“Our very dear friend and martial arts icon, Maha Guru Clifford Stewart is going to be honored at the Martial Arts History Museum in Burbank next Saturday, June 2nd from 4:00-6:00pm.
If you’ve never been to the museum, this is the perfect opportunity to check it out and enjoy an afternoon of honoring a true giant among men.”
I will be there. Let me tell you why. Sit back a while: this will take some time.
Let me tell you a little about what I owe Cliff Stewart. First, let’s get it out of the way: he is a genuine martial arts master, with FIFTEEN advanced black belts, as well as real-world experience as the bodyguard to Muhammad Ali, Wesley Snipes, Joan Collins, and Mr. T. As Peter O’Donnell (“Modesty Blaise”) said about the most dangerous villain in the entire series, Simon Delicata: “Built like a rhino and moves like a cat.”
Can we move on? No? How about the time he was mugged by three armed men at two o’clock in the morning outside a 7-11? Mas Ayoob, one of the greatest combat pistol shooting instructors in the world, wrote the forward to Cliff’s book on bodyguard tactics, and describes the incident as “a critical failure of the victim selection process.” When the police arrived, so much damage had been done to the three men that they refused to believe a single unarmed man could have done it. Fortunately, Cliff’s brother was a police sargent on duty at the time. They called him and told him that Cliff had been attacked by three men. All the brother said was: “how badly did he hurt them?”
Yes, Virginia, there really are human beings that dangerous. And in my experience, they are also some of the sweetest, warmest people in the world. Because when you have made peace with your fear, all that remains is love. Cliff has that Buddha Baby nature, a wisdom and calm that must be earned, cannot be assumed. While a phenomenal technician (you should see him explain how to destroy a body’s structure. Just genius) the only time I’ve ever seen that “killing flare” in his eyes was on two occassions. On one, someone mentioned a man who had hurt a child. In the other, someone mentioned someone who had hurt a woman.
Dear God in heaven. Something SHIFTED in the back of his head. Suddenly, a 240 pound PREDATOR was in the room, and it was terrifying. Just for a moment. Then…it was gone.
I don’t remember when I first met Cliff, but he was one of the founding members of the Black Karate Federation, formed in the 60’s to push back against racist judges who would refuse to call points on black competitors. (On one notorious occasion, Chuck Norris was present at a fight where Steve (Sanders) Muhammad scored on the “Champion” again and again and the judges ignored it until Norris, bless his heart, stood up and screamed “give that man his God Damned points!”
Yes, I know Chuck is a little problematic these days. But I loved him for that.
Anyway, yes, things were that bad, and “Big Cliff” Stewart was one of the young men who got sick of it and did something about it. The sight of a hundred young men and women marching into a tournament in military synchrony singing “I don’t know but I been told, BKF fights mighty bold!” changed the California martial arts scene in the early 70’s. Oddly, we started getting our points called. Strange how that happens.
Anyway, he was a big dog, I was a newbie, but when I ran into him twenty years later in Pendekar Paul De Thour’s Penjak Silat school in Arcadia, he remembered me. I saw him move with uncanny power and precision there. The man was terrifying…but so funny it was impossible to be intimidated.
I moved away from California up to Washington for almost ten years, and while I was there studied with Stevan Plinck (another giant. Nothing but love and respect for him and his family), and by the time I came back to California I wasn’t sure I would continue to practice the arts. I felt…oddly stalled. As if perhaps I’d gotten everything I was going to get from them. I had two black belts, a brown belt, twenty years of Tai Chi, ten years of Silat and three years at the Inosanto Academy under my belt…but didn’t know what to do next. Maybe nothing.
That changed when I taught a writing workshop at the Screenwriting Expo in L.A. A very attractive young black woman was sitting in the packed room, and next to her was a large black man who seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place. She was Karen Dean, California State Women’s Judo champion (and a hell of a belly dancer!) and beside her was…Cliff Stewart. He re-introduced himself, and we hit it off instantly.
In life, they say, from time to time you get a “cubic inch” of opportunity. You either grab it…or it is gone forever. This was one of about ten such moments I’ve had. The creation of “Lifewriting” was one. Meeting Tananarive was one. This was on that level.
I asked them to dinner, and Cliff accepted. When they came to the house, man, it felt so wonderful, so natural. I showed him around (I was so happy. He looked at my office with the kettlebells and clubbells right next to my and he said: “this looks like a MAN’S office.” Damn, I didn’t realize how badly I needed that validation) and when he asked about my martial arts practice, and how I felt stalled, he thought carefully and said: “Steven, I am going to complete your training.”
And…damned if he didn’t make good on that. For the next couple of years I drove out to his house, where he conducted what he called his “master class” for a few chosen students. And there, he continued teaching me Pentjak Silat, with a touch of Within Arms Reach, his bodyguard art. Wonderful stuff, designed to deal with a threat in front of you if you cannot use footwork and lateral movement: your client is cowering behind you.
So much what I call “good, evil fun.”
There was stuff going on inside me, though. I remember being in a kempo karate school, and seeing a wall chart of the various black belts descended from Master Ed Parker. Branching off from Chuck Sullivan and Danny Inosanto (Danny taught for Parker before meeting Bruce Lee) was…Steve Sanders. I looked at the list of formidable black belts (what a school! At one point in the late 70’s/early 80’s SEVEN out of the top ten competitors in the California-Nevada-Arizona tri-state area were all this one man’s students!!!) and realized what was wrong.
Despite everything I’d done, and how much I’d changed myself from the little four-eyed pot-bellied nerd who had so prayed to be strong…I felt like a failure. I had never gotten more than a green belt from Steve, the greatest karate man I’d ever known. I realized that despite the wonderful martial artists I had known since, HE was the standard in my heart. And I didn’t measure up.
