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SPOTLIGHT : SAVED BY THE BELT : Kicking Around Self-Defense, Discipline? Martial Your Forces

August 11, 1994|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin is a staff writer for the Times Orange County Edition

Late one evening, a panhandler approached 4-foot-9 Kathy Murphy in a mini-mall as she was about to step into her VW and drive home.

"He asked me for money," Murphy recalled, "and I told him I didn't have any money for him and to leave me alone."

All that did, however, was provoke the man--twice Murphy's size--who began to curse loudly, wave his arms wildly and come closer.

When walking away didn't stop him either, Murphy, who has four years of karate training under her black belt, made a decision.

"He got a little too close for me," she said, "so I turned around, threw my stuff down on the ground and put my hands up" in a standard defensive stance.

That worked.

"He backed off immediately," said Murphy, a 37-year-old Anaheim resident who describes her pre-karate self as a painfully shy couch potato who lacked the confidence to look people in the eye.

"Had I not had this training," she said emphatically, "that man would have had everything in my car and in my purse." Through karate, "I have become a different person."

Murphy, a metal company comptroller and part-time karate instructor who practices seven days a week while raising two kids, is one of a score of martial-arts devotees across Orange County who extol its virtues with vehemence.

Many such enthusiasts may show up at the Long Beach Convention Center on Aug. 20 and 21 for Ed Parker's 31st Annual International Karate Championships (for information, call (714) 450-3166). It's the nation's biggest martial-arts competition of the year, said Murphy, who will vie for trophies along with at least 5,000 other contestants.

And, the number of new followers is likely to grow when "The Next Karate Kid"--the film series' fourth installment--opens next month.

"Every time a marital-arts movie comes out, or there's a big news story, more calls come in" and enrollment jumps, says Tom Muzila, owner of a Los Angeles branch of Shotokan Karate of America, which has a school in Garden Grove.

In any case, be they proficient at karate, kung fu, jujitsu or any of the discipline's other myriad so-called systems (see accompanying box), martial-arts advocates rave about the benefits they reap beyond the ability to defend themselves in a pinch.

Of course, their dedication demands sacrifice. Hard-core students can easily spend 20 hours or more each week at the dojo , the place of practice. Exercises can be exhausting and numbingly repetitive, and the ache of sore muscles can be compounded by bruises, or, when mishaps occur, black eyes or worse.

Like all die-hard enthusiasts, however, these fans see the time, energy and money they spend doing what they love as a matter of getting, not giving.

Like Murphy, they talk about newfound self-confidence and self-respect that seems to swell from some inner source they never even knew they had. They rave about the physical and mental conditioning, the camaraderie and the stress reduction the pursuit affords.

Many women adherents attest to a greater sense of gender equality, in large part because mental acuity and technical mastery, not brute strength, are what it takes to take an opponent out.

"It used to be a man's world," says the petite Murphy, who regularly wins tournaments against men who generally stand a foot taller and weigh at least twice as much. These days, she adds with a chuckle, hubby Michael--who spent 21 years in the Army--relies on her to find out what goes bump in the night.

"Now he tells me to get up and find out what the noise is."

Most martial arts practiced today originated in China, Japan or Korea.

Many of the countless differing systems, created hundreds of years ago for combat, exercise and health or inner harmony, share common philosophies and techniques involving blocks, kicks, punches and stances.

"There is no one system that is the best for everyone," said James W. McNeil, owner of Nine Little Heaven in Placentia, where he teaches kung fu. "The best system is the best system for you , the system that you can put 110% behind."

Recent visits to local martial-arts schools--all teaching skills applicable to street self-defense--provide a glimpse at three systems.

Shotokan Karate

The room temperature rose palpably minutes after warm-up exercises began at Shotokan Karate of America in Garden Grove.

" Ichi! Ni! San! Chi! Go! " barked teacher Don De Pree, counting to five in Japanese as about 30 students, dripping with sweat, lurched down the floor with a series of lunges like a battalion of barefoot samurai warriors. Grimacing and glaring dead ahead, they spit out a staccato chorus of unintelligible grunt-shouts. Lunge, "Eeyaaah!" Lunge, "Eeyaaah!"

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