AN INTERVIEW WITH
ďThere are rules one must adhere too in the ring.
There are none on the street.Ē
My name is Eddie Morales and welcome to Martialforce.com Online Martial Arts Magazine. I want to introduce our readers to Grand Master Mike Sullenger. Sullenger has a history of Karate that spans throughout five decades. He comes from a strong lineage of Karate and has an undeniable passion for training and teaching. While interviewing Grand Master Sullenger for this interview I learned a lot about his life and views on Martial Arts. Sullenger is a very community minded individual that has a genuine caring for human life. As you will read in this interview, he has served in the both Military and law enforcement. Sullenger is old school in his training and believes that hard work is one of the keys to success in any endeavor. We here at Martialforce.com hope you enjoy a look at and appreciate the thoughts of a dedicated Martial artist and compassionate human being.
Interview by Eddie Morales
Martialforce.com: Where were you born and raised?
MIKE SULLENGER: I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and raised all my school years in Vincennes. Vincennes is a small town located on the southwestern border of Indiana along the Wabash River that serves as the line separating Illinois and Indiana.
Martialforce.com: When and where did you begin your Martial Arts training?
MIKE SULLENGER: I started at age 12 in February of 1960. My neighborís son-in-law was a paratrooper taught me Jujitsu and Judo falls and throws. Later I met a young man who began teaching me Shotokan. When I was a junior in high school I was able to join a Korean karate class at the local community college. Because there were hardly any people in my town who knew anything about the martial arts I had to augment my training and knowledge by getting and reading books from the city library.
Martialforce.com: Who has been your greatest influence throughout your life in regards to Martial Arts and or life in general?
MIKE SULLENGER: My teacher, mentor and friend Ernie Lieb would have to be at the top of the list when it comes to the martial arts. My father would be at the top of the list regarding life in general.
Ernie taught me to be open minded when learning different tactics and skills. He always told us every martial art had its good and bad points. We were to take and incorporate the good and discard or improve on the bad.
My father was a doctor and never lauded his education, title or position in life over others. He felt there was good in most, but was not so naÔve as to believe all persons fit that mold. He practiced the Christianity he so dearly loved and believed in. He was an example to us all both word and deed.
Martialforce.com: We have heard great things about your instructor as well as the tragedy. Can you tell our readers about this great man as only a student and friend can describe him?
MIKE SULLENGER: Ernie Lieb was a unique person. He was ahead of his time in areas of promoting American Karate. He was a true champion who competed on more than one continent and won numerous championships. Few knew him as his students did. He was caring and devoted equal time to the lowest rank students. He was patient and understanding with those who took longer to pick up a technique than others. He was fiercely loyal to his students and friends alike. Below is a portion of the eulogy I gave at his funeral on October 4, 2006, sadly on my 60th birthday. It says best what those of us who knew and loved him felt.
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS IíVE HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE TO BE ERNIEíS ASSISTANT CHIEF INSTRUCTOR. HE WAS MY TEACHER, MY MENTOR, AND MY FRIEND FOR MORE THAN 33 YEARS. THOUGH MY HEART IS HEAVY WITH HIS LOSS, I WANT TO CELEBRATE HIS LIFE AND WHAT HE GAVE TO US. TO SOME IT WAS HIS FRIENDSHIP. TO OTHERS IT WAS KNOWLEDGE AND SKILL IN THE MARTIAL ARTS. EACH OF US HAS A STORY WE COULD TELL OF THIS MAN WHO TOUCHED OUR HEARTS IN SO MANY WAYS.
SINCE HIS PASSING I HAVE RECEIVED COUNTLESS E-MAIL AND PHONE CALLS FROM PEOPLE IíVE NEVER MET WHO KNEW OF ERNIE AND WHAT HE GAVE THE MARTIAL ARTS WORLD. I THINK ITíS SAD WE SOMETIMES DONíT REALIZE THE GREATNESS OF THE PERSON UNTIL THEYíRE GONE. TO THE MARTIAL ARTS WORLD HE WAS MUCH MORE. ERNIE WAS A TRUE PIONEER IN THE MARTIAL ARTS. HE USED THE WORD ďAMERICANí IN FRONT OF JI DO KWAN DURING A TIME WHEN DOING SO BROUGHT YOU GRIEF FROM OTHERS WHO THOUGHT IT WAS BLASPHEMY. TODAY YOU CAN HARDLY OPEN A PHONE BOOK IN MANY CITIES WITHOUT FINDING SOME INSTRUCTOR ADVERTISING HIS ďAMERICANĒ SUCH AND SUCH STYLE OF MARTIAL ARTS. I WONDER HOW MANY OF THESE PEOPLE KNOW IT WAS ERNIE WHO PAVED THE WAY? HE STARTED AN ORGANIZATION IN 1964 TO BRING MARTIAL ARTISTS TOGETHER TO SHARE AND LEARN FROM ONE ANOTHER, INSTEAD OF SENSELESS FIGHTING TO PROVE WHOSE STYLE WAS BEST. THE AMERICAN KARATE ASSOCIATION LIVES ON TODAY FULFILLING THAT PART OF HIS DREAM. IN AUGUST OF 1973 I ALONG WITH TWELVE OTHER HEAD INSTRUCTORS JOINED WITH ERNIE TO FORM THE AMERICAN KARATE SYSTEM AT OUR FIRST SUMMER CAMP.
