AN INTERVIEW WITH
LUIS FERNANDEZ, DESHI
AUGUST / 2011
One morning, while riding the bus crossing the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, an individual speaking quite loudly expressed his views on immigrants in New York City, particularly, Asians. He voiced what many would consider derogatory statements, yet it generated thought. He said, “As a son of immigrants (Italian and Irish), I believe that the immigrants entering America today, especially Asians, have nothing of importance to add to our American society, nothing of value to be learned from their culture or ways.”
As much as I found his words offensive, they redirected my thoughts to the countless examples that run contrary. One in particular stands out: a martial artist, a son of immigrants who derived tremendous benefits from Asian ways, a son of immigrants born from Cuban and Puerto Rican heritages who began their journey to America like millions before them:
Luis Fernandez Deshi
As a young boy, Luis was an avid reader of comic books, engaged with their characters as well as with a man in a gi. These characters or representations were strong impressions that inspired him early on, instilling a strong desire to learn how to protect and defend the good versus the evil.
Fernandez successfully attained the ability to protect and defend as he developed over the years into a formidable and talented karateka, competitor, then as an instructor, a law enforcement officer, father and role model. The benefits derived early on through Asian ways, the martial arts, and culture.
Please read on to learn about an awesome martial artist and son of immigrants, Luis Fernandez Deshi.
Written by Lydia Alicea
Edited by William Rivera Kyoshi
Martialforce.com: Let us start at the beginning. Where were you born and where did you grow up as a young boy and your family?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “I was born in 1959 in Astoria, New York, a local neighborhood of Queens. My father was born in Cuba and my mother in Puerto Rico. Indeed, I am the son of immigrants. Sadly, my father died suddenly at the young age of 38 when I was only two years old. After his death, my mother and I relocated to Puerto Rico for several years, and subsequently moved back to New York City. We then moved to the Bronx where I grew up and later began my martial arts training.”
Martialforce.com: At what age did your interest in the martial arts begin and what was the draw?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “My interest in martial arts sparked at the age of 6 or 7. Like most children, I was very interested in super heroes and comic books, and particularly consumed with the original Superman, Tarzan, and Batman television series. I found them to be inspirational and was interested in learning how to handle myself as they did. Back then you would find towards the back covers of comic books, advertisements on instruction courses in how to neutralize an attacker in seconds. These particular advertisements had a picture of a man in a white gi and mask with his arms crossed on his chest.
One afternoon, in the summer of 1967, my mother took me for a stroll, in the area of 170th St., not far from Wythe Place in the Bronx. As I enjoyed the walk and nice weather, I was drawn to an 8X10 black and white photo of Gogen Yamaguchi, Hanshi in a gi, in the same cross-armed pose as the comic book ad. The picture was located on a wall next door to a Chase Manhattan Bank. A stairwell led to a dojo entrance on the second floor above the bank. I was very excited about this discovery. My mother enrolled me in Artie Aviles Hanshi’s dojo on that very same day. I was seven years old”
Martialforce.com: During that period, as holds true even today, people’s immediate perception of the martial arts is generally one of violence. Was this the case with you, or was this the appeal?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “For me, the appeal to the martial arts was not really related to violence, but rather in knowing how to defend others or myself in some heroic and virtuous manner. Being able to do this successfully meant studying some sort of secret art that could make this happen instantly. Any child would undoubtedly relish the opportunity to gain this type of power, control and self-confidence.”
Martialforce.com: Your first instructor was Artie Aviles Hanshi.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Indeed, Artie Aviles Hanshi was my first instructor, in Goju-Ryu. He was a first generation student of Frank Ruiz Hanshi. He made Shodan on the same day as the late Louis Delgado Sensei, and Sonny Torres Sensei. Aviles was an all-round mature karateka at a young age. He was a game competitor and won the highly coveted black belt kata division at Henry Cho's open tournament in 1966.
The name of his dojo was "Kuroi Hyoh," meaning Black Panther. He chose this name because of his appreciation for the panther's graceful feline movements. Kuroi Hyoh was subsequently changed to the “Bronx Gojukai” after Aviles became one of few early pioneers to be admitted into the East Coast Gojukai under Gogen and Gosei Yamaguchi Hanshi.
Most memorable aspects of Aviles Hanshi's training were his emphasis on applications, kata and basics with a lot of repetition. His assistant instructor, Nikki Sokol, a green belt, was extremely patient and kind to me. I have fond memories of her until this day.
