9 Martial Arts Icons on the Best and Worst Advice

Benny Urquidez

They received in their formative years

Is there such a thing as luck, or do we just make good decisions and bad decisions that eventually determine our success — or our failure? The life-changing choices we make sometimes seem like they hinge on the flip of a coin, the roll of the dice … or a piece of well-intentioned advice that goes south.In this vein, Black Belt contacted nine of the most successful martial artists in the world to pose two questions: What is the best advice you ever received as a martial artist? What is the worst advice? In addition to revealing tidbits from their own journeys to the top, their answers provide guidance for all martial artists.

Dennis Brown

Dennis Brown

The editors of Black Belt called Dennis Brown one of the 25 most influential martial artists of the 20th century. The road to that rank began when he started learning wushu and tai chi from Chinese instructors and continued when he traveled to China in 1982 to train at Shaolin Temple, becoming the first African-American to do so. In 1998 he was the magazine’s Kung Fu Artist of the Year.

Best Advice: When God sends you a message, listen.
“I was scheduled to be on American Airlines flight 77 on 9/11,” Brown said. “I was taking 11 of my students to China for training. I woke up in the middle of the night because something told me to reschedule the flight to accommodate a weekend training session. So I took that advice and unknowingly put my fate in my own hands.“

On Friday, the airline called and said, ‘We have an earlier flight. Can you make it?’ I hustled everyone together and made the flight, not knowing that our original flight in a few hours would be hijacked and crash into the Pentagon, killing everyone on board.

“The plane was full except for 12 empty seats. Those would have been our seats. About that day, I told people, ‘I was scheduled to be on that plane. I was supposed to be in China. God doesn’t make mistakes.’”

The best tip Brown has received in the earthly realm came from his grandmother, he recalled. “She said, ‘Find something that you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I’ve been teaching kung fu since 1971, and I still love it.”

Worst Advice: Get a real job.
“One of my relatives tried very hard to convince me that I could never make enough money to support myself or a family by smacking my friends in the park with swords,” Brown said. “He told me I had to find a job that I could make money at, so I tried that for years.“

I didn’t enjoy going to work — nothing was fun. Then one day, I got up and decided to put my life in reverse and focus on the one thing that made me happy: martial arts. My journey in the martial arts has been very successful for me on many levels. I have three successful Shaolin Wu-Shu Training Centers and am proud to have risen from family poverty by teaching old-school traditional kung fu.”

Cynthia Rothrock

Cynthia Rothrock

The queen of martial art movies, who was Black Belt’s 1983 Female Competitor of the Year, has garnered decades of accolades, but had it not been for some good advice that came in the guise of a scolding, her journey in the arts could have ended before it even got started.

Best Advice: Be a winner, not a loser.
“Early in my career, I got some good advice that stopped me from quitting martial arts,” Rothrock said. “My instructor gave a talk to the class, emphasizing that quitters are losers. And at that point, I was ready to quit karate. I was the only girl in the class, it was hard and I was getting hurt. So I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’“

When he said, ‘Quitters have bad attitudes,’ he was looking right at me — because I did have a bad attitude. And when he said, ‘Quitters are losers and will never amount to anything,’ I thought, I don’t want to be a loser.”

What the instructor said prompted Rothrock to adjust her attitude and boost her focus. “I applied that positive mindset to my training and everything else in life,” she said. “That was 40-some years ago, and I have always lived by that advice.”

worst Advice: Use less power.
“I was in China training in wushu in 1982,” she said. “My teachers were extremely pleased with my progress and that my techniques were smooth yet very powerful. Then I came back to the States, and another wushu instructor told me I was putting too much power into my forms and that I needed to do them softer without power.“

We were both competing in forms in the same division, and I decided if I’m going to kick, I have to kick hard because I’m not going to hurt someone with a soft swing kick, and for the same reason, I wanted to have power in my punches, too. For me, every movement of my forms had to be effective, whether it was fast or fluid, so I didn’t take his advice. I did my forms with power. Long story short, I won and he didn’t.”

Bill Wallace

Bill Wallace

The three-time Black Belt Hall of Famer who goes by the nickname “Superfoot” owns an arsenal of kicks that made him a legend in and out of the ring. His outgoing personality and ability to have fun whether teaching or fighting are part and parcel of his life philosophy — even if he’s kicking an opponent in the head.

Best Advice: Just have a good time.
“The best advice I ever got was just to have fun,” Wallace said. “If you are going to do it, whatever the ‘it’ is, enjoy it because if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t care.“

For example, I love to train and practice my kicks. I don’t believe I’ve ever thrown a perfect kick. I’ve thrown some pretty good ones, but I don’t think any of them were perfect. I tell people, ‘Practice makes permanent; it doesn’t make perfect.’

