The Rockaway Irregular
Martial arts in Rockaway aren’t limited to the west end as I discovered when I set out to write about them for this paper. Smack dab in the middle of what we used to call “Town,” on Cornaga Avenue in Far Rockaway, is the Amethyst Jujitsu dojo where Soke Runako Mashama, formerly of Trinidad, teaches his personal brand of jujitsu. The style is based on the martial art handed down from Philippine jujitsu expert Florendo Visitacion by way of Professor Moses Powell, a martial arts legend in the ’60s and ’70s. Powell taught Mashama’s teacher who taught Mashama in Trinidad, putting a Caribbean slant on this venerable Japanese system of self-defense.
Soke Mashama (“Soke” means founding master of a system, Mashama explains) has a background in several arts including Shotokan, the oldest and most ubiquitous form of Japanese karate. On the night I showed up, he was teaching a kids’ class, drilling them in the energetic and disciplined way he himself had learned. Students wore a variety of red, blue or black gis while Soke Mashama wore a multi-hued red uniform with a checkerboard pattern running like a tartan across the gi top and diagonally down one leg. A red belt, with purple and gold borders, was wound loosely round his waist. We’ve come a long way from the spartan traditions of old Japan.
Still, Mashama’s Rudo Ryu Jujitsu doesn’t depart from tradition in other ways as he runs his young students through a series of tumbling and falling drills before getting down to the evening’s lesson. A slight, wiry man in graying dreadlocks, Mashama comes into his own when walking his students through step-by-step responses to various attack scenarios. “I want them to learn self-discipline as well as defense,” he explains. He also wants them to keep their eyes open at all times. “You never know what’s out there,” he warns his young charges while demonstrating a wrist grab and takedown, “or who’s behind you . . . or if the guy’s got buddies nearby. After every move you have to look around,” he stresses. “You have to watch your back.”
It’s a mantra he recites repeatedly during the evening. Techniques include grabs, sweeps and quick takedowns, though he eschews prolonged grappling on the ground. “In a real fight,” he says, “you don’t want to end up rolling around on the floor because you never know what’s coming. You want to defend yourself and get out.” His students listen raptly, absorbing every word.
Mashama’s training methods include practice with classical Japanese and Chinese weapons and, surprisingly, essay writing for the younger students. It builds their knowledge and concentration, he explains.
Intent on ensuring his students acquire only the most realistic selfdefense skills, he emphasizes joint lockbased throws with quick strikes and kicks. Mashama explains that he combines elements of jujitsu, Shotokan karate and anything else he feels will work. His approach is reality-based and relies on quick, relaxed movement to fool the opponent. Every block, he reminds his class, is an attack, too. “You don’t protect yourself and then hit back. When you stop an incoming strike or kick you do it so the attacker will feel it and won’t want to try again!”
Weapons training is included, he adds, because learning to handle a sword or a staff, or the tonfa, kama or nunchuks, improves overall speed and coordination and readily translates to other things that may be handy on the street. A staff and a broomstick aren’t so different, after all.
Asked about other systems, Mashama echoes many other martial arts teachers when he says all have things to recommend them. That’s why he’s made his own a hybrid system, he explains, taking and using the best from other systems. “If you can’t avoid a fight,” he tells the room full of eager kids, “and have to defend yourself, you need a full arsenal of techniques for any possible situation so you can move fast, finish and get out. And never, never, never,” he stresses, “forget to watch your back.”
Mixing martial arts, as Mashama has done, is common today – but the truth is it always was. Even the purest of the classical Japanese arts are mixed versions of older systems. Judo is an amalgam of many different jujitsu styles that preceded it while Shotokan karate combines several different empty hand fighting styles from Okinawa, most tracing their roots back to diverse forms of Chinese kung-fu. More modern styles, like Mashama’s, combine these established systems into still more selfdefense iterations. Just across the county line another martial arts dojo on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst offers its own mix of systems and methods. Warren Levi’s Martial Arts is run by a former South African Shotokan practitioner and tournament champ who trained with South African Shihan Norman Robinson, a senior student of Masatoshi Nakayama – one of the top students of Shotokan’s founder, Gichin Funakoshi. “Shihan,” Levi explains to me shortly after I sit down with him, “means master.”
A slight guy who began his training at around age seven, Levi has exceptionally long legs and remarkable flexibility, allowing him to achieve the kind of extended kicks any Korean karate stylist (excelling in legwork, as they do) would be proud of. “Over the years,” Levi explains, “I’ve been exposed to many different styles and learned it doesn’t pay to limit oneself. There isn’t a lot of difference now between my kicks and those of the Koreans.”
Shotokan, itself, is a forceful, direct style of karate that cultivates speed and power, using strong blocks and counters. “But,” says Sensei Levi, “we also offer a broader range of approaches here because not everyone is looking for the traditional Shotokan experience which demands years of dedication, training and devotion to traditional Japanese culture. I also teach the Israeli defensive fighting system of Krav Maga, as well as kickboxing, and have specialists in various other systems on staff.” He adds that they also offer Brazilian Jujitsu training which emphasizes groundwork.
Pointing out that, with the advent and success of mixed martial arts, no fighter can consider himself truly prepared without knowing what to do in the event of a takedown. He adds, “Ground skills are good for kids, too, because many instances of bullying end up with one child on top of the other. A kid who knows how to turn the tables on an aggressor isn’t likely to be bullied again!”
Shotokan, like most forms of traditional karate, holds to the one-strikeends the-fight rule and I ask Sensei Levi how he feels about that. “The more I’ve seen of fighting, the less convinced I am of that scenario,” he offers. “I think the benefits of karate come from conditioning and developing your ability to move quickly and surgically. If attacked you want to find your opponent’s weakest point. But it’s unrealistic to expect a much smaller person to take out an aggressor in a single blow. You have to know how and where to strike when the time comes.”
Warren Levi’s Martial Arts is more than just another Shotokan school these days. “Some come here to train for competition,” he explains, “while others are just looking to defend themselves. Others want the kind of demanding aerobic training you get from the intense movements of a karate or kickboxing workout. Some come to shed pounds. We offer classes to meet all these needs, including classes for young kids, to teach them anti-bullying skills in a fun environment – and specialized classes for women. Of course, if you come looking to master the oriental martial art of Shotokan, we’ve got that, too, while, for self-defense there’s nothing like mixing in the economical, street-smart tactics of Israeli Krav Maga with Brazilian jujitsu’s grappling and groundwork expertise, to pull it all together.”
Martial arts have always been about mixing methods and techniques to get the best results, I realize, because one size rarely fits all. My odyssey through the martial arts in and around Rockaway has reminded me of this basic truth all over again.