He is one of the most renowned taekwondo masters in the world. In the highly competitive taekwondo community—where there are more kickers than pro football has punters—Cho’s reputation lands him right at the top of the pack. His open mind and flexible sentiments about full-contact karate and boxing, along with his unorthodox teaching methodology, put a black mark on him among traditional taekwondo instructors. At the same time, this has attracted flocks of students who are interested in learning the true essence of martial arts. After decades of sharing his knowledge and experience with students from all over the world, Master Cho still trains every day and is living proof of an everlasting youth that can be obtained through dedication and attention to training. Fittingly, his trademark is the most powerful spinning back kick the world of martial arts has ever known. Hee Il Cho would have it no other way.
Q: How did growing up during the Korean War affect you?
A: I’m the eldest of three brothers. After the war, times were hard. I still remember going hungry and scrounging around for a bowl of white rice. Today I consider that experience extremely valuable because I’m conscious of whatever I have an am always thankful for it.
Q: Why did you start taking the martial arts?
A: I began my training in a typical fashion. At a local fair, I was beaten by five other youths, and I was black and blue for days. The worst was not the physical pain but the humiliation. As soon as I recovered, I began my training in tang soo do. The classes were absolutely grueling. We trained for five or six hours a day and only the strong survived. My instructor was incredibly rigid—we never questioned anything and treated him like a god. After classes, I would sometimes have to wash his feet, and he still didn’t even speak to me for the first year. After training for three years, I received my black belt. After that, I moved with my family to Inchon, near Seoul. While living in Inchon, I realized that martial arts were my destiny in life.
Q: When did you join the military?
A: When I was 21. At the time I was already a fourth-degree black belt. I taught taekwondo to the servicemen and continued my studies under general Choi Hong Hi. It was through his federation that I had the opportunity to teach in India, Germany and finally the United States. I came here as part of a demonstration team and I found the country to be a place where you could achieve anything you wanted to with hard work and dedication. I spend time in South Bend, Indiana, then in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and finally in New York City. I was living at the YMCA because I had no money, and my weight was down to something like 115. I didn’t know what to do with my life, but I knew I was not going to do it in New York. So I took off again and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Just when I was ready to quit the martial arts, a sympathetic landlord offered me six months free rent on a small building. With the last of my money I took out a tiny ad in the local newspaper. Two days later I had 50 students. From then on I never looked back.
Q: When did you move to California?
A: In 1976. I sold my schools and headed for California because I felt there was something more in store for me. I purchased a Chuck Norris school on Santa Monica Boulevard and (subsequently) opened Cho’s Taekwondo Studio. California was like a foreign country to me. People were different. They still are different and I am not sure why—perhaps it has something to do with the climate and the easy lifestyle—but students aren’t as disciplined; they are softer. Today I have adapted my methods somewhat to accommodate their lifestyle, but back then I was still quite strict. I had students sparring full-contact with no protective gear. Also, I didn’t recognize the belts they’d gained under previous instructors. Of course, some parents thought my teaching methods were too harsh. My brethren in the Korean martial arts community criticized me because I was teaching boxing in my classes, and I didn’t have my students attired in white gi’s.
Q: Why did you break with tradition?
A: I don’t like to live in the past. In the old days, the original reason why uniforms were white is because it was the only material available. But that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the present. If you want to know why I started boxing, just look where the best physical conditioning is and look where the money is. There is a reason why full-contact and kickboxing fighters use boxing and not karate punches—it’s because boxing works better! Although I agree it is not for everyone, martial artists can still learn a lot from boxing even if they still prefer their own art. And when the two are truly blended, taking the best from each, the result is effective. That blend is the martial art of the future.
Q: Don’t you think that inner peace can be attained through the study of martial arts?
A: If there is, you are not going to find it by going off on some mountain top and sitting for three hours in a cross-legged position. No, the only way you are going to find it is through actions—because life is action.
Q: You competed in the United States during your early years. Why?
A: I believe that you will never know how good you are if you don’t test your skills against other martial artists. When I came here from Korea, I saw that the American fighters were doing things differently. I had to see if the way I trained really worked. Of course, I did lose once in a while but that was mostly from excessive contact. I knocked a lot of people out. In the tournaments at that time, with the exception of punches to the face, the blows were rarely pulled, which was fine with me. In Korea, we fought with no protective gear and went full-out. That’s the way it should be, because if you practice pulling the blow, that’s the way you are going to react out on the street.
Q: Were you impressed with the masters you met here when you first arrived?
A: It was funny, in a way, because when I first came to United States I was very rigid. I adhered strictly to tradition. But gradually I came to see that the master were really just people who had a little more knowledge than I did. They certainly weren’t gods, though there was a time when I regarded them as such. But that was a long time ago.
Q: What point have you reached in your personal martial arts journey?
