By: Herb Borkland
Forget about the Octagon. Today’s biggest fight isn’t happening at UFC. Instead, raging around the world, this epic, no-holds-barred battle pits new-school mixed martial athletes against traditionalist one-life/one-style martial artist. Athletes versus artists – and the prize is the future of your black belt.
Let’s put this in perspective. Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters have all the guts in the world; nobody’s dissing them or their mega-popular events. But the overall rewards are small paydays, here-today-gone-tomorrow celebrity – only pop stars and may flies possess a shorter career span – and damage to the fighter’s body that lasts a lifetime. Of course, it’s good to be the champ, however briefly, but the majority of benefits, such as they are, are personal, not to the community.
On the other hand, what the old school, like TKD, has to offer is a healthy, sporting way of life – famous or every day, that’s up to you! – rooted in profound traditions which can be of great and lasting service to the whole community. And what about paydays?
TKD can make you rich and powerful, if you’re good enough, truly care about the future, and aren’t afraid of nuthin’ – not even hard work. For example, consider Chief Master William Clark, one of the founders of the American Taekwondo Association (ATA).
Master Clark gave a seminar in Las Vegas last summer, on the same weekend as UFC 60. One of the big conference rooms at the MGM Grand ended up packed to the rafters. School owners, instructors, old black belts and new students, all came from across the country to hear anything the Chief Master wanted to tell them.
Enter William George Townsend Clark II, shaking a hand here, exchanging a quick word there, making his way to the podium with that special lack of haste – at an almost drifting pace – which is one of the social signs of the rich and powerful.
Chief Master Clark, in Omaha, Nebraska in 1968, became an original student of charismatic ATA founder Haeng Ung Lee. Along with lifetime friends Richard Reed and Robert Allemier, he went on to become one of the pillars upon which the Songahm System has been raised up. Today, he helps preside over the largest single-style organization in the United States and, in association with the Songahm Taekwondo Federation (STF), and World Traditional Taekwondo Union (WTTU), one of the largest in the world.
Master Clark is famous for his tiger-eyed glare in official photos. In person, it is hard to glimpse the man behind those pale-blue eyes because they are already busy studying you, first. The hair on top and the signature “tuning fork” moustache down to his jaw line might both be graying but, beneath a well-cut business suit, stands ready the physical power banked through a lifetime of championship training.
After all, this is the 1976 “Blood and Guts Era”. Professional Kickboxing Association Fighter of the Year; co-creator of the worldwide Songahm forms; and executive officer authorizing thousands of instructors in more than two thousand schools across the country; owner and co-owner of over thirty schools in five states. This man is what people like to call “a living legend.”
There’s a quick test, to tell the real legend from the bogus. To be a genuine legend means, among other attributes, that our life sheds as much light on your era as on yourself, and that, in grappling with one and then the other, you change both.
Imagine the old-school days when, to study authentic taekwondo, young men, mostly, pledged themselves body-and-soul to a rugged regimen never seen before on these shores and bound up in strict Asian traditionalism – traditionalism, in imitation of a samurai’s arrogance, sometimes too proud of knowing nothing whatsoever about doing business.
So, during the same years when he was instructing increasing numbers of taekwondo students and also training himself up to become a grand-champion competitor on the original rough-and-tumble U.S. tournament circuit, what Master Clark also pioneered solving was the least glamorous but most vital question of them all: How do we keep the dojang in business?
In Vegas at the 2006 Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA) SuperShow, Chief Master Clark engaged his seminar audience in an easy-going, is-this-mike-on? Style. On the lectern was an open notebook, and he glanced down at it as he rounded off each topic, to make sure he forgot nothing.
Hearing his presentation is not like being lectured to, at all. Rather, this occasion turned into one of our oldest and most honorable rites: The Passing of the Word from mentor to protégé.
He kept the attendees chuckling and sometimes laughing out loud. The humor was dry and well-paced; however, what Master Clark delivered on his feet was not stand-up comedy but stand-up wisdom. Seemingly effortlessly, he was distilling down to a few straight-forward words the hard lessons-learned and the forty-years of psychological savvy of an international-class taekwondo executive.
