When my 29-year-old nephew visited recently, he asked my advice about what style of martial arts to sign up for when he returned home to Texas.
My first answer was some traditional form of karate, maybe even judo.
But Forest, a former college soccer player, wanted something highly competitive where he could hit hard, even throw knees and elbows — in other words, something along the lines of MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts, which is all the rage these days.
That made me reflect on how martial arts styles come and go in fads, dating all the way back to a frontier sport called gouging, which was probably the toughest style of all.
Boxing, wrestling, judo
When I was little, boxing was considered the best fighting style. My dad was a boxer and I grew up listening to tales of champions like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Luis Firpo and Rocky Graziano.
I also loved to wrestle, thanks to an older brother, a brother-in-law who wrestled in college and lots of rambunctious friends.
Early in my childhood, though, I heard about something called judo, where you could throw people around. A neighbor’s cousin demonstrated it in his front yard, and it looked like magic.
Next came karate, another miraculous style where experts could break boards with their bare hands and feet.
TV shows like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” showed secret agents using some of these skills, such as chopping a bad guy on the neck and causing him to fall down unconscious.
Boy, I needed something like that in school!
karate to Kung Fu
My family moved to Okinawa when I was 12, and my buddy Tom Seabourne and I signed up at a local karate dojo. I had no idea at the time that our instructor was the renowned Shorin-ryu Seibukan grandmaster Zenpo Shimabukuro, who currently has many adherents in Jackson, of all places.
Tom and I would jump the fence at our military housing compound and walk into the village of Jagaru, the air often scented with the passage of “honey carts,” which carried human manure to sell for fertilizer.
We’d work out in a simple concrete building, starting with warm-ups and progressing to basic blocks, strikes and kicks.
Tom went on to become a world-class karate fighter (world silver medalist in AAU Taekwondo), whereas I dropped out and only became serious about martial arts years later.
The popularity of karate was soon eclipsed by kung fu, made famous by actors like Bruce Lee and David Carradine of the “Kung Fu” TV series. These guys could leap and twirl and do mystical deeds like grab arrows and kick knives into the ceiling, while at the same time reciting ancient Chinese proverbs.
Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do
The Korean style of Taekwondo swept the nation around then as well and is still popular. For many years, if you studied martial arts, there was a good chance it was Taekwondo, known for its dramatic high kicking and spinning techniques.
I took Taekwondo in Memphis under Master Kang Rhee, who also taught Elvis Presley and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace.
Kang Rhee was the typical tough Oriental master. I failed my yellow belt test and he let me retake it. We went in a dark room with mirror walls and he stood arms folded in the corner barking commands. I passed, barely.
I was surprised to learn that Master Rhee died Aug. 16 at age 81 in Memphis. I remember him with fond respect.
I didn’t get serious about martial arts until 1981 when I signed up for a Taekwondo class in McComb under Cliff Ott. Cliff was a fantastic teacher. Sparring him felt like walking into a moving airplane propeller. I’m still hurting from his kicks, 35 years later.
Later we joined the World Tang Soo Do Association and trained under its late grandmaster, Jae Chul Shin, whose students included Chuck Norris.
Cliff is now a sixth-degree black belt in Sevierville, Tenn., and will soon test for seventh.
PKA to MMA
The next big martial arts craze was PKA — Professional Kickboxing Association — a full-contact sport that combined karate kicks with boxing hand techniques. It was thrilling to watch.
In the meantime, numerous other styles had their heyday, such as kenpo, Thai kickboxing, aikido and tai chi.
PKA was a precursor for MMA, Mixed Martial Arts, also known as cage-fighting (Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” was a big influence on that as well). The premise of MMA is that it combines virtually any fighting style and has virtually no rules. Fighters can kick, punch, knee, elbow, throw and wrestle. They usually wind up grappling on the floor.
MMA is tough, no doubt about it, but it’s far from having no rules. Forbidden techniques include groin strikes, eye gouging, biting, choking, throat strikes, twisting or breaking fingers, pulling hair, head butts and blows to the back of the head.
Back to the frontier
If you want genuine no-holds-barred fighting, turn to “Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars” by Joseph Doddridge, first printed in 1824. Doddridge talks about a brutal frontier martial art known as gouging.
“The mode of single combats in those days was dangerous in the extreme; although no weapons were used, fists, teeth and feet were employed at will, but above all the detestable practice of gouging, by which eyes were sometimes put out, rendered this mode of fighting frightful indeed,” Doddridge wrote.
Crazy, I know, but it reflected the brutal lifestyle on the American frontier in the 1700s and 1800s, where men were hardened from wilderness survival and Indian fighting.
All this just goes to show that no matter how tough you are, there’s always somebody tougher. No matter how far you’re willing to take it, there’s somebody willing to go even farther — to the point of biting off noses or gouging out eyeballs.
That’s why, in my opinion, the best self-defense advice is found not in some martial arts handbook but in the Bible — like, say, Titus 3:2, where a truly tough individual named Paul advised his student “to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.”