• The new black belts coming together to celebrate their special moment.


    In Korean, it means Family. 

    Over the course of one hour and forty three minutes, we saw most everything that comes with family take place during the all-Black Belt grading.

    This was only fitting, seeing as we had a father and son (Stan and Alex), along with brother John and Luke grading for their black belts.

    For every grading, our students are required to learn important Korean words or terms, either that relate to martial arts or to life in general. Kahjok is one of the words required at this level. 

    To start the test, everyone successfully got their words right at the beginning, and we were off. 

    The poomsae, or patterns (or kata) were a sight to behold. Everyone trains their poomsae so that they are in tune with one another, so it’s fascinating to see someone who is 6’3″ (Alex) with longer limbs keeping pace with people who are 5’7″-5’9″. To wit, not only did Alex keep pace, the youngest of the four grading, he actually took the lead for the grading, standing in the position that everyone quietly strives for, yet few achieve. The four performed nine different poomsae, including their grading form, and looked like a machine, a single unit in doing so. It was an absolute thing of beauty. 

    It was also a cardio drain! Which meant that it was the perfect time to battle.

    Going from poomsae to sparring is a complete 180 degree turn in mindset. You go from memorizing a battle concept and expressing it in your own way (in the same way that dancers dance), to actually battling. Having someone in front of you, someone you’ve trained with for months, for years, who knows what you do well and where your weaknesses are, and you the same of them. It is heady, it is draining, and it is where they show both their skill, and their will. 

    We always use a round robin format, where everyone grading gets to spar each other once. Watching Alex vs everyone with that reach advantage was so fascinating. While everyone had the same game plan against him, watching each person execute in their own way is what made it interesting. At any time, John’s fast feet, Luke’s spectacular hands, and Stan’s speed and determination would take them inside Alex’s range to allow them to score. On the other end of the coin, the second that Alex extended out that long, Thai-style roundhouse kick into someone’s chest, or let his hands go and punched freely, he created great distance that gave pause to his opponents. My personal favourite part was watching Alex’s footwork, where he would use drills we worked on in class to create an opening on his opponents, or something would happen and he would use his defensive footwork to get out of the way. His technical proficiency was beautiful to watch.

    Stan is a joy to watch, and frankly an inspiration to any of us of a certain age who hope to hang onto whatever skills we may have for as long as possible. At 52 years young and with over 30 years of martial arts training under his belt, Stan is (still) a fantastic martial artist, and finally, tonight was the night for Stan to receive some long-deserved recognition for what he brings to the table. And boy, did Stan bring it on this night. 

    “Stan is so fast!”

    “(He’s) got such fast kicks!”

    “Stan is a great sparrer, so fast, so smart”

    This was the kind of feedback I was receiving after the grading about Stan’s sparring. And it’s true. No one gets an easy ride from Stan on any night, let alone tonight. In particular, Stan and John grinded out a 2:30 long battle that very much became a kickboxing match, where Stan showed off his much-improved hands against John’s long-trained hands, and they pushed each other to their limits. 

    Speaking of John, our in-house beast got to show his mettle tonight. After his bout with Alex, John received virtually no break in between back-to-back 2:30 matches with Stan, and then his brother, Luke. John often talks about gripping the floor with his feet, and you could see John literally dig in, grip the floor with his wide stance, and stalk his opponents, breaking them down with fast, precise punches and well-timed kicks. Regardless of what he may have been feeling at the time, John showed zero signs of slowing down at the end of those 5 long minutes.

    In keeping with the family theme, the one-on-one portion of sparring ended with brother vs brother, and father vs son. Having seen Stan and Alex spar together on a couple of occasions, this was without question their best match. Alex did a good job of keeping Stan on the outside, limiting what Stan could do with his speed and technique. By the same token, Stan was still able to get inside and put some good points on the board. There were a few times where one would score on the other, and we were sitting at the black belt table wondering what that was a receipt for! All in all, they were very respectful of one another and both shone in that moment.

    John and Luke…you could feel every second of this match. Every second had it’s own beat, it’s own pulse. The two best sets of hands in the club, they took turns backing each other up and leading the dance. It was, without question, the grittiest battle to ever take place on The Floor so far.

    Next, the real fun began. All assistant black belts have to have one 3-on-1 sparring match at the end of their sparring session. it starts off with 20-25 seconds of one-on-one, and then two other opponents jump in, giving it a real-life survival feel. Ever-giving of his time, on one of our off-days John helps out at a local Karate school. Their club’s owner was in attendance to support John, and as a gift to both John and this person he was allowed to spar John at the beginning of John’s 3-on-1 bout.

