Coming Home to MAMA

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by Dominick Blum

In 1991 I got married, started a new job and tested for my black belt all in the same week.   I have never before or since had a more stressful week in my life.  Since that time I have studied several different styles and visited many different schools.  I wanted to use this paper to discuss those travels, what I learned from them and what finally brought me back home to the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts.

For two years while a blue / red belt, I taught at Fort Lewis College in Durango.  I originally studied under an International Tae-Kwon-Do Federation (ITF) black belt instructor for a couple of weeks, but he was really an Arnes convert and the ITF federation did not like him teaching both, so he was asked to leave.  With no one else there to fill the roll, a couple of buddies of mine and I decided to take it over.  I was sort of an odd ball since I studied Mu-Do-Kwon and they were both with ITF under Grand Master Sereff, but we were all about the same rank and we decided that the basics were similar enough in both styles.  I also made an effort to learn their basics and techniques, since we decided to test the students in ITF.  My friend Dale and I taught 4 times a week. I would lead the group in stretching, basics, self-defense while he would take over to show the students new forms and 5 step equivalents.  We of course all sparred.  Dale and I also started a kickboxing class on the days that we didn’t have normal class that eventually caught the interest of several other students.  We had a pretty good fighting group that would participate in any tournament we could find in the Four Corners area.   One tournament in particular that I remember was held by the Arnes group.  It was continuous sparring where the judges didn’t stop the fight, but kept a tally of points.  I was a Red belt at the time and I was a lightweight coming in at 135, but since there was no one else to fight I ended up in the heavy weight division.  I was really fast with my hands and could normally get two or three shots off with my hands before they could get one.  With the size difference however I kept getting slammed back, sometimes into the audience and others across the mat.   I actually won that tournament and even defended my title once, but both times looked worse for wear.

I really learned a lot over those two years; how to fight, how to teach, and how to maintain a school.  ITF is a very good organization and they have some extremely talented students and instructors.  They had interesting tweaks to the basic techniques that we perform at the Mountain Academy.  For instance all blocks started mid-section and arm to arm, every punch and block raises up then down to generate power.  I liked the concept and often find myself still doing it today.  Also ITF was very strict on kicking high and you could not test for your black belt unless you could kick someone in the face.  I personally don’t see the practicality in that, but they did make some amazing kickers.

I also studied some Arnes while I was there, which is a form of Filipino martial arts centered on Escrima Stick fighting.   The stick fighting was fun and they also taught open hand combat techniques.  They ran weapons tournaments where they would wrap the weapons in foam and tape, put on full body padding then go at it with sticks, staffs, practice swords, you name it.  We called them nerf weapons and it really gave you a good idea of what advantages each weapon could bring to a fight.  The instructor was extremely good at sparing and had some really cool practical street fighting techniques that I have utilized over the years.   I also fought possibly the fastest individual I’ve ever met in my life.  I had developed very fast hands and was pretty proud of that fact at the time.  I remember sparring against a teen a couple of years younger than I.  It was just a practice sparring match where we were getting ready for a tournament.  They said go and before I could move, the kid jumped, spun, and kicked me in the face.  I’ve never seen anyone faster with their feet.  Needless to say I lost that match.  He didn’t stick around for long.  However, they had him fight in the black belt division even though he was only a blue belt.  He was far faster than his opponents, but he was so intimidated by their ranks (some up to 5th degree), that he lost the match.  I realized then that you could lose a fight mentally before a punch was ever thrown.

The training I did in kickboxing was intense and really helped me get ready for my Black Belt test back home.  We did pain techniques, push-ups, over 500 sit ups per class, sparing and three 5 minute rounds against the heavy bag.  It was grueling but it built up my stamina and taught me how to move against another opponent.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in as good of shape as I was back then.  I remember one testing back home, for my red double stripe, Dale’s kickboxing instructor Doc Elliot came to Mountain Academy for one of our tests.  I had never met him before, but Doc Elliot had broken off from ITF and started his own school, Omni Martial Arts, where a fellow student at Mountain Academy trained.  Dale idolized this man and talked about him a lot, he was well known in ITF for being and training good fighters.  I watched him spar only once and that was against Master Rankin. I admit he was very good, but Rankin was better.   I never told Dale however. The “My instructor can beat your instructor” talk seemed counterproductive to our friendship.  After the testing Doc told me that I had really good foot work which was a huge compliment to me since I had learned it from one of his previous students.

