A HEART FULL OF FIRE
Frank Smith holds a very special place in the history of karate in America. A pioneer in fighting for what he believed—regardless of the consequences—Smith became a “powerhouse” name in the country during the 1960s. He was largely responsible for transforming the karate competition arena into a test of strength and courage. His good looks, polished manners, and immaculate technique earned Frank Smith a reputation that crossed frontiers, reaching to the very same JKA headquarters in Japan. His determination, self-confidence, and drive made him enemies as easily as he charmed others. He always wanted to be a karate-ka and nothing else. He loved the art and the challenge, the training and the sweat. His talent, backed by unshakable self-belief, proved he had made the right choice. “He had the keenest and most analytical brain that ever graced the art of karate in America,” said one of the greatest JKA instructors of all time when describing Smith’s technical skills.
He decided to retire in 1990, but not before saying what he had to say to those who had to hear it. He never pulled any punches and even today, he will speak his mind with a painful honesty mixed with a delightful charisma… and says that if you are not tough enough to take it, get up and leave.
This is a fresh interview and revealing insight into the life and times of the most talked about figure of the art of karate in the United States: Frank Smith, the one and only, in an exclusive interview for MASTERS magazine. – Jose M. Fraguas
(Jose M. Fraguas) When and why did you start practicing the art of karate?
(Frank Smith) I was 13 years old when my school friend wanted to take Judo. He was my best friend, so I went along. We started training in Judo. The instructor told us that in Judo you must first learn to break your fall when you’re thrown. All we did was fall backwards and slap the mat over and over. Then, we would flip to the left and then to right side, slapping the mat. Then, they threw us all over the dojo. All the time, I was complaining: when do I get to throw someone around. This was not fun. I was a 13-year-old with chronic back pain. I didn’t know at the time how valuably learning to fall would serve me in karate.
One day we went to the dojo to train, but the dojo was closed. The judo instructor had quit; there were not enough students. We were told: you will have a new instructor soon. The call came two weeks later: come and train.
My friend said he was quitting. So I went alone to train with the new judo instructor. I was determined to get my turn to throw someone around the dojo—a young boy, wanting the pound of flesh that was due to him. The new instructor’s name was Bill Babich. He was a Ni-Dan. There were about 25 people in the class. Some students were wearing purple and green belts. Two had brown belts.
We lined up for class, and the brown belts walked around assisting the instructor. The instructor demonstrated an upward block and a reverse punch. I called one of the 16-year-old brown belts and asked him: “What are we doing? I had never done this with my other judo instructor.” The brown belt looked at me and said, “This is not judo; this is Shorin-Ryu Karate.” That was in 1958 and the rest is history. I had trained for 32 years, at the time I resigned in April 1990.
(JMF) How many styles of karate or other methods have you trained in?
(FS) I trained in judo for six months; I do not recall the instructor’s name. I then trained four years in Shorin-Ryu Karate. I obtained my Sho-Dan, at age 16 years. In 1961, I went to the first AAKF Karate Tournament held at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. It was my first time to see organized competition. When I saw the JKA/ Shotokan instructors do their demonstrations. I was hooked. I had never seen that level of karate before. I started training one year later with Sensei Nishiyama, in November 1962.
(JMF) Please tell us some interesting stories of your early days in karate and your experience training under Hidetaka Nishiyama.
(FS) Sensei Nishiyama had the extraordinary ability to motivate and get every ounce of sweat out of you. He could push you to the limits of your mental and physical endurance.
I remember my first Team Summer Camp in Oxnard, California, in August 1964. We rented a house on the beach for one week. The dojo was at a Buddhist Church in the city of Oxnard. Our instructors were Senseis Nishiyama and Mori from New York. This was the time before summer camps were popular.
The L.A. Central Dojo Team at that time was approximately 12 people total. I was the youngest in age and rank, a Sho-Dan of one month. So I had to sleep in the garage where everyone hung their smelly gis, with five other low on the pole guys like myself. We were up at 5:00 a.m., on the beach by 5:30. We trained for one hour, stretching, doing basics, and ran three miles. We had to be at the dojo, ready to train at 8:00 a.m. The morning training was two hours in basics and kata. The afternoon class was from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., a total of three hours. This was the hardest training I can ever remember doing. We trained one and a half hours, then we were given a five-minute rest. Everyone ran for a drink of water. Then, we started the second one and a half hours. This was every day for six days.
