2 hundred women and men knelt in rapt and reverential silence. They all wore crisp, white karate outfits, or gis, cinched with black belts. Hardened karate-ka who had educated 20 years and earned third- and fourth-dan black belts took venerated puts within the entrance row. I used to be within the again by means of the hearth go out. We had been collected in a college gymnasium in Toronto for a global match. I used to be in my past due 30s on the time. With my nonetheless new first dan, I felt like a humble 10-handicapper within the corporate of Tiger Woods.
On the entrance of the corridor stood the shihan, a grasp trainer with a 7th dan. He used to be demonstrating leg sweeps, ways related to judo greater than karate. In Japan, he have been a college judo champion.
At this level, the shihan handed over the champions up entrance and summoned me from the ranks. Karate etiquette calls for stoicism, however the skepticism within the ranks used to be no longer completely disguised.
“Kame,” he stated. Kame used to be my far-from-fearsome deal with within the dojo. English translation: Turtle. This wasn’t supposed to awaken Gamera, the monster turtle who fought Godzilla in Jap horror motion pictures. And all of this predated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No, Turtle have been my boyhood nickname as a result of I had a puppy tortoise.
The tag proved apropos for a wholly other reason why, a present that exposed itself within the dojo: I may fall. Sure, my best possible asset used to be a sturdy again.
I do know what you’re considering: Any person can fall, it’s simply gravity. However you’re improper. Breaking a fall is as complicated as any offensive methodology. You’re completely uncovered and in fast risk of actual bodily hurt. Your opponent has weaponized without equal blunt drive object: the ground. On this example with the shihan, a hardwood flooring.
I spent many hours training break-falls, some from nice heights. I did judo in grade faculty. In prep faculty, I automatically recreated Dick Van Dyke’s tumble over the footstool in the intro to his old TV show, a letter-perfect judo break-fall. I could have paid my way through school working as an adolescent stuntman.
I was 200 pounds back then and my break-falls produced thunderclaps, like sound effects laid over fight scenes in “Enter the Dragon.”
In hockey circles, they’ll say that a guy on the wrong end of a one-sided fight has been “rag-dolled.” In karate circles, they say nothing. Instead, they kneel and study the physics of bodies in motion.
All martial arts are a quest for beauty and transcendence. I found those not in doing karate but rather having karate done to me. I was honored to be tossed like a bag of wet cement by the shihan.
There was no looking down for a soft spot to fall, nor for the leg that would undercut my own. I had to properly simulate the fighting condition, willing myself unaware of my fate so that I didn’t reflexively start falling until I was actually being felled.
On my descent, I locked eyes with the shihan and grabbed a fistful of the sleeve of his gi. I had let him and gravity do their business and landed in position to counter. He might have been the only one in the room who recognized this, but no matter — it wasn’t about me, and I wasn’t brought up to compete.
The shihan let go of me. I sprang to my feet and assumed a fighting position. Once again I was thrown to the floor. And again. And 20 times more. Each time I broke my fall as if out of an ancient textbook, none the worse for wear.
In the material world the martial arts are often described and even advertised as a means of self-defense. You sincerely hope you never have to use your martial art outside a dojo. And you definitely hope that you never have to perform a break-fall in any situation. That said, my ability to fall spared me injury and possibly saved my life in the workplace.
My job as a sportswriter has often landed me in strange circumstances, but none stranger than my trip in 1991 to Calgary, Alberta, to write about Bret Hart, a big dog in the World Wrestling Federation. This led to a fateful encounter with Bret’s father, Stu, who had retired as the proprietor of Stampede Wrestling, leaders in the mayhem industry in Western Canada.
Stu Hart began his ring career in the 1940s and threw one of his last elbow smashes in apparent anger on an early-1990s pay-per-view show, knocking out Bret’s rival Shawn Michaels. Some doubted the authenticity of that blow: Could a septuagenarian really ice a 240-pound champion in his prime? I, too, considered it far-fetched, but only until I wound up in the same position with Hart as I had with the shihan. That position, as ever, was supine.
I was interviewing Hart and minding my manners when he asked me about a splint on the middle finger of my left hand. To my instant regret I told him my finger had been dislocated blocking a roundhouse kick in the dojo. This prompted what old-school wrestlers called a “snatching,” an act of bodily appropriation that I was powerless to fend off while trying to take notes.
“I could shoot an angle,” he said. “You’d be the wrestling reporter.” Before I could beg off this narrative, I was in fact a wrestling reporter, or at least a reporter being wrestled. Hart lifted me to shoulder height and body-slammed me onto his dining-room floor.
Chin in, arms extended, hitting the floor with open hands: check, check and check. I took inventory: I was in one piece and breathing, but the latter seemed only temporary as 270 pounds of wrestling history landed on me. Reverting to his days in the ring, Hart started to choke me out.
Thankfully his wife, Helen, happened on the scene. Rather than counting me out, she offered profuse apologies and upbraided her husband for snatching yet another guest. I thanked her for the well-timed intervention but told her no apology was necessary.
If you want to start to understand a fighting art, you have to be willing to go to the mat. The warrior might be as sacred as Shihan or as slapstick as Stu, but regardless best viewed from the ground up.
Gare Joyce, a features editor for Sportsnet, is the author of “The Code,” a mystery novel that was adapted for the television series “Private Eyes.”