In Avile’s dojo, there was never any yelling, or physical abusive practices. It was perhaps his calmness and willingness to take the time to speak with me despite my very young age that impressed upon me the qualities of a good sensei including making me feel like an integral part of the dojo. For if not for Aviles, and the positive memories of training with him, I may have never continued studying the martial arts.”
Martialforce.com: Were there other instructors?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Charles Bonet Hanshi was my second instructor. Because my family relocated to another neighborhood in the Bronx, it was impossible to continue with Aviles. We subsequently moved to a neighborhood close to Bonet's dojo. Everyone seemed to know who he was. I visited his dojo with my mother and immediately enrolled in his classes.
I began training with him in 1971 at his dojo named, “The Bronx Budokai.” He is a first generation student of Eizo Shimabukuro. The years spent training under Bonet was a turning point for me, relating more to my age at that time, and the experience achieved up to that point. In 1974, it was as if a light bulb went on. My karate level, understanding and confidence increased significantly.
Bonet Hanshi was a former Marine and established his dojo soon after returning from the Vietnam War. He is a great teacher, friend and father figure. Bonet has always been a wealth of resources and was able to provide me positive advice and guidance regarding my growth as a martial artist and as an individual. Hanshi never involved himself with politics surrounding karate nor did he badmouth anyone.
However, Bonet was extremely demanding on the dojo floor where his kumite was hard and at times seemed violent and scary. Unwelcome guests were regulars at our dojo with challenges from rival schools and gang members. Our dojo was located in a crime-ridden area on Jerome Ave. in the Bronx. I feel that my kumite was forged from this hostile environment. Many bonds and life long relationships developed because of these experiences. As time passed, the challenges became rare. I guess this was a result of our reputation for being very serious about our training.
Bonet is an extraordinary karateka. He was a Shorin-Ryu stylist and an avid competitor in kata, kumite, and kobudo. He received the 1974 Weapons Master of the Year Award by Preston Carter Hanshi. He later went on to become a movie star where he starred in several martial arts films and documentaries. He continues to be an excellent leader and possesses the highest level of ethics and integrity.
In retrospect, my training with both Aviles and Bonet were very positive. They were, and continue to be great instructors. The major distinction between them was Bonet had just returned from Vietnam and had more of an edge than most folks did back then. I really enjoyed training under someone whom trained directly under an Okinawan grandmaster. Bonet always treated me like a son in and out of the dojo.”
Martialforce.com: Give us a snapshot of when you competed and discuss some of the challenges you may have faced.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “I competed from 1973 through 1995. My first competition was at Y. Eagle Kim's tournament at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx. I was a 13 years old and fought in the adult brown belt division. It was the first time I saw Fred Miller Sensei compete.
The tournament scene in New York during the 1970's was quite hostile, comprised of mini armies. Everyone wanted to be number one at all costs. In my opinion, too many folks were watching too many Kung-Fu movies and believing all the stuff about the relationship between rival dojos and honoring your teacher, etc. The kumite would get heated to the point where you would sense danger in the air. Most of the dojos would stay among themselves.
For the most part, I was the only representative from my dojo at tournaments. At that time, the Bronx Budokai students did not wear patches, and Bonet was no longer competing and rarely attended any tournaments. However, I felt his and my fellow dojo brothers’ and sisters’ spirits with me at all times. Fortunately, I befriended a plethora of other martial artist that read as a who's who list of martial artists.
Tournaments in the old days frequently resulted in real fights, during and after the events. Usually, the winner of the fight was the winner of the match. In order to score a point, the technique had to fulfill several criteria besides getting in first. The criteria included effectiveness, proper technique and the damage that the technique caused.”
Martialforce.com: Were there competitions that stood out?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Most memorable was Henry Cho's 1980 All American Open Middleweight and Grand Championship, one of the largest and well-known tournaments at the time. I believe this event and others was the greatest arena for bringing together the best of the best, the grand champions, the icons, the legendary figures of that period.
In 1980, I won the Middleweight and Grand Championship. I fought John Critzos and many others in the semi final and finals. Mike Warren bowed out to me that year. To be among these competitors was a great honor.”
Martialforce.com: You entered law enforcement at some point. As a martial artist, were there challenges you faced in separating those two very distinct roles? How did you balance them?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Being a martial artist is a part of my everyday life. What I do for a living and how I interact with my family and friends does not require me to switch roles in any way. The martial arts have taught me restraint, self-control, self-discipline, while reinforcing my ability to respond and think under pressure or during a life and death situation. They have been helpful in identifying certain cues in people that allow me to predict their responses, behaviors and actions.”
