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Jeet kune do authority Taky Kimura once described Kelly S. Worden as an “American icon of the progressive arts.” In this exclusive interview, Worden reveals how his mentors helped him synthesize arnis, JKD and other concepts to forge a system he calls “renegade JKD."

Jeet kune do authority Taky Kimura once described Kelly S. Worden as an “American icon of the progressive arts.” For more than 35 years, Kelly Worden has devoted his waking hours to blending and integrating a multitude of martial arts concepts to form a system of cross-training he calls Natural Spirit International. In this exclusive interview with Black Belt magazine, the University Place, Washington-based master reveals how his teachers and mentors helped him forge a system he calls “renegade JKD,” his unique path to martial arts self-discovery.

Black Belt: You started in boxing and catch wrestling before moving to isshin-ryu karate, but from the beginning, your focus has been on fighting. When did you find out your path was different from that of other traditional practitioners?

Kelly Worden: Almost immediately. I was undisciplined. There were six children in our family. My father was a disabled veteran from World War II, and much of his time was spent in a veteran’s hospital. I found myself running the streets early on and getting into a lot of fights. I enjoyed fighting, but that attitude created other problems and issues, and I left home when I was 15. Traditional isshin-ryu karate tempered my spirit and offered structured learning and self-discipline. At best, I was an aggressive, mediocre karate practitioner, but I persevered by training in different arts. Fighting was always the core of [my] approach.

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Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was born in 1883 in the fishing and farming village of Tanabe, Japan. He was the only surviving son of a prosperous father and cultured mother who considered him their gift from heaven. His premature birth hindered his physical development; even when he was fully grown, he was little more than 5 feet tall.

His father, Yoroku Ueshiba, became concerned about the boy’s small and weak physique and encouraged him to engage in sumo wrestling, swimming and running. As the youth progressed in the sports, he began to realize his physical potential.

Other than mathematics and physics, classroom studies held little interest for the young Morihei Ueshiba. Instead, he wanted to learn meditation, chants and religious rites from Buddhist priests.

Morihei Ueshiba was a restless spirit in his younger days, charging from one occupation to the next, performing his duties easily but finding no challenge in them. At the age of 18, he was drawn to the martial arts, and until his death, the arts continued to delight and nourish him.

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Situated atop a 40-foot-high, rickety-looking catwalk, Jet Li looks like a puppet on a string as he prepares for one of Corey Yuen’s action-directed stunts. Wires protrude from Jet Li’s body in four directions, and as Corey Yuen bellows, “Action,” a menagerie of Chinese stunt guys yank on them by leaping off 10-foot ladders or running back and forth in a controlled- chaos tug-of-war. Jet Li and his opponent fly upward and then 60 feet backward in opposite directions. Then, as if being struck by invisible tennis rackets, the two fly back toward each other for their final clash of pugilistic mayhem. Who is Jet Li’s opponent in this ultimate battle? None other than Jet Li. Moments later I’m sitting with Jet Li in his trailer. The most striking image there is a photo of the Dalai Lama. It’s ironic when you consider the religious persecution that takes place in China and the fact that the Dalai Lama is considered a political criminal there. In a way, the photo portends the direction of our talk. I broach the thought that for a man who follows Buddhism, a life of film, fame and fortune might not exactly mesh. “It’s not about having to lead a simple life—although that is one [path],” Jet Li says with a smile.

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