A Candid Interview with: BYONG YONG YU (from 1975)
Seoul’s colorful, outspoken donation to American karate pulls no punches in dealing with those who he thinks are hurting his art — even if they’re Korean: DOWN WITH THE BALONEY PEOPLE!
Until he dropped out of competition last year to concentrate on making movies in Hong Kong, Byong Yong Yu was a fixture on the Top 10 list of karate fighters in the United States. At the time of his retirement, he was rated third. His high standing in American competition is unusual for two reasons. First, he is one of very few Orientals to fight in open U.S. tournaments, and second, he was already in his mid-30s when he first appeared on the circuit.
In addition to being “old” and Oriental, Byong Yu displays an individualism at tournaments that has made him a well-known figure. Smooth and stylish in the ring, he is aggressive and animated outside of it. He loves talking and performing, and he’s not one to bypass an argument. In short, this colorful Korean is different, and while he’s left a few promoters and referees grumbling in the wake of a confrontation, tournament fans adore him. In the following interview, Byong Yong Yu offers some strong opinions on some delicate issues. And in the process, he reveals a hint of the qualities that rank him as one of the most unorthodox and most talented characters in karate history.
PK: What is your home country?
YU: I come from South Korea. Seoul.
PK: How old were you when you came to this country?
YU: I was thirty-three.
PK: Why did you come to this country?
YU: I tried to live my life my way because I couldn’t stand living there with my parents. It was kind of a different life, so I just tried it my way and left the country.
PK: I understand your parents were very wealthy. Is that true?
YU: Yes, very, very. They are wealthy. And that was the reason why I just started hating my parents because they have lots of money and they think that money can do everything. They can buy everything that they want. But really, in a human being, it is not that important. So I just live like a dog; they give you food, clothes and house and take care of everything. But you don’t have your own personal life or private life to do it your way. So, then I started thinking and said, “Well, I have to do it.” So I decided to leave my parents, and I came to the United States so I could live my way.
PK: You were thirty-three years old when you came here. How old are you now?
YU: I’m now thirty-nine. I was born in 1935, January 17.
PK: What did you do when you first came to this country?
YU: I started school, and in the meantime I was working for a restaurant.
PK: You started college you mean?
YU: Yes, I tried to have a master’s degree, an M.A. at University of California at Berkeley. So first, I started school up there, plus I worked in a restaurant, which was a very, very poor job as a dish washer and a busboy, and also worked as a gardener and also for farmers. You know, picking things like tomatoes and potatoes. At that time, I only made $1.40 an hour and even so, I was barely surviving. So I worked about 18, 19 hours a day, because I went to school.
PK: When did you open your first karate school?
YU: I believe it was 1969. And I think it was about April.
PK: Why did you start a karate school?
YU: I started in the Berkeley studio first time, and the reason why was I wanted to help people. There were a lot of hippies and black peoples and poor peoples in there. So at first, I charged only five dollars a month. But I paid the rent myself working in the restaurant as a busboy and a dish washer. But I never charged any people any more than five dollars at that time. It was very hard to survive at that time, but I was learning myself, plus I was helping people which is the reason why I opened up the studio.
PK: You said you wanted to help people. In what way did you want to help?
YU: In the Berkeley area, there are a lot of hippies. What is a hippie? There are many different ways we can say that one is a bum hippie, one is a real nice hippie. But I mean the bum hippies. They had a lot of drug addicts and alcoholics; downers and speeders and a lot of different things. Some didn’t wash themselves — that means they didn’t take care of themselves. So I helped them with self-control and self-discipline and also helped them to see what they have to do, how they can communicate with people. How to work and things like that. And also, a lot of black people, they hated white people. The reason why is that they were born black. You know, you cannot change your color, so they hated and they didn’t want to work with white people; they didn’t want to communicate with white people. They all the time were like water and oil — they were in two different worlds. But I tried to help them understand what a human being is. So, I put white people and black people — plus young and old, and men and women — all one class so we can learn ourselves what it is to communicate. That is the reason why I opened up the studio — to help them mentally and physically both.
