Meet Fred Ettish.
I was in my mid-twenties jumping around a Kwoon (Chinese version of a dojo) with my arms flailing around and honking loudly, doing my damnedest to imitate the sounds and movements of a White Crane. My Sifu told me that my eyes were not wide enough and that I had to try and open them wider, like the big, dorky bird that we were trying to become. Also, my honking wasn’t loud enough. Oh, and I forgot to mention, he had us drinking shots of espresso so that we were jittery and wild like a Crane as well. Trust me, I’m not making this up.
After class we were getting changed when one of my fellow classmates started telling me about something he saw on pay per view recently. It was called The Ultimate Fighting Challenge (That’s right, “Challenge”). In this PPV they would pit martial art style versus martial art style and lock them in a cage until one of them came out victorious. No referee, no gloves, no time limit and no rules. I could barely contain myself. To me, this sounded like the greatest event ever produced. Finally, all the schoolyard conversations where we discussed which martial art style was the best would be answered. I asked my friend who had won the event and he told me it was some little Jujitsu guy. I was shocked. Hardly anyone in those days had heard of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so I just assumed he meant the Japanese kind. My friend was a burly fireman. Without saying it out loud, we were both becoming disillusioned with our style of Kung Fu. We realized that if the time ever came for us to use our fighting skills in the real world our Crane beak strike with a four cornered Dragon stance wasn’t going to cut it. This UFC might help us find our way.
I went to my friend’s house the night of the second UFC pay per view. For the next few hours my eyes were riveted to the TV set. Style after style stepped up the plate to represent. Kung Fu, Karate, Savate, Ninjitsu, Judo, you name it. It was beautiful. If you ever get a chance, get some tapes of the early UFCs and catch a glimpse of a much different time. I’ve followed the sport since it’s genesis and it’s really quite amazing how much the sport has changed since the beginning.
Anyway, the fights were held tournament style with a 16 man bracket. That means if you made it to the finals then you would most likely have fought four times that night. If you won, but were injured, an alternate would take your place.
Enter Fred Ettish.
Fred was an Okinawan Karate fighter. He was brought in to replace an injured fighter to face Johnny Rhodes, an American boxer. Now, if you are unaware, there exist these weird rivalries in the martial arts world. One of the most common is the age old rivalry of Kung Fu and Karate. At the time I was a Kung Fu guy so naturally I wanted Fred Ettish to lose.
My heart skipped as both fighters faced off in the middle of the cage. You have to remember, this was the early days. Bare knuckle and no rules. Hair pulling, back of the head, neck and nut shots – all legal.
I’m not sure of the time, but it wasn’t too long into the fight when Fred ate a stiff right cross which opened him up and had him on his ass. Rhodes was a boxer that knew zero about grappling so he just hovered over Ettish.
A crimson mask covered Fred’s face and blood ran into both of his eyes which showed a look of confusion and fear. That look on his face seemed to tell the world that Karate, and all other traditional martial arts, have no place in the world of modern fighting anymore. Many people, like myself, saw this as a validation to abandon our current training and look for something we feel could help us survive a “real” fight. Fred Ettish remained in the position pictured above for the rest of the fight while periodically Rhodes would rain down heavy punches and knees that seemed to open up Fred’s face more and more. Fred’s white gi was saturated with blood and the fight was mercifully stopped at 3:07.
The years that followed had Fred Ettish seemingly disappear in shame. I left my Kung Fu school and would drive an hour and a half, one way, to train in Bruce Lee’s art of Jeet Kune Do in Princeton, NJ which favored what I felt was a more “real world” approach to fighting. I later moved to Los Angeles and trained directly under Bruce Lee’s number one guy, Dan Inosanto and after many years I became an instructor at his school. I learned to grapple and some time in 1996 I started to fight in single and tournament style “smokers” (kind of an unsanctioned gym fight). Back then MMA was still mostly illegal.
Fred Ettish (undeservedly) became the poster child for what was wrong with the martial arts. Grappling arts became the flavor of the month and any style that didn’t contain some type of groundwork was labeled as ineffective. MMA forums on the internet started popping up everywhere and Fred Ettish became a popular whipping boy. I’m sure if you do a Google search you will find thousands of posts, cartoons, and images ridiculing Fred Ettish. I found several and thought about posting a few here to illustrate my point but declined.
Eighteen years have passed since I watched Fred Ettish and I really hadn’t given him much thought. All he was to me was “the Karate guy who got his ass beat”. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I learned that Fred Ettish is so much more than that. (NOTE: If you do nothing else, please PLEASE watch this short video)
After I watched this video, I watched it again. And again. The strength of this man’s character humbled me. Fred Ettish was simply an honest martial artist looking to test himself, and his art, in what (at least back then) was the toughest proving ground ever. He faced heavy criticism going into the fight and God knows he faced boatloads of criticism after the fight. Like I said, the internet came down on him hard. I am fortunate enough to have quite a few people on the internet that think I’m a pretty good guy. That kind of support can really make a shitty day seem a whole lot better. I can hardly imagine what it feels like to have to bury your son like Fred did and all the while be the recipient of mountains of abuse on the internet.
Over the years I have trained several fighters, both amateur and pro. The strongest, and probably the toughest student I ever trained had his first fight in New Jersey over ten years ago. My guy was around 240lbs of pure muscle. Less than 10% body fat and could kick like a mule. When he grappled you it felt like he could pop your head off like a cork whenever he wanted. In his debut fight he was knocked unconscious in less than 30 seconds. It devastated him. He lost his enthusiasm for training and eventually he quit my school and left the martial arts for good.
Fred Ettish had every reason in the world to quit, to give up. He didn’t. When he fought his last fight at 53 years old it really didn’t matter if he won or lost. Fred never gave up on himself or his martial art when he had more than enough reasons to do so.
Fred Ettish is a proud martial artist. Fred Ettish is a survivor. Fred Ettish is hard as nails.
I will never laugh at Fred Ettish again.