THOSE WHO MET HIM WHEN HE WAS COMPETING CAME AWAY WITH A PROFOUND SENCE OF HIS MASTERY OF THE ARTS. ONE FRIEND OF MINE WHO WAS STATIONED WITH ME IN GERMANY HAD SEEN ERNIE COMPETE AT A GEORGE MATTHESON TOURNEMENT IN BOSTON IN NOVEMBER OF 1966. HE TOLD ME ERNIE GOT INTO THE FINALS AND STEPPED INTO THE RING WITH THEIR EAST COAST CHAMPION JULIO LASSALLE. EVERYONE EXPECTED ERNIE Ė THE SMALLER GUY- WOULD BE VANQUISHED IN NO TIME. TO THEIR COLLECTIVE AMAZEMENT HE BEAT LASSALLE 3 TO 0 IN LESS THAN HALF A MINUTE. MY FRIEND DOM MALDONOADO SAID HE ďCAUGHT THE EYE OF THE MAN WHOíD JUST SCORED ON LASSALLE. IN THAT INSTANT I KNEW I WAS FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO BE IN THE PRESENCE OF A TRULY GREAT MASTER.Ē
Martialforce.com: Can you give our readers an example of what the training was like back when you began?
MIKE SULLENGER: My early training during the 60s and early to middle 70s revolved around strict arduous exercises to develop strength, stamina, and flexibility. Long hours of practicing our katas and self-defense ensure we would respond instantly in the event of an attack, as well as honing our abilities for competition.
Martialforce.com: You are prior Military and Law enforcement. Can you tell us how your enlistment in the armed forces came about and how much time did you serve?
MIKE SULLENGER: I enlisted in October of 1966 during the Vietnam time frame. I was enlisted for four years and stationed in Northern Texas and Southern Spain. I worked as a supply man both inside and out moving everything from boxes to barrels and driving virtually everything with wheels. It was during this time I met my wife Maria Juanita (Janie) Lara. This was just before being stationed outside of Sevilla, Spain. When we returned to the states I was discharged. That was October of 1970.
In 1971 I began my studies at Pan American University towards a bachelorís degree in Criminal Justice Administration. Over the next several years I worked fulltime as a cop while hitting the books. In December of 1976 I graduated with my degree and was also commission a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force Security Police. Over the next 16 plus years Janie and I were stationed in various locations stateside and overseas. I acquired a Masterís degree in International Relations with Middle Eastern studies and papers on terrorism.
In June of 1993 Janie and I retired back to Texas where today I teach college, work with the county sheriffís office as the training and range sergeant, and represent the county as the vice-chair to the Police Academy Advisory board. After just over twenty years in the Air Force, having started during Vietnam and ending just after Desert Storm, I felt it was time to do something different with my life.
In over thirty-nine years of my law enforcement career Iíve held positions from patrol to assistant chief and chief. I love working with the younger officers and helping them learn how to be professional in their conduct and safe in their actions.
Martialforce.com: In regards to Law enforcement, where were you an active police officer and was this a natural transition for you being prior military?
MIKE SULLENGER: My years of performing police duties were mainly in Texas, though I did moonlight at small towns during two separate assignments in Illinois. In Texas my police work has always been along the Mexican border. I left an assistant chiefís position in July of 1996 and began working with the sheriffís office as a reserve officer. This has allowed me the opportunity to pursue other interests, which eventually landed me the teaching position I currently have.
In addition to the sheriffís office work Iíve also augmented the South Padre Island Police Department over the past two years during their Spring Break and Semana Santa seasons when the beaches become packed during the day and clubs at night.
The transition from military policing to civilian is a big step. The way you deal with things as a civilian cop is more relaxed in some ways than being a cop in the military. My security police officers days were spent patrolling the base to keep people from speeding, responding to the occasional domestic disturbance at one of the on base housing locations, and controlling entry into the installation.
