I Began Studying Martial Arts 50 Years Ago This Week

general Sep 06, 2023

The image above is from my journal on September 4, 1973, the day I took my first martial arts class -- 50 years ago this week. It was the start of the Bruce Lee Kung-Fu Boom. "Enter the Dragon" hit movie theaters a couple of weeks earlier and that was the spark I needed to enroll in a school.

I was a 20-year-old student at Eastern Kentucky University, but I drove to my hometown for the class (about a 40-minute drive) because Sin The (pronounced Sin Tay) was a legend in Lexington. At that time he held classes in a converted garage at Eastland Shopping Center. There were so many people at the first introductory class, we spilled out into the driveway and they had to open the garage door.

It was an exciting time. Kung-Fu was so mysterious and amazing! I was always a good fighter, but the "Kung Fu" TV show and Bruce Lee convinced me to study something that would boost my fighting skills. Nothing was cooler than martial arts.

We were all very naive. The internet didn't exist so we couldn't research anyone. We had to take people on their word. Sin The claimed to have studied at the Shaolin Temple and his teacher awarded him the highest honor -- a 10th degree black sash. He said he was the only one in America. Looking back, I should have asked questions about how a guy in his 20s became a Grandmaster. But heck, we didn't know any better. He walked into the dojo and we were mesmerized.

The first class was very basic. A punch, repeated over and over. A front snap kick. A low block. How to step and punch. He demonstrated and we did the techniques. There was very little personal instruction. 

I went back to the dorm and practiced an hour every day, stepping and punching, stepping and kicking, all the way around the hallway on the 7th floor of Commonwealth Hall at EKU. And I practiced with numchucks every day.

When you find something you really love, it resonates inside. You have to do it. You want to get better. Practice is not a chore, it's fun. It's a mission.

Fifty years later, I still feel that way. Nancy laughs because we'll be sitting somewhere and I'll suddenly stand up to work on a move, or I'll suddenly jump up and say, "Throw a punch at me" so I can work on an application. To her credit, she always jumps up to help.

One of the earliest moments when a question entered my mind about my teacher was on my first promotion test. We did the stepping, kicks and punches as a group. I noticed the guy next to me could hardly kick above ankle-level. I thought, "Wow, he doesn't seem to be practicing at all." But he was promoted along with me. I thought it didn't make sense, I was working my ass off and it showed. I didn't realize at the time that we both paid our promotion fee, so that was the name of that tune. The guy next to me never received any personal coaching, either.

I wonder who else is in the arts now that started when I did? I know a lot of people who dropped out early. In fact, by the third week, enough people dropped out that we could all fit inside the dojo without the garage door being raised.

I know a few people who enrolled in bad schools with bad teachers. I have always searched for quality. In 1976, after traveling to Columbus, Ohio to compete in a tournament, even though we were not allowed to enter "outside" tournaments, I saw some kung-fu that blew me away. I realized I was not in a high-quality system, so I began studying other arts.

We didn't realize back in the 70s that if your teacher doesn't allow you to compete against other styles, it might be a bad sign. 

Sometimes, I feel sorry for the people who couldn't break away. Martial arts are a lot like religion and politics. Once you believe something is the Ultimate Truth, it takes a lot of internal strength to realize you have been taken and make a break to something better. It requires critical thinking skills -- the ability to change course when you receive new and better information. Can you do that? A lot of people can't. 

The day after my 50th anniversary, I studied in a class by my Chen Taiji teacher, Nabil Ranne. Today, two days after my anniversary, I'm teaching two live online classes for members of my website. I was 20 when I started and I'm 70 now. Despite losing my youth, one lung, and developing a bit of a heart problem, I can't see a time when I will stop studying, practicing and teaching gongfu, because besides loving it, I understand there is one other attribute, other than critical thinking skills, that separates the skilled and the unskilled:


I've met hundreds, if not thousands of people over the past 50 years who said they wanted to study gongfu. But 99 percent of them didn't really mean it. They were not driven to excel. It's a lot easier to say you want to master these arts than to put in the hard work it takes to do it. They did not persist. In the meantime, I'm learning new things and working to get better at the skills I already have. One of these days I might master it, but it might take another 50 years.

Onward and upward! Let's practice hard, have some fun, and most importantly, remain centered at all times.

--by Ken Gullette 

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