Thursday, June 22, 2017

Martial Arts Restored My Self Respect

As I have mentioned in a few blog posts already, my parents were hippies from Brooklyn and moved to a working class town where there were no hippies, while I was in elementary school In the early 70s. I already discussed my first steps on the martial path but in this post I am going briefly review what I went through and then detail how I went about restoring of my own self-respect.

During that 5 to 6 year period of being bullied, I truly felt horrible about myself. I dreamed of killing my classmates often. I wanted nothing out of life but revenge and I thought of little else, my grades plummeted and I was put into Special Education, after the football players in honors class kept punching me when the teacher turned his back. People laughed at me daily; teachers were of little help; and girls stayed far away from me. To this day, I remember those kids surrounding me in the bathroom, while the head football player peed on my sneakers. They all just sat there laughing but that was the moment I said enough is enough!

When I saw Bruce Lee's movie, I knew what I had to do, I enrolled in a Karate class. Even though it sounds a lot like the movie Karate Kid, this happened 5 years before the movie came out in 1984. I got into weapons right away. I was also in shop class and I started making my own weapons, like wooden swords, a Kai, which is a Japanese oar used in traditional Karate, Tonfas and many others. Even though, I didn’t see it at the time, it was an exciting period because  I was unifying my creativity, my physicality and my mind, as I began doing my own research. I started going to the library and bookstores finding the information I needed to solve my bully problem. School had a little value to me, no one there either cared or tried to uncover what was going on with me. I may have put up a wall I am not sure. Irregardless, for the first time in my life I had a plan, it was plain and simple revenge.

At 14 years old, I was the youngest person in my karate class, most of the people were in their 20s and 30s. When we sparred they knocked me on my ass. This was not a kid's class. I started training regularly and I would find peace of mind for the first time in my life, when I was doing the numerous katas I had to memorize in my backyard. I loved karate weapons but my teacher would not teach them to anyone until they were older. So I had to find access to weapons on my own. I made a lot in shop class or when my family went to Chinatown in Manhattan every now and again, I would go to the kung fu shops and buy Bruce Lee posters, nunchaku, throwing stars, etc etc.  I loved everything about karate and kung fu. It gave me a purpose and things really started looking up for me for the first time in my life.

Then one day after school, as we were all chaotically heading to the buses, one of the bigger football players confronted me in the parking lot. I don't recall the details as I was pretty nervous, but I do remember that he made a move to grab me and I let go a round house kick to his head. All the students stopped motionless, and he hesitated and backed off. This was no small feat, no pun intended, because a few months ago, I was this kid who didn't do anything when a group of kids peed on his new sneakers, and now that little cry baby just kicked him in the head in front of everyone in the school. Luckily for me it shocked him so much that he left me alone that day. I really got lucky because a few weeks earlier he had beat up one of the larger hippie freaks, yes this was the era of the freaks and the jocks. Not only did this football player beat that kid up but he had hit him so hard that the hippie went into convulsions while he was unconscious on his back. I did not witness it but it was the talk all over the school for weeks and here I am kicking this guy in the head. Well, my luck did not last long, I soon became labelled as a fighter and being 130 pounds soaking wet, people were eager to test me and the football players smelled blood. So the stakes increased and on top of that my karate school closed down. My father also said we couldn't afford it. I cried and cried I still feel the pain of that closure. I did not have the luxury of withdrawing in my shell, I had to adapt to the new circumstances.

One of the very few positive moves my father made was to buy a home with a wood burning fireplace in it and he made me chop all the wood for it. I should mention that I was diagnosed with dyslexia and there wasn't much being done for people like myself in the 70s. If it had been today I would most definitely have been given Prozac because in my later years I was diagnosed with ADHD. So my father knew I was a handful and this "prescription" of chopping wood was perfect for me. My strength and power increased tremendously but I no longer had a teacher. I searched and searched, remember this wasn't the day when there was a school on every block. That school was the only school in town.

The karate school closure coincided with the rise in popularity of boxing, between Rocky movies, and Martin Scorsese's The Raging Bull, and famous fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns people were really into boxing in those days. Being Italian-American the movies really spoke to me and one of my friend's brother was a boxer in the Marines.  He taught me a few moves informally. I began to train. I sold my karate and kung fu weapons for boxing equipment, a heavy bag, a speed bag and a jump rope. I began running and training daily. I developed a routine, I would come home from school and instead of practicing my katas, I began running, and training hard by shadow boxing, hitting the heavy bag, jumping rope and doing push-ups. I did this routine right up until dinner time. I knew that the football team trained hard and even had their own weight coach. So if I was going to fight them I would have to work as hard as them. As I started to train word got out, people saw me running around town throwing punches in the air. Since boxing was popular many people got into it. People began asking me to spar with them. I had my own informal sparring ring in my basement, instead of rope it had brick walls. I began sparring and sparring and sparring. I sparred as much as I could. I even had to promise my friends, who wouldn't spar with me otherwise, that I wouldn't throw any punches and they could try to hit me. We did that often and I got good at dodging punches, and I have the scars on my left eyebrow when I let them hit me as hard as they could until I bled-I had to imitate that scene when Jake LaMotta told his brother to hit him in the face in the movie the Raging Bull. I was Italian-American after all.

As my skills were improving and I started turning the tables on those bastard football players, I decided to enter the Golden Gloves tournament in NYC. Without any coach or anyone but my uncle and my dad in at my corner, I entered the ring against a seasoned fighter from Fort Apache Bronx Boxing Gym. They put out top professional fighters.  As soon as I stepped out when they called my name to fight, I was bombarded by lights and TV cameras. The ref made us touch gloves and bam bam, this guy was all over me and the ref stopped the fight within two minutes of the first round. I did not get knocked down but I was totally outclassed and overwhelmed.  

After that experience, word must have spread about me in my little town, and some old Irish guy, named Pat Finneran showed up at my house asking if I wanted to learn how to box. He was 72 years old and worked as a boxing coach in the Bronx. He was the first person to actually genuinely express interest in my well-being. He was the first person to show me why discipline is so important. He made me shuffle with my left leg leading up and down my driveway over and over again. We didn’t do all kinds of crazy drills, or 20 different punches. He simply made me shuffle in and out, with a left jab over and over again. He eventually added a right cross and a left hook and that was all we worked on for 6 months. After those six months no one was able to hit me or to last long with me. I totally outclassed everyone. I fought most of the football team members and beat them bad. The only one who I could not beat was the one guy who peed on my shoes. He was 6' 3" or 4" and around 200 pounds. He was captain of the football team and an all-star baseball player. I fought him 7 times and one time he busted a blood vessel in my eye but I kept fighting him. After those fights no one ever messed with me again. I was liberated and could say and do what I wanted and no one called me names or tried to bully me again.

After accomplishing that I felt like my self respect had been restored and with my new coach I signed up for the next golden gloves tournament but then I met a girl. It was my first girlfriend ever and I was about to graduate high school. I was on top of the world and I went to Pat Finneran and told him I didn’t want to fight anymore. Looking back at myself at that moment I feel terrible because here was a person who really helped me and I left him without so much as a thank you. I hope he knew how much he helped me in my life. When my second son was born I named his middle name Finneran.

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