By Joseph Robertia
Pop culture references to martial arts — such as cheesy Kung Fu movies and the resultant “Everybody was Kung Fu fighting” song — might elicit a raised eyebrow of exasperation from those who honor its long tradition and practice it seriously, but these days on the central Kenai Peninsula, martial arts certainly is growing in popularity and seeping further into the culture.
“We have students from 3 to over 65 years old training at our dojo and feel it is never too soon or late to start. As enrollment seems to come in trends, more recently we have been experiencing quite a surge of much younger students, and I am often contacted by folks wanting to know if 2 is old enough,” said Mike Hancock, sensei at Peninsula Martial Arts, which has been operating at the “Y” in Soldotna for more than 16 years.
It would take a pretty impressive 2-year-old to be able to participate in the group atmosphere, Hancock said, but added that he has evaluated quite a few 3-year-olds to determine if they might be ready to benefit from classes.
“I have found it best to meter the enrollment of these very young students to just a few at a time to allow the others to move along, but if this interest continues I may be convinced to create a class specifically for the little guys. This is an exciting development, since it would give me quite a few more years to work with them before they go off to college or careers. Fifteen years of karate practice would be a great start,” he said.
Of the many schools in the area, old and new, Hancock said they are all distinct, so he views the growing trend as a good thing.
“As martial art is dear to me, I appreciate anyone who teaches or practices in one form or another, even if at another school. I have seen a number of martial arts schools come and go in the area and it seems a few have popped up lately. Competition in the marketplace can certainly be a good thing, and I would welcome the area to become a martial arts-oriented community. It would be great to be able to organize local tournaments to give students more opportunities to compete. As I have seen tournament competition bring out the best in students, over and over, I can only imagine that business competition could bring out the best in schools, as well,” he said.
Peninsula Martial Arts is a goal-oriented school with a belt system to provide obtainable benchmarks.
“When kids set goals and reach them they believe in themselves, and this is where true self-esteem comes from,” Hancock said.
“The black belt test is hard. It is a three-day test that consists of memorization of rules, virtues and Japanese terminology, plus 50 verbatim essay questions and answers, followed by an eight-hour physical-endurance test, and finally an examination of all curriculums learned from the beginning of training, presented mostly solo and up to standards,” he said.
“The final phase is sparring with one, then up to eight opponents at once. … The journey to black belt is thorny, but brings out the best in one’s character while forging a strong mind, body and spirit in the furnace of training.”
Hancock estimates the school has produced 57 black-belt students — some now doctors, scientists, engineers, soldiers, artists and scholars.
“Not just black belts in karate, but black belts in life,” Hancock said.
White Crane Academy in Kenai also teaches the roots of their style of martial arts, and emphasizes how to use and enjoy the skills taught in the modern day.
“We had our grand opening in September 2013 and the response has been gratifying,” said instructor John Howland, who has taught martial arts and yogalike forms on the peninsula in various venues since 1984.
Howland’s teaching is very much a labor of love.
“I don’t expect to ever make a profit and I will keep my day job, but the response from the community is worth it all. And besides, I now have a good place to exercise every day,” he said.
The academy teaches Shinto Muso Ryu, a weapons-training system originating in the 17th century involving swords, sticks and the kusarigama — a short sword fitted to a right-angle shaft and a weighted chain; Danzan Ryu jujutsu; Qigong, which uses yogalike breathing and meditation methods from Tibetan martial arts; and kung fu, which comprises four separate sects but is lumped together under the label “Hop Ga.”
White Crane Academy doesn’t emphasize belts as a benchmark for progression.
“To clarify, ranking does not exist in traditional martial arts. It was invented for judo in the late 19th century and later applied to other forms of budo … . The ranking is mainly a 20th-century phenomenon used because of the Japanese and Korean obsession with social status. In feudal times anyone you trained with was not a competitor, but a potential ally on the battlefield. Therefore, one’s standing in a system was not as important as the quality of training, and quality control was managed by maintaining membership in a trusted lineage,” Howland said, adding he is currently a lineage holder in Shinto Muso Ryu, Jikishinkage Ryu, Hop Ga and Tibetan White Crane systems.
One on the newest schools in the area is Redemption MMA, which recently opened a training area behind Save-U-More in Soldotna. This school focuses primarily on teaching the fundamental of Brazilian jujitsu and training fighters looking to compete in mixed martial arts competitions focusing heavily on ground fighting and grappling.
“Statistically speaking, 80 percent or more of street fights go to the ground, so it makes sense for self-defense to start where you are most likely to go,” said Isaac Kolesar, owner and head coach at Redemption.
Unlike many other martial arts that teach katas, choreographed patterns of movement, at Redemption, the focus is on active self-defense against a partner.
“BJJ is different from many martial arts because you actually have to apply it in every class. Many arts that claim to teach self-defense teach in a system that has not kept up with modern times. For instance, you could train for years learning how to punch, kick and defend yourself with these tools, but never actually get to test them by striking anyone. … In BJJ you test it in daily training,” he said.
At Redemption the progression of achievement through belts is often much slower than many contemporary martial arts disciplines.
“There is no kata and you won’t be told, ‘This works.’ Where traditional schools focus on remembering certain moves in an order and you advance in rank, we prove what we do works by showing you. BJJ is a ‘prove-it’ style of martial arts and that is how you get promoted,” he said. “Have you ever seen a kid who was a black belt in an art and as an adult you may think, ‘I would grossly overpower this 16- or 17-year-old kid, no way he would beat me.’ Most arts take four years to get a black belt. BJJ takes 10 to 15 years for black belt, and just to go up your first belt, from white, takes approximately two years.”
Because students are actively grappling each class, Kolesar said that students really start to feel the burn, whether they are there for fitness, self-defense or even law enforcement officers looking to stay sharp at hand-to-hand combat.
Kolesar said his studio also encourages competition to further excel at the principles taught in class. So far Redemption students have held their own against students from much larger areas than Soldotna. Of Redemption’s 80 members, about 40 youth and 40 adults, 15 have competed at the BJJ U.S. Open in California and earned 12 medals — three by a 5-year-old boy and two 13-year-old girls. Redemption also won second in the state as a team, fighting against much bigger academies, some with approximately 2,000 members, Kolesar said.
Another school that spends a lot of time on the mats is the Sterling Judo Club, now in its third year.
“Most people participating in judo consider it a sport, and not a martial art,” said judo competitor Clayton Holland. “However, beyond being a sport, judo is also used in self-defense and as a martial art. It focuses on throwing, hold downs, arm bars and choking.”
The club was started by Sensei Robert Brink, who is a sixth-degree black belt.
“Sensei Brink trained in Japan during the 1960s as part of the Navy/Marine Judo Team. He founded the Anchorage Judo Club and was once the president of the United States Judo Federation. Sensei Brink has had a summer cabin in Sterling for years and recently retired here. A chance meeting with a former Anchorage Judo Club student and Sterling resident, Maryanne Rodgers, led to the formation of the Sterling Judo Club,” Holland said.
The Sterling Judo Club has about 60 active members, many of whom have started actively participating in judo tournaments in the state. The club has also held a self-defense class for women, and is planning another class in the near future.
“Our club welcomes all those who are interested in self-defense, recreational judo and competitive judo,” Holland said. “New members may start next fall.”