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Kenn Oliver
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KARATE Five Newfoundlanders receive sixth-degree black belts

For as long as karate has been offered in this province, clubs and associations have had to look off the island for karate masters to conduct their grading and testing.

Not so anymore.

Earlier this month, five Newfoundlanders received their sixth-degree black belts, earning them the lofty rank of Master.

Five Newfoundlanders have earned their rank as master. Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

For as long as karate has been offered in this province, clubs and associations have had to look off the island for karate masters to conduct their grading and testing.

Not so anymore.

Earlier this month, five Newfoundlanders received their sixth-degree black belts, earning them the lofty rank of Master.

"It puts everything in perspective for me because I never thought I would reach this rank," admits one of the five, Bruce Lee.

"But I never thought I'd be at something, anything, for 30 years."

Joining Lee is his cousin Wayne Lee, David Bell, Ernest Howell and Paul Bell, all from the metro region.

These gentlemen are no spring chickens either; David Bell, Paul Bell and Howell are in their 60s, while the Lees are still enjoying their 50s.

And they show no signs of slowing down. All five are still teaching with various clubs and associations, both in St. John's and outside.

"You're still in your prime when you're around 40 years old at this stuff," said Paul Bell. "It's a lifelong endeavor."

High standards

Attaining a sixth-degree black belt, or rokudan, in the Japanese karate system, is considered the hardest in which to advance because of strict testing standards. It can take up to 35 years to earn the distinction

One's first black belt usually takes five years of basic training. Lee explained, "it's fairly routine two years after your first-degree to reach a second-degree level." It is essentially a more polished version.

The third-degree is the first rank where free fighting is used, "no rules, basically just using your controls," according to Lee. It's also the point when experience in the martial art - it can take up to 15 years to be considered ready for third-degree testing - plays as important a role as technical knowledge.

"To reach your fourth-degree, it means you're an instructor or a sensai, which means you can officially teach," Lee said, explaining that black belts can teach before fourth degree, but under the moniker "sempai".

Reaching a fifth-degree is, like the transition from first to second, more about development and fine-tuning existing skills. Sometimes, Lee said, it involves writing a thesis on some original research into the sport.

The sixth degree is the last physical test in the Japanese system. The most important part, according to Lee and Bell, is the ability to impart years of knowledge - philosophical and technical - to others.

"When to attack, the timing, the distance, your awareness about you when you're in a realistic situation," said Lee.

"By no stretch of the imagination is technique the thing that's going to save you in a fighting situation. It's more about your spirit and your understanding of these basic principles."

Bell, even after attaining his second through sixth degree black belts, maintains the first is the hardest to attain.

"It's really, really scary," admits Bell. "You put so much time into it, and you're nervous. You're hoping you'll make it, but you always have that little bit of doubt."

Having said that, Bell insists the others are no walk in the park either.

"Every time you walk on the floor out in front of one of these Japanese masters, you still have that little bit of nervousness."

There is a certain familiarity among the five; they all got their start at the Joe Gillies Karate School in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"We've been together as long as I can remember," said Bell, the current president of the Newfoundland Karate Association (NKA).

And they're still together today. All but David Bell, a religious studies professor and karate instructor at Memorial, hold a seat on the NKA board; Howell is vice-president, while Bruce and Wayne Lee are directors.

But training with Joe Gillies and other local instructors would only take them so far.

"We were determined to find the best karate instructors that we could possibly get in Canada, but we ended up going outside to bring in the best," said Lee.

For 15 years, they worked and trained under Masami Tsuruoka, considered the father of karate in Canada and the founding president and current technical director of the National Karate Association. Following Tsuruoka, the services of Hidetaka Nishiyama, current president of the International Traditional Karate Federation, were enlisted.

Over the years, professional relationships endured, while the personal relationships grew and continues today. It was Masami Tsuruoka who conducted the testing last June in St. John's.

"They're very easy to get along with," said Bell. "They're very strict, mind you, when they're teaching and training, but they're very comfortable to work with."

The designation ranks as one of the greatest accomplishments for Lee, his brothers in arms, and karate in the province as a whole.

"I have a real strong confidence in the fact that I deserve this. I've been tested, I've been around the world and I've seen what the highest standards are. We can stand with anybody, anywhere in the world and hold our own - if not be better than most on the floor - no matter where we go."

koliver@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Joe Gillies Karate School, Newfoundland Karate Association, NKA board National Karate Association International Traditional Karate Federation

Geographic location: St. John's, Canada

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  • Troy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    Five Newfoundlanders received their sixth-degree black belts, earning them the lofty rank of Master..... I think this is absolutely fantastic!
    Five men, dedicated to their art and achieving a great title through alot of blood,sweat and tears.... it is well deserved! I hope that other Newfoundlanders have a sense of pride for these men and their chosen path of disipline, I applaude them with great admiration for their tenacity!

  • John
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    What a great story...and what a great name for someone involved in martial arts! Bruce Lee! On a more serious note, just reading this article makes me want to put away my laptop, get off the couch and resume my exercise regime that I've been putting off. Anyone achieving as high a ranking as these men should be applauded. The fact that they are mature men is all the more reason they deserve a standing ovation. Now, where did I put my running shoes...

  • Troy
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    Five Newfoundlanders received their sixth-degree black belts, earning them the lofty rank of Master..... I think this is absolutely fantastic!
    Five men, dedicated to their art and achieving a great title through alot of blood,sweat and tears.... it is well deserved! I hope that other Newfoundlanders have a sense of pride for these men and their chosen path of disipline, I applaude them with great admiration for their tenacity!

  • John
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    What a great story...and what a great name for someone involved in martial arts! Bruce Lee! On a more serious note, just reading this article makes me want to put away my laptop, get off the couch and resume my exercise regime that I've been putting off. Anyone achieving as high a ranking as these men should be applauded. The fact that they are mature men is all the more reason they deserve a standing ovation. Now, where did I put my running shoes...