This is an industry leader who, over the last two decades of the 20th century, was one of the architects of the Big Change, when the flood of “karate kids” threatened to swamp the very same traditions which had made the martial arts a good choice for children, in the first place.
Those were the Eighties, from his place on the ATA Masters’ Council, William Clark, along with Masters Allemier and Gee Ho Lee, aided Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee at the birth of the new Songahm (“Pine Tree and Rock”) forms.
“He (Master Clark) has a gift for creating forms and patterns,” Chief Master Richard Reed once observed. “Like a composer who can hear the entire symphony prior to penning a single note, Bill has an amazing capacity for seeing the entire form or demonstration, down to the intricacy of the individual techniques and the complexity of the pattern, all at once.”
By the Nineties, Chief Master Clark served Songahm Taekwondo by developing new programs, overseeing the introduction of weapons and designing the Black Belt Club, which had the effect of tightening the ATA’s already high standards and solid organizational structure.
Since then, into the new millennium, his work has focused on Leadership Development and the High Rank Road to Mastership – all in aid of making come true Grand Master H.U. Lee’s vision of a socially-responsible and unified worldwide taekwondo movement.
The Las Vegas presentation on the July afternoon lasted a perfectly timed forty-five minutes. If nothing else, the attendees learned to stand up when addressing questions to the Chief Master, and also now knew that TNT stands for “Today – Not Tomorrow.” But, of course, a great deal more information had been absorbed by the audience, and, even so, several of them still had more questions, and, afterward, they crowded around Master Clark.
When queried about the secret of his success, the answer was, “I’ve been blessed with good examples and mentors. My father and I were close… Grand Master H.U. Lee showed me how to lead and to balance the sometimes conflicting natures of friendship and leadership… All of the masters I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years have taught me something.”
Master Clark went on to praise his Jacksonville, Florida headquarters’ staff (‘Their attention to detail is amazing.”), and the central place played by his “partner in life,” Nancy Poppell (“I am definitely a better man because of having her in my life.”)
In such an accomplished career, the personal-best high points Master Clark singled out turn out to be ecstatic moments of perfect taekwondo.
“Personally, two highlights immediately stand out.” He smiled at the memories. “The first was at the ATA Silver Anniversary in 1994, when I had the privilege of demonstrating with Master Reed and Grand Master Lee.”
Master Clark performed his “Silver Bullet” long staff form, featuring fluorescent colors and strobe lights, done to the Lone Ranger’s galloping theme song, The William Tell Overture, the audience stood up and cheered.
“The next major highlight would be the Chief Master’s promotional demonstration with Master Reed and Master In Ho Lee during Grand Master Soon Ho Lee’s inauguration in 2001.”
Paced to Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” and using a weapon – the Kwon Dao – new to Songahm Taekwondo, “the excitement was tangible, the crowd was alive, and I loved it.”
Going back over his fighting days, what stood out were Maser Clark’s bad-boy nickname and a solid national reputation as a ring shark.
“Well, I was never the fastest kicker or the best technician…”. Master Clark shrugged. “So, I became the best strategist. I learned to use the ring, know my opponents, and capitalize on every opportunity, like that shark does. Put your prey against the wall and pounce at the right time!”
Any MMA warrior will recognize that attitude as belonging, then or now, to a winner.
Having been there at the howling, bloody birth of martial arts in the United States, Master Clark understands first-hand what has changed in our community over the years.
“The martial arts used to be a man’s sport. There was a wide variation from school to school, state to state, and style to style. Today there are the World Taekwondo Federation and various other professional associations that help standardize and professionalize the industry.”
Songahm Taekwondo remains the industry’s premier showcase of the single-style organization. “With a thousand schools worldwide, you can walk into any one and know the rules and procedures, expect courtesy and respect, and know the high level of quality you’ve come to value will be there.”
Of course, MMA fighters and their schools don’t deal in walk-in respect, having inherited wrestling’s trash-talking, who-have-you-beat-lately? Arrogance.
After so many schools and systems have come and gone in the marketplace, the underlying question for an industry built on entrepreneurs must be why. Why has Songahm prospered from the start? Master Clark answered unhesitatingly.
