Right, so as previously explained I first joined Taekwondo at the age of six. However my life always has a way of throwing me for a loop.
When I was seven years old my dad took an early retirement from the United States Air Force, where he worked as a airplane mechanic, and relocated my family to his home state of Missouri. This meant that my siblings and I had to transfer styles and school.
This is when my siblings and I began training in a Korean style called Youn Wha Ryu.
Like most kids in Karate and Taekwondo, we didn’t take our training super seriously. However unlike most kids, we didn’t care about ranks or belts. To us there wasn’t really a difference between a white belt, a yellow belt, and a green belt.
Furthermore our two instructors, Sherry and Ceth Jordan, were pretty strict about testing requirements and maintaining high standards back then.
My siblings and I continued to train up until I was ten years old, and we didn’t test very often. My brother eventually made it to First Degree Green Belt (7th Kyu/ Gup). While my sister and I remained at Second Degree Yellow Belt (8th Kyu/ Gup). In part this was due to shoddy attendance, as my parents were very inconsistent in taking us to classes. Some weeks we went every day. Other weeks we would go to only one class. Sometime we may miss an entire week. It just depended on what else was going on, as my sister also did Girl Scouts, my brother and I did Boy Scouts, we all were in 4-H, amongst swimming lessons, music lessons, soccer, American Foot Ball, Westling, etc. We stayed pretty busy back then.
At the age of ten I was extremely excited that I would be going to our town’s school, which all 5th and 6th graders attended, as it was within safe walking distance of the martial arts school. However right before the school year started our parents told us, “You can’t go to karate anymore, because we can no longer afford it.”
We understood, and my siblings accepted their reasoning. Lessons are expensive for three children. However, there’s always this doubt in the back of my mind that it wasn’t actually a financial issue, but rather that our parents felt we were not taking martial arts seriously. As such the ten year old me tried to reason with my parents. Without the other two could I keep going? I could raise 4-H animals to help pay for lessons! I can walk to the school, you don’t have to worry about taking me anymore, etc.
But alas it was not to be so…
And for the next five years I regularly asked my parents if I could go back to martial arts., but their answer never changed.
In the five years I was no longer doing martial arts I became relatively inactive. I stopped doing soccer. I stopped taking swimming lessons. I stopped wrestling. I stopped roller skating. I didn’t ride my bike as much as I did before. Puberty also hit me hard… In short, I got fat.
And my freshman year of high school I started working out more. I took swimming and weight lifting classes in school. I joined the football team. Not because I like football, but because I wanted some structured exercise in my life. After football was over, I joined the wrestling team. And all of a sudden after five years of turning me down, my parents allowed me to return to martial arts.
My fifteenth birthday present was martial arts tuition!
Returning to Youn Wha Ryu I still remembered all the basic techniques, partner drills, and the majority of the forms I had learned as a child. I rejoined at Second Degree Yellow Belt due to this, and after 3 months I finally ranked up to First Degree Green Belt. And from then on I trained with a vengeance. If the doors to the martial arts school were open, I was there! I was usually the first student to arrive and the last to leave. I would take two or three classes a night. I trained on Saturdays. I showed my parents and instructors that I wasn’t going to take my training for granted again.
Due to the frequency and intensity I trained, I promoted very quickly.
Every two to four months I was being promoted, until I reached Brown Belt (1st Kyu/ Gup), in which I waited six months before testing for Bo-dan. Bo-dan is one of the Korean equivalents to Shodan-ho. This was never because I asked to be promoted! It was because my instructors all agreed I was ready to move on to the next level.
Around this time I was taking my association’s Instructor’s Course, and received a copy of our Instructor’s Guide. Inside was our stated Time-In-Rank requirements. Unbeknownst to me I had promoted early at three different grades. This of course, went against what I was taught as a child. It also went against what I believed was the right thing to do as a teenager. Reflecting on this, I decided that I wouldn’t promote early again, as doing so wasn’t beneficial. Not for me. Not for the art. Not for my instructors. Not for my school.
