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2019 Black Belt Hall Of Fame

November, 2019,

2019 Black Belt Hall of Fame

As you’ve no doubt noticed, this is Black Belt’s annual Hall of Fame issue. Presented here are five inductions for 2019. Appended to the Demetrious Johnson cover story is the sixth. Watch for additional coverage of these talented martial artists in future issues of Black Belt.

By Robert W. Young

The martial arts gods are smiling down on Chatri Sityodtong and ONE Championship. Either that or Chatri is a genius because what he and his crew are serving up is resonating not only with fight fans in Asia but also with traditional and eclectic martial arts practitioners around the world. As evidence, note that ONE is seeing consistently growing audiences, and it’s the subject of weekly stories in mainstream outlets touting its unparalleled success and preaching the gospel of Chatri.

The following quote sums up the philosophy of the man and the org rather nicely: “The word ‘MMA’ is now synonymous with martial arts, [and] the general public thinks of MMA as blood sport, violence, hatred, controversy. Literally from day one, my mission for ONE Championship [has been] to unleash the real-life superheroes who ignite the world with hope, strength and inspiration.”

In a nutshell, that’s why ONE is riding a rocket into the stratosphere. Not surprisingly, the path along which Chatri is guiding the promotion grew out of his 34-plus years in the arts. “The biggest misconception about martial arts is that it’s about fighting or violence,” he observed in a Black Belt interview. “In actuality, martial arts is the warrior way of life, of inheriting these incredible values that allow you to release your potential as a human being. It gives you so many skills, so many values to apply to the rest of your life.”

More and more people — martial artists as well as business leaders — are listening to what Chatri has to say on a variety of subjects. As the CEO of Asia’s largest global sports entity, he possesses a gravitas that’s rare in the martial arts, one that’s refreshingly in line with the principles all practitioners hold dear.

Of course his philosophical bent doesn’t preclude him from growing ONE. His expansion plans don’t stop with MMA, however, and what he has in mind could be even more intriguing for traditional martial artists everywhere. That’s because Chatri intends to feature on his cards — and eventually organize events around — other combat sports, including karate, kung fu, taekwondo, lethwei and submission grappling.

“I view ONE as the bridge between the new and the old,” he told Black Belt. “I want to preserve the old in the sense of the history, the culture and the values of what traditional martial arts brings. But I want to present it in a way that millennials can enjoy genuinely, hence allowing martial arts to become truly mainstream.”

Few are doing more to propagate our traditions in a format that appeals to the next generation of fans and practitioners than Chatri Sityodtong. Which is why he is Black Belt’s 2019 Man of the Year.

2019 Woman of the Year Rondy McKee

When taekwondo master Rondy McKee gives a keynote speech, it’s standing room only. Her tips on marketing and advertising are worth their weight in gold. Consider this update Black Belt received right before going to press:

“I just got home from Germany,” McKee said. “In addition to teaching several classes, I was the keynote speaker at a large seminar in Munich, training attendees on marketing strategies and in how to implement new programs for martial arts schools.

“For the past 10 years, I’ve been advising and teaching various marketing groups and schools. I provide different services specific to the needs of the particular school or organization. One of the issues I worked on this morning in Germany was that many martial arts schools there can’t get into public schools, so what can they do? I provided them with details and materials outlining how I overcame that same problem at my school in North Carolina.”

McKee is savvy enough to know that different countries impose different rules on the martial arts, which is why she advises her clients to review her presentations and then choose what works for them. It’s a strategy that would make Bruce Lee proud.

Attesting to the depth of her knowledge, she recently conducted a clinic on how to build your own building using her school as an example. History: Seventeen years ago, McKee created one of the largest and most successful schools in the world. It is an immaculate 24,000-square-foot structure with a koi pond in the sitting area, situated on 3.5 acres. It became the headquarters for the 2,000 students of her über-successful White Tiger Taekwondo & Martial Arts.

McKee’s journey to Germany wasn’t the only update she had. “My husband and I decided to sell the building,” she announced in her best news-anchor voice. “I had some realtors come in and tell me what they thought it was worth, then I added another million and it sold in three days. We downsized to a smaller school I’d built a few years ago.

