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Did Mas Oyama ever fight?

"Oyama was a strong man in his young days, but I never saw him fight anybody, not even in his own dojo ... I think maybe he never fought in his life."

This story is a small part of a far larger effort by The MMA UnderGround to determine what is real in martial arts, and what isn't. If you enjoyed it, check out more stories on:
Martial Arts on The Street
•PART 1: Did Mas Oyama chop the horns off bulls, or was that bull?

Mas Oyama is one of the great instructors in martial arts history. He brought a high degree of realism to a practice that sorely lacked it in some regards.

But he was also a pro wrestler, and by some accounts, not at all beyond telling a compelling yarn to earn publicity in a post-war nation starved to muscular heroes.

The tales of his exploits are legend. He was the first man to do the 100 Man Kumite, they say. He killed an armed man in self defense, and then worked the man's family's farm in remorse, they say. He beat hundreds of wrestlers, boxers, and streetfighters in America, they say. He won the karate section of the first Japanese National Martial Arts tournament held after WWII, in 1947, they say.

In sum, "The Godhand" is revered as a living manifestation of the Japanese warriors' maxim "Ichi geki, Hissatsu" (One strike, certain death).

However, a published account from martial arts great Jon Bluming contradicts all that. Bluming says that to the best of his knowledge, Oyama never, ever even sparred, much less competed.

The clip below comes from a 1967 meeting in Korea between Oyama and Taekwondo founder Choi Hong Hi. As an aside, Oyama was born Choi Young-Eui, in Kintei, Chosen, Korea. 

The footage of The Godhand in action reveals an approach that appears to be more informed by his teacher Gogen Yamaguchi's Goju Ryu, than by his other main teacher Gigo Funakoshi's Shotokan. But more than that, The Godhand, frankly, does look like someone who has never sparred a day in his life, before he returns to presumably impressive brick breaking, 

The "sparring" above from 1967 looks a little like hapless Goju, nothing like Shotokan, and nothing at all like Oyama's Kyokushin, which evolved into one of, if not the most respected and effective forms of karate ever devised. Unforunately, the clip bears an uncanny resemblance to Aikido master Steven Seagal "sparring" with a UFC fighter.

In fairness, to Oyama, it must be said at the outset that Bluming and Oyama had a falling out over the leadership of Kyokushin in Holland. And in fairness to Bluming, it must be said that he remained an active member of the Kyokushin organization, and was eventually awarded a 9th-degree black belt. Bluming was also the first non-Japanese awarded a 6th-degree black belt from Oyama.

Bluming was also a legendary teacher. His students included:
•Willem Ruska, the only man to win Olympic Gold in Judo twice in the same Olympics (He won both the heavyweight and the absolute division, in 1972);
•Semmy Schilt, the only fighter in K-1 history to win the Grand Prix three times in a row;
•Chris Dolman, the first non-Russian to win the Sambo world championship. And Dolman won a silver medal at the world championship in Judo.

In short, Bluming says Oyama probably never had a fight in his life. The excerpt below comes from Michael DeMarco's Okinawan Martial Traditions: Te, Tode, Karate, Karatedo, Kobudo - Vol. 1.2. 

In the past, I've avoided discussing the "famous" Kyokushin Kaikan karate business. I needed some time to think about saying anything now, too, as I wanted to be strictly honest toward the memory of my old "friend and teacher, Mas Oyama.

He did a lot for me, introducing me to the karate world and giving me a new purpose in life. This changed my life completely for the best. For me, Oyama was like a father I never had. In the old days, he showed me all the things you need to be a teacher and helped me through some rough times. On the other hand, I am tired of all the phonies who did not go the straight way.

So, let me tell it like it was.

Published accounts describing Oyama preparing for the big karate championships in 1947 are very funny. Especially the Americans, who fought the Japanese in World War 11, should know that. MacArthur was the big honcho in Japan from August 1945, until the Korean War, and he declared right away that there was to be no more budo in Japan until he declared otherwise. He even rounded up all the samurai swords he could lay his hands on and had them dropped in Tokyo Bay. They would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today. He was not messing around and nobody dared disobey his rules.

Around 1948, judo started again at the old Kodokan on Suidobashi.

Karate was done mainly by the Shotokan, where sparring matches were not allowed until the late 1950s, and by the Goju Kai and Wado Ryu, where the sparring was so soft that a split lip or a nose bleed would throw the officials into a state of shock. So while there might have been some professional boxing clubs where fighting was done on a knockout basis, a karate championship in Kyoto done on such a basis was absolutely out of the question.

As for Oyama's alleged 270 American bouts, remember that he was in the States as a professional wrestler. Since when are professional wrestling matches on the level? All Oyama ever told me about those days was that Americans were crazy, that their wrestling was phony and prearranged, and that as fighters, they were weak. My guess is that most of what he did was just break bricks and things between matches.

If he had ever fought any of the American professional wrestlers,
really fought them, I think he would have beaten most of them easily.

Even Oyama's famous world championships of the 1970s were a joke. By then, foreigners were not allowed to win. To prevent it, Oyama had all the gaijin fight each other first, and of course pitted the best against each other. Because everyone wanted to win, the injuries were terrible. Meanwhile, he put the leading Japanese against low quality Japanese from his own school, who knew their place and of course didn't try too hard. So they had it easy.

Occasionally, in the finals, the referee would give a good foreign
fighter a decision over a Japanese fighter. Oyama would stand up all red in the face. Then he'd call the referee over to his table and chew him out and reverse his decision. This was against all the rules of sportsmanship. Read Nakamura Tadashi's book or go talk to him in New York. It is very emotional and very sad.

