I entered the dojo and sought out the master teacher or Sabonim to ask his permission to train here today. Usually that wasn’t a problem, if you were from another school, you could show up and the master would not have a problem if you wanted to try a class or train there for a while. As long as you were in the federation and they could look you up just to see if you actually wore the belt you claimed, it wouldn’t be a problem. But each dojo was its own microcosm and the Sabonim was God. If he didn’t like you or wasn’t in the mood, there was no way in hell you were getting in. I found the master, bowed and explained that one of his students had invited me to train here tonight and would it be OK with him. He asked me where I trained and, to my surprise, knew the place and said it was a fine dojo. I’m not sure if the last was him merely being polite but it felt good nonetheless. Lee saw us talking and came by to speak to the master.
They were speaking in Korean, Lee was probably telling him about the tournament he wanted to hold with me as the Guinea pig. The master was frowning, then he shook his head and said something to Lee, Lee’s shoulders slumped, but he didn’t give up, he kept insisting on something. All this was in Korean so I couldn’t tell what was being said, but the mere fact that he was insisting with his master said a lot about Lee’s situation here. Maybe the master was a pushover, but he didn’t strike me as one, the more likely scenario was that Lee was the star pupil here, sort of the team captain, the only one who could even insist with the master without serious repercussions. In traditional martial arts, you simply never contradicted the master or questioned him or went against his wishes. The master was God in the dojo, whatever he said went, no hesitation, no doubts, no nothing. It wasn’t a question of being afraid of him, it was a question of respect, OK and maybe a little fear as well. Not that he’d single you out and ridicule or humiliate you, the good masters never did that, but he might use you as a sparring partner for all the techniques he demonstrated and really lay into you for your lack of respect. Or he might make you do more pushups or clean the toilets or whatever. Respect was a very important part of martial arts, once you started disrespecting your master, you disrespected the whole dojo and, consequently, your peers and that was dangerous, then accidents happened.
So, it seemed like the Clash of the Titans wasn’t going to happen, I was off the hook, I felt relieved. I didn’t really want to fight these guys, it was just a means to an end, but most of them were a lot younger than me and would probably give me a run for my money. But then the master spoke again, Lee perked up, listened, smiled and bowed. Shit, apparently it was on again. He came over to me and said,
“Sabonim says Hapkido has no place for bouts or tournaments, it’s a self-defense martial art, not to be used for show.”
Good for him I thought,
“We are to have a normal class and you’re more than welcome to join. But that whatever happens after the class ends and he’s gone he can’t control and he can’t be responsible for, we just need to make sure we close when we leave and don’t leave anything behind.” Like broken bodies.
The old man was shrewd, whatever happened in his dojo was his responsibility, even if he wasn’t there, but Lee was an adult, if nothing else in age, so he could be held accountable for any accidents that befell him or his companions while in the dojo. The old man probably also figured that whatever bout Lee had in mind was going to happen no matter what, so it was better to let them have it here in a ‘controlled environment’ of sorts. Something told me that this wasn’t the first time Lee had been left in charge of the dojo either. So, Clash of the Titans was back on.
We had the class, pretty much your standard fare but a little more forceful than I was used to. Hapkido has lots of styles, but the main curriculum is pretty much the same everywhere, about 35 kicks (25 basic ones plus special kicks and combinations) and then about 200 joint locks, grappling and throws. There were variants of all this and your style could be softer or harder, depending on your school and your teacher. The Korean schools tended to be a harder style, more brutal throws and falls. It was an interesting class, but what really got me worried was Jae Sang Lee. This guy was good. I could see how he could surely be the teacher’s pet, he not only had youth, speed and strength on his side, he also had technique and precision. I was starting to get really worried about our upcoming showdown.
During the class we exchanged partners quite a bit, this is always done so that you get the benefit of trying techniques against people with different flexibility, size and strength, etc. If you always train with the same person you’ll get really good at handling one individual, which is useless really, it’s incredible how much things can change when you try the same technique against someone new. The students seemed to take a lot of pleasure into making me tap out of each technique, no doubt Lee had told them to lay it thick on me.
The class ended, we all bowed, the Sabonim left, Lee told our audience that we had a little special something for them and revealed that there would be an exhibition bout between him and the white devil, me.
