Being one of the top martial artists in the world sounds like a dream come true for any practitioner of kung fu, karate or taekwondo. Yet that alone isn't always enough to bring success outside of martial arts schools and tournament venues.
In the early 2000s, Marco Johnson was one of the best tournament competitors out there. The son of Black Belt Hall of Famer Willie "The Bam" Johnson, Marco had won everything in sight as a junior. He was undefeated in empty-hand forms for two years. He earned a rare "triple crown" after being ranked in weapons, forms and fighting the same year. He was named best all-around competitor by the North American Sport Karate Association.
Marco seemed poised to take over the tournament world. Yet just a few years later, he was living out of his car.
Marco's up-and-down professional life mirrored his personal life while growing up in Baltimore. His father was a legendary Chinese-martial arts expert and one of the top competitors of the 1980s and '90s. Naturally, he groomed his son to be a martial artist almost from birth.
"I got my white belt when I was less than a year old," Marco said.
Yet his father had his own demons to battle. He got involved in drug dealing and served jail time for fighting with the police. Although Marco admired his father and wanted to follow in his footsteps, the youth learned in the most difficult manner possible to stay away from that world.
When his father was released from prison, Marco went to live with him. Willie had spent time practicing in China, at one point training at the famed Shaolin Temple. Consequently, his method of parenting sometimes reflected that stern background.
"He'd tell me not to go outside, and if I didn't listen, he'd whup me," Marco said. "If I messed up in school, he'd make me hold a horse stance for an hour. But I was around a drug-infested situation in Baltimore that kids shouldn't be exposed to, and if he hadn't done that for me, I might have been my own worst enemy."
Although Marco was trained to be a champion from youth, Willie was reluctant to let him compete until his own instructor Dennis Brown insisted that the youngster was ready. While Marco never pushed his father to allow him to do tournaments, he'd already decided that martial arts would be his life after getting hooked on Jean-Claude Van Damme's No Retreat, No Surrender when he was just 4.When his father earned a role on a TV series called WMAC Masters, which featured many of the top tournament competitors of the early '90s, 11-year-old Marco garnered a guest role as "Little Bam," getting the chance to show off his blossoming martial arts skills.
By the time he was a teenager, he was accompanying his dad to major tournaments across the country and winning consistently. To make his son a better all-around martial artist, Willie would insist that young Marco compete in every division possible — sometimes having him enter up to eight categories per event.
"My biggest win as an adult isn't some tournament. It's working with these kids."
"I'd do Chinese forms, but my punches and kicks would have more snap in them like a karate person," Marco said. "Then I'd do karate, but my stance would be lower like a kung fu person. I was still doing our same routines, but from studying all the best people on the tournament circuit, I was able to camouflage it enough that I could compete in all those different divisions."
Marco also began to bring his own style to forms competitions, using hip hop to accompany his routines while many of his competitors were still using techno or other types of music. He'd vary his playlist to maximize audience appeal, using local favorites like Luke Skyywalker when competing in Miami or T.I. when performing in Atlanta. That eventually spawned a personal style he refers to as "kung fu hip hop."
Despite all his success on the circuit, by 2006 Marco was still living out of his car. "I never told anyone I needed help," he said. "I was always taught to go get my own."
Marco would make a few hundred dollar here and there, competing in dance contests at local night spots in Philadelphia, then use the money to fund trips to his next tournament, where he hoped to win a couple thousand dollars for a grand championship.
"People don't realize that I won half the tournaments from 2006 to 2009 even though I was sleeping in my car," he said. "I wasn't training, but I'd already done the forms so many times [that] I could just train in my mind."
Marco started making more money hosting house parties for celebrities in the Baltimore area, but the thrill of tournaments was still alluring. However, he fathered a son when he was 18, and that changed his priorities. He realized how much money the top athletes in other sports were earning, then compared it to how much the top martial artists were making.
"You can't make more than $2,500 at a tournament, and for that, you might have to spend 16 hours there," he said. "I began to compete less every year. Now I won't go unless they offer enough money. If I tear my ACL competing and need surgery and can't work, how am I going to feed my son? So before I compete, I've got to make sure it makes sense.
"Marco still aspires to turn his martial arts skills into a film career. Not long ago, he made a story about a homeless person who's also a martial arts master, and it became an acclaimed short film titled The Legend of Kung Funk. However, rather than trying to make the leap to Hollywood, Marco remains in Baltimore. There, he's found a new way to have martial arts bring meaning to his life. Working with groups like Living Classrooms, Smart Steps and the University of Maryland, he teaches a program he calls "Da Martial Elements." It brings his brand of kung fu hip hop to local children in need of structure and guidance.
"I'll win a tournament grand championship, and no one cares or knows who I am," he said. "But I've been working with this program since 2014, and if I'm sick and miss a day, kids are crying, saying they don't want to be there because Mr. Marco didn't show up."
Where I'm from in Baltimore, no one's taught these kids how to build a work ethic or [have] discipline. With kung fu hip hop, I make that cool, trying to match things like honor and integrity with the spoken word."
Marco said the results are more rewarding than any trophy. He recounted the story of one child he worked with at a local youth center, the Under Armour Living Classrooms House. There, the student was frequently getting into altercations with teachers. Now 20 years old, that student is employed as a coordinator for them.
"I've worked with about 20,000 children since I started this, and I say I can't leave Baltimore until that number is 500,000," he said. "My biggest win as an adult isn't some tournament. It's working with these kids."
For more information about Marco Johnson, visit pointmma.com.
The following is Willie Johnson's response to the story Black Belt ran about his son Marco Johnson.
Breaking the Cycle of Despair
First, I would like to say thank you to the staff of Black Belt for believing in me and my family and for supporting us over the years. However, the story about my son Marco Johnson made some statements that I would like to correct.
I never got locked up for a drug offense. I was locked up for fighting with the police. In my life, I never had a drug charge and never was locked up for any of the bad things I thought I should've been locked up for. I consider that a blessing from God. [Corrected by the editor.]
Kung fu hip hop, the system that Marco talked about, is an element of wushudo, the system that I created. Kung fu hip hop is what I passed along to my son as he began to compete. My wife Kimber and I served as the coaches of our school's team, and I made all the music.
Marco's work with underprivileged kids in Baltimore uses a program that's based on that of the Stronger Than Drugs Foundation, which we launched after I was released from jail. For more information, visit williethebamjohnson.com.
The article makes it seem like Marco had a hard life, but he made those choices — like temporarily living in his car — because they worked with his circumstances at the time. I'm happy that he never had to experience the hardships that I did, which in part is because he now lives with my wife and me, rather than in his car.
This upward evolution should be emphasized. His life is not an example of the downward spiral that many African-Americans are facing.
One thing the article neglected to include is my daughter. She was right there beside Marco when they trained as kids. As a matter of fact, she was the one who did all the behind-the-scenes work on the development of the curriculum of kung fu hip hop and later point MMA. Again, my wife was the person who oversaw everything.
My family and I broke the cycle of despair that often comes with life in the inner city, and I wish that would've come out in the article because it's a message everyone needs to hear.
— Willie "The Bam" Johnson
Black Belt Hall of Fame
2000 Kung Fu Artist of the Year