So I promoted to Bo-Dan in January 2005.
Six months later my instructor asked me, “Matt, you ready to test for 1st dan?” And I did something most people don’t have the integrity and grit to do, I said, “No sir. The requirements between 0 dan and 1st dan is one year, and I would like to wait the full time.” He just smiled at me and said, “Okay.” I couldn’t tell at the time if that was a test, and he wanted to see if I would do the right thing. But having been an instructor for so long, I’m pretty sure he had simply forgotten when I tested last.
I then started researching martial arts practices around the globe. What was the norm in Karate? What was the norm in Taekwondo? What was the norm in Judo? And I quickly noticed that the World Youn Wha Ryu Association had relatively relaxed standards when it came to time-in-rank requirements. So instead of just going off of what was allowed in my association, I held myself to higher standards and encouraged others to do the same. (With some degree of success.)
I promoted to 1st dan in May 2006.
I promoted to 2nd dan in March 2008.
I promoted to 3rd dan in February 2011.
I promoted to 4th dan in October 2013.
Before we get into why I broke from my cycle at 4th dan lets discuss something else.
When I was a 2nd dan in Youn Wha Ryu two things happened. In 2009, I walked into an Okinawan Karate dojo for the first time in my life. The instructor Steven Graham is a 5th dan in Shobayashi Ryu and a very skilled practitioner. He came up in a hard core, no nonsense kind of dojo, and that carried over into his teaching style. Needless to say, I was in love with Shorin Ryu Karate.
In the months that followed this encounter, I became Steve Sensei’s student and dedicated myself to learning the Pinan Kata. Prior to this time I had already learned:
Taikyoku Shodan, Sandan, and Godan
Naihanchi Shodan and Nidan
As Youn Wha Ryu maintained its pre-Taekwondo roots, derived from Yoon Byung In, (Shudokan Karate 4th dan under Kanken Toyama) and Chun Song Sup (Shotokan Karate 3rd dan under Funakoshi). In Youn Wha Ryu these Kata (型) are known as Hyung (型), and they go by the names: Basic Form 1, 2, and 3, Bassai, Chulgi 1 and 2, Nopae, Sip Soo, and Youn Bi. In addition to these I learned Chulgi 3 at 3rd dan and Kong San Koon (Kusanku) at 4th dan as per the standard Youn Wha Ryu requirements.
Most traditional Karate practitioners get somewhat confused by this, as most are unaware of the fact that all styles of Korean Karate (such as Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do) actually fall under the umbrella term of Taekwondo. This is despite the fact Korean Karate predates the use of the term Taekwondo. As the term Taekwondo wasn’t coined until 1955 and wasn’t generally accepted until 1965. This is due to some political decisions made in Korea in the 1960s through 1970s. This is also why you will see older styles of Taekwondo simply referred to as Karate in the United States. These older styles are Korean Karate.
So what else happened in 2009?
In August 2009 I moved again. This time to attend a four year university. Luckily for me there were Youn Wha Ryu schools in the area, and the president of my colleges “Taekwondo Club” happened to be a Matsubayashi Ryu practitioner. Thus I became a Youn Wha Ryu student of Zach and Katie Shaw, and trained with Eric Klick to maintain my Pinan Kata. However the Pinan of Matsubayashi Ryu and Shobayashi Ryu are pretty different. The angles used were different, certain techniques were different, path of movement for techniques were different, etc. So at this time my Pinan became a bit “muddy” due to mixing two different styles of Shorin Ryu.
Moving forward into 2013. Several odd things began to happen. I began noticing that many instructors were involved with illegal, dishonest, and immoral activities. In Youn Wha Ryu I noticed there was a case of Child Mulestation and a case of Embezzlement. Outside Youn Wha Ryu I met a Taekwondo instructor who spent 10 years in jail for dealing cocaine within the walls of his dojang back in the 1970s. I began noticing instructors who teach “Christian family values” in class, but then regularly attend Swinger Nights, taking their 18 year old step daughter with them. So many instructors who also taught “family values” were cheating on their spouses with their students or other instructors. I noticed black belt holders were skimming months and, in some cases, years off their time-in-rank requirements. I noticed people trying to use their rank and standing to intimidate and boss around lower ranking instructors.
