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Celebrity Martial Artists, Part 1

Dateline: 08/29/99

When we think of celebrity martial artists, we usually think of the people we see in the movies: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Stephen Seagal, and Cynthia Rothrock, among others. All were exceptionally competent martial artists prior to embarking onto careers as movie stars. And then there's martial artists that are celebrities in their own right--just because of their martial prowess: Bill Wallace, Mike Stone, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, Ed Parker, Mario Sperry, and Royce Gracie come to mind.

But what about folks who are in the public eye, but aren't really known for being martial artists? How about people like NFL football players, members of the U.S. Congress, or a guy named Elvis?

Football requires explosive quickness and hard-hitting power. So does many martial arts. Thus it's no surprise that many professsional football players turn to the martial arts to enhance their game. For example, many members of the San Francisco 49ers football team train with tae kwon do champion George Chung. Ronnie Lott, famous for his crushing tackles on opposing receivers, was one student who definitely exhibited hard-hitting explosive power. Current NFL players/martial artists include Cincinnati Bengal Carl Pickens, Green Bay Packer Raleigh McKenzie, and New York Jet Mo Lewis.

Besides being popular on the playing field, the martial arts are also popular in congressional chambers. The popularity of the martial arts among U.S. lawmakers is largely due to the teaching of famed tae kwon do pioneer Jhoon Rhee, who has taught for decades at the Congressional Gym, in between running his chain of schools and inventing foam sparring gear.

Rhee's students include state representatives and senators from both political parties. Back in the karate-crazed 1970's, Rhee staged the "Capital Hill Grudge Bout", pitting Democrats versus Republicans in a semi-contact tournament with each party fielding a team of two congressmen and one senator. One of Rhee's students, Senator Milton Young of North Dakota, even used his tae kwon do training to help get himself reelected. Thought too old at 77, Young proved his vitality during his campaign by publicly demonstrating his kicking and punching skills. And yes, he did get reelected. Among more recent members of Congress, former Speaker-of-the-House candidate Bob Livingston (R-Louisiana, resigned) is a black belt in tae kwon do.

The list of martial artist politicians isn't limited to just kickers, either. U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, after watching judo pioneer Yoshiaki Yamashita defeat the Navy wrestling coach, began judo studies, eventually earning a brown belt. In the modern era, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell now serves the constituents of Colorado in the Senate after a three-term stint in the House of Representatives. Campbell was U. S. National Judo Champion three times, was captain of the first U.S. Olympic judo team in 1964, and won the gold medal in judo at the 1963 Pan-American Games.

Finally, we come to a famous martial artist named Elvis. Lots of tough guys think of figure skating as a sissy sport, but skating champion Elvis Stojko* is no sissy. Stojko's martial arts background (black belt in karate at age 16, hung gar gung fu since 1989) is evident in many of his skating routines.

Stojko's sifu (teacher), Glen Doyle, even teaches in skating seminars with his star pupil, while Stojko demonstrated his gung fu at the 1995 World Wushu Championships. And then there's that rumor about a little dust-up between Elvis Stojko and hockey player Eric Lindros--with Stojko getting the best of the guy from the more "macho" sport.

Doyle recently published a book about martial arts training, The Martial Artist's Way, in which he discusses ways of looking at martial arts training that keeps the study of the martial arts fresh and invigorating. Doyle covers selecting a style, sparring, forms, cross-training, and other issues common to all styles of the martial arts. This book fills a niche not covered by most other martial arts books--instead of technique descriptions or strategy and tactics, Doyle describes the way, or path, of martial arts study and the common issues faced by all martial artists during that journey.

Many, many folks find the martial arts fun, educational, and spiritually fulfilling--even the "rich and famous"! Keep an eye out for more features on celebrity martial artists; chances are, your favorite celebrity might practice the same style you do.

*Now I'm sure you were expecting a different Elvis--one hunka hunka burnin' karate love. But a discussion of Elvis Presley's martial arts career could fill up an entire article--and it does. Tune in next time for the rest of the story!

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