Two hundred men and women knelt in rapt and reverential silence. All of them wore crisp, white karate outfits, or gis, cinched with black belts. Hardened karate-ka who had trained two decades and earned third- and fourth-dan black belts took honored places in the front row. I was in the back by the fire exit. We were gathered in a university gym in Toronto for an international tournament. I was in my late 30s at the time. With my still new first dan, I felt like a humble 10-handicapper in the company of Tiger Woods.
At the front of the hall stood the shihan, a master instructor with a seventh dan. He was demonstrating leg sweeps, techniques associated with judo more than karate. In Japan, he had been a university judo champion.
At this point, the shihan passed over the champions up front and summoned me from the ranks. Karate etiquette demands stoicism, but the skepticism in the ranks was not entirely disguised.
“Kame,” he said. Kame was my far-from-fearsome handle in the dojo. English translation: Turtle. This wasn’t intended to evoke Gamera, the monster turtle who fought Godzilla in Japanese horror films. And all of this predated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No, Turtle had been my boyhood nickname because I had a pet tortoise.
The tag proved apropos for an entirely different reason, a gift that revealed itself in the dojo: I could fall. Yes, my best asset was a durable back.
I know what you’re thinking: Anyone can fall, it’s just gravity. But you’re wrong. Breaking a fall is as complex as any offensive technique. You’re utterly exposed and in immediate danger of real physical harm. Your opponent has weaponized the ultimate blunt force object: the floor. In this instance with the shihan, a hardwood floor.
I spent many hours practicing break-falls, some from great heights. I did judo in grade school. In prep school, I routinely recreated Dick Van Dyke’s tumble over the footstool in the intro to his old TV show, a letter-perfect judo break-fall. I could have paid my way through school working as an adolescent stuntman.
I was 200 pounds back then and my break-falls produced thunderclaps, like sound effects laid over fight scenes in “Enter the Dragon.”
In hockey circles, they’ll say that a guy on the wrong end of a one-sided fight has been “rag-dolled.” In karate circles, they say nothing. Instead, they kneel and study the physics of bodies in motion.
All martial arts are a quest for beauty and transcendence. I found those not in doing karate but rather having karate done to me. I was honored to be tossed like a bag of wet cement by the shihan.
There was no looking down for a soft spot to fall, nor for the leg that would undercut my own. I had to properly simulate the fighting condition, willing myself unaware of my fate so that I didn’t reflexively start falling until I was actually being felled.
On my descent, I locked eyes with the shihan and grabbed a fistful of the sleeve of his gi. I had let him and gravity do their business and landed in position to counter. He might have been the only one in the room who recognized this, but no matter — it wasn’t about me, and I wasn’t brought up to compete.
The shihan let go of me. I sprang to my feet and assumed a fighting position. Once again I was thrown to the floor. And again. And 20 times more. Each time I broke my fall as if out of an ancient textbook, none the worse for wear.
In the material world the martial arts are often described and even advertised as a means of self-defense. You sincerely hope you never have to use your martial art outside a dojo. And you definitely hope that you never have to perform a break-fall in any situation. That said, my ability to fall spared me injury and possibly saved my life in the workplace.
My job as a sportswriter has often landed me in strange circumstances, but none stranger than my trip in 1991 to Calgary, Alberta, to write about Bret Hart, a big dog in the World Wrestling Federation. This led to a fateful encounter with Bret’s father, Stu, who had retired as the proprietor of Stampede Wrestling, leaders in the mayhem industry in Western Canada.
Stu Hart began his ring career in the 1940s and threw one of his last elbow smashes in apparent anger on an early-1990s pay-per-view show, knocking out Bret’s rival Shawn Michaels. Some doubted the authenticity of that blow: Could a septuagenarian really ice a 240-pound champion in his prime? I, too, considered it far-fetched, but only until I wound up in the same position with Hart as I had with the shihan. That position, as ever, was supine.
I was interviewing Hart and minding my manners when he asked me about a splint on the middle finger of my left hand. To my instant regret I told him my finger had been dislocated blocking a roundhouse kick in the dojo. This prompted what old-school wrestlers called a “snatching,” an act of bodily appropriation that I was powerless to fend off while trying to take notes.
“I could shoot an angle,” he said. “You’d be the wrestling reporter.” Before I could beg off this narrative, I was in fact a wrestling reporter, or at least a reporter being wrestled. Hart lifted me to shoulder height and body-slammed me onto his dining-room floor.
Chin in, arms extended, hitting the floor with open hands: check, check and check. I took inventory: I was in one piece and breathing, but the latter seemed only temporary as 270 pounds of wrestling history landed on me. Reverting to his days in the ring, Hart started to choke me out.
Thankfully his wife, Helen, happened on the scene. Rather than counting me out, she offered profuse apologies and upbraided her husband for snatching yet another guest. I thanked her for the well-timed intervention but told her no apology was necessary.
If you want to start to understand a fighting art, you have to be willing to go to the mat. The warrior might be as sacred as Shihan or as slapstick as Stu, but regardless best viewed from the ground up.
Gare Joyce, a features editor for Sportsnet, is the author of “The Code,” a mystery novel that was adapted for the television series “Private Eyes.”