Kevin Meisner's name is not a well-known one in martial arts. He's never won any major championships, doesn't claim any sort of deadly streetfighting skill nor does he have a chain of schools named after him. But, in many ways, Meisner is the epitome of how a martial artist should conduct himself and how martial arts can have a positive effect on one's life. His lifelong commitment to these arts came about through the not uncommon motivation of childhood bullying.
When he was 13-years-old, Meisner visited a local rollerskating rink in suburban Pennsylvania the next town over from where he lived. He was a little better dressed than the local kids and some of the girls seemed to think he was cute. Unfortunately, a group of older teens took offense at his presence.
They spread the rumor that the newcomer had been insulting one of their number until the offended boy called him over. As the group surrounded Meisner he was forced to confront his antagonist. They stood there staring at each other for a few uncertain moments until Meisner, feeling uncomfortable, looked away. Suddenly the boy punched him square in the face.
"He hit me with a right cross on the left side of my mouth. It was a masterful punch. He caught me right when I looked away and wasn't paying attention. I saw a perfect white flash, my knees gave out and I sat down on my butt. I still have a scar inside my mouth from it," the now 57-year-old Meisner recalled with almost a sense of bemusement.
Never having been particularly strong or athletic, the youngster had been the subject of occasional bullying during his childhood and being beaten up by another boy just confirmed in Meisner a growing sense of weakness. He asked his father to teach him how to fight but when that didn't help, he turned to an age-old source of wisdom - comic books.
Old comics used to be filled with advertisements promising to develop strength and fighting skill through then esoteric martial arts like karate. Inspired, Meisner found a local karate school and quickly enrolled. Nearly 45 years later, having trained in a variety of martial arts, he continues to practice almost every day.
His first instructor, Dave Salyards, was a Vietnam Veteran who taught a form of traditional karate filled with discipline and hard work. While the school was strict demanding etiquette and respect, the class was far from a sadistic, Cobra kai-style boot camp.
"It was very formal but I never remember him yelling at me. It was tough but everybody was there because they wanted to be," said Meisner. "It gave me a certain level of fitness, strength and the ability to do things I couldn't do before. Plus, even though I was a teenager, it was the first time I was treated like an adult. I felt good about myself for doing karate and it gave me self-esteem."
When he went off to college as a newly promoted first dan, Meisner started teaching a small class just so he would have people to continue practicing with. Since then, everywhere he's lived, he's taught a martial arts class. He estimates he's probably taught about 1000 students over the years and maybe a dozen of them have gone on to start their own schools, though the nature of what he teaches has changed quite a bit.
While fighting was never his main goal in doing martial arts - he freely admits he's never liked the idea of hurting people - the notion that what was he was doing would be effective for self defense was appealing. When the UFC first debuted, Meisner was convinced karateka would easily prevail. Of course that's not quite what happened.
"It was hard to watch. I considered it a true testing ground and I wasn't real thrilled watching how karate did there," he said.
Though disappointed, he was realistic enough to accept that, when it came to practical fighting, he needed to learn more than just karate, if simply to pass on something that was effective to others. He got some boxing gloves and kicking shields and began training with his students in what he imagined was a more realistic manner.
"We didn't really know what we were doing," he said. "But one thing I did get from karate the way I learned it was to not give up. I just saw this as another challenge."
He started searching out a variety of instructors and disciplines, from self-defense guru Marc MacYoung to firearms expert Massad Ayoob, trained in some kickboxing and went through the Model Mugging course. As an attorney representing the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut and working frequently with their athletic commission, Meisner also got to rub shoulders with top professional fighters who regularly competed at the Mohegan Sun Casino.
He used to attend every fight relishing the opportunity to see the best boxers and mixed martial artists up close hoping to gleam some technical insights. But he rarely makes it to the fights nowadays because he realizes he doesn't enjoy seeing people being hurt and never has. He's at a similar point in his martial arts life, as well.
Though he respects hardcore fighting methods like MMA, he now recognizes they're not his main interest nor his forte and that's fine with him.
"We used to do some grappling in my class but I know I'm not qualified to teach that so we stopped because I don't want to be a fraud. I don't teach karate basics anymore either because I still want what I teach to be as efficient as possible and I find kickboxing basics more efficient," he said. "I do still teach a few kata because I enjoy them but I don't break them down trying to find the hidden self defense moves in them any more. I really don't teach "self defense" except for the mental part like tactics and strategies for avoiding conflict, which is the most important part."
Meisner simply calls what he teaches now "freestyle karate." He looks at it as merely something fun that people can do to stay in shape and maybe acquire a bit of discipline and confidence as he did. He teaches for free every week at a local boys and girls club and on the Mohegan Reservation to a couple of dozen children, many of whom come in having experienced the same bullying and suffering from the same lack of confidence he once did. But he doesn't like to claim martial arts will be a panacea for them.
"I don't think it's good for teaching morals or ethics or anything like that. I don't believe it will make them 'bullyproof.' But I do believe kids can develop a little more self-esteem and a bit of discipline from doing martial arts like I did. I've been doing it since I'm 14 years old and I don't plan on stopping," he said. "I don't claim to be a master or that I'm enlightened.
And I know there are a lot of people that can stomp me in a fight. I'm under no illusions about any of that. But it's not important. It's never been about what can I get out of martial arts other than the simple enjoyment of doing it and sharing it with others."