After college and my black belt testing, I felt like I needed more out of the martial arts, so I started jumping around to different schools and styles.  I did a short stint in Kung Fu, more because I really liked the TV series and thought I would be taught the true meaning of martial arts and how to smash my fist through a concrete wall.  Well I didn’t learn either and found their stances to be incredibly challenging.  I really think my main aversion to it was that it moved too slowly for me at the time and I really wanted something a little more aggressive.  Finding no answers I decided to try a different school.

I found a World Federation Tae-Kwon-Do a new school in Littleton; it was a good school and they were serious about training.  Being there only a week, the head instructor asked me to join their international sparring team.  It was a huge honor and I was more than up to the challenge.  The fighting was quite a bit different than I was used to however.  You wore hand and feet pads, a mouth piece, and a full chest guard and head protection commonly referred to as a raisin helmet.  They didn’t allow for punches to the face, only kicks and it ended up being a point of animosity between me and another student over the few months I was there.  In the end, the constant training was too much for my marriage, so in hopes of saving our relationship I stopped going. We ended up divorced a year later, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. I did learn to fight better with my feet in that school and how restrictive full body gear was. I often wondered how far I could have gone with the fighting had I stayed.

During these years, I did show up at Mountain of Martial Arts every so often and spent some time with my friend Bruce Bishop.  He was actually my sister’s friend first and the reason why I started at the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts.  I had wanted to play football in high school, but my Mother didn’t want me to get hurt and wouldn’t let me join, instead she enrolled me in Tae-kwon-do. After blocking several punches with my nose, breaking a toe, bruising my ribs and pulling several muscles over the years, I often question her judgment.   Bruce, now Master Bishop was always an amazing martial artist, who I closely followed through the Ranks always a belt or two behind. I believe he was a green belt when I started.  I tried a few times to make it to the school when he took it over, but could never get myself to commit to staying.  I’m not really sure what kept me away from Mountain Academy during these years.  I think part of it was that I didn’t want to drive up to Evergreen, the other was the fact that I was still searching for some hidden secret to the Martial Arts that I believed I would find somewhere else.

In my late twenties, I landed a job in Colorado Springs, but lived in Lakewood.  After trying the commute for several months I decided to move to Castle Rock and I ended up joining the Omega Martial Arts School.  I signed a contract and practiced there for a while but after losing my job in the springs couldn’t afford to go anymore so I just stopped going.  After a month or so I couldn’t shrug the guilt of not paying, so I went to chat with the head instructor Master Bob Davis.  I explained my situation and he asked me why I wanted to be back in the martial arts.  I told him that teaching was my passion and that I really missed it in my life.  He then agreed to waive my contract if I would come teach his beginners class three times a week.  It was probably the best time in my martial arts career. I loved having my class and watching my students as they would learn and grow.  I have several fond memories from Omega. I recall in one class I explained the importance of doing basics in reference to kicking progression.  I started with the front, which advances to the round, side and crescent kicks.  Which then advanced to spin kicks, jump kicks, jump spin kicks and finally I ended the demonstration with my jump spin back crescent kick.  I had one of my students holding a pad high in the air (granted I was younger then and could jump).  I executed my kick with accuracy and power, sending the pad clear across the room.  One of my younger students jumped up and yelled “that was the coolest kick I have ever seen!!!”   I’m sure he’s seen cooler since, but it was very satisfying at the time.   The ironic part of that story is that at one time I had a lot of trouble with that kick.  I remember telling Master Rankin as a green belt that I couldn’t do it.  He looked at me and said, “Never say you can’t do something.  You CAN do it, just jump spin and kick.”  His words were like a light bulb firing off in my head and I believe I was able to do it in my next couple of tries.  It later became one of my favorite kicks.  Often times in my life when I struggle with something or find myself intimidated by a new task I think to myself “Just jump, spin and kick”.   I stayed at Omega for a year or so and was offered a regional instructor position traveling to his different schools teaching the purple belts.  However, once I attained a position in Golden I needed to decrease teaching time.

I started to move away from martial arts after this. My career was finally starting to kick off and I couldn’t seem to find time for it anymore.  I remember trying a Russian Martial Arts school in Golden. They made you do a bunch of drills like carrying someone across the room and doing wheel barrels back and forth several times.    I puked and everyone thought I did an excellent job.  It was a cool fighting style, always being an aggressor, shucking off your opponents blows while constantly being in their face.  I learned a different way of fighting at that school and although it didn’t necessary fit my style of fighting it definitely improved my overall skill set.

