“A picture is worth 1,000 words; an action is worth 1,000 pictures.”
— Jhoon Rhee
For decades, we’ve known Jhoon Rhee as the father of taekwondo in America. Without digging too deep into our memories, most of us could tell you that the master is based in Washington, D.C., and that he’s trained elected officials on Capitol Hill for years. Some may also know that Jhoon Rhee was instrumental in the development of martial arts sparring gear back in the 1970s and that in 1983 he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Man of the Year. In martial arts circles, he’s as famous as anyone can be.
Ironically, few people — in America or his native South Korea — know much about Jhoon Rhee other than the aforementioned points. To remedy that, I wrote this article. It presents 10 fun and fascinating facts about taekwondo’s best-known practitioner.
RHEE, LEE AND ALI
In 1964, Rhee met Bruce Lee at Ed Parker’s International Karate Championship in Long Beach, California. The two became friends and frequently discussed the martial arts, and Rhee wound up teaching a few taekwondo kicks to Bruce Lee.
A number of people vehemently deny that, and if you’re one of them, consider the following: Bruce Lee’s early demonstrations centered on hand techniques that utilized speed and power. His prowess in the physical pursuits stemmed from his experience as a dancer, boxer and wing chun practitioner — none of which was oriented toward kicking. When Lee rose to fame as a kung fu actor, it was well after his collaboration with Rhee had begun.
Now take a look at a Jhoon Rhee side kick — any photo from one of his early taekwondo books or articles will do. Compare that to film footage of Bruce Lee doing a side kick. The techniques are nearly identical.
Jhoon Rhee is also credited with teaching Muhammad Ali the “accu-punch,” a fact that Ali stood behind. The accu-punch is described as a blow that’s done instantly when no thought is given to it. It’s launched as soon as an opponent presents an opening. Ali said he used the punch in 1975 to knock out U.K. heavyweight champ Richard Dunn in one minute 30 seconds. Pretty cool — but wait a minute. Rhee credits Bruce Lee with having taught him more effective hand techniques that didn’t telegraph one’s intent. So maybe it’s more accurate to say Lee taught the punch to Ali through Rhee.
THE BIG SCREEN
In the 1973 Raymond Chow flick When Taekwondo Strikes, Jhoon Rhee had a role. The setting was one he was all too familiar with: the Japanese occupation of Korea. Rhee demo’d his taekwondo skills on the big screen while portraying a leader of the resistance. He looked forward to more opportunities in showbiz, but Bruce Lee passed away around the time the movie hit the theaters.
That, coupled with the amount of time Rhee was required to be away from his family and his martial arts schools, left a sour taste in his mouth. It ended up being his first and last film.
The karate/kobudo master teamed up with Black Belt magazine to make Fumio Demura Karate Weapons: Complete Video Course. Merging Demura’s classic DVDs with new new kata footage, the program streams lessons on the nunchaku, bo, kama, sai, tonfa and eku bo to your digital device. Details here!
FROM KARATE MAN TO FATHER OF TAEKWONDO
When Jhoon Rhee began teaching the martial arts while studying engineering in Texas in the late 1950s, he advertised his program as karate. Occasionally, he’d use the name tang soo do to denote the style of karate he taught. Using the word “karate” was a wise move because Americans were familiar with it. Virtually no one had heard of taekwondo.
In 1960, Gen. Choi Hong-hi paid a visit to the Texas-based Jhoon Rhee Karate Club. Choi, the founder of the oh do kwan, one of the original five kwan that emerged after Japanese colonial rule, encouraged Rhee to use the new Korean term. Calling it “taekwondo” evoked a sense of freedom and independence, as well as respect for the Korean homeland. Rhee agreed.
The road wasn’t an easy one to follow, but Rhee proved he was more than up to the challenge. His decision to go with the new name made him the United States’ first taekwondo instructor.
BORN TO FAIL
Jhoon Rhee possessed a reverse punch and roundhouse kick that were second to none. He could bust boards with either technique. Combine that taekwondo prowess with his strength, balance and flexibility, and you can see that he was an exemplary athlete.
However, it wasn’t always that way. When he was a child, no one thought he’d amount …