10 Things You Didn’t Know About Taekwondo Legend Jhoon Rhee

“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.

Photo by Sara Fogan


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.


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.

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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.


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 …

Martial Arts in the Olympics: Has Inclusion in the Games Helped or Hurt Taekwondo?

Whenever art becomes sport in an artificially short amount of time, some people are pleased while others cry foul. That’s exactly what happened when some practitioners of the martial art of taekwondo embarked on a mission to gain entry into the Olympics: It left some taekwondo stylists with a new raison d’etre, while plenty would argue that the Korean system of self-defense lost much of its real-world effectiveness.

In Part 2 of this series on the Olympic Games, we focus on taekwondo. Our featured experts are luminaries in the field: Hee-Il Cho, G.K. Lee and Herb Perez.

— Editors

Hee-Il Cho (Photo by Robert Reiff)

EXPERT: Hee-Il Cho, ninth dan, Black Belt’s 1989 Co-Instructor of the Year and 2012 Man of the Year

QUESTION: Have the Olympics altered the way taekwondo is taught?

HEE-IL CHO: Many schools have changed because taekwondo is in the Olympics. However, many schools have stayed on the traditional teaching path. It often depends on the instructor’s age and point of view. Younger instructors may have had exposure only to the World Taekwondo Federation, which means there’s a new generation of WTF instructors and students who are more geared to the Olympic-sport style of taekwondo.

At my school, we prefer to teach a combination of both styles. We do not gear our program specifically to the Olympics. Instead, we use a teaching style designed to give maximum benefit to the students.

QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed from a martial art to a martial sport since 1988?

HEE-IL CHO: In many ways, taekwondo has changed into an Olympic competition. Many technical advantages have evolved because of the competitive nature of practitioners around the world. Every country wishes to win a gold medal, and therefore many techniques have come about which are specifically geared to Olympic rules. These techniques, however, may not be the most effective for self-defense. For instance, because of Olympic rules, hand techniques in taekwondo have diminished while high kicks have flourished.

QUESTION: Have the Olympics helped or hurt taekwondo overall?

HEE-IL CHO: The sport of taekwondo has grown immensely in popularity since Olympic recognition. Countries that were never exposed to it now are aware of it. Taekwondo is recognized throughout the world.

There have been many positive effects, but there are also some traditional aspects and values that have changed. For many people, the goal of training is different now. In the traditional martial arts, the aim is to perfect one’s character. In sport, the aim is to become a champion. The method and the path are not necessarily emphasized because the primary focus is on the quest for victory, which sometimes is sought at any cost. This is where drugs and cheating can come into play. In sport, the goal of winning can overwhelm any moral values that are part of traditional taekwondo such as those reflected in the five tenets.

QUESTION: Does the possibility of winning an Olympic medal in taekwondo result in more children enrolling?

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HEE-IL CHO: It might help generate interest among children because they’re able to watch talented participants in the Olympics. In the USA, however, there’s not much fame or recognition because of minimal coverage of taekwondo competition by the media. One Hollywood movie like The Karate Kid generates far more interest in taekwondo than sport competitions do.

QUESTION: For children, is it better to learn traditional taekwondo or sport taekwondo?

HEE-IL CHO: Traditional taekwondo instills character-building traits like discipline, respect and focus. The child respects the master. In sport taekwondo, often the title of “master” is replaced with “coach.” This can reflect the absence of respect and discipline.

Sport taekwondo is highly competitive, and there’s only one fist-place winner, one gold medalist. Second place is barely even recognized. Because of that, the sport aspect of taekwondo appeals to children with exceptional natural talents. In contrast, traditional taekwondo offers success and accomplishments for all levels of skill and natural talent.


G.K. Lee (Photo by Peter Lueders)

EXPERT: G.K. Lee, chief master of the American Taekwondo Association, Black Belt’s 2014 Instructor of the Year

QUESTION: Does the ATA teach primarily taekwondo for aspiring Olympians or for people who want to become proficient at self-defense?

G.K. LEE: Our main focus is traditional taekwondo — mental and physical self-defense. The ATA does not currently train members specifically for the Olympics, but we do not prohibit it.

