This is the fourth in a series by Underground Blogger DeLeon DeMicoli, whose column is insipred by NPR's "This American Life." It covers in long essay form (that would be a FRAT on the UG :-) fighters and those that train.
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DeLeon DeMicoli writes and trains in San Francisco, CA. He is currently writing a novel on Mixed Martial Arts.
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In 1989 twenty-year-old Mirko Büchwald came to San Diego, CA for a martial arts festival after winning the English championships in his division in Goju Ryu karate. His trip was five days, then, he’d return home to Dorset, a small town in the south coast of England. But that never happened. Instead he snuck out of his hotel room and headed to Los Angeles.
“I took a greyhound bus. When I arrived in L.A. I spent the night in a youth hostel in Venice Beach. The next day I found a used car lot and bought a ‘76 Toyota station wagon.”
That station wagon became his home (for a time) while he lived out a dream of being like Kwai Chang Caine, David Carradine’s character in the hit TV show “Kung Fu,” which also served as an ongoing motif in his life.
Goju Ryu karate is a Japanese martial art that incorporates “hard and soft” techniques, which are represented in the yin and yang symbol. “Hard” refers to combating an attack with a counter-attack. “Soft” refers to redirecting an attacker’s force against them. These techniques are possible through ancient strength and conditioning methods that transform the body into strong oak.
“We use quite a few apparatuses for strength and conditioning, like this box that has pebbles in it (Jari Bako). You grind your hands into it to improve gripping and open hand strikes. We strike heavy wooden posts (Makiwara) to strengthen our fists. Block metal poles with our forearms to make them strong and turn defenses into strikes.”
Other traditional equipment includes chishi, a round stone with a handle in the center to improve movement, gripping and proper stance. Nigiri-game, which are stone jars with a lip on it to grip and lift like kettle bells.
When Mirko was ten years old he asked his parents if he could take martial arts classes after passing by a flyer that had two men training on a beach. But his parents refused.
“I used to get pocket money, about two pounds every week. I would save it up ‘cause right next to where I lived they taught karate classes. I saved all of it each month and paid for my own classes.”
Mirko grew up in what he called a “hippie household.” He was raised vegetarian (he’s vegan now) and was often dragged along when his parents protested against nuclear arms and war. Mirko getting involved in martial arts didn’t gel with their non-violent beliefs. It wasn’t until his mum found his gi in the wash a few years later that he had to explain himself.
“I didn’t have any restrictions such as a curfew growing up so I was pretty much able to get away with whatever,” he said.
After seeing how focused and disciplined their son was as a result of karate, his parents had a change of heart.
“I think me staying out of trouble and spending most of my time training was what made them okay with it.”
Mirko began training as much as possible. He also travelled thirty miles away from his hometown to train in Eskirma, a Filipino martial art focusing on weapons training, and Lau Gar, a Chinese martial art having short range fighting techniques.
Once he felt he had a well-rounded game he began competing in local tournaments, which gave him the opportunity to travel to the states and ultimately become an illegal immigrant.
“I went to school to be an architect and worked part-time for an interior decorating company. But my plans to be an architect went right out the window once I came to the states.”
Mirko’s goal was not only continue his training in karate, but train under legendary Sensei Morio Higaonna, a tenth Dan in Goju Ryu karate and supreme master of the International Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate-Do Federation (IOGKF).
“That flyer I saw as a child in Dorset had Sensei Higaonna on it,” Mirko said.
His goal came to fruition once he learned Sensei Higaonna was living and teaching in San Diego. After saving enough money from construction work while staying in L.A. he packed up his things and headed to SoCal.
“I took residence with a training partner. We lived on the rough side of town in a dingy, one-bedroom apartment for four hundred dollars a month. He had the bedroom while I took the living room.”
Mirko had access to high-level training he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else and an opportunity to be an instructor at a satellite school. But teaching didn’t pay. So to support himself he returned to what he knew.
“The only way I felt I could make good money was if I worked for myself. Back then faux finishing was big. I learned that back in England and nobody here, at the time, knew how to do it.”
But first he needed a Work Visa. Luckily his dojo sponsored him and he was able to obtain one with ease since he didn’t have a criminal record. Then an opportunity came for him to work on a project in San Francisco.
“It was a beautiful Victorian home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. The owner wanted faux finishing all inside the house. He also lived in Australia at the time and wasn’t planning on moving back until the house was complete, so I was able to live there for the next few months.”
