Many of Yuma, Arizona’s citizens settled here from somewhere else.
For U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) Directorate of Operations Chief Ron Rodriguez, Yuma not only became home, but the place where a long-deferred dream came true.
He had studied martial arts since before the quarter of a century he spent as an Army Non-Commissioned Officer. The retired Sgt. Maj. had worked at YPG as a civilian for more than a decade before an opportunity to study kendo, also known as ‘the way of the sword,’ presented itself.
“Kendo is actually considered the most traditional of the Japanese martial arts,” he explained.
Descended from the martial art kenjutsu, kendo requires armor-wearing participants to spar with bamboo swords in a kinetic and noisy full-contact display, usually with intense back-and-forth barefooted footwork.
Kendo is only the most recent martial art that Rodriguez has picked up.
“I’ve been interested in martial arts pretty much as long as I can remember. The biggest influence, as for a lot of my generation, was Bruce Lee.”
He first encountered Lee’s martial arts virtuosity in the 1960s TV series The Green Hornet, and was hooked by the time Lee’s movies became mainstream American film fare in the early 1970s.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that we had never seen anything like him. We literally after the movies would go out in the streets kicking the air and practicing our own form of kung fu. I’m somewhat convinced that Carl Douglas’s song “Kung Fu Fighting” was inspired by the sight of all the kids coming out of movie theaters after watching Bruce Lee films.”
He took up Chinese martial arts in 1974, and Korean martial arts while stationed in South Korea during his career in uniform. Through it all, though, he never found an opportunity to try kendo, which he had first encountered in a thrilling scene of kirikaeshi, the basic kendo drill sequence, in the 1974 movie The Yakuzza with Robert Mitchum and Takakura Ken, in which the latter actor plays a character who runs a kendo dojo, or school. That all changed in Yuma, when he unexpectedly learned in a casual conversation with a friend that Arizona Western College had kendo classes available. Rodriguez has been taking them since 2016.
He finds participating rewarding, but cautions prospective students to try it first before committing to buying a lot of equipment.
“I characterize kendo like golf—it can get expensive. You can do basic kendo forms with just a shinai, but if you want to get into actually working with a partner full-contact you’re going to want to get armor.”
Specifically, safely practicing kendo full-contact requires chest and groin protectors, a helmet, special jacket and pants, and gloves.
Rodriguez has no plans to stop pursuing the way of the sword.
“I’ll do it for as long as my body will let me keep doing it. It’s a good workout.”