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21. The Truth About Martial Arts in the Inner-City: Willie “The Bam” Johnson Part 1

by | Offline Marketing & Sales

Setting Expectations for Martial Arts Students Upfront

Authority is highly influenced by emotion.

While your staff and students may intellectually understand that you are the boss and master instructor, they have to feel it, not think it.

It’s the emotional connection that anchors your authority on a deep level.

If there is one powerful moment in your role as a professional martial arts instructor, it’s in the enrollment conference.

While the parents may see you as the master black belt, they usually don’t have an authoritative reverence at this early stage.

The enrollment conference is a seminal moment for you to establish your authority and gain the respect and gratitude of the family you’re dealing with.

Presenting the programs and their cost to parents can be tense at times. Some parents want to negotiate. Others might object to the agreement. Some want a safety net in case their child wants to quit.

While it’s important that you are prepared to overcome any objections, it’s when the bottom line is signed and the initial investment is completed that you have a critical window to demonstrate your authority.

Many owners complete the transaction and gush with statements like, “Awesome. It’s great to have you on board. Johnny, you did an awesome job tonight. High five! Thanks Mrs. Jones it’s great to have Johnny as part of our family. Let me know if I can help with anything.”


Who has the role of authority here? Mrs. Jones and her credit card. That was a missed opportunity.

Let’s try again. You would adjust this script to the age and circumstance, but here is an authority template for the enrollment conference.

Mom has just enrolled Johnny into the program.

You, “Johnny. You want to learn Empower Kickboxing, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. I want you to understand that your mom just enrolled you into a six month program. You are going to learn a lot of great skills and lessons. It’s going to be fun and sometimes it’s going to be hard. That’s the good part because that means you’re learning. So you have to pay attention and practice at home 20-minutes a day when you don’t have class.

Are you going to work hard and practice?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m glad. Your classes are Monday and Wednesday at 5pm. When are your classes?”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“Good. You’re a smart guy. That means that you have to be ready to come to class by 4:30 on Monday and Wednesdays so that you’re not late. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you are doing, you will be ready by 4:30, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. The first lesson is integrity. Integrity means that you do what you say you are going to do. You keep your promises. You promise to work hard and be ready for class, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“No matter what you’re doing. Right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Great. We’re going to be so proud of you. Your mom just enrolled you, so please turn to her and say, ‘Thank you mom.”

“Thank you mom.”

“Alright. When someone does something good for you, you always say thank you. That’s called gratitude. What’s it called?”


“Correct. So you’ve learned two important lessons today. Integrity and gratitude. What does integrity mean?

“Keeping your promises.”

“Yes. What does gratitude mean?”

“Saying thank you.”

“You got it! You are going to do great, I can tell already.”

“Remember, your class is…”

“Monday and Wednesday at 5pm.”

“When will you be ready to come to class?”


“You have a good head on your shoulders Johnny. You’re going to be good at this.”

“Because you’ve showed your mom gratitude and you’re going to keep your promises, here is a school t-shirt for you to wear. Every time you put it on, I want you to think of integrity and gratitude. Will you do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“I just gave you a shirt. How do you show gratitude?”

“Thank you sir.”

As taught in the MATA Certification program, it’s also a good idea to let mom know that it’s important that she control what Johnny is doing around 4:30 which is the agreed upon to be ready for class.

If Johnny is playing with his friends or deep in a video game, it’s going to be harder to get him to get ready than if he is cleaning his bedroom or something he’d like to leave to go to class.

Keep in mind that mom is watching this happen before her eyes. What have you done to establish your authority?

  1. You’ve provided her with a language pattern that both her and Johnny understand. This is huge.
  2. You’ve given mom the “integrity” framework to deal with any reluctance to go to class.
  3. You’ve provided her with a strategy to engage Johnny in less fun activities so that going to class is an easy decision.
  4. You’ve laid out when Johnny should get ready for class without complaint.
  5. Before her eyes, you taught her son important lessons with real world examples. No doubt, your authority sky-rocketed in her eyes and in her heart.

Look for places where you can make these kinds of strong emotional connections.