PK: You’ve certainly come a long way since you’ve opened up your first studio. You’ve become one of the most popular Korean stylists in the world today, and you have earned your recognition by being a tournament fighter, one of the few Orientals ever to attempt to fight on the American scene. Was it very difficult for you to adjust from your basic tae kwon do style to open tournament fighting? ‘
YU: Yes, it was very, very hard. The first time I opened up the Berkeley studio, I remember there were a lot of different styles — Japanese style, kempo style, Chinese style. At that time, only myself had a Korean style. But we had nice kicking and jumping, and we had some beautiful movements. But they stuck just to people of the same style, so they didn’t open their minds. So the first time I fight in a tournament, they didn’t like me because I’m Korean and because I couldn’t speak English. Also, we live in a different way in Korea than in America. The culture and customs are different. So, when I first fight here, I was just getting disqualified all the time, and I got myself frustrated and depressed and everything. But I had patience. Why? Because when you want to live in the United States, you have to follow the United States culture and customs, whatever. I had to learn. That’s why I came over to the United States. So the first time, I said, “Okay, no matter what happens, I’m going to try.” So I tried very hard, which was six, seven hours a day, seven days a week. I trained real hard to understand the people, plus understand American karate; it’s not tae kwon do. Tae kwon do, if it might stay over there in Korea, it’s good for it. But if Koreans come here to the United States, they have to fight in the open tournament, which means kempo style, Chinese style, Japanese style, Korean style — all put out there together in competition. So they have different rules, different customs and everything. So I decided then to fight, and people didn’t believe that tae kwon do was a true martial art. So I started to fight myself, plus I fight with the other people, so I teach them what is the truth. Meantime, I am teaching myself what is the truth. That is the reason why I competed in tournaments and tried to fight for the truth. And also, a lot of Koreans, or Japanese or Chinese, they speak loud behind a chair. “I’m a 7th-degree black belt,” or 6th-degree black belt or 5th-degree black belt or 9th-degree black belt, whatever. They are just speaking loud, but really, they are not true martial artists. Man, he doesn’t train himself to be great, or a great master. But he wants himself to be like a great master, but it couldn’t be done. I wanted to prove myself as a true martial artist.
PK: You didn’t answer my question directly. Was it very hard for you to adapt to the American style of tournament free-fighting?
YU: Yes, it’s the truth; it was very hard to do.
PK: How long did it take?
YU: About a year-and-a-half to build myself up to change to the American style of tournaments.
PK: How did you prepare and train for a tournament?
YU: Well, most of my training is in the morning, even if there’s not a tournament. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s my life. About ten miles a day I run. Running is very good. I think it’s the king of the exercises. Even Bruce Lee said that, and I agree with that. And second and mostly I do a lot of power jumping and kicking and things like that. So I train about three, four hours for that. Mostly in the day, I put in five or six hours total training, and I build up my ability, power, shape, speed and everything.
PK: Most Korean stylists in tournaments are noted for their kicking techniques, yet you display a lot of hand combinations as well. Did you know the hand combinations in Korea? Or did you develop them yourself because it was necessary for American tournaments?
YU: Yeah, I just developed them myself, the hand combinations and the use of hand techniques because in Korea most of the fighters don’t use a lot of hand techniques. So when I came over to the United States, I had to have hands and feet. If you have feet and you have hands, it’s a good fight. If you don’t have hands, only feet, you never can have a good fight. Everybody in the world has to use hands and feet both. So I trained here and developed myself the hand movements mostly.
PK: Your brother, Byong Hong Yu, fought in the first World Karate Championships- against Daniel Richer. Everyone expected him to do a lot of kicking since he just came from Korea yet he threw mainly punches. How do you explain this?
YU: I was really disappointed the way my brother fought. He told me he was kind of scared of kicking because if he lost his balance, he could lose the whole match. So he just couldn’t kick that much. I think he just doesn’t have that much experience, first. Second, I know that he is a very, very good kicker. He’s fancy like me and he’s very good, but he didn’t put kicks in there that much because what he told me is that it blocked his mind. And also, it was his first time fighting here in the United States; it was kind of too big for him. Maybe the audience was too big for him, but he tried hard. When he was training, he was pretty good, but somehow it blocked his mind when he got up there. Also, in Korea if you fight in a lot of championships, you never have as many people as there were in the audience. What he said was that he thought about 10,000 people were watching him fight, so he got nervous. That’s what happened. He couldn’t really make it. But I’m sure, sooner or later, he’s going to make it. Then he’ll be ready for that. After tournaments here and training six, seven hours a day, he’ll make it to the top 10 in the nation. That’s what he wants.
PK: How do you think the tae kwon do fighters in Korea would stand up against American open fighters right now?
