by Jeff Smith
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff Smith, 3rd degree black belt, is head instructor for the Jhoon Rhee Institute Schools in the Washington, D.C. area.
Jhoon Rhee, 8th dan, possesses a highly developed intellectual curiosity, which is one of the reasons he has been so successful in the development and promotion of Tae Kwon Do. It is also the reason why he invented and developed what I and many other martial art practitioners across the country feel is truly a major breakthrough in protective equipment. His Safe-T-Punch and Safe-T-Kick, although they have been available only for a relatively short time, already have won enthusiastic acceptance from professional and amateur competitors alike. As these foot and hand coverings are more widely available in the near future they should work a revolution in the martial arts. From diffident beginner through confident expert, they can change the face of karate for several very good reasons:
1. Safe-T-Punch and Safe-T-Kick are very light (less than four ounces) because they are made of extremely soft foam rubber, requiring minimum attention to fit. You scarcely notice you are wearing them after a few minutes of use.
2. They genuinely minimize the chance of injuries which, as we all know, sometimes occur even when “no-contact” rules apply. A solid punch or kick that otherwise might send your opponent to the hospital for medical treatment, instead may inflict only a minor bruise — a relief to both parties.
3. They are quick and easy to put on and take off, without a lot of fussing. A simple system of straps fastens them and keeps them in place through combinations and clashes, so you can concentrate on your techniques.
4. They make a world of difference to the beginning and intermediate student because they encourage the student to use all the techniques he or she is being taught without fear of painful bumps and bruises that can slow their progress. This means that the substantial body of students, whom I personally have seen drop out because recuperation from a banged-up foot or toe left them far behind the other members of their class, instead will more likely continue working, training, improving and advancing.
5. They make for far more exciting tournaments, both for the participants and the audience. Competitors feel free to make greater use of many high kicks and varied techniques, instead of indulging in the kind of match where they are reduced to punching each other in the chest. Too often uninitiated audiences leave that kind of match with the feeling that there’s nothing so remarkable about the martial arts, and that in fact they mig’it be able to hold their own in such a contest.
6. The price is right; Whereas other types of protective equipment are available, their cost is much greater than the really modest investment it takes to outfit yourself with a set of Safe-T-Punches and Safe-T-Kicks.
The development of the Safe-T-Pads was a result of Jhoon Rhee’s constant search for ways to better the sport, whether it is in the fine points of delivering a particular punch or kick or in gaining broader acceptance of the art in the eye and mind of the general publicity all started when Rhee attended a Redskins football game back in 1970. It was the first time he had seen one of those great Sunday spectaculars. Although he had only the vaguest notion of the rules governing the crashing play on the field below him, he enjoyed himself enormously. I asked him why he’d had such a good time, aside from the companionship of his hosts. “The audience reaction,” he said. At first I thought he must have been caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of the Washington, D. C., fans who are among the nation’s most devoted followers. But, no. He said, “The audience reaction set my mind to spinning over how Tae Kwon Do audiences could be affected as deeply and as vigorously.’ Instead of thinking about the outcome of the contest on the field, he started thinking about similar contests between Tae Kwon Do teams representing cities across the nation. Natural intercity rivalries and all the psychological forces involved with such groups made the prospect all the more exciting. He had the feeling that, with the right combination of factors, Tae Kwon Do tournaments could be even more exciting to the fans than professional football. His reasoning was as follows: “If you take 100 people and show them ten minutes of football and ten minutes of Tae Kwon Do, they’re going to like Tae Kwon Do better.” They don’t have to know a lot of complicated rules and strategies and plays and what the quarterback is doing and why the defenses move the way they do. They can more easily see and understand what the competitors are doing. And, all that fast and vigorous action would naturally appeal to everyone who enjoys sports.
That same night — Sept. 23, 1970 — I called Mike Anderson, who has a team in St. Louis headed by Fred Wren, and told him I was going to try this brandnew concept. The team match, between St. Louis and Washington, was held on Dec. 6. I remember the night well because Fred Wren and I had a tremendous match. Mr. Rhee remembers also, for somewhat different reasons. He said he saw in the audience that night the same reactions he had seen at the football game. Later he told nae: “That’s the formula!” And ever since, every three or four months we’ve had team matches, with the audiences screaming their approval and exhorting us to do better when the team point totals are vital. Matches were held in Los Angeles, Port Worth, Philadelphia, the Dominican Republic, Cleveland, Haiti, Baltimore, and St. Louis. The fighting and the audiences seemed to get better every time out. While the exact format was Working out and rules were improved and modified, Mr. Rhee had some. further changes in mind. He explained that he knew there had to be some sort of equipment, so that the players didn’t really hurt each other but, at the same time, still let the public know that there is some contact. At first he started by trying to work out a different kind of chest protector. He approached the problem systematically, using the four years of civil engineering training he obtained at the University of Texas. But, after trying out a few models of his own design in the dojang, it suddenly occurred to him that face und head protection was far more important than a body covering. He asked, “Why cover the entire body when you can just cover the four weapons — the two fists and two feet?” That line of thinking set him on a whole new track and, over the following months, he tried a baker’s dozen of designs. He went to a retail foam and plastics company, bought his materials and, with pattans and scissors, cut and tried, cut and tried. Every so often, he would ask a couple of his instructors or Students to try them out sparring while he watched and evaluated. Then he’d ask for opinions.
Mike Anderson’s tournament in St. Louis in 1972, Rhee met Mike Stone who mentioned that he was thinking about making some kind of hand and foot coverings. He told Mike: “I’m so glad that you’re going to do it because I just want something to use for my students.” With that, Rhee abandoned his project, telling me that “I had given my word that I’d leave the field free to him.” However, a year later, when he met Mike again, he asked about the progress of the pads and Mike told him he’d had to cut back because the expenses were too high. (Mike had planned to have the devices made of leather in Mexico.) Rhee decided to again tackle the problem himself. Not long after that, Rhee developed his first useable models, which he has since modified slightly. Acceptance has been rapid. The professional tournament circuit voted to use them. Voters included Chuck Norris, Pat Worley, Pat, Burleson, Allen Steen, Mike Stone, Mike Anderson, and Fred Wren. The Southwest Karate Association, the Southeast Karate Association and the Northeast Karate Association also have voted to use them. Steen had required their use for much of the free fighting in his 1974 Karate Championships, Feb. 2 and 3. And, Jhoon Rhee is setting up a factory in Virginia so that there will be steady and adequate production of the Safe-T-Pads. In my opinion, this is one of the best things ever to happen in the martial arts. For one thing, in my school, it has cut down the tendency of students to drop out because they have a toe sprain or some other minor injury and then get discouraged about coming back because they’re afraid they are so far behind. I had always been a bit nervous when I saw students — many of them still trying to develop their control — fighting with bare hands and feet. They don’t always stop to realize the power of those punches and kicks. Furthermore, many black belts could have plenty of trouble defending themselves in the street because they are so used to using so much control in their blows. Brace Lee always said that you can’t learn to swim on dry land. You have to get in the water and be able to swim in the water. Still, we don’t encourage hitting really hard just medium contact to get the feeling of hitting, so that if you have to do it, you can do it. At the beginning, students sometimes feel awkward when wearing the Safe-T-Pads, but it only takes a short time before they realize what a valuable tool they truly are for advancing your skill and the state and acceptance of the art.
This article was published in 1975 inside a local Washington DC magazine.