Editor's Note: This is part V of a series on Thriving in the Martial Arts. Written by Chris Hershberger, he provides a first-person look at how he went from being a "poor punk kid" from Mansfield to an Olympic Taekwondo All-American coach.
With the hopes of leaving the embarrassment behind me, along with the entire 80’s decade, I decided to double down on my training. No more plots and schemes to skip out on practice. Besides, I was starting to see major gains in my skills. At that time, my sparring — aka, fighting — was limited to one room at the YMCA. I sparred Noble and one other classmate regularly and exclusively.
We’d warm up and stretch. This usually started with 1,000 jumping jacks, followed by leg lifts, box jumps, sit ups, push ups, and just about every other en vogue exercise you could imagine. Noble was unrelenting in his pursuit of being the best conditioned athlete on the mat. We ran the stairs of the old YMCA religiously. Up and down. Up and down.
Muhammad Ali had a saying, “I don’t count repetitions when exercising. I do it until it really hurts.”
I didn’t know that quote back then. Though I would have most assuredly attributed it to Noble, because that’s exactly how we trained. Maximizing pain seemed to be the status quo. Just when you thought you were finished with a two-hour sparring session, he’d say, “Keep going.”
Hearing that come out of his mouth was equivalent to a judge slamming a gavel down and saying, “Guilty!” Gasping for air and keeping my head away from his feet were central to my survival. I remember repeatedly telling myself, “Just hang on. It’s almost over.”
It was never almost over. But saying those words did provide momentary glimpses of respite to my exhausted mind. The body goes long before the mind. When you let go of the mind... it’s completely over. I had just enough stubbornness in me to keep my mind intact. Noble would never disappoint in testing me though.
Over the summer (1989), he upped the ante. We started training in a barn in Lexington, owned by a local optometrist, who was also a student. We would kick a hanging bag for hours. It’s where I first really learned how to throw an effective spinning back kick — a technique to which I owe much of my ring success. As we walked up the stairs to the loft in the barn, the analog thermometer stuck out like a sore thumb.
I thought, “105 degrees! Holy crap!” It was stuffy. The air was thick.
Noble had a thing about teaching you to be mentally tough. After a half-hour, I said, “I need water.”
“Keep going,” he’d say.
“I’m feeling dizzy,” I’d mumble.
He’d look at me sternly, “No you’re not. Keep going.”
Leaving the barn after so many torturous workouts was always surreal. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to walk out into the 95 degree weather. It will feel so nice.”
It did, until we got into the car. Noble had this little Geo Spectrum. I hated that car because of what it represented — pain. As we pulled out, I would without fail, every single time, try to roll the window down.
He’d say, “Roll it back up.” So I did. He would proceed to turn the heat on, full blast, for the entire 20 minute drive home. The worst part? He’d crack open a can of Mountain Dew and drink it right beside me. Carl Lewis would have been envious of the speed at which my body left Noble’s car and found its way to my kitchen sink as soon as we made it to my house.
Picture being both extremely thirsty and hot. The struggle at that point is whether or not you leave your head under the running water or raise your chin with an open mouth.
I don’t even like Mountain Dew!
It had been almost a year of this intense cycle. I was starting to wonder, “Am I any good? I’m getting my butt kicked every day. This sucks!”
“We are going to Columbus three days a week to train with another coach and his team,” Noble said. I was both excited and scared. It would be the first time to test my mettle against other opponents.
We arrived at what I thought to be a really upscale facility called “The Fitness Trend.” Replete with accommodations I’d never seen before — fancy locker rooms, coffee shops, indoor soccer fields and one of the biggest boxing gyms I’d ever seen. A far cry from the boxing gym I grew up attending at the Friendly House. This place was an athletic oasis.
The host coach was a small Japanese man. He was trained old school. I could tell the moment I shook his hand and bowed. When we entered the training room there was a sea of black belts, all with at least 5-10 years experience, staring at us. I gulped and thought, “I’m going to get crushed!”
Noble was proud of his students. He knew what his intense training could wield in terms of skill. Noble said, “Put Chris with anyone. He’s here to fight everyone.”
“Huh?” I was shocked.
For the next 45 minutes I sparred at least 20 people, all of whom were very good in their own right. Much to my surprise, I bested everyone I fought. I never once got kicked to the face. I felt like someone just whispered in my ear, “You have superpowers. You just didn’t know it up to this point.”
It was a revelation that brought full circle the reason why Noble trained us like a lunatic. Better yet, the spinning back kick I had so arduously drilled in that barn over the summer, found its place, squarely up against my opponents stomachs the entire session. You ever have an epiphany where pieces of your past start to make sense? This happened the instant my foot hit every one of my sparring partners.
The boxing gym was next to our training space. I walked over after our training, thinking I was hot stuff, and asked to hit the bags. Most taekwondo athletes know very little about boxing. I had been boxing for many years at the Friendly House as a kid. This was my chance to stand out, I thought.
I looked up to see a behemoth of a man completely pulverizing the biggest hanging punching bag I’d ever seen. Boom! Boom! The shots felt seismic. I asked one of the taekwondo students, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Buster Douglas. He’s (a 42-1 underdog) fighting Mike Tyson in February.”
I quietly walked back over to the taekwondo space.
I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my friends. “I’m training at the same place as a guy — unknown to me up to that point — who’s fighting MIKE TYSON!”
This brought a whole new meaning to playing Nintendo’s Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!.
My older sister allowed me to have my birthday party at her house that February, out off of Old Bowman Road. We watched the Tyson/Douglas fight from there.
“I train right next to that guy three times a week,” I said at least 100 times leading up to the fight.
“Whatever Chris.” “Yeah, Okaaaay Chris.”
Buster Douglas gave us one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Being connected to that, in a very minuscule way, brought pride to my heart.
At this point, I still had no real idea how impactful the martial arts would be for a teenage boy growing up on Rowland Avenue in Mansfield, Ohio. 1990 would turn out to be a major shift in who I’d become as a person and a martial artist.
Stay tuned for Part VI.