The only way I could make it through the training was by knowing that we were going to get a five-minute break. If had to train straight through the total three hours without stopping, I don’t think I could have made it through the training. When I think back to that time, Sensei Nishiyama was the best instructor I ever trained with. He could push you past your limits, limits that you didn’t know you had.
(JMF) Were you a natural at karate? Did the movements come easily to you?
(FS) When I was starting, I was big for my age. At 13 years old, my body was starting to develop muscles. The movements or actions in karate at that young age became normal quickly, or natural to me, and I was self-motivated. I also was fortunate to have a mother who understood the value a proper diet and balanced meals. We ate all the food groups. We also ate at the same time every day, at 5 p.m. When I was young, I never ate what is now called fast food. My classes started at 7:00 p.m, so I had enough time to digest my food and have energy. I also never ate after training. This was very important.
(JMF) Do you think karate has changed/developed over the years? How do you see the evolution of the art?
(FS) Karate is very popular throughout the world today. People are people and karate is karate. What has changed is society as a whole, but this is inevitable. What has changed from my early years in the 60s? I don’t remember seeing any children and only a few women in the dojo. Today, this has changed, for the best. Karate is art for the people—men, woman, and children, young and old. It’s not just for the athlete who wants to compete in tournaments.
(JMF) Do you think different styles are truly important in the art of karate? Why or why not?
(FS) We are very fortunate in this country to have such a wide variety of martial arts to choose from. I think all styles or methods of karate have something to offer. We have styles that teach hard /soft, passive/aggressive, and weapons/non-weapons. Most styles offer self-defense or competitive sport karate. People training in karate must be careful. If you want to train in more than one style, do it one at a time. You may find a conflict in styles, including your instructors. I trained in one style four years, and JKA/Shotokan 28 years. My advice: find one style and perfect it. My training in Shotokan style will last me for a lifetime. Remember the old adage, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
(JMF) After wining several major national championships, you were “told” not to compete anymore. Why was that and how do you think that affected you personal progression in the art and also the level of the competition in the U.S.?
(FS) After I won my fifth National Tournament in 1969, Sensei Nishiyama summoned me to his office. He said: “You will no longer be competing in any of the local or national tournaments. You may only complete at the international level.” My first thought was that this did not make any sense. I was 25 years old, with the rank of San-Dan. In karate, one doesn’t reach maturity until age 34. The U.S. National Tournament was the stepping-stone to test and hone your skills for international competition. It was the method of selecting the strongest competitors. How would I maintain the level to compete internationally? His decision would reverse the direction of the dojo, and was part of the internal politics in the school.
I stopped training with the Central Dojo Team in protest in early 1970. Soon after that, only three or four people would show up for team training. Sensei Nishiyama refused to teach, so the team dissolved. All of the senior people I trained with had left…all due to politics. To my knowledge, he has never produced a team as strong again. It was the end of an era for the United States to have an opportunity to reach a higher level of karate.
I did not leave or quit the dojo. I self-trained in the dojo, three days a week. I also trained with Sensei Yutaka Yaguchi. He was Nishiyama’s assistant instructor, a Go-Dan at that time and JKA Instructor. He was also third place Kumite Champion 1965.
Sensei Yaguchi taught on Tuesday and Thursday at the Central Dojo. I would meet him at the dojo, after he finished teaching class. We would get everyone out of the dojo around 9:30 p.m. and lock the door. We would free spar for 1 or 2 hours, two nights a week. We did this for about two years, until he was sent to Denver, Colorado, to open a dojo. Sensei Yaguchi was a friend and my best man at my wedding. We always maintained an instructor/student relationship in the dojo. He was fast and capable of hitting you with any technique. We would spar and he would try different techniques. At first, I was taking a lot hits from him. That was okay; I was learning. We were keeping in shape and were both benefiting from the opportunity.
Most of the people I trained with did not have Yaguchi’s speed or skill level. We would spar, and he would tell me, “you are to close” or “your face is open.” He would warn me two or three times. If I did not adjust, he would attack me, holding nothing back. I learned really fast. This training elevated my level in strategy. When I sparred with other people, they all seemed to be slow in comparison to Sensei Yaguchi’s speed and power.
