Jeet kune do authority Taky Kimura once described Kelly S. Worden as an “American icon of the progressive arts.” For more than 35 years, Kelly Worden has devoted his waking hours to blending and integrating a multitude of martial arts concepts to form a system of cross-training he calls Natural Spirit International.
In this exclusive interview with Black Belt magazine, the University Place, Washington-based master reveals how his teachers and mentors helped him forge a system he calls “renegade JKD,” his unique path to martial arts self-discovery.
Black Belt: You started in boxing and catch wrestling before moving to isshin-ryu karate, but from the beginning, your focus has been on fighting. When did you find out your path was different from that of other traditional practitioners?
Kelly Worden: Almost immediately. I was undisciplined. There were six children in our family. My father was a disabled veteran from World War II, and much of his time was spent in a veteran’s hospital. I found myself running the streets early on and getting into a lot of fights. I enjoyed fighting, but that attitude created other problems and issues, and I left home when I was 15. Traditional isshin-ryu karate tempered my spirit and offered structured learning and self-discipline. At best, I was an aggressive, mediocre karate practitioner, but I persevered by training in different arts. Fighting was always the core of [my] approach.
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What changed you from a fighter to a teacher?
Kelly Worden: I was frustrated with trying to fit into the mold of what a martial artist was supposed to be. In 1980, after receiving my instructor status in yao mun kung fu, I opened my own gym. It was geared primarily for weapons training and PKA/WKA full-contact fighting. Very little stimulated my creativity as far as structured style, and I preferred to focus on fighting. The jeet kune do approach was beginning to grow, and articles published at the time professed the most rational street-effective path for personal development. I had been exposed to a myriad of arts: isshin-ryu, yao mun kung fu, pa kua, tai chi, taekwondo, goju-ryu, kajukenbo, escrima, shito-ryu, boxing, kickboxing and catch wrestling. Blending different fighting arts seemed to be the natural path.
Did you ruffle any feathers along the way?
Kelly Worden: Coming from a fighting background, I found it hard to respect authority. The traditional instructor/student relationship seemed a little weird. I only wanted to absorb what was useful. We were fighters, but our fights were in the streets, not at tournaments. For 20 years, I maintained an open-gym fight policy. Our no-cup-no-mouthpiece-no-control policy was a little off-base, but it seemed right at the time.
When did arnis enter the picture?
Kelly Worden: In 1980 I met J. Cui Brocka, a U.S. Army Ranger stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, who was directly under Ernesto Presas. I respected Cui Brocka and became intrigued with his combat-arnis system. To train in it, he required me to join his shotokan karate program. I wanted to learn combat arnis, so I reluctantly complied. It was then that I began my transformation into a decent martial arts instructor. I reverted to a structured format for entry-level students but maintained the emphasis on fighting.
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When did you get involved with Remy Presas?
Kelly Worden: In 1981 Remy Presas presented a seminar in Tacoma, Washington. I learned some great variations to integrate into combat arnis. Later, I was reprimanded by Cui Brocka for deviating from the structured format of his system. He claimed I needed to be respectful of his art and not divert from the curriculum he had established. In 1983 I broke away from him and became a direct student of Remy Presas. His teaching methodology [enabled me] to grow individually as a fighter and a teacher, literally to absorb what was useful. He opened my eyes and heart so I could truly understand modern arnis as the “art within your art.”
Remy Presas was obviously confident in your skills. When did he appoint you a datu?
Kelly Worden: In 1988. I was the first non-Filipino to be promoted to the rank of datu in modern arnis, second in secession of his perceived “10 Datu Leaders of Modern Arnis.” He taught specific people individually. If you possessed a fighting spirit, he took pride in refining your skills to enhance your natural attributes. This approach allowed him to fine-tune your close-quarters sparring and keep your personal-defense skills deadly effective.
Through his example, I was able to distinguish the value of cultivating leaders, not followers. In the final days of his life, professor Presas, Roland Dantes and I formed a pact of brotherhood. Professor Presas asked Roland and I to swear our commitment and dedication to continue the propagation of modern arnis. He said we were no longer his students but his brothers.
Who else was instrumental in the development of your art?
Kelly Worden: I have been guided and inspired by many dynamic leaders of the martial arts. First, let me [state something] I have learned: If you choose to be a leader, do not become anyone’s boy. A little harsh but a bottom-line truth. Seek associates who can guide or counsel you, not control your direction or destiny. In that regard, one principle will always stand true: Don’t violate trust and always give credit where credit is due.
Without question, Bruce Lee impacted the martial arts world, and his death created a void with much confusion about the ideals and intent of JKD. My choice was to approach Jesse Glover, Bruce’s first student and friend. Jesse established early on that he himself was not a follower. His path was and still is one of independence. That was true even while Bruce was living. Jesse sought his own truth yet maintained the connection to Bruce’s original teachings.
Jesse took the role of a friend and mentor who shared his insight while allowing me to evolve naturally. His teaching concepts of nonclassical gung fu are extremely functional; without hesitation, I incorporated them into my Natural Spirit curriculum. It was not only the physical techniques that were of value; his personal guidance, compassion and ability to lead me to self-awareness were gifts few others shared.
How did you formulate “renegade JKD”?
Kelly Worden: In the early 1980s, I realized JKD was becoming a buyer’s market. I jokingly called my version “poor-boy JKD” because of the political and financial posturing for status within the art. I sought out only the simplicity of what JKD professed — what I and others found was a restricted and dictated path. Personal knowledge did not seem to be enough. It was more important to be certified by instructor A or B. Having read so much about Bruce Lee’s desire to shed the classical mess, I found it difficult to buy into a superficial path of collecting certificates in an effort to seek freedom of expression. Thus, I established renegade JKD as a path of adaptability to connect the systems and [avoid] accumulation and style glorification.
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This is nothing new. JKD has flourished worldwide in backyard or underground groups that far outnumber those who seek to control the freedom [it espouses]. We all need guidance, but unless we are drones, shouldn’t the guidance allow for personal transformation into self-realization? If all the words written by Bruce Lee and those who profess leadership status in JKD are true, self-realization is more important than stylized structure. Personal development cannot be restricted to someone else’s structural guidelines. Freedom of expression must be cultivated as each practitioner’s tactical efficiency is refined. Otherwise, the true value of JKD is lost, and it becomes nothing more than the classical mess.
Many people have walked away because of the politics and confusion about what is truth in JKD. Bruce Lee has been cheated out of his legacy. People now refer to self-expression as cross-training. JKD has become an exclusive club of certified practitioners bound by structured guidelines of what is and what isn’t JKD.
Who else in jeet kune do circles have you worked with?
Kelly Worden: JKD exponent Leonard Trigg and I have been friends for over 24 years. His knowledge base is immeasurable. In 1993 he introduced me to the late JKD legend Ted Lucay. Disturbed about JKD politics, Ted had become somewhat reclusive, yet we immediately hit it off. From 1994, both Ted and Leonard became featured instructors at my annual Water and Steel training camps. Ted’s connection with [us] and the camp brought him back into a motivational phase of progression in his own art. He possessed a great depth of classical training and the ability to seamlessly extract concepts while cross-referencing different systems. His blade-to-boxing theory, as well as his stick-boxing curriculum, embraced the true simplicity of JKD. His approach opened [everyone’s] eyes to [the value of] refining attributes and seeking personal progression by comprehending the parallels in movement, not the dissimilarities.
About the Author:
George Hoover is a freelance writer and martial artist.