    Usually these bouts go for 45-60 seconds total. For a few reasons, one of which being how amazing John was performing, this one went approx. 2:45. Afterwards, John would admit to being pretty tired early on, however deciding to relax and give it everything he had. By my definition, that’s a Black Belt.

    Next up was Luke, who had gotten into arguably the best shape of his life in preparation for this grading, now had the chance to really show that cardio. After going 2:30 with his brother, he now had the “opportunity” to fight three-on-one. This one also went a little longer than the usual 45-60 seconds, as it was something of a show. Watching Luke against similar styled-black belts who had come before him was a thing of beauty. Watching Luke throw a punch to one opponent and having all three black belts take a step back…that was something special. All of Luke’s hard work paid off in a big way. If you want to achieve something, you make sacrifices. Luke did exactly that. (And yes Jodi, Luke remembers. He always remembers.)

    For Stan, the 3-on-1 was the perfect pace for him. Stan is physically fast and mentally quick, so to put three people in front of him is like going to an arcade, only you’re really in the game. This was a really fun one to watch, as even with the advantage, Stan was in no way an “easy out” for the black belts and gave it as good as he got. 

    Alex had never experienced anything like this before. It was one thing to spar any of the multitude of black belts we have on the floor on any given night during training, it was another thing entirely to spar three of them at the same time. It takes away his reach advantage, and forces him to move his feet. So it was a probably a huge surprise to his opponents that Alex did an outstanding job of finding a hole in the three and deftly moving through that hole, time and time again. The black belts did not put up nearly as many points on Alex as their skills indicate they should have, because Alex used intelligence and did not give up.

    Finally, the bricks. The bricks always lead to special moments in our club (hi, Sydney), and this night was no exception. 

    One of the fathers, who has extensive experience in Boxing, Taekwondo, and training here at Phoenix, said to me after the grading that “That was some of the best sparring he’s ever seen”.

    Stan made it look easy.  Luke made it look easy. They’re not easy, however at the essence of what a legitimate black belt does, is the ability to make something that is not easy, look easy. Stan and Luke did exactly that.

    Alex and John were a tale of two differing thoughts. Alex was concerned about the brick. It rests on two cinder blocks that are only a couple of feet off the ground. For someone who is as tall as Alex was, even with multiple classes where he was taught proper technique, along with training at home, he still was not comfortable. So his father (Stan) showed him how to do an angle break, where he stood on one side of the brick, and broke through it with his palm. At which point, Alex made it look easy.

    Last to go was John, and before I’d even finished typing this sentence, he had walked up to the brick and broken it in one fell swoop. You did not read that he stopped in front of it because he didn’t. Check the video, it was something else.

    Immediately after, I went and asked him about it. He explained that if he were to walk up and stop (like everyone else in every single black belt grading anywhere ever does – my words, not his), then the brick gets the chance to get in his mind, to psych him out. By doing it in one motion, he took away the mental advantage that the brick has.

    I simply said “Okay” and walked away. I didn’t tell him until later that his answer was absolute genius, such a high level of thinking, creativity, originality, not following for the sake of following. He doesn’t know it yet…he and I are going to talk about how to make that a regular part of our brick breaking as we move forward. 

    John and Luke have been with Phoenix from virtually the beginning. They have both been leaders on The Floor in countless ways. Every year at the Black Belt Grading, one student is given the honour of leading the group out onto the floor, something like a Team Captain. This year, Luke was given the honours of leading the group of four out of the dressing room onto the floor.

    Without question, Alex has improved the most out of anyone in the entire club this past year. He always has a positive attitude, and always asks intelligent questions. It was an honour to present Alex with his black belt.

    Stan provided that “hardest worker on the floor” mentality and leadership to all of the students this year, leading without having to say a word. When you see high-ranking members working as hard as Stan does, everyone else follows suit.

    During his first 12 months at Phoenix, Luke rounded into an excellent martial artist with loads of potential for the future. Ever since then, he has been sharpening those edges and putting all of tools into place, leading to this moment. 

    Having John in class is like having Superman in class. He can do EVERYTHING, and he does it with a smile on his face. John’s energy is infectious; his love for martial arts unsurpassed. Sometimes you forget that John is human, because if John has ever had a bad day, you would never know it, as he always brings the best version of himself onto The Floor.

    This was a gritty test, one where everyone from those testing to Jodi and the black belts who helped with sparring all had to grind, to persevere. More patterns, longer sparring bouts. It was like nothing ever seen before at our club. It showed the new layers of skill that everyone added to their tool box this year. More importantly, it showed drive, determination, and heart. When people got knocked down, they got back up. When something didn’t go perfectly, they laughed it off and then executed perfectly. It is everything we want to see when deciding whether or not someone has achieved the rank of Black Belt. 

    They absolutely did.