Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
You may have heard the old saying, “When the pupil is ready, the master will appear.” That’s exactly what happened to me at a crucial point in my martial arts career. After working on my own for five years, I got in touch with Hanshi Lou Angel. I remember driving down to Joplin, Missouri, during the summer of 2001 with Shihan Steiner to meet Hanshi Angel for the first time. We had talked on the phone, but this would be our first face-to-face meeting. He turned out to be the ideal person to be my advisor.
To give you some idea of his background, Lou Angel was born in 1937 and grew up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. As a teenager he was looking for a way to defend himself against would-be attackers. At age 15 he went to the library and checked out a U.S. army manual on hand-to-hand combat that was published in 1942. The title of the book was Unarmed Defense for the American Soldier. After reading the book he decided that he would learn a lot more by taking self-defense classes, so when he was 16 he began training at the Jiujitsu School of India (located at 48th and Broadway, next to a restaurant owned by prizefighter Jack Dempsey).
Over the next five years, Hanshi Angel studied Jiujitsu, Judo, Isshin-Ryu, and Shotokan Karate. He was off to a good start, but his martial arts training really took off when he began studying with Grand Master Peter Urban, his first Goju Ryu instructor. Grand Master Urban was teaching at two dojos in New York at that time, and Lou Angel trained at both of them. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Grand Master Urban taught at the Judo School in the Academy of Music Building at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays he taught at the Judo Twins at 23rd and Eighth Avenue in New York City, so Lou Angel was training with Peter Urban a total of four days a week. It was the start of a lifelong friendship that would shape Hanshi Angel’s career in the martial arts.
From 1957 to 1960 Hanshi Angel served in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he taught methods of hand-to-hand combat. Upon returning from military service in 1960 he opened his first dojo (named “Karate School”) in Brooklyn under Grand Master Urban. In 1960 Lou Angel and Peter Urban did karate demonstrations on an hour-long variety show on TV, the Long John Nebel show on Channel 9 (WOR) which was broadcast from New York. In addition to the TV exposure, they also got some newspaper publicity. After the TV show, Grand Master Urban would not take any new students unless they came through Hanshi Angel’s school first.
At that time Hanshi Angel’s brother lived in the Midwest and commented on the lack of martial arts instruction in that part of the country. In October 1961 Hanshi Angel opened the “Institute of Karate” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the first dojo in Oklahoma and one of the first dojos to open in the Midwest.
Less than two years later, in March of 1963, Hanshi Angel decided to go to Japan to pursue training and testing above the rank of Second Dan. In Japan, Hanshi Angel studied under Master Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi at his Ueno Dojo. Master Yamaguchi had also been Peter Urban’s teacher.
Four years earlier in 1959, Peter Urban had studied under Master Yamaguchi while he was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Navy. Master Yamaguchi had promoted him to the rank of Godan (fifth-degree black belt). While he was in Japan, Peter Urban had also studied under Richard Kim and Mas Oyama. Richard Kim taught several different styles, and Mas Oyama taught a combination of Shotokan and Goju. Mas Oyama was Korean. (Hanshi Angel mentioned that some of Oyama’s people were shown in training sessions in the 1967 James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.”)
In September 1963, Master Yamaguchi promoted Lou Angel to the rank of Sandan, third-degree black belt. (In the picture at the top of the first page of this chapter, I am standing next to Hanshi Angel holding the third-degree black belt that was presented to him by Master Yamaguchi in 1963. This picture was taken during our first meeting in the summer of 2001.) In 1963 Master Yamaguchi also made Hanshi Angel Southwest Branch Instructor for Goju Kai.
Hanshi Angel’s connection with Master Yamaguchi holds great meaning for me. Most martial artists in the United States wonder what it would be like to study in Japan. I have never studied under a Japanese master, but it gives me peace of mind to know that I have been promoted by a man who earned his third-degree black belt from a highly regarded Japanese master martial artist.
In 1967, Grand Master Urban awarded Hanshi Angel the rank of fourth-degree black belt. He wore that rank for twenty years. During those years Lou Angel became a leader in the martial arts, teaching and promoting tournaments in the midwestern United States. In September of 1972 when he was 34 years old (the same age I am as I write this chapter), Hanshi Angel moved to Joplin, Missouri to take over management of one of his licensed schools that had been opened in 1970. He has remained in Joplin ever since. In 1987 he founded the Tenshi Goju Kai (in Japanese, Tenshi means “angel,” Goju means “hard and soft,” and Kai means “system”), at which time he was promoted to Tenth Dan and awarded the title of Hanshi. His teacher, Peter Urban, recognized Lou Angel as the Hanshi of the Tenshi Goju Kai. Hanshi Angel was awarded the title of Founder (with Grand Master Peter Urban also signing the certificate) and Head of Family by the World Head of Family Sokeship Council, the most prestigious Grand Masters Society in the world. In 1996 Hanshi Angel was named Grand Master of the Year.
Lou Angel listed in Peter Urban's Goju Family Tree
One of Hanshi Angel’s most famous students was Professor Jeff Speakman, who showcased Kenpo when he starred in the 1991 movie “The Perfect Weapon.” Speakman went on to make many more movies. Professor Speakman started his martial arts training with Hanshi Angel in 1978 while attending Missouri Southern State College. Jeff Speakman studied with Hanshi Angel in Joplin for five years before continuing his Kenpo training in California under Grand Master Ed Parker. When Jeff Speakman moved to California, Hanshi Angel had suggested that he continue his studies under Ed Parker.
