Ronnie van Clief

Ron van Clief

Karate in New York City: RONNIE VAN CLIEF
New York City is the home of over 150 different Karate and self-defense Dojos, yet, few participate in open competition or fraternize for the development of the art. To get a better insight on this great city’s problems, PROFESSIONAL KARATE interviewed one of its most respected professionals

The svene is a spacious dojo in mid-town Manhattan. Fifth Dan Ronald Van Clief is preparing for a one hour video tape martial art production that will he aired in New York on cable television. Van Clief, who with Owen Watson last Year founded the Chinese Goju Karate Association, has written the script and is choreographing fighting scenes with a group of his Black Belt students. Van Clief and his students are proficient with a variety  of weapons, including the sword, chain, ax, machete, knife, nunchaku, bow and arrow, sai, kama, and manriki-gusari. Martial arts choreography is Van Clief’s new and consuming interest. He specialises in training and directing stage and screen actors in the performance of martial arts scenes. And so far he has completed no less than ten screen plays on a martial arts theme: recently he sold his first screen play for a feature film and now is preparing to choreograph that production as well. Two of his well-known students. New York radio personality Frankie Crocker and singer-songwriter Richie Havens will have a part in the film project. Van Clief, one of Jerome Mackey’s chief instructors, finds martial arts choreography a timely and natural step in his career as a martial artist. One of the most successful competitors on the east Coast Karate tournament scene in the past, Van Chet retired from tournament competition this year out of frustration over what he describes as the “deteriorating tournament system.”
“Karate tournaments have become a farce, a ripoff , and hopelessly corrupt.” he says. And clearly, Van Clief has established his credentials to make the statement. In ten years of competition, he has won more than eighty times. In 1971, he was a winner at fourteen tournaments, and last year he took seven consecutive grand championships. Asked specifically to state his cases vis-a-vis the tournaments, the articulate Van Clief sighs and says: “Where do I start? The system is chaotic – from A to Z.” And indeed, his complaints are many. “First,” he says, “there are simply too many tournaments. Titles have become meaningless. There are too many unknown characters showing up as ‘world champions.’ You’ve got ‘all American’ or ‘national’ or ‘universal’ tournaments that in fact are minor city or state events. And the other day I heard of an ‘intergalactic’ tournament in Virginia. What does that mean any it’s ridlculous’. As Van Clief sees it, tournaments have become little more than a vehicle for Karate’s “feudal lords” to make money and to promote their own students and their own Karate styles. He complains that factionalism on the part of Korean, Chinese and Japanese stylists has, at the very least, made tournament competition both insulting and unfair to the proficient Karateka and, at its worst, has destroyed the tournament system altogether. He singled out the Korean stylists in particular for offending in this area. “It’s become almost impossible to make the finals in a Korean tournament if you’re not a Korean stylist. You’ve got a system of Koreans judging, Koreans officiating and Koreans winning. They may tell everybody to turn their gis inside out so the patches won’t show, but you still can’t get a point for a good hand technique. You can hit a guy with a beautiful punch, and the Koreans don’t want to see it.” Van Clief approves of the practice of dividing tournament competition into Korean, Japanese or Chinese categories. “But, – he says, “if everybody is thrown together and only the people of one style have a chance, the tournament simply shouldn’t be called ‘all American’ or ‘national’, Another of Van Clief’s objections to the tournament system is the tendency of officials in various cities or states to reward their own local heroes in competition. “It’s hard for a good competitor to go out of state and win because the judges are partial to the local heroes. The serious students have become hip to the tournament situation. It’s hateful to spend your money to stand around for ten hours for the opportunity to fight someone who’s not proficient—and then to get cheated. That’s why so many of the best competitors on the East Coast have turned their backs on tournament competition.” Van Clief’s own background in Karate is not unlike that of many others. A former gymnast who joined the Marine Corps in 1960, he began his Karate training under Tetsuo Shimubuki during a twenty-month tour of duty in Okinawa. (As a Marine, Van Clief also served in Japan, Hongkong, Thailand, and the Philippines, and he saw action in Vietnam and Laos.) After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1965, Van Clief continued to study a variety of styles: he went from Tae Kwon Do to Moo Duk Kwan to Tang Soo Do to Nisei Goju to U.S.A. Goju. And last year he and his dojomate, Owen Watson, founded the Chinese Goju Karate style. Van Clief has some suggestions for improving the Karate tournament system: he has little hope, however, in seeing his suggestions acted upon. “We need some national coordinating body that would set standards for tournament competition. But one of the problems is in getting the personalities in the Karate world together,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of people who are pretty self-serving. And that is only natural, because to become a competent Karateka, you almost have to go on an ego trip. So there get to be a lot of egos in conflict.” Van Clief still is convinced that American Karate is superior to Karate in the Orient. “From a physical standpoint alone,” he says, “the Americans are superior. The 5’4″ Japanese, unless he’s really cooking, is going to have problems when he fights a taller, stronger American. And, too, the Americans traditionally love to fight. But at a time when the American competitors should be getting better mechanically, the most proficient Americans aren’t showing up at tournaments. Unfortunately, tournament competition has nothing to do with good fighting anymore. That was one of the big reasons I quit going to tournaments: I found myself facing men who were inferior mechanically…men who had, in many cases, given themselves rank and thought they could win by psyching you out.” In his ten years of tournament competition, Van Clief’s victories have included: the Japan Exposition Karate Championship (first place Black Belt and grand champion, 1969), the National Karate Championship (team champion, 1970), the United States Amateur Karate Championship (first place Black Belt, 1971), the United Karate Championship (first place Black Belt and grand champion, 1971), the International Karate Championship (third place Black Belt, 1971), the Universal Karate Championship (first place Black Belt, 1972), and the United States National Karate Championship (first place Black Belt, 1972). Now, in retrospect, Van Clief says he can count on one hand the number of trophies he was actually proud to carry home. “So many times I’ve found that the judges and referees were not qualified,” he says. “Nobody bothers to check the credentials of the competitors. Somebody shows up who’s made himself a ‘tenth dan’ or ‘master’ overnight. But the people who are promoting the tournaments don’t care. They don’t care what style, or what system a person represents. They just care about taking your money. l’ve stood there myself — too many times. But no more.”


Professional Karate
This story written by Chuck Norris was published in Professional Karate magazines fall issue of 1973. The multiple blitz technical series was taken from the summer 1973 issue.