By Mark Lahti


This is the second in a series about the lesser known and unknown legendary martial arts warriors from Detroit.

This month, we feature Grandmaster Eugene Woods.

Prior to retiring from competition, he was one of the top fighters and forms competitors in the US. He has been running his dojo for fifteen years now in Detroit, and also happens to be one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.

By the way, it seems most of the warriors of Detroit are the nicest guys. It might be that abilities and confidence allow for calmness and courtesy.

Grandmaster Woods holds the rank of 9th degree black belt in Isshinryu karate, and has been training since 1970. He has 47 black belts under him, and most recently his seven-kid competition team came home with seven first place trophies.

He doesn't stress competition, however. Instead, he uses competition as a way to teach about honor. He won't tolerate cheating, or using the rules to win. "It is important to teach honor, both as a competitor and as a martial artist. Honor is vital to your character."

He uses competition as a way to prepare people to deal with winning and losing. He doesn't believe in trophies or awards just for showing up. Winning and losing is part of life. "You have to learn to lose, because everyone faces adversity" he told me, "you will win more than you will lose, but you have to learn to deal with losing." Following this, he also says he thinks the most valuable thing to learn from training is to never give up. "You can deal with adversity if you never give up. You run into hard things, difficult things, you never, ever give up." A sign above the door on the way out of the dojo also says, "Never Give Up."

Aside from being inducted into the Isshinryu Hall of Fame in 2007, his dojo was named dojo of the year in the 2015 Isshinryu Hall of Fame.

I asked him to tell me one of his favorite memories of his fighting days, and he happened to tell me about I fight I still remember. I think everyone who saw that fight still remembers it.

He was fighting against Walter King, another one of Detroit's Fighting Black Kings (who I would be happy to interview!). Now Walter King was a top martial arts fighter, when he tragically lost an arm. However, this day at an Alkebulan tournament (Alkebulan will be repeatedly featured in this series, I expect) Walter King shows up to fight. He has his artificial arm strapped across his stomach, as a guard, and he proceeded to beat everyone who got into the ring with him. It was the finals, and Eugene Woods and Walter King were the last two undefeated fighters.

The fight was amazing. Three points wins a match, and King and Woods had two points each. King feinted, then threw a punch with his one arm, and Woods went to block it.

He felt air.

"I was looking him right in the eyes" Woods told me, "and I smiled, and he smiled, because I knew he had me, and he knew he had me, and then the punch landed KERPLOW and we both started laughing before they could even call break."

Now consider, dear reader, we are talking about communications between two GREAT fighters that takes place in about what, one-tenth of a SECOND? The attached image shows exactly how fast Grandmaster Woods can punch; yet these two masters without saying a word, in little more than the blink of an eye were able to understand each other. This is the level of skill a truly great martial artist can achieve.

It is also interesting that the story he finds amazing is about a loss, not a great victory. Instead of speaking of his accomplishments (which are many) he speaks of something amazing he experienced.

He is also one of the last Masters in Detroit to teach fighting without safety gear, for advanced students only. "You don't have safety gear in the street" he notes, "you have to learn to fight without it for your own self-defense...You have to learn to control your weapons. If you learn to strike or kick but you have no control over what you have, it’s like having a gun that goes off by accident. It isn't any good."

His dojo is the Detroit Martial Arts Institute on Seven Mile in Detroit. He teaches kids as young as three, and teaches adult classes as well as ADHD and autistic students. He is exemplary of the skill and spirit of the greatest of martial artists. He is modest and soft spoken and one of the greatest martial artists I have ever seen.

He also smiles a lot.

Mark Lahti
“Sensei Greybeard”

A bit about me: I know because I was there. I have been involved in the Detroit martial arts for over 40 years. I saw their demos, saw the fights, and in some cases had the honor of personally getting my ass kicked by some of these warriors. Sometimes I trained with them, sometimes their students. These masters did not seek me out for these articles. I intend no insult to anyone by leaving them out. For example, I know there are many great aikido practitioners, judoka and jiujitsu masters in Detroit; their omissions are only due to my ignorance. Also, some of the greatest warriors prefer to remain private, and I would not go against their wishes to stay out of the public eye.

It is not possible to tell all their stories in one article. This will be a continuing series, and if anyone has any suggestions for people to be included I will welcome them.