The entire MCC Kajukenbo class stands alongside their instructor, Ron Thayer Jr. (right), and other masters of the martial art form, on March 11, 2023. (Photo by Rey Covarrubias Jr.)

Mesa Community College’s Red Mountain Kajukenbo class celebrates experience and diversity

Students of the Hawaiian martial art, Kajukenbo, celebrated six of their peers’ promotions to black belt on Saturday at Mesa Community College’s Red Mountain campus.

The event tested a total of 13 Kajukenbo students of various belt colors, eight of which received a promotion alongside the black belts, all while surrounded by their family and friends to encourage and celebrate the students’ journey in mastering the unique martial art. 

Tammy Robinson, president of MCC, is enrolled in a different session of the Kajukenbo class and was in attendance at the event to celebrate the promoted students.

The event marked the largest belt testing and promotion event since the pandemic, according to the class’s instructor Ron Thayer Jr., who is known to his students by the title of “Sifu”. 

Thayer and the other Kajukenbo masters in attendance also highlighted that half of the promoted black belts were women, which they say is exceedingly rare in the artform.

The event started with a series of warm up practices done in unison with the whole class as Thayer announced the different moves and forms that would give a small look at the students’ expansive knowledge of offensive and defensive maneuvers.

The class then underwent a series of sets that began to fully reveal the spectrum of their jabs, kicks, strikes, akin to Karate and Judo. 

The class would then move to takedown techniques and ground fights that are also seen in some forms of Jiu-Jitsu. This combination of martial art styles makes Kajukenbo accessible to the entire class, while also instilling diverse methods that make them competitive adversaries. 

Thayers’ eyes seemed to rarely drift from his students as they performed almost ritualized moves, receiving his feedback and encouragement along the way.

The class alternated between different tests that included one-on-one fighting with students of a matched skill set, and then later one-on-two that focused on defensive maneuvers against multiple attackers.

The class prepared for a diverse range of scenarios that involve weapons like knives, katanas, sai’s (a three pronged, rod like dagger), bo’s (6ft wooden staffs), and eku’s (large ore like paddles). 

The group demonstrated numerous attack maneuvers with these various weapons, but heavily focused on different disarmament techniques meant to stop an attacker with a weapon.

One of the final tests the class participated in was known as “the bulls ring,” an activity in which one member of the group stands in the center of the padded auditorium while awaiting an attack from each of their classmates encircling them. 

The student in the center of the ring must defend themselves from attack at random, upon the go ahead from Thayer, initiating a defensive maneuver that is often combined with a swift counter attack.

Jeffrey Poppell, a promoted black belt at Saturday’s event, spoke about how a test like the bull ring drives home a prevalent Kajukenbo mentality of being ready for everything.

“We know how to take a hit. We’re hit, we’re back up and we’re ready to just keep going. Sometimes knowing how to fight or defend yourself can be just as important as knowing how to take a hit, how to absorb that and be able to keep going,” said Poppell. 

Poppell joined the rest of his class in a promotion ceremony at the end of the event, which first started with awarding the black belt students their new rank, known as a “degree”. 

The promotions included Vanessa Miller, a former student of the MCC Kajukenbo class who moved to Colorado and attended the event virtually. 

Thayer and other students plan to travel to Colorado during spring break to properly test and promote Miller in person.

“I’m so grateful and really humbled by the fact that they’re willing to drive 10-12 hours to come up here so I can formally test, it was really emotional to be there [virtually] but I’m really grateful to them for coming here.” said Miller.

Before the class proceeded to be awarded their next belt, they heard inspiration, advice, and words of encouragement from the Kajukenbo masters present at the event.

“The only difference between a white belt and a black belt is time,” said Grandmaster Jack Wimbish, who further reflected the art form’s model of inclusivity. Grandmaster Jack further reinforced the core values of dedication and focus shown from the classes promoted belts.

The rest of the black belt students each received their belt in a traditional rite of passage in which the presented belt is forcefully passed to each master instructor present, who then uses the new belt to lash the student across their arms and legs before their personal instructor ties the belt on for the first time.

“It’s incredibly humbling.” said Cali Maryan, a promoted black belt who met her husband, Thayer, through their Kajukenbo journey. 

“I’ve been in this art for over 11 years, everyone in here is family, we care for each other. I’m honored to be a part of their journey and everyone inspires me here.” added Maryan.

The deep ties amongst the MCC Kajukenbo class included family ones. 

Jeffrey Poppell, who has been taking the class for over 9 years, shares his passion for the artform with his brother Kevin, now a promoted black belt, and mother Shannon, a promoted purple belt.

Kevin, like his brother, found an intense passion for Kajukenbo at MCC. 

“I have no intent to slow down or stop.” said Kevin Poppell. “It’s been a lot of time and a lot of effort and you know, eventually I’ve gotten here. I can’t even express how I feel about these stripes.”

The brothers hope to one day open their own Kajukenbo Dojo. “This is a huge step because now I can go, I can become a teacher. I can open a dojo, I can pass on my knowledge, and yet I’ll never stop continuing to absorb knowledge from my other masters”, said Jeffrey Poppell.

Each student of the class celebrated their journey in unique ways, and Shannon Poppell reflected on how Kajukenbo helps her navigate stresses of life.  For her, Kajukenbo offers both a remedy from stress as well as a meditative experience. 

“I can lock out all of the other anxieties and all of the other things that are going on in my life, and just concentrate on what my body is doing for a couple hours. It helps break me out of all those other things that just make your mind spin.” said Shannon Poppell. “I could go get on a treadmill and I put on my tunes and my brain would still be spinning,” she added.

Scott Newberger, one of the classes’ promoted black belts, celebrated the class at the end of the ceremony by sharing his wife’s homemade Hawaiian macadamia nut cookies. 

Newberger, a first sergeant of the Arizona Air National Guard, presented an award celebrating Thayer and the other masters for their role in creating an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity.

The Kajukenbo class at MCC’s is formally registered as “Self Defense” (PED101DF), with openings available for the next class starting Sep. 7. The Kajukenbo class also has their own Facebook page and Twitter.

This story was edited on 3/17/2023 to correct an error made at the time of publication. The error is in regards to Tammy Robinson’s involvement in the belt promotion test event.

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