The students took their places on the mat around us, sitting zazen on their knees, we took the center of the mat, bowed to each other and then Lee said,
“OK, this is a straight up bout, you can use any techniques and styles you like, no breaking or permanent injury, it’s a friendly bout” I didn’t like the way he said friendly, “first to tap out loses.”
I should explain that Hapkido doesn’t usually have a sports variant like many other Martial Arts such as Karate or Judo do, this is because although there are more than thirty kicks in Hapkido (more than in Tae Kwon Do, ironically) the meat of Hapkido are joint locks which are very dangerous to perform in an actual combat. In class, your partner will allow a certain amount of leeway for you to be able to perform the technique, otherwise someone will get really hurt. Imagine trying to do a simple joint lock on a person who not only is resisting, but is also trying to put you out of commission, it’s not a recipe for a good time. The few styles that do have some sort of tournament have very strict rules about which techniques you can and cannot use and once one of the fighters hits the ground, the bout is stopped and they take their positions again. This was not going to be anything like that. We would go all out against each other, trying to be careful, if one hit the ground, the other one would pounce on him like a lion and try to make him submit in any way possible. The first one to tap the mat would be the loser. You tapped out when the pain was too much to let your partner know that you didn’t want them to break your joint.
I was in trouble, but the outcome wasn’t such a sure thing, I might be slightly stronger than Lee, but he was younger, faster and had way more stamina than me. The one thing that I had in my favor was the same thing that put me at a great disadvantage: age. Being older usually meant I was in worse shape than him and couldn’t last as long, but it also meant I had more experience, I’d been around the block once or twice while he was young and needed to prove himself and might also be more rash and easier to goad. Small consolation but it was about all I had.
We stood facing each other in combat pose, there were four students, one in each corner of the mat who would act as judges, the one I assumed to be Lee’s number two yelled “Sipchak“, go, and the combat began.
Like in most opening seconds of any combat, we danced around each other, out of range, trying the get the other’s measure, I’d seen him train, but training and fighting are two very different things and your style in one doesn’t necessarily carry to the other, you might be an aggressive trainer but a wary fighter, or maybe the other way around, you get careless when in a stressful situation. In any case, you use the first seconds to try to gauge you opponent’s intention and his next move. This guy was younger and faster than me, there was no way I was going to make the first move, he’d put me down like a rabid dog if I did and I think he knew that, he was biding his time.
Predictably, he started off with a couple of kicks, in Hapkido, kicks are not only and offensive weapon, but they are also a way to get in close to your opponent so you can grab him and apply a joint lock or a throw and try to control him. Trying to go straight in to grab an opponent as you do in Judo for example, would earn you a sure kick in the stomach or knees and the bout would be over very quickly. Lee’s kicks were the long-range type, he was feeling me out, checking my reaction and eagerness to get in close to him, all I had to do was step back out of range. Then he started taunting me with a couple of punches and some closer kicks as well as some attempts at grabbing my shoulders. Whenever he got close I tried to land a kick but he was too quick for me and stepped back out of range. I soon realized this guy could go on like this all night and I would soon get tired and he’d have me, my best bet was to get in close and try to take him down by surprise.
