AN INTERVIEW WITH
KEVIN THOMPSON SENSEI
THE ESSENCE OF BUDO
Interview by Lydia Alicea
Edited by Shihan William Rivera
Online Martial Arts Magazine 2006
BUDO: Perhaps more than any other element of the martial arts, has so much been written about, analyzed, discussed and pondered upon than what constitutes the essence of “Budo.”
When in need of a definition or someway of placing it within some understandable context, the word “Budo” has been defined as: way of the warrior, way of war, martial way; some translate it to mean martial arts or way of fighting.
In Kanji, Budo has had its radicals torn apart in trying to describe it. “Bu” can mean war, warrior, martial, but it is not that simple for the characters that make up the kanji mean “spear” and “to stop.” “Do” has a common meaning of path, road, method or way. From this we derive the meaning, “the way to stop conflict”.
Budo has also been described as the code on which martial arts are based which includes the spiritual, mental and physical foundations.
Budo can be explained in words but the essence or what it is, its heart and soul, does not have a literal translation. Let me describe another example by giving you a word that will bring it into perspective:
Love. Oh, we say we love many things: chocolate ice cream, going to the movies, a walk through Central Park and yes, those Amazing Mets. The list is endless.
Now, true love that deep love felt towards your spouse, significant other or child transcends words. It is deep down gut wrenching passion that never ceases and never leaves you.
Like love, Budo is an essence, a way of being. It is total commitment. For the martial artist, Budo is his being.
If you are still unclear of what Budo is you need only to understand through a living example: a martial arts warrior: Kevin Thompson Sensei.
Upon entering The Shakil’s School of Martial Arts in Montclair, New Jersey you encounter what you have heard a dojo is suppose to be but often do not see in most schools. Before your eyes is the manifestation of power mixed with honor, loyalty and humility. It may sound corny so allow me to describe the magic I witnessed:
As Sensei leads his students through kata, my eyes scanned the floor and a smile began to emerge. My attention became fixed on a young boy about 10 years old, and a girl about 12. Their punches were crisp, stances sturdy and focus keenly evident in the way they moved. I felt and saw their confidence.
Upon my introduction, I was reciprocated with an awesome bow and a room full of smiles and handshakes! If that was not enough, these students continued to impress me. As I spoke to each of them, their sureness about themselves as individuals and their pride in the martial arts was certainly felt. That is confidence! They are fortunate for they possess because of there training what you have heard the martial arts is supposed to give you. They have Bushido.
“Kevin is the real deal If you were to look in a dictionary for the definition of a karate practitioner they should put a picture of Kevin Thompson. On top of that knowing him as an individual, as a father as an instructor he is a great human being.
Kevin was one of the few small guys who could actually beat anybody, heavyweight, lightweight anybody.
He said it all one time when he got inducted into the Black Belt Hall Of Fame He was asked, how long did he take training forms and how long did he train for fighting and how many times did he train a week in weapons, things like that and Kevin said, “I just do Karate”. There is no question about it; he has put his stamp on the martial arts. He should be the arts poster boy. Kevin Thompson is what everybody aspires to be like, he lives it, he is an inspiration. I hold him in high esteem not just as his coach, also as his friend.”
Master Don Rodrigues!
“Kevin Thompson is dedicated to helping people, motivating people. He is versatile and can do everything a total package. I first met Kevin at the first Bluegrass Nationals where I won the grand championship. Kevin was the first one to come up and congratulate me. His peers as a Martial Artist, and a person respect Kevin Thompson.”
Master Anthony “Tony” Young
“Kevin and I were on the ‘Atlantic’ National Karate Team. My recollection is of a well-rounded martial artist. Kevin could do it all, fighting, forms, and weapons and he was great. Watching him would take your breath away. He was willing to share what he knew. Kevin was never about him it was always we or us. He is the ‘Total package’, Martial Artist, Person, and to this day I consider him a Friend.
