NGAExperience® Nihon Goshin Aikido

An Interview with Joe Beckham

13 March 2014

The first time I became aware of Shihan Beckham was several years ago.  I was watching youtube videos and came across an Aikido Attack Line Video.  It looked like just like Nihon Goshin Aikido, but the training uniforms were different.   That said, what stood out to me was that the guy being attacked was really giving a good demonstration of a hard style of aikido; with plenty of atemi, power, and complete martial awareness.  It was impressive.  I watched it several times.  I even popped over to the website (www.beckhammartialarts.com), and wondered if there had been a connection at one time between his Greenville, SC dojo and the Lexington, Spartanburg, and Irmo SC dojos.


Fast forward to January 2014 when Kevin Hovan walks into our Lexington, SC dojo (as a brand new student), but wearing a brown belt.


It turns out that Kevin was one of Mr. Beckham's students, holding the rank of i-kyu.  After being stationed in Alaska, Kevin was transferred down to Columbia SC on a work assignment before being stationed in Korea.  His hope is to train and test for Sho-Dan before heading off to Korea.  So, through Kevin Hovan, my first connection with Shihan Beckham was finally made.



NGA Experience:  How did you get into Nihon Goshin Aikido?


Joe Beckham:  “When I was 12 (1966) my older brother Bob, brought home a book called "The Power of Aikido" by Thomas H. Makiyama.  This book was written in 1960!  It has very rudimentary illustrations showing various techniques, but even as a 12 year old I thought, "What an interesting martial art".  I never saw, or heard, the word aikido outside the confines of that book until Wednesday, August 13, 1980.


On this day I was on my way to the hardware store and passed by the “Aikido Academy of Self Defense” recently opened, (May of 1980) by Steve Weber in Spartanburg, SC.


Mr. Weber happened to be at the dojo this Wednesday morning, so I stopped in and asked these 2 questions:

A)  "How much for lessons?”

B)  “When can I start?"  


One would think that more poignant questions should have been asked, but I knew what I wanted, and besides, Mr. Weber's professional demeanor was selling point enough.


So on Saturday, August 16, 1980 at 9:30am I began training in NGA under the auspices of Steven Weber.  I began with one month of private lessons, and then joined the regular classes.  


At this time I was the 17th adult student in seniority.  As time progressed I became the senior adult student in 1982 as a Ni-kyu.  From this point, I remained the senior student and was Mr. Weber's first I-kyu in the Southeast as well as the first Sho-Dan (promoted on Saturday, October 19, 1985).


It was a special day for me as well as the whole organization.  Master Bowe and Sensei Mihls made the trip from New Jersey for the promotion! I wore Shodo Morita's black belt given to Mr. Bowe by him as the first black belt worn around my waist!!  



I have heard about that tradition.  Was that expected?


Being awarded Shodo Morita's belt (and wearing it for the class) was indeed a surprise.  I knew that Master Bowe and Mihls Sensei were coming though.  It was a great honor, although it did delay my Sho-Dan promotion.  


Delay?  What do you mean by “delay?”


Well, I took my final test for Sho-Dan (150 attack self defense test) on Monday, August 19, 1985, but I had to wait until Saturday, October 19, 1985 when Mr. Bowe and Mr. Mihls came down from New Jersey for the promotion.  


That is a 2 month period of waiting to put the black belt on officially!  To my knowledge no one has had to wait that long!


At the promotion,  Mihls Sensei told me,  "Well Joe, now you're on your way to the real learning.”  Mr. Bowe was more direct: "This is a major step for you.”  Both men were correct in their assessments.



So what was it like to prepare for a Sho-Dan Test ~ having never seen a Sho-Dan test before?


Mr. Weber prepared me as well as possible, but you could call me the proverbial "point" man in terms of testing for rank, as no NGA student in South Carolina had ever seen any of the tests required for promotion.  So my bragging rights include being the very first student to make black belt in NGA, and also the first student to make Ni-Dan in the Southeast.  My Ni-Dan promotion was on November 14, 1992.



Many people (me included) have never had an opportunity to meet Mr. Weber.

What can you tell us about him?   


Mr. Weber is generally a serious person, and a very skilled martial artist.  He’s a great teacher.  



What are some of the challenges you had when you started up your dojo?


I began my teaching tenure on Tuesday, March 19, 1985 at the Cleveland Street YMCA in Greenville, SC.  At this time I had no students.  The business arrangement with the YMCA had me paying 10% off the top for the use of their facility.


Every Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning I showed up at the Y to teach 'some one' this Art.  I had zero students until June (3 months), but I did not become discouraged ~  as I knew someone would eventually sign up, and thus I would begin my instruction of the Art.


The rest in history now as I am the 2nd oldest, still-in-business, martial art school in Greenville, SC and the first Aikido school in the Greenville area also.



What did you do at the Y during the 3 months that you did not have any students?


During the period of time that I had no students I cleaned the training room, set up the mats, and practiced all of the strikes, kicks, and footwork drills. I do not waste time, then. . . or now!



I bet it was a relief to finally get that first student?


Yes, it was good to finally have someone to toss around.

My very first student was a 19 year old young man named Jeff Howell.  He left the school after 2 years of training, but he was a good student while training.  



So do you still train at the Y?


Oh no, I’m operating in my 5th location now.  Here is a list of my previous dojos, and some notes about each of them.  

1.  Cleveland Street YMCA, 1985 until 1988 (The stepping out point).


2.  1400 Cedar Lane Road Unit 4, (1,000 sq. ft.), 1988 until 1991  (The first permanent space).


