The Gentle Combat of Mapes Avenue

At a jujitsu program in the Bronx, soft is hard and surviving is victory.

So do some of the conditions that shaped it. "There's still a certain amount of stuff that goes on outside," Lawton says, mentioning gangs in particular�not just the big ones, but the little factions that make it hard for kids to know who's who. "This facility kind of eases the tension for parents. Every now and then we'll get a parent who says their kid can't concentrate in school. They bring him here not to fight or take care of business, but for that confidence building. They look a little shaky when they come in." And that's dangerous. "These thugs," says Lawton. "They like to see somebody with low self-esteem."

Sensei Thomas ought to know: He grew up a target, the proverbial 125-pound punching bag. Then one day his buddy Yogi got into a scrap with a school bully, and both kids threw a few karate moves. Thomas was stunned that his pal knew some of the stuff that Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly�of "Black Belt Jones" fame�flashed on the big screen. He signed up at a local martial arts academy, but his instructors didn't see much potential in his small frame. "They gave me two weeks," he recalls. "I was their first black belt." He eventually moved to a hard-knocks school where space was limited and the competition towered over him. There was no room to move sideways, so he developed his trademark move: From a standstill, Thomas (at age 47) can leap over a six-foot opponent's head and flick out a side kick faster than you can drop this paper. Every now and then, he says, he'll enter a tournament just to make sure he can still handle anyone in the black-belt division.

Thomas's role at the center is to teach the kids how to fight from a distance, using karate. Jujitsu, on the other hand, is for grappling close-up. In fact, some of it seems to be just for show, like kata� choreographed combat with an imaginary opponent in which the kids kick and punch invisible bodies. In unison, each student steps forward and back, blocks and punches, pausing between each move.

photo: Greg Miller

It's the kind of performance that wins some of the big trophies in the room, but it looks pretty useless for a street confrontation. It makes you wonder. Training kids to use soft against hard, and fluidity versus aggression, sounds nice. The question is whether that approach works in a fight�or in life.

Stand-up sensei: Gonzalez (far left), Thomas (second from left), and Lawton (far right)
photo: Greg Miller
"It did come up once�I don't know if I should talk about it," Will Lawton says when he's asked about when, if ever, he's had to fight outside of training. "It was in the beginning. I ran into the wrong man. Wanted to impress his buddies. He was waiting for me outside. I told him, 'Look, I'm old enough to be your father.' Kid told me, 'If I want you to talk, I'd ask you.' I took a step back, but I knew it wouldn't end there. So he had a chance to get his big swing off and I had my throw and I left him on the sidewalk. It took five seconds. Later on you feel bad. Twelve years, I've never had any problem since."

Israel Gonzalez doesn't detail his real-life experiences. "Twice," he says. "I've had a lot of confrontations where you talk your way out." Tony Thomas echoes this. It usually works just to "give 'em a stare," he says. "Put it this way: People know who victims are."

Except for this one time, maybe a decade ago, when Thomas got a ride home from work with a friend. They reached his block. Thomas's car was parked just where he had left it. But as he and his pal chatted, Thomas noticed something odd: The interior light had gone on in the car. There were two guys inside.

Thomas stepped out of his friend's car and began to approach, using his vehicle's blind spot to cloak his movements and formulating a plan of attack: Jerk the door open and chop one of them in the neck. But then he noticed how pumped he was with adrenaline. If he hit someone in the neck, he realized, he might kill him. So he decided to kick him in the ribs instead. He reached the car and flung the door open. "One thing about the martial arts," he recalls. "Things don't ever go how you expect, so you have to adjust."

The door was open and Thomas was rearing back to kick the perp in the side. But it was October; the ground was covered in wet leaves. He slipped and fell. He had to improvise, so he pulled the guy out of the car and started working on him. Eventually, he was chasing both men down the street. "Word got around. That gave people a lot more respect when they see me," he says. One of the people who heard about the fight was Lawton, who had lived for several years in the same building as Thomas. The men started talking. If it hadn't been for the guys who tried to rip off Thomas's car and Thomas's legendary counterattack, Sensei Tony might not be there on weeknights teaching kids how to avoid fights of their own.

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