Ed Parker and Lou Angel had been close friends since 1962, when they met at a tournament in Dallas. Hanshi Angel visited Ed Parker and stayed at his house in Pasadena in 1969, and he remembers seeing various items that Grand Master Parker had received from a well-known former student—Elvis Presley.
In 1966 at Ed Parker’s International tournament, Hanshi Angel had an opportunity to meet Bruce Lee, who was Kato on the “Green Hornet” TV show. In those days, Bruce Lee was just emerging in the martial arts scene and was not as well known as he became later on. At this tournament, Bruce Lee suited up in full contact gear and sparred with various partners. Lee also executed his famous “One-Inch Punch,” which demonstrated the use of chi (internal strength) to punch the man in the solar plexus from one inch away, knocking him backwards so he was sitting in a chair.
Hanshi Angel stayed in touch with Grand Master Parker for almost thirty years. In 1990, Jeff Speakman called Hanshi Angel to let him know that Ed Parker had died. Grand Master Parker had flown from California to Hawaii to visit his 90-year-old mother, and he had died of a massive heart attack in the Honolulu Airport right after walking out of the plane (the same airport that I flew into during the summer of 2005).
In the course of his travels throughout the U.S., Hanshi Angel noticed that many of the existing martial arts organizations seemed to waste a lot of energy on internal power struggles instead of helping their members become better martial artists. To fill this gap, in 1989 Hanshi Angel founded the National College of Martial Arts (NCMA) International. The mission of the NCMA is to provide martial artists of all styles with an opportunity to excel. In 2002 the NCMA was honored as Organization of Year by the World Head of Family Sokeship Council.
For several years Hanshi Angel has served on the promotional board for American Kenpo Karate Systems (AKKS), founded by Professor Jeff Speakman. Hanshi Angel was invited to serve on the board in the place that would have been held by the late Grand Master Parker. Today Jeff Speakman is a seventh-degree black belt in his style, American Kenpo, and a seventh-degree black belt in Tenshi Goju Kai, Hanshi Angel’s style.
I feel honored to have had Hanshi Lou Angel as my advisor. To this day, I have never met a man who is so honorable and generous yet so firm. He really tells you what he is thinking, and he means what he says. He was willing to view my technique objectively and give me the rank he felt I had earned. Hanshi Angel is more concerned with whether people deserve a particular rank than with the amount of money he will receive from promoting them
When it comes to promoting people, Hanshi Angel’s philosophy (and mine) was “if you want it, then earn it.” Hanshi Angel was responsible for my promotions to the rank of second through seventh-degree black belt in my own style and a Master ranking in his style. I remember one time for my sixth-degree black belt test in his art of Tenshi Goju Kai, I mastered a stick form in three days. I mean, it was flawless. My mistake was telling him that I had mastered it in only three days’ time, because I had one form left to go before I was done with my testing for that rank. No matter what I did, he made me suffer on the last one, and no matter how good it looked, he made me do it over and over again. On that day he gave me a taste of humility that I will never forget.
Hanshi Angel was demanding but fair. In addition to my black belt promotions, he had also given me the titles of Shihan (Master, Teacher of Teachers) and Professor. With Hanshi Angel’s recommendation, in 2003 I received a Master Instructor of the Year award from the World Head of Family Sokeship Council’s Hall of Fame. I was also invited to be a part of Hanshi Angel’s fiftieth martial arts anniversary promotional board. On June 29, 2004 Hanshi Angel presented me with a Bachelor of Martial Arts award, which is usually given by Hanshi's organization (the National College of Martial Arts) after a person has spent ten years studying the martial arts. In my case, I wanted the date on the certificate to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the day when I began teaching, and Hanshi Angel granted my request.
Hanshi Angel promoted me to the ranks he felt I deserved, without the prejudices or politics that are so often found in the martial arts today. It feels good to know that my black belt rankings were earned from such an honorable and trustworthy man. I also take pride in knowing that through my connection with Hanshi Angel, I am part of a lineage that dates back to the Japanese samurai.
One day Hanshi Angel and I were speaking on the phone, and he mentioned that he had kept all of his old Black Belt magazines over the years, all the way back to the 1960s. He mentioned ads that have been placed in the magazine for all kinds of different martial arts organizations, and he commented that a lot of these organizations are not around any more. It was nice to be associated with someone who had a passion for what he does for a living for more than fifty years and who was still around to talk about it and help others who were willing to try their best and do what it takes to get things done.
As the years go by, I have become increasingly aware of the sacrifices that people have made in the past for the betterment of others. My intention is not to live off the history of outstanding martial artists but to tell their story in order to inspire others, just as I feel inspired to have been a part of this great man’s life. Throughout my career, I have been privileged to watch those around me grow and develop into better people. I feel that all of us are constantly being prepared for some greater purpose (if we choose to listen). Although my changes are not always apparent to me, I believe I have been moving in the direction of attaining new levels of inner peace and freedom. I look toward the future with hope and anticipation.