On Saturday I attended Grandmaster Irving Soto’s Martial Arts Masters Live Show at Joan of Arc High School, located on West 93rd Street, in New York City. The event featured a batch of amazingly talented, as well as legendary, competition martial artists, including Grandmaster Dan McEaddy, Hanshi Frank Dux (whose life the film Bloodsport was based), Great Grandmaster Aaron Banks (creator of The Oriental World of Self-Defense), Master Quoc L. Tran, Soke Keith Kugel, Soke Joseph Victory Jr., Master Yusef Ali Abdullah, Kuksanim Jose Medina, Grandmaster Jason R. Victory, Grandmaster Frankie Mitchell, Doctor Ernest Hyman, Master Dennis Burgess, Grandmaster Max Lane, Shihan Gregory Duncan, O’Sensei Felix Vasquez, Chief Grandmaster Rico Guy, Sifu Ruben Torres, as well as others. Additionally, Soke Soto’s top black belts and their students performed together for the very first time, including Atemi Ki Do of New Jersey, led by Shihan Cesar Perez Sr., Atemi Ki Do of Puerto Rico, lead by Shihan Charlie Torres Sr., and Atemi Ki Do of New York, lead by Hanshi David Soto. The event concluded with a performance by Soke Soto himself.
Martial Arts Show Showcases Pain, Inspiration, Music, Bloodsport Masters, and the Man Who Took Karate to Madison Square Garden
I continued my ongoing photo essay on the martial arts last Saturday with a trip to a high school performance stage in New York City, where a demonstration was set up by Grand Master Irving Soto and the Atemi Ki Do organization.
I never know what, or who, to expect at these events. However the men and women who speak and perform always display a special level of dedication to these art forms, many based on thousands of years of tradition. That’s especially important these days, as spaces, crowds and sponsors grow smaller and they become more expensive to produce.
Called Grand Master Irving Soto’s Martial Arts Masters Live Show, the event showcased multiple forms presented by key practitioners. What I didn’t expect were introductory music performances, including a jam session composed partially of former band-mates of the late Hector Lavoe. Once the melodic sounds of congas, base and piano concluded, the top-flight performances began by such distinguished martial artists as Master Quoc Tran, Grand Master Dan McEaddy, Soke Keith Kugel, Soke Joseph Victory, Master Yusef Ali Abdullah, Grand Master Jason Victory, Grand Master Frankie Mitchell, O’Sensei Felix Vasquez, Sifu Ruben Torres, as well as Grand Master Soto himself. All displayed flawless technique that indicated years of dedicated training.
Shihan Gregory Duncan gave an awe-inspiring performance, even showing how assailants can be disabled with a newspaper. Duncan is the son of the legendary Grand Master Ronald Duncan, one of the first men in the West to master the mysterious art of the Ninja.
Soto’s top black belts and their students also performed together for the first time, including katas led by Shihan Cesar Perez Sr., Shihan Charlie Torres and Hanshi David Soto.
Grand Master Rico Guy stunned the audience with a blazing sword technique that no 3D film could compete with, while Kuksanim Jose Medina and Master Dennis Burgess proved that the art of breaking can still make a stage tremble. But they weren’t the only performers who made the stage shake that day. Grand Master Ernest Hyman’s kata showed such concentration and poise, it made the room go completely silent.
Also on the ticket was an appearance by Hanshi Frank Dux, the martial artist whose life was the inspiration for the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport, which depicted an overseas martial arts tournament where participants are seriously injured – and sometimes killed – during competition. However on this day, Dux wasn’t out for blood, he simply wanted to lend support to his friend Soto, who he’s known for many years.
Great Grand Master Aaron Banks – instructor to actor Fred Williamson and creator of The Oriental World of Self Defense – also stopped by to say a few words. During his speech he announced that he’ll bring martial arts back to Madison Square Garden, where his 1970’s shows were broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Everyone on stage was remarkable, but one performer in particular showed a warrior’s spirit that should be an inspiration to anyone. Sensei John Libutti began formally studying Naha Kempo in 1980, driven at first by his passion for Bruce Lee movies, Batman & Robin and David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV show. Nine years later, while driving his Honda Hub Interceptor 750 just outside the Lincoln Tunnel, he slammed into the wall of a building used to store floats for Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
Crashing at 100 miles per hour, as nerves were torn from his spine as he was thrown from the bike, which exploded on impact. He lost complete use of his left arm, and his right leg was amputated above the knee. Libutti was a Yellow Belt at the time.
After meeting Grand Master Ted Vollraft in the hospital, Libutti began training under Vollraft’s Martial Arts for the Handi-capable program. Then in 1992, three years later, Libutti received his first black belt from Grand Master Louis Ferrer’s U.S. Kodokan Federation. Now, years later, he’s sharing the stage with some of the best.