A: I have reached a moment in my life in which much disturbs me about the martial arts. The time has arrived for the fresh air of change to sweep away the static insular attitudes and exchange them for new ideas and rejuvenation. This needs to be a porous acceptance of change within all aspects of the various systems of martial arts, especially from the martial artists themselves. Each today is the only true reality. We may be the sum total of our past, and the pasts of millions who lived before us, but life is what we are doing, thinking, feeling, and creating now—at this moment. That is reality. I cannot live captured by the ideals of the past or in fear of my future. Neither am I afraid to admit change into my life, especially within my teachings of taekwondo. If there is a superior way of teaching or developing techniques, I want to know about them and adapt that way into the methods I have established. The future of all systems of martial arts depends on continual growth. While holding onto our noble traditions, we should explore new concepts and training methods. My martial arts’ ancestors may curl up and cringe at my ideas, but I am interested in analyzing and exploring the most effective scientific methods for developing techniques. The great masters of the past were indeed excellent teachers but, surrounded as we are today by new technology and innovative research into new training methods, there may be better ways of developing certain techniques. I, therefore, do not feel guilty nor compelled to stick to one method formulated many years ago.
Q: What’s your opinion on full-contact karate and kickboxing?
A: Full-contact karate has definitely put pressure on traditional martial arts and questioned its effectiveness. Often, when matched with an experienced full-contact fighter, the traditional stylist gets slaughtered. However, I don’t want to compare a full-contact fighter to a martial art and say which is better. Kickboxing is beneficial for developing physical strength, endurance and prowess. But it is a sport and not a martial art. Full-contact kickboxing is competitive and should only be done by those who wish to make a tremendous commitment to the sport. Why, though, have the Americans so successfully dominated the full-contact and point tournaments? Because they have usually not limited themselves to training widely within one system. They carefully observe many different systems and take the best each has to offer, putting the various techniques together to suit themselves. I am not—by any means—advocating that a student jump from one style to another. However, I do think it is important for instructors to analyze the success of these types of fighters. I have only trained in taekwondo and believe it to be one of the finest systems of martial arts. But I will adopt a technique from any other style if I see that technique is more effective than my own method.
Q: Have you made changes in the art?
A: I have incorporated basic boxing techniques into my advanced classes. I trained as a boxer in Korea and realize that my knowledge of boxing definitely helped me become a successful fighter. Boxing is scientifically designed to generate the most power possible from each motion executed, additionally, it teaches good avoidance techniques, which is vital to any fighter. My students’ fighting has vastly improved and the results from our tournaments are excellent. There’s no use hiding beneath the precarious umbrella of our so-called mystical past, which sanctions the belief that one blow will finish a fight every time. Rather, we should accept change and be open to other options and outcomes. I don’t want to give the impression that I am hoping for an amalgamation of all systems—I’m not. I hope, rather, for an adaptation and acceptance of all styles. Taekwondo is a great kicking style; Japanese karate masters have some of the fastest hands. Chinese systems are designed more for the aesthetic aspects of the martial arts. Each system has its own diverse and unique set of principles and rules, which could never merge. What we should do is learn more from each other with open minds. Personally, I have put extra emphasis on weight training and increased intensity during workouts, and I have added boxing techniques to the training regimen as well. The weight training program should be a specific routine to meet the individual’s needs; however, it is a supplementary training for a martial arts workout, not a substitute for it.
Q: Do you consider yourself a non-traditionalist?
A: I see myself as a traditionalist and non-traditionalist. I follow the mental, ethical, and moral principles of traditional martial arts, which includes self-control, perseverance and indomitable spirit. As a non-traditional master, I have adapted my training regimen to my students and will incorporate new techniques to benefit them. As I said, I maintain an open mind to all styles of fighting and recognize the benefits of each discipline.
Q: What is your opinion of all the jealousy in martial arts?
A: It is arrogant egotism that has created bad feelings between martial artists. The days when instructors strutted about puffed-up with their feelings of importance are long gone I hope. Because all that nonsense gets in the way of presenting martial arts to the public for what it is: a physical and mental art form that gives students a deeper understanding of themselves and a greater capacity toward achieving self-fulfillment.
Q: How important is forms training in your teaching?
A: Students often ask why I teach forms and how does performing a hyung benefit them. On a simple level, performing forms has been compared to learning the letters of the alphabet. Put the letters together and you have a word; the words can then be made into a sentence. It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline, well-practiced techniques and mental concentration to perform a form well. We start with the simplest forms, containing only a few simple movements. Gradually, we build up a repertoire of more complicated forms with increasingly varied and complex techniques. The practice of forms helps develop precision, controlled timing, breath control, balance in movement, focus and much more. From the instructor’s point of view, forms also provide a perfect vehicle to enable the instructor to evaluate a student’s progress on many different levels. Forms also provide a means to physically illustrate the aesthetic aspect of a particular style and a student’s personal interpretation of that style. Styles that don’t have forms, to my way of thinking, lack in depth and miss an important part of the arts.
Q: What is your expectation for the future of the arts?
A: It is my hope that the future will bring martial artists closer together and that the childish egotism of the past will become a thing of the past. I eagerly await the prospect of change within the arts, of exciting new training methods, and the further prosperity of the martial arts all over the world.
Q: Do you agree with the description “Hee Il Cho is a man of contrasts?”
A: Yes, I guess it’s true. I am a man of action, but I also admit to having many contrasts. Like many Koreans, I am quiet, reserved and introspective. And yet I insist on being open to change and to throwing out what is unessential. If one hopes to improve his art and his life then that is an absolute necessity. Life is change.