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Willie Nelson is a Deadly Force


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The article from Taekwondo Times, by lead correspondent, Marc Zirogiannis, features the life and martial arts journey of Country Music legend, Willie Nelson, to becoming a 3rd degree black belt.

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Willie Nelson is a Deadly Force

  1. 1. 48 | September 2014
  2. 2. MASTER OF COUNTRY GONGKWON YUSUL by Marc Zirogiannis-Lead Correspondent When most people hear the name Willie Nelson the image that immediately comes to mind is a multi-platinum, iconic country music legend. Oth-ers may think of the social activist who founded the Farm Aid benefit concert more than 30 years ago to highlight the problems of American small farmers. Still others might think of an environmentally friendly businessman that familiarized the world with the potential and power of Biofuels as a clean, sustainable replacement to fossil fuels. There are some who might think of Willie Nelson as the author of seven books, including a biography and a novel. What most people wouldn’t immediately think of when they hear the name Willie Nelson is Willie Nelson, 5th Dan mas-ter of GongKwon YuSul, the deadly Korean martial art. However, Willie Nelson has as much right to claim this unusual distinction as he does any of his other accomplishments.
  3. 3. It was on the eve of his 81st birthday when Willie’s family, including his eight children, and friends, such as Lance Armstrong, gath-ered at the Dojang of Grandmaster Sam Um in Austin, Texas, to observe a Black Belt test and ceremony which culminated in the awarding of a 5th Dan to Nelson. This achievement was not an honorary award, nor was it a publicity stunt. It was an honor bestowed upon a man who, although not widely known for his skill in the Dojang, has spent the better part of his life training in the martial arts. As a young boy, growing up in post-Depres-sion IF MORE PEOPLE STUDIED THE ARTS, THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE era America, Willie Nelson always had an interest in the combat styles of the Eastern world. He found himself eagerly awaiting the arrival of the local postal carrier with exotic, printed material on various martial arts styles he had mail ordered by cutting out some of the small advertisements appearing in the back of many of the DC Comics of the day. This fasci-nation with the martial arts goes back, at least, as far back as Nelson’s love of music. Like much of the world, his fascination with the fighting styles of the East was piqued by the importing of low budget, eastern martial arts action films starring the likes of such ris-ing action stars as Bruce Lee. Nelson has been very forthcoming in recalling his admiration for the founder of Jeet Kune Do . It was that interest in the arts that led him to study, train, and teach Kung Fu in Nash-ville throughout the 1960s, and beyond. In line with Willie Nelson’s philosophy that martial arts is a great way for kids to stay out of trouble and stay in shape, he traveled the city teaching and exhibiting his skills as a way to encourage kids to become more involved in a martial arts way of living. “To me, it doesn’t matter what kind of training they explore, but every kid can benefit from practicing some form of the mar-tial arts,” he says. Over the years, as Willie Nelson was rising to meteoric stardom as the “Outlaw Cowboy” sensation who released over 200 albums, sold out concerts around the United States, year after year, won a slew of awards with such hits as “Always on My Mind”, “On the Road Again”, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” he continued to stay faithful to his study of the arts. For Willie, the Nashville scene seemed to have left him feeling a sense of creative stag-nation, both musically and in his martial arts training. While he was already known as a great songwriter, he had not yet come to be recognized as an iconic singer. Simultane-ously, he was in search of a fighting style that offered him a greater ability to gauge his prog-ress as a martial artist. The lack of structure and belt gradations of Kung Fu had him seek-ing supplemental training. “In Kung Fu, there are no belts; there is a master and there are stu-dents and no matter how long you study you are always the student. This, sometimes, lim-its your ability to gauge your progress. It did for me” This desire for a more structured style of training with a pronounced belt advance-ment system led him to Texas and to Taekwon-do, where he would achieve unprecedented heights in the musical and martial arts arenas. In the early 90s, Willie crossed paths with Grandmaster Sam Um, of Austin, Texas. Mas-ter Um was a 4th Dan Hapkido Master, under the supervision of the World Hapkido Federa-tion, as well as a 8th Dan Taekwondo Master under the supervision of the World Taekwondo Federation. For the next 20 years, Master Um and Nelson would train, seriously, together in the ancient Korean art of Taekwondo, where Willie would eventually, earn his 3rd Dan as well as the respect his Martial Arts guru. With Willie being constantly on tour, he and Master Um developed an unortho- 50 | September 2014
  4. 4. dox system that would allow Nelson to train at the Dojang when he was in Texas, but con-tinue to advance while on the road. Willie turned his world famous traveling home and tour bus “Honeysuckle Rose” into a veritable traveling Dojang. “I can practice all my forms going 80 mph down the highway.” Often, however, he would stop the bus and practice his beloved art on the side of the road, or in the desert, while a volunteer would film his technique. He would then send those videos to Master Um for review and critique. This constant training and feedback regimen allowed Nelson to maintain the mastery of his technique without the access to a conven-tional Dojang, through this extraordinary exhibition in self discipline by the coun-try music legend. Throughout this period, Grandmaster Um was seeking ways to mit-igate against what he saw as a tidal wave of stu-dents exiting traditional martial arts training in favor of the free form, Mixed Martial Arts style training of the hugely popular UFC. He also began training in Jiu-Jitsu to round out his own martial arts resume. It was in the midst of this search and training that he dis-covered GongKwon YuSul. This martial art, founded in the mid-1990s, by Master Kang Jun, was a modern hybrid style of Korean based martial arts, incorporating ele-ments of Taekwondo, Hapkido, Tang Soo Do, Jiu-Jitsu, Kore-an Boxing, and Yudo, that maintained the requisite focus on