”No matter how much you practice, something eventually will go awry, so you should learn to laugh at yourself, he explained. “Once, I was fighting a guy and tried to kick him in the head, but I landed on my butt. [All you can do is] just grin and get up and do it better the next time.”

Wallace reached deeper into his martial memory and came up with another example: “In 1990 I hit Joe Lewis with a counter hook kick. I thought, Oh, damn! I’ve killed him with a perfect heel kick! Lewis merely backed up and said, ‘Ouch.’ I just shook my head and smiled. Like I said, you gotta have fun.”

Worst Advice: Don’t mind the pain.
Wallace said the worst advice he ever received was to ignore pain. Now he knows how ill-advised that is. “If something starts to hurt, there is something physically wrong,” he explained. “The guy who said, ‘No pain, no gain,’ is dead because he said that a long time ago before we got smart about how to train safely.“

Working through the pain is very stupid. Let an injury heal because with rest, it will heal a lot faster. Muscles, ligaments and tendons are soft tissues and will give — but only to a certain degree. When you go too far, they’ll snap.”

Benny Urquidez

Benny Urquidez

Also a Black Belt Hall of Famer, “The Jet” has been an icon and a role model for decades. He continues to educate and inspire future generations of martial artists and fighters.

Best Advice: Keep her.
Urquidez said his best tip came from Ed Parker at the 1967 Long Beach International Karate Championships after Urquidez introduced his girlfriend Sara to the American-kenpo founder.

“Mr. Parker looked at me and said, ‘She’s a keeper.’ I had no idea what that meant — maybe it was a secret code or something. I went home and thought about that for a long time, trying to figure out what a keeper was. Several months passed before I saw Mr. Parker again, and I asked him, ‘You said my girlfriend was a keeper. Exactly what does that mean?’“Mr. Parker looked me in the eyes and said very slowly, ‘Keep her.’ Then it sunk in it was two separate words. He was telling me that Sara and I were a perfect match and that I should keep her. Sara and I just celebrated our 47th anniversary.”

worst Advice: Make people fear you.
“The worst advice I ever got was from my father,” Urquidez said. “He told me, ‘If you want respect, you must put fear in everybody.’ So I did just that. I didn’t care who it was or where we were — I put fear into anyone and everyone. I was a tough kid looking for trouble back then.

“But my mom saw what I was doing and said, ‘That’s not respect. That’s fear. People are afraid of you. Is that who you want to be?’ Mom made me realize that respect must be earned. Thanks to her, I changed.”

Stephen K Hayes

Stephen K Hayes

In 1985 Black Belt named Stephen K. Hayes its Instructor of the Year, and he’s been a leader in the martial arts world ever since. Countless students, of both ninjutsu and his art of to-shin do, have benefited from his accumulated wisdom.

Best Advice: Follow your passion.
“The best advice was to know yourself and to know exactly why you are training in the martial arts,” he said. “Then find the best teacher who can motivate your passion.“

For me, that meant looking all across America for a teacher who inspired me with his skills and his ability to teach others those skills and who lived an exemplary life. I was finally driven overseas to find a teacher and an art that clearly addressed what I wanted.
”Following his passion — in this case, all the way to Japan — enabled Hayes to learn the art that most appealed to him and then pass it on. “My goal was to translate the principles of self-defense into modern scenarios and yet stay true to the classical principles of martial arts,” he said. “You’ve got to pick a good teacher who teaches what you want to learn.”

worst Advice: Don’t ask questions.
Hayes said the worst advice he received was transmitted by example through teachers who conveyed the following message: Don’t bother me with silly questions about people or techniques. Just do what I say. Practice the martial arts in their unchanging classical form and you can easily adapt them to modern self-protection.

“This advice was wrong on all counts,” he exclaimed. “I studied an antique form of Japanese martial arts in the 1970s and did thoroughly enjoy it, but people in [present-day] America fight very differently from people in 1500s Japan. When I returned to America in the 1980s, I found a vastly different landscape than I had encountered in Japan.“

I desperately needed to change the techniques — especially [with respect to] how aggressors attacked in modern America — while at the same time saving the all-important principles taught in the ninja arts. Such a major transformation required an enormous body of questions that needed years of careful and accurate answers

.“I had to ask questions to unearth the truth behind the combat aspects of various styles and forms. But there were those who would tell me to shut up and train.”

Willie Johnson

Willie Johnson

“The Bam” is a master wushu practitioner, Black Belt’s 2000 Kung Fu Artist of the Year and a sport-karate world champion who understands the difference between fighting for points and fighting for survival.