Martialforce.com: Discuss your kickboxing training.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Most of my training consisted of kickboxing type sparring encouraged by Bonet, Hanshi. This type of sparring helped me to survive in the dojo against heavier, older dojo brothers while teaching me to adapt my karate seamlessly to my kickboxing and boxing. I also boxed on as an amateur representing the Webster Avenue P.A.L. under Coach Maynard Stovall.”
Martialforce.com: For you, what was the attraction to kickboxing?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “At that time, many of us went through the kickboxing transition. I had already been involved in boxing. My boxing trainer, Maynard Stovall, was actually pushing me to turn pro. Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Benny Urquidez and Jeff Smith were popularizing full contact. On the East coast Aaron Banks Hanshi was promoting his WPKO with Fred Miller, Kasim Dubur, Butch Bell and Wild Cat Molina as the champions at that time. In 1979 or 1980, I was offered a championship bout. However, Bonet, my manager, Ed Velarde and I declined the $175.00 offer.”
Martialforce.com: Discuss your role in Okinawa with Eizo Shimabukuro Hanshi.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “My time in Okinawa with Shimabukuro Hanshi was mostly positive Training in Okinawa for me was essential to further my understanding of Karate. While in Okinawa I visited several dojos. I had the honor of visiting Soshin Nagamine Hanshi through my good friend Kasuo Tajima Kyoshi.
In the late 1980's I developed a direct relationship with Eizo Shimabukuro Hanshi, which was supported by Bonet Hanshi. According to Shimabukuro, the association had become stagnant.
During the early 1990's through 2001, I hosted Shimabukuro and his son Eiko Shimabukuro Hanshi for special training seminars. During one of Shimabukuro's visits, he appointed Bill Hayes Hanshi, and I as heads of the technical committee for the association.
In addition, I provided assistance in re-energizing the organization, coordinating Shimabukuro's visits to the U.S. on several occasions. I also had the honor of being hosted by Shimabukuro Hanshi in Okinawa several times.
Unfortunately, around 2001, I decided to resign from Shimabukuro Hanshi's organization, since it was clearly heading in a different direction than I had envisioned.
Training in Okinawa was very important for me as a karateka, in order to get a feel for the true historical value of what we teach. I was very lucky to have the resources, relationships and opportunities that helped me maximize my Okinawan visits.”
Martialforce.com: Tell us about your Jiu jitsu training.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “I began training early on under Bonet. Training consisted of mostly submission and restraining holds, chokes, throws and combining strikes along with them. Many of these techniques were in our kata.
In 1993, I began studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I was inspired by Royce Gracie during his UFC days. I never saw anything like his brand of Jiu-jitsu. I appreciated the way it equalized its opponents and how effective it was against other styles. I embraced Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and immediately sub-contracted an instructor for my dojo, strapped on a white belt and began my journey. Luckily, Miami is a hotbed for Brazilians. This gave me an opportunity to learn from great Jiu-jitsu teachers. I have had the honor of practicing with great instructors such as, but not limited to Carlos and Rigan Machado, Ricardo De La Riva, Carlos Santos, Mario Agnese, Moacir "Boca" Omeina, and Daniel "Montanha" de Silva.”
Martialforce.com: Talk to us about your school and students.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “I am very fortunate to have very dedicated students. I have had great students in the past, but this group is undoubtedly committed. My black belts are very serious practitioners, highly dignified and support and represent Karate in an exemplary manner.”
Martialforce.com: Describe your curriculum and expectations for your students.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “My curriculum is extremely rich. It consists of components that focus on the development of the mind, body, and spirit. Without having proper balance, becoming a true martial artist cannot be possible. We emphasize Karate-do, Kobudo, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Kickboxing, and mental preparedness.”
Luis Fernandez and Luis Crespo circa 1972
Luis Fernandez and Crespo circa 2009
Martialforce.com: What is the focus of your teachings?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Students choose to study with me for different reasons. Many love the bujitsu aspect, others like the fitness, social or aesthetic components of the arts. I expose them to what I have learned and which will ultimately lead them to their own path.
With that said, I remind them that despite their personal goals and objectives, they must study and keep in mind that they are preparing themselves for a specific moment in their lives where karate will save them.”
Martialforce.com: Have you ever encountered a situation where karate saved you?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Yes, actually as a law enforcement officer for nearly 30 years in the Miami area, during the Mariel boat lift and cocaine cowboy era, karate saved me, not only on a physical level, but on a mental and spiritual level as well. One particular incident, involved a home invasion robbery that in my home approximately 2 years ago. During the incident, I was able to neutralize the masked intruder as he held my wife at gunpoint. I owe my survival to karate.”
