The History of The Ultimate Black Belt Test, Part 2
Skip Ewing and Maya Angelou
One of the more interesting stories from all of The Ultimate Black Belt Test teams was singer and songwriter Skip Ewing's involvement with the famed poet Maya Angelou. Skip had joined the UBBT on the suggestion of Master Dave McNeill. I didn't know who Skip was, but on Master Dave's endorsement I accepted him to the program. Well, it turned out that Skip was a rather significant Grammy Award winning figure in the country music world --and in addition he engaged the world as a martial artist, Buddhist, poet, and as a mentor and teacher to other songwriters.
I had set a requirement for all UBBT members to "Profile 10 Living Heroes," which Skip did. He also wrote each of his heroes and told them he had included them on his list and why. To Skip's surprise --and to all our amazement, Ms. Angelou phoned Skip and through that connection he ended up being invited, along with his daughter, to stay at her house. The two worked together writing poems and song lyrics for a week.
What a story!
Gleason's Boxing Gym and The Bowery Mission
One of my personal favorite UBBT memories was when our team met in New York / New Jersey and we went to New York City for a boxing workout at the famous boxing gym Gleason's. All the greats, including "The Greatest" trained there back in the day for their fights. Gleason's is a boxing gym located on the Brooklyn waterfront and was established in 1937.
And as wonderful as that workout was, it paled in comparison to bringing the team to The Bowery Mission. The Bowery Mission has served homeless and hungry New Yorkers since 1879, when its neighborhood came to define the term “skid row.” We arrived the week before Thanksgiving, so when we got there they needed help preparing for the holiday. To watch all the team members peeling potatoes in the Mission's kitchen is something I'll never forget.
My goal, from day 1, was to make The Ultimate Black Belt Test about far more than the physical skills of its participants, but to make the work about serving others.
They Came from Far Away and Played Full-Out
Of all the people who have participated in The Ultimate Black Belt Test, Stephan Kendall-Jones and Fari Salievski traveled the farthest --and played the game as full out as any other team members. Stephen came from New Zealand and Fari from Australia --and both came more than once for our events, at great personal expense.
And as impressive, we also enjoyed the company of two of our many female UBBT participants, Ms. Claire Iverson of Nottingham, England, and volunteer Sharon Hutchinson of Ireland. Sharon was not an official member of the UBBT, but at her own expense she made her way to Greensboro, Alabama to help us build a home --and both women brought great energy and value to the work they did.
These 4 world traveling black belts represented their countries well and it was an honor to have them in the program.
Academy Award Winning Filmmaker and her Sons, Blow Us Away
Nancy Walzog and I met in New Jersey when I had gone there to oversee a UBBT event. She was so shy and soft-spoken that I hardly noticed that she had slipped away after watching us for an hour. She told me that she was in an ice cream store and happened upon a copy of Black Belt Magazine there, which she opened and found our advertisement in. She was interested and I invited her to participate.
Nancy joined the next team and over the course of the year of her test we all witnessed the self-discipline and work ethic that had earned her many awards in her profession, including an Academy Award for a film called King Gimp, the remarkable story of Dan Keplinger. During Nancy's 1 year test, she literally transformed herself before our eyes. At the mid-way event of the UBBT we all met at The UBBT Alabama Project and there we were introduced to her two wonderful sons, Neilson and Jari. The 3 of them, along with some of Nancy's students became fixtures at our events for most of the next decade. Nancy took BEST TESTER at her UBBT test, blowing us away with beautiful form, undeniable determination and spirit, and a level of commitment that set the standard for every participant in the UBBT. Nielson passed away due to an accident in 2017, the photo above shows him at Standing Rock, where he participated in the protest against the oil pipeline.
Nancy seemed to me, at first, the most unlikely UBBT participant; quite, introverted, and not, at the time, a school owner. Since then she has opened 2 martial arts schools that now carry nearly 1000 students, has studied multiple arts, and even went to the Philippines to win a World Champion title in Filipino Stick Fighting. Nancy is deeply respected among UBBT Alumni --and Nielson is as deeply missed.
More UBBT History through Stories in My Next Installment.