“But I have more breaking news! My husband and I are moving to an exotic beach in Mexico. We decided that if my senior students can run the school, I can oversee them and run my marketing business on the internet. So why couldn’t I do all that while sitting on a beach?”

McKee’s new home is an old resort that resembles a castle perched atop a mountain surrounded by jungle, and it’s accessible only by boat. She aptly dubbed her new digs “The Jungle House.” The facility also boasts a gym with mats, making it perfect for training and private lessons.

“I’ve always said that someday I’ll retire on an island,” McKee said. “Now is that time. I don’t think anybody ever regrets enjoying life early, but you will regret it if you don’t enjoy life until it’s too late.”

Despite her apparent emphasis on running the business she built, the martial arts don’t get short shrift under McKee. Her taekwondo students are certified through Kukkiwon, South Korea’s headquarters for the art. And her hapkido students are recognized by the Korea Hapkido Federation, the nation’s most respected organization for the style. If you’re wondering how she crafted those Korean connections, know that she used to live in the East Asian nation, where she taught English while studying martial arts.

A few months from now when she isn’t chasing pumas off her deck, you’ll be likely to find McKee sprucing up the place in between teaching beach-view classes, all while overseeing her school and her clients on her laptop — and watching the sun set on a perfectly executed exit plan. As of today, that exit plan includes being named Black Belt’s 2019 Woman of the Year.
— Terry L. Wilson

2019 Instructor of the Year Dave Kovar

A seasoned black belt, Dave Kovar competed in forms and fighting at more than 200 tournaments held between 1974 and 1989. In addition to holding black belts in 10 arts, he’s one of the most successful school owners in the United States.

“My philosophy is martial arts first, teaching second and business third,” Kovar said. “I run a chain of nine martial art schools in the Sacramento Valley [of California]. We have 3,000 members and 90 employees, with more than half of them full time.”

Kovar is no stranger to operating a dojo. “Six months out of high school, I started my own school,” he said. “That was in 1978, so I’ve been doing this for 41 years. I fully believe in the positive impact that the martial arts have on people. I believe it has a cure for every ailment that faces the world.”

Kovar’s passion for the curative benefits of martial arts training prompts him to regularly remind all his instructors of a crucial concept: “We have an obligation that [people in] other sports don’t have. We’re teaching kids to be potentially violent, teaching them to hit and kick and to hurt somebody. That obligates us as instructors to swing the pendulum to the other side by teaching them self-control, courtesy and respect. [We also must give them] the confidence to walk away from a fight with the knowledge that, if push comes to shove, they have self-defense alternatives and don’t have to be the victim.”

Known internationally as a teacher of teachers, Kovar was a pioneer in the making and marketing of how-to martial arts videos. “In 1981 I came out with a VHS training tape,” he said. “In fact, I may have been one of the first schools to advertise in Black Belt.”

Kovar’s tapes eventually became the building blocks of an innovative method for propagating the arts in the 21st century. “Mr. Frank Silverman brought me in to speak at an event and said, ‘We’re creating a company called the Martial Arts Industry Association, and we want you to be our monthly drills guy,’” Kovar recalled. “For the first three years, [mine] was the only instructional video in their monthly package. And that was the beginning of our relationship.”

Eventually, that partnership changed the face of teaching martial arts, ushering in new ideas, creative platforms and support teams for countless schools around the world regardless of style.

Although managing his martial arts empire keeps Kovar busy, he still finds time every day to train and teach. “At ProMac — the Professional Martial Arts College — we coach other martial arts schools doing instructor colleges and business events,” he said. “Our premise is that you don’t have to be slick to teach really good martial arts and to charge a fair price.”

Kovar is known for many things, but at the top of the list, he’s renowned as an innovator who puts ethics before profits. That, coupled with his track record in the industry, is why Black Belt has named him its 2019 Instructor of the Year.
— Terry L. Wilson

2019 Weapons Instructor of the Year Kelly S. Worden

Born and raised on a farm in Tacoma, Washington, Kelly S. Worden is the son of a disabled World War II veteran who supported his family on his meager Army pension. Necessity forced young Kelly to pitch in when he could by taking odd jobs — when he wasn’t scrapping with bullies, that is.
“It was a rough area — lots of aggression and violence throughout my school years,” Worden said. “People ask me when I got into martial arts. I tell them, ‘Right after some guy beat the crap out of me!’ That was in the early ’70s.”