Sparring with Sensei Yaguchi , as the student, I always had to take what he gave and never show any pain. One day, I saw Mrs. Yaguchi at the dojo. She said, “Frank, I want to talk you.” I replied, “Yes, what can I do for you?” In broken English, she said, “you too strong now, Frank; take it easy on my husband. He always comes home and complains about pain…you hit him.” I told her that I was very sorry and I thanked her. She had no idea how much that meant to me—that pain was being inflicted both ways and neither one of us would show it to each other!
(JMF) Karate nowadays is often referred to as a sport. Would you agree with this definition?
(FS) No, I would not agree. Karate’s origins were formed and taught with specific applications to defend oneself. Self-defense is the spirit to survive—to save one’s life, maybe your own, against a hostile person who tries to do harm to you. Karate should first be a martial art. Then, sport is used to test your level and skills. Karate is a martial art. Its origins are from Okinawa. Karate was a means of self-defense for the peasant people: men, women, both young and old. Sport karate is okay, but it must be reinforced by the roots and foundation as a martial art.
Sport karate, however, is the spirit to win at competition, to test or measure one’s ability against another opponent, who also is trying to win. It’s a contest to enjoy and have fun, win or lose. But, of course, the goal is to win decisively.
If an instructor only teaches sport karate, because that is all he knows, or it’s how he was taught, he will flounder like a ship lost at sea because he is limited. Karate will survive as a martial art. It has for 300 years. Karate will not survive if taught only as a sport, without its martial arts foundation. This could be one of the reasons there is so much division and politics in karate.
To explain this, in sport karate, the goal is to score and gain points without making hard contact to win a trophy. If you make contact, you lose the match. Self-defense is to drive your elbow as far as you can into the base of your attacker’s neck, three times before stopping. I know that sounds brutal and violent—a trophy vs. the possibility of serious injury or losing your life… two different approaches. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I hope readers understand my point. I know the UFC- type fighters understand what I am talking about.
(JMF) How do you see karate in America at the present time?
(FS) There are many styles of karate in the United States today. This was not the case when I started. I think karate is more popular today than ever. When I was competing in the 60s, there were only about 50 black belts, total, who participated in the national tournament from all over the United States. We never had to pay an entrance fee to compete. That was unheard of; all tournament expenses were covered by the spectators at the gate. The total tournaments would take three or four hours to complete.
Today, we see fewer spectators and a lot more competitors. The spectators are usually family members, who come to support their children or spouses throughout the day. Some tournaments can take as long as two or three days to complete. The problem with this is that it requires a large number of judges and referees. Having to judge all day for 10 hours causes the judges to burn out. It is of utmost importance to maintain quality judges and referees. Today, tournaments have evolved into a sport for the participants, rather than for the spectators’ entertainment.
(JMF) Who were your most difficult opponents at that time?
(FS) I remember Ken Funakoshi, George Sasano, and Eugene Watanabe from Hawaii. They were formidable opponents. I knew they wanted too win as much as I did. I won the U.S. Nationals five times. Two times I fought Ken Funakoshi, and one time with George Sasano for the championship. Hawaii always had strong competitors back then.
Tony Tulleners comes to mind. We competed against each other in 1965. We were on the United States Team together that went to Paris, France, in 1972. I was the team captain. I did not see Tony as an opponent. I wanted him to win, and you could always count on Tony to do just that.
(JMF) How do karate styles differ from other martial arts methods when applying the techniques in a self-defense situation? Do you think that karate is superior to other arts when it comes to a real self-defense situation?
(FS) I think all martial arts have some aspect of effectiveness, or it would not be called a martial art. Karate is most effective as self-defense. I have always believed that the style is only as effective as the person doing it.
(JMF) Kata and Sparring: What was the ratio in training under Nishiyama?
(FS) Kata and Kumite were encouraged equally. It was mandatory to compete in both events. My training schedule, was three days a week:
Mondays were Kata. I trained in the intermediate class one hour, advanced class one and a half hours, and team training one and a half hours.
Wednesdays were Basics. I trained in the Intermediate class one hour, advanced class one hour, and team training—basics, sparring, and kata—two hours.
