My Black Belt Test

Today is “Sign Up For Martial Arts Day” at the Boston Martial Arts Center, the dojo I’ve studied at under Mark Davis for the last twenty years. If you’ve checked out the rest of my site here, you’ve read the story of my first night of training with Mark and how intimidating it was to suddenly step into the world of what I like to call “the world’s most misunderstood martial art.” At that time, I still suffered from the misinformation that was rampant regarding Ninjutsu. I had a lot of preconceptions about what I might be getting involved with. As it turned out, the reality was so much more that the illusions that others had spread.

In 1996, I was approaching my black belt test after having been a student for roughly 5-6 years. This was about the length of time it took back then to achieve this level – about double the time the vast majority of other martial arts schools take to promote someone to their first degree black belt. I was aware, also, of the fact that getting a black belt from Mark Davis meant that you had endured a lot more and done a lot more than was expected – even elsewhere in the Bujinkan organization I was a part of. This was something of a source of pride for the advanced students at the dojo. “A black belt here,” they said, “is worth so much more than anywhere else.”

And it seemed to be true. I had witnessed the black belt tests of my seniors and they had always culminated with a public demonstration of their skill ONLY after they had gone through a series of what I considered rather hellish ordeals. But each test was also different depending on who was taking it and when. Several folks might have similar test but they would be different from those that others took. It was at once as unpredictable as it was scary. As a student, you had no idea what to expect. And that was the point. We were studying Ninjutsu, after all, an art that mixes the world of intelligence gathering with that of special warfare tactics. Surprise, the unexpected, unpredictability, the unconventional – they were all the hallmarks of our training in every second of every day.

After I took my 1st kyu test – the last test before my black belt exam – I felt a strange sense of foreboding. My time was coming and I had no idea what to expect, as usual. I lacked confidence in my technique, unsure of whether what I had learned is what I would use if the situation called for it. Would I revert to the other arts I trained in? I had no idea.

Around this time, Mark came over to me one night and told me quite bluntly that I was forever dropping my guard when I was moving. My hands would start up where they were supposed to be – protecting my head and my upper torso – but then they would simply drop as I moved. I tried time after time to correct this, but nothing seemed to be working.

So Mark solved it in a fashion that ensured I’d never have that problem again. After class one night, he asked my senior and good friend Paul to stay behind. Mark disappeared for a moment and returned carrying a motorcycle helmet. He handed it to me and said, “Put this on.” I did. The thing weighed a ton and made my head heavy and unwieldy.

Then Mark turned to Paul and said simply, “When he drops his guard, hit him.” Then he walked away.

I should briefly mention that Paul hits like a freight train torqued up on Red Bull and Cocaine. Seriously. The thought of him hitting me if I dropped my guard certainly had a motivating effect on me.

And that’s where it began. For the next eight months, after every class I attended, Paul would chase me around. I wasn’t allowed to counter anything he did; I simply had to keep my hands up, use my kamae (posture) to protect myself as well as I knew how. After anywhere from ten-thirty minutes, Mark would call a halt for that evening. But I knew the next class I was in for, the same thing would happen. And I made sure I attended as many classes as possible. Mark wasn’t being mean; he was helping me reach beyond my comfort zone and actually learn how to protect myself. He was forcing my body to remember how to stay calm under pressure and how to use what he’d shown me to save my life.

It wasn’t easy. I walked out of the dojo for the next eight months bruised and battered. Paul was never easy on me and I would never have asked him to be. I was there to study an art that had been born out of the need for a system of self-protection that worked when the chips were down, when everyone was trying to kill you, when you needed something – anything – that would save your ass. We all used to joke that we were half insane and half masochists. But if you’ve ever been involved in any type of training that pushes you beyond the limits of what you think reality is, then you know what I’m talking about. As much pain and frustration as there might be in the training, you can’t help but love the feeling of being tested time after time after time. The way the sweat cools on your skin after a grueling workout, the way your heart hammers in your chest when you’ve just managed to thwart an attack, the way your breathing comes in gulps as you relish the afterglow of a fight.

