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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.

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


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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