The ATA could easily adopt an Olympic-coaching system in the future. Since 1996, we have …

7 Qualities of a Martial Arts Champion According to Taekwondo Legend Jhoon Rhee

Over the years, taekwondo pioneer and Black Belt Hall of Fame member Jhoon Rhee has taken a hard look at who succeeds in the martial arts community and who doesn’t, and he’s come up with a list of the seven qualities of a champion.

As you study the attributes, you’ll find that they apply as much to life in general as they do to the martial arts.

1. Patience

It keeps you out of trouble, Jhoon Rhee says. “And it helps you maintain consistency in business and avoid overreacting to rumors and unsound ideas.”

“Patience is needed to persevere until you reach your goals,” he adds. As such, it’s vital for success in competition. The patient fighter doesn’t just charge his opponent, attacking at random and exposing himself to a counter. Rather, he waits until his opponent makes a mistake and engages when victory can be ensured.

Jhoon Rhee

2. Speed

When your punches and kicks are fast, you’re more likely to score, Jhoon Rhee says. Speed also endows your techniques with more power, making it tough for your opponent to evade or block them.

Mentally, speed refers to quick thinking for fast problem solving, which comes from reading books. “You don’t solve most problems with one idea; you need three to four pieces of related information,” Rhee says.

Speed also facilitates the quick understanding of market changes, which martial arts professionals must always stay in tune with, he adds.

3. Timing

This is necessary to ensure success in most endeavors, Jhoon Rhee says. For example, when you spar, you must time your techniques so they’ll hit the target and take advantage of opportunities as soon as they present themselves.

Similarly, competitors in musical forms must have good timing so their moves correspond to the music.


“Timing is also about being punctual when teaching your classes, showing up for your training sessions or delivering your products on time — all of which help you maintain a good reputation,” he explains.

4. Power

“Power is knowledge,” Jhoon Rhee says. “If you have knowledge, you won’t make mistakes that can get you hit, like dropping your hands, getting distracted or allowing someone to lure you into a trap.”

Knowledge is what keeps you from overreacting and making ill-advised changes to a program that already works for you — changes that could cause stress to you and those around you, Rhee adds.

5. Balance

It’s crucial in all aspects of life, yet it’s an elusive quality for most people, Jhoon Rhee says.

“To be a champion of life, you must cultivate basic values — knowledge in the mind, strength in the body and honesty in the heart — and strive to keep them in balance,” he advises.

“In the ring, you stay in balance by having a good offense and defense; and in business, always balance your financial statements.”


6. Flexibility

It represents open-mindedness and adaptability, which allow you to take action when you must make a change in your life, Jhoon Rhee says.

It also enables you to work well with a variety of people in different circumstances and resolve problems through compromise and negotiation.

Physically, a flexible body means you can turn your hands and feet into weapons while minimizing the risk of injury, he says.

Jhoon Rhee

7. Posture

Good posture helps you have a straight spine and enables you to build better muscle tone — both of which are keys to having a healthy body, Jhoon Rhee says.


The concept also works as a metaphor for a martial artist who flies straight into competition and competes within the rules, never allowing politics or peer pressure to lead him away from honesty and fairness.

“Good posture is being straight and positive in character and developing business integrity where people can put their trust in you, knowing that they can always depend on you,” Rhee says.

About the author: Floyd Burk is senior adviser to Independent Karate Schools of America.

Taekwondo Kicks Clinic: Hee Il Cho on How to Fix Your Ax Kick

Taekwondo Kicks Clinic: Hee Il Cho on How to Fix Your Ax KickPerhaps more than any other martial art on the planet, taekwondo is renowned for its kicks.

Before I continue, let me insert this: If you think taekwondo’s kicks are primarily weak techniques designed only to score points in tournaments, you haven’t seen Hee Il Cho in action. Although he’s practiced the art for nearly 60 years, he never jumped on the Olympic TKD bandwagon, which means his kicks hearken back to an era when they were pure self-defense. They pack power, they penetrate and they punish.

Follow the advice he offers here, and yours will do the same.

Hee Il Cho Shows You How to Fix Your Ax Kick

Get back to taekwondo basics in this FREE e-book!
Taekwondo Forms: Uncovering the Self-Defense Moves Within
Traditional Taekwondo Patterns

Taekwondo Kicks: Breaking Down the Ax Kick

DON’T: “Many people try to use only their leg for this kick,” Hee Il Cho says. “They try to pick it up without putting their hips into the motion. They drop both their hands, which may be OK in a tournament where they don’t use a lot of punches, but if they do it on the street, they can get knocked out.”

