Yes Virginia, there really is a Karate Kid. Only this one does his fighting in a gym, not on a sound stage with lights and cameras. His opponents are not gangs of bullies but other 16-year-olds. Maybe a judge scribbling in a notebook. In his own way, though, he faces challenges just as gargantuan.
Kevin Suzuki, a junior at El Modena High School, has been in tournaments from Budapest to Mexico. In 1984, he placed second in his age group in kata (a choreographed version of karate) in the Junior AAU Nationals. He won the event last year. Though only a red belt--two notches below the highest ranking, a black belt--he has held his own in local tournaments against brown belts, the next highest rating.
His instructor, Fumio Demaru, says Suzuki is one of the best young practitioners in the country. And he should know. Demaru has flown across the covers of dozens of karate magazines, taught Bruce Lee how to twirl karate weapons at warp speed and does Pat Morita's stunts on the television series, "O'Hara."
"He's in the top 10 for his age in the country," Demaru said. "But at his age you have a lot of other things on your mind." Suzuki is participating in a sport not offered at El Modena. He has to put in long hours. He is often separated from his friends. Simply getting to practice can be a problem. His parents are often busy with their real estate business and Suzuki doesn't drive. And when parents can't drive him and he can't arrange a ride, he has had to missed practice.
"Sometimes I'd come to practice instead of going out with my friends," Suzuki says in a slow, shy voice. "And sometimes that bothered me."
Still, he keeps practicing the sport he picked up when he was 6. His father liked Demaru's sense of traditional teaching. On weeknights he'll be at the Santa Ana school where Ralph Macchio, the celluloid Karate Kid has perfected techniques of kata, combat and weapons. On weekends he's likely to be putting on exhibitions or competing in tournaments.
Suzuki is reminiscent of the kid on the street court who seems to have that extra move, that unstoppable finger roll. He often helps younger karate students correct punches that didn't quite land.
Suzuki has never considered giving up the sport. He plans to keep it up for the rest of his life.
"I just grew up with it. If I didn't start, I don't know where I'd be," Suzuki said. "Maybe I'd be one of those guys always in a corner, always locked up in his own cage at school.
"Before, I was shy but karate has helped me become more confident. If I walked up on stage to speak I think I would have more confidence than somebody else."
That confidence led him to other sports. He began running track in the eighth grade and is playing football and wrestling at El Modena. He is also more outgoing socially.
That confidence will be crucial as Suzuki is about to confront perhaps his biggest challenge. Soon he will have to make the transition from the junior class to the advanced class. Even though he has practiced in only a few advanced classes, Suzuki can already tell the difference. He says the movements are more precise. The training is much more intense.
"The intimidation of the size and strength is a disadvantage to me," said Suzuki. "Some of my friends, they just stopped completely. They don't come anymore."
Said Demaru: "It's very difficult to move to the advanced class. Advanced karate is all business, no fun. The fighting is really tough. No matter how good you are they are better than you."
A conservative teacher, Demaru does not give black belts to anyone under 18.
"Kevin has no weaknesses in combat, kata or weapons," Demaru said. "Some kids are very good in one but not another. Few kids are good in all three."
Suzuki doesn't foresee himself competing in full-contact karate, a branch he has been soured on because of its brutality and unstructured technique. "Sometimes I see it as 5-year-old kids beating up each other and their parents cheering for them to go on," he said.
Instead, he wants to continue his quest for perfecting movements.
"Sometimes I think I want to teach karate. I also want to be going to to competitions internationally, seeing other countries and how their training compares with ours."
He may well get his share of chances. Karate will be an exhibition sport in the 1988 Olympics at Seoul.
In the meantime, Suzuki is inventing ways to get rides to practice, keep up with his friends, and prove you don't have to save anyone's honor to go places, even Budapest.