Personal Evolution of
The “Art of Isshin-Ryu”
On April 5, 2005 Grand Master Donald Hugh Nagle, would have celebrated his sixty-seventh birthday. But, alas he was not among his friends, having passed away almost six years ago, but many of us had him in our minds and hearts on that day. It was a day for introspection for me, since my oldest son Edward F. McGrath III also celebrated his birthday and my oldest child Lisa underwent an operation on a tumor in her neck. Both of them turned out in excellent form. Yet, I had time to think of my Sensei, with whom I began my studies in 1958, forty-seven years ago, when karate was an unknown art in the Western hemisphere. There were no movies, no TV programs or magazines on the martial arts. It was only in the military, where you were given a cursory knowledge of Judo and a brush with Jiu-Jitsu. In the Corps, it was from translations of old pre-WW II manuals on Judo, that the instructors learned, what they would later teach in boot camp, to the newly arrived civilians, who hoped to be called “Marine,” twelve weeks later.
In 1958 I was assigned to duty at Camp Lejeune, with the Second Marine Division, Force Troops. It was an excellent coincidence, since this was where the Corps had reassigned Sensei Nagle and became involved with a Dojo in Jacksonville, NC, outside the base. The dojo was owned and operated by SSgt. Ernie Cates who would become a Captain, during the Vietnam War and would retire at that rank. He was also five time Marine Corps Judo Champion and twice the All Armed Forces Champion, at his weight class. He would teach us Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and the elements of Aikido, while we were full time karate-ka. I have often stated that, Sensei and I were of similarly built and so I emulated his manner of fighting. His was the first Isshin-ryu school in the Americas. He had also been the first student of Soke Tatsuo Shimabuku’s newly created Isshin-ryu. Sensei Nagle, as a white belt, would visit other dojo's, challenging their black belts and beating them. It was a short time later that the Sensei's in the other dojo's, came to Shimabuku’s dojo and requested that the Soke forbid his student Don Nagle, whom they referred to as the “Red Devil,” from invading their schools. Within months and still classified as a white belt, that these Sensei’s were really embarrassed, when Don Nagle, with Soke’s permission, entered and won the Annual Okinawan Karate Championship, vanquishing their vaunted black belts. It was Sensei Nagle, destined to become most clearly associated with the “Essence of Isshin-ryu,” in America and termed the “Living Legend of Isshin-ryu” in the magazines of the time.
This would be the man who would teach me and countless others, to fight in Isshin-ryu style and go on to become a successful Sensei of my own, while still keeping touch with my Master, who continued to show me the way of “The One Heart.” In comparison to the other styles we fought against, first in the dojo's and then, in tournaments, we were an entirely different style, fighting in a manner not known before and misjudged afterward. Sensei Nagle had a style of his own, which was in total synchronization with Soke Shimabuku’s vision and the hopes for his creation. Once the match began, he normally refused to move anything but his arms. Normally, his hands were in juxtaposition, one hand high and one hand low, one hand forward and one hand closer to the body. He would hold a position for perhaps twenty seconds and then simultaneously switch the position of the hands. Often he stood with his forward foot up on the ball of that foot, one hand near his forehead, palm out and the other hand held below his hip and extended toward your space. He also stood in the same position, but in an oblique Sei-San stance with his hands at his hips, palms up. His body was always totally relaxed. If he decided that you needed to be chased, he would slide toward you and his hands would move more rapidly, in exact time with each other, in opposite directions in order to confuse us. Often, as we got drawn into watching his circling hands, we were suddenly kicked. With his shoulders, neck, arms and legs relaxed he was always ready to overcome an attack.
When I first began fighting, it was in a Sei-San stance, with my hands moving, as Sensei’s moved. Eventually, I would develop my own techniques, learning to feint, giving my strike more eventuality of hitting my target. I came in straight toward my opponent, feinting, looking for an opening and striking quickly, when my foe made a mistake. After awhile, I realized that I could get the opening that I wanted, by offering my opponent a target and when he went for it I closed the target and struck at the opening he gave me. That was with forethought and was a purposeful technique. However, as Shimabuku Soke told us, “Strike only when the opportunity presents itself,” I would spot an opening and shoot a kick or strike to that area. But, as it should be, I would see a slight change in my opponent’s attitude, expressed on his face, or a slight twitch in a shoulder telling me he was throwing a punch, as well as the tensing of the ligaments in my opponent’s feet, tipping off an attack and this would set off a defensive posture, to block his move. Over time, I often used the ability to sense the opponent’s move to simply walk away, breaking off contact. I found that this disrupted the foe’s intent and often upsetting them, causing them to make a mistake that I could take advantage of, for an instant.
Everything in a karate match happens in an instant. Sensei told us that the three foundations of Isshin-ryu were speed, balance and focus. I thought about that and realized that I was born with balance that showed itself on the boot camp obstacle course. I felt that with hard work and persistence, as well as proper snap, I would attain focus, eventually. That left only speed. It became the key, since the advantage would appear for only a split second. I decided that I could attain speed in my moves by two paths; one was to develop keen awareness of my opponent. Being intensely aware of his every move, breath, twitch or facial tightness. Secondly, I started to pull from the katas multiple strike techniques that flowed smoothly and would repeat just that section of the kata, over and over, faster and faster.
