Not long ago I was talking with a gentleman whose name escapes me. He was a 1st degree Black Belter from the 60s who had studied Karate in Japan, and had not “updated” his training since then. He was an older gentleman–I’d have to say he was easily in his 60s–and very fit. We talked about the martial arts and how they had changed over the years, and he mentioned that his children had studied the arts in the 80s and how disappointed that his children (1) reached the Black Belt level far sooner than he had without the skills to match, and (2) his boys did not have the level of indominability he possessed upon reaching his Black Belt. While he was lamenting this state of the martial arts, I wondered if he retained his fighting skills after all these years and sure enough–I overcame my shyness and asked for a match, and he obliged.
Now, I don’t want you to criticize me for challenging an old man to a match. First, it wasn’t a real match, as he and I only played hands for about 3 minutes and I certainly would not have fought him like a young man (unless I needed to). Secondly, this gentleman’s physique was not indicative of his age and I would bet the house that he could have held his own against any man I put before him. Bottom line, he was skilled as a fighter and I know his kids must be proud of him. I wish him many years to come and I know that God has blessed him with the gift of youth and wisdom in his older age. But on to the point of the article….
He struck me with something he said: (and I’m paraphrasing) I had not taken on another teacher because I already felt safe with the skills I was given and I never met another teacher who could match my own. What a blessing. I have an issue with people who insist that “the Black Belt is only the beginning”. I believe it is the end. It is only the beginning when your teacher bestowed the belt on you before you had become an expert and the last time I looked, the black belt was supposed to mean you were an expert. And the second thing here is that he was blessed to have a teacher he felt was the among the best, and he never met another man whose skill matched his teacher’s. This is something I would hope every martial arts student had. Yet I know that it is not, and that is because we tend to give rank to people who really don’t deserve it.
And now, my real point.
I have met many a 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th degree master who couldn’t hold a candle to my skill level. And I have also met 1st and 2nd degree fighters who were better than me. There is something to be said about the level of hunger in a man striving for the next degree when he is in the lower levels of the Black Belt that isn’t there once he reaches the 4th degree. After the 4th, they seem to become more of political ranks than earned degrees of skill. One man I know of–Dr. Jerome Barber–is one of them. Our paths have only slightly crossed in my years on the East Coast. According to my old friend Billy Bryant, he introduced me to him years ago (although I don’t remember) at a seminar in upstate New York. Like Billy, Doc B was a student of Kenpo and Modern Arnis, who was one of those old-school dojo-hardened fighters from the 70s. And like Billy, he did not pursue the next rank as much as he pursued more skill. And trust me, if Billy Bryant says you’re good–you know what you’re doing because this man didn’t pull punches with his opinion. Well, when Modern Arnis leadership was up for grabs I had hoped that the best of his students, like Doc B, would take the reins but I was wrong. The guys who promoted seminars, chased the paper and wrote articles for GM Presas all fought for the “sokeship”, while the real warriors stayed in the background and continued their path of martial arts enlightenment on their own. But I don’t doubt that in Modern Arnis circles, even the “Masters of Tapi-Tapi” know who the big dogs are. There is a saying that you achieve what you strive for, and those who pursue high rank get them (or give it to themselves), while those who pursue better skill get them as well. Billy Bryant–surprisingly–was only a 1st or 2nd degree Black Belter in Modern Arnis. I don’t believe he achieved any other rank in the FMAs–other than what he was gifted through honorary ranking. (Side note: During my time in training with him, Billy’s organization [the Maryland Black Belt Association] awarded me a 3rd degree Black Belt in 1994–not for martial arts knowledge but for tournament performance, and I am proud of this honorary rank. At the same time, I received a 5th degree in Tae Kwon Do from a teacher I won’t name… because of SALES PERFORMANCE. That’s right, because I sold a lot of memberships, I received a 5th degree black belt from a “kwang jan nim” of Tae Kwon Do. It’s disgusting. I never mention that…) Doctor Barber made his reputation the old fashioned way, and although he never posted youtube clips all over the place and chased behind GM Presas, itching for higher rank, his reputation as an Arnisador is without question. Who knows why he never went for higher rank? But I’m willing to bet that it was because he was too busy training to stop long enough to take a test. So maybe his resume doesn’t read like a book, but his skill and reputation speaks for itself.
In my travels and experiences, I have found far more functional fighting skills in lower ranking black belts than I have in Black Belters with advanced Black Belt degrees. And where I have met guys in their 50s and 60s, yet they still hold a low degree–like a 3rd degree–I have always found those men to be superior in knowledge and skill. In my own Jow Ga system, one of my older brothers, Tehran Brighthapt, is one of our best and most accomplished fighters. He was on the first US team to fight San Shou in Taiwan in 1979. When Sifu went to confront another martial arts school or even local gangsters, he brought Bright with him. Even when Billy Bryant came to our school in 1984 looking for a match, it was Tehran who fought him and recruited him as a student. Yet I have outranked Bright on the Jow Ga curriculum since I was 15 years old, and I don’t even think I can defeat him today at 42. Rank means nothing. Skill means everything. Never forget that.
So when you meet a 60 year old guy with a 3rd degree Black Belt, ask him for a match (respectfully, of course). Pay close attention and take mental notes, because you are about to learn something valuable.
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