Iron Mike – Gruntworks contributing blogger
Hello again fuckers. I know all you little freedom-loving little shitheads think you’re Billy Badass because you graduated basic or were captain of your school sports team in back in high school… I know you want to believe you’re the hottest shit on the block; a real G, a gangster, a top dog. You’re probably still young and you have no idea what makes a true badass a badass… and you don’t want to hear it either: Discipline. Thousands of little street punks thought they were the hardest cock of the walk and that no one could touch them because they had a gun or ran with a crew. Thousands of little candy-asses then cried in court and rode the orange jumpsuit express all the way to the Big House where they got their bread buttered by someone just a little more gangster than they thought they were. The mob boss that runs the prison on the other hand is the most disciplined and calculating sonofabitch you could imagine. You are not disciplined enough to be the Billy Badass you want to believe you are, even if you’re further on your journey to being a true badass than your average gym-bro in the civilian world. Whether it’s Delta Force Operators, Navy SEALs, professional fighters, or professional poker players; to quote Stonewall Jackson, “It’s Discipline that wins the day!” Today’s story is about a man who was like you, young Grunt. A man who went through the early years of his life with drive and ambition, but without discipline and found himself on a bad path. A man who would go on to be one of the most famous Martial Artists in the world and develop his own style of Karate, write a bestseller about it, and train thousands of practitioners in it… Sensei Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama; the Godhand.
You don’t earn a nickname like “The Godhand” without being a righteous badass. Sensei Oyama would be a badass for the better part of a century as one of the foremost masters of Karate in the world. However, he didn’t start that way. Mas Oyama was born Choi Young-Eui in a tiny town that is now Gimje, South Korea during the period of Imperial Japanese Occupation in 1923. Mas Oyama would grow up working on the family estate and became enamored with the study of martial arts (Specifically Chinese Kenpo) from traveling Chinese workers that would come through seasonally to help with the harvests. One of these migrant workers was a man named Mr. Li who would impart some initial wisdom to Oyama about training, telling him that he must be able to leap over entire trees to be a true master. When Oyama said that was impossible, the man told him to plant the seed of a tree and jump over it 100 time a day… Oyama did this for many years and needless to say the dude had some major dunking ability by the time he left Korea for Japan in 1938. In those years Japan was far more industrialized than the rural and backwards Korean peninsula. The Japanese occupation provided young Korean men the opportunity to study and work in Japan for far more money than they would have earned in rural undeveloped Korea and in 1938 at the age of 15 Oyama followed his brother to Japan. Young Choi Young-Eui was taken in by a family named Oyama and to help identify himself as a Japanese patriot he changed his name to “Oyama Masutatsu” (In Asian cultures, the family name comes first – so in English he is Masutatsu Oyama, but in Japanese he is Oyama Masutatsu). Mas joined the Yamanashi Youth Aviation School with the hopes of becoming a pilot and also began training in the Karate while in Japan. He considered himself an ardent Japanese Patriot, despite his Korean heritage (Korea had been annexed by Japan in 1910). He felt it was his duty to the warrior tradition of Bushido to fight for the Empire of Japan as hard as he trained. By the age of eighteen, Oyama had earned the rank of Nidan (Second Degree Black Belt). Oyama was always volunteering for special military duty in Tokyo. As the war began in earnest and the Japanese military went from invincible to retreating in front of the allied onslaught across the Pacific he was finally granted his request in 1945, but two instances of fate would intervene. First, Oyama would get involved in an altercation with a superior officer and strike him in the heat of an argument. He was only spared a Court Martial (and likely severe punishment) after others intervened on his behalf and claimed the officer had provoked the altercation without justification. Second, the United States made Hiroshima and Nagasaki glow in the dark. The war ended and Japan was devastated. Oyama felt like he had lost his purpose and with it went his discipline.
