Happy 67th Birthday to Master Ernie Reyes, Sr. - Tom Callos Recollects
So it’s Master Ernie Reyes’ 67th birthday. Well…let me tell you a bit about Ernie Reyes, Sr.
In 1981 I was 21 years old and I was itching to leave the school I had attended since the age of 11 and head into the big city of the martial arts world. I’d been competing on the tournament circuit in Northern California and had run into a number of Master Reyes’ students —and had seen what was then called “Choi’s Demo Team” perform —-and I was smitten. THAT is where I wanted to be; so I packed my bags, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, jumped on my Honda 750 and moved to Campbell, CA to join his school.
I remember the first day I walked into Master Reyes’ small school, into his office; I was intimidated, nervous, shaky even, as I was dealing with my dreams; under the glass top of Master Reyes’ desk were photos of him with the who’s who of the martial arts world —-all my heroes from the magazines; anyone who was anyone in the martial arts.
Me: “Sir, I’ve moved here to be your student.”
Master Ernie: “Ok, nice to meet you.”
Subtext: “Master Reyes, I want to dedicate my life to serving this school, just take me in, tell me what to do, and I’ll die making it happen.”
Master Reyes: “Oh boy, here’s another one.”
So I proceeded to show up for two classes a day, morning and evening class —and Master Reyes taught them all. My classmates were a who’s who of Karate Illustrated’s top 10 forms competitors —and many of them, all 25 to 50 of them, were the among the best tkd and open tournament fighters in The Bay Area.
Master Reyes didn’t talk, not much. We just trained. Classes were about 90 percent kicking, jump kicking, pad kicking, kicking drills, double kicks, speed kicks, etc. —and we did some forms (not much, as there wasn’t much room in the school), and we fought, a lot. There didn’t seem to be many hobbyists in our classes —everyone there was fully engaged in training like professionals. Nearly every weekend of the year there was a demo to perform somewhere —and for the first several months, I wasn’t invited to attend practice, so I sat on the side —literally, pathetically, begging to be a part of the action. I’d clean the stage at the events, run out the trash, direct traffic, carry gym bags —-I was a demo team leech. I think he invited me to move some chairs off the stage once during a performance —and to me it was like being on the cover of Black Belt Mag. “I’M ON THE TEAM!”
I did, eventually get invited to perform on the West Coast Demo Team, but I think it was more out of pity than because they wanted me there. Master Reyes probably thought I might hurt myself if I kept hanging on to the bumper of his demo team van, getting dragged behind it, as the team went to and from to its various shows.
Master Reyes is the most singularly focused man I have ever met. His mind is completely on his training and his work with his students. He doesn’t talk about books, he doesn’t talk about cars or motorcycles, he doesn’t talk about other people, he doesn’t critique the martial arts scene, he doesn’t express cynicism or sarcasm, he doesn’t put down this style or that —-essentially, he talks about the schools, his students, and things that relate to training, performing, and the martial arts as he likes to engage it. I must have tried 1000 times to get him to talk stink about this or that person or this or that martial arts issue —nope, that’s not the way he rolls.
At West Coast we did just a few basic things: 1. We ate. Food was big —and Master Reyes had a few favorite restaurants —and much of our dialogue as a team and on a friendship level happened over omelets, oatmeal, Thai food, and Pho noodle soup. By the way, you (me) can eat EXACTLY as Ernie Reyes, Sr. eats —and he’ll lose 3 pounds a week and look like a professional athlete —and you (me) will gain 5 pounds and look like you’re carb-loading. 2. We trained. We ran in the morning, then went to class. We met for lifting in the early afternoon, then we trained in the evening. The school was small, the carpet stank to high heaven, and it was so hot in the summer you’d sweat a bucket just warming up —and get heat stroke or something close to it 3 workouts out of five. 3. We went to the movies. 4. We took naps. Master Reyes took a nap every day —and if you clung to him, like I did, you took a nap too.
Then we did it all over again the next day. On most weekends the team was traveling to some tournament or performance. When I traveled with the team, I am now embarrassed to say, I would ask (expect) Master Reyes to get up at 5 or 6 and train me —-yeah, like at hotels, after we’d stayed up competing or performing until well after midnight —I’d then knock on his room door at some unholy hour and we’d hardly speak. He’d grab the pads and we’d head to some hallway or find a spot by the pool or in a meeting room and he’d train me. I have to laugh now, as if some kid knocked on my door at 5 am, I’m not sure I’d be civil. For Master Reyes, it seemed (to me, anyway, at the time) like that was just what we did.
In the 33 years I’m known Master Reyes, I’ve known him to be an incredibly attentive father, an uber loyal friend, especially to his partner in life, Tony B. Thompson, a martial arts fanatic who genuinely appreciates martial arts talent, a dedicated athlete, and someone who defines what I call “the martial arts lifestyle.” He’s got a written-in-stone ethical barometer; he’s hard on the people in his direct circle, but also incredibly gracious, giving, and loving.
Overall, of all the masters and non-masters of the martial arts I’ve ever met, Ernie Reyes, Sr. is as focused, if not more, than the best of the best I’ve encountered —that rare breed of teacher who lives and breathes the martial arts life, for real, with no facade or pretense —and who, somehow, not only carries himself with a level of integrity and dignity that you can feel —but somehow makes YOU want to do the same.
Ernie Reyes, Sr. is cut from the same cloth as people like Jhoon Rhee, Benny Urquidez, Dan Inosanto, Carlos Gracie, Jr., Mike Swain, and that elite, accomplished, upper echelon of the martial arts world —-and being around him was / has been the learning and DOING experience of my life.
Happy Birthday Grandmaster Reyes —you’re one of our international living martial arts treasures —and at 67, you’ve got a life-force thing going that makes you more like 37; you’ve put as many or more martial artists on the floor as anyone, inspired more performances and athletes to push themselves, and have been (are) the deep current of that intangible martial arts historical thing —that “flow,” that is often under the surface —but moves everything on top of it. You’ve managed to transcend the name of any style or system —and embrace and champion all of it.
You’re really something —and I, like so many others, recognize you as part of the heart and soul of the martial arts world today.