My First Black Belt


Christopher N. Geary's Shaolin Kempo Karate, 30th & Harney Street (First Commercial School). I began teaching kempo on June 29, 1994, about a month after returning home from the Marine Corps. My parents wanted me to attend college after leaving the military, so I took some classes at UNO (the University of Nebraska at Omaha) for about four months before deciding not to continue. I wanted to teach the martial arts full-time, but my parents didn’t think it was a good career choice. Instead, they saw it as a hobby that I could do alongside my college studies. I didn’t have a lot of money at that time, so I held my first classes outside Field Club Elementary School, then moved into the basement of a house on Pine Street where one of my students lived. I still remember sticking black electrical tape on the carpet to mark the boundaries of the training area, putting up a big red poster advertising the classes on the door that led down to the basement, and using a closet in that house to store the uniforms and belts for my students. I also remember the memberships printed on red paper that I used to have the students sign. Both the elementary school and my student’s house were about a block from my parents’ house, where I was living at the time. I wore my green-brown belt for a while, and then I just started wearing no belt. I spent the winter of 1994-1995 teaching in that basement.

The family who owned the house had given me a key to the back door to the basement so I could come and go whenever I wanted. Early one morning I was down in the basement doing some paperwork (during a time when my parents thought I was in class at UNO) and just getting things ready for class or something that day, and the owner of the house came downstairs to take a shower wearing only a towel. He hadn’t realized that I was there. It wasn’t that big of a deal, but by the end of the winter it was apparent to me and the people living in the house that it was time for me to find a new place to teach. I was eager to move on, but I was nervous. My parents didn’t realize that I had decided to teach martial arts full-time and that I hadn’t been to school for months. They were also nervous because they thought, “Well, you’re teaching in this guy’s house and living in ours, and what would happen if you hurt someone—would the student come after us?” They both worked in insurance, and I could understand their concern. Years later I revisited that house, and my former student and I looked at the old training space down there that had been so important to me and was now covered with boxes, chairs, and junk. You couldn’t even see the floor that I had tried so hard to keep clean. That basement training room has a special place in my heart, and I think about it sometimes when I’m in my office now looking around at all of the pure gold throughout my school and the beautiful decor. That winter in the basement seems to have happened so long ago.

I opened up my first commercial school at 30th and Harney on March 21, 1995. I remember that we had to have class across the street on a grassy lot while carpet was being installed in the school. I had brought about 30 of my students from the house where I had been teaching. The rent was $750 a month. The landlord asked me, “Can you afford that?” and I replied, “Oh, yeah, no problem.” (Meanwhile I was thinking, What am I getting myself into?) To make things even more interesting, my parents still didn’t know that I had quit school, and this commercial space was across the street from the place where my mom was working, so let the fun begin! I chose to move into that space because it was the cheapest thing that I could find. When my mom found out, I believe her comment was, “If you are old enough to have a business in a real building, then you do not need to be living at home any more, right?”

It was around this time that I said to myself, Look, you have a real school now, you have to get your black belt, and how are you going to do that? I decided to find Nick Cerio and go right to the top. I contacted him and told him what I was doing. He wasn’t very happy to hear that I was running a school without being a black belt, but after I told him about USSD he said, “Well, what people do is send me all their technique on video with a $250 black belt testing fee. I will look at your video and see if you’re ready to be promoted to first-degree black belt.”

I remember Professor Cerio asking me how long I had been involved in the martial arts. I got the impression that he would only consider allowing me to test for black belt if I had studied for four or five years, but I didn’t think it was fair to make someone wait for a set period of time if they had the ability to move up. I have always felt that promotions should be based on ability, not putting in time. (To this day, as an instructor, I promote people on the basis of ability instead of following a set schedule.) I knew he wouldn’t even look at my videotape if I told him that I had been studying for eighteen months, so I said I had been studying for four years. I made the videotape and sent it off to him. He told me that I wasn’t ready to be a black belt yet. He said my techniques looked good, but I needed to have more power in my techniques. He gave me some pointers, and he said that he was going to promote me to the rank of brown belt (first kyu). That is the rank just under black. I felt disappointed at first, but soon I realized that it was a great accomplishment to jump from green-brown (fourth kyu) to brown (first kyu). I had been studying under an instructor for only about eighteen months or so, and it was impressive to get that kind of rank from someone like Professor Cerio. I had been able to bypass the usual layers of instructors and to go directly to Professor Cerio to find out what I was worth.

I followed Professor Cerio’s instructions and worked on my techniques. About six months later, I tested again by video. One thing that impressed me was that before I sent this other video to him, he told me that I didn’t have to pay the fee again. This time he looked at the video and told me over the phone, “You’re ready to be a black belt. Congratulations.” I was so happy that no words could express how I felt. Finally I was a black belt! I remember him asking me, “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving out there?” I said yes, and then he said, “Well, have a good Thanksgiving and I will send your black belt certificate to you after the holiday.” I received the certificate, which said that on November 25, 1995 he had promoted me to the rank of Shodan (first-degree black belt) in American Kenpo. When I received the certificate I noticed that the word American was misspelled as Amercian. I called him and asked if he could send me another one. He seemed a little aggravated but said, “Send it back to me, and when I get it I will send you another one.” I never sent the certificate back to him. It was mine, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