After my short stint at the Russian school, I took several years off, coming back in my mid-thirties to Bruce Bishop’s school in Evergreen and even jumped in at a black belt testing where I met the Barrows for the first time.  I had seriously considered joining again and I attended the school at the Link a few times.  It was odd not having an actual school and the hour format seemed very restrictive, but in general I was excited to be back.  The only thing stopping me at this time was my pride.  I recall fighting Bruce up in Evergreen.  Now, realize the last time I sparred him I was in great shape and a really good fighter.  I truly felt that when I came back from college, he and I were fairly evenly matched.  Well, this was no longer the case and he annihilated me.  I couldn’t hit him to save my life and he seemingly toyed with me the whole time.  I felt like I was too slow, my timing was off, and I was nowhere near the martial artist I used to be.  For some reason, it never occurred to me that perhaps Bruce had honed his fighting skills the 15+ years he continually trained and taught.  I was embarrassed at the time and decided to walk away from the Mountain Academy for good.

Years later I ran into Doug O’Hara in a Target near my house.  I didn’t really train much with Doug when I was younger; in fact I believe he started around the time I was in college.  I did remember him performing a spinning heel kick that put Van Dam to shame and that he was an exceptional martial artist.  We chatted for a bit and I ended up getting his number in hopes of training again.  Master O’Hara was kind enough to allow me to train in his basement in preparation to make a comeback at the Mountain Academy.  I did for a month or so and he told me it was time to face the class.  I didn’t feel ready and I totally lost my nerve.  Again I was too concerned about being too slow, being too old and not being half the martial artist I used to be.

So fast forward another year.  Jess the kids and I have been together for several years now and the kids know that I’m a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do.  They watched me practice the previous year when I worked out with Mr. O’Hara and even learned a few kicks, but they never really seemed that interested in joining a Martial Art.  But, after a Karate instructor went to their school and taught them the basics, they were completely hooked.  They tried the free 2 week trial at the Karate school and although I really liked the school, they didn’t have good control of the class and some of the older students kept harassing Jessica’s kids.  We wanted to find another school and I started playing around with the thought of doing it with them.  In all my travels over the years, I have met some great instructors and practiced in several good schools, but I have always considered Grand Master John W Rankin my instructor.  For all intents and purposes Rankin helped me become the person I am today.  I came to Rankin as a broken teen, abused throughout my childhood and lacking any self-esteem.  Through Rankin and the Mountain Academy, I gained skills and confidence in myself, not just with Martial Arts, but with every aspect of my life.  I realized that I could do anything I put my mind toward and I truly believe that is why I have had success in both my professional and personal life.  Like some many others I can’t thank Grand Master Rankin enough for all he has done for me.  With that in mind I knew bringing the kids to his school was the right choice.

It wasn’t easy however. I still had many demons of my own to face.  Mainly surrounding my own ego and facing the fact that I’m no longer the Martial Artist I used to be.  The kids made it easier since I told myself that I was doing this for them, but it was still more difficult than I can explain.  I worried about the other students and what they would think of this overweight older man coming into the school wearing a black belt.  Who is he?  Did he practice in our style before?  Is he really a black belt?  Why are his kicks so low?  These are the things I thought they were asking themselves and I was worried that just by being there I was somehow putting a black mark on the school.  I felt like some of the others didn’t want me around and even though I still had some friends there, I felt like they were guarded and that maybe they questioned my conviction to stay.  I’d say the first month or so is the hardest, there were several times where I might have left, had the kids not been there.  Chatting with Jason Colson during this time helped a lot.  He had recently gone through a similar experience, re-integrating himself back into the school and he assured me that all my concerns where unjustified and that given time it would all be fine.   Jason was right, now after being back for 6 months or so, I finally feel like an active, contributing member to the school again.  Dan Barrow has been kind enough to allow me to assist with his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I’ve watched some of our students start to move up the ranks, gaining more skills and confidence with each new belt level.  I still have a burning desire to teach on my own and intend to do so someday, but for now I’m extremely pleased with helping where I can and making new friends along the way.

It’s true that I’m not the same Martial Artist I once was, but I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing anymore.  I may not be as fast, may not kick as high, or move around as well, but I feel like I’ve grown in other ways.  I’m paying more attention now to my forms and how they flow, to weapons and what the intent is of each movement.   I’ve realized that one could spend a lifetime doing just these things and never fully comprehend them.  I finally understand that there is way more to being a great Martial Artist than just sparring, and that it’s only one aspect of a very complex puzzle.  I believe it is more important to attempt to understand the Art as a whole and to strive to constantly to improve myself by doing so.  I also believe it is import to transfer the knowledge that I have to others, assisting them as they seek to learn and grow through the Martial Arts.   In the end, I didn’t need to stray far to find the things I was looking for. The answers I sought could only be found within.  Armed with this new knowledge, I’m excited to continue my journey and consider myself extremely fortunate to have a place to come home to at the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts.

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