Soon Mirko found himself living among the culturally conscience hipsters of northern California and training under Gosen Yamaguchi, son to famous martial artist, Gogen Yamaguchi, or better known as “The Cat” due to his unique swagger and long, black flowing hair. But something was missing from his training. It was that “Hard” style and traditional teachings he was used to receiving in San Diego.
“A lot of schools during that time were all a bunch of mixed up styles lacking discipline. They were the American versions of traditional martial arts, water -downed versions. Coming from a traditional background I could tell most of it was bullshit.”
The “bullshit” was something that began popping up in martial art schools across the United States in the early ‘90s. After Royce Gracie won the first UFC tournament many schools with traditional karate backgrounds began promoting themselves as jiu-jitsu schools to reign in on the recent popularity of ground fighting when, in fact, they had no business teaching the art.
“Basically out of frustration I started training with a New Zealander that had a black belt in Goju Ryu karate like myself. We used to head into Golden Gate Park and train in the fields. We also punched trees to strengthen our knuckles. I trained like that for two years.”
The next opportunity came out of left field.
“I was hanging out one day and was approached to be a model. I didn’t think anything of it except for an excuse to go to New York since I’ve never been there before.”
Mirko packed up once again and took up residence in Brooklyn. When he wasn’t doing a photo shoot for a catalog or standing in a storefront window in his underwear he discovered the sport of kickboxing at a local YMCA.
“After a few months of training my instructor asked me to compete in these small tournaments, I guess, you would call ‘smokers’. They usually took place in a sports bar that had a boxing ring inside of it. It was great ‘cause they had a ring announcer and you got to hear your name being called out like a real boxing match over the speakers. I did about a dozen of those.”
Mirko lived in New York for two years. During that time he received a letter in the mail stating his citizenship status changed from temporary to permanent. That meant he was free to leave the country, so he hopped on the first flight to Japan to once again train under Sensei Higaonna.
“I lived in a Japanese-type hostel where you laid your mat down on the ground to sleep. Then rolled it up and set it aside when you woke in the morning. I also shared a kitchen and bathroom with others that lived there.”
Mirko taught English to students for money. He also met his Sensei at the dojo each morning at four A.M. where they would walk to a Buddhist temple on top of a hill to meditate. Then they would return to the dojo for strength and conditioning training.
“I got a break each day from nine to one in the afternoon. Then I’d return to the dojo for one-on-one training with my Sensei’s teacher. That was a big deal for me.”
In a way Mirko’s daily routine for the next two years in the “Land of the Rising Sun” became his college education where dorms, professors and books were swapped for dojos, Sensei’s and one hundred year old training methods. Although there wasn’t a Master’s degree to hang in an office to show off to clients, he had a fifth degree black belt to be proud of and the respect of the International Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate-Do Federation (IOGKF).
Once Mirko felt confident in his discipline and teaching skills he made the decision to return to the states and open his own school.
The San Francisco Zanshin Center opened its doors in 2006 in the bohemian hippie epicenter of Haight-Ashbury. The dojo currently has over one hundred and fifty students.
When Mirko moved back to San Francisco he decided to buy and live on a 1971 Cruise-A-Home houseboat.
“The reason I live on a boat is because I don’t like having neighbors. I’m a solitary person, a little anti-social I guess.”
He has everything he needs including TV, Internet, running water, a kitchen and an upstairs deck area to take in the California sun once the early morning fog passes over the bay.
Today the six-foot tall Englishman looks like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie with his scruffy face, mangled fingernails and callused hands from years of training with Jari Bako. He looks intimidating at first glance, but that fades once you start trading stories with him.
“When I first came to San Diego someone told me, ‘As long as you got your health, things will work out in the end.’ I guess that’s how I made it during those years of struggling on my own.”
The funny thing about that advice, it came from a plumber he met in San Diego while doing construction. He was an Englishman too. He came to the states illegally, was caught and thrown out. But he snuck back in by hiding inside the trunk of a car with only two hundred dollars to his name. He never got discouraged and things worked out for him.
The way Mirko’s life turned out, it was sound advice.
Previous Pieces by DeLeon DeMicoli:
This Fighting Life 3: Bashir Ahmad and MMA in Pakistan
This Fighting Life 2: Diorelle and Brooke
This Fighting Life 1: Casey McEachern
MMA gear now available at the UG Store