The story of Kenji Yamaki is one of illness, bullying, attempted suicide, self-discovery through karate and eventual acclaim as one of the few to not only survive the 100-man kumite but to emerge with an 83-percent victory rate!

Kenji Yamaki is a big man — even in the United States. His arms are like legs, and his legs are like tree trunks. He's soft-spoken and smile-prone off the mat, but the minute he dons his gi, that demeanor fades fast. Warming up, he moves like a Bengal tiger, his muscles rippling as he alternates between dynamic stretches and shadowboxing sequences. His fighting combos often start with simple, direct power punches, which he likes to follow up with a knee to the face or body, or an elbow to the head. As he loosens up, he starts putting more power into his moves. He delivers his body punches and thigh kicks with a forward momentum that often overwhelms his opponent and drives him backward. He apparently loves leg sweeps, which he uses to good effect at the most unexpected times.


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All in all, the techniques aren't too surprising for a kyokushin alumnus; what is surprising is how devastating they become when they're launched from a man as massive as Kenji Yamaki.

All that skill would be impressive in any human being, but the stoic nature of the middle-aged master makes him one of a rare breed. Ask him a question, and he looks off into space for a moment before constructing his answer. He's a man of few words — a throwback to the 1950s or '60s when karate instructors were more about action than they were about convincing the world they're the toughest fighters on earth.

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Kenji Yamaki — The Late 1970s

A junior-high school student named Kenji Yamaki is the victim of incessant bullying. Although the Japanese boy is taller than virtually all his classmates, his thin build — caused in part by his anemia — marks him as a target and leaves him unable to fight back. “I was very weak," he says. “Everybody tried to attack me."

On three occasions, he contemplates suicide, actually climbing to the top of the tallest building he can find and steeling himself for the death leap.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 1980

Somehow, Yamaki makes it to 15. Despite standing nearly 6 feet tall — meaning he's a veritable giant in Japan — the boy weighs only 120 pounds.

One day, the spindly teen spies a kyokushin karate school near his home in Kawasaki. “At that time, karate was booming in Japan," he says. “I learned that kyokushin had a reputation as the strongest karate, so I went to the dojo." He signs up for lessons immediately.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — The Early 1980s

The youth glides up through the ranks of kyokushin. The techniques come easily to him, and he makes them work flawlessly in kumite, the hard-core, bare-knuckle sparring for which the art's renowned. “I decided to quit thinking about suicide and become the world kyokushin champion," he says.

As all martial artists know, being a kyokushin champ means fighting. He hones his edge in the ring, and the bullying diminishes. “It stopped completely after one year," he says. “I have always respected kyokushin, and at the time, I was grateful to have learned it," he says.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 1985

Kenji Yamaki earns his first-degree black belt at 20. A year later, he places third at the All-Japan Karate Tournament. Over the ensuing decade, he places in the top 10 at the prestigious event and its big brother, the World Karate Tournament, every year. He's discovered his raison d'être.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 1995

The man is now 30. Although he triumphed again at the 26th All-Japan Karate Tournament last year and at the World Karate Tournament this year, he continues to eschew the fame and fortune that normally are thrust on Japan's top athletes.

Instead, he vows to test his mettle by undergoing the 100-man kumite, a traditional test of combat skill that entails waging empty-hand war against one opponent after another until each bout yields a victor. “It was the hardest thing I ever chose to do," he would say later.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — March 18, 1995

Kenji Yamaki battles his way to his 70th opponent at the Kyokushin Headquarters in Tokyo. The last few matches have taken their toll, however. Starting with opponent No. 71, he becomes a punching and kicking automaton. He has no memory of half his final 30 battles, yet he soldiers on to the end.

The ordeal takes three hours 27 minutes. Afterward, officials tell the karateka that the tally is 83 wins (including 22 knockdowns), 12 draws and five losses.

(Later That Day)

The bloodied and bruised karateka is rushed to the hospital. “I felt like I would die," he says. “My whole body was affected. I was taken to the emergency room. The doctor said I looked like I'd been in a car accident — like I'd been hit by a truck. My kidneys were damaged. I lost consciousness and almost died."

Kenji Yamaki eventually recovers and resumes training in the art he loves.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — April 2002

He leaves Kyokushinkaikan, the governing body for his style, and forms yamaki-ryu karate. He then relocates to America to teach his art and let others enjoy the benefits it offers. “If I had stayed in Japan, my position in life would have been very stable and good," he says. “But I moved to America because I love this country and wanted to spread karate."

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 2003

Black Belt contributing editor Mark Cheng shines a spotlight on a fighting phenom he recently met in Los Angeles. He claims the man is one of the most powerful and precise strikers he's ever seen. His name: Kenji Yamaki. Mark Cheng sings his praises in the January 2004 issue in a feature titled “3 Fast and Furious Kicking Techniques From Yamaki Karate."

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 2010

Day in and day out, Kenji Yamaki humbly goes about his business: He teaches karate to Americans and Japanese-Americans in his Torrance, California, dojo. On a whim, his associate, Mark Kuwata, sends an email to the Black Belt office. He provides details of the karateka's career and recent appearance on the cover of a Japanese magazine.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 2011

Kenji Yamaki returns to Black Belt to teach the martial arts world some of his favorite fighting techniques. From the way he speaks and acts, it's apparent that he's dedicated his life to the budo. He speaks enthusiastically about his dojo, his students and his plan to one day organize a taikai, a full-contact karate competition, in the United States. He's asked if, at 46, he'd consider fighting in the event. “No," he says. “I have retired from competition. However, I'll never retire from karate."

It's been claimed that only 14 people in the world have endured the 100-man kumite, the ultimate test of martial arts mastery devised by Mas Oyama, the legendary founder of kyokushin karate. Now you've met one of them.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 2012

Black Belt releases a highly anticipated two-DVD set featuring Kenji Yamaki's training and conditioning curriculum titled Full-Contact Karate: Advanced Sparring Techniques and Hard-Core Physical Conditioning. It remains one of Black Belt's top-selling DVD collections to date.

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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
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