No offense meant to the other instructors, who were wonderful and helped me along the path, but I realized that I would give up all my rank to be so much as a brown belt in Steve’s system. I found myself speaking that painful truth to Cliff one day when we were alone.
Why hadn’t I earned higher rank with Steve, he asked.
I sighed, and told the truth. “I was just too intimidated by the young warriors in that school.” They were too fast, too tough, too aggressive. I just couldn’t handle it.
And…Cliff laughed in my face. “Oh, Steve,” he said. “They weren’t warriors. They were ATHLETES, playing warrior games. They would have been good at anything: hula hoops, basketball, or break-dancing. They just happened to be doing karate. A warrior is someone whose word is good. Who stands for his community. Who raises his own damned children.”
And…just like that, my heart healed. For the first time in my life, I understood why Steve Sanders had always welcomed me back to the school after I dropped out. Again and again. Why so many wonderful martial artists had been kind to me, had accepted me in their circles. I hadn’t been one of their great fighters.
What I HAD been is sincere. I had never, ever been able to just have fun practicing. Every time, every class, it had felt like dying. Like crawling across broken glass to get something I desperately needed. I remember driving down La Brea avenue, tears streaming down my face with shame and guilt about being unable to return to the school to get a jacket I’d left in absolute terror someone would ask me to spar with them. Why did they want to spar with me? BECAUSE I WAS GOOD. But I couldn’t see that. Too much pain and fear.
And through my tears I asked God “Please. Please. Either let me just practice this art…or take away my urge to practice it. I’m dying.”
I knew that if I didn’t keep going, I’d never be complete. Never be the kind of man I wanted to be. But Lord…it hurt so much.
And my instructors had seen it. They knew was I was. That unlike the “athletes” for whom this was entertainment, or self defense…this was life and death for me. That every time I came to class, I was laying it ALL on the line. I was offering everything I had. And ultimately, all it takes to get everything you need…is everything you’ve got.
So Cliff asked me what I wanted, and I told him: to be part of Steve’s lineage. Whatever that might mean. I know that champions had come to Steve for rank, and he had turned them down if they were unworthy. Whatever he said about my ability, I knew would be true. So Cliff said that Steve, who had retired to Atlanta, would be in town to conduct a workshop for the Whipping Willow Association, and suggested that I go to him and plead my case.
So…swallowing my heart, that’s what I did. Just about ten years ago, it was. I had seen Steve a few times over the decades, and he’d always been friendly and warm to me. But when I explained what I wanted: for him to evaluate my skills and tell me where I stood, I was so scared I wanted to vomit.
He was an older man, but still a lion tamer, and conducted a BKF meeting with the kind of power and authority he had held thirty years ago. After the meeting, he said that at some point in the weekend, we would go off someplace quiet, and he would evaluate me.
Cool. His workshop was brilliant (of course) but there was something interesting about the Whipping Willow association’s gatherings. There would be a dozen masters there, teaching in rotation. When not teaching, most of them would hang out outside talking to each other, smoking, or whatever. Not Steve. He would attend whatever other workshops were being taught. I watched people pair up in one of these, and NO ONE wanted to work with him. Too intimidating.
So…I asked him if he’d like me as a partner. He readily agreed, and for the next two hours or so…we played. Oh, it was glorious. I was able to watch the way he integrated new information, and make it his. Wow. THAT is a nervous system. THAT is a warrior’s mind. And yeah, he’s a warrior in any definition you choose, from being Force Recon in Viet Nam to the Sheriff’s department, to being a pioneering karate champion to transforming generations of boys and girls into men and women, to transforming street gang toughs into solid citizens with nothing but the force of his will. The man is just…extraordinary.
We PLAYED. And I was so happy I forgot why I was there, and just enjoyed the fact that my martial journey had taken me places his had not, and I was able to show him some things he hadn’t seen. Was able to dance with Fred Astaire, who, it is said, was performing with Barrie Chase on a television special and when they hit “The Zone” together was whispering under his breath: “NOW you’re dancin’!”
We were dancing.
I saw Cliff a few weeks later, and he asked me how things had gone. Embarrassed, I realized that my ego had tricked me: I had never asked Steve what he thought of me. Cliff just about put me over his lap. “Will you CALL the man?”
Sheepishly, I did. And boy, my heart was in my mouth. Again. I stumbled out what I wanted: some kind of evaluation of what I was. I had no idea, didn’t know where I was on the map. And humbled myself, praying that the news wasn’t too bad.
So…what did he think?
“That is so interesting, Steve,” he said over the phone. “I was talking to Brian Hudley, who runs the school out here with me. And told him that while I was in California I encountered a former student, Steven Barnes. And that in the intervening years…he has become…proficient. And I was wondering if you would accept a fourth degree black belt from us.”
I was thunderstruck. I had no words, no slightest way to respond, except to whisper…”yes.”
Which is how, six weeks later, I knelt in Steve’s home dojo and received the single greatest honor of my life. I still carry that black belt with me in my backpack, everywhere I go. To remind me of what it cost to become who I am, and to never, ever, ever go backwards, and to never allow my fear and doubt to stop me. And never, ever forget the kindness of the men and women who SAW me, who looked past the weakness to the strength, and helped me bring it forward into the light.
Whenever people wonder why I care so much, why I take time to help whenever I can, this is why. Because of people like Steve Muhammad.
And like Cliff, who long ago said a few simple words: “I will complete your education.” And kept his word.
What a human being. What a man. I am so proud to be his little brother. And will always try to measure up.
Big shoes to fill.