We Are Not
I have studied and fought in, under the guidance of Sensei Don Nagle and taught Isshin-ryu for most of five decades. No one could find a better mentor in Isshin-ryu, in both kata and Ju-kumite, than my Sensei, Donald Hugh Nagle. From my first moment on the deck in Sgt. Ernie Cates’ (now Captain Cates) dojo just outside Camp Lejeune, N.C. and confronted Sensei Nagle and within moments realized that this young man’s leadership, knowledge and precision stunned me. For instance, I spent two weeks of getting the sweeping arced step, with my hands on my hips, tightly clenched with my thumbs set atop my index fingers. Clenching the fist by placing your finger tips in the palm fold inside the top of my fingers and our elbows pulled tightly toward our spine. In the second week he allowed certain of us to throw a front snap punch for kime/focus at each forward step. All of the basics were done in that manner. Head up and eyes straight at a supposed foe. You struck at an ethereal person exactly your size, so that if you were punching toward the solar plexus, you aimed at a point where your fist would hit your solar plexus if you were fighting your mirror image. All moves with the hands and feet were to strike and immediately snap the strike back, in order to leave the sonic power of the blow to penetrate through the internal organs or shock to the brain. If you had Speed, Balance and Focus (Sensei’s three Principles) and actually struck a competitor, it caused internal shock and stopped them immediately. Sensei drilled that into our minds. In the late 50’s, when I studied with Rick Niemira, Jim Chapman, Donny Anderson and Don Bohan (Bohan had also studied under Tatsuo Shimabukuryu Soke, in Okinawa) we actually won our matches by really hitting disabling points on the foe’s body. This caused your opponent to drop to the mat. Ernie Cates, the owner of the dojo, was dismayed by the amount of bloodstains on his canvas deck.
The Upper-Body Basics and Basic Kicks fully drilled into us for an hour every night and then Sensei Nagle began to teach select students, the kata's. If we were confused with the Basics, we were overwhelmed with kata. But the kata's were the secret to powerful fighting moves and the many stances within the eight empty hand kata's. There were many flourishes and hidden knowledge within the kata's and that was taught to us by watching the manner in which Sensei would move from one position to another. These stances in Isshin-ryu were relaxed, without wide, low and powerful stances since one of the Soke’s idioms was, “To be able to move in any direction.”
Watching our Sensei, we saw that Isshin-ryu and other styles probably came from Chinese Martial Arts, for they had beautiful intricate movements that changed with every motion or step. Much of that movement of the hands were to draw your eyes to the hands that moved, when the fighter was, in fact, going to throw a kick. Often, Sensei stood in a modified cat stance with his left hand against his forehead palm out and his right hand held forward at hip height, in a fist. He was in that stance when he faked a move with his right hand toward me, on the night that I became a black belt, and when I moved toward him ready to block, he suddenly brought the left hand in an arc that caught me on the side of my nose, crushing it flat and to the side. Once again blood gushed on Master Cates deck. Still bleeding he had me kneel in front of him and gave me his obi (belt). I was a black belt and my nose no longer hurt. This strike was possible because we fought only at arm’s length away from your opponent. It was not the first time my nose had been broken, since I had boxed as an amateur and played defense in hockey for six years. However, even as a neophyte, I realized that Isshin-ryu was the most dangerous thing I had ever been involved with. The movements were beautiful to watch and they drew the opponent to prepare for one move, when you struck with a totally different move. It was referred to as a deadly ballet.
It was never two men facing each other in a boxing stance since that would be too static and easy to get through. In my future seminars I intend to teach the proper manner of fighting in original Isshin-ryu. It is a beautiful manner of fighting and very effective. If attacked in the street, even by multiple opponents, the ability to move quickly, cause debilitating injury with a single strike, as well as the ability to strike in two directions, simultaneously, using a punch and a kick. Sensei Nagle taught us not to get too fancy, but instead, use basic techniques such as kicking into the foe’s legs or a quick back-fist to the nose or the eyebrow. Either one causes a profusion of blood or a joint injury and it is my belief that an opponent that suddenly is bleeding badly from one strike is a frightened opponent who wishes to quit the battle. I have seen that both on the deck and in the street.
