Jerry Figgiani, Sensei, 8th dan

An Interview With American Karate Pioneer

Mike George 8th Dan

by Jerry Figgiani, Sensei, 8th dan

 

In the martial arts, one’s true practice is not just in the dojo. Learning how to face life’s obstacles is one of the benefits to a life-long study. Sensei Mike George has faced obstacles, has hit them head on, and still keeps moving forward.

His journey began in St. Louis Missouri in 1962 with the first American black belt in Matsubasyashi Shorin Ryu, James K. Wax. He has been influenced by some of Matsubayashi’s finest. From four of his American instructors: Bobby Yarnell, Parker Shelton, Mike Stone, and Jim Harrison…to a group of Okinawan instructors: Kensei, Taba, Seijun Kina, and Masao Shima.

Sensei George was nearly killed in 1951 after being hit by a dump truck driven by a drunk driver traveling 60 miles per hour. Due to losing a great deal of blood, he needed a blood transfusion which caused him to contract Hepatitis C. At this time there was no screening of donors or the blood they donated.

After many years of not knowing he was infected in 1993 he was told that he had end stage liver disease and would be dead in 6 months without a liver transplant. He received his transplant, but not until May of 2000, 6 and a half years after he was supposed to be dead. Throughout his battle, Sensei George never stopped training which exemplifies his perseverance, tenacity, and the true fighting spirit of the martial arts.

Now, at 70 years of age he is an inspiration to many as he stays busy working out and active in promoting the martial arts. Not only is he the California State Director for the United States Karate Do Kai, but he is also the Chairman of the Okinawan Association of America/Martial Arts Committee. He works on helping promote Okinawan Karate to a newer generation of karate-ka and to keep his art alive. Here is a quick look into one of the pioneers of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu in the United States.

1. Sensei, can you tell us why you started training in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu and where?

In the spring of 62, I began training in Karate in St. Louis Mo. I had always been interested in Karate. When a dojo opened near my house I quickly went by to check it out. The first person I met was Sensei Jim Wax. He made such an impression on me that I quickly joined. The fact that it was Matsubayashi didn’t influence my decision. Because at 16 in St. Louis in 62 there was so little known about Karate. I wouldn’t have known anything about styles

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2. What was it like training under Sensei Jim Wax, the first American Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu?

 

Sensei Wax was a phenomenal Karate Ka. To this day he was one of the most explosive men I have ever met, and extremely fast. He was self educated and had a way about him that just drew you in to what ever he was talking about. I could spend hours just listening to him, and did. He had an apartment about a block away from the dojo, and I would drop by often just to talk to him. He was very strict in his teaching and the classes were hard. Something that everyone in those days loved. He was one of my first hero’s

 He had three pretty impressive instructors underneath him: Bob Yarnall,

 Parker Shelton and Jim Harrison. Can you give us a little insight into what training was like with them?
 Wow how lucky could a guy get? They were all great. As you know they all became legends in Karate winning many titles and awards. All 3 are Hall of Fame members. It was fun and challenging. They were always pushing each other and the students. There were several member schools in and around St. Louis at the time and the 4 men would rotate their teaching around all the schools. So we were able to spend time with each. We could also go to any school we wanted. The schools taught both Judo and Karate, so two nights a week they would teach Karate and two days they would teach Judo, and they were staggered so you could work out at one school Tuesday and Thursday and drive over to another on Monday and Wednesday.
 The schools were open from 10 to 10 and 6 hours on Saturday so you could get in as much training as your heart desired. They loved to compete against each other, one night we might be at class with Parker and he would have us do 500 kicks and punches. He would at the end of class call and tell one of the others what we had done. So the next time you work out with one of the others they would up the anti-so we would have to do more and the sky was the limit. Like I said it was challenging
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4. You also had some training with Sensei Seijun Kina and Masao Shima. Can you give us some insight into each of these senseis?

 

Yes I trained with both men and it was very exciting to have the opportunity to train with both. I had been looking for a Matsubayashi school and a friend told me about an article in Black Belt Magazine featuring 3 Okinawa Sensei’s. I contacted Black Belt to find out where the Dojo was and they told me it was on Olympic and Crenshaw. I went by and introduced myself and was promptly introduced to Shima Sensei. He was living in the back of the Dojo. He agree to work with me. I had some students of my own that were training at my house, so I would pick him up and we would go to my house.
I had a very large living room with a patio right off of it, with big class doors. We would literally carry all my furniture out side and then train in the living room. We did that up until he had to return to Okinawa. By that time Sensei Taba came back to LA. He had been there before. So I began training with him. It was a great pleasure to train with him. It was Taba Sensei that advised me to train with Kina Sensei when Taba was about to go back to Okinawa. At first I wasn’t sure because Kina was Matsumura Seito, but after talking to him I decided to do it. It was a good choice, I enjoyed the years I was able to train with him. Back then there were very few high ranking Okinawan Karate sensei in the US so it made sense to take advantage of the opportunity. I was able to train with 3 highly thought of Sensei’s. It didn’t get much better.