Master Doreen Cogliandro”
Master Thompson is the epitome of what martial arts is all about. Strong basics and fighting spirit coupled with good character and sportsmanship.
Master George Swift Bonet"
The comments above are a sample of the comments referring to Master Kevin Thompson. For those who may not be familiar with the individuals above let me make it short and sweet: Leaders and inspiration in the world of martial arts and with the people whose life’s they have touched. Excuse me but this interview is about Kevin Thompson let me say the above comments had to be shortened and the one’s I did not include, alone could be 2 or 3 articles. Bottom lines yes his skill and physical abilities were referred to but it was the aspects of loyalty, honor and humility that always came to the forefront in talking about Kevin Thompson. Budo
M.Force: When did you start training in the Martial Arts?
K.Thompson: “My brother Mylo Thompson started training me in the basics at the age of five. I started training at the dojo at seven. Earl helped me in refining my skills.”
M.Force: Describe KA system’s base created by Master Karriem Allah.
K.Thompson: “Sensei trained us in the basics for kicking, punching, weapons. His system had seven styles and between 18 sub styles, 25 training styles which we called 25 different ways to face your opponent. Every style had its own kicks, punches, and combinations. His creativity was often sparked as he trained with music he found inspiring.”
M.Force: Sensei was certainly a pivotal influence in your life.
K.Thompson: “Sensei was a brilliant individual devoted to his art, relentless in his pursuit to perfecting a system of martial arts, a fighting system he felt was unique for that time. Unfortunately, he had a negative side many found offensive. He was a braggadocio, an arrogant and often condescending individual towards his students or to anyone he encountered. His outspokenness earned him the reputation as “The Muhammad Ali of Karate.”
M.Force: How did he create the KA System?
K.Thompson: “He did the same as others have done, by training in various systems and culminating all that he learned and developing what he believed was a truly effective martial arts practice, just as Bruce Lee did with Jeet Kune Do.
His tireless spirit never stopped studying, practicing or drawing diagrams. Sensei never gave a second thought about how he was perceived or what opinions others held about the KA system. In fact it gave him a charge to know that we were feared at tournaments in anticipation of what they would encounter when faced with the KA system, a real hard-core fighting system.”
M.Force: When did you begin training in kata?
K.Thompson: “Training in kata began on day one of instruction in 1968. My instructor opened the doors to his dojo in 1965. As we traveled and competed throughout the country, Sensei continued to redefine and tweak his system of karate proclaiming the KA system as the best. At a young age I was competing in kata with the greats ones, Fred Miller, Errol Bennett, Alex “Plus One” Steinberg, all great kata performers.”
M.Force: Please tell us about your first tournament.
K.Thompson: “It was one year after I began training. I entered and won as a peewee and gave the trophy to my mother.”
M.Force: You competed as a peewee?
K.Thompson: “At a very young age I was often mistaken as being much older than I actual was because of the mannerisms I picked up from always being around older men. Instead of playing outside with other kids my age, I was on the dojo floor training hard along side my older dojo brothers. I was dead serious about my training.”
M.Force: That serious side, was that you, Kevin Thompson?
K.Thompson: “Perhaps in some part but it was mostly as a result of how we trained. Sensei’s unilateral approach to training was persistent, repetitive, hard and relentless. He believed that the seriousness of training was critically important for developing his students into fierce martial artists. He instilled in every one of us that nothing mattered more than one’s karate and your purpose for being in his dojo was to eventually become a deadly force to be reckoned with. He never lessened his intensity to training nor lowered his standards of discipline. His dojo was not the place for socialization. If my instructor caught me speaking to another kid, oh my God, I was dead! I was there to compete and friendships were for outside the dojo.
Please understand that at a very young age the direction of my life was driven by one passion: to be the best in the art I was studying. I was consumed with training hard day and night and when I was not at Sensei’s dojo, I was working out in one that I set up in the basement of my mother’s home. While folks were sleeping in the early morning hours, my dojo brothers and I were training. After a class we would step out for a bite to eat only to return soon thereafter for Sensei always had another new idea, another move to try out. Bam, we worked it, did it and it was damn good! The hard-core aspect of training intensifies the seriousness of your karate.