Martialforce.com: Let us take the interview in another direction. Some martial artists feel MMA does not offer anything other than fighting. What are your thoughts?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “The view of some traditional martial artists in regards to MMA not offering anything but fighting is a view that I respectfully disagree with. In my experience, MMA provides practitioners much more than just fighting. It provides reality, self-discovery, new ideas and strategies, which are all important and essential components for traditional martial artists.
Karate-do in its early stages can be described as mixed in terms of striking, throwing and joint manipulation. This mostly changed after Anko Itosu Hanshi, introduced a kinder and gentler version of Karate-do into the Okinawan school system. Sports karate also had adverse effects on the art, where the rules of competition heavily influenced the training that occurred in the respective dojos. This meant that, submissions, throws, chokes, etc., were not legal, therefore, these techniques ceased to be properly taught in many schools and or ryus.
Karate-do evolved under extremely stressful conditions. These conditions included, but were not limited to life and death situations, protecting, and defending loved ones, property and government have been paramount throughout history. Such conditions were essential in the development of empty-hand combat.
Overall, I believe that many "traditional" martial artists prefer to teach and practice in the safety and comfort of their own controlled environment (dojos). Many of them teach solely based on theory, and have never ventured out into the real world to test what works and what does not. To me, the martial arts are an ever evolving. Martial arts go beyond imitating patterns and limiting students to their own teacher and system’s curriculum.
Several years ago, I was invited to a dojo in the New York area. To my surprise, the dojo was stuck in a time warp. The kata was extremely stiff and lacked fluidity. The bunkai practiced was elementary and looked upon as gospel. The instructor was very uptight, nervous controlling and insisted on only going through his routine without encouraging any feedback from his students or myself. The students did not appear to practice jiyu-kumite regularly.
I attempted to introduce/share basic "101" footwork as it related to very basic kumite. The students looked at me as if a little green Martian had just walked into their dojo.
Are martial artists following traditional ways when they fail to understand the differences between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and how the body can respond during highly stressful situations? Do they understand that many convicts and street fighters spend many hours perfecting their wrestling and brawling skills? Baby bunkai and frivolous theory would undoubtedly be ineffective against most street fighters today.
Furthermore, the martial arts should not be inert. Like stagnant water, martial arts can become less useful if one chooses to discover less while not forgetting the old.”
Martialforce.com: Which arts should a mixed martial artist incorporate?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Many people will most likely, combine several styles, such as Western Boxing, Karate, or Muay Thai or with Olympic/Folk style wrestling or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
Martialforce.com: What do the traditional arts have to offer MMA?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Traditional martial arts offer training and study for a larger segment of the population. In my opinion, karate offers more emphasis on spirituality and character development. Karate offers a formal, rich and a full-filling life-long curriculum that can be passed on and followed. Karate training generally provides safe and controlled environment where courtesy, protocol, decorum and respect are paramount. Karate also provides a long substantial history where practitioners can generally pinpoint their karate lineages. The relationship between teachers and students are usually not based on mutuality.
MMA is less formal and focuses more on athleticism than character development. The rules during training are more flexible. Students and coaches generally relate with one-another informally. The training is usually geared to extend to the point of submission.”
Martialforce.com: What are your thoughts on the future of Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Competition?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Amateur MMA is important for the safety of all fighters. It gives the respective commissions the ability to analyze the experience level of its competitors in order to approve fair and safer match-ups. Amateur MMA also provides competitors an arena to develop before trying professional. In the past, many competitors would turn pro without any amateur experience.”
Martialforce.com: In the ever-evolving world of MMA, what if anything would you like to see different in how fighters train?
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “Right now, fighters are trained at extremely high levels. Many MMA teams are extremely well rounded. As far as wanting to see something different, I'd say, a more intelligent stand-up game across the board.”
Martialforce.com: If a prospective student with no previous martial arts training walked into your school requesting to learn MMA fighting, how would you advise him? He is fifteen years old and his twin sister also wishes to train.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: “I would ascertain what in particular he was looking for. If he wanted to eventually fight amateur or pro, I would refer him to a full-time MMA school. If he was interested in learning how to defend himself on the ground or on his feet, and at the same time develop balance in his life while in a life long curriculum; I would advise him and his sister to join my program.”
Martialforce.com: Please tell us how prospective students in your area can contact you.