ASHLAND — Pity the bag of beans that sits on a small, square, thick-legged table in Jerry Piddington's Ashland Karate Academy.
The Grandmaster, 10th-level black belt is about to show this particular bag who's boss while demonstrating an iron palm hand strike. He raises his right arm into hammer-to-dust position, both the bag and the business end of his hand — actually, he can strike with pretty much any part of his hand — linked by an imaginary string that rises from the center of the bag "all the way up to the universe."
Then Piddington's hand explodes down and into the bag with a violent "frumph" as it absorbs a blow that may have split the table.
"You're seeing a lot of power right there," he says between hacks, his long, wavy, gray hair swaying slightly with each punch. "And if that was your forearm, what would it feel like? Your arm would be broken."
Piddington is demonstrating the technique behind the almost inhuman power of karate legend Masutatsu Oyama, who's book, "What is Karate," includes a photo of Oyama next to a shell-shocked bull whose right horn has been karate chopped to smithereens.
"So that's how (Oyama) does it," Piddington explains over the flattened beanbag. "But you have to have 25,000 hits so that you're aligning all of your bones, all your muscle, all your tendons, all your ligaments to the maximum power. It's all about physics."
And for Piddington, 69, a karate legend himself, it's also about longevity, heart, dedication and, he says, timing — the latter because as a young man in southern California, Piddington came into his own just as karate was catching on in the U.S., affording him the opportunity to train, spar and in general chum around with some of the most important figures the discipline has ever known.
The pictures hanging on the walls in his dojo off Tolman Creek Road say it all. In one, Piddington is posing with Chuck Norris. In another, he's squaring off against former heavyweight kickboxing world champion Joe Lewis. And yes, that's him next to Jean-Claude Van Damme on the set of Bloodsport (Piddington handled the stunt work for Van Damme in three films).
Piddington also trained with Bruce Lee, Robert Trias, the man responsible for bringing karate to the U.S. in 1945, and a long list of others who, like Piddington, helped lift karate from the fringe of public consciousness to become a household word.
Not that Piddington needs the photos and web hits to confirm his stature. This is a man, after all, who two weeks ago received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award at the prestigious Battle of Atlanta, becoming one of only 34 fighters to receive a plaque honoring the best karate fighters over the last 50 years.
"What I appreciated more about this than anything else," Piddington says, "is that they selected 34 people in the history of the sport and I was one of those 34 people. I know where it came from. I was on the ground floor."
Piddington was introduced to karate in the early 1960s as a teenager in San Pedro, Calif. His mom, a widow after Piddington's dad died in the invasion of Normandy, took advantage of classes offered at the local YMCA: swimming, boxing and karate. Piddington signed up for all three, but was especially enamored with karate, and not just for the self-defense tactics. He was drawn to what he calls its "aesthetic qualities," which, he says, is what sets karate apart from modern offshoots such as mixed martial arts.
Piddington dived headlong into his new passion, studying first with Caylor Atkins then Trias. He earned his first black belt in the Okinawan system of study at age 21 and started teaching in 1968. Today, Piddington is the highest ranking teacher of the Okinawan system (Shorei) in the country.
But Piddington, a firm believer in crosstraining — that is, learning more than one of the five karate systems — also has black belts in the Japanese system, Jundokan, and the Korean system, Taekwondo.
"In competitions in the '60s, you had to do the forms, weapons and fighting if you were a well-rounded martial artist, so that's what I did," Piddington says. "I practiced all those and that's what we do at this school."
Piddington's versatility, athleticism and relentless fighting style — his nickname was "the untamed lion" — made him a prolific heavyweight as he placed at or won every major karate tournament in the U.S. between 1972 and 1976. Along the way, Piddington faced off against the best karate fighters in the country, including Lewis himself — they split two bouts against each other — Joe Corley, Ken Knudson, Riley Hawkins, Jeff Smith and Pat Johnson.
After his fighting days were over, Piddington didn't step away from competitive karate. Instead, he started training fighters and producing fights for the National Karate Association and Professional Karate Association, for which Piddington helped write the rule book, according to an article in a 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Lewis was all in, too, when it came to fighting.
"He was the first one that said, 'OK, I'll take on anybody,'" Piddington says.
So Piddington arranged the first 10-round fight between a karate master and boxer. About 5,000 curious spectators showed up at the Park Center in Charlotte, N.C., and watched Lewis win by knockout in the third round.
Later, Piddington put together a full-contact karate fight for the middleweight world title in the Charlotte Coliseum that drew 10,000 people. Many more followed.
The fights were high quality because the competitors were well trained and experienced.
"They were all black belts that had trained for four or five years," Piddington says. "They weren't guys that just came in, punched a bag and got a fight. They weren't flailers. You saw good technique and it was all stand-up fighting. It hadn't gone to the ground yet, like it does now."
Karate evolved quickly in the '70s with the addition of pads and gloves, which allowed for more contact. Rules for competitions changed accordingly.
Piddington saw the change and recognized that it was no longer karate "because karate is control, knowing that you could go all the way or stop whenever you want to."
So, there had to be a name for this new, competitive, full-contact sport. Eventually, it came to be known as kickboxing.
Piddington began training kickboxers, a venture that carried him around the world, from Thailand to China, from Japan to Mexico, to Canada and across the U.S.
Along the way, Piddington opened karate schools and continued to teach. Now, his legacy is spread wide. He has trained about 30 black belts in the Rogue Valley alone, and many of those are in turn training the next generation of black belts.
And though he's a grandmaster, Piddington doesn't reserve his expertise for those who have already put years into the discipline. At the Ashland Karate Academy, beginners are welcome. Prospective students must go through a thorough evaluation first, but a beginners class at AKA currently includes seven children, the youngest only 5 years old.
During a recent class, Piddington and another instructor demonstrated a complicated attack ending with a kick.
"Everybody get that?" he asks. "If you didn't get that, I'm going to find out."
The kids — four girls and three boys — then show what they learned as Piddington scans the room and corrects where necessary.
Later, the students are told to line up in rows for another drill. Piddington then shouts out names of attacks — "thundering hammer "¦ snapping twig" — and the students in unison perform a series of kicks, spins and punches. Some move with more confidence and sharpness than others, but all, including the 5-year-old, move with a purpose that seems beyond their years.
Daisy Barnard, a 7-year-old who attends Bellview Elementary in Ashland, is quiet and determined as she slashes her way through a six-move combination. Afterward, she returns to her ready position in front of the mirror, hands up, admiring her form.
"Nice fighting stance," Piddington says.
Then he moves on, interacting with other students and keeping alive the sport he's nurtured for so long.
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email email@example.com