I was then put into an awkward position, due to these last two points. As previously mentioned I chose to wait extra time-in-rank in order to encourage higher standards within my association. But with others skimming off time this meant people with far less experience and knowledge, were attempting to boss me around. People outside of my chain-of-command were, for some odd reason, attempting to micromanage my involvement within the association.
Now I’m a man who will usually look for simple solutions for simple problems. If I am a 3rd dan and a group of 4th dan practitioners believe they can boss me around, the simple solution is just “rank up.” So double checking my Instructor’s Guide, I had already completed my associations time-in-rank requirements. I was training and teaching regularly. So for the first time in my life I asked my instructor, “Do you mind if I test?” Zach Shaw knew what was going on behind the scenes, he knew that I didn’t actually want to test for 4th dan until 2015, but he gave me his blessing. I also got the blessing of my original instructor Ceth Jordan, as well as Han, Man Hee’s blessing. Thus on October 12th, 2013 there were two surprise testings, that none of the other students were aware of: I tested to 4th dan and Zach Shaw tested to 6th dan.
After the promotion Han, Man Hee came up to me, told me he was very impressed with the essays I had written about the history of Taekwondo and Karate up to that point, and asked if I would be his official Record Keeper, telling me this position supersedes rank. I accepted. And a few months later he made another request of me, so in February 2014 he requested that I not only be the associations official Record Keeper, but also the associations official Historian. Again, I accepted.
After college, around 2014, I moved back home. I went back to training in Youn Wha Ryu under Ceth Jordan again, also training in Shorin Ryu under Steven Graham as well.
Previously when I trained under Steven Graham we never discussed rank, or anything of that nature. I would just show up to train in zubon (pants) and a T-shirt. However this time he wanted me to wear a full Karate-gi, and a white belt. Which I happily obliged. But after a month or two he stopped me after class and said, “Hey Matt, next class please wear your black belt. The white belt is starting to confuse the students.” Again, not a problem.
Steven Graham then offered to make me a Shodan-ho and stated that in May 2015 he would have two of his teenage, 1st Kyu students promoting to Shodan, and that he would like me to promote with them. However this was not to be. In April 2015 Steven Graham shut down his dojo, giving us students less than a one month notice that this would be happening. I asked if I could continue training with him, he agreed, but then took an early retirement from his job and moved to Florida, where he and his wife are living quite happily.
On the Youn Wha Ryu side of things, things were even worse. As a Record Keeper I not only recorded the good things within the association but, as taught to do in college as a teacher in training, I also recorded the bad things. I even reported illegal activities to the authorities, as all school teachers are mandated to report abuse. Sweeping things under the rug is actually illegal to do as a teacher. And I carried these ethical principles into my job as a Record Keeper and Historian.
As you could imagine this did not make people happy. As criminals seem to hate “snitches.” And in June 2015 the VP and 3rd highest person in the World Youn Wha Ryu Association, Yujin Han (pronounced the same as Eugene) and Jeremy Fox, began to try to blackmail me. But not before Jeremy Fox began spreading a scathing email to instructors within the World Youn Wha Ryu Associations trying to convince people I had quit the association. The date on the email just so happened to be the day after Jeremy Fox called me on the phone, at 10:45 PM, with liquor on his voice, cussing and screaming about events that I recorded.
The day of this phone call also happened to be the day my grandfather passed away. A week later, when they announced they were going to blackmail me, just so happened to not only be the day of my grandfather’s funeral, but also the day my brother committed suicide. Both Jeremy Fox and Yujin Han were aware of what was going on in my personal life, as they were informed not only by me, but also other members of the World Youn Wha Ryu Association who advised these two to at least give me a mourning period before harassing me any further. Advise they both ignored.