After years of Isshin-ryu, I evolved into fighting from a Sei-Uchin stance, which gave me multiple advantages. This occurred partly due to the exigency of crippling my left knee in an accident during a demonstration for the Marine Corps, in March of 1962. Returning to Isshin-ryu a bit more than a year later, I was wary of having that knee struck during a match. As a result, I faced my opponents with my right side toward them. It allowed a lower profile and gave my opponent less possible targets, while I was able to use my back-fist and often slapped my right hand loudly near my right thigh, then flinging the right arm up. This usually caused my opponent to throw his left arm upward to guard his face and at that moment, I would quickly slide in and throw a right side thrust kick to the lower ribs or the soft area under the ribs. Sei-Uchin also allows you to harass your opponent with snap sidekicks to the opponent’s calf and thigh, finally causing the foe to pull the leg up, as a defense. At that point, I had several options; throwing a roundhouse kick to the back near the kidney, or a reverse kick to the stomach, or slide forward and back-fist to the face. You could also wheel forward and sweep the opponent. If that was possible to strike the back of the lower leg several times, you could set them up for several variations on that theme. Moving in the same manner of a sweep, you instead bring the foot up to the spine or the scapula, hitting with the inside of your heel. You could also turn a sweep like movement into a high roundhouse kick. Also, I use another technique from the sweep, where I swept toward the same spot in the back of the opponent’s leg, barely touching the gi and following through to allow your sweeping foot to hit the deck in front of the opponent, touching the ground for a split second, you then throw a reverse wheel kick to the opponent’s chest. Feinting side kicks, by sliding toward the opponent, in Sei-Uchin, lifting the foot just two inches and then back-fist to the front of his face or punch a straight Isshin-ryu punch to the side of the face. If the opponent threw his hands up to defend against the punch, immediately throw a skip sidekick toward the ribs.
I fought in that manner for many years, until I began to mix both oblique Sei-San stances and Sei-Uchin side attacks, using hand movements to confuse the opponent about what I wished to do next. It helped me to keep the opponent off guard and feeling uncomfortable in the match.
Changing again, I would circle the opponent by, in a fashion; I skipped around the foe, just out of reach, moving in and out quickly. This meant that I chose when an attack took place, striking three or four shots with feet and hands and dancing back out, only to quickly go back in, with a feint followed by another multiple attack. It required smooth, fast movement and confidence, in the ability to find or create an opening on the way in. This was an era that I refer to being “in the zone.” It was as though I knew what the opponent was going to do, before he knew it. I believe that I fought so much against so many opponents, that the very stance they took and what I saw in their eyes told me what to do as I moved in. I never had a thought about the possibility of being hit. I was confident that I was too fast to be caught. The only time that my confidence was challenged was on our trips to Sensei Nagle’s dojo. Some time during the visit, he and I would get to match and despite my growing ability to fight, he would always send me off, with bruises or cuts, but happy in having been with him and pushed my attacks forward. Taking punishment in Ippon and Ju-Kumite is an advantage we have over street attackers. If hit, it is just something that has happened before and creates an instant urge to strike back, immediately.
One of the advantages that Sensei Nagle and myself had was speed, which he had impressed upon me as urgently required in a match. Over the decades, that became an obsession and I looked for ways to gain more speed and quicker reaction, to attacks. Now I am about to turn seventy and will have been on the deck fighting for nearly five decades, in essence, my entire adult life. Things happen that chip away at your skills, pain from old injuries in the many sports I played in; joints over-used and abused turn arthritic. Injuries that befell me, as an enthusiastic and energetic Marine Officer, in my twenties, felling invulnerable, are now taking their toll on my ability for movement. However, I have been teaching young active duty Marines at the First Marine District, in Garden City, New York, “Hand-to-Hand Combat” using Isshin-ryu's flexibility and adaptability as my base, for nearly seven years. In so doing, I have discovered in Isshin-ryu, the ultimate manner to defend yourself from attack with maximum speed. It not only does not require strength, but in fact, it relies upon total relaxation. Occasionally, I will move my arms to gain attention away from my attack, but basically, I stand still with hands held open, in front of me near my thighs or at my side, totally relaxed. Think for a moment or, indeed, stand up and put your arms and hands in a boxing stance. The moment that you attain that stance, your arms, shoulders, chest and Trapeziums muscles tighten up. Once that happens you have purposely slowed down your reaction to an attack. Your defense is slow and may not give you a chance to fight back. I teach my students to relax and some find it difficult to do when faced with an opponent. However, I have demonstrated in my seminars, to students who have never met me prior to that day, that someone my age can be quicker than them, simply because I am open to movement and become a mirror to your intentions and with my body totally relaxed, my defensive movements, using my directional blocking, are a split second reaction that moves the opponents hands into unusable positions, while I strike quickly grasp the opponent’s face and head, tearing at the face and driving the foe’s head to the deck, where I then go to their thorax with a stamp or quick thrusting kick. It is over in seconds and enables you to turn toward the next opponent. To ensure that they are not as fast as I react, I demonstrate my non-block block. I face any one of the students, with my hands at my sides, shoulders and arms relaxed and tell them to punch me, whenever they want and as soon as they throw the punch, I throw a punch into their chest of solar plexus. My punch arrives before theirs reaches me and even if it touches me, the blow they receive takes the power from their punch and I am never in discomfort. Only with a background in Isshin-ryu can you attain that relaxation and yet gain full focus. Therefore at seventy, I can be faster than I was in my twenties, simply by relaxing. Try it, I teach it and it works.
Ed McGrath, Ju-Dan
Grand Master, Isshin-ryu
Student and Friend to my Sensei