YU: Well, it’s kind of two different rules. If you fight by Korean rules, American people wouldn’t have a chance fighting there. But if you fight like American rules then, yes, the Korean people never can come out that good. Two different rules, two different games. That is the reason why it’s pretty hard. But I say that I think the fighters in America are stronger because they can use feet and hands both. But in Korea, mostly they use kicking. As I said about two different rules — it’s very hard to fight.
PK: The Korean Tae Kwon Do Association was invited to send their best champions to fight in the World Championships, yet they refused. Why do you think they refused to fight? The Americans felt that they were afraid. What do you think?
YU: I don’t think they were afraid. They’re kind of small-minded, closed-minded, because they think, “Oh, karate. We’re not karate. We’re tae kwon do. So tae kwon do cannot fight karate in a championship.” That is one reason why. And, second, there are different rules. And third, they say, “If it’s a tae kwon do championship, it has to have tae kwon do rules. ‘That’s what they feel I think. I know it’s very hard to come over here and fight by American rules, but if they come over here, they would really enjoy this tournament. But they’ve never seen it, so they feel and think that karate is like Japanese fighting. So I think that’s why they didn’t come.
PK: What do you think of Jhoon Rhee’s new Safe-T-Punch and Safe-T-Kick? Do you think they have a future in Korea as well as here in tournaments?
YU: It has to be all over the world. The whole world has to use the Safe-T-Punch and the Safe-T-Kick. It has to be done. Look at boxing. Boxers only use their hands, but they have success the world over. But you look at any other sport, like football, and they have body contact. So in Japan, in Korea, wherever, they have to use Safe-T-Punch and Safe-T-Kick, whatever. It’s gotta be done, even if they don’t like it. It has to start. That’s what I feel.
PK: Do you feel that tournaments should be full contact? Or light contact? Do you think that amateurs should make light contact and professionals should use full contact?
YU: That’s a very good question, and I say that there’s two different ways. One is amateur — there has to be more art put in there, there has to be more light contact because they don’t know what full and powerful contact is. And also, they look for more beauty of the art. But when you become a professional, it’s different. When amateurs come up to professional, they know what is the beauty of the art, they know what is a form — a “hyung,” Japanese say “kata” — so it has to be full-contact rules. There has to be a little bit of a change to get the excitement. Then we can get the audience.
PK: So you think there is a good future for full-contact professional karate all over the world as far as getting TV is concerned?
YU: Yes, I said it’s going to have a big future. Even myself, I really want to push full-contact for the tournaments.
PK: Okay, now you are a professional yourself. Are you interested in developing professionalism in karate? Or do you basically want to involve yourself with the amateur movement?
YU: Well, I want to be involved in professional karate and the championship. I think that it’s important. Amateur karate is for the student. Then when they come up and they’re good, I really want to put them into professional karate.
PK: All of the many different tae kwon do organizations claim to be amateur organizations. Do you think there is a possibility of building a professionally. Korean karate or tae kwon ao association?
YU: I say half say yes and half say no. But only a few people are good professionals right now. If they understand what is tae kwon do, it has to be divided: way of art, and way of sport. But the sport has to be done professionaly. Some people think it has to stay amateur, but I think without professionalism, we cannot survive in the world, either karate or tae kwon do.
PK: Have you discussed plans with other Koreans for forming a professional tae kwon do association?
YU: I talked with David Moon (of Mexico) and Jhoon Rhee (of Washington, D.C.) about the World Professional Karate Championships, and we had hours and hours of discussion about what is going on in tae kwon do right now. And one thing, it has to have quality. Right now all tae kwon do is dying because there are too many baloney instructors, baloney people hanging around tae kwon do. What is the cure? I’m really, really sad about it. Now, look at Jhoon Rhee. He made it great; he built up tae kwon do all over the country. That’s what I’m going to say. If he says that he’s the father of tae kwon do, I don’t blame him. He made it good in America. He introduced and advertised tae kwon do, and now everything is done. But what has tae kwon do done for him? Nothing. The tae kwon do associations in Korea have done nothing to help him. They just said, “Oh well, Jhoon Rhee — he’s a success. So what?” They did nothing. They just blame him, but I respect him because he is one of the true masters of tae kwon do. That’s what I feel. But now there are some instructors who give out black belts in six months or a year. These black belts can’t even front kick right. And I’m getting tired of that because too many baloney people are killing tae kwon do. So I talked with David Moon and Jhoon Rhee. I don’t care what style or what association of tae kwon a person is moo duk kwan, chung do kwan, chi do kwan, hwang do kwan. I don’t care. I want a professional tae kwon do association. It has to develop that way.