Fridays were Free Sparring. We warmed up with basics, thirty minutes, free sparring one hour, and always kata when we were the most tired, thirty minutes. At the end of class was conditioning: push-ups, sit-ups, carrying one of your teammates while moving forward front kicking. What I remember most was what we called squatting hops. After doing squatting hops, you couldn’t stand up or walk. So we did push-ups and sit-ups. What I also remember is Sensei Nishiyama saying, “One more time!” and everyone would say, “Oss!” If one person failed to complete the exercise, we all had to do it over again. The class was schedule for two hours, from 8 to 10:00 p.m., but I never remember finishing until after 11 p.m.
(JMF) Do you have any general advice you would care to pass on to the practitioners in general,,and to someone who is interested in starting to learn karate?
(FS) I would recommend first that one select two or three dojos and do a comparison. You can narrow it down if you already know what style you would like to practice. You should watch all the classes, from beginners through advanced. Compare the differences between the two levels. Inquire how long the dojo has been there. This shows establishment. Is the dojo clean and neat? This shows pride. Has the instructor invested in the dojo? A good quality wood floor or mats are imperative. Never train on a concrete floor, due to possible knee or impact injuries. Don’t be pressured to buy a gi (uniform) right away; wait three months. Gis are expensive. Don’t be pressured to compete before you’re ready.
Making rank is good to challenge yourself. Building confidence is part of your training. Don’t be pressured to join a national organization right away. I have seen too many people quit because they are pushed too fast in some of these areas. Karate is a business, and businesses need to make money to keep the dojo door open. Most important of all, what are the qualifications of the instructors? If the instructor is 24 years old, and he or she is a ninth degree black belt, my advice would be to find another dojo.
(JMF) Who would you like to have trained with that you have not?
(FS) I would like to have trained with Sensei Nakayama. The last time I saw him, I was at a banquet. Sensei Nakayama was sitting at the head table by himself, and I was sitting at a table in the main hall. He smiled and motioned for me to come over to his table. He asked me to sit down and join him. We were talking about karate. He asked me about my condition and my training.
Then he asked me if I liked tequila. I was surprised by his question. I said “yes” and took the hint. I asked him if he would like some; he nodded affirmatively. He said, “I like to drink it Mexican style!” After three shots, chased down with lemon and salt, we continued talking about karate. He was laughing and enjoying himself.
His face was now glowing red like a beam shining brightly. One of the JKA instructors saw us and came over to us. He looked at me and said, “What are you doing? Sensei has a heart condition. He’s not to drink.” I also had three shots and felt very good. I didn’t like his scolding tone. I stood up and said, “Maybe you should tell him that.” He asked me who was I to refuse him or tell him no. I thanked Sensei Nakayama, excused myself, and left the table. That was the last time I saw Sensei Nakayama. He passed away two years later, on April 15, 1987. His death was a great loss to karate, and it was the start of the JKA fragmenting and dividing into multiple organizations.
(JMF) What differences do you see between the competitors of your time and the modern athletes in karate today?
(FS) When I started training with Sensei Nishiyama in 1962, he was 32 years old. You could say he was in his prime. He was a technician, and his techniques were sharp, clean, and powerful. His karate was very scientific, explaining applications of strategy and tactics, using combinations of uppercuts, hook punches, knees, and elbows that are not emphasized in sport karate today.
What he was teaching us was how to literally fight in close, using combinations. This kind of training was not sport karate. What he was doing was establishing the foundation for multiple combination attacks for use in sport karate. I don’t see this in karate today. If you can’t fight in close, then you don’t know how to fight, sport or otherwise. Nobody fights standing six feet apart, except in sport karate. If you close in on your opponent, then the match is stopped.
I didn’t know it at the time. All the ingredients were in place. Sensei Nishiyama was introducing a new level of karate to the United States. His teaching approach to karate had not been seen in the United States before. I was young, ready to learn, and in the right place at the right time.
(JMF) When was your last competition?
(FS) My last competition was in 1974, in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. In the team competition, I fought Watanabe from Brazil. I won my match against him. He was very fast and was the World Champion, winning in Paris, France, in 1972. The United States Team won the gold metal in the team competition against Brazil. We fought again in the individual competition and he won.
In an earlier match against the Brazilian champion, I don’t remember his name, we both hit each other at the same time. He received a cut to the face. They were going to disqualify me, until they saw me bleeding. The judges did not see my injury. I had received a cut over my right eye. The judges tried to make a big deal out of it. They told me I couldn’t continue because of my injury. I protested strongly and was permitted to continue. I won my match and I walked away with third place.