5. I had a relationship with Taba Sensei from 2007 till his passing in 2012. What were your feelings about him?

 

I considered Taba Sensei a great man and martial artist and I wasn’t alone. Whenever he would walk in a room, everyone would get up and bow to greet him. He was highly respected and I felt it was a great honor to train with him.

6. I know you did some full contact fighting back in the day. Why did you go in that direction?

 

It was new and I had some experience with boxing so it seemed like a good idea at the time. I liked the training and still do. I had several smokers (in house fights) and won them all. I was asked if I wanted to fight a boxer in an exhibition match at the Latin American press club where they held a weekly boxing show. I said I would and I stopped him in the 3rd round. This was supposed to be a warm up for a pro fight with a top rated fighter from the area. I trained for about 10 weeks and then the man who was acting as my manager came in and told me the fight was off
No reason given, I was terribly disappointed that they could just decide not to fight me so around 30 years old I hung it up. I had a family to support and I couldn’t afford to take the time and money away from my family any longer. I loved the training and still do. I would occasionally go over to my friend Steve Fisher’s and spar with him and his black belts. Steve is one of the guys that came to my dojo to train with me. I had a 20×20 boxing ring, many local fighters would come by and train. It was great fun while it lasted.

7. What are some of the other locations you have taught Karate from your beginnings in St. Louis

 

 

I first began teaching in St. Louis as well as Springfield Ill. and Kankakee Ill. I managed a school for a while in St. Louis and taught the Karate class there. Before that Sensei Yarnall was teaching in Ill. He joined the Marine Corps reserves and had to be away for 6 months. I took over for him while he was away. I would leave St. Louis Monday morning and drive to Springfield. I would teach 4 classes.
After my last class I would drive to Kankakee, sleep in the dojo and then teach 4 classes there, drive back to Springfield that night and teach there. Then back to Kankakee. Then I would drive back to St. Louis on Friday. I was offered a job in Colorado teaching in both Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Unfortunately things didn’t work out for me there so later that year I moved to California. I started teaching some students in my home. After joining Sensei Kina’s dojo I began teaching my second night I was there. I taught for Sensei Kina until he went back to Okinawa. I taught in Orange County as well. Now that I am retired now. I only teach out of my well-equipped home dojo and teach an occasional seminar.

8. After so many years of training, what is it for you that is so appealing in the art of Matsubayashi and why?

 

Matsubayashi is where my roots lie and where I have made so many friends for over 53 years. I consider Matsubayashi a very good style and it suits me very well. When I started I really didn’t know one style from another. Had I started in Kobayashi or Matsumura Seito or any other recognized style I probably would feel the same. The thing that means the most to me is the relationships that I have made over the years. Style is important but not the most important thing. Having a great Sensei is what really counts, and I have had more than my share. I also had the privilege of training with Mike Stone for a few years and that was great too. I truly have been blessed.

9. What are the most important points in your teaching methods?

 

You should have a positive mental attitude, be empathic, be a great role model, and have a sense of humor. Be respectful, stay calm, have passion for what you are teaching, and be willing to learn. No one knows it all.

10. What are your views on kata bunkai?

 

There are 3 types of bunkai. Omote (for the public) Oyo bunkai (personal interpretations) Okuden (secret techniques) because of the secret oral tradition. The masters of old only passed their secrets to a very small select group of students, and because of this it is almost impossible to know for sure what secrets went to the grave with the old masters. Having said that, I wouldn’t let that stop me from searching for these secrets. You never know what you may find. In the end I think it best for the student to work with what your Sensei teaches you and study on your own. Be prepared to see a lot of different interpretations. The ones that work for you are the right ones.

11. What are the most important qualities for a student to become proficient in karate?

 

They have to make a commitment to learning. Learning karate is something that is a lifelong process. Persistence is very important, a defining moment often comes at the point of their first failure or set back. Some students are unsure of themselves and want to quit. A persistent student will realize that a single failure is just a hurdle to overcome on the way to success. They also have to take responsibility, it is their responsibility to make it to class on time and to practice on their own. Good students take responsibility for their learning process.

12. Were you a natural at karate?

 

I was always a very active kid so I developed good motor skills early on. I was always wrestling around or boxing with friends. I loved to skate and dance (swing) so I learn to control my body pretty well by the time I started Karate (at 16). I don’t know if that made me a natural but I don’t remember ever having and any great difficulties in learning Karate.

