S. Henry Cho's 40thAnnual
All American Open
By Benjamin Paris
On March 20, 2004, Grandmaster S. Henry Cho held the 40th annual All American Open Tae Kwon Do/Karate/Kung-Fu Championship Tournament at Manhattan College in New York City. The events of the 40th All American Open are noteworthy in their own right, but they also marked a milestone in American martial arts. Staging any tournament for 40 years is an incredible accomplishment, but the role the All American Open played in the development of American martial arts demands special attention. So, the 40th anniversary provides an excellent opportunity to review both the events of one day and the history of this institution in American martial arts.
The 2004 Tournament
The 40th annual event continued a tradition of open tournaments that gives students from different styles a chance to measure their skills and learn from each other.
The honor of Men’s Sparring Grand Champion went to Jose Cintron, a student of Joseph Rivera from the Bronx, NY. Mr. Cintron stayed on the attack in his matches, keeping opponents on their heels by alternating between a strong stabbing front leg side kick, two quick punches, or a front leg roundhouse followed very closely by one or two punches. More often than not the kicks were blocked, and the punches lunged too much to be counted as points, but this strategy still allowed Mr. Cintron to take control of the tempo and outlast his opponents. Mr. Cintron, the winner of the Middleweight Division, won in the final against Bryon Johnson, a student of Amos Johnson of Maryland and the winner of the Lightweight Division. The score in the final was 2-1, with Mr. Cintron scoring first, Mr. Johnson evening the score on a counter punch, but Mr. Cintron prevailing in overtime on a punch that ended the day.
Mr. Cintron advanced to the final by beating Johnny Faulkner of New Jersey, winner of the Heavyweight Division. Mr. Johnson advanced to the final by beating Ben Losman, a student of James Roberts of Maryland and the winner of the Light Heavyweight Division. In a thrilling match, Mr. Johnson overcame a significant height and reach disadvantage in scoring first before Mr. Losman evened the score with a strong punch following a kick. Mr. Losman stayed on the attack during most of the match, but made a key error in the final exchange: while pressing the attack, he lowered his guard to smother the smaller man’s kick, but Mr. Johnson connected with a high side kick that was the highlight of the finals.
On the Women’s side, in one division, Ashley Kaicher, a student of Master Difiglia of New Jersey, prevailed over Alexis Lyon of New York. In the other, Nazi Sutton of Maryland prevailed over Han Dao of Maryland.
The Forms competition included a field of many former All American Open champions. Derrick Williams, the winner of the Senior Forms Division, won his fourth All American Open Forms Grand Championship. Mr. Williams’ performance of the traditional Shotokhan form Unsu gave him the edge over the outstanding competition. His intensity, focus, and explosive combinations inspired awe and continue to set a standard of forms performance.
Mr. Williams’ competition in the final included Huyen Dao, a student of Amos Johnson, the winner of the Women’s Korean Division, and herself a two-time former champion. Ruby Camacho, a former All American Open Sparring champion, represented the Karate Division. Han Dao, like her sister Huyen, also a student of Amos Johnson, represented the Women’s Karate Division. Daniel Castro, a student of Master Linda Lutes and the defending Forms Champion of the Eagle Classic on Maryland, represented the Men’s Korean Division. Myra Gross, also a student of Amos Johnson, represented the Senior Women’s division.
In the Weapons Division, Anthony Palumbo prevailed over a field that included multiple-time champion Earl Woodbury. Joseph Yurschak won in Black Belt Breaking, and Amos Johnson’s Dojang took home the Best School award for their students’ strong overall performance.
During the opening ceremony, Grandmaster Cho continued his tradition of honoring those who not only contributed to the development of Martial Arts, but also helped make the All American Open what it is today. Adolf Lichtenstein, who competed in the All American Open in 1965 and continued until 1968 when he left for Aruba to teach martial arts, received the 2004 All American Open Hall of Fame Award. Grandmaster Cho also announced this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipients: Carlos Farrell, Hawk Frazier, Fillippo Giordano, Mark Hochberg and Al Shackil. Each recipient has been practicing martial arts and supporting the All American Open for over 4 decades.
In a turn of events, James Roberts of Kim Studio in Maryland, a former All American Open Form Grand champion, led a delegation of past All American Champions in presenting Grandmaster Cho with an award in recognition of four decades of outstanding efforts. Grandmaster C. S. Kim and Master Joe Bruno of Pittsburgh also treated the crowd with an impressive demonstration of Tang Soo Do.
