Friday, August 14, 2020

Remembering Martial Artist Manny J. Valladares

My friend, fellow martial artist, and longtime training partner Manny J. Valladares died recently. He had been fighting a long, tough battle with cancer, but eventually succumbed to COVID-19.

Manny, Karate Kid.
Manny had been practicing martial arts for about as long as I've been alive. He started practicing Goju-Ryu Karate in Spanish Harlem in the early '70s, eventually earning a 5th degree black belt. From there Manny moved on to Judo, earning a 3rd degree black belt. Manny's stories of training in those rough-and-tumble early days always fascinated me, and clearly influenced his development as a martial artist. He talked about how his Karate dojo would practice all the standard kata and drills, but at the end of the class would put on gloves and start sparring. If it was too hot, they would train on the rooftop. Manny said he quickly learned what parts of Goju-Ryu were effective and which parts were not, and how to differentiate between martial arts practice and actual streetfigthing. This, to me, this is exactly the right mindset for anyone  serious about the self-defense aspect of martial arts, and Manny kept this attitude  throughout his lifelong training.

In fact, it was probably this mindset that led me to meet Manny. I met him when he started training in Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Burton Richardson in Honolulu. Remember that Manny was already a more than accomplished martial artist, and was no longer a young man. Yet he dove right in, eager to learn new things and hone his formidable skills. And Manny trained hard, often harder than those decades younger than him. More than one eager young buck under-estimated the middle-aged Puerto Rican guy with a bit of a belly and quickly found themselves outclassed.
Manny scores a hit with a rattan stick.

I loved training with Manny. It wasn't just because he was a cool guy with an infectious laugh, which he was. It was also because he was skilled enough and mature enough that we could train and spar really hard without either of us worrying about injuring the other. For example, Manny was one of the very few people I felt comfortable stick sparring with real rattan sticks with. Yeah, we would get a bit bruised and beat up (well, mostly I got bruised and beat up), but we both accepted that as part of pushing yourself, facing your fears, and getting better. 

Sometimes when doing drills in which one person attacks and the other defends, Manny and I would get into trouble because we each kept attacking. We both definitely had an aggressive, not passive fighting style. Yet Manny also excelled at some of the more artistic, intricate aspects of martial arts, such as the dancelike, Kali drills known as Sinawali. We could get pretty fancy going through the partner Sinawali patterns, banging our sticks together and flowing with fluidity. 

When it came to Manny's fighting style, aspects of his Karate training definitely came through. If we were kickboxing, he would stay fairly stationary, not moving his feet very much. You would think you could step in, throw a punch to his face, and step out again. That was often not the case. Manny was incredibly skilled at distancing and moving his head just enough to avoid your punch, and fast enough with his hands to follow up with vicious punches of his own before you've had a chance to retreat. Manny had some of the fastest hands I've ever encountered. I can't help but think of the Wu-Tang Clan lyric, "And I'll be damned if I let any man come to my center, you enter the winter," because Manny kept his centerline so well-protected and those who tried to find a way in suffered the consequences. For a good example of his hand speed and coordination, check out this video of Manny and I practicing the Kali knife drill known as sumbrada:

This didn't just apply to kickboxing. Our main targets in knife and stick sparring are the hands, legs, and head. I hardly ever was able to hit Manny's head. In fact, one day after Manny and I had gone a few rounds with the sticks, a classmate asked me, "Why don't you ever go for Manny's head?" I replied, "You'll see after you two do a round." Sure enough, our fellow classmate did a couple of stick rounds with Manny and every attempt to hit Manny's head went badly.

Ow, my arm!
With his Judo background, it probably goes without saying that Manny easily took to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I had the honor of being his sparring partner when he took his blue belt test, and Manny definitely tossed me around a bit. On his own he worked on blending BJJ with Judo, creating a very potent personal fighting style. You can watch highlights of Manny's blue belt test here.

Despite the fact that Manny was big and strong and capable of being a very aggressive (in a good way!) sparring partner, he could still train and spar with those who were far smaller, weaker, and inexperienced without letting ego get in the way. Manny wanted to learn, and he wanted his partners to learn, too. If you trained with Manny, you were sure to come out of the experience with more skill and knowledge. Manny eventually earned his instructor certifications in Kali and Jeet Kune Do, adding to his already impressive martial arts resume.
Manny at his home gym.

A few years ago, Manny and his family left Hawaii and moved to Las Vegas, where he started his own JKD Unlimited school and began sharing his expertise with a new batch of students. He never stopped training, never stopped learning, and never stopped teaching. We kept in touch via social media, and I was always happy to see the photos he shared of himself and his students hard at work perfecting their skills.

In this post, I've mostly talked about Manny J. Valladares as a martial artist, because that's how I primarily knew him. He was also a husband, father, grandfather, and entrepreneur, as well as a former Marine and sheriff's deputy. I'll always remember him as one of the best training partners I've ever had and as a man I'm honored to have been able to call "friend."

Rest in peace, Manny....