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  • Writer's pictureMichael Van Elsberg

Breaking Obstacles

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

I have practiced martial arts since I was nine-years old starting at one of Ed Parker’s (Tracy’s) Kenpo schools before the Bruce Lee craze started. My first instructor was a wiry street fighter with tremendous upper and lower body flexibility (only years later did I learn the subtle differences between flexibility and mobility). My second instructor got his black belt in Taekwon-do in from members of the Republic of Korea army who fought alongside the Americans during the war in Vietnam. He later also got a black belt in Shorin-ryu. There was a bench and some weights in the men’s dressing room at his school and a heavy bag and makiwara (striking pad) in the workout area. Both these schools were in the worst parts of bad neighborhoods and the training was taken very seriously. It was anything but recreational and Taekwon-do, especially, was a lot different back then than it is today.

The makiwara was several inches from the back wall, where there was also a bar you could hold onto for balance training and stretching with two large mirrors framing the spot just behind the makiwara. The makiwara was basically a two-by-four sticking up from the floor with rope tied around the top part for striking and conditioning your hands and feet (for later breaking boards and bricks and sometimes bottles). My instructor could punch that pad so hard that the board would bend enough that the top part would smack against the wall. I could rarely, at that time, move the board enough to touch the wall with a punch.

I could, however, make and impressively loud smack flush against the wall with a ridge-hand, or reverse knife-hand strike. One day my instructor heard it from his office and came running out to see which one of his black belts, who were mostly large and mostly male, had struck his favorite toy so hard and made so much noise. Instead, he saw me, and I can still remember the look on his face. At the time I was about 11 or 12 years-old and also small for my age. “Did you kick it?” he asked. “No,” I said, and I could tell he did not believe me. “Show me,” he demanded.

The look on his face when he saw me strike it with my hand was even better. Imagine the sound you would make if you smacked two thick wooden boards together as hard as you can from as far apart as possible. I had never had anyone show me the “right” way to do it. I just knew you were supposed to make the pad hit the wall and make as much noise as possible. Since I could not do it with a punch, which I had been shown, I figured out another way to do it on my own. My instructor then put me in the awkward position of demonstrating it to him, but he still couldn't do it even after I showed him--and that blew my mind. After a few minutes of coaching he got better but insisted on using a different part of his hand (the part you were “supposed” to use) and barely succeeded in making the board lightly touch the wall behind. “Good,” he told me, but you should use this other part of your hand to strike with.”

Bruce Lee famously said to absorb what is useful and make it uniquely your own. A few years later I similarly developed my own way to do hook kicks, which I could use very effectively against targets and people. This was before the internet and before there was a martial arts school seemingly on every corner. And back then people routinely used kung-fu and karate and even ju jutsu almost interchangeably. My instructor had moved his school to another city, too far away for me to practice, so I went to a new school I had only visited once before and discovered that the students there had technique more like my own. And when I finally met master Pu Gill Gwon, I discovered that he did his ridge-hand strikes and hook kicks almost the same way I did. It was something of an epiphany for me. I later discovered that my round kicks were more like Chong Lee’s, and my back kicks closer to He Il Cho’s. These were some of the most well-known figures in Korean martial arts at the time. There had, however, been some cross-training from Japanese and Thai styles by then. It was a heady time to be training and over the years I also had opportunities to train with people from many other backgrounds. Even within styles, each had their own way of doing things and I learned over time that you just have to find what works for you.

Pu Gill had the same type of makiwara set up in his school and spent hours striking it with his hands and feet. He could break anything. Pu Gill had been a boxer and bodybuilder and had also fought in Vietnam where his fighting skill was legendary. He had been an officer and member of the special forces in the South Korean Navy (a UDT Team Captain); later he was in the Korean CIA, and at one time also a bodyguard to Park Chung-hee, the South Korean President. Park, it should be noted, came to power after a coup d'état and was himself later assassinated. Pu Gill had to have the highest level of fighting ability as a matter of survival. He was one of the toughest, strongest, and most fit men that I had ever met. He ran. He jumped rope. He had a high rank in Korean Judo. He did everything. But Pu Gill was also honest and pragmatic. When I asked him to teach me the “secret” techniques of Ji Do Kwan, he said flatly, “There really aren’t any.” And when I tested for second degree black belt, I was going to break seven boards. Pu Gill said, “Just do five.” When I asked him why, he told me that if you can break five boards you can hit hard enough. Pu Gill used to used to stress the concept “Il Kyuk Pil Sal,” or one punch (strike); one (certain) kill, which is also referred to by others as “Il Kyuk Pil Sung,” one punch (strike); one (certain) victory. The idea was that you might only get one chance, and not only did you need to be able to land a blow, it also had to be powerful enough to be decisive. Pu Gill could break four of the kind of bricks I break in the video above with his fist. In honor of Pu Gill, one of my most influential teachers.

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