The threats a civilian cop faces were a rarity on our closed base environments. Thatís not to say there werenít situations where a robbery occurred, or someone died. Itís just that those things didnít happen very often.
In comparison the civilian side of law enforcement requires you to be so much more vigilant and wary. For those of us who patrol the roads here in south Texas close to the Mexican border this has become even more crucial.
Where I never used to leave the house armed, or worry about my safety and that of my families when I was off duty, now days I never leave home without a gun on my hip. I take different routes to and from the college or the sheriffís office. The threat has become something none of us could have ever foreseen a few years ago. In large part you could say the post 9/11 time frame, coupled with the drug problems in Mexico have forever changed the way we live here.
Martialforce.com: Did the Martial Arts help you in any way physically or mentally in your careers?
MIKE SULLENGER: It goes without saying the martial arts help shape me physically and mentally as a man. The arts helped me to become more focused and self-confident. This in turn helped pave the way for successes in the military and as a civilian. My training in the martial arts have resulted in the man I am today.
Martialforce.com: Growing up, did you participate in any other sports?
In Junior high I was a starter for the middle school basketball team. In high school I start in football in my freshman year, but was forced to drop out due to a pulled muscle. I also made some attempts at track and field with little success.
Martialforce.com: Would you recommend cross training in other forms of Martial Arts?
MIKE SULLENGER: I would without reservations. In the American Karate System (AKS) we encourage our brown and black belts to learn from other systems. When testing for brown and black belt ranks students are required to include in their kata presentations, forms from other styles. This increase for black belts as the rank they test for increases. An example would be a student testing for his 3rd Dan would be required to demonstrate his or her knowledge of 3 non-AKS katas.
Martialforce.com: What in your experience defines a good Karate practitioner?
MIKE SULLENGER: A good practitioner is one who works hard, does not use his skill or rank wrongly on those of lower rank or ability, who teaches and practices humility (he keeps his ego in check), and who is willing to learn and share with others regardless of their rank.
Martialforce.com: In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good instructor?
MIKE SULLENGER: All of attributes I described above plus patience. There are many good karateka who are incapable of teaching. I would rather have an average competitor who was a great teacher, than a nationally ranked one who had no patience and expected everyone to be like him.
Martialforce.com: What are your thoughts on teenagers having 5th, 6th and 7th degrees in ranking?
MIKE SULLENGER: Sadly this is an area in our society (martial arts community) where the money is more important than the student developing both the maturity and skill those ranks would embody. There are different styles where tests are conducted every two months. If the student has developed the knowledge to perform the required kata and other skills theyíre promoted. The concept of maturing in oneís rank has been lost in these schools. Their instructors are more interested in being able to brag about how many black belts he or she has under them. In a word, they have cheapened the value and meaning of the belt and the rank.
Martialforce.com: Is your teaching method based in sport or street survival?
MIKE SULLENGER: I have always tried to incorporate the understanding of the difference between the two. I teach my students the importance of when and how to control their techniques so they can compete against other martial artists, and still apply potent defenses and counters when attacked. I emphasize the crucial difference between the ring and the street. I donít want them to have any misconceptions in that.
Martialforce.com: Do you encourage your students to compete in tournament?
MIKE SULLENGER: I leave that to the student. If they appear to be interested I will encourage and work with them. If they are interested in a more traditional training regime, thatís what they get. For those who do engage in competition I help them learn from their mistakes and look at the big picture. I point out to them winning isnít everything. Itís all a learning process to help you improve. Here the distinction between the street and competition is clarified. There are rules one must adhere too in the ring. There are none on the street. Good sportsmanship, humility, and the desire to learn are key elements the students are taught.
Martialforce.com: What are your thoughts on the practice of Kata (Pre-arranged Movements)?
MIKE SULLENGER: This is a topic I have been involved in discussing on more than one occasion over the years. A student of mine promoted me to write an article about kata after reading a discussion I had had with a friend on the merits of teaching them. The article was entitled, ďWhat Does Kata Mean to You?Ē In a nutshell katas provide for the practitioner the ability to train and improve his defensive and offensive skills against imaginary opponents without the presence of a partner. When you combine the teaching of the kata with the bunkai it further enhances the students understanding and appreciation of what heís being taught.
Martialforce.com: Do you practice or teach any weapons system?
Yes. In the AKS we incorporate kobudo training at the middle to upper level kyu ranks. By the time a student tests for his 1st Kyu brown he will perform all of his AKS kata, one non-AKS form, and one weapons form. As the person continues in rank (eg. 4th Dan) they will again demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency in all their AKS katas, four weapons forms (4 different weapons), and four non-AKS kata. We want our black belts to be well versed in a variety of empty hand and weapons forms so they are better suited to teach and set the example for their students and other AKS members.