I was now 30 years old, and could feel myself slipping. I was losing my edge, due to four years of no competition, along with no team training. Self-training will keep you in condition, but you have to free spar with high-level opponents to maintain your timing. After I stopped competing, I taught karate in the Los Angeles area throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Also, I taught at summer camps, instructing applications for competition training. The training was very hard. I coached the 1980 U.S. Team in Mexico City, finally retiring from active participation in 1990.
(JMF) What was your mental approach to the competition in karate?
(FS) The philosophy in martial arts speaks of karate-do, karate-jutsu, and Zen. A karateka must have a clear mind and conscience. We must purge our egos of selfish thoughts or jealousy. I read somewhere, in Budo and Zen, “The ego is the consciousness of oneself.” It’s all about me. The philosophy is to suppress or defeat one’s self-ego to have a clear mind. The above is all true in self-defense. In the above context, the ego is a negative thing to have… “He’s got a big head, or he is conceited. He thinks he is good.”
In karate, we can’t have it both ways. Most athletes have big egos. They have something to prove. You have to think you’re the best at what you are doing; that is what helps to motivate you. That is a positive ego to have: confidence. An example of what I am saying: If a fireman goes into a burning house to find and save a person, his training and experience tells him he can do this without being injured or killed. Is this a big ego or is it confidence in oneself?
When I was competing, there was strong social pressure in the dojo to compete. This means doing better than someone else. Your action or technique becomes a measure of superiority in both kata and kumite. That is ego; if you don’t have it you will lose.
(JMF) Do you think it is positive for karate to enter in the Olympic Games or would this destroy the art and turn it into a simple sport, as it did with Judo?
(FS) I feel karate already has turned into a simple sport. When I was competing, the national tournaments were held in stadiums, like the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, the L.A Sports Arena, Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, etc… Now national tournaments are held in high school gyms. That, my friends, is a big step backwards. In the early 70s, we were closing the gap between United States and Japan. That came to a stop with all the petty politics. History has shown there has been way too much division and fragmentation of Shotokan karate in the U.S., Japan, and the world. Karate is now worldwide, with so many styles competing for power and control. I don’t see karate in the Olympics in my lifetime. A policy of intimidation, where you cannot go into a region without permission, does not work in this world today. Karate is a gift to be shared. If karate is ever accepted into the Olympics, it will require strong leadership. This requires compromise with each other for the greater good of karate in the world.
(JMF) How much of the Japanese culture do you think existed in the way the top JKA instructors taught karate in the U.S. during the 60s?
(FS) Martial arts come from many cultures. I can only speak for my style as I can interpret it best. Shotokan Karate is a Japanese martial art. Proper manner is very important, like the purpose of beginning and ending with a bow. A major part of good manners is respect, refinement, and sophistication. This culture goes back to the roots of martial arts.
(JMF) What is your opinion of fighting events such as the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts events that we know today?
(FS) It is great entertainment. Any fighting art can be called a martial art, old or new. These guys are professionals. They are paid to train, and they are tough and effective. You cannot compare karate to the UFC, just because they look similar. It’s like day and night. The average person can take karate for many reasons for the rest of his or her life. The UFC guys are a select few of people who receive over a short period time a lot of impact to the body. If you choose to practice what is called MMA, it is fine, but it is just that—mixed arts of many versions to pick and choose from. It’s a system of fighting for sport and they pay the athletes. It is as close to street fighting as a person can do under some kind of regulations and injury control.
(JMF) Have there been times when you felt fear in your training?
(FS) Fear is a strong word that has many meanings. We have all experienced some kind of fear, at some point in our lives. In tournaments, I always had a fear of making a mistake while performing kata, due to peer pressure or embarrassment. I always had a fear of hitting my opponent and being disqualified. People and family expected a lot from me, I did not want to disappoint them.
(JMF) What are your thoughts on the future of karate?
(FS) There are a lot of good people in karate. I have competed and instructed in many countries: Japan, Mexico, France, and Brazil. I lost so many friends due to politics. I have always said there is nothing wrong with karate. What is wrong is some of the people doing it, due to their poor leadership, politics, or greed. Karate has been around far longer than anyone living today. People will come and go. Karate will remain and evolve, as it always has done—as long as people have the need to defend and protect ourselves and our families. It is a basic human need that karate provides.