Defeating A Giant

FEATURES January 2011

Defeating a Giant

Local martial arts fighters know that somewhere between the serenity of Eastern mysticism and the brutality of modern cage fighting lies the heart and soul of an ancient tradition that makes anything possible.

By: Tom Robotham

cats meow

FIVE YEARS AGO this month, I began taking classes at Norfolk Karate Academy (NKA). Three years later—after enduring one of the most grueling physical tests of my life—I earned my first-degree black belt.

It's easy enough to tick off the benefits of this endeavor. Within the first year I had dropped 25 pounds; at 50, in fact, I was in better shape than I had been in my mid-30s. The achievement also deepened my sense of my own capabilities. For my black belt test I had to perform 12 katas, spar for two rounds, execute a series of self-defense techniques against four attackers and demonstrate some basic jiu-jitsu grappling skills.

By the end I was utterly exhausted. But I had one more task: I had to break a two-inch concrete block with my fist. The keys, I'd learned, are to use your hips for power, and to follow through. I'd seen other people do it, but I was hesitant, nevertheless. Still, there was no turning back now. With as much force and conviction as I could muster, I struck the block and broke it in two.

The breaking of the block is more a symbol than anything else. But for me, at least, it's an important symbol. I've always had an unfortunate tendency to take up new interests with great enthusiasm, only to abandon them several months later. This final component of the test reminded me that I had endured, reached a major milestone, and broken through formidable psychological and physical barriers. Since then, I've continued to train, working toward my blue belt in Gracie jiu-jitsu (NKA is the only certified Gracie Academy in South Hampton Roads) as well as my second-degree black belt in karate. After all, as NKA owner and chief instructor Bill Odom is quick to remind students, a black belt means very little unless you continue to work toward mastery.

"I liken it to a college diploma," he says. "It's something to be proud of. But in many respects, it represents the beginning of your journey, not the end."

I've taken that to heart. And yet to this day, even as I continue my journey, I am not entirely sure why I am drawn to the martial arts.

To some degree, the attraction reflects a broader interest in Eastern philosophy and culture. As a teenager, I'd been a fan of the television show Kung Fu, captivated as much by its Buddhist aphorisms as its action scenes. A few years later, I discovered a fascinating little book called Zen in the Martial Arts and was struck by its central message: "The deepest purpose of the martial arts," writes author Joe Hyams, "is to serve as a vehicle for personal spiritual development."

I still believe that. But let's face it: There's a whole other side to the martial arts.


For the rest of this article, see the January 2011 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine

Add your comment: