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Only pockets of the area are really rough. But given the setting, one expects hard stares and cold shoulders inside the Mitchell Center, where kids in black gis are spreading out the mats and warming up before class. A few of the younger kidsï¿½seven- and eight-year-oldsï¿½come over and ask to write their names in a reporter's notebook. They're proud of the finished product, especially Samuel, who can do it in cursive. They smile and giggle. They are disarmed, even toward a total stranger. The children areï¿½well, childlike.
So childlike, in fact, that it takes work to get them to focus. When all the students line up by rank and begin to stretch and punch in unison, a few are looking around dreamily and chattering. Sensei Will moves to the front of the room. He's a stocky guy wearing a trim beard, a skullcap, and a flowing black robe; "USMC" is tattooed on one of his thick forearms. The room quiets. Soon you can hear the buzz of the overhead lights. He has the kids assume a stance with knees bent and fists drawn back along each hip. Holding the position is uncomfortable. Some of the kids begin to grunt in exertion. "This is how you learn to focus," he says. "I bet you can play video games for three hours and not even know it in that horse stance." Later in the class, Will has to play the bad cop again. "When I started this, it was in a concrete basement," he says, smiling. "You don't really want to go there."
Lawton, a 49-year-old from Savannah, Georgia, doesn't like to talk about his time in the Marines, although it was during his stint in Japan that he was really drawn to the martial arts. "It's like my life started over when I got here," he says of New York, where he arrived in 1982. "This neighborhood was pretty rough. This field over here was empty. Three or four times a month, we'd see a coroner van there. I found myself often saying, 'I'm going to go back down South to that quiet life.' Then I said, 'Let me give it some more time.' "
He used to hang around a couple dojos where he knew instructors, but it was never serious. Then a friend took him to the concrete basementï¿½a subterranean room on Morris Avenue where eight men were practicing jujitsu. "I saw these guys throwing each other and said, 'That's what I want, right there,' " he recalls. The next day he showed up with a uniform. That was 17 years ago.
Nine years later, Lawton's interior restoration business was on hiatus because he was injured. His wife was volunteering at the Mitchell Center, where a tae kwon do program had come and gone. Someone suggested that Lawton try to start a martial arts class of his own. He began with an after-school program, and it swelled into the night classes and women's sessionsï¿½and widening recognition. Lawton is proud to show off photos of his students impressing martial arts bigwigs at tournaments, meeting with sports royalty like Edwin Moses and Monica Seles, attending galas. Last weekend representatives from Fight Back headed to Palm Beach on an all-expense-paid trip to a Jack Nicklaus celebrity golf tournament. Lawton and company have met politicians and been written up in corporate magazines.
It seems a long way from the concrete basement tonight in the rec room, where the older students are practicing their "mugs," or situations in which each is attacked from behind. The different forms of attack are identified and practiced: arm around the throat, knee to the back, grasp around the waist. In this combat, subtle distinctions matter. If a dude is grabbing you from behind with his legs even with yours, you have to throw him forward; if his feet are staggered, backward. If there's a two-arm choke from the front, you drive your fists into the nerves near his elbows, but you've got to know just where to strike.
The guiding principle, though, is that less is more. In class, four strong guys grab one of Gonzalez's arms. Trying to pull away from them, he has no chance. But when he steps toward them and merely bends his elbow, all four let go. The harder they grip, he says, the easier it is to shake them. Force equals vulnerability.
So why try to block a punch? "What you do is, instead of stopping it, you let it go," he says. "You redirect it. That's what causes the havoc out there." He puts his two fists together. "It's what you do with the hard and soft that eliminates that clash." It's pure self-defense, he insists: You can only work off your opponent's moves.
As the students throw and get thrown, Gonzalez scrutinizes each component of the flowing movements. Growing up in the area, he remembers feeling like a time bomb, angry and aggressive. "If you asked me for my program card, I would have hit you with it," he says. In 1981, a friend introduced him to Anthony Pereira, and everything changed. An Army sniper during WWII, Pereira studied martial arts in postwar Japan, and in 1960 he opened a school on East Tremont Avenue that eventually melded jujitsu with other arts into a new system called miyama-ryu ("miyama" means "three mountains," as in "Tremont"). This form of jujitsuï¿½linking Bronx streets to samurai traditionsï¿½survives to this day.