Sensei was quite a colorful character and an awesome Martial Artist. His brush with fame occurred in 1975 when he fought against Jeff Smith before an estimated 50 million worldwide viewers. It was at the Ali/Frazier ‘Thrilla In Manila’.”
M.Force: How did you become known as “The 8th Wonder”?
K.Thompson: “Actually, the title was “Little KA, The 8th Wonder of The World.” It was during a demonstration at Sunnyside Garden in Queens, New York, hosted by Aaron Banks.
During this particular event, Errol Bennett and I were tied for first and second place. I knew only 2 black belt kata so I decided to use one to win the division and the other for the grand championship. We reached another tie and so I did my second kata. We went on to tie four more times. By this point, I was creating kata on the spot. On the last kata I threw, a pivoting side kick straight up, unique because no one was doing it. I threw that sidekick over, and over and won. Aaron Banks came on the mike and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Little KA is not a wonder, he is “The 8th Wonder of the World!” The audience exploded in applause. That title has followed me for a long time.”
M.Force: You competed in point, semi-contact, full contact and kata, at the same time. How were you able to accomplish this?
K.Thompson: “You must have the personal commitment to broaden your abilities to train in each of these areas. I consider myself fortunate because I have strong athletic abilities that I still work at. As a young man training and competing in the martial arts, I was also playing baseball and basketball on a collegiate level. Yes, I was certainly testing my limits by going as high or as low as I needed to and the bonus was that it strengthened my Martial Arts.
Early on I learned the importance of control, not just for my kime (focus) but also in holding back on certain abilities while applying what was more effective. So, if I had to hit, then bam, I hit, or, if I needed to choke you out, that is what I did.”
M.Force: What were the important aspects you derived from the KA system?
K.Thompson: “I reached a crossroad in my life where I needed to take a different direction. Many good things had come to me as well as some harsh realities. Despite the obstacles, I was strong and secure as an artist who prided himself as being an exemplary model for all the students I encountered in training or in competition.
I was 19 years old when I opened my first school in Newark, New Jersey. It was March of 1981 and I had broke away from my instructor of many years, Karriem Abdullah Sensei. His loss to Jeff Smith left a bad taste in his mouth about Karate and he chose to end his teaching.
Sensei always held us to a higher standard. Greatness was your goal and just being good was unacceptable. He taught us that you could not change the intensity of your training without affecting your karate. Therefore, it was all about training hard today because it will forever change your life.
Any form of disrespect, whether intentional or not could never be tolerated. The dojo is sacred ground and its rules are not to be disobeyed. It reminds me of a story, years ago of a person who came into the dojo with his hat on. Upon seeing this, Sensei came off the floor running, grabbed his hat, punched him in the mouth and kicked him out the door. No questions were asked he obviously did not know the rules of the dojo. I recently told this story to our students because we were discussing the etiquette of a true karateka. A karateka is giving, humble and sincere but the other side is that he must be sharp as a razor blade, for if you bother him he will cut you.
He emphasized to all his students the importance of training in order to prepare one for outside the dojo (pointing towards the door), to life and all its challenges. Certainly his approach was hard core yet I feel it was also protective, like a lioness who watches over her cubs and does not allow them to venture too far until they are ready.”
M.Force: Give us an element of your training you believe best prepared you.
K.Thompson: “I would say the hard-core element, the repetitiveness, the intensity, tough on the body but great for the spirit! There is something to be said about being thrown down enough times where you hate it, dread it and your mind tells you do not let this happen any more, avoid it! Your training will develop an internal defense mechanism which kicks in when needed.”
“As a teacher, as an instructor and as a sensei, you must be able to know your students. You must know how they feel just as if they were your children.”
M.Force: How do you accomplish this?