  5. 5. respect and tradition; however, it emphasized the practical applications of the art over the competitive. The focus of GongKwon YuSul was not poomsae, nor was it Olympic style sparring. It was a very pragmatic system that utilized efficient and practical techniques to disable an opponent. GongKwon YuSul was characterized by the countless practice of pre-arranged, Hogu-less, step sparring drills used to reinforce offensive and defensive techniques for the participants, making the rhythms almost intuitive. In 2000, Grandmaster Um’s Dojang became one of the few Dojangs in the Western Hemi-sphere to become certified to teach this style, under the inter-national authority of the Korean headquarters of the Interna-tional GongKwon YuSul Asso-ciation. Since Master Um was already teaching Taekwondo, Hapkido and Jiu-Jitsu, he had a head-start in rolling out this modern, integrated style of mar-tial arts. His school remains a jewel in the international crown of GongKwon YuSul. He also identified Willie Nel-son as an ideal candidate to begin learning the style. Although Wil-lie was already in his 60s by the time the style was adopted by Master Um, he was a lifelong athlete, not only having trained in the martial arts, but also hav-ing been a wrestler, pole vaulter, football player, baseball player, avid golfer, cyclist, and track star. In fact, in September 2013, Newsweek Magazine described the 80 year old, “Enduring Face of American Music”, as indefati-gable; a description that evokes images of a man half his age. He is a man of extreme humility and compassion, making him Master Um’s ideal candidate for this very mature style of martial arts. In fact, Master Um is the first to point out that Nelson approaches his training with a sense of genuine purpose, without the reliance on his superstar-dom to carry him along. “When Willie comes to the Dojang he drives himself, in his pick up truck, no entourage and no ego.” “The respect other students show for Willie is not because of his celebrity status but because of his demeanor in the Dojang, as well as his hard work,” he says. “The only time you remem-ber Willie is a celebrity is when he invites the whole Dojang to lunch and he insists on paying for everyone.” Over the course of the last 14 years, Grand-master Um has continued to enhance the vis-ibility of GongKwon YuSul; however, noth-ing comes close to the explosive international interest garnered by the events surrounding Willie Nelson’s promotion to 5th Dan in the style. While this surge in interest has been great, there are those skeptics that secretly, and not so secretly, wonder whether this promo-tion was more akin to the awarding of an hon-orary doctoral degree to a celebrity than an actual belt promotion. To those critics, Master Um answers, “Willie Nelson earned this pro-motion. I challenge you to find another man, 81 years old or younger, who trains as hard, or is as accomplished a martial artist.” “Don’t be fooled, “ Master Um went on to say, “Willie Nelson is a deadly force to be reck-oned with, but that is not what makes him a true martial arts master, what makes him a true master is his calm temperament.” As for that calm demeanor, Willie credits a number of factors for his peaceful ways. Med-itation has become a positive part of his life through the martial arts, and he feels it does a lot to hedge against stress. “Stress is the num-ber one killer in this country. I try to do what I can to be stress free. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any stress. I just do what I can so it doesn’t keep me up at night.” As for being labeled a “deadly force,” he was flattered by the confidence his Master showed in him, but reflected, “The martial arts actually saved me from a lot of fights in my wilder days. Having the strength to walk away is something I am very proud of.” Willie Nelson’s commitment to the martial arts has never been, directly, showcased on stage in the same ways that a singer like Elvis Presley, a Black Belt in Kenpo, was; however, it is no less sincere. While Presley’s martial arts training prominently manifested itself through his Karate style wardrobe and Kata-like dance moves worked into the fabric of his concerts, Nelson’s devotion is more subtly evidenced through his incredible stamina. Willie Nelson does draw a strong cor-relation between his musical fit-ness and his years of martial arts training. At 81-years-old, Willie Nelson’s concerts still exceed two and half hours of explosive ener-gy. He considers these concerts to be the greatest form of exercise in the world, and attributes his abil-ity to do it with such ease, at least in part, to his martial arts regi-men. Willie views the exercise in the Dojang and the workout he undergoes during his exhaustive concert tours as being two sides of the same coin. He has devel-oped a keen understanding of his physical condition that tempers his performance and protects him from sustained injury. “I think it’s very important to learn from your own body. It doesn’t lie to you. If it feels good, do it. If it don’t feel good, don’t do it”. This sentiment may be the summation of Willie Nelson’s life philosophy. As Willie Nelson’s musi-cal legacy forges ahead, into its sixth decade of prominence, a new chapter is unfolding as the “Willie Nelson & Fam-ily” tour makes its way across the United States. Willie has made his intentions clear, “I am gonna keep making music for as long as I am able.” As for the future of martial arts, this unlikely emissary to an unusual discipline sees a bright future for GongKwon YuSul, as well as other martial arts. As he affirmed, “If more people studied the arts the world would be a better place.” As for his personal train-ing goals, Willie Nelson offered the follow-ing, “Well, I am eligible for next belt promo-tion when I turn 90, so let’s just see how that goes.” That promotion test would, actually, elevate the man who has sold close to 100 million albums, in his lifetime, to the rank of Grandmaster Willie Nelson. w y g k y 52 | September 2014