PK: The professional karate movement in America has brought men from all different styles together in unity to where they don’t care what the other man’s style is. They have learned to profit from each other. Do you think that a professional tae kwon do movement would bring all the different styles together in harmony and friendship?
YU: It’s pretty hard for all Korean people to get together. But it could happen, because professional people meeting together in a professional organization could do it. Why not?
PK: There are hundreds of Korean instructors in this country now. Many of them are working for no money at all and almost starving. Don’t you think that the professional movement would make them much happier because they would get assistance from people who could show them how to make money and all?
YU: Yes, what you’re saying is true. But the Koreans try to stay away from the American customs. They don’t want to communicate with the American people. They think American people don’t know anything. But I say yes, American people know a lot. Also, they think a lot and they learn a lot. So really, they the Koreans have to adopt what the American people think. If they’re going to become professionals, they’re going to have to listen. That’s what happened to me. I never listened to nobody. I was starving to death. I had a big name and everything, but I could not make even one penny from the studio. I was working for the restaurant to pay the rent for my school. And what happened? I slipped in school (college) and everything. But if you change it and become professional, you can survive. We can keep our own art and still have professional tae kwon do.
PK: In the United States since the advent of Bruce Lee, who tried to get everyone away from tradition, there has been a big movement in this country, especially with the American owned and operated tae kwon do schools. Many of them have quit tae kwon do and are calling their styles “American karate.” This movement has come about because of all of the politics and all the many karate and tae kwon do associations who all say they are “the only official” ones. They all claim to be the official one, but they don’t work together. Tell me, what are the three major tae kwon do associations in this country that you know of? Or let’s say the two major ones?
YU: One is the Korea Tae Kwon Do Association in Seoul. The president is Un Yong Kim. Another one is the International Tae Kwon Do Federation (Association), whose president is General Choi Hong Hi. These are two very different organizations, and it is going to take a long time to develop just one organization. The reason I say this is that one organization is almost selling ranking certificates to people. A guy may have a second-degree black belt and not even know anything about tae kwon do. They just give it away.
PK: Are you saying that the standards are too low and the tae kwon do organizations that exist now are just giving their ranks away? Is that the problem?
YU: Yes, one organization does. PK: Which one is that?
YU: Well, I can’t really say that. But they are killing tae kwon do, and that’s why people begin hating tae kwon do, because they think it’s all baloney. But the other organization I don’t feel that uncomfortable with because all of the different groups, mu do kwan, chong do kwan, and so forth — have banded together in one organization. But it’s still very, very shaky because there’s no professionalism yet.
PK: The various tae kwon do associations have definitely expressed their feelings not to associate with any type of Japanese or Chinese organizations. If you become involved in a professional tae kwon do association, do you want to associate with other organizations or do you wish to keep tae kwon do completely separate?
YU: That’s a very good question, and it’s very hard to answer. But I say myself, with all my heart, that we have to communicate with all other styles. No matter what happens, it has to be done. You can not quit your own culture and customs, but you can keep them and still get along with Japanese styles and whatever styles. Because this is America. They have to come together and stick together to make professionalism go in the United States. A lot of people don’t like to keep the culture and customs, like even Bruce Lee didn’t care about keeping the culture and customs — he wanted to develop his own way. It is a good thing. That means he’s learning. But it kind of hurts tae kwon do and karate, because then dumb people think tae kwon do is bad, that karate is bad, that kung-fu is bad. Right now everyone thinks that kung-fu is phoney. Yes, some of it is very phoney, but some of it is true martial art. So I feel tradition, culture and customs must be developed. We cannot completely forget. Second, all different people and all different styles have to band together and run ourselves like professionals.
PK: In other words, you’re saying that everybody should maintain their tradition but still fraternize on a professional level for the mutual benefit of everybody? Is that what you’re saying?
PK: There is a lot of political turmoil in the karate-community in this country right now. How do you think it will turn out? Do you think the amateurs will take it over, or the professionals? What do you see for the future of American karate?
YU: Whether it’s in tae kwon do or karate, there are so many baloney people that have their own organizations and yet they don’t know what karate means, what tae kwon do means, or what martial arts means. But still, they say, “I’m a seventh dan,” “I’m eighth dan,” “I’m twentieth dan.” They call themselves whatever they want. But I say that there’s too many baloney people in the United States and in the world. A lot of the people are fat, they’re out of shape, mentally and physically. They’re nothing, but they say they-‘re high dans. We have to have professional people who are professionals mentally and physically. They have to set the example for every karate and tae kwon do association; otherwise tae kwon do and karate will be killed.