13. How do you see karate today as opposed to say thirty years ago?

 

Karate is and probably always will be in a state of change. Tournament karate is where I have seen the most change. The fighters of old were much tougher as a whole. Kids where not a big part of the make up back when I started. I was the kid at 16. Many schools wouldn’t take someone much younger. With older students who often had some sports back ground, boxing, wrestling, foot ball etc. they expected hard workouts and got it.
The tournaments were brutal. Much more contact and throws were allowed. Many of the techniques that were allowed then are not allowed today. In the dojo things have changed too. Schools today would probably be out of business if they didn’t take kids. So there are a lot more schools with kids. This means you have to be sure little Johnny is treated the way his momma wants or little Johnny is out of there. Good for Johnny probably not so good for Karate as a whole. Karate has been watered down a great deal. I do not believe that is a good thing.

14. What is your take on MMA?

 

I like the concept, but it is not a new one. People have been mixing martial arts as far back as ancient Greece. Shoshin Nagamine the founder of Matsubayashi Ryu practiced Judo, Aikido, and Kendo in addition to Karate. Two of my instructors taught and competed in both Judo and Karate. I have studied not only Karate but Boxing, Judo and Wrestling. Many of our top Karate people have cross trained. As a sport, there are things I don’t like.
The concept of respect seems to be missing and the ground and pound rule is too dangerous in my opinion. Far too often you will see someone knocked to the ground dazed and their opponent will pounce on them with elbows and punches. It will probably be years before we know how much brain damage this has caused. I have been told that this is safer than Boxing, sorry I don’t buy it. Ground and pound will cause brain damage, and it doesn’t take a lot of shots to do it. One is more than enough when the opponent is helpless and dazed. The problem is until someone dies or we can see what long term damage it causes I don’t think they will change that rule
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15. What is the correct ratio of kihon, kata and kumite?

 

Ah the 3 K’s of Karate. Great Kihon makes great Kata and great kumite, so Kihon is at the top of my list. I don’t know that I would put a ratio on it though, because we are in a constant state of change. I think a better model would be : Kihon, weaknesses, and your passion at the time. Most come into Karate looking for personal defense, in the beginning that may be where your passion lies. When we are young we may prefer Kumite, and as we age we start to appreciate Kata more.
The goal in karate is to make your training last a lifetime. To do that it has to be interesting and you have to be passionate about it. You have to love what you are doing or you will quit. You also need to think about time management. How much time do you have to devote to the 3 K’s. Most of us have to work for a living, go to school, or take care of the family. So you need to use your time wisely. With that in mind it makes sense to work on your fundamentals and weaknesses.
After that if you have time for more training and you are unsure what to work on, you can always work on Kihon. You can’t get too much. It is absolutely vital to have a great foundation. Without it nothing works. For most the Sensei will make the decision in class so it is up to the student to decide what is most important to work on when they are not in class.

16. How do you see the art of karate evolving in the future?

 

There is an old saying that the only thing constant is change. I have seen many changes in my 53 years of training, and I expect to see more before I leave this world. Today there are so many different styles and groups doing different things. It would be impossible to comment on all of them. I know what I would hope to see is a return to Karate being taught as a martial art and not a baton twirling gymnastic routine.
I am sure it takes a great deal of athleticism to do some of this stuff but it isn’t a martial art or Karate. Will we see a return to a more traditional karate? Your guess is as good as mine. Personally I like the old days when an instructor worked with a handful of dedicated students in his back yard.

17. You have had some adversity in your life and you’re a great example of perseverance. Would you be willing to share some of your hardships? How has the martial arts helped you with these obstacles in your life?

 

I assume you are referring to my Liver Transplant. In 1993 I was diagnose with end stage liver disease and was told I would be dead in 6 months if I didn’t get a transplant. When I was very young I was hit by a truck estimated to be going 60 miles and hour when it hit me. I was in the air for a half a block and they found my shoes over a block away. I was given a blood transfusion that was contaminated with the Hep c virus.
The result was it destroyed my liver over time. I would not receive my transplant until 2000, about 6 or 7 years after I was suppose to be dead. How has the martial arts help me in this? It made me a fighter, I didn’t give up and lay down and die as I have seen many people in my condition do. I sought treatment right away for the hep c and was told not to bother only a few people were ever cured maybe 6 percent. I told my Dr. that I didn’t care if it was one percent, I might be the one. The first treatment I went through failed to do anything, so I tried again with a different type of treatment that failed too. I was then put on the transplant list.
A new treatment came out and I told my Dr. I wanted to try it, he told me it wouldn’t save my liver and I said I didn’t care it might save my new one if I was lucky enough to get one. Third time proved to be the charm and I cleared the virus just before I went in the hospital the last time. I was told I only had days or if I was lucky weeks to live. Finally after 2 weeks in intensive care I received my transplant. During the 6 or 7 years I was waiting I never stopped training.
I would work out in Karate, and I would do weight training. A few times a week I would do 30 mile bikes rides to the beach here in SoCal with my wife. This was very difficult, when your liver is failing you have no energy. I didn’t know if I would live through this ordeal but I was determine to beat the dragon (hepC is referred to as the dragon) or die trying. The attitude I had was cultivated in many years of training and overcoming whatever was in my way.