K.Thompson: “Through actions that students can see and feel. My approach to training is simple: lead them down the path where they can find faith within. When students believe in themselves, you can take them to where you want them to be in their training. With the shrill in my voice and the bark in my tone, I send a jolt into each one of them to think quickly and jump. It is followed through with a steady and consistent flow of positive reinforcement. I channel my passion to them urging them to go for it because they have it in here (hitting his chest). This is the motivation they feel and the commitment they can see.
An instructor should approach teaching as a process intended to achieve results. Along the way are critical points of development to be reached. Those points are fundamental to establishing a solid foundation in the instructor/student relationship. Development leads to trust followed closely with commitment. Get your students there and they will go all the way for you, absolutely!”
“It is my duty as an instructor to insure that my students experience all that is possible to allow them growth, development and to become successful in the real world. What is that real world about? It is all about competing and accepting a win, a loss or draw.”
M.Force: What is the American Karate Do system and what is it based on?
K.Thompson: “American Karate Do system practices the art of karate as a way of life here in America, Kevin Thompson’s way. Do meaning the way of or spirit, the act of doing. It has the foundation of the KA system (Karriem Abdullah). Over the course of many years, I studied and practiced various arts including Shotokan, Ju-Jitsu and Goju. Though I did not study directly under Peter Urban, a major influence for me was one of his prime students, Chuck Merriman. Sensei Merriman was my coach on the Budweiser, World Atlantic Team and the Trans World team.
From the various systems, I derived what I considered aspects of quality, the hallmarks of what makes each of them great and applied them to the base of the KA system. When I opened my first dojo in 1981, I taught the KA system as a student of Karriem Abdullah Sensei.
American Karate Do stresses the fundamental rudiments and what is considered traditionally characteristic of karate, the way of the empty hand, simplicity, proficiency and clarity in the basics and adherence to values of respect, honesty, integrity.
Our system deviates slightly by presenting training as a means of sparking one’s creativity. For me it is a constant, which I incorporate especially in kata. I compare it with the same intensity of an artist who creates music in a studio. An artist lives his life in his studio, developing, refining, and perfecting his art. Whatever you do in life, you must live it. My home always had a dojo. As a young boy, in my mother’s basement was a tiny corner that was my dojo. I placed some carpeting down, hung a mirror and all my weapons and Kama up on the wall, and in that space I worked, practiced and created.”
M.Force: What does it take to become a teacher?
K.Thompson: “If a Martial Artist decides to take that important path it is with the understanding that teaching is a commitment to the art and to those whom have brought you to that point, your Sensei, your family and teachers. Readiness to teach is not solely based on exceptional skill and talent or by the notches on one’s black belt. Like the old Smith Barney saying, “You do it the old fashioned way, you earn it.” You had better be damn good!
Accepting responsibility for the students you are entrusted with is an awesome task and students will immediately seek out your sincerity and tap into your integrity. To be effective requires strong leadership skills, sound judgment, discipline and lots of patience. Lastly, an instructor must know when and how to push a student along, ever mindful of who he is as an individual and what he is capable of.”
M.Force: Discuss your kata system and weapons.
K.Thompson: “Our system has over 25 kata which is comprised of different levels of abilities and aptitude. We have white belt, yellow belt, green belt, brown belt and black belt kata, and all empty hand. In each, we have the basic stances, blocks and strikes and the combinations. Kata is not taught until the student has proficiency in the basic stances first. Why? Kata is said to be a disguise but its application, or bunkai, is its reality. Therefore, the approach to teaching kata should be slow and patient. I tell my students not to rush to show their technique. As a practitioner you are not only demonstrating, or executing your techniques for yourself or your imaginary opponent, it is also for the onlooker.
You must feel kata as should your judges and onlookers who pick up its intensity and emotion, whether through your facial expressions or attitude. The true practitioner can make it real and an instructor must convey this on all levels.