I still fight in a modified Sei-San or a Seiuchin stance because it gives all the variety possible and switching from one stance to another causes confusion in your opponent. You want the opponent to be off balance. As Shimabukuryu told us that, “Imbalance is as a weight.” That is why you should never lean toward a fighter, in order to reach them with either a kick or punch, since the blow will not have proper intensity or focus and if they grab the ankle or wrist they can pull you totally off balance and open up multiple targets on your body. The fight will be over in a second. Instead, as your opponent throws a punch of kick, simply use your back foot to slide your body back a few inches. The opponent may often lean forward to make contact, causing him to lose his balance. If you grab the ankle or wrist it will be easy to pull them into total imbalance and that is the moment to move into their side and strike. You should also keep from getting into a face-to-face position, because that position allows the most targets available to the opponent. I fought in a half turned Sei-San or Seiuchin, eliminating most of his targets. Isshin-ryu is a fast-moving fighting technique and a split second is all that you get to block or strike. There is no in between or second chances. Precision is a must. If I am going to throw a back-fist to the bone over an eye, you must be in range, feint low with one hand bringing the opponent’s appropriate hand down to block and instantly throw the back-fist, snapping the hand away, since that first strike will set up a myriad of openings. No offensive move should be made without first thinking that the opponent can go into an offensive move, simultaneously. This will cause what we know as a clash and it happens far too often at tournaments. When I decide to attack, it is because the opponent has made a mistake, moving awkwardly or imbalanced. However, as I did with my back-fist, throwing it thousands of times in order to get to a speed that could not be defended against. During the period when I was learning from Sensei Nagle, blood and guts was the rule and we knowingly injured our opponents. We did not feel callous; we simply accepted that you hit, to win. My motto has always been, “Don’t Get Hit.” That means I fought to hit my opponent and take him out of the fight. Sensei called me his “closer.” If I struck my opponent, I quickly took the opportunity to finish the fight at once, firing a barrage of kicks and punches. However, I never forgot that my opponent may be ready for my attack and could strike me. This is why I always feinted a half second before the real strike was thrown. Since in the 50’s we struck each other, I was always ready to change my attack into defense, so that I would not be hit. I was thin; as was Sensei himself so I aped everything he did and worked to get his techniques and tactics down flat. I fought some very large Marines who were in great shape, but I won because I was meaner, like Sensei, who couldn’t care less if he hurt a student.
As a white belt, I fought the same green belt, three times in three days and he dropped me in my first three matches. In my fourth encounter with him, I stuck my thumb in his eye, making it hemorrhage leaving blood in his white part of the eye. I won my first match! After that I was on a winning streak, since I also watched closely when Rick Niemira, Jim Chapman and Otto Anderson, all brown belts on the cusp of being promoted to black belt. But mostly I watched Sensei and practiced what he did and how he moved. I had a good group to emulate. But mostly I was willing to fight anyone, at any time, because the more I fought the sharper I got. Finally I got into, what I called my zone, where I intuitively knew what my opponents were about to do and beat them to the punch, or simply turned and moved away, causing them to feel awkward. That was when I knew I had them.
Fighting with an opponent who is allowed to actually strike you means that you cannot get distracted, even for a split second. All of my mind, body and soul had to be solely intent on the inkling of the slightest movement, that could be a tightening of the muscles in the feet of the foe, or a sudden slight movement of the opponent’s gi. This signals an offensive move by your opponent. At that moment, you must make a choice to either move away or in my case, since I have a quick twitch build, I would strike first, beating the opponent to the strike. When we became stationary, I used my toes to grip the deck and without the opponent realizing it I was closing the space between us. Also, if I moved forward and the opponent stepped back, I would then move into Seiuchin. This allowed me to leave but few targets, as well as, allowing me to step across with my back foot and then bring the foot left behind across, nearest the opponent. Often they would not realize that this tactic, encompassed two steps forward, rather than one step, achieving closing on the foe before he realized what just happened. At that moment you strike and if still in Seiuchin, I often slapped my thigh with the hand closest to the enemy and instantly bring that hand up toward the opponent’s face. It happens quickly and the foe will throw his arm up to block your hand, which was just a feint. Simultaneously, you throw a side thrust kick to his ribs. It is a devastating blow, often breaking ribs. As soon as the kick struck, I threw a backfist to the face. Match over!
Lastly, I wrote this article so that true Isshin-ryu will be given a resurrection, with all of the beautiful moves of Isshin-ryu, that gives you multiple targets at all times and changing stances confuse the opponent. That Is Isshin-ryu. Speed, Balance and Focus. Sensei Nagle had all of those principles, as well as, an intuitive ability to beat you to the punch.
Edward F. McGrath, Ju-Dan
Grand Master, Isshin-ryu-the art