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Up Close: Keith Vitali - How Legends Are Born

Keith Vitali and Sho Kosugi in "Revenge of the Ninja"
Keith Vitali (Right) and Sho Kosugi (Left) in "Revenge of the Ninja"

Keith Vitali was interviewed for an episode of "The Master’s Way" for Black Belt Magazine. Because he’s such a legend in the martial arts, we figured you would appreciate this glimpse into the tales he tells.


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FEATURED ON: The Master’s Way

BACKGROUND: 1981 Black Belt Hall of Fame, selected as one of the top 10 martial arts fighters of all time.

MARTIAL ARTS: taekwondo, karate

SEE HIM IN: Revenge of the Ninja, Wheels on Meals, Force: Five, American Kickboxer

There’s a funny story I’ll tell you before we get going. My elementary school teachers would blame you for [the fact that] we used to have between six and 10 kids running around every Halloween as ninja — literally fighting out on the soccer fields. [The teachers] didn’t know what was going on because of the

masks and headpieces. We had one guy who got tabi boots. One kid got in trouble because he brought [throwing] stars to school. There was literally just a scrum of kids, running and acting and fighting in the fields. And you would see teachers and lunch ladies running out there, trying to stop them.

Keith Vitali: People always talk about my Jackie Chan film and others, but it was the ninja [film] that got the theatrical release and started the ninja craze. After that movie, there were thousands of ninja movies and ninja outfits. Ninja was everything.

You had a background that’s varied. You’re an athlete, so of all the sports that you competed in, what was it about karate that took your attention?

Vitali: First, I was blessed. I competed in track in high school. I broke the school record for cross country. Within three months, I broke the state record by a couple minutes. Three months later, I was one of the five fastest in the world for 15-year-olds, so I was blessed with great cardiovascular. So I had strong legs and good cardiovascular — what better sport to [transition] to the martial arts from!

When I first got attracted to it, I didn’t know anything about it. I got a track scholarship to the University of South Carolina and came home for the first break during the summer, and my high-school buddy said, “I want to take you to my karate instructor at USC.”

I said, “What’s karate?” He said, “I’ll show you. Hold out your hand like you’re going to punch me.” And then he side-kicked and I went on the grass.

He said, “That’s karate. Come with me.” So we got in the car. I met my future instructor and sat there and watched people spar for the first time. Gear hadn’t been invented yet. It was love at first sight.

Keith Vitali

What did your parents think when you said, “I’m not going to take this scholarship. I’m going to do karate”?

Vitali: Just like you would imagine they would [think]: “Are you out of your mind? Then you pay for your own college.”

I said, “I’ll do it.” So I dropped out, started work and paid for my own college as I was going each semester.

I was a natural runner, but in karate, I was not natural at anything. It was so hard. There’s much more balance [needed] when you stand on one leg and throw your kicks — everything was full power. It was taekwondo, Korean karate. Everything was hard blocks and hard punches and hard kicks. So I didn’t progress as fast. I stayed a white belt one year and two months. 

There’s a rumor that you got your black belt in two years, but you’re saying you stayed a white belt for over a year. That second year was extremely accelerated.

Vitali: I just flew. I loved my instructor so much because he was hardcore from Korea. He didn’t care. He hit everybody. He would beat on us. Back then, white belt meant nothing. He demanded excellence and perfect technique. Those that didn’t have perfect technique he’d kick out.

A lot of soldiers around the world were coming to Fort Jackson at the time and coming to the University of South Carolina and wanted to fight black belts. I was a white belt and my instructor would go, “Fight them!” And he’d go, “Kill them!” Of course, I got killed because [they were] grown men, no gear, and they were just beating the crap out of me — until I figured out how to throw a side kick in a way that could stop anybody. And at the end of one year, two months, I had broken 52 people’s ribs. I just figured out how to fight and how to move. And the key was patience.

He kept on saying, “Patience, patience. When they move, they open up.” Then I would just sit there and wait for the arm. And then I’d throw that side kick, and I’d take the heel right into the rib and snap it. And they would drop. So at the end of one year, I was probably the best white belt in the country, but I didn’t know anything.

And then I just progressed so fast until I got my black belt by the end of that next year. The first technique he taught me was the backfist, so when the person goes to block it —because back then, everything was standing still, there was no movement — and then when it opens up, you throw your side kick.

I remember fighting for a national championship years later. I was doing the same technique that my first instructor taught me. I faked the backfist, they went to block it and I hit them with the side kick.

What was your take-away from your teacher?

Vitali: I learned that you had to be perfect [with your form] or do your best to make it perfect. It didn’t matter about anything else. Speed and power would come later.

One day, he said, “Keith, I’ll tell you something. You got your black belt. There’s only 10 percent of black belts that are any good in the country.”

Now this was back in the ’70s. I went, “All black belts are like Bruce Lee. They’re all the best in the world.”

And he said, “No, there’s a lot of black belts, but only 10 percent are really good. You’re in that top 10 percent.” That boosted my confidence a little bit.

Is there a technique or coaching point that you find yourself imparting to the next generation that you took from your teacher?

Vitali: The execution of basic techniques. Everything’s basic. The jump spins — all that stuff is nice, but get your basics down. And then the difference is movement. Once you incorporate movement, you stop everything. 

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