18. How has your training changed since the time of your transplant?

 

Well of course it has changed, not just due to the transplant but age is a factor too. I will be turning 70 in a few months, so I have slowed down a notch or two. I was in the hospital a week before I was sent home after my transplant. I started back training the very first day I was home. Light bag work, but nothing strenuous, but it was a start. I am a firm believer that you shouldn’t let what you can’t do interfere with what you can.
It has been 15 year sense my transplant, and it has been a bumpy rode, I had complications to overcome and a heart attack due to one of the medications I was on 4 years ago. I still train, I will until I can’t. I believe it is this attitude that has kept me around as long as I have. Besides I love it. Why quit now? My favorite acronym is KOKO, Keep on keeping on, or another one I like is, keep on kicking others.

 

19. Please give the readers some information on what you’re currently doing within the martial arts and the Okinawan community.

 

I have served on the Okinawa Association of America/Martial Arts Committee for 5 years as the Vice Chairman and the last 2 years as its Chairman, something that has been both challenging and rewarding, I have a few months left of my two year term and will then turn it over to someone else. I will still support the OAA/MAC but I think it is time for some new blood to take it and see what they can do
.I am the State Director for the United States Karate Do Kai and The assistant style head to the US Association of Martial artist, I am also on the list of History General for the Sport Karate Museum in Texas headed by Sensei Gary Lee. I still do some teaching, I have a few students I work with in my home dojo and I will teach a few seminars a year. I also write a by-monthly article for the OAA newsletter.

20. What advice would you give practitioners today starting in a traditional martial art?

Seek out the best Sensei and school you can find, they are not all equal or the same, personally I prefer the older schools that teach the old ways but not totally. There are many great teachers out there with some great ideas. Seek an instructor that shares you passion, traditional, or tournaments or strictly self-defense. You get to choose and if you find out later that it isn’t the right fit, choose again.
Just don’t switch because someone promises you a promotion. Hopefully if you have done your homework it won’t be necessary but sometimes it just isn’t the right fit. It is okay to change, if it is for the right reasons. Sometimes you may not have a choice. There are times when the Sensei has to leave for whatever reason. Have fun, train hard, and then give back. New students are the life blood, you are the ones that will carry on.

Editor’s Note:

Jerry Figgiani, 8th dan, President/Founder of Shorin Ryu Karatedo 

International, comes from a strong lineage of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu 

practitioners who have followed the footsteps of Shoshin Nagamine. He 

has been training in karate since 1977 and has been teaching for over 

30 years. 

 

Through his extensive background and training in the martial 

arts, he has developed a unique way of bringing the kata to life. He is 

a sought-after seminar instructor who has the ability to enable 

students to understand not only the kata, but the function and 

application, thus making his seminars universal to any system. 

 

In addition, he is a published author who has a featured column in Masters 

Magazine and has also been written about in Official Karate. He 

recently published his own book “From the Mind of the Masters,” 

available on Amazon and at SRKDI.com.

In 2015, Figgiani Sensei received an 8th dan diploma in Okinawa from 

Takeshi Tamaki Sensei, who is the most senior Matsubayashi student to 

come out of the Nagamine Dojo. Figgiani also named Tamaki Sensei as the 

technical director for his organization Shorin Ryu Karatedo International. 

Former World Champion GM Mike Stone and I at seminar for Sensei Maria Evans in Riverside California in 2015.

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My wife Sue and I in Newport Beach, CA for our 50th anniversary. We called it our Hawaiian Five O. 

 My wife Sue and I in Newport Beach, CA for our 50th anniversary. We called it our Hawaiian Five O.

 Dayton Ohio at Sensei Frank Grants dojo 1966. We were there for promotions Sensei Yarnall Center was promoted to San Dan, the other 4 were tested for Sho dan. On Sensei Yarnall left was Dave Nichols, his right was Jim Hudgens, bottom left me (Mike George)right was Hank Farrar.

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Sensei Seijun Kina and Myself along with student Herbert Murakawa. 1968

Sensei Seijun Kina and Myself along with student Herbert Murakawa. 1968

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