Demonstrate true authority and leadership. That will last much longer than a trite, shallow compliments like “Awesome! Good job.”

This will help your students to understand how and why they are training with the best school.

Click to open Show Notes for Episode 21

Show 21 Notes

The Truth About the Martial Arts Business book

Black Belt Management book

Who Killed Walt Bone? book


00:03:37 What makes you the Bam?

00:04:41 Early years in Baltimore

0:08:46 Burying deep pain

00:10:12 Bruce Lee, The Chinese Connection

00:11:39 The influence of martial arts magazines like Karate Illustrated

00:12:01 The control factor (John Graden)

00:13:40 Willie seeks and gets sponsorship

00:15:15 Willie takes the bus to Madison Square Garden and wins first place

00:16:56 What Willie calls bullying

00:18:42 Misconceptions martial arts instructors have about teaching inner-city kids

00:18:59 The massive influence of martial arts on hip hop

00:20:50 Talking ninja dance with Stephen K. Hayes

00:22:14 Who Killed Walt Bone?

00:22:43 Why each generation is more violent and thoughtless

00:23:54 Faking Kung Fu with street gymnastics

00:24:30 Making up Kung Fu forms

00:25:29 Master Dennis Brown’s influence

00:26:41 Getting picked up at the bus station by Sunny Onowa, Nasty Anderson, Linda Denley, and Arlene Limas

00:27:33 Bam loses his sponsorship

00:29:31 Master Dennis Brown sends Bam to China

00:31:16 All of Bam’s friends were becoming big time drug dealers

00:34:01 Bam defeats Charlie Lee in kata

00:35:07 Bam’s best friend is shot dead

00:36:00 Bam’s big decision

00:36:24 Preview of part 2

PODCAST: The Truth About Martial Arts in the Inner-City

Podcast: The Truth About the Martial Arts Business

Podcast episode 21: The Truth About Martial Arts in the Inner-City (part 1)

Host: John Graden

Guest: Willie “The Bam” Johnson

In the ultimate “fake it till you make it” scenario, podcast guest Willie Johnson was so desperate to escape Baltimore’s inner-city that he actually made up his own kung fu techniques to compete against black belt experts in martial arts tournaments. 

As a teenager, Willie would climb on a bus to travel for days to compete in major tournaments around the USA. His dream was to become a karate champion and get out of his violent, drug-infested neighborhood. That dream eventually became a nightmare.  

Podcast host John Graden says, “I was at that event and remember being impressed with Willies’ performance. Like the rest of us, I had no idea what kind of world he lived in. This is a great story I know our listeners will enjoy.”

The newly crowned US Open Champion was not greeted with fanfare after his big win. Instead, he was met with a shower of bullets that left his best friend dead at his feet. His neighborhood crew gave him a dire ultimatum. Continue to do martial arts, or rejoin them and sell drugs to junkies.

Caught up in the emotion of the murder, Willie chose revenge for his friend over another tournament win. It was a fateful decision that sent him spiraling down into the dark world of hustling and muscling drugs. Overnight, he went from karate king to drug lord.

Though he knew it was the wrong decision, Willie spent the next three years as a violent stoned-out drug pusher until he was arrested for fighting with the police and sentenced to a year in the maximum-security prison. 

It was in that prison that Willie turned his life around. He kept to himself in his cell rather than mix with the prison population in the day area. He spent his time practicing his martial arts and setting goals for his future as a martial arts school owner and world champion. 

Willie “The Bam” Johnson went on to win seven-world championships, author books, and become a highly respected master martial arts teacher to his students, including many from the same inner-city neighborhood that he grew up in.

Willie “The Bam” Johnson shares his story in a three-part series on John Graden’s The Truth About the Martial Arts Business Podcast.

In addition to his martial arts experience, Johnson describes the harsh truth about martial arts in the inner-city.

He clearly explains the stark difference between what a martial arts black belt may think would happen in a ghetto street fight and what is most likely to go down and it’s not favoring the black belt.


John Graden

The Truth About the Martial Arts Podcast


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