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Ernie Cates: Fighting for Longevity

Old-School Martial Artists Offer Advice for All Who Plan to Train for Life! Part 1: Ernie Cates

by Terry L. Wilson

ernie cates
Ernie Cates

In the United States alone, millions of people practice the martial arts. Each discipline — there are several hundred around the world — comes with a specific skill set that requires regular reinforcement. Unfortunately, life can get in the way and prevent us from training as often as we want in pursuit of that reinforcement.

One of the most common reasons we miss workouts is an injury incurred during training. This is readily apparent to anyone older than 40. Eventually, the human body pays a price

for the concussions, tweaked joints and broken bones that often accumulate over time. Black Belt wanted to know how veteran martial artists deal with careers filled with such damage. More important, we wanted to know how they have adjusted their training and teaching to account for those impediments. To that end, we spoke with four respected masters.

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Take a Good Technique and Make It Better!

Expert: Ernie Cates

Arts: judo, jujitsu, neko-ryu

Black Belt Archives: April 2008 issue

When he was just 14 years old, Ernie Cates bowed in for the first time. Now 88, he’s still on the mat, passing on five decades’ worth of hard-earned knowledge to students of all ages. The style he teaches is neko-ryu jujitsu, a system of self-defense based on the way of the Cat.

What has enabled Cates to continue to practice and teach is the way his style replaces power with a focus using simple and natural movements like those that felines use. To illustrate the logic of his path, Cates said that controlling an opponent using his art’s version of tai-sabaki saves a lot of wear and tear on the joints, muscles and knees — in stark contrast to styles that rely on brute force.

“I don’t do pull-push systems anymore like I did when I was competing,” Cates said. “Everything in martial arts that works is a push. Pulling actions injure joints. If you depend on a pull to break your opponent’s balance, at the end of the pull, your opponent is against your body, forcing you to use more force to execute the throw.”

He continued, referencing judo’s one-point back-carry throw: “In ippon seoi nage, if you turn as the leg comes around, by pushing, not pulling the opponent’s arm, you have directed the connecting limb into a pushing instrument, not a pulling instrument. Now your body is in perfect alignment; you aren’t separating anything or running the chance of a dislocation. This is the difference between how we used to train and how we train now in neko-ryu.”

Cates is adamant about smart training because of the toll his early years took on him. As a national judo champion who won more than 300 matches, he found that his knees were the first to feel the effects of endless throws and breakfalls.

“Both of my knees have been totally replaced,” Cates said. “My left one is stainless, and my right one is titanium. I’ve had 19 corrective surgeries, and I had those surgeries because I made mistakes. But from those mistakes, I eventually learned a safer and more effective way to control and drop my opponents.

“A good coach or sensei will take what he or she has learned over the years and remove whatever it was that made that technique difficult by creating shortcuts, and that’s what we’ve accomplished with neko-ryu.”

As an example, he noted how much effort is needed to set up the judo technique known as osoto gari: “First, you’re using power to pull your opponent in as you drive your leg past his. You do this a few thousand times, and it puts stress on the knee and elbow that may require surgery as you get older.

“In neko-ryu, there is no pulling. You rest your hands on the opponent — don’t pull at all — and step in a semicircle [instead of driving your leg through] and then merely step behind the opponent. He will go down because his arm will provide all the leverage Take a Good Technique and Make It Better! needed for the throw.

“Once you learn how to align your entire body into the push — regardless if it’s for a lock, a throw or mat work — it will increase your power a hundredfold. That’s how I take a good technique and make it better.”

Inevitably, however, a time comes when the number of candles on a martial artist’s birthday cake reminds the ego that some things have to be given up so practice can continue. Fortunately, any worthy art will offer plenty of other things to allow the person to stay in the game. Often, that entails passing along acquired knowledge to the next generation.

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“I’m 88 years old,” Cates said. “Standing up, I can move well enough to explain tai-sabaki, breakfalls, centering and other techniques. I can’t do them, but I can still teach them!”

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