On his next kick, a circular kick to my stomach, I stepped inside his guard, this did take him by surprise, he was expecting me to step back from it, I took about half the kick in the side, it still hurt like hell but there was no time to stop now, I needed to do something quickly or he’d have me. I grabbed his shoulder and swept the leg he was standing on so he would fall and I could pounce on him, but, like I said, this guy was fast, he grabbed on to me and brought me down with him, in the air, he got me in a choke hold by putting his arm and forearm around my neck and grabbing his wrist with the other hand all the better to strangle me. We went down face to face like two lovers embracing. I let all my weight hit him when we landed on the mat hoping that would make him release me, but no dice, he held on like a tick. He wrapped his legs around my waist and locked them behind me, now I was truly fucked, this was a very tough position to get out of. I hit him in the ribs with my knuckles, about a hand’s width below the armpit, he loosened his grip on my neck but only a little, more by shear reaction than anything else, he was probably expecting it, this was a standard Hapkido grappling technique after all. But it did give me a little breathing room, I drove my left thumb into his jawline about halfway between the ear and the chin, this is also a stander Hapkido Hyoldo or pressure point but it hurts like a bitch, I pushed really hard arching his head back and allowing me to slip out of his vice-like grip, it felt like I left half my hair and skin behind. Without removing my thumb and before he could react I punched him, hard, in the stomach, right below the solar plexus, this had the desired effect and he loosened his legs around my waist enough for me to jam my elbows into his thighs and get free. This last one was not a Hapkido technique so I’m sure he wasn’t expecting it, it was in fact Brazilian Jujitsu which is all about ground grappling. He started to get up, I was still on the ground trying to regain my balance and lunged for him just as he was getting to one knee, I grabbed his shoulder with one hand and the other went to his neck in a very similar chokehold like the one he used on me, the big difference here was that I was slightly behind him so I threw myself backwards on the mat and used my weight to bring hind down on top of me, but this time he was facing up, this was much better for me because there was very little he could to do get me. I choked him and wrapped my legs around his waist just as he had done to me. Doesn’t feel too good, does it fucker? But Lee was strong and savvy, he grabbed the arm that was choking him and I couldn’t exert any more pressure. This was pretty much an impasse, we could have staid like that until the cows came home, there wasn’t a lot more either of use could do without exposing ourselves, except one thing.
I sat up, Lee sat up with me because this was a better position for him anyway, I had my left hand around his neck and grabbed the collar of his jacket, my right hand was on the other side of the jacket, using it as purchase. He had his own left hand on mine, stopping the choke and his right hand on my right leg stopping me from crushing him. I let go my right hand from his jacket, lifted my right leg from the lock I had on his waist and hooked it round his right leg, just below the knee, then with my right hand I grabbed the clothing on his right knee, slid sideways to my left, lay back down again and pulled with both hands, my left on his collar, my right on his knee. This was a really weird position and nothing remotely similar to it existed in Hapkido, but I was choking the shit out of him with his own clothes.
Did I mention that Brazilian Jujitsu is all about ground grappling? There are very few techniques standing up, let me repeat that, very few techniques standing up and they are all designed to take your opponent to the ground, it’s all about ground grappling and how to get in and out of it. You spend years doing this ground shit and learn some pretty nifty tricks. I didn’t train in Brazilian Jujitsu, but I did take a course with a Hapkido pal who took it very seriously, and it just paid for itself right here.
Lee was completely fucked, even if he didn’t know it yet. He was younger, faster, had better stamina than me but unless you were twice as strong as the other guy, once he got you in that position there was absolutely nothing you could do. I briefly thought about letting go and letting him win. If I did let him go, he would win the bout one way or another, I didn’t have much more in me, and maybe letting him win would somehow make him more cooperative, he might feel he owed me. I didn’t know him enough to really gauge this. On the other hand, if I won he might feel embarrassed and cooperate more, who could tell. In the end, those same things I was accusing Lee of being vulnerable to was what decide me. Call it pride or hubris or whatever you want, but I had the little fucker, a guy who was younger and faster and probably a better martial artist than me and there was no way in hell I was going to let him go until he tapped out.
I’ll give him this, he did struggle for a long while spitting curses, too much longer and he would have passed out as the choke was cutting off the blood to his brain. In the end he tapped out just before passing out. I let him go and we lay there for a second or two panting, unable to move. He got up very quickly and looked at me with murderous rage, I was still on my back in a very vulnerable position and thought he was going to stomp on my balls by the look in his eyes. Surprisingly, he bowed to me and turned and started walking away, the dojo was deathly silent, I doubted his colleagues dared even breathe. I got up, a lot more slowly than him. He stopped. Uh oh, I thought, he’s changed his mind about the ball stomping. He came back and stood in front of me, I was huddled down with my hands on my knees trying to get some air back into my lungs but when I saw him waiting I straightened up and we both bowed to each other properly this time. Then, to my increasing surprise, he stuck out his hand and we shook.
“You beat me fair and square.” He said
“Actually, Jae Sang, I didn’t. That wasn’t Hapkido in the end, it was Jujitsu, had I stuck with Hapkido you would have beat me no doubt, I apologize if you think I cheated but you said to use any style we wanted… in any case, you’re the better martial artist for sure.”
He thought about this, the ‘better martial artist’ bit pleased him no end, I could tell.
