Who's the Master || by Todd Sullivan


GROWING UP IN THE 80s, one of my favorite movies was The Last Dragon. Released on March 22nd, 1985, The Last Dragon was an African American martial arts movie, a rare production in Hollywood. Taking place in New York City, the plot centered around protagonist Leroy Green, a martial artist who idolized Bruce Lee. Leroy believed that to become a master, he had to first attain the glow, a mystical state of awareness that manifested itself as a spiritual light enveloping the body.

The antagonist of the movie, the Shogun of Harlem, Sho’nuff, had already achieved this enlightened state. When Sho’nuff tapped into negative energy, a red light suffused him, increasing his fighting proficiency and physical prowess.

During the final confrontation in The Last Dragon, the antagonist Sho’nuff is drowning the protagonist Leroy by dunking his head into a barrel filled with water. Each time Sho’nuff pulls Leroy out of the water, he demands he answers the question, “Who’s the master?” 

Sho’nuff will release Leroy if he says, “You’re the master”.

I was eight years old when I first saw this movie. Afterwards, I formed two goals: to learn martial arts and to achieve the glow. 

A year later, I joined Blue Lion, a karate dojo four blocks from my home. On the first day, the instructor lined me up with several other elementary school students. I remember overhearing one of the kids say, “I can’t wait until I’m a master and I can beat people up.” 

Though I was only nine years old, I knew something about the declaration was wrong, even though I had a similar goal. Wasn’t that why we all wanted to do karate? To become stronger than our opponents? To be able to defend ourselves and beat up the Sho’nuff’s of the world?

I attended Blue Lion for three months, during which time I learned very little martial arts. What sticks out clearly in my mind is a performance we were supposed to take part in to gain the next belt rank. We had to memorize a chant, which I still remember three decades later.

“What’s the name of our karate school? Blue Lion! Blue Lion! What’s the name of our karate school? Blue Lion! Blue Lion! What do we learn at our karate school? Kal Bushi Ca! Kal Bushi Ca. What do we learn at our karate school? Kal Busha Ca! Kal Bushi Ca!”

I believe these last words were supposed to be Japanese, some iteration of the word Bushido.

Anyone familiar with western-style martial arts won’t be surprised by the fact that a chant was necessary to move up in rank at Blue Lion. Martial arts in the western world is widely seen as inferior to traditional martial arts taught in Asia. I realized I wouldn’t discover the secret to the glow, or become a master, at Blue Lion. As I grew older, I also came to understand that the glow itself is a symbol, a fictionalized representation of an attribute attained through intense martial arts study. I didn’t discover the source of the fictional representation until 30 years later when I moved to South Korea. 

I began teaching English as a Second Language in South Korea in 2009. In the summer of 2010, I joined Samugwan Kumdo Club on Jeju Island. Kumdo is the Korean word for kendo, a Japanese sword fighting marital arts. Kendo means way of the sword, and is descended from kenjutsu. Kendo was introduced to Korea during the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945. It is a competitive martial arts using bamboo swords and protective gear worn over the chest and head. During my nine years of practicing kumdo in Korea, I participated in dozens of tournaments and rose up to 3rd Dan in rank. Fourth Dan is considered master. 

It was during tournaments that I began to glimpse the origin of the romanticized glow from The Last Dragon. When you are a lower level kumdo player, competition overwhelms you. Matches in kumdo tournaments are sudden death, which puts an enormous amount of pressure on the participants. In addition, each match is three minutes, with the combatants only needing to score two points to win. This means that there is virtually no time for warming up, little time to strategize, and you have to quickly access your opponent’s ability to discover weaknesses in their defense, and patterns to their attack. 

This process of close scrutiny is a clue to understanding the mystical glow. 

Unlike other martial arts, kumdo closely imitates real combat. The sudden death, three minute matches where only two points are needed to win are high stake situations in which every moment counts. There is little margin for error, and comebacks are very difficult to pull off. In times of warfare in human history, this type of training would have been essential for honing not only weapon proficiency but mental and emotional readiness. You must learn to read the enemy as quickly as possible, becoming adept at deciphering a particular type of body language.

In my fifth year of practicing kumdo, I noticed a change in my perception. Before a match begins in kumdo, you face the opponent, bow, and ready your weapon. It is often in the first seconds of shihap (competitive play) that a skilled practitioner can accurately gauge the level of their opponent, from the precision of their bow, to their initial footwork, to the way they hold their jukdo (bamboo sword). There’s a confidence and relaxed posture of seasoned players developed over many years of competition. When meeting their gaze, you will notice they possess something I call dead eyes. I’ve often seen similar phenomenon in policemen and soldiers. Dead eyes is best described as an empty expression that doesn’t reveal the thoughts of the individual.

I realized I had achieved dead eyes in my seventh year of kumdo competition when my opponents began to mention how expressionless I appeared throughout high intensity matches. I believe dead eyes arises as a result of mitigating anxiety while maintaining adrenaline. It comes from controlling the turmoil of one’s inner self in order to optimize external performance.

This regulation of self, expressed in the lack of emotions visible in the eyes, is a hint to understanding what it is to be a master.

In the climax of The Last Dragon, Sho’nuff is repeatedly dunking Leroy’s head into the barrel of water. He threatens to drown him if Leroy doesn’t answer the question, “Who’s the master?”, with the response, “You’re the master”. It is at this moment of resistance that we see Leroy’s eventual realization of the truth. 

As he struggles to free himself, Leroy experiences a series of flashbacks highlighting the significant plot points of the movie. He finally realizes that he is the master. His quest for the glow couldn’t be completed by defeating an enemy. The glow could only be achieved by defeating his personal weaknesses. When Leroy came to understand this, a golden light enveloped him and he was finally able to overpower Sho’nuff. 

The fictional representation of the glow is a manifestation through body language that an experienced martial artist learns to perceive in other high level martial artists.

Becoming a master is not attained by overcoming your opponent, but by conquering your true enemy: self doubt, anxiety, and fear. 

Image Credit: ©CNBC


TODD SULLIVAN currently lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he teaches English as a Second Language. He has had more than two dozen short stories, poems, and novelettes published across five countries. He currently has two book series through indie publishers in America. He wrote for a local web and play series in Taipei in 2020. He hosts a YouTube Channel that interviews writers across the publishing spectrum.

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