A Good Friend
I have just been informed that one of my closest friends and courageous fighters, Richie Bell, passed away on March 17, 2005, from a severe heart attack. Richie was one of my best students and was afraid of no one. He showed up, one night, at my South Jamaica dojo, looking to enroll in my class. My buddy Master Donald Francis Bohan, Gunnery Sergeant, USMC, had sent him to me. Mr. Bell said that he was a Yon-Kyu, under Master Bohan, so I knew that he would not tell me anything but the truth. He also said that Master Bohan had asked that I test him for brown belt. I consented and he immediately went to the dressing room and got into his gi. He quickly returned to the deck and said he did not need a warm up. I had my students kneel comfortably and had Mr. Bell, who at that time was a newly discharged enlisted Marine, prepare to demonstrate his basics. He impressed my senior students, with his vigor, precision and focus. We then took him through the katas he had learned under Master Bohan. If my memory is not failing me, he knew the first five katas and performed them precisely and with amazing power. He was a tad short at about 5’ 7” and weighed about 185 lbs. making him appear somewhat a cannonball, which I mentioned to him during the test. He simply smiled and said that it was a good nickname for him, since cannon balls did a lot of damage.
At that point I started him in the kumite portion of his test, starting with the white belts, which he went through like a scythe and then tore into the green belts, finishing each match quickly and in a commanding manner. I was already beginning to admire him and was ready to advance him in grade, as I’m sure Master Bohan knew I would be forced to do. However, Mr. Bell asked to fight the brown belts and I said that was fine as far as I was concerned. He disposed of several of my brown belts with dispatch, which, frankly, upset me a bit. I then looked at my ranking brown belts; Malachi Lee, Bob Baker and Joe Burgess with a stern look and nodded my head toward Mr. Bell. They realized that I did not want him to win another match. He fought the three of them forcefully, challenging them throughout, despite taking quite a bit of punishment, since those three men would eventually become extraordinary fighters and Isshin-ryu stars. When those matches were finally over, I had Mr. Bell kneel in front of my students and walked to my desk to get his new diploma as a San-Kyu, when he called out, “Sensei, I have not fought you, yet.” I was stunned, for two reasons, first he had undergone a tough night and much exertion, as well as some bad bruising from my top three and, secondly, it was considered an affront to challenge a Sensei according to dojo etiquette. I spun around and told him to stand up. We bowed and I nodded to him to begin and he immediately came straight at me, as Master Bohan would, but I was a different fighter and side stepping his rush I landed one on his face and moved to his side. He had brought his first wife with him, who was named Clara. She was sitting in a seat, just off the deck and actually rooting for him during all the matches. This went on for about ten minutes, when he stood facing me in a SeiSan stance, while I was in Seiuchin. He looked tired at this point and I skipped in throwing a reverse wheel-kick to his head, looking for a dramatic way to end the match. However, because of his height, I misjudged, as he ducked lower and my foot went around his head, missing my mark and my right leg wound up wrapped around his shoulders. I think that both of us were confused, but I quickly grabbed my own right foot, with my right hand and tightened my leg around his neck and dove toward the deck. As we hit the mat, he was choking and suddenly, Clara cried out, “That’s not allowed that’s Judo not karate.” I let go of Richie and we both got up laughing at her unusual outburst and her Refereeing of the match. I then finished the ceremony of making Richie a San-kyu. He became a staple of our dojo and contested in many tournaments, winning his share of matches and, then some. I remember that at one point he went out to the Jets Football camp, prior to the start of the season. He walked right up to Weeb Ewbank, then the coach of the young team. He talked Weeb into allowing him to suit up and try out. With his mindset and innate athleticism and courage, he did a prodigious effort. Mr. Ewbank took him aside and lauded his effort, telling him if he was only six foot tall he could make the team, not bad for someone who never played college ball. Richie then set his sites on becoming a United States Marshall and I worried that he would again be disappointed, but Richie didn’t think about failing and went on to a full career as an extraordinary Marshall, used to accompany the worst of criminals back into our countries custody and despite their threatening reputations, he never failed to deliver, as he did for me for many years. In those days, it was difficult for an Okinawan Isshin-ryu student, to gain a point, at any Korean Tae-Kwan-Do Tournament. The judges would all be Korean and despite slamming focused punches and kicks one inch from the vulnerable points on the bodies of their opponents, but they sat, unmoved, never even moving a flag, seemingly unaware that there was a perfect score. Plus the fact that they ruled out back-fists as too dangerous, but allowed spinning back wheel kicks, where the assailant would lose site of his opponent at some point in his spin. It was just nonsensical and unfair. Finally, we were at S. Herry Cho’s tournament at Madison Square Garden and in the elimination rounds some of my best fighters were totally ignored when they had obviously scored and one had been disqualified for a focused punch to a Korean fighters stomach, dropping him to the deck. Richie was next to go into the ring, but he stepped over to me and said, “They are not going to give us a point, what should I do?” I told him to try to play square and if he didn’t get points, that he should, to look mover to me and if I nodded, he should actually score on the opponent and get disqualified. The fight started and Richie started to score beauties on the other fighter, who looked confused. No flags moved and finally Richie looked over to me and I nodded. Richie immediately rushed his stunned opponent hitting him in the Solar Plexus and doubling him up, with a punch that echoed around the Garden. He then grabbed the man’s gi, hoisted him into the air, ran to the ropes and threw him into the second row of seats. He then turned to the officials and said, “Did you see that one?” Henry Cho blurted out you are disqualified and so is your Sensei. Leave the Garden. I refused and discussed the matter with Master Cho, with whom I became a close friend afterward, but I had made my point about the officiating. Richie was beaming, for a good day’s work. No wonder no one ever got away from Richie.
He was a gentleman, a courageous and tough fighter, and a good father and eventually became a great Sensei and Master. His final tour of duty with the United States Marshall's was in Ste. Croix, where he was born and retired, to open his own dojo on the island, where he continued to promote excellent Isshin-ryu, recognized on a global level as a ranking Master, with his wife Alda and his children all going on to high ranks in Isshin-ryu and following Riche's path into the his beloved Corps. Alda intends to take over the dojo and to further honor her husband and hero, with whom she shared every moment and action. He was a great and loyal friend, calling me every few weeks, from all over the world, just to find out how his Sensei felt. I know that he prayed for me when I became ill, because I believe I was always in his mind and prayers. Now he will be in my prayers, knowing that the Good Lord will have his new home ready for a good man, husband, father and student. He was my friend, from the moment he stood on my deck, that first night, so long ago. May God hold him in His arms and love Richie, as we all did. I will miss him, but never forget him.
Ed McGrath, Ju-Dan
Grand Master, Isshin-ryu