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Joe Corley: Fighting for Longevity

Old-School Martial Artists Offer Advice for All Who Plan to Train for Life!

by Terry L. Wilson

joe corley

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.

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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 importantly, 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.

To assist you in staying in fighting shape decades into your career, Black Belt Wellness & Performance Store has been intentionally curated by top experts in the field of medicine, health, and fitness along with key insights from former professional athletes and martial arts champions.

Expert: Joe Corley

Arts: tang soo do, American karate

Black Belt Archives: February 1990 issue

In 1963 a 16-year-old named Joe Corley was struggling to learn how to tie his white belt. The youth won, and it wound up being the first of many victories in the martial arts.

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In subsequent years, Corley squared off with the best in the game, earning three U.S. championships in point karate and retiring as the No. 1–ranked middleweight in the world. He continued his winning ways when he entered the fledgling world of full-contact karate. A career like that comes with a price, however, and Corley’s body had to pay it.

“In my most serious surgery, they fused my lower spine,” he said. “That was diagnosed as being a congenital problem that I exacerbated with all the torquing I did over the years in the martial arts. I had that surgery 16 months before I fought [Bill] Wallace for the world middleweight title in 1975.

“When I went through the spinal fusion, I laid in the hospital crying because I thought I would never walk again. It felt like a cannon had blown a hole in the middle of my back. For six months, I had to wear a corset that prevented me from moving. So just the fact that I could fight at that level having just gone through a surgery like that says a lot about what the body can endure.”

Also on Corley’s laundry list of pain was an injury to the MCL and ACL of his left knee, which rendered him unable to jump well with that leg. The lessons he learned from that time on the sidelines, along with the rehab that followed, showed him the value of training with an eye on the future. In other words, you have to respect your body and learn its limits now so you can remain active in the dojo into your senior years.

“When it comes to training, I tell my students not to worry about getting down into the Chinese split,” Corley said. “Every one of my peers that could get down into a full Chinese split has had to have their hips replaced. Bill Wallace is famous for his flexibility and the speed of his kicks, but even the great ‘Superfoot’ has had to have his hips replaced five times.

“I think [doing] a kick at 180 degrees over your head is not as practical as it is dramatic. For me, it’s more important to protect the hip joints, so if you can kick at 145 or 160 degrees, be happy with that. There are some individuals who have DNA reasons why they’ll never be able to be that flexible, so don’t keep tearing muscles just to get to a place where nature didn’t intend you to be.”

In the old days, a martial artist’s knees and elbows often were the first casualties in the dojo. At times, it appeared as if the training was designed to test how much stress the human body can endure before it taps out.

“During the first 10 years of my training, we had two kinds of kicks:a front snap and a front thrust kick,” Corley explained. “Back then, we were taught to get that foot back as fast as you can to prevent your opponent from grabbing your foot. When we snap-kicked into the air, we’d lock the leg for a fraction of a second. After I began fighting full contact and studied boxing techniques, I realized the snapping we were doing in traditional karate training was damaging the knee — and the arm and even the lower back.”

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Taking a cue from pro boxers, Corley adopted a new way of increasing his speed and power, one that didn’t require abusing his body. “In ’73 I got involved in full-contact kickboxing, and I got used to striking and kicking the heavy bag, and what we learned was that force is equal to mass times acceleration,” he said. In essence, powerful kicks and punches can be generated without fully extending the limbs and locking out the joints.

“When you land a boxer’s punch on the bag, you don’t land it at the end of the punch. You land it with your arm still bent,” Corley explained. “If I landed a right cross on someone’s face, it precluded the need to lock my arm straight out like we did in a horse-stance drill or kata. If you control your kick or punch just short of locking out your arm or knee — just short of putting stress on the ligament — you shouldn’t have any problems.”

To prevent most age-related issues, it’s crucial to listen to your body while you’re young because it will speak to you, said Corley, who was Black Belt’s 1998 Man of the Year. “Jeff Smith and I have attended longevity seminars put on by Robert Goldman in Las Vegas, and we’ve learned a lot about maintaining a healthy quality of life.”

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