Our weapons system begins with the short stick (escrima) and moves onto the (bo), the 6-foot stick. We begin with a review of information about the weapon and then move onto the basic stances, blocks, strikes and combinations. From there, we go to the short stick (kama), the bladed weapon and then on to the short and long swords. I teach these only to my third degree black belts and up. The practitioner of the weapon must learn the foundation first before putting any weapon into the hand. He must be familiar with the body and all its internal systems. Only advanced students can practice weapons.”
M.Force: Do you currently promote tournaments?
K.Thompson: “Years ago, for about ten years I would throw a tournament known as the “New Jersey Open”, a major event with top prizes. Unfortunately, participation dwindled making it difficult to continue sponsoring. I have not hosted an outside tournament in a very long time.
Our school rarely participates in tournaments as in previous years and for good reasons. Although not representative of most tournaments we too often witness events that are badly managed and disorganized, where disrespect and poor sportsmanship are allowed to run amuck. It is becoming a very common sight to see participants arguing with judges on calls, students running on the dojo floor with their belts tied around their necks, excessive noise from the spectators during matches, all so shameful. Instructors are standing around, silently and unconsciously supporting disgrace to the art they practice and represent.
I choose their tournament participation carefully and prefer offering a different route for our school as a means of providing a platform for competitiveness and team spirit. We have our own intramural league where we schedule events throughout the year.”
M.Force: You are currently working on your autobiography?
K.Thompson: “Absolutely! It will look back, beginning with me as a young boy training in the martial arts. It will tell a story about life, growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the 1960’s – 1970’, illustrate my developments in the martial arts over a span of 35 years and describe how its influence has lead me through many paths taken culminating in my achievements. Lastly, I want the book to discuss the importance of determining your successes in life and how your love of karate, family and friends will get you there.”
M.Force: Sensei, you are also working on your graduate degree. Please discuss this very important endeavor.
K.Thompson: “My profession is in public education, a career I began 22 years ago. I am devoted to both my work and karate because of their responsibilities to our youth, which includes ensuring that they realize the importance of success in life, in school and in relationships.
My Master’s degree will be in Education, Supervision and Administration. It will bring me closer to accomplishing a life long career goal of becoming a vice principal or principal in the Essex County public Education System. Currently my work is in youth crisis intervention as a mediator. Upon stepping in, I explain to the student my role and what crisis means (a situation needing to be addressed) which is not necessarily a bad thing or a problem. It is critical for the student to understand this from the onset because it helps lower the defensive guard and allows for give and take, communication.
In our schools we see children doing well but often are not praised by their teachers, school staff and most importantly, their family. Our youth need consistent reinforcement for their good work to motivate them to work even harder. It is just as important in Martial Arts training. On the dojo floor as I push my students along the reinforcement is right there waiting, Osu! Beautiful punch, let me see that again, hit me again, come on, keep it up there, first two knuckles, yes! Give me another high five!”
It is all about consistent praise for good work, good stance, and good form, whatever! I do it in a manner that I know they will feel and that is the key to making that very important connection with this (pointing to the head and heart). I cannot see what is in their thoughts and in their hearts therefore I must get to them inside.”
M.Force: Do you believe it is possible to transfer this approach to teaching karate on a more complex level such as a school system?
K.Thompson: “Without a doubt. The will is only preceded by the need. I have seen in my years of experience that when people are seriously committed to wanting change they will go all the way to seek the means necessary in making it possible.”
M.Force: Despite political considerations?
K.Thompson: “I have also learned not to worry about politics. My considerations are to the youth and their needs.”
M.Force: “We know about the benefits yet there is still considerable resistance to teaching karate in the public school system, liability a major concern. What can be done to allow greater acceptance?
K.Thompson: “With respect to liability, I certainly agree that safety must come first. It is critical because it helps alleviate much of the concerns and misunderstanding surrounding training and the misconception of the arts with respect to violence.