The History and Influence of the All American Open
Held at Madison Square Garden every year from 1967 to 1989, the All American Open holds a unique place in martial arts tournament history. At its height, the All American Open had thousands of competitors with eliminations going from the early morning straight through to the finals at night. In many cases single divisions contained over 100 very strong competitors, and so division winners were awarded championship trophies. George Aschkar related to the author the experience of winning an All American Open division with 140 competitors: there was a huge gap between the first fight and the second fight, but the gaps between the fights were less each time, and every round the competition got tougher. Grand Champion Gerard Robbins described the competition as “the best of the best,” and 5-time Grand Champion Mark Williams described the tournament as “my Olympics.” Holding the All American Open at Madison Square Garden only added to this prestige. For years, the best fighters competed in the world’s most famous arena, and no one who was there will ever forget the quality and intensity of the competition.
Today, the names of winners such as Thomas LaPuppet, Chuck Norris, Mike Warren and Herb Perez serve to remind us of how important the All American Open is to American Martial Arts. At the time of their victories, however, the All American Open was the tournament that gave them the chance to prove their skill. When Chuck Norris won Grandmaster Cho’s Tournament of Champions in 1967, it was arguably the most important event he had won to that date. At the time, Black Belt Magazine called it “the most important victory of his career.” It was also common for show-business representatives to attend the All American Open, looking for new talent. It was the tournament to win
Of course, the All American Open was always more than a big tournament. Then and now, the key word is “Open,” as in open to different styles and promoting an atmosphere of respect and growth.
[picture idea: a bout between two competitors of clearly different styles, or panels of judges representing different styles.]
Today, the value of open tournaments is well-recognized. They provide tremendous opportunities to learn about other styles and to test one’s skills against practitioners of many different styles. There will always be some that will not tolerate any deviation from the competition rules they follow in their own style, but overall the martial arts community recognizes the value of having open tournaments to build mutual respect and learning. In fact, the tradition of the open tournament is so strong in American martial arts that it is hard to imagine that it ever could have been different. But of course, the martial arts world was a very different place in 1965 (when the All American Open began) and the pioneers of American martial arts deserve recognition for the culture of respect and openness that they helped to create.
Consider the challenge involved in creating the rules for an open tournament. Before the last half of the 20th century, martial arts were more or less confined to their country of origin. There was no real need to create a system that would be acceptable to, for example, both Korean and Japanese martial artists. With rare exceptions, these traditions progressed on their own paths. However, when both traditions came to the United States, a new opportunity arose. A Karate School could be across town from a Tae Kwon Do school. But how could they compete in a manner that would be acceptable to both? Today, it may be difficult to get tournament directors to agree about which target areas and techniques should be legal, but the differences were even more pronounced in 1965.
In general, there were fewer problems in the form competition. Although judges usually liked to see forms with high kicks or jumping kicks in them, they also liked to see strong, focused, and coordinated moves. The problem, now and then, was determining the rules for the sparring competition. In Korea, some open competitions between members of the seven Kwans were already taking place. The leaders of the Kwans agreed upon competition rules which emphasized kicking techniques. Kicks were viewed as stronger and more difficult to execute than punches. So, for example, in a clash between a kick and a punch, the point would go to the kick.
In China, martial artists practiced their arts secretly and thus they rarely staged martial arts competitions in public. In Japan, however, there were public martial arts competitions, but unlike Korean tournaments, Japanese tournaments tended to be limited to one organization or style. For example Shotokan stylists, for example, would not compete in the same tournament as Goju or Okinawan stylists due to disagreements over the rules.
In some Okinawan tournaments of the time, kicks to the groin, back, or knee could be legal scoring techniques. In most other circles, groin strikes were illegal, but some styles actually allowed them in point fighting competition. Black Belt magazine reported in June of 1969 [Note to editor: please check date: could be 1967] that none other than Joe Lewis had been practicing “ridge hand techniques, grabbing techniques, and controlled attacks to the groin” and that “Much to his disgust,” none of these were allowed at Grandmaster Cho’s Tournament of Champions. [picture idea: Joe Lewis circa 1969]. Differences were not limited to legal techniques or target areas: Some styles preferred a constant flow of action, whereas others stopped the action to award points.
