To sir, with love: An homage to the late grandmaster Jhoon Rhee

Uncategorized Jul 01, 2018

By John Corcoran 

Shortly after this cover story was written, Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, the “Father of American Taekwondo,” passed away on April 30, 2018. He was 86. This article is based on the last recorded interview Grandmaster Rhee gave during his life. It examines his stellar achievements and pioneering contributions during a career spanning over 61 years. Remarkably, Rhee’s many innovations have had a global impact on just about every aspect of modern martial arts.

 “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then an action is worth 1,000 pictures.”—Jhoon Rhee   

Here’s the bottom line readers should grasp: As I write this article in the spring of 2018, there may not be any other person still living, who has contributed more to the very fabric of the entire modern martial arts industry than 86-year-old Korean-American grandmaster, Jhoon Goo Rhee. Now that he has passed, as an addendum I maintain my same belief. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some part of Grandmaster Rhee’s genius, curiosity, creativity and experimentation is present, in one way or another, in nearly every professional martial arts school in the world. 

Whether modern day school owners are aware of it or not, what instructors say and do on their mats very likely has Jhoon Rhee’s fingerprints somewhere on it. This includes: 

  • What comprises their curriculum and how it is written and implemented. 
  • What their students wear when they spar.
  • How they kick.
  • How they perform their creative/musical forms. 
  • How their tournaments are run.
  • How they approach their advertising and promotions.
  • How they charge for lessons.
  • And their very idea of what a master is — or is not. 

Younger school owners and black belts who have heard of Jhoon Rhee probably did so through his connection to the late, great Bruce Lee. They were close friends and exchanged techniques in the mid-1960s. Lee adopted some of Rhee’s flamboyant kicking techniques and would later use them in his movies.

Taekwon-WHAT! 

When Jhoon Rhee first arrived in the United States on June 28, 1956, Americans had never heard of the word “taekwondo.” That’s no surprise, since the name for the native Korean martial art had only been adopted the year before, on April 11, 1955, in South Korea. Nevertheless, Rhee began teaching taekwondo at Gary Air Force Base in San Marcos, TX. 

Rhee had arrived in Texas with just a few hundred dollars in his pocket. But more valuably, he arrived with the ability to get and keep students through his skills as a communicator, his talents as an athlete, and his passion for the practice of the martial arts. 

Besides the two suitcases he carried, Rhee came to America with an innate ability to inspire others to action. To make a very long story short, a number of people he taught, including his first black belts, American martial arts icons Allen Steen and Pat Burleson of Dallas, TX, went on to teach many, many others. They, in turn, taught thousands of others, who, in turn, have taught tens of thousands more.

It’s plausible to estimate that Rhee’s students, and students of his students through multi-generations, number in the millions and include martial artists all over the globe.

Climbing to Martial Arts Prominence

Jhoon Rhee relocated to Washington, DC, in 1962. It was there, in the nation’s capital and political center, that Rhee established his base and would launch a successful career climb remarkable for its speed and diversity. By the end of the decade, he would be nationally recognized as one of the most famous masters in our industry.

There were two main qualities — and one timely pop culture bonus — that accounted for Rhee’s highly unusual success. Unusual because “karate” — the most common “catch-all” word used to promote the martial arts back in the early 1960s — was in its infancy. Schools and black belts were scarce. It was a time when most Americans thought karate was something you ordered along with fried rice! But that was about to radically change.

Here’s how Grandmaster Rhee excelled: 

Pop culture trend. The release of Dr. No in 1962, the first James Bond movie starring Sean Connery, launched a Bond Mania/spy phenomenon that drove pop culture for the entire decade. Books, films and, especially, television shows with a spy/espionage theme saturated the entertainment landscape. 

And, imitating Bond, almost all of the TV-show’s heroes were karate “experts” who used the art in each episode’s fight scenes. This quickly introduced karate to millions of Americans.

Personality and skill. Jhoon Rhee was blessed with a wide range of innate personality traits. He was charismatic, charming and exuded confidence. He smiled a lot and it was genuine. He was also educated, articulate and mannerly. 

These traits captivated people — from strangers to famed celebrities and jaded politicians — that met him. It caused them to drop their guard and listen when he spoke. He could often win them over to whatever point of view he was conveying. 

Those of us who were fortunate enough to know him personally understand what I’m describing. 

That charm, coupled with his superb TKD skills and a savvy approach to acquiring publicity, made him what’s known as a “media darling” in the magazine trade: someone you could rely on to follow through with anything you might need. His many appearances in Black Belt magazine during the 1960s made him a household name in our field. 

Yet, Rhee was also tough and demanding when it called for such behavior. Despite his diminutive size, he was a formidable fighter. Remember, as mentioned above, he had taught Steen and Burleson, the two most ruthless karate fighters in Texas, who respected Master Rhee back then and throughout his entire life. 

He did everything in the martial arts and always thought big. The reason Jhoon Rhee’s legacy looms so large is because, first, he was involved in so many aspects of the martial arts. He was a teacher, a multi-location school owner, a major tournament promoter, an author, an inventor; and even starred in a foreign martial arts film. 

Think about that for a moment. Ask yourself how many of those aspects could you honestly handle today. The man had a tireless work ethic. 

Second, Rhee was a visionary and, like his friend Bruce Lee, was devoted to promoting the martial arts to the American public in major ways. Some of the big things he did were way ahead of their time (again, see the sidebar story, ““Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee’s Career Timeline,” for numerous examples). 

He used some of the profits from one enterprise to promote something else. Because of his goal to make his projects bigger and better, as he did with his annual national tournaments in the 1960s, he frequently lost money. (He openly admitted such losses to close friends.) But that never deterred him. He’d move forward the following year and invest even more money to make that one bigger and more prestigious!

Fortunately for him, he was successful enough at several things that he was able to keep it all going. 

His role as a teacher is perhaps the core of all his success. Rhee, as an instructor, was a consummate technician. Through his love of correct form and diligent repetition, he gave birth to generations of some of the toughest fighters produced during the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond, and, a solid batch of renowned forms world champions, too.

Starting with one small school in 1962, Rhee eventually expanded into a virtual empire of 11 locations in DC and surrounding states — all of them thriving businesses.

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