“No. I did say to use any style you wanted, I just didn’t think you would know anything else!” He laughed.
I had to give this kid credit, at his age I would have been enraged and humiliated, all the more because Hapkido is a Korean martial art and to be beat by a foreigner just adds insult to injury. Now I could really see the reason why he was the number one student here, he had a lot of potential, not only as a martial artist but as a good human being and a future teacher. The Sabonim was probably grooming him to take over some day. If he lived long enough that is, since he seemed to be involved in some shady shit which didn’t make sense considering what I’d seen in him today.
“Please, Jae Sang, let me take you and your friends out to dinner, it would be an honor for me.”
He looked over to his cronies, they looked at him expectantly, then he nodded to them and said.
“OK. We’ll shower and go.”
We went out for dinner in an all you can eat asian buffet close to the dojo which was good because these kids had worked out quite an appetite after the class. It was Jae Sang, three other friends and me, the white devil. Once the sake started flowing the kids relaxed visibly and we started talking about martial arts and movies and shit like that. Two of them were going at it.
“Dude, there is no way in hell that Jackie Chan could beat Tony Ja.”
“That’s just because Jackie is like a hundred years old, if they were the same age I’m sure he’d make Tony his bitch.”
“Jae Sang, will you tell this fool he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Lee just kept silent, it was obvious this wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. Talking about which actor could beat who was a bit like talking about which comic book character could beat another, Superman Vs. Batman for example, but with martial arts actors it was slightly different because, in this case, both guys were the real deal. Ina nay case, my money would be on Batsy. It was all pointless chatter but enjoyable.
“What about Bruce Lee?” I said. The kids turned towards me.
“Who?” of them actually asked.
“C’mon, you’re shitting me, you really don’t know who Bruce Lee is?”
The kid must have been around eighteen, probably one of the newer recruits, “No, I sure don’t.” He said.
“Bruce Lee’s dead, dude.” Another one said.
“Yes, I know. But in a fight against one of these guys, pick one, do you think Bruce Lee would kick their ass? I think he would.”
“Man, you trippin’.” These kids were raised on TV, calling each other fool and using expressions like you trippin’, it almost made you worried about their identities. At some point some ancestor had come over from Korea and I bet they never, in a million years, would have thought their kid or grandkid would end up talking like ghetto children.
“I ain’t trippin’, fool.” I said, which elicited laughs all around, “My man Bruce would kick any of your asses if he were around today.”
And so it went for a while. I was really tempted to ask them about Sung and what they knew about his dealings, etc. But I felt that if I did I’d break the mood and these guys would probably not be very cooperative. This was a courtship, you couldn’t hurry the process or it would backfire, we had to build a relationship here and it had to be based on trust and mutual benefit, if they simply felt I was using them as informers it would never work, they had to see that I was trying to help. So I didn’t touch the issue all night and Jae Sang kept looking at me expectantly, wondering when I was going to get around to it. Eventually we left, I paid, they all thanked me profusely, we said our goodbyes and in the parking lot Jae Sang approached me.
“I thought you wanted to ask me some questions about Sung.” He said.
“Ah, so you do know him?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well, in your own time, Lee. I’m not looking to get any of you in trouble, I honestly wanna help. Sung got shot, it looks professional to me,” I shouldn’t be telling him this, but the more honest I was, the more honest I hoped he’d be, “and I think some of you guys might be in danger too. Plus, it’s my job to find the fuckers that did it and put them away. Now, you knew Sung and maybe he was your friend, I promise I can help. But take your time, think it over, do some digging, I need intel, good info, not his address and shit like that, I have all that, I need something that will get me close to whoever killed him. When you’re ready to talk, give me a call.” I handed him my card. He took it, looked at me, nodded and turned to go with a wave,
“Thanks again for dinner, and the show.” He said.
“Sure thing,” I said, “any time.” Not really meaning it about another showdown, but the dinner, yes.
It was a real gamble to let him go without asking him more questions, he might figure he didn’t owe me anything any more and never talk to me again, but his friends were waiting by the car and he wouldn’t have given me very much right now anyway. I really needed to grill this kid if I was going to get to the bottom of this case and right now was definitely not grilling time.
They stood around their cars loitering for a while, I got into mine and left with a final wave to them.