Mas Oyama had lost many friends during the war. Many of his acquaintances from his teenage years at the Yamanashi Flight School had died as suicide Kamikaze pilots or had been killed in the allied bombing raids over Japanese cities. The young man wandered the city looking for a job and a place to stay, but had trouble finding either. As an ethnic Korean, many Japanese looked down on him and refused to rent him a room or hire him. Mas Oyama roamed the streets picking fights, getting drunk, and causing trouble. He was in a bad way personally and the shame of Japan’s defeat hung heavy over the entire country with the American Army of Occupation present in every town. Oyama was upset by the presence of the Americans he blamed for the deaths of his childhood and University friends. He frequently got in fights with the MPs that guarded Tokyo and spent many nights in the holding cell for fighting. In his own words during a television interview with Nihon TV, Oyama said: “I lost many friends during the war- the very morning of their departure as Kamikaze pilots, we had breakfast together and in the evening their seats were empty. After the war ended, I was angry- so I fought as many U.S. military as I could, until my portrait was all over the police station.” However, beating up the MPs couldn’t fill the void in his life left by his loss of purpose from Japan’s defeat. Oyama began pursuing collegiate studies and sought solace in his martial arts training. He eventually ended up studying at a university in Tokyo while training with a fellow ethnic Korean named Soi Nei Chu in the Goju-Ryu style of Karate.
Martial arts training brought back purpose and meaning to his life. Oyama realized he must train hard and pursue his life’s purpose; to become a Karate master. He needed his discipline back. After spending some time training with the Goju-Ryu Dojo, Mr. So suggested Oyama should go into the mountains to train in the wilderness and that he would sponsor him in his endeavor. He told Oyama that training away from civilization would bring him peace and fulfillment, and allow him to gain control of his life again. Oyama and another student (who would abandon the training after a couple weeks like a pussy) chose to go to Mt. Minobu in Chiba Prefecture, Japan to train. This mountain held significance as it was the same place where famed Samurai Miyamoto Musashi composed his influential text on warrior philosophy “The Book of Five Rings”. In 1948 Oyama set out with minimal supplies and the goal of training alone for 3 years.
Oyama held himself to an arduous personal training regimen. Waking daily at 0500 from a little shack he built himself; he would run up steep hills, meditate under icy waterfalls, and leap between rocks to build strength and stamina. He ran in the snow and ice during the winter and lifted large stones to build his power. He practiced his Kata (forms) 100 time a piece every day. Sometimes blindfolding himself and removing the blindfold only when complete to see if his feet had ended in the same exact spot they had started in. He made something called “Makiwara boards” – pieces of soft wood like pine wrapped in rope and hung as a striking target – and practiced thousands of strikes, punches, and kicks daily until the boards were beaten to pulp and he had to make new ones. He punched large river stones until they shattered, kicked down trees, and did tens of thousands of calisthenics. He had honed his body into a solid mass of muscle and bone after 18 months of training in the mountains that would have made Bruce Wayne call it quits. The only human interaction Oyama had was locals who would sometimes walk through the mountains while he was training and offer him a little bit of food or deliver him some letters. It was through these visitors that Mas Oyama would find out about something so important that it would break even this commitment to his training: The All-Japan Karate Tournament was being held in Kyoto, the first Karate tournament since the end of WW2. Oyama needed to test himself.
Descending from the mountain with the purpose of evaluating his humble, but rigorous, training plan Oyama entered the full-contact tournament…. And beat the ever-loving fuck out of every single opponent he faced. Several of his fights lasted only seconds before his opponent went to the ground or left the ring with a broken bone. Back then there weren’t these candy-ass rules about preventing injury like we have in the MMA rings of today. Elite masters of their style converged to fight free-hand with bone-shattering kicks and bare knuckles. Oyama was an overnight sensation, but he felt like a failure having not completed his personal goal of 3 years in the mountains. So instead of cashing in immediately, he went right back up to the mountains for another 18 months to continue his training. Disciplined. As. Fuck.
Upon coming down from the mountains Sensei Mas Oyama began his own school in 1953 called The Oyama Dojo. He initially taught as a branch of the Goju-Ryu style, but in 1957 Oyama founded his own style based on his training philosophy and beliefs in which techniques were practical and effective. Individual schools within a given style of martial arts aren’t like what the shitty Chinese action movies have you believe. One Master’s ‘Crane Technique’ does not automatically defeat another master’s ‘Monkey Technique’… and punching is pretty much the same across all schools of Karate. What really differentiates a style of Karate is the philosophy behind the training and the individual Kata developed to practice the techniques in the manner they are taught. Oyama called his style Kyokushin-Kai or “The ultimate Truth” in Japanese. His training philosophy was to be tough on his students from day 1. That training the body and mind together was the best way to prepare for a fight. In the Goju-Ryu style the motto was “Block soft and hit hard…” and practitioners used sweeping open-hand blocks to parry an opponent’s blow and redirect it before countering with a clenched fist strike. In Kyokushin, every block was a strike and every strike was meant to destroy the opponent. A block was delivered with enough force meant to break the attackers arm, leg, hand, or foot. Mas Oyama taught the principle of “Ichi geki, Hissatsu” or in English “One Strike, certain death”. Every blow was a finishing blow, this he claimed “was the Ultimate Truth” of Karate. The purpose of every blow should be to win and you must train your body and mind to deliver every strike as a finishing blow. To do that you had to be in peak physical condition with skills sharp and self-confidence high. If Sensei Mas Oyama punched you and you blocked it – he would break your arm; if he punched you and you didn’t block it – he broke your ribs. To teach his principles Sensei Oyama made every sparring drill full-contact. Individual exercises focused on form and breaking objects to build strength and confidence. Injuries were common among his students, but there were lines out the door of people who wanted to learn from him.
