LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) - Every three days, Gary Alexander is in the pool for a workout that most can’t handle.
With scuba fins on his feet, Alexander does 100 laps, mostly on his back, alternating with freestyle strokes. The next 100 laps he runs back and forth without the fins, climbing from the pool to throw 800 punches, blocks and kicks.
“Bam-bam-bam,” he says, his arms snapping at the air rapidly. “I try to stay in as good as shape as I can.”
The two-hour regimen at Harrogate, a Lakewood retirement community where he lives, is hardcore, just the way Alexander — who is 81 — likes it.
Salute the United States Marine Corps for his rugged intensity. Over the last 60 years it has fashioned him into a martial arts legend, who is still sharp and more than capable of mixing it up.
Please bow at the waist for this 10th degree black belt and shihan - meaning expert - in Isshin-ryu karate. His pedigree is as broad as his shoulders and as tall as his lean 6-foot-2 inch frame. He’s the first international bare knuckle knock-out karate champion, winning the Canadian Karate Championship in November 1962. In that same month, Alexander, again with his bare-hands, won the North American Championship at Madison Square Garden.
“He was the best of the best,” said, Frank Huff, former Marine and 9th degree black belt in Tiger Commando Karate and 8th degree in combat Hapkido. “They didn’t nickname him the hammer by Isshin-ryu for nothing.”
His mitts are large and reflect years of fighting; the knuckle on his right hand remains damaged. All of his fingers, at some point, have been broken. Some are not straight now. Small lumps protrude from the top of his hand, hardened by calcium deposits, said Alexander, from striking buildings, trees, two-by-four lumber and people.
“Protective gear is for sissies,” Alexander said. “I’ve broken enough bones in other people to build you a couple of bodies.”
He was mixed martial arts before it had a name. Before he was named Black Belt Magazine’s Co-Instructor in 1974, before he was inducted to the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame, Martial Arts Hall of Fame, World Karate Union Hall of Fame and the Australasian Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
Alexander was no joke, taking life seriously after battling rheumatic fever and an enlarged heart growing up in Jersey City. Diagnosed at age 4, Alexander was bedridden for eight years, and couldn’t go to school until eighth grade. Fearing he’d have a heart attack, Alexander said St. Aloysius High School officials wouldn’t allow him to play sports, even though he knew he was physically fit. He proved it. Alexander joined the Marine Corps Reserves at 17, spending the summer before his senior year at Parris Island.
“When I got out of bed, I appreciated being alive,” he said.
Alexander graduated high school a year later and signed up for active duty. He was first stationed in Mount Fuji, Japan, serving in the weapons company and Fleet Marine Force, an amphibious unit.
During down time, and that was rare, Alexander and Marines studied karate in Okinawa to remain sharp combatants. The art form, which wasn’t the United States, appealed to Alexander from the beginning.
After six years overseas, Alexander returned to Jersey City in 1961, where he and other marines immersed themselves in Isshin-ryu karate. They learned from Don Nagle, a 4th degree black belt Marine, and were responsible for bringing the art form back to the states when they came home.
Alexander trained at night and worked several corporate jobs that he ultimately didn’t want with tobacco and metal companies. As karate developed in the United States, Alexander’s reputation grew. He competed in tournaments and promoted karate events and seminars that drew thousands.
In 1964, he held the first karate Olympics at the Manhattan Center in New York. Years later, he met martial art legends Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.
He produced and starred in some 20 instructional martial arts videos and acted in films, including “Gideon Oliver” with Louis Gossett Jr. and “Avenging Force” with Michael Dudikoff
In the midst of his journey, Alexander opened several karate schools in New Jersey, including New Brunswick, Union, Elizabeth and Edison. All were designed to teach his students how to defend. Alexander was hands on, in Marine mode, wearing combat boots on the mat.
Bill Chatfield, his friend of 46 years and the former director of Selective Service under George W. Bush, said Alexander taught with tough love and intensity when he was his student in the 1970s.
“He was a civilian version of a Marine Corps drill instructor,” said Chatfield, a 3rd degree black belt, from his home in Dallas.
Patrick Bamburak, of Scotch Plains, has never forgotten the image of Alexander sporting combat boots when he walked into his Edison dojo in 1991. He still remembers the level of sparring, too. Students wore football helmets.
“You wanted to make sure you got the running back helmet or the defensive lineman helmet,” said Bamburak, a sixth-degree black who has been Alexander’s student for 28 years.
Last Friday, Alexander was at the pool again.
This time, though, he was training John David of South Amboy. David, a diabetic, went through a series of fighting forms, then blocks and punches with Alexander, whom he’s been with for 30 years.
“He’s from the old school,” David said.
He pushes you and himself.
“I don’t want to lose my proficiency, even at this stage of the game,” Alexander said. “Right now, I think I’m as peak as any human being can be for what I do.”
Information from: NJ.com, http://www.nj.com
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