Also in 2015 I accepted a teaching job at a small private school in Arizona ran by Marsha Fagan, a Youn Wha Ryu 5th dan under Han, Man Hee. So in August I moved yet again.
This is when I met Noah Legel in person, after years of being his friend online, and he invited me to Peaceful Warrior Martial Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona. While visiting the dojo Richard M. Poage (Renshi, 5th dan) invited me to be his student. I accepted and requested to join as a white belt, but Richard Sensei wished for me to join as an Honorary Yondan, or Yondan-ho. That didn’t sit well with me, so Richard Sensei agreed to let me join as a Shodan-ho instead. So for the next two years, I trained in the Adult Class and Advanced Class at Peaceful Warrior Martial Arts. As well as continuing to teach Youn Wha Ryu. Richard Sensei was fully aware of this and quite encouraging about it. He even asked me to invite the Fagan’s to seminars.
While in Arizona I formally resigned from the World Youn Wha Ryu Association on New Years Day of 2016. I also formally resigned from Karate for Christ International later in 2016. I had joined Karate for Christ International as a Hapkido student of David Dunn Sensei between 2012 to 2014, and was loosely involved with it afterwards due to my friendship with Anthony L. Smith Sr. as well as Marsha and John Fagan, who were also members. Karate for Christ International changed some rules in an attempt to kick out Anthony L. Smith Sr. I disagrees with this rule change, and respectfully bowed out.
This gets us to 2017. In May of 2017 I moved away from Arizona after the private school I taught at lost its funding, due to the teacher strikes in 2016. I actually taught an entire semester for no pay, because I wanted to make sure our kids continued getting the best education we could provide. Can’t really do that without teachers.
After moving, I attempted to find a decent Shorin Ryu dojo but to no avail. I contacted Richard M. Poage to see about long distance lessons as he had done this for his other student Geoff Mires, who is an honorary Sandan within the Shorinkan, but Richard M. Poage passed away in December of 2017.
This was devastating for me, as Richard and I had become really good friends, while I was in Arizona. We often would hang out at his dojo after class, just chatting, until well into the night. Many times we would even go get dinner together, so we could continue our discussions over a meal. To me he was more of a friend and peer, rather than just “a sensei.” Richard was only 3 years older than me and we had very similar martial arts experiences. The only reason he outranked me was due to the age requirements for 5th dan that he and I both followed. I had turned down promotions for 5th dan, multiple times, up to that point, because I felt I was too young for such a rank. The fact he and I were friends seems to upset many people.
In 2018, I was a bit of a Ronin, but after giving the students and instructors at Peaceful Warrior Martial Arts adequate time to mourn, I contacted Noah Legel and Jeff Allred (Renshi, 6th dan), the new head instructor, and again asked about becoming a long distance student. In September 2018 they agreed and I was again a member of the Shorinkan. With encouragement from Jeff Allred, Tiffany Richards, and Eddie Bethea (Kyoshi, 8th dan), I was put into contact with Randy Culpepper (Renshi, 5th dan) and began training, in person, at Culpepper Sensei’s dojo as well. However due to continued harassment from other members of the Shorinkan, I bowed out at the end of February 2019.
I was a bit of a Ronin for most of 2019, until I remembered an offer made to me in 2017 by Michael Mullet, a Matsubayashi Ryu 3rd dan, for me to become his student. I asked Michael Sensei if the offer still stood, and in September 2019 I became an official student of Michael’s dojo and Matsubayashi Ryu. Since then Michael Sensei and I have undertaken the tedious task of converting my kata over to Matsubayashi Ryu’s way of doing things. Prior to joining, I already previously learned versions of all the kata in Matsubayashi Ryu with the exception of Ananku, Wankan, and Gojushiho. Two of which seem to be Matsubayashi Ryu specific kata.
Currently, as of when I am writing this I am scheduled to test for my Shodan in Matsubayashi Ryu.
Update: In April of 2021 I was awarded my official Shodan in Matsubayashi Ryu, registered via the World Matsubayashi Ryu Karate-Dō Association.