Those childhood experiences with violence motivated Worden to develop his martial skills in a manner that addressed real-world scenarios using a no-nonsense approach. “I dedicated my life to the study of martial arts,” he said. “I evolved the many styles I trained in, keeping the useful and discarding the useless. So I created renegade jeet kune do, the Worden Defense System and the brotherhood of Natural Spirit International.

“For me, it’s always been about spreading the arts and connecting the systems,” Worden said. “Sport martial arts have little to do with true self-defense. It’s a lot of fun, socially rewarding and great exercise. Just don’t expect the techniques learned in a cardio-kickboxing class to protect you on the street.”

In the mid-’80s, the U.S. Army saw the value of Worden’s brand of combatives and enlisted him to teach the Special Forces. “Gen. Colin Powell’s son-in-law, an Army Ranger, asked me to teach him and his troops arnis and knife fighting,” Worden said. “I’d taught similar courses at Fort Lewis and 

McChord Air Force Base. By then, I’d given up doing any kicks because I’m a close-quarters guy. I focused on freestyle and adaptability and spontaneous fighting, so I wasn’t concerned about kicking in those situations.”

Worden imparted his weapons skills to elite operators from 2000 to 2006. He accepted subsequent short-term contracts for instruction until 2014. Because of his clientele, he never looked to belts to quantify the contributions he made to his students’ development. He measured his success in lives saved.

“I recently ran into an Army Ranger that I’d first met several years ago when I was training the 1st Special Forces Group,” Worden said. “To be honest, I didn’t remember him, but he remembered me and started telling his co-workers about how the strategies and tactics he learned during my training of the 1st SFG saved his life.”

Although his military gig is up for now, Worden continues to teach his version of reality-based self-defense privately in Washington while conducting seminars around the United States. To maximize his reach, he also spreads his weapons wisdom via the internet.

It’s for his work with the military and his ongoing commitment to enabling civilians to better defend themselves on the street that Black Belt is naming Kelly S. Worden its 2019 Weapons Instructor of the Year.
— Terry L. Wilson

2019 Competitor of the Year Mackensi Emory

With her feet planted firmly in the air, 23-year-old Mackensi Emory has a knack for flying, flipping, flopping and twisting her way toward stardom. She’s been doing just that since she was 6 years old.

Before she turned into a teen, the youngster from Sacramento, California, owned a roomful of trophies taller than she was. Also a champion gymnast, she became an expert at blending the two sports into exciting routines. And for the past eight years, she’s ridden a winning streak that sets the bar high for anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps.

“Things really changed for me in 2018,” Emory said. “That year, I won every single overall grand championship and dominated my divisions, and that had never happened to me before. At the U.S. Open, I won all my divisions. I won the NASKA overall women’s forms and weapons, then at the ISKA, 
I won both forms and weapons for women.

“Topping a perfect record didn’t seem possible — but I did it again this year!”

Although she’s still a competitor and a sought-after seminar personality, Emory has her eye on the big screen. “For a while, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to continue martial arts and keep competing or pursue doing stunts in the movies,” she said.

Encouraged by her sport-karate coaches, Emory took a leap of faith this year and moved to Los Angeles to seek employment as a stuntwoman. “I’m working with a lot of great people, including Wonder Woman’s stunt double,” Emory said. “She’s teaching me swords, and some of my sport-karate mentors are working with me on how to sell a fight on camera. Doing movie stunts is very different from what I’m doing in sport karate, but I’m loving it.”

Showbiz may have gotten into Emory’s blood, but sport karate is still in her heart. In fact, she plans to remain in that arena as long as possible while pursuing a career in film. “I’ve won everything I want to win,” she said. “What means the most to me now is being able to give back. Knowing that I am an inspiration to others, girls and boys, is what drives my passion now.”

Specifically what type of inspiration is she striving to impart? “You don’t always see a lot of positive attitude in tournaments, especially when someone loses,” she said. “My goal has been to present a positive attitude, and hopefully that will inspire the next generation.”

The staff of Black Belt could think of no better martial artist than Mackensi Emory to be our 2019 Competitor of the Year. 
— Terry L. Wilson

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