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Super Tae Bo Hero How Not To Fight

by Michael Kiefer

I keep flashing on a potential comedy sketch that I call "Tae Bo Master." It's about a modern martial-arts superhero whose own form of Kryptonite is that he can't fight without blaring dance music.

Not that I want to mock Tae Bo. If I am to believe the hype, millions of men and women daily tone their muscles in Tae Bo classes or throw out their hip joints in front of VCRs. In a way it's similar to T'ai Chi, though while T'ai Chi uses martial arts moves to slow down the moment, Tae Bo uses them to speed it up. T'ai Chi is about concentration; Tae Bo is about exertion. Similarly, while classical martial arts are about saving your own butt, as near as I can tell cage fighting and kick boxing, the current martial arts fads, are about kicking someone else's; one's about self-control, the others are about aggression. The old arts demand patience; the new ones are as hurried and rash as the people who practice them.

I've taught and studied martial arts for 20 years. I've dabbled in T'ai Chi and Judo and Tae Kwon Do. I once figured out that I spent more time in class getting my first black belt than I spent getting a master's degree. Technically, I've got a third-degree black belt in Hapkido, a Korean street-fighting style. Four or five years ago I was promoted to fourth-degree, the lowest of the master levels, but I never bothered to fill out the paperwork because I didn't think the new certificates would make me feel any more wise or lethal – and also because it involved sending a substantial check to Korea.

Oh sure, money's always been a part of it all. And certainly the new hybrids are marketing masterpieces. Tae Bo advertised for a while in Parade magazine. And cage fighting began with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master who televised prize fights to prove that his franchised fighting syle was better than any other.

All of which flies in the face of classical training.

Now it's all about marketing and fighting and aggression.

Recently, one of my students came to me full of himself after using a pair of joint locks on a drunk in a bar. He was surprised when I told him that, first of all, he should have figured a way to get out of fighting altogether, but that once he decided to fight, he should have broken the drunk's arm instead of letting him get back up twice to come back at him. That's how I was taught.

When I started, we students always knew that the master would throw us out if we started fights. In addition to learning how to fight, we were supposed to be learning how not to fight.

Christophe Leininger

I've had this conversation over and over with Christophe Leininger, who owns the dojo where I've taught most of the last six years. Christophe's been national Judo champ twice, an Olympic alternate three times, and a medalist in the Pan Am and World Games. His father is also a Judo master; his brother Bryan a national champ and long-time member of the U.S. team. Despite a classical upbringing, Christophe's twice been in the Ultimate Challenge, hoping to win the big first-place purse, which would have paid a lot of bills. He fought two good fights, but all he came home with was a concussion and a cranked wrist and a few thousand dollars.

Christophe's one of the best instructors I've ever known. But business is business, and in order to keep the dojo going, he opens his doors to cage fighters and kickboxers and kickbox aerobians, some of whom have no concept of dojo etiquette, all of whom have no stomach for the slow crawl of belt promotion. They just want to fight, and they don't usually want to hear advice from some gray-haired old black belt.

The arts are changing. But then again, they've been in constant evolution. Historically it was passed down from master to student, and then the students favored those techniques they knew best. This is how some arts came to specialize in throws or sword techniques or just plain kicks and punches. Some were toned down to become sports or spectacles. T'ai Chi became a moving meditation. The names we afix to these arts were nearly all coined in the 20th century, most in the last 50 years. (I once flustered one of my Korean masters by asking the name of a precursor to Hapkido. "It was martial art," he screamed. "Just martial art!") When I started studying Hapkido in 1980, it was diametrically opposed in form and philosophy to Tae Kwon Do. Now they are fusing, and the fusion is coming from Korea, not from America.

How do trends start? After the film Kiss the Girls came out, there was a steady parade of women into the dojo who wanted to learn to fight like Ashley Judd did in the movie (and they wanted to dress like her while they trained). A few of them stuck it out past six months. One young pup in my office wrote a piece about kickboxing for Details magazine, thus stamping it with the Gen-X seal of approval. His enthusiasm has already waned, and I doubt he was still training by the time his breathless article came out. (When people used to tell me they wanted to learn kick boxing, it sounded like someone who wanted to learn slalom ski racing before learning to ski.)

The youngsters want to be able to kick down buildings, but they don't want to sweat through class three days a week, let alone get hit. They want to be let in on the secret of serenity, as if that could be imparted in two easy lessons. And they want to be promoted whether or not they show up in class.

