | Martial Arts Philosophy


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