By Herb Borkland
Facing 1970’s tournaments ruined by a lack of standard rules or consistent refereeing, then - Inside Kung-Fu magazine’s editor Paul Maslak introduced statistical analysis to sport karate and pushed for safety gear and mandatory seeding of top competitors. In 1979, prominent tournament-karate and kickboxing referee Tom Schlesinger and Maslak co-authored the Schlesinger Rules System of Martial Arts Competition, one of the decade’s most valuable contributions to sport karate and professional kickboxing. In 1982, Schlesinger also published his period-classic book “Fighting Strategy: Winning Combinations.”
Herb Borkland: Where did you grow up, and what did your dad do?
Tom Schlesinger: I was born in Detroit, where my father managed the state for Four Roses and other major liquor companies. We moved to California in 1960.
After graduating from high school sports, I wasn’t good enough for semi-pro ball. Now what? A friend said, “Take karate lessons,” so I gave it a try. Never thought I’d be doing it so long. I put in seven or eight years in goju-kai, won black belt kata trophies and fought in a dozen tournaments.
I went to Ron Marchini, who Black Belt magazine ranked the number-one fighter in the nation in 1969 and 1970, to study Japanese-style renbukai. I stayed with Ron 15 years. We had five schools during the Bruce Lee era. I ran Stockton. I always enjoyed teaching, especially watching kids’ confidence grow, the changes in how they viewed themselves as individuals.
HB: Turning point?
TS: Well, exposure to tournaments, as a black belt in two different styles, and, through Ron, exposure to Chuck Norris and other top fighters. But, you know, in those days writer John Corcoran was a former Professional Karate Association (PKA) events coordinator and editor of KICK Illustrated magazine. John wrote a short piece about me, how I was a guy who comes in to a tournament, you don’t know he’s there, but when he leaves, something’s different, something’s changed. I read that and thought to myself, “Maybe I belong here.”
Tournaments in the 1970’s were a mess. In my refereeing, rules would vary from ring to ring. Walk-in black belts often got asked to ref without knowing the rules. Nobody knew what gets called, what wasn’t getting called. Competitors’ friends and relatives couldn’t understand what they were watching. I thought, “We got to get better at this.”
So, we formed the Northern California Referee’s Association, which I headed up for a couple years: an association created solely to standardize rules in Northern California. Paul Maslak and I wrote the rules at my house — over 30 pages. Then, Corcoran spent a whole day going through them item by item. Soon, as a result, we’d take black belts through seminars, cover the rules page by page, and then have a written exam.
The rest is history. Tournaments got much better really fast.
I started 50 years ago. To me, the art and schools and tournaments haven’t evolved like they should have in half a century. The styles are traditional, yes, but it is a business. How you teach and how you get the word out are still done basically in the way we’ve always done it. But we run the risk of becoming obsolete.
I see a few schools around here, a thousand feet and 20 or 30 students. How do you grow? Then, along comes MMA: a billion-dollar business. You can’t argue with results. Their purses are huge.
TS: Before I retired, I became a national director for First American Financial, a Fortune 500 company. I look forward to more retirement and watching our grandchildren grow up.
Herb Borkland can be reached at [email protected]
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