Martialforce.com: In your experience in the Martial Arts have you witnessed any changes either positive or negative that you can tell our readers about?
MIKE SULLENGER: Wow, this is really a question that could result in a small book. Let me point out just a few things. First and foremost would be the need for a National Martial Arts organization. One of the biggest problems we have in this country is a total lack of standards. The result is a large number of people running around with rank they either bought or fabricated. It has also resulted in schools that turn out students with black belts who wouldnít be able to earn a green belt in true traditional school. Other countries have such national organizations and closely monitor those who train and teach others. This enables them to avoid what we have experienced in our country. There has been a plethora of organizations that have been created in the US. Many of these organizations were created solely so their organizers could promote themselves. This has helped to further cheapen the arts and degrade the quality of those who earn the coveted black belt. Back in the seventies I had a Korean instructor who showed me the rank certificate heíd earned in Korea. When he got to America he erased the number in put in one three grades higher. He also told me the reason for the creation of American organizations created by Koreans was so they didnít have to send the money back to Korea, and so they could promote themselves in order to complete on the American market with non-oriental instructors. Anyone who has been in the martial arts for any amount of time knows what Iím talking about.
Next would be the failure of so many instructors to teach their students the lessons of humility OíSensei Funakoshi taught his students. The understanding that courtesy is embodied in the martial arts from the first day, as demonstrated by the bow at the beginning and end of classes, or before and after students practice techniques with each other. All one need do is read OíSenseiís autobiography, ďKarate-do, My Way of Life.Ē The first and second movies of ďThe Karate KidĒ provided good examples of what good instructors were and werenít. I think you get the picture.
Martialforce.com: What do you feel has been your greatest achievement in Martial Arts or life in general?
MIKE SULLENGER: The realization in the past decade or so of the impact my efforts at teaching and being a mentor have had on students, members of the AKS and friends. This was made clear to me by Hanshi Dan Hect when I received my nomination to the Masters Hall of Fame in the Spring of 2008. After reading the letter I called Dan and ask him he was kidding? I didnít feel I was worthy of such an honor. After all Iím not someone known throughout the martial arts community like Bill Wallace, of Chuck Norris, or any of the other many more qualified black belts in our country. Dan explained I was the kind of person who exactly fit the requirements for the nomination because I worked tirelessly behind the scenes to mentor and leader new generations through the proper steps necessary to become good black belts and martial artists. This comment couple with what I had also learned from a former student who now heads the United States Border Patrol resulted in an article entitled, ďThe Importance of Mentoring.Ē In short Iíve come to realize Iíve created a legacy that will live on after Iím gone. I canít begin to tell you how blessed that makes me feel. Whether is in the classroom at the community college where I teach, or on the gym floor in front of group of gi clad students, I know I must lead by example. The lessons I teach them will be with them long after Iím gone.
Martialforce.com: If you had to sum up what the Martial Arts has given you, what would that be?
MIKE SULLENGER: The Martial Arts have given me self-confidence and aided me in acquiring a sense of self-actualization. For those whoíve studied management itís that top place on the triangle in Maslowís Hierarchy of Needs. Itís also that level Funakoshi refers to as the philosophical side of ďHara Wo Neru.Ē Youíll have to read his autobiography to find out what the literal translation is. LOL. Knowing you donít need to try and be someone you really arenít is what self-actualization is really about. Being comfortable with who you are. When someone finds out Iím a martial artist they always want to know if Iím a black belt, and if so what rank. Since most non-martial artists (and some who are) donít really understand the administrative nature of black belt ranks above 6th or 7th, I merely tell them Iím a senior member of the AKS. Likewise when those who are in the arts call me Grand Master I tell them the title sensei is more than sufficient. Unlike some, the need to have grandiose titles is unnecessary. Iím honored they refer to me by such titles, but I donít feel like Iíve truly mastered anything. There is so much to learn in the study of the martial arts I donít feel anyone is truly a master in the sense of the term.
Martialforce.com: What would you say to someone who wants to learn Martial Arts but for whatever reason never takes the step?
MIKE SULLENGER: If you want to do something in life, but never make the first step towards trying to accomplish it, you will never truly succeed in life. If you want to do something do it. Donít talk about it. If you have the desire (will) you have the power.
Martialforce.com: Thank you for sharing the various chapters of your Martial Arts background with our readers.
MIKE SULLENGER: Thank you for the invitation, I am humbled.