DO: “Lean your upper body slightly backward as you jerk your leg down after raising it,” he says. That will enable you to activate opposing muscles in your back. “It also will let you reach a few inches higher and farther out with the kick because you’ll be pushing your hip forward at the last minute. Your other hip will go backward at the same time.”

HIT: The striking surface depends on how far away your opponent is, Hee Il Cho says. “You can use the bottom of your foot to hit his face. You can use your heel — or your calf, if he’s really close — to hit his collarbone. The important thing is to not be locked in to one way of doing it and thinking you have to hit with a certain body part.”

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From Hapkido to Kuk Sool: Exploring Korea’s Martial Arts

Korean martial artsI found several kumdo schools (kendo in Japanese), countless taekwondo, hapkido and kuk sool academies, and a boxing gym within 100 yards of the apartment I occupied in Pusan, Korea. On the same block as my building, there stood a school that taught the rare art of tae kyon, and if I expanded the search radius to 300 yards, I could find facilities for wrestling, muay Thai and ssirum.

But most of the world doesn’t know that. How come? Because from 1910 to 1945, Korea was a colony of Japan. Its culture, language and martial arts were suppressed. In their place, Koreans were forced to act Japanese, speak Japanese and learn Japanese martial arts like karate, kendo and judo. But after World War II and especially since the end of the Korean War, all that began to change.

Koreans approach the martial arts with gusto. They’re expected to train five days a week, usually in the evening after work or school. Adults from abroad may have trouble keeping up with Korean martial artists, especially those who started training when they were kids — which pretty much includes everybody. Youngsters attend class one hour a day, five days a week. Typically, they take a belt test every month, which nets them a black belt in a year or two. Most of them don’t do martial arts again until they serve in the military, but those that elect to persevere get good. Fast.

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Because so many kids train, martial arts schools are big business. That’s great for the school owners but not so good if you’re searching for serious training on your own dime.

My first martial experience in country was at a kuk sool gym. Like most instructors, mine didn’t speak much English. At our first meeting, I strained to understand him, but I soon realized he was reciting a string of numbers, explaining the payment options. Yes, in Korea, the martial arts are a business.

I ended up paying $130 to sign up and purchase a uniform. Monthly tuition was $90, and belt tests were free. To register for a tournament cost $30. While checking a number of hapkido and taekwondo schools, I found that the rates were average. By Asian standards, that put Korea on the expensive side, but it’s offset by the opportunity to earn a good living as an English teacher. More on that later.

Korean dojang tend to focus on a single art. One time, I approached my kumdo teacher and broached the idea of lifting weights to build the muscles I needed to wield my sword and running to boost my cardio for those long sparring sessions. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Why would a kumdo competitor need to run and lift weights?” he asked. “This is kumdo.”

To stay in shape, I bought a gym membership for $80 a month. Gyms in Korea are unbelievably clean. They even provide you with workout clothes — when you’re finished, you toss them into a hamper and leave. Many facilities include a sauna and a public bath with hot and cold tubs.

At the dojang where I trained, students always arrived on time but would often start training late. That meant warm-ups were frequently rushed, forcing me to stretch on my own. On some days, we ran through intensive kicking drills that were every bit as hard as what I’d done in other countries. But on other days, we did rolls and tumbles, which kept the intensity at a level mere mortals can handle easily.

Training in Korea can be an incredible experience. It gives you a chance to learn the language and helps you get to know the people and their culture. As I mentioned earlier, it’s also a relatively easy place to find a job. All you need is a bachelor’s degree and a Korean school to sponsor your visa. If you contract to work 25 hours a week, you can score a free apartment and $2,000 a month for spending money. Bonus: Your employer might even cover your round-trip airfare.

In the past, you had to make the arrangements to teach in person, but with the ubiquity of the Internet, now you can visit a website such as Dave’s ESL Cafe (eslcafe.com) and find a job in a few hours. You can apply by email and be interviewed over the phone. If all your documents are in order, you could find yourself training in Korea a week later.

South Korea
POPULATION: 48.6 million
SIGHTSEEING: Olympic Village, Cheju Island, Kyungju City
NEIGHBORS: North Korea, China, …