“This is made possible by the intense leadership development programs that are available with the Songahm system of training. In addition to fundamental taekwondo skills, there is opportunity for personal growth in other areas. You can learn your basic skills, character education, leadership skills, and instructional skills…
“This is all incorporated in a lifelong learning model with a system of mentors, peers, and individuals you are mentoring. Our leaders learn how to be leaders, by leading and being led, and we feel that anyone and everyone can be a leader.”
MMA’s populist message is that anybody can train-up and become a winner, perhaps even a world champion. That’s a goal ATA taekwondo also offers, but the long-term difference between “champ” and “leader” is worth thinking over.
And maybe anybody can be a leader. Yet the original and ultimate leader of Songahm, the late Grand Master H.U. Lee, was unique in his generation and time.
“He was my instructor, my friend, and mentor. I followed Grand Master, not because I had to or he required it, but because I wanted to. We complemented each other in many ways, I always wanted a bit of freedom and latitude in expression and practice. He gave that to me, and I gave him the innovations of the martial arts industry.
“I was in a unique position with my connections in the martial arts community at large: I could see what was going on out there. I was able to try it out in my schools and see how ideas and concepts could be modified to work into the Songahm System of training.”
The greatest lesson Master Clark learned from Eternal Grand Master is one that any person can profit from remembering.
“I learned to surround myself with good people who share my vision and excel in various areas. My people… are the best and form a team that is far greater than the sum of its parts.”
Master Clark paused and smiled. “I also learned that, if you don’t know something, find out, or find someone who does. Lack of information means lack of growth. We always have to continually be learning and seeking new ideas and areas for improvement.”
Architects say, “Dig deep to build tall.” Since the roots of martial arts are sunk in pre-history, a limitless future can be built upon them. From this perspective, a thousand years can seem like a day.
“Grand Master H.U. Lee was a visionary and could see Songahm Taekwondo evolving a hundred years into the future. He laid the foundation for that during the 1990’s when he formed the Masters’ Council. Grand Master Soon Ho Lee, and Chief Masters Allemier, Reed, In Ho Lee, and myself, with the other Council members, have been working together for more than a decade to implement Grand Master H.U. Lee’s vision.
“When he got sick, he turned over the final control to us, trusting we would be faithful stewards of his original plan. While we all served as advisors to him in life, after his death we became loyal advocates to protect his dream and do our part to see it carried out with integrity.
“Due to the foundation he laid and his foresight in planning, Songham Taekwondo will exist a thousand years into the future, with a seamless transition from Grand Master to Grand Master. We can be confident that it will be just like it is today, only bigger and better.”
And what about Chief Master Clark himself? To try to sum up living people in terms of future history is to start from the wrong end of the telescope. However, certain things are fair to say. Over the course of three decades of relentless change in both the martial arts community and the surrounding society, it is arguably we martial artists who have come out ahead – because of leaders like Master Clark.
It is said American culture is in an uproar caused, as much as anything, by the vanishing of standards of good conduct. Certainly, MMA doesn’t encourage much civility. Yet, in taekwondo around the world, what have emerged strengthened in the early 21st century are traditional values.
Surely, leaders like Master Clark and systems such as Songahm flourish as the best proof that, however counter-intuitive it may sound, the only sure way to stay the same is to constantly keep changing.
At the MGM Grand, what they mean by a legend is Elvis, Maybe so, but, like Grand Master H.U.Lee himself, Master Clark at large has been and continues to be a force for the greater good in a world hungry for exactly his personal brand of decency, honor, and high achievement.
Last year in Vegas, two sides of the combat arts took center stage. Let’s compare and contrast MMA and ATA.
The UFC demonstrates that, live and on pay-per-view, MMA has arrived. It replaces prize fighting, which also got big, lasted a while, and now fades away.
ATA’s Master Clark, to a smaller crowd, in a quieter but no less intense way, demonstrated the staying power of a thousand years.
Today, both approaches to the marital lifestyle meet with overwhelming popular response. Like pro boxing, MMA may well come and go, in time, but the respect and affection his audience lavished on Master Clark seem to sum up the historic first forty of the coming thousand years of the American Taekwondo Association.
-Herb Borkland is a veteran black belt and martial arts writer who lives in Columbia, Maryland