It should also be noted that at the time there was no strong tradition of open tournaments to draw upon. The tradition had to be created, and Grandmaster Cho played a pivotal role in establishing a forum where practitioners of many different styles were respected and had fair opportunities to win. The rules adopted by Grandmaster Cho represented widely-accepted compromises and quickly became the standard rules for many other tournaments. Consider for a moment the difficulty in getting martial artists to agree on anything, much less the tournament rules, and you will have a sense of just one of Grandmaster Cho’s accomplishments. [picture idea: Grandmaster Cho judging]
This is not to imply that the rules have never changed. Weight divisions were not present initially. At the earliest tournament, competitors were divided by rank only. Women’s divisions needed to be “invented,” and when they started, there were no belt divisions. When Ann Roberts first competed at the All American Open, she competed as a yellow belt in the Women’s Division. Her first match was against the formidable black belt competitor Susan Hart. Roberts reports that her biggest mistake was scoring first. Children’s divisions also were not present initially. Nowadays, when children often constitute most of the competitors, it’s difficult to imagine a tournament without children, but the early days of American martial arts was more adult-centered.
One of the more obvious changes over time is the emergence of safety equipment. In 1965 and for some time thereafter, there was no safety equipment to speak of. [picture idea, some great fighter such as Norris or Warren fighting without equipment] Fighters were expected to demonstrate controlled techniques that could connect without causing injury. In fact, excessive contact could lead to disqualification, even in the case of a legal technique delivered to a legal target area. The trust and respect that existed between the competitors helped to minimize the injuries between them. In time, though, the possibility of honest mistakes and worse led to the development of headgear, and, later, safety equipment.
So what were the benefits of having this common forum? For starters, everyone at the All American Open had an opportunity to see the most skillful martial artists from many different styles. Remember that in many circles martial arts were practiced in secret, and this was a time before Cable TV, VCRs, and home video. Film of top-level martial artists was extremely rare. So the All American Open provided a forum for the best that American martial arts had to offer.
No one appreciated this more than the competitors themselves. Years later, the competitors recall the bonds that were formed in the heat of competition. Keith Kelly calls the All American Open a "Warrior's Paradise." He states: “We were gladiators fighting the best of the best in the same spot that Mike Warren, Albert Cheeks, Thomas LaPuppet and Chuck Norris had sweat and bled. There has never been a feeling of pride to replace that one.” As a result, “outside the ring [the competitors] were bonded together in a way that few people outside of this sport could understand.” Everyone connected with the tournament knew that they were part of something very special. Most importantly, the friendships that were formed transcended differences of style and school.
Attention tends to focus on sparring, but it is important not to neglect the forms competition or the role that competition played in establishing a culture of respect among martial artists. At the All American Open it was possible to see breathtaking forms from Korean, Japanese, and Chinese stylists. 11-time Forms Grand Champion James Roberts appreciated the opportunity to display “precision, practice, guts, and energy” and to demonstrate the “life-energy of the form.” 4-time Forms Grand Champion Derrick Williams agrees that the forms performances displayed both technique and character. Williams hoped to exhibit “stances, attitude, etiquette, and focus,” and of course he most certainly succeeded. Earl Woodbury, who has competed in the All American in four different decades, saw the forms competition as a forum to present Goju’s system of breathing and contrast between hard and soft moves. Derrick Williams put it well, then, when he described the tournament as a “canvas” that “allowed him to be who he is.”
Grandmaster Cho deserves credit for the way those competitions were structured. To demonstrate respect for different styles, different forms divisions were set up for different disciplines, and each division had its own champion. However, in the end, a single Grand Champion was crowned. How could such a person be selected when the competitors came from different styles? By focusing on the essence of forms performance: focus, precision, power, speed, balance, and presentation. Holding a Grand Championship therefore reinforced the central mission of the All American Open: to pursue and promote excellence in American martial arts regardless of specific style. [picture idea: any excellent forms demonstration]
The forum of the All American Open did more than communicate; it also encouraged martial artists to learn from each other and grow. In 1977 Grandmaster Cho observed “For instance, the Tae Kwon Do stylist who trained in Korea may use a Japanese-style reverse punch now. After training for a while, the Korean may be better at the reverse punch than the Japanese stylist, who is supposed to be an expert at it. Take a look at the flowing techniques of Kung Fu – those techniques have combined here in this country. Instead of evolution, I think it is a revolution, in a sense. It is not just exchanging techniques; it is developing a whole different philosophy. Because of this, we have a revolutionized way of American Karate that has taken good parts from all the other different Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Kung Fu styles.” Karate Illustrated, Feb. 1977.