When sparring, we engage in a complete gear system. In the past we have had our share of broken noses, teeth knocked out and finger jams, so, we went with the chest guard, feet and hand pads, headgear, mouthpiece and the groin cup. Years ago we were more mindful of lawsuits so the emphasis was on blocking, bottom-line. We still are but I can tell my students to throw their punches and kicks as hard as they can because they have protective gear from head to toe. We have not had an injury in years and you know they love it because it takes the edge off.
Secondly, when you present instruction with a hard-core approach, kids will respond. Disciplined training is effective and does give them what they need to face their challenges outside the dojo. Parents do see improvement in their school performance. Many of the kids whom have come through our program began when they were very young and have moved on to college and beyond.
When students have concentrated and learned their martial arts well they are better focused, period. It is all about self-preservation and the importance of going out there believing in you. I tell my students, “your karate is for you, concentrate, keep your focus on yourself and in here (pointing to his heart). Do not even look at your opponent and what he is doing over there. You are what matters!”
I currently have a program in the Bronx, at the Eagle Academy For Young Men, a public high school run by Mr. David Banks, Principal and the Program Director. He learned of our program here in New Jersey and wanted to see how we could bring it to his school. The high school has several sponsors including One Hundred Black Men, Inc., a community-based organization of professionals with a strong mentoring program and civic involvement and leadership in public education. Eagle Academy has also been awarded funding by the Bill Gates Foundation. We began our karate program this year with classes on Mondays and Wednesdays from 4-6 P.M. The young men love it because it provides them with a positive outlet.
Years ago I began an organization, Staff, Student, Parent Association. The idea behind S.S.P.A. is similar to the P.T.A., Parent Teacher Association in that each component has a vital stake with one another, therefore S.S.P.A.’s reach extends beyond the dojo. It is about student/parent involvement and accountability at home and in school. Our stakeholders are the students and parents and our staff members, our senior black belts, provide platform for exchange of ideas, problem solving strategies or any topic students and parent wish to present. Our meetings are held several times a year and are always packed to capacity.”
M.Force: Sensei what are your thoughts on actors and the Martial Arts.
K.Thompson: “There are many who are truly training in the martial arts and who are good. You have those fly by day, fly by nights, you know what I am saying and not to take away from some of them. None are training like Michael Jai White. Michael Jai White trains; you see. He is a true Martial Artist, ‘Osu’!”
M.Force: Sensei, some closing thoughts to our readers.
K.Thompson: “At Shakil’s School of Martial Arts we teach many things but our key word is teamwork. I do not allow the word “I” in our school. Teamwork is about sharing, caring and extending a helping hand to one another. It is the true way of karate do, the way of the empty hand. Practice it in your everyday life for you are not in this world alone.
I stress to all my students that in order to help others you must help yourself first. Do your work at home and not just in the dojo.
Lastly, enter the dojo focused because you came here for karate, to empty and to give. Once you empty, you will receive. Work hard for your rewards will begin to come.”
Martialforce: Kevin gave recognition to many, Earl, Mylo, Mom his beautiful Wife, kids and wow! Look, it was 18 pages. He speaks with warmth about the many that have crossed his path. Kevin Thompson is a Martial Artist who is Hard-Core.
Master Kevin Thompson accomplishments are of epic proportions. A member of the first ever Budweiser National Karate Team he also was with the Atlantic and Trans World Oil karate teams. Currently on what is considered the greatest and most successful team in the arena of Sports Karate, “Team Paul Mitchell”, Master Thompson continues to win in fighting, forms and weapons. A multiple Triple-Crown winner W.A.K.O World Champion, ok enough (I can’t wait for the book).
Kevin Thompson shows you that the Martial Arts Do have Magic and it is called training with your total being “mind, body, soul” The mentor every child wants, the instructor parents look for and the Friend, a “Total Package” Master Kevin Thompson -The Essence Of Budo.
Shakil's School of Martial Arts
Master Kevin Thompson
American Karate-Do System
324 Bloomfield Ave
Montclair, N J 07042
( 973 ) 509-9111