For some, the idea of martial arts involves high-flying acrobats throwing spinning heel kicks.
But for the growing community of martial artists in Eugene, the art form is a workout, a therapeutic release and a lifelong hobby wrapped up in one.
“It’s like a game of chess where you set someone up thinking they’re going to do one thing and they do something completely different,” said Alex Spangler, co-leader of the University of Oregon’s jiu-jitsu club.
Martial arts as an activity is hard to classify. It combines competition found in traditional sports like basketball or football, and blends it with the grace and mental dexterity found in performance arts like dancing.
According to Spangler, the jiu-jitsu club has existed at UO since at least the early 1990s, and accepts students of all levels, leading to a wide range of experience in the club. Spangler said that this diversity is what gives the club its comfortable yet productive environment: The more advanced students teach the beginners, fostering a strong sense of community among the members.
“Starting out is going to be really slow and hard-going,” Spangler said. “But it’s going to be a very rewarding experience. No one’s going to be able to take that feeling of reward away.”
Spangler uses jiu-jitsu as an outlet for any pent-up physical energy he might have because of its grappling, wrestling style qualities. But as with all martial arts, the physical is just as important as the mental.
“My go-to move is called the hip-bump sweep,” Spangler said. “If I have someone in my close guard, [a jiu-jitsu position where one is lying on his or her back while the opponent/attacker is between one’s legs] I can sit up, open my legs and then I knock them over. You use your own explosiveness and just carry that through.”
The maneuver described by Spangler is a basic one by jiu-jitsu standards. Even the simplest techniques require months, even years of training to perfect, according to Adam Roberts, owner and head instructor of Mckenzie Martial Arts in Eugene.
Although Roberts is now an accomplished martial artist, he didn’t enjoy the training methods in traditional martial arts school when he was younger.
“It was phony to me,” Roberts said. “Line up, punch this bag, go to the back of the line. Come up, break this board, then go to the back of the line. I was watching professional wrestling with Hulk Hogan. Fake wrestling looked more real to me than martial arts.”
As martial arts gained notoriety in the 1960s with the arrival of revolutionary martial artist Bruce Lee, Roberts became more involved until he had worked his way to an apprenticeship under Dan Inosanto, Lee’s top student and closest friend. With years of formal training under his belt, Roberts transitioned from coaching basketball to offering one-on-one mixed martial arts lessons from his garage.
His approach to teaching mixed-martial arts is a practical one. Roberts tailors his classes around the question of what would most likely happen in a physical confrontation. He believes that martial arts can be for everyone, regardless of body type or age.
“Someone who won’t be able to play sports or won’t make the team, you have that team atmosphere through martial arts,” Roberts said.
After teaching his first class for children at the Eugene Downtown Athletic Club, Roberts opened Mckenzie Martial Arts and now teaches classes for all ages. What Roberts appreciates most about teaching martial arts is the diversity of students he sees in his classes.
“There’s people from all walks of life that are my students,” said Roberts. “We have people who work at the mill, there’s people that are nurses, we have a judge, there are police officers.”
At age 41, Shannon Collins was looking for an alternative to the traditional gym workout. After trying out kickboxing and kung-fu at other locations, she tried mixed martial arts at Roberts’ studio. Collins saw her self-confidence grow as a result of training and said she feels much safer doing daily activities like walking home or buying groceries.
She also noted how martial arts can be intimidating at first, especially for women. But now, at 51 years old, she teaches a women’s self-defense class. She also said her reflexes, agility and mental health have all improved as a result from training.
“It’s mentally challenging. I’m constantly learning,” she said. “There’s always something, whether it’s footwork or keeping your hands up or learning a new drill. I can’t think of anything except what I’m doing on the mat right there. I think that’s what keeps me going year after year.”
For people like UO student Emily Wade, martial arts provides an outlet for her physical energy and competitive drive. Wade first picked up martial arts at the American Taekwondo Association branch in her hometown after quitting ballet.
“I was bored and needed something else to do,” Wade said. “My sister had recently started martial arts, and I had been watching the classes like, ‘Oh hey that looks kind of cool. I’ll try that out.’ ”
Wade continued to practice martial arts throughout college, not only for the workout, but also for the mental training and discipline she gained.
“A big thing is saying ‘Yes sir,’ ‘Yes ma’am,’ and that’s carried on into other aspects of my life,” Wade said. “Having that respect for other people started in martial arts.”
Russ Duer, owner and head instructor at Duer’s ATA martial arts studio, has been hooked on martial arts since he was a kid. He attended Lane Community College for culinary school, where he met his first formal martial arts instructor in 1993. When he realized culinary school wasn’t the path for him, he shifted his focus entirely to martial arts and doesn’t ever see himself giving it up.
“I’m going to stay with this until I retire, and then I probably won’t even retire because I love it so much,” Duer said. “Our grandmaster, he did it all the way till he died.”
Duer, having practiced martial arts all his life, now gets satisfaction every day from teaching and watching his students grow the same way he did.
“My adults come in — whether they’ve had a bad day or not — they come in here and they just feel better after working out,” said Duer. “That’s what the rewards are for me right there.”