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John Graden

John Graden

Executive Director

John Graden led the martial arts into the modern era by creating the first professional association, trade journal & instructors certification program.

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Chapter 10

Drinking the Karate Kool-Aid™

The 1974, Florida Karate Championships were held in St. Petersburg, and I begged my dad to take me.

To his full credit, he drove me to this and many other events in the years before I had a driver’s license.

This trip though was tough. It was during the gas crisis of the seventies. It wasn’t unusual to have to wait twenty to thirty minutes in line to get gas.

Once you got to the pumps, you might just get a few gallons. To compound the stress, we were getting lost trying to find the event, but Dad didn’t complain. 

Dad was excited because Joe Lewis was going to fight an exhibition fight that night.

Dad read my karate magazines and knew who Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and Joe Lewis were.

On the drive over, he kept saying the blacks would take the sport over because they were faster. He said, “Once Lewis and Superfoot are gone, that will be it. The blacks will dominate.” 

I disagreed. I believed that a karate expert didn’t need speed or power. He had the secrets of karate. Of course, I didn’t think that if the other guy had the secrets of karate as well, then speed could be a factor. What did I know? I was just pumped up teen.

The man Joe fought that night was Herbie Thompson. Herbie was a tough black man from the ghettos of Miami. (There is a chapter on Herbie in the appendix) Tough as he was, Joe Lewis dominated the fight, and speed had nothing to do with it. Lewis was fast, but his power decided the outcome of most of his fights.

That day, Walt Bone won both the fighting and forms divisions with Hank Farrah coming in third place, and all of it was in Official Karate magazine six months later. I was so proud of my school.


Herbie Thompson

For years, as a young competitor on the Florida karate tournament circuit, I would see Herbie Thompson compete in the black belt fighting division.

The circuit was racially charged in those days, with Thompson the respected and feared leader of a group of black fighters from Miami. Though he was respectful and friendly with Walt Bone, he was rarely friends with anyone he faced in the ring. 

He threw trophies and chairs if he didn’t win first place and always seemed ready to explode into a street fighting rage if things didn’t go his way. 

One time we had a black belt team competition between our school and a team led by Thompson.

I was just a brown belt and was settling in to watch what I knew would be a rough, volatile series of matches when Mr. Bone motioned me to come over. 

He instructed me to follow him into the locker room where he pulled out a black belt and told me to put it on. I had been instantly recruited onto an adult team of black belts at seventeen. I was terrified.

In the first fight, our biggest fighter got his nose broken six feet out of bounds by a blatantly illegal punch. We got the penalty point, but he got a trip to the hospital.

After cleaning up the blood, in the next fight Don Sturiano got knocked out of the match with a powerful kick to the back, which nearly crippled him. I was next. I survived, but I lost a lot of points. 

In the final match, Walt Bone was up against Herbie Thompson. We were way behind in points, but Walt regained the points, and we won the team competition.

Thompson went nuts. While excluding Bone from the tirade, he kicked things, spewed foul language, and threw his equipment across the room.

In a sport based upon principles of respect and courtesy, this was disturbing and, in our view, disgraceful. 

Fast-forward twenty years. For my magazine, Martial Arts Professional, we did a profile on Thompson. What I discovered was a great lesson in perspective.

We asked him about the “old days” when he would throw a tantrum after losing. His response was as revealing as it was unexpected. 

We discovered that for over thirty years, Herbie Thompson had dedicated his life to using the martial arts to save children in the roughest inner-city communities of Miami from a life of crime.

He has mentored hundreds of kids and has probably saved as many lives. 

He explained that he would load as many kids into a van as possible and drive them out of Miami on Saturdays to a karate tournament.

Some of the kids competed and some watched, but all were out of harm’s way for the day. He was using distance as the defense to keep these kids out of the battlefield in the streets of Miami.

However, between the gas and the entry fees, by the time the tournament started, he was out of money.

If he didn’t win the cash prize for first place, he couldn’t feed the kids, and he would have to borrow money for gas to get the kids home.

His story instantly reframed our perception that he was a disrespectful jerk when, in fact, he was a desperate hero to these children, many of whom run their own martial arts schools today.

Notice Tyson’s hand is by his face, not his hip.

His chin is down instead of up.

His shoulder is up instead of pulled back.

His body is sideways to his opponent instead of squared off.

His legs are under his body not spread apart like he was riding a horse.

With this kind of form, he would fail his orange belt exam in most schools. 

How does that make any sense?

Sensei Tyson?

If Mike Tyson or a world champion kickboxer came to your school to teach your black belts. What do you think he would work on? Double punches, square blocks, and keeping your chin up?

I’m pretty sure he would emphasize head movement, how to snap your punches and a defense that does NOT include pulling your punch back to your hip.

I’m sure the students would learn advanced applications to adjust for different fighters. Notice I said advanced applications, not advanced strikes.

When you focus on application, you can apply that to almost any technique.

For instance, if the drill is about how to fight a taller fighter, the answer is more about footwork to stay on the outside until you can secure quick access. My brothers are 6′ 3″ and 6′ 4″ so I know something about fighting a taller opponent.

Drills that teach that application do not require complexity. They require simplicity.

The more complex a skill becomes, the less chance it can be used. Have you ever seen a double punch? Only in kata and here:

If you eliminated all kata and traditional skills, you could devote that time to drills and conditioning that would give your students a true advantage in sparring or self-defense.

Imagine teaching fewer skills that are easy to teach and learn than traditional skills and kata.

You could spend more time on the application of those skills rather than stepping up and down the classroom and holding blocks and punches out in the air, which leaves you wide open for a counterattack.

Rather than spending student’s time with the complexity and frustration of spending years perfecting the bad habits of pulling their hand back to their hip, keeping their chin up, aiming and holding a punch in the air, and blocking with power while stepping forward, your retention will improve. Your student quality will improve. Your curriculum consistency will improve.

This is the core of our white to black belt curriculum Empower Kickboxing.

It’s an old saying, but true. “Less is best.”

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