The Beginning of a Journey
In 1966, New York City was in the midst of a subway strike that nearly shutdown down the entire city. The US was experiencing division and unrest with opposing views on the Vietnam war. Culturally, there was an awakening, a period of growth that touched all artists and art forms. It was at this point, within this harsh and unforgiving backdrop, that a young 16 year old from Harlem, NY named Ralph Mitchell, would begin a lifelong journey into the world of Martial Arts.
"I had a friend, Dean Mitchelson, he was a Brown belt in Judo. He took me down to check out his dojo, the American Buddhist Academy on 110th st & Riverside dr. It was there that I was fortunate to meet and train under Sensei Higashi."
Ralph instantly fell in love with Judo and the discipline Martial Arts brought to his life. Although his parents supported his love and passion for Judo, they were also cautiously aware of the inherent dangers involved for their young son to travel through the city alone. This lead to Ralph finding a Judo school closer to home. He'd end up training under Sensei Ed Liddie, in Harlem, NY.
"My parents didn't like me traveling around town alone in those days, so I found a local school by us in Harlem. Sensei Ed was a great teacher. His son, who was 6 years old at that time, would go on to win a bronze at the 1984 Olympics in Judo. This was the level of instruction there."
Photo: Ralph in his early years as a martial artist at a Judo tournament.
Over the next 2 years, Ralph's passion for training and evolving his craft continued to grow. This desire for constant growth and education in new art forms would be something that stayed with the young Martial Artist throughout his life. In 1968, the then 18 year old was introduced to Kung Fu by his cousin.
"It was Chinese New Year and my cousin brought me to an event they were having in Chinatown. It was my first time seeing Kung Fu in real life. At that point, I'd never seen Kung Fu except for Bruce Lee on the Green Hornet. I had to learn this art."
At the time, it was common practice to not teach non-Chinese the art of Kung Fu. When Ralph and his cousin inquired about learning from these teachers, they were told no, and to come back in a few months to try again. 3 months later, a driven young Ralph Mitchell showed up at their door, once again asking to learn under them. The stars were aligned in his favor, and he was accepted as one of their first students in their newly formed Southern Praying Mantis Association, one of only two in Chinatown that taught to non-Chinese at the time. As Ralph continued along his path of learning, life would take him down an unexpected journey. It's here where his beginner knowledge of the Martial Arts would be tested and developed, beyond his wildest dreams, and nightmares.
Born into Battle
In 1969, at the age of 19, Ralph Mitchell was drafted into the army. He would have a short stay at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, before being shipped to Vietnam in Nov 1969. Here, in the unforgiving environment of this foreign land, where the heat could reach 120 degrees and it rained constantly for weeks on end, that Ralph became a new man.
"I was born again as warrior. I had taken with me the mindset and the discipline I'd learned in the Martial Arts to never give up. I tried to tap into the Budo I had learned."
One particular day on his journey throughout Vietnam, Ralph purchased an old book that would help him to become a leader of men in war, and eventually, in life.
"I bought Miyamoto Mushashi's The Book of 5 rings. I read that thing everyday. I specifically memorized the chapters on 1 on 1 combat. I used these teachings to hone my skills as a warrior and a leader. I eventually became a squad leader. I've passed that book down to my students ever since."
Ralph was a changed man. His warrior spirit now baptized within the fire of war, he returned home with a new mindset towards furthering his Martial Arts journey.
"I now had the confidence that I will endure. The experience of war cemented my desire to grow as a Martial Artist and Fighter. I wanted to be the best pound for pound fighter as a 135lb man. That's what I fought at in those days."
By 1972, Ralph was settled back into life in New York. He continued his training in Chinatown, eventually becoming the first non-Chinese assistant instructor at Kwoon, his Kung Fu dojo. Ralph respected the traditions of his teachers, but since returning home from the war, he found it increasingly difficult to justify their continued practice of withholding the real art from certain students.
"After I got back from the war, I didn't take anymore bullshit. They were still holding back the real art. One day there was a conflict between myself and another instructor that turned into a hand to hand situation. I ended up getting the better of the other instructor and it happened in front of other students, so they saw the reality of it. He was a relative of the school owner, so I was then asked to leave."
A Wandering Samurai
This would begin yet another chapter in the story of Ralph Mitchell. Now alone, without a teacher of his own, Ralph took it upon himself to find new challenges and further his development as a Martial Artist. It was in these years that Ralph considered himself a Ronin, a wandering samurai seeking to test himself against the best in any school he could find.
Ralph would find himself entering the world of underground Full Contact fighting. This would consist of a no holds barred, bareknuckle street fight, usually on a hard, unforgiving surface. Keeping with the traditional side of the arts, Ralph would also compete in Karate tournaments, both point contact and form. The stark contrast in his abilities to not only display a kata with beauty and control, while also being able to dismantle an opponent with speed, precision and accuracy, coupled with the grit and experience he possessed as veteran of war, left Mr Mitchell in a category if his own. Ralph's undefeated journey through the underground scene of the mid 1970's would lead to a unique opportunity. In 1978, now in his late 20's, Ralph was chosen to represent his country in Taiwan, at the World Full Contract Championships. Once again, Ralph was one a very few to compete in both fighting and form. He was also 1 of only 3 Americans invited to compete. Just as back in America, Ralph's abilities across both aspects of competition drew great recognition for him. Being an American and a Black man, brought an even brighter spotlight on him and his mastery of his craft, as spectators had never seen anyone of his kind performing to such a level.
