Inside Kung Fu January 1978

Hee Il Cho... Man of Contrast

Here's one Korean instructor who stands above the crowd.

by John Corcoran

Contemporary martial arts are inundated with claims that many times have no factual basis. It seems everybody's a champion; everyone has taught their art to military troups; everyone is a hrghranking black belt. The stories get old; the pattern monotonous. In the past few years, America has winessed a rapid and widespread importation of Korean tae kwon do instructors. There seems to be Korean karate schools on every block from California to Rhode Island to Florida. Sadly there are many controversial claims stemming out of these schools, most of which have, at the very least, incessed American Karate instructors has bred heated rivalries and, at times, outright hostility. In the worst cases rival schools have come to blows.

In the entire United States, there are perhaps only two-dozen Korean tae kwon do instructors who have earned the wide respectof all martial artists. They are people who have achieved recognition based on actual accomplishment, not rumor, like entering tournaments and proving they can fight. And win. Or by producing highly competent students. They are men of contrast who have faced incredibile odds to become successful. Cho i s a member of this elite group.

A flamboyant performer~ Hee Il Cho is just as much at home fighting in the tournament ring as he is in wowwing audiences with precise kicking demonstrations of hair-splitting skill. But his martial arts activities do not end there. Cho has turned out a large number of proficient students; has pioneered a chain of schools centered in Providence, Rhode Island (which he later sold), and has even promoted a full-contact world championship, which isn't the easiest venture in the world to undertake. He now operates a modern dojang in Santa Monica, California that was formerly one of the Chuck Norris studios.

It is more than just his versatility, however, that characterizes Hee Il Cho as a man of contrasts. First and foremost, it is his martial philosophy, an open-minded approach which many times exceeds that usually considered the domain of the American Karate instructor. Yet wisely, Cho understands that evolution does has roots and he therefore maintains part of his traditional background.

Now that Cho has been established as one who stands above the crowd, let's examine the facts to back it up. Perhaps the best examples can be quoted from his recently published book, appropriately entitled Man of Contrast In his chapter on hand techniques, Cho states: "In Korea, it is forbidden in tournaments to hit to the face with a hand technique. Due to this rule, tae kwon do has a reputation, in this country (America), of not having enough hand techniques. / teach as many hand techniques as I do kicking techniques and encourage my students to utilize these hand techniques in their sparring."

In his excellent chapter on weight training, a practice that was once abhorred by martial artists, Cho writes: "Many martial artists do not understand how weight lifting can be helpful to their training. They say that lifting weights slows you down and tightens the muscles, hampering stretch. This depends entirely on how you train with weights. . . By following lifting with equal amounts of stretching you will gradually build up strength and length of your muscles."

Proof of his statements lies in the eye of the beholder. Cho is fine specimen of a man, solidly constructed yet extraordinarily flexible. He has a swimmer's build which, by the standards of some authorities, is the finest physique on the athletic scale. Weighing in at a modest 150 pounds, Cho can bench press twice his weight. And it doen't hinder him from performing some of the most intricate and difficult kicks of the ieaping and spinning variety.

The execution of Hee II Cho's kicks have also set him apart from the common martial artist, and even from the run-of the-mill tae kwon do master. His speed and accuracy are highly acclaimed by his contemporaries. "One could almost say that there has been a revolution in the development of new kicking techniques," says Cho. "When I started training in Korea, we only used a limited amount of kicks which were practiced until perfected.

These were mainly side, roundhouse and front snap kicks, and side thrust kicks. Most prominent of all the new kicks are probably the spinning kicks."

As we're all aware, the martial arts have evolved considerably since the 1960's. Many technical and theoretical changes have taken place since then. Cho is one Korean who is well aware of the evolutionary process and the responsibility he faces in keeping up with those changes. "As martial arts have had to adapt to the American lifestyle, the methods of training and teaching have developed, and the old traditional methods have given way to the changes.

When Hee Il Cho arrived in the United States and critiqued the status of American karate, he was smart enough to realize that he had to modify the austere and strict training methods of Korea to suit American needs. This was probably the most instrumental factor in his road to success. He learned how to adapt the training methods to the customs of this country.

"Although I was a sixth degree black belt and an instructor," Cho points out, "I fought in many tournaments and got to know many young fighters at their level. I listened to their conversations and assimilated their opinions of martial arts. The emergence of point tournaments has contributed to the innovation of new kicking techniques. Certain traditional kicks didn't work in a tournament situation, Cho says. "The traditional method was for one blow to finish the fight. Now, with the point system, it has changed fighting techniques to give fighting an added dimension. "

Cho believes full-contact has contributed substantially to the changes in modern martial arts. To him, it poses a question about the future status of the arts. "Full-contact, in a way, has caused division of thought in martial arts," insists Cho. "It's the traditional art versus the sport. Full-contact has nothing to do with tradition; all that really remains are the kicks. When fighters started wearing protective equipment in the ring, they found that many of the old techniques that were considered deadly were, in fact, totally ineffective.

"Many hand techniques don't work with equipment, so contact fighters turned to boxing gyms to develop hand skills. Contact has a long way to go before it is an established sport. Attendance is low at events. The failure seems to hang between contact karate not being specifically defined. It's somewhere between boxing, kick-boxing and martial arts. "

In analyzing all the elements, Cho concludes that the martial arts are rapidly becoming more of a sport than an art. "One tends to associate sport with competitiveness," advises Cho, "but at the studio level, martial arts are not based on competition which would then be an argument against the art being a sport.

Cho believes there is much good that should be maintained from past traditions. His informative book displays many sophisticated kicks that he has helped develop over the past seven years, coupled with some traditional techniques which are their basis. But if Hee II Cho is considered the outstanding instructor that he is, it will be due to his innovations in the areas of spectacular kicking, weight training which enhances martial expertise, and exacting breaking maneuvers, some of which he publicly performs blindfolded.

Perhaps his open-minded approach. Not content to rest on his merits and ability, both of which are sizable, he hopes to continue developing and searching for new techniques to broaden his horizons.

Compared to other instructors, the contrast may be startling. But, then again, Cho is after all the man of contrasts.

© copyright Inside Kung Fu January 1978