But he was a great teacher who trained many good fighters and his books were very popular. When I read his first book, What Is Karate? (1957), I was really impressed. I was in his second book (This Is Karate, 1965) and had the opportunity to look into the way he did things.

The thing that amazed me most was "the monkey business" (Oyama's own words) involved in the breaking tricks. I didn't know about this when I did my first breaking demonstration in Holland. Since I had read in Oyama's book, What Is Karate?, about somebody breaking twenty-five roofing tiles at once, I simply brought some tiles I had found along the road. I thought that twenty-five sounded like a lot, for these things were heavy and felt strong. So I only put eight on top of each

other and gave it my best. I made it but nearly broke my wrist. Of course I wondered how that kid managed twenty-five.

Well, I found out while working on the book, This Is Karate. I went to the pile of tiles they had prepared for punishment and picked up the top tile. It felt like paper, it was so light, and on its underside was a baked-in line along the length of the tile. So the middle of the tile was maybe a millimeter thick. No wonder a 110-pound chicken could go through twenty-five of them!

The bricks were no different. They were specially baked and if someone leaned on them they would crumble. His wood was also very lightweight. As for that famous bottle trick, first you prepare the bottle by rolling a sharp stone around the bottle's neck. That way when you hit it, it breaks along the carved line.

During a demonstration, Loek Hollander had arranged for each of us to break several big blocks of ice. What I did not know until years later is that he had arranged for workmen to cut his blocks almost in half using diamond strings and then refreeze them so that nobody would notice the cuts. On the other hand, my blocks were solid. Anyway, Loek broke his three blocks so easily that I forgot the rule about the wrist and immediately broke the little bone under my wrist. I was so angry that right away I hit again and went through the ice anyway. I was in a plaster cast for the next six weeks.

As I said before, in 1963 1 opened my own budo club called the Budokai. Kurosaki Kenji came over in 1966, about the time Oyama started calling himself "the Godhand." Even the Japanese press laughs at that one. In 1990, we changed the club's name to Kyokushin Budokai and, in 1966, some friends and I renamed it the International Budokaikan. Today it has many associated clubs and some real good fighters.

In the Budokai we teach no kata, only fighting. Excepting Donn Draeger, I've never known a kata champion who could beat by grandmother in randori if she had her umbrella. To keep injuries down, we provide students with a lot of coaching and supervision. But, as the Japanese method of slapping people into line doesn't work in Europe, we don't make anyone do anything he doesn't want to do. Therefore, the standards are only as high as the individual makes them. Which can be very high, as the teams we send to full-contact tournaments usually win. For instance, in Tokyo in 1993, Chris Dolmen, our only 9th dan, became the first world champion in "free fighting." From 1994 to 1997, Budokaiteams won the Japanese All-Round Karate Championships in Tokyo. As a result, the Japanese no longer allow us to compete.

In 1976, some buddies and I were in Korea getting decorated for our service during the war. Afterwards, my wife and I went to Tokyo where I visited the Kyokushinkai honbu dojo for the first time in years. On the street in front were guards. The place looked like a yakuza headquarters - and for all I know, it is.

Although he called himself "the Godhand," everybody else called Oyama "Mr. Ten Percent." This was due to his relations with various politicians and businessmen, including one Time magazine called the Godfather of Japan. 

In The "Young Lions" of Mas Oyama's Kyokushin Karate Headquarters (1985), Necef Artan tells how Oyama's students spent four hours a day going through Tokyo "asking shopkeepers to display posters in their windows." Such activities would be protection rackets in Europe or America. But in Japan, politics and the yakuza are like a hand and a glove on a very cold day and one never does business without the other.

Anyway, I went in the door and up the stairs to Oyama's office. Although Oyama wasn't there, the old memories came back and I got all choked up. The young black belts posted as guards obviously didn't recognize me, even though my picture was hanging on the wall. One went to stop me, so I gave him my best cold look and told him in Japanese who I was and added that if he touched me he would be a cripple instantly. The poor kid nearly had a heart attack, as Oyama had told them all kinds of stories about me. When I left, some of the kids touched my arm or shoulder and said they were honored. I talked to Oyama on the phone later the same day and afterward we ate dinner at an expensive Kobe beef restaurant.

In April 1994, 1 was scheduled to go to Tokyo to talk to Oyama when I received a fax saying that he had just died of cancer. I cried and cried. I was so sad, angry, and frustrated.

As for Mas Oyama, in the teaching of the Buddha it is written, "Can a student be angry with his teacher?" The more devoted the student, the more privileges he has! But those privileges do not include lies. To a stranger I might sound bitter but I am not. Mas Oyama turned my life around, all for the best. He had a good heart and was an excellent teacher. As for everything else, I wish the politics in the various judo and karate organizations would have been less. I wish I'd been born a better diplomat, as maybe that would have helped. I wish Oyama hadn't died, as his death means I can't talk to him anymore, or tell him the love I still have for him because of the old days. I wish the Japanese weren't so nationalistic and conceited, and that they would have given Donn Draeger the credit he deserved as a teacher, coach, fighter, and writer. What makes me saddest, though, is to have to admit that so much of what passes for budo is really nothing more than monkey business.

Even if Mas Oyama never had a fight in his life, it does not take away from the fact that the martial art he created, Kyokushinkai, is extraordinary. It just means that martial arts instructors are human too, and as such, as subject to failings. Understanding that is not a bad thing, it's a good and necessary one.

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