Oyama began giving even more demonstrations of his style in public venues. He began fighting bulls for sport. Sometimes he would wrestle the beast to the ground (even though it out-weighed him by hundreds of pounds), sometimes he would break off a horn with a single strike, and on 3 occasions he would kill the bull outright with a single blow to its head. In all he fought 52 bulls over his lifetime. In Mexico during a demonstration one bull managed to gore him, but even with a gaping wound; Oyama still fought the bull off and broke his horn.
In 1952 Sensei Oyama spent a year touring the United States giving demonstrations. He showed the speed of his strikes to a group of American Professional Wrestlers by striking the tops off of full glass Coca-Cola bottles, one of the actors… I mean “Wrestlers proclaimed “He has the God-hand!” and for the rest of his life the man who punched bulls to death was known as “The Godhand”. He gave many demonstrations against wrestlers and boxers and also engaged in something called the ‘100-man Kumite’ in his travels. He would fight 100 men in individuals matches with no rest between competitors. No round ever lasted more than 3 minutes… He defeated all challengers and fought 3 successive Kumite’s over the course of 3 days. He only defeated 270 opponents though, during his last Kumite, he ran out of opponents since no one wanted to fight him anymore and dozens of them decided to back out of the challenge. To this day, Kyokushin students who wish to earn their 4th Degree Black Belt must – by the laws of his style – fight a 100-man Kumite and never be knocked down for more than 5 seconds while completing it…
Over the rest of his life Sensei Oyama would see the expansion of his style to over 130 countries and 12 million practitioners. He would teach and train with some of the most famous martial artists in the world including Japanese action movie star Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi – a female Japanese action movie star of the 80’s, Peter Urban – the man credited with creating the first ‘American’ style of Karate, and numerous world Karate champions. He would author several books on the subject of Karate and his experiences that would go on to be bestsellers, including “What is Karate?” which was translated into nearly a dozen languages.
Sensei Masutatsu Oyama passed away on April 26th, 1994 at the age of 70 due to lung cancer despite having never been a smoker in his life. Of all the opponents that faced him, he could not defeat the one that struck him from within. He left behind 6 children with his life-long two lovers and his organization of over 12 million students worldwide. He was still teaching students and training daily up until near the very end of his life.
The lesson here is that you don’t get to be a badass by boasting or picking petty fights. Your Level 1 Combatives aren’t going to get you very far. Genuine badass status is only conferred through immense personal discipline and hard work; mastering your own life and then mastering the ways of warriors. Any little bitch can pick up a gun and try and use a little violence to get their way, but people like that end up getting fucked in the ass by a dude in jail that has done nothing but work out and fight people for years on end. The difference between your average Soldier or Marine and a Delta Operator or SEAL Team VI member isn’t the high-speed gear or beards… it’s the degree of personal discipline to master their skill set. Elite Special forces train the basics until they can’t get them wrong. Big Army line units train to check the block. It’s on you to master yourself, and then master your technique and your weapon as an extension of yourself. A little discipline can take you from a humble mountainside punching rocks to leading one of the largest martial arts organizations in the world and being immortalized as a master fighter that punches bulls to death if you merely have the will to train. Get off your cell phone and out into nature for a while, turning off the glowing screens will help you get back in control of yourself. Then get the fuck out there and get some reps in on the heavy bag, run a few miles, and lift some goddamn weights! Each day you will either get better or get worse, there is no staying the same. In the words of the man himself:
“Human beings are capable of virtually limitless degradation; they are also capable of virtually limitless improvement and achievement. Success depends on goals and on diligence in pursuing them.” – Mas Oyama.