What is Soryu Karate? Well, that depends on who you ask. Classical Soryu Karate you say? There are those better qualified to answer this than myself. If, for instance, you have been to the dojo in Japan, and you have received your Dan ranking straight from Mr. Koyasu himself, you may have some expertise I do not presume to have.
The Soryu Karate I will define differs in some ways (but not all) from the classical and traditional Soryu Karate of Sasebo Japan. Indeed, it began in Sasebo, Japan, and it was brought here by Joe Alvarado. It began as a classical style, but changes were needed if it was to have any relevancy on the Texas martial arts scene. The traditional style of fighting, as brought from Japan, was at the mercy of the more versatile styles, in particular those of the followers of Allen Steen and Pat Burleson. For instance, simplistically speaking, (and I emphasize simplistically) the tae kwon do stylist was firing a hard lead leg kick, and following it up with multiple punches, while the Soryu fighter was winding up to fire a rear leg round house kick which was easy to block and even easier to counter. After a few disastrous tournament forays, needed changes were made, and in time Soryu Karate graduated to the level of the Steen and Burleson schools.
There were more radical changes made to up the ante. One of the drastic changes which truly began to define what we shall call “Texas Soryu Karate” was in the matter of Black Belt exams. Mr Alvarado called a meeting of his Brown Belts and laid it out. Twenty rounds of fighting after all the forms. He meant it to be brutal. Jessie Ortegon’s was the first, and his exam was brutal, a far cry from the watered down exam we see today. We put the hurt to the man. We really hurt him. And so it was for those that followed. I was next, and then Steve Besa. Number six was Louis Arnold. The first woman black belt in Texas Soryu was Ida Lopez, the seventh to test for black. The number two woman fighter in the state was in the dojo. She fought Ida twice, and both times was knocked on her behind. Ida’s performance was exemplary. Tough exams were par for the course, and those for my New Braunfels students were no different. I had Jeff Bonugli go 27 rounds. Tuper Wood’s exam was particularly bruising. Against my counsel he began working out with a wrestler. Sure enough, he resorted to take downs and grappling, which quickly wore on him against fresh opponents. His 13th round, pitting him against one of my boxer students was particularly devastating. He was out boxed, and took some hard licks to the head. It was all he could do to continue, but despite a broken nose, he somehow mustered up the fortitude to fight on for the remaining seven rounds. It was take that exam or forget about attaining black belt rank.
That exam, if followed to its original extreme, also served to cull the Black Belt ranks of any student not deserving of the rank, or not willing to run the gauntlet. And it served as an early and dramatic change from the Black Belt exam in Japan, where the student to be advanced faced three, or at the most, four matches against higher ranked black belts. That exam was a high point in defining Texas Soryu as a much, much, more aggressive style than its Oriental parent.
The caliber of our fighters was another definer of Soryu in Texas. There have been many, but the first to truly break out was Louis Arnold. In the fight game, he was the best of the best. Louis Arnold was a heavyweight, and through his big fists and flying kicks, Soryu Karate was dominating the karate fight scene. At no time has Japan Soryu done anything of the kind. It remains a lesser, exceedingly more passive style, in comparison to those around it. Not so in Texas, where we were pushing our fighters to the limit.
A third point, and one whose importance must not be underestimated, has to be the full contact team fights between two Soryu Schools, which together or apart were sweeping Texas tournaments, and always placing students in the winner’s circle.
We wanted more. We were teaming up to take a majority of a tournament’s trophies, in the name of Soryu Karate, but that wasn’t enough. We came up with the concept of full contact team fights, and our boys were excited about training for anything goes, full contact team matches, with five points for a knockout. In today’s world, that doesn’t seem like much, but in 1980, it was pretty dramatic. The tournament promoter for the first meeting was Dick Ranney, and he was scared to death of what might happen. He had us sign a disclaimer, in the event of serious injury. It was indeed a nail biter, but it brought down the house. The second matches were held at my tournament, and you could have heard the roar of the crowd a mile away. Those fights defined Texas Soryu Karate as a fighting style vastly different from the Soryu Karate of Sasebo, Japan, and the majority of the schools in the state. Make no mistake, the full contact team duels between the two Soryu Schools elevated Texas Soryu Karate into a truly fighting style.
A number of Soryu fighters were taking part, and winning in kick box events. Our respective fighters would find Mr Alvarado or myself in their corners, A majority of these were fighters who had taken the then required exam for Black Belt. They had run the gauntlet to earn the right to wear that belt. And now, they were taking their art to the next level. Pray tell, who is to tell these fighters who trained and fought so hard that their karate as it evolved through them, is not a genuine style, even Texas Soryu Karate? Can you not understand their frustration at not being heard, having put Soryu Karate on the map?
Now, as to Louis Arnold being called an icon, such was done to express long over due gratitude for his extensive contributions to Texas Soryu Karate. I was in the back of the room watching the proceedings, and I saw no dissent from any member of the board.
Lest any get carried away in criticism, it was Mr Bonugli, a very accomplished man in many areas, who with deep humility made very clear his admiration for Mr Arnold. It was the heartfelt admiration of an accomplished fighter towards another he believes to be the epitome of a great karate fighter. Such was his determination to make his point that he told me he had carried with him his sparring gear, lest anyone take excessive exception to his praises. It would be prudent to take care lest the impression be given that Mr Bonugli’s comments were anything less than genuine. The belt he took off and placed around Mr Arnold’s waist was once my belt, given to him two years past. In the many years I have known Mr Bonugli, I have never heard him utter compliments of the type he rendered Louis Arnold. His words regarding Louis Arnold came from the heart.
Let it be remembered that his comments were overwhelmingly approved by the board, and subsequently endorsed by Mr Alvarado and myself.
One of those promoted on March 7, 2014 was Mike Primeau, the former captain of the Alvarado full contact team (pictured above). He was an integral part of an epic moment in Texas Soryu Karate. He was an outstanding competitor. He earned the right to wear his black belt through what Mr Alvarado told him was “the last of the really brutal black belt exams.” He went on to fight full contact matches. After Mr Alvarado retired, Mr Primeau went to New York where he opened a school. He spoke of an outstanding brown belt, “as tough and as good as I’ve ever seen.” After the board meeting, Mr Primeau commented, “Now (after 20 years) I can promote that student to the black belt he deserves. As a 1st Dan I couldn’t do that.” In time, the intention is to make of Mr Primeau a spokesman for Soryu Karate. And why? Because after forty years of laboring, learning, and competing in the martial arts, he is credible. He has paid his dues, to include a grueling and bruising black belt exam, one which separates him from Japan.
In part, this is a stated goal, recognizing those very deserving early fighters, those who brought Soryu Karate to the fore, and who now believe they were forgotten and left behind.
Now, to any who would instruct traditional Soryu Karate. Please be assured that there is room for you. There is a place for you, if you will have it. For instance, there are instructors who struggle with the teaching of kata in the correct manner. Your skills are needed. I do not presume to speak for Mr Burse, but I believe he would be willing to make room for you in the upcoming SKA camp. Further, it would be my hope that there would be room for instruction from some of those recently promoted on Friday, March 7th, 2014.
Despite the jolting past weeks, I fully support Mr Burse in what he is doing with the Soryu Karate Association. Any disagreement or purported disagreement, in no way takes away the credit he is due for his work in bringing schools together. I would suggest that eventually, more schools will be represented.
A final point, requirements for the higher ranks will be developed by myself and Mr Alvarado, and presented to the high rank board for their review.