For years afterward, I wondered why Cerio promoted me in American Kenpo because that was Ed Parker’s system and Cerio knew that I had come from USSD where they taught Shaolin Kempo. Many years later I was talking with Vic LeRoux, a ninth-degree black belt who said that he had been training with Parker since the early 1960s and had been one of his oldest students and a part of the Karate Connection under Chuck Sullivan (Tenth Dan). LeRoux recalled that one day Cerio had showed up at a seminar or a tournament or something wearing an eighth-degree black belt and an American Kenpo patch that Parker had given him in the 1980s. Well, to say the least, Parker’s people were wondering what was going on, since Cerio did not know American Kenpo and almost no one had really heard of Cerio. The ones that did know about him were aware that he only did the traditional “Japanese” arts. Also, Vic LeRoux told me that Parker had told everyone in his system that he would never promote anyone to a rank higher than seventh-degree black belt in his system. Parker’s students approached Cerio and asked him what was going on. LeRoux told me that Cerio had pulled out a gold membership card with his rank and name on it, which had been given to him by Parker. Parker had told LeRoux and his students that he had promoted Cerio because Cerio was paying him 10 percent of the income from his schools every year like a royalty payment. Parker said that Cerio’s certificate or membership card had an expiration date on it or something (so if he didn’t pay, his rank would expire, or something along those lines).

Dian TanakaLeRoux told me that Dian Tanaka (right), a black-belt student of Ed Parker, had taken her black belt off and refused to wear it for 2-1/2 years because Cerio had been promoted and he didn’t even know the system. LeRoux told me that Cerio was a very good martial artist but he didn’t know American Kenpo. LeRoux also told me about a guy that Parker promoted to black belt a long time ago in exchange for a home entertainment center or something, and from what I understood, the guy didn’t know that much kenpo at all. LeRoux told me that the man Parker had promoted in exchange for the home entertainment center apparently couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so Parker kicked him out of the system. In LeRoux’s opinion, Parker pretty much did anything he wanted to do in order to make money.

Michael Pick (Tenth Dan), who resides in Colorado, told me that he began studying kenpo with Parker at age 10 in 1957 and trained with Parker for 32 years and was Parker’s bodyguard for the last 25 years of Parker’s life. Pick told me that he had never heard of Cerio getting an Eighth Dan in American Kenpo or any rank in the art from Parker. Pick said that Cerio didn’t know American Kenpo but that he (Pick) had felt honored to be present when Parker promoted Cerio to Ninth Dan in Nick Cerio’s Kenpo. In 2001, a book called The Journey by Tom Bleecker listed 24 of Parker’s most proficient black belts, but Cerio was not included among them.

One time when I talked with Parker’s son, Ed Parker, Jr., he told me that he had a clear memory of having talked with his father about Cerio being promoted. Ed Parker, Jr., told me that it had not been a promotion at all. He said that Cerio had come over to Parker’s organization in the 1980s and Parker had matched up (recognized) the rank of Ninth Dan that Cerio already possessed. Ed Parker, Jr., also told me something that I had been told before—Cerio was never promoted in American Kenpo, nor did he know that system.

So it seems that Cerio had recognized me as a black belt in a system that he didn’t know. However, years later I would again be recognized by others of high rank who would confirm my status as a good martial artist, as Cerio had done. For the next year or so I called Professor Cerio every now and then when I had questions or just wanted to talk. I had urged most of my students join his organization, Nick Cerio’s International Martial Arts Association (NCIMAA). Even though my school was not one of Nick Cerio’s Kenpo Schools, I did my best to help him get new members as a way of showing appreciation for the help he had given me. The problem was that my students were not getting what they were paying for. My students were paying $25 to $35 a year for a membership in his organization, and as members of NCIMAA they were supposed to get things like a membership card, patch, and newsletter every three months. Some of them were not receiving the newsletter or anything else. My students were coming to me and saying, “Sensei, we don’t know who Nick Cerio is and we don’t care. We are giving you money to give to him and we are getting little or nothing in return. Please stop making us do this.” About a year went by, and then I asked Professor Cerio, “What do I need to do to get my second-degree black belt?” He told me to send him an essay explaining why I should be a second-degree black belt. I started to write the essay but felt kind of weird. I thought, Why should I pay this guy another $250 for the privilege of writing to him explaining why I should be a second-degree black belt? There was nothing wrong with this system, I suppose, but I was trying to run a business and I didn’t want to spend money on something like that. Now I’m glad that I never did.

I think it was a couple of months later that he called one day and left a message telling me to call him back. When I returned his call, it was clear that he was very upset. He said, “Who in the hell do you think you are? I called your school and you had someone tell me that you would call me back when you had a minute because you were in class?” (My answering service gave the same message to everyone, 24/7.) He went on to say, “I have a check here from you for $40, and it bounced. Don’t call me any more. This should teach you some respect in the martial arts. Do you have any questions?” I said, “No,” and then we hung up. I was thinking, What the hell? I wanted to tell him that whenever anyone called the school the call was picked up by an answering service that always said, “He is in class, so please leave your information and he will get back to you.” They gave the same message all the time, no matter whether I was in the school or not. But I didn’t want to take the time to explain it to him. I wasn’t even a member of Nick Cerio’s Kenpo, but my school was the number two school in selling memberships in his organization (the NCIMAA), and then he spoke like that to me? I had bounced one check because my account was probably off by a dollar or two. At that point, I’d had enough of Nick Cerio and so had my students. It seemed to me that he was an absentee landlord with a bottomless appetite for money. After that phone call, I never talked to him again.

I spent the next five or six years on my own, developing my own system and teaching the way I wanted to teach. I played around with all kinds of stuff from wrist locks to different punch attacks—anything and everything. I had the paper now (my black belt certificate), so I had the freedom to do what I wanted. Those years were great.

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