"It was a 5 day round robin tournament. I saw some great competitors lose in the first round, so I knew the level of competition. There was over 350 competitors there, and I had a target on my back because I carried the US flag and they knew I was a war vet. I went on to take 2nd place which was quite rare for a non-Chinese. They covered me on the news there and in the papers. I still have some of the clippings. It was a great experience. As I like to say to my students, you have to find the cause of your own ignorance. I needed to go through that "door of the unknown", and it made me a better Martial Artist and fighter."
The Student Becomes the Teacher
In his early years as a teacher around 1975, Ralph would hold classes at Seaview Park, in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Eventually he would go on to open a school on avenue L. It was in these early years where he began stitching together different threads from various Martial Arts, to create the Universal Defense System. UDS was a combination of all he learned throughout his experiences as a Martial Artist, Fighter, and Veteran of War.
Now, Ralph found himself in a new stage on his journey. In his early years, he was a take no-nonsense, ronin seeking to test himself against the teachers of other schools. Now, he was the experienced teacher, who people would seek to challenge themselves.
"I don't say this to brag, but just to show the reality if it. One day I'm teaching in the park and this guy jumps the fence and makes a b- line for me and my students. You could tell his intent from a mile away. As he approached he challenged me to fight. In this moment, my students all stepped back, to watch the outcome of this altercation. I dispatched him right away with a roundhouse to the head, knocking him out cold. The funny part of the story is there were some cops patrolling at the time and they were headed towards us. My students and I picked up this guy who just got KO'd and held him up as if he was just hanging out with us. The cops drove by then we put him back down. That man ended up becoming one of my best students."
Throughout the 80s, and 90s, Ralph Mitchell would continue to combine aspects from different art forms, always seeking out top instruction from around the world within each new art, and always maintaining a"beginners mind".
"I would travel all over the country to train. Back then it was all about the seminars. If I knew there was a guy I wanted to learn from, but he was out in California, I went to California. I always say, Martial Arts can be a mistress of the best kind. That's exactly what it was. Wether I taught during the day or worked a full-time job, I was always finding ways to train and continue learning."
Ralph would continue the expansion of his Martial knowledge in many areas, always paying homage to those he learned from. He would continue his Kung Fu training as a disciple under GrandMaster Gin Foon Mark Jooklum in Southern Praying Mantis. He trained Boxing under Victor Valley Sr. and Fred Corritone. Ralph would also train under Gurus Paul Vunak and Thomas Cruse, becoming a Senior Full Instructor in the Progressive Fighting System. He would receive Black belts in Judo under Professor Visitacion and under GM Dong Cuesta in the Doce Pares System. Ralph would become training partners with legends in the Martial Arts world such as Soke John Davis, Shidoshi Ron Van Clief, as well learning JKD concepts from Dan Inosanto, one of Bruce Lee's top students. In 1987, knowing Ralph would travel long distances to attend his seminars and seek top level training, Inosanto would lead Ralph to find a high level Escrima and Doce Pares school closer to home. Ralph would go on to master these arts through dedicated training, regularly competing alongside his students in full contact stick fighting tournaments and routinely winning first place. In 1994, Ralph would turn his focus towards a new art form, Savate. He would raise the sophistication of his kicking techniques to a new level, eventually attaining Green Grove Level under Salem Assli. Always absorbing new threads, Ralph would add his new skills to UDS.
In the 90's, Ralph was an outlier, already on the cusp of the emerging NHB (later called MMA) fight scene. Much like he had done during his underground full contact fighting days, Ralph's students would tests themselves in unarmed battle. With the sport evolving rapidly, as the UFC was just started, eventually local promotions began holding MMA events. One such event was created by someone Ralph knew well from his years as a Martial Artist and Fighter. It was Lou Neglia's Ring of Combat, and Ralph's student Nardu Debrah would become its first ever Champion at ROC 1. Many of Ralph's students would go on to have success, not only in the ROC cage but throughout many different fight organizations, including the UFC. Now, it's his students who have their own schools and are continuing to teach the UDS system, while leading new warriors into battle.
When asked what are some of his greatest memories and moments throughout his journey, he mentions some obvious high marks, but in the end, it always comes back to his students.
"Gaining the respect from my contemporaries in Karate as a fighter representing Kung Fu, heavy-hitters that I once looked up to becoming my mentors, and winning 2nd place in Taiwan, their all great memories and accomplishments. I would say the top of the list is having generations of students still following my path. As I say, loyalty without a paycheck, that's the highest honor. Now my students pay it forward to their students. The nature of a warrior is to be with warriors."
Ralph Mitchell, a master of many arts, can still be found on the mats these days. Whether he is teaching at his student Nardu's school, Budokan Martial Arts, or back at his roots in Chinatown, he continues to guide those who seek the way of the warrior. Despite his many ranks and titles, today, he simply goes by "Sifu," always maintaining what he considers one of his greatest virtues, a "beginners mind".