3.  205 Wilton Street (1200 sq. ft.)  A 90 year old building that I bought and completely renovated.  It just happened to be directly next door to the home I was living in at the time. I bought the building in September of 1990.  Then it took 6 months of work to ready the building for classes. The first class at Wilton Street was March 5, 1991, and I remained in this building until June 1, 2009.

 

4.  Fairview Baptist Church, Greer, SC (in their Ozone Ministries Building) from June 2009 until February 2012.  


5.  In September 2011, I bought another 90 year old building (Guess I have a thing for old buildings!) It is where I’m located now.  It is quite a space.  It has 3,000 square feet.  Simply put, it is huge.  Previously, it was known as the “Shaw Pharmacy.”  It also has the distinction of being the first known building in Greenville with air conditioning!


That said, the Shaw Pharmacy was in a serious state of disrepair.  In the eyes of many Greenville citizens, this building should have been demolished, but I saw its potential.  So, I bought it, and gutted it of everything original (filled four 40 cubic yard dumpsters to the top), and completely revamped the interior. (Electrical, plumbing, & structure).  I did 80% of the work myself.  


Now we have a facility that has men’s and women’s dressing rooms, men’s and women’s bathrooms, a shower room, an HVAC room, a storage room, and 1800 sq. ft. of matted space.  


The building is strategically placed on a major artery (Poinsett Highway) coming into Greenville proper.  Over 30,000 cars per day pass my dojo!  And, it's at an intersection with a traffic light, so every 45 seconds cars are stopped at the traffic light and the passengers can be seen looking into the windows.  This location has been a huge success.  Since our arrival at the new location, we have quadrupled our student enrollment!  



How do you organize your classes?


My children's classes are divided into beginner and veteran classes.  I also teach 4, 5, & 6 year old children twice a week in very structured and physically demanding classes. (Balance and coordination first!)  


My adult classes are designed so that any student, at whatever level, can attend evening or early morning classes as often as they wish.   Randori is a mainstay of our classes.  Indeed, we do randori or attack lines 90% of our classes.  These routines are the "litmus paper" of our skill level!



What are you learning as it relates to NGA right now?


That the techniques are very adaptable.



What are your Pocket Technique (s), the ones that seem to always come out when you're under pressure?


Armbar. Front Wrist Throw. Unbendable Arm. Pivot Take Down. Spin around. Wheel Throw. Handshake. 3rd Set Wrist. Pull Down from the Rear. Slap to the Side of the Head. Arm Over the Shoulder. Spinning Hip Throw. Shoulder Throw.



Who are your prime teachers, or who would you call when you had an NGA specific question?


My present day 'sensei' is the Art itself, and my own students.  I said that correctly!  Yes, teaching is the teacher's teacher!  I am evolving the Art in what I feel to be a pro-active way.  If techniques are ineffective or not street-worthy they should be discarded.  



What do you mean by techniques that are “ineffective or not street worthy?”


Well, simply that they might not be safe for nage to do on the street ~ which makes them ineffective in my mind.


Consider the Mugger’s Throw ~ I think you are probably just as likely to shatter your knee cap doing a full speed Mugger’s Throw in the Wal-Mart Parking lot as you would be likely to end the fight that necessitated the reason to do the Mugger’s Throw in the first place.  


We still do the Mugger’s Throw, but I’ve modified the Classical Technique, so that it is now done without nage having to take a knee.



What are your NGA Specialities or perceived strengths?


Footwork!  (Without good footwork one will struggle to do any aiki technique.)  


Timing and distance are absolutes!  Combinations of strikes, coupled with NGA techniques, are very effective and practical under real world conditions



Can you discuss your current opinion on Soft ukemi or “Feather Falling?”


Feather Falling?  What's that?  We don't do any feather falling in my dojo!  We do “Tonnage Falling” instead!



What are some training stories we might find interesting or funny?


I can make the sound of a cricket.  Yes. . . a cricket!  One night in class I involuntarily made the sound.  It was summer time so crickets were alive and well.  We used to open the back door of the dojo and let air flow through during training.  Mr. Weber heard the sound I made and immediately began to pull the mats up to find the little rascal.  He even said, "Those damn crickets get in and are a complete nuisance". Needless to say the ninja cricket was never found!  (And I didn't say anything!!!).



Have you ever had a real life reason to use your NGA skills?


Indeed.  3 attackers came at me in April 1984.  Two of them went to the hospital. I went home!  Not bragging here, but when attacked by multiple people one goes into the survival mode, or else find yourself seriously hurt, if not dead.  Looking back, I found it fascinating how effective, and how quickly, the techniques worked.  The Peel Off, for example, will do exactly what it is designed to do. . .  break a wrist ~ and break it quickly!

Joe Beckham

On Starting Your First Dojo:

I began my teaching tenure on Tuesday, March 19, 1985 at the Cleveland Street YMCA in Greenville, SC.  At this time I had no students.  


The business arrangement with the YMCA had me paying 10% off the top for the use of their facility.


Every Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning I showed up at the Y to teach 'someone' this Art.  


I had zero students until June (3 months), but I did not become discouraged ~  as I knew someone would eventually sign up, and thus I would begin my instruction of the Art.


During the period of time that I had no students I cleaned the training room, set up the mats, and practiced all of the strikes, kicks, and footwork drills. I do not waste time, then. . . or now!



On Continuing Education:

My present day 'sensei' is the Art itself, and my own students.  I said that correctly!  Yes, teaching is the teacher's teacher!  I




On Your Perceived Strengths?

Footwork!  (Without good footwork one will struggle to do any aiki technique.)  


Good timing and maintaining proper distance are absolutes!


I really try for combinations of strikes, coupled with NGA techniques.  I believe these are very effective and practical under real world conditions.

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This is the Attack Line Video I referenced in the introduction.  Note the hard style, and martial presence (at all times).

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