Eight months of this. Combined with the usual tough training that we engaged in during those days. And eventually, my guard stayed where it was supposed to stay. And Paul had a more difficult time finding openings in my defense.

As 1996 marched toward 1997, Mark, his senior student Ken Savage (who now runs the Winchendon Martial Arts Center & New England Warrior Camp) and I planned a trip to Japan. It was historical for the dojo as it would mark the first time any of us had gone over to Japan specifically for the purpose of training with Grandmaster Hatsumi. We were excited and buzzed about the upcoming trip. I was still getting my clock cleaned after every class, but I was now at the point where I looked forward to the pressure of testing myself again and again. And I was improving steadily.

But I had a small problem. In the dojo, I wore a brown belt around my waist signifying that I was allowed to train in the advanced class. But in Japan, they don’t wear brown belts. And I was concerned as to what I should do. I asked Mark if it would be better if I wore my old green belt again for the time we were over there. Mark’s enigmatic response was, “Don’t worry about it.”

I did.

In early 1997, we boarded a plane bound for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. We landed and got ourselves to the house of a friend we were staying with. The next day, we made plans to attend the first class with the Grandmaster at the Ayase Budokan. On the subway ride over to Ayase, I was nervous. This is what I had dreamed of doing for many, many years. We were in the homeland – the place where this art evolved into the incredible system that is is today. A quick glance at Ken and Mark told me they were thinking similar things. We were all subdued as we made our way from the station, down past the McDonald’s, down the street to the glass pyramid structure of the Ayase Budokan. We shed our shoes and put on slippers far too small for most Westerners, made our way to the changing rooms, and I still had no idea what I was going to wrap around my waist.

I heard a little commotion behind me and when I turned, Mark presented me with a brand new black belt. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt weird, though. I looked at Mark. “But when was my test?”

Mark grinned. “You’ve been testing for the last eight months. Congratulations.”

Ken came over and shook my hand and I felt pretty numb. To make things worse, I now had to train in front of the grandmaster. I walked out of the changing room feeling incredibly self-conscious, as if everyone would know I was a newly-minted black belt. Of course, they didn’t.

In swept the Grandmaster, all smiles, and then we got down to training. I felt good about my accomplishment, but as usual, things took a turn for the unexpected pretty fast. I found myself working with a Japanese student, who was forever leaving his groin open to attack. He didn’t much appreciate it when I gently pointed this out, but we kept training. And then the Grandmaster promptly sat down and glanced around. “Demos.”

I gulped, looked at Mark and Ken but they’d had no clue this was going to happen, either. At that point, I was still paired up with the grouchy Japanese student. And then it was our turn to get up and demo in front of the 34th Grandmaster of Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu. I wanted nothing more than to show myself worthy of the black belt Mark had just awarded me. I was nervous when I started the technique, but then my training partner decided he was going to show off and make the gaijin from America look bad in front of the Grandmaster. He reversed the technique, so I reversed it on him and ended up putting him down. That was it; the demo was over and we took our seats while the others demonstrated what they’d learned in the class.

Later that night, as Ken, Mark, and I had some food and a few beers, Mark turned to me and smiled. “You know that guy you were training with tonight was a godan, right?”

I swallowed my beer. My training partner had been a 5th degree black belt and I’d managed to handle him, in front of the Grandmaster no less. I shrugged. There wasn’t much to say at that point, except say thanks to Mark, Ken, Paul, and everyone else at the dojo who’d helped get me ready for my black belt test. By virtue of the exhausting, demanding, painful, and grueling training, I was prepared for a lot.

But I was also quick to remind myself of what Mark and Ken frequently told us at the dojo: that a first degree black belt is just like getting a Learner’s Permit. It enables you to get on the road and finally see the places you’ll eventually visit. But you’ve still got a long way to go before you can drive there.

And even twenty years after I began training, I still have a ton to learn. But the road is still tremendously fun, exciting, and challenging.

Just the way it should be…

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