Best Advice: Avoid street fights.
“The best advice was avoid a fight whenever possible because in the dojo, half the stuff you practice is repetition, but when a real fight happens, it’s all about creativity, adaptability and flow,” he said. “That’s when your muscle memory kicks in. That comes from your survival instinct, not from prearranged training.”

worst Advice: Black belts always win.
“The very worst advice was that a street fighter can’t beat a black belt and that a black belt will always beat a street fighter,” Johnson said. “Now I know better because I was one of those kids on the street and one of those kids in jail. I learned how to fight to survive.”If the street fighter and the martial artist are equal in size and strength, the martial artist will have an advantage because he’s more technical and strategic, Johnson said. “But there are some very tough street fighters! So I say to martial artists, ‘If you run into one of those guys, you’d better be good because he isn’t fighting for a trophy. He’s a predator who makes a living by robbing, hustling and killing. He doesn’t care about getting life plus 50 in prison.”

Ernie Reyes Sr.

Ernie Reyes Sr.

Throughout his career, the founder of the West Coast Demonstration Team and Black Belt’s 1981 Instructor of the Year often found himself receiving martial arts–related advice. He quickly learned to heed the good and ignore the bad.

Best Advice: Remember the values of the martial arts.
“The best advice came from my martial arts teachers Moises Arizmendi, Dan Choi, Jhoon Rhee and Tadashi Yamashita,” Reyes recalled. “It was about living the highest values of the martial arts, which are honor, loyalty, family and bravery.“

I have taken that advice and [put] it into my 53 years of training. It’s all based on respect and discipline. Martial arts training can transform one’s life for the better and give [a person] the ability to make a difference in the world.”

worst Advice: Don’t make martial arts a career.
“The worst advice was to not do martial arts as a career because I could barely make the rent when I started my school,” Reyes said. “The second-worst advice was, ‘Don’t do any other martial arts; just teach taekwondo.’ And then they said, ‘Don’t do musical forms.’

“I ignored all this advice. We modernized the West Coast Demo Team by adding different styles and techniques to our taekwondo base. Then we added music to our forms and demonstrations. And from that, we began doing television and feature films in addition to producing many national champions.”

Along the way, Reyes managed to turn martial arts into a fulfilling career.

Gokor Chivichyan

Gokor Chivichyan

Black Belt’s 1997 Judo Instructor of the Year is also an expert in no-holds-barred fighting and sambo. While competing, he built a record of 400 wins and no losses as a professional, he said. After moving to America, Chivichyan teamed up with “Judo” Gene LeBell to create an MMA system that’s now taught in several countries.

Best Advice: Accept the challenge.
“In 1997 I was challenged to come out of retirement to fight one last no-holds-barred world-championship fight against Mr. Maeda, a world champion from Japan. My friend Gene LeBell advised me to accept the challenge, so I did.”

It wound up being the right course of action, he added. “It gave me an opportunity to prove on a live pay-pay-view event the effectiveness of the style of fighting Gene and I created. I beat Mr. Maeda in 51 seconds. It was the only defeat of his career.”

His message for the public: Take risks even when a positive outcome isn’t guaranteed. It’s the best way to move forward.

worst Advice: Train harder before the fight.
“The worst advice happened when I was a kid training for an event [that was scheduled for] the next day,” Chivichyan said. “I was advised to work harder and add more weight to my workout.“

The day of the event, my muscles were sore and I got tired easily because I put all my energy into training the day before. I lost the match because of that bad advice.”

Later, he would discover this is why athletes taper before competition.

Karen Sheperd

Karen Sheperd

When she competed, Black Belt’s 1997 Woman of the Year was a champion without equal. Even more important, she was a pioneer who fought in and out of the ring to create a rating system for women’s forms. The alarming part of her story is that her accomplishments came close to not happening at all

Best Advice: You’re too broke to compete.
It may sound odd, but the worst advice I ever got was also the best advice I ever got,” Sheperd said. “It was in the early ’70s. The founder of my system told me that I should give up my dream of being a forms champion because I didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford to go to national tournaments.

“He was right. I was broke. But instead of giving up my dream, I worked extra jobs and saved. I even cleaned the school to pay for my lessons. I was determined to prove him wrong. I made the money [for] the trip — and I won my first grand-champion title.”

worst Advice: Don’t rock the boat.
To this day, she’s still haunted by some of the worst advice she received, Sheperd said. “In the early ’80s, I began a campaign to create a rating system for women’s forms and was told, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ At the time, there were still some men who didn’t want that to happen.“

I had been invited to be the head judge in men’s sparring at a national tournament. I walked in, carrying scoring flags and ready to start the match, when a bunch of men freaked out. They grabbed the flags out of my hands, and a scene started — but I was told not to rock the boat, so I didn’t.

“I should have spoken my mind and stood my ground. Standing your ground and speaking the truth is more important now than ever — for yourself, your beliefs and your country.”

Terry L. Wilson is a freelance writer and jujitsu practitioner based in San Diego.

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