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Fusion Martial Arts

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by Peter Dewar (subscribe)
Businessman and writer. Peter nurtures a special interest in Korea and Japan.
Published May 3rd 2013
Are the moves in martial arts movies for real?
Forget Bruce Lee re-runs. A black-belt grading is the best chance to see what martial arts are all about.

In a warehouse fitted out as Fusion Martial Arts in Melbourne's west, twelve hopefuls dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms stand in line, watched by forty spectators. They have been preparing for this moment for over three years. In the next four hours, they will submit to a gruelling test of their physical and mental strength to decide if they have earned the right to be called a black-belt.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art practised by ninety million people worldwide. With its heavy emphasis on kicking, it requires an above average level of agility, balance and flexibility to be proficient.

Taekwondo is a great sport for women

Con Lazos, founder of Fusion Marital Arts, is an accomplished martial artist and doesn't fit the usual commando image of a sixth dan Taekwondo champion. Softly spoken, he begins proceedings.

"If you get a black belt at Fusion, you know you deserve it," says Con. "I'll always choose the hard-worker over the person with talent who hasn't put in."

The grading starts with each student giving an account of their martial arts journey. "I loved the idea of competition, but my mother wouldn't let me do boxing." says Connie Arvanitidis who is going for her second black-belt level (dan). "I was really shy at first but now I love teaching the young ones."

Martial arts seem to find leaders.

There's a moment of meditation, before warm-up. One can only wonder what's going through each student's mind, sitting on the mats, eyes closed, watched by their family and friends.

The warm-up consists of fifty push-ups, sit-ups and crunches. Taekwondo students have to shout (kiai) to mark each movement. It's purpose in martial arts is to project one's energy, but it makes a basic set of exercises extremely demanding.

The first technical part of the grading is kicking. You name it, if it's possible, there'll be a taekwondo combination for it, like the tornado kick where a round-house turns to spinning round-house, finished by a spinning heel kick.

Taekwondo Grading
A student finishes a series of kicks

The students make their way along the mats kicking an imaginary opponent or soft pads. It's unrelenting and loud kiais add to the intense atmosphere.

Taekwondo Instructors
Con Lazos (left) and a senior instructor discuss a student's technique

"The only time I had doubts was during the kicking routines," said Connie later. "With everyone watching and going so fast, there was no time to catch my breath."

The grading has been going for an hour - only three more to go.

Next, students are asked to demonstrate one-step sparring routines in pairs. They are a series of set movements combining blocks, kicks, punches and self-defence moves to defend against an opponent.

But the sparring, or free-form combat sessions means the time has come to be reminded that Taekwondo is a contact sport.

There's no holding back in the full contact rounds, and the whack of a foot connecting can be heard over the shouting. Without protective gear, the sound of every strike signals pain.

A student thinks he'll outsmart an opponent by holding his leg. Instead he gets kicked in the jaw with a move that's straight out of a martial arts movie. The kick is strong enough to have caused serious damage, and for a moment proceedings stop to check he can continue.

After another short break the students demonstrate Taekwondo patterns (poomsae). There can be as many as twenty-five steps in the more complicated ones - each must be executed with precision and power. If students have trained solidly over the years it helps; now that they are close to exhaustion, they need to rely on muscle memory.

Self-defence is the most likely ingredient of Taekwondo training to be used in a real life situation. In pairs, students show a handful of moves to defend against a physical and weapon attack. To the spectators, it looks impressive, but it's no fun for the attacker who is often thrown to ground or subdued in a painful lock.

The mood in the room seems more relaxed now, even playful. The group of students know the worst is over. It's not finished though; students are asked to stand in front of the head instructors and explain a designated pattern. It doesn't sound too hard, but it must be done in Korean.

A black-belt grading wouldn't be complete without board-breaking. With the correct technique, the pine boards break easily, but you can never be sure with a spinning or aerial kick, and it's been three hours since the grading started: the group is spent.

A third dan black-belt prepares to break a board with an aerial kick

Connie is told to break a board with a palm strike, but something goes wrong and she misses her mark. The pain is so great, tears well up in her eyes. Encouraged by others, after a couple more times it snaps in two.

The bruises, soreness and tiredness is forgotten for a while as Con congratulates each student at the end of the grading. They have made it and will remember this day for the rest of their lives. As for Connie, despite an injured hand she was successful, and the very next week celebrated her nineteenth birthday.

Fusion runs classes in Yarraville and South Melbourne for toddlers to adults. Black-belt gradings are held once a year.
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Why? Find out about martial arts
When: Classes are held every day, except Sunday
Phone: 03 9687 5888
Where: 275 Hyde St, Yarraville. 204 York St, South Melbourne
Cost: All Gradings are open to the public for free
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