PK: Are you saying that the people who practice what they preach should be the ones to take over?
YU: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Why do we need politics in martial arts? We can’t follow politics. We have to follow mentally and physically keep-in-shape persons. That’s what we need in the United States and in the world.
PK: Many people wonder what rank you are. What is your rank?
YU: It’s hard to say what rank I am. The Tae Kwon Do Association gave me a seventh-degree black belt in 1972, but I don’t feel that I own a rank. I don’t call myself a seventh-degree because I am kind of ashamed of myself to say that I am a seventh-degree black belt. So I say that I don’t own a rank right now. I own what I believe in — tae kwon do.
PK: You just say that you’re a black belt?
YU: Yeah, I can say that I’m a black belt, but I really want to call myself a master. By master, I don’t mean “great.” Master means a guy can do what he needs, what he wants.
PK: He can practice what he preaches.
PK: You really became famous on the American karate scene because of your matches — and the controversy surrounding your matches — with Joe Lewis. How do you feel about Joe Lewis?
YU: I met Joe Lewis so many times, and I like free-sparring with him. He’s one of the strongest and the smartest fighters I’ve ever seen. Joe Lewis knows how to fight. He doesn’t have really, really good technique, but I say that he knows how to fight. But martial-arts-wise, I think he has to go a long way.
PK: You used to argue a lot with Joe Lewis. How do you feel about him on a friendship level now?
YU: He’s a good friend. I like him a lot because his mind is like a computer. He remembers everything that’s happened in his fights, even from two and three years ago. That’s why I like him. Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine, and even still, I want to meet him again in the ring sometime.
PK: We know you just made two movies in Hong Kong and are under contract for several more. First of all, what are the two movies you just made? Will they be released in this country?
YU: One is called The Association, and the other is called Fighting Dragon. I’m making them with Warner Bros. and Golden Harvest Productions in Hong Kong. They’re going to show in 38 different counties, and we hope in the United States, too, by the end of the year.
PK: Do you look at yourself as another Bruce Lee?
YU: I’m not a second Bruce Lee. After we lost a great man in Bruce Lee, there was nobody to take over showing good action. That is the reason why I am involved with the movies. I’m going to try the best I can to do it as well as Bruce Lee. I’m going to try and show the martial arts again to the world. So now I am training very hard in acting and martial arts together.
PK: Have you signed for any movies in the future?
YU: Yes, I have seven movies lined up right now with Golden Harvest and Warner Bros. But my real future plan is, I want to put true martial arts into a TV series. So with three or four of the movies that are coming out, I am going to do a series on that.
PK: You mentioned before that you would like to become involved in professional full-contact fighting. What do you feel about that?
YU: I feel it’s very good and even if no-body else backs it up, I’m going to back it up all the way, because the truth is there. When you say that a punch goes 100 miles per hour, and is very powerful, it has to be shown to people. United States is different than the Orient. In the oriental culture and customs, when your master says something, you believe him, even if you see it or you don’t see it. The people in the United States have to see whether you can do it or not do it. So I say it’s going to be a success, just like a Bruce Lee movie. There’s no phoney baloney there.
PK: Are you going to fight in any full-contact tournaments yourself? Do you have time to do that?
YU: Well, I’d like to try that. But in full-contact, there are injuries, and right now I am signed up to do movies. If I have an injury, I can’t work. One of these days, I’m going to try again. That’s for sure. I’m going to do a full-contact match. Definitely.
PK: Who would you say was the most exciting, dynamic fighter in the World Championships in your professional opinion?
YU: I say Bill Wallace. He did a good job. He was kicking good, and his natural movement was there. Bill Wallace was the best.
PK: In Korea, there may be one or two tournaments for the whole year. How do you feel about all the tournaments in this country where there are sometimes five or six every weekend in different parts of the country?
YU: That’s a very, very good question. I have fought all over the United States and in Europe in addition to Asia. In the United States there are too many tournaments. There are too many baloney people who throw tournaments just to make money. There are too much. Tournaments every week, every month just to make money. The baloney people have to get out, and there should be a few good tournaments that people can see and respect. There are many good people fighting, but we cannot have a tournament every week. It’s no good. In Korea, we have one or two big tournaments, and that is too little. If the U.S. has six or seven good major selective tournaments every year, I think we’re going to be in good shape.