"If you were not here last night, then you are not here tonight," my master, Kwang Seek Hyun, used to say. And if a student ever asked how long it would be until he was promoted or until he learned any particular technique, he'd be met with silence – and would suddenly realize that the date had been pushed further into the future by the insolence of asking.

The new arts require no waiting. Cage fights have become regularly scheduled events. Every health club has a few nights a week when the aerobics floor is taken over by stern-faced ladies flailing their arms and legs in a vaguely Karate-like manner. These, incidentally, are the classes my own teenage daughters want to take, and who am I to stop them? There's a martial arts explosion going on in this country, and I won't get in the way.

It's not the first. In the 1950s, martial arts training in America was mostly limited to the Judo that World War II GIs brought back from Japan. In the late '60s, after Bruce Lee's big-screen debut, Karate schools opened on every corner, staffed by Asian immigrants who might have had minimal training themselves and had proclaimed themselves masters. It didn't hurt either that the sudden interest in all things Kung Fu and Karate coincided with a change in immigration laws, greatly increasing the numbers of Asians moving to America.

In the 1960s and '70s the techniques were less than spectacular. How else could Chuck Norris have become a movie star? The actor who played Billy Jack had to count on Hapkido pioneer Bong Soo Han as his stunt double.

Besides, techniques back then were predicated on the assumption that the guy you'd get in a fight with would know nothing about martial arts. That assumption was intact when I started training. I was already a black belt before I was dispossessed of the notion on a hot and beery night ten years ago in Chicago, in a fight with a redneck at a rib joint. He threw a punch that left a shiner from my nose to my ear. I countered with a kick that broke all of the ribs on his left side, and then marveled when he didn't hit the ground. Instead, he fell into a Kung-Fu style back stance that told me he'd had some training himself. I started laughing – I couldn't help it – and he backed off, probably more concerned about my mental health than the pain in his side.

That's when I learned how not to fight.

Sure, I watch the cage fighters, hoping to figure out their most favored techniques and then educate my own students on how to defend against them after a fender-bender or a couple of unforeseen margaritas. The kick boxers always seem to lead with a back roundhouse kick, and as if that weren't an inherently slow attack already, they usually telegraph it by stepping with the front foot. So I show my students how to absorb the kick against the side of their bodies and hook the kicker's leg with an elbow, leaving him hopping on his remaining leg for an instant before sweeping that out from under him, too.

I can think of two fights I won by looking my assailant in the eyes, then visualizing a palm strike to the base of his chin. I imagined the impact passing like a wave through his body, first lengthening the neck, arching the back, lifting both feet off the floor and sending him sprawling on the ground. Both times the man turned and ran before I ever had to throw the punch. I'm not sure I could teach that technique any more, because I doubt the youngsters would believe it would work.

When my oldest daughter was about 13, I took her hiking at Camelback Mountain, in Phoenix, where we now live. We were climbing a steep pitch when a man near my own size and age decided to take issue with my dog. It was an irrational confrontation, the kind that happens when someone is already in a bad mood about something else and searching for a place to explode. I tried to joke my way out of it, but the man walked right up to me and said, "Maybe I should kick your butt." I could tell he didn't know how to fight. He was standing too close to me, for one thing, and unstrategically downhill from me, on a slope so steep that his head only came up to my shoulders. If I'd hit him – and it would have been easy – he would have rolled more than 100 feet before he'd be able to catch himself. Instead I told him I was just taking a hike with my daughter, and I didn't see a reason for him to talk that way. He turned and smugly headed down the mountain, thinking he'd won the contest.

"Were you afraid of him, Daddy?" my daughter asked.

I fumed for a moment because I knew I'd done the right thing but it felt so wrong. And maybe I was afraid, but not in the way she meant.

"There are two things that could happen if we got into a fight," I told her. "He might hurt me, and then I'd be in trouble. Or I might hurt him, and then I'd still be in trouble."

The answer didn't really satisfy her, or me either, and the rest of the way up the mountain I couldn't stop thinking about how badly I had wanted to hit the guy.

Kwang Seek Hyun
Master Kwang Seek Hyun at Hyun's Hapkido Academy in Chicago.
(Photo by Mike Tappin)

Michael Kiefer is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He's been an editor at Outside magazine and has written for Esquire, Playboy, Self, and many other publications. He can be reached at michael.kiefer@newtimes.com.

Copyright 2000 Michael Kiefer.

Permission to reproduce this article in whole or in part, whether offline or online, for whatever purpose is denied. This material may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission from the author.

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