By establishing a gold standard of prestige, the All American Open encouraged martial artists to go beyond simple respect and truly learn from each other. In the heat of competition, it became very clear very quickly which techniques and strategies would work and which would not. Over time, this communication and learning led to crossovers of kinds. Chuck Norris’ spinning-back kicks and kicking combinations were revolutionary in the 1960’s, but other All American Open fighters picked them up quickly. [picture idea, Chuck Norris.] Michael Warren took kicking combinations to a new level; When his fight was announced, other nearby rings would stop so that all the fighters could see the fighter who many believe was the best of his generation.
The learning went in all directions. Many Japanese fighters began to use the advanced kicking techniques normally associated with Korean stylists. Hopping and jumping kicks became part of the common fighting vocabulary. Derrick Williams, for example, remembers being impressed with the way that Korean stylists could penetrate the guard with kicks, and this inspired him to use kicks to “get into the fortress.” Korean stylists, in turn, learned from the example of Japanese fighters and improved their reverse punches. Grand Champion Gerard Robbins, for example, credits the All American Open with teaching him to use reverse punches more effectively. According to Robbins, fighters began to see that reverse punches could earn points easily and effectively counter many kicking techniques. Carlos Farrell, finalist in the 1968 tournament, agrees. He points out that in the early years of the tournament, many Japanese fighters would strike the blocking arm with a roundhouse kick and then immediately follow with a reverse punch. This technique became widespread very quickly, even among Korean fighters. Over time, the best fighters were not Korean fighters or Japanese fighters, they were simply fighters. Luis Fernandez put it well, explaining that the All American Open allowed him to develop his conception of the perfect martial artist.
Learning was not limited to finding out which techniques were effective. The All American Open also exposed ineffective techniques and strategies. Carlos Farrell points out that in the early years, many fighters held their arms in awkward positions, most probably mimicking a position from a form. They quickly found that these positions prevented them from blocking effectively. Gerard Robbins points out that in the early years, many fighters fought in forward stance, with their shoulders facing their opponent. But as they found that this position left them open to attack and did not let them move easily, they tended to adopt the side-facing position that is familiar today.
Something new was created in America by combining the best elements from a diversity of sources, and there is something uniquely American about that process. The United States is a country that is constantly changing and growing, drawing on the strengths of different groups as it challenges all to constantly seek improvement. In its own way, Grandmaster Cho and the aptly-named All American Open took this nature and applied it to a new field. A diversity of traditions and styles led to the development of truly American martial arts.
Years ago the author asked Grandmaster Cho why the All American Open grew in stature during those early years. He responded that even-handedness was the key. Many tournaments at the time set either the rules or the judging so as to favor their own style or school. The All American Open succeeded because there was no agenda beyond promoting respect and excellence. Grandmaster Cho saw the tournament’s potential to cross boundaries and help martial artists discover shared values. Instead of using the All American Open as a platform for personal gain, Grandmaster Cho kept it (and keeps it) true to its mission. Grandmaster Cho has never sought prestige or plaudits, but this modesty does not reduce the debt American martial arts owes him for his work and sacrifice.
None of this should be interpreted to downplay the accomplishments of other pioneers in American martial arts. But it is clear that the history of American martial arts is incomplete without recognizing the accomplishments of Grandmaster S. Henry Cho and the All American Open.
More About Grandmaster Cho
Grandmaster S. Henry Cho, Black Belt magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1971, has been a major figure in East Coast Martial arts for over forty years. He was one of the first few Tae Kwon Do teachers in the entire United States. In 1961, Grandmaster Cho opened his own Dojang on West 27th Street in New York City and, now, it is known as the first Korean-owned Martial Arts Dojang in the United States.
He has continued to promote the martial arts in a variety of ways. In 1964, he toured American and Canadian cities, demonstrating Tae Kwon Do for the Wonderful World of Sports. Grandmaster Cho has also appeared on many national programs such as the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and "Good Morning America." His book, Tae Kwon Do: Secrets of Korean Karate, was published in 1968 and it is still sold today. This book on free fighting techniques has been widely used by free fighting competitors of open tournaments throughout the world during the past thirty-six years. Mayor Willie Brown, Jr. honored Grandmaster Cho by proclaiming October 30, 1999 as “Grandmaster Sihak Henry Cho Day” in San Francisco. Today, he continues to lead S. Henry Cho affiliated schools all over the world.
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