Michael Copeland Biography - Introduced to Martial Arts, Exploring Different Styles, New Challenges Lead to Recognition
Martial arts master and teacher
Through a lifetime of hard work, Michael Copeland has become both an example and a teacher of what can be accomplished when desire is combined with determination. Beginning as a young boy trying to find a way to protect himself from the attacks of older boys, Copeland devoted his life to the study of Asian arts of self-defense. In the process, he not only developed a physical skill that would protect him from attack, but he also learned a clear and focused mental philosophy which would give him maturity and inner calm. Since martial arts training is in many ways an inner journey, Copeland was both surprised and honored when he became the first African American inducted into the World Karate Union's Hall of Fame in 2002.
Copeland was born on May 21, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, John Copeland, worked as a cement contractor, and his mother Lilly was a nurse's aid. John and Lilly Copeland had a difficult marriage. When Copeland was eight years old, his parents sent him to a Catholic boarding school in Riverhead on Long Island. Our Lady of the Little Flower removed Copeland from the conflict he had experienced at home, but he soon found himself bullied by older boys. He promised himself that he would learn to fight, so that he could defend himself in the future.
Introduced to Martial Arts
Copeland attended Our Lady of the Little Flower for almost four years. When he returned to home, his parents had separated. Though he continued to see both his parents, Copeland lived at his father's home. Life on the Brooklyn streets was not easy for a twelve-year-old boy, but Copeland was determined not to be bullied again. When an older boy punched him in the face, his reaction was to run and get his father's machete, a large heavy knife. John Copeland stopped the fight and decided that his son needed a different way to defend himself. He took young Mike to a martial arts demonstration at a local church.
Martial arts are self-defense techniques developed in various parts of Asia. While martial arts teach students how to fight, an important characteristic of the training involves a spiritual and mental discipline that teaches students a way of thinking about the world.
As Michael Copeland watched his first martial arts demonstration, he made a decision. He would master this way of fighting, and he would be better than the teacher who performed the demonstration. However, he had little money to pay for training. He solved this problem at first by going to the library. He read every book he could find about karate, a Japanese martial art which means "empty hand," because no weapons are used. Using the pictures in the books, he practiced on his own. Word spread in the neighborhood that Mike Copeland was a karate expert. Though this rumor did provide him with some protection, since it caused the bullies to fear him, Copeland knew that he would need some real training to become the expert he wished to be.
Exploring Different Styles
In 1970 Copeland moved to Queens and took his first part-time job. From 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., several nights a week, he loaded trucks. Many mornings, he went directly from work to school, where a sympathetic gym teacher allowed him to shower and change. Though he found himself sleepy during classes, he was finally earning enough money to pay for karate training. He found a local studio that taught Isshinryu, a style of Karate that was developed during the mid-1950s in Okinawa, Japan. Copeland studied Isshinryu Karate for four years, earning a brown belt. Different color belts are awarded as students pass tests for different levels of training. Though each martial art has its own belt system, usually white belts are worn by beginners and black belts by masters. Brown belts often represent a high level of expertise, just below black belt.
As he began to experience the positive effects of the discipline of martial arts training, Copeland explored other styles. In 1974 he met a Kung Fu master and began to study the Chinese style of martial arts that had recently been brought into public awareness by a popular television show of the same name. He studied the Tiger Claw style of Kung Fu for two years. Later, he met and studied with Lawrence Clark, a New York master of Tang Soo Do, a Korean style of martial art.
In 1979 Lilly Copeland died, and a grieving Michael moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to live near his aunt. Gambling had become legal in Atlantic City, and casinos were opening around the city. Copeland found a job working in the kitchen in a casino restaurant. Lonely, with little to do in the evenings except run along the beach and sip beer in the bars, he began once again to seek out martial arts training. His search led him to Master Li, a teacher of a newly popular style of Korean martial art called Tae Kwan Do.
Tae Kwan Do, a later version of Tang Soo Do, means "the study of punching and kicking," and is characterized by high, spinning kicks. Some historians believe that Tae Kwan Do can be traced back to a military fight training and honor code used in Korea as early as 50 BCE. The style began to gain its modern popularity during the 1960s, and by 1980 was recognized by the International Olympic Committee. In 2000 Tae Kwon Do became an official sport of the Olympics.
As Copeland began once again to study a new type of martial arts, he had to learn how to set aside the things he already knew and open his mind to learning new forms. Master Li told him it would take ten years to become a master of Tae Kwan Do, and Copeland immediately set himself to the task. He trained seriously and began to enter competitions. When he lost his bout at his first State Championship tournament in 1983, he asked Master Li the secret to winning. His teacher simply said, "Go practice."
Copeland took this lesson to heart and never again practiced "just enough to get by." He trained early in the morning and late at night, improving his skills while others slept. He married and started a family, and he worked at various jobs to earn his living, but Tae Kwon Do became his true career. Between 1984 and 1989 he won several state competitions and competed in the national championships. By 1989 he had earned his fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, becoming a master as he had determined to do ten years before.
New Challenges Lead
Though proud of his success, Copeland soon began to seek other challenges. He met Frank Romano, a martial arts teacher who had developed Kuden Jutsu, a new style of martial arts that combines several styles of fighting along with use of several types of weapons. Kuden Jutsu means "the art passed on by oral tradition." First developed by Romano, it is a combination of six different styles of fighting: freestyle, traditional forms, use of weapons, hand techniques, Polynesian ground fighting, and joint manipulation. Copeland was especially interested in the use and history of martial arts weapons, many of which had evolved from the farm tools that peasants had once used to defend themselves from invading soldiers.
In June of 1996 Copeland once again removed the black belt of the expert and replaced it with the white belt of the beginner. He threw himself into learning the newly developing style of Kuden Jutsu with his usual energy and determination. Soon he was skilled in the use of several weapons along with the many different styles of hand and footwork used by Kuden Jutsu. In 1998 he opened his own studio to teach his skills to others. He ran his studio for three years, then opted to close it and teach his art through the Ocean City Fitness Center.
In early 2001 personal tragedy struck the Copeland family. His wife's parents, Shirley and Richard Hazard, were murdered during a robbery at their house. Copeland had been close to his mother-and father-in-law. The loss of his loved ones in such a violent way shook him deeply, but reinforced his belief in self defense and strengthened his devotion to the spiritual aspect of his martial arts. In 2002 when his commitment to his work was rewarded with entry in the World Karate Union Hall of Fame, he dedicated his achievement to the Hazards.
Copeland's recognition by the WKU was followed quickly by two more marks of success. In 2004 he was inducted into the Action Magazine Hall of Fame and the Worldwide Martial Arts Union Hall of Fame. The Worldwide Martial Arts Union named him Instructor of the Year.
Copeland's response to his international recognition has been quiet pride and continued hard work. He has tried to lead an upright life in accordance with the teachings of many martial arts, which stress persistence and practice, along with taking good care of the body. "Through all the years, I never thought this would happen for me," he told Contemporary Black Biography with some wonder, "but I never gave up on myself."
While often working more than one job to support himself and his family, Copeland has continued to teach the disciplines of the martial art philosophy. He takes special pride in having trained his own children, who both gained a solid knowledge of martial arts before moving on to follow their own goals in life. In 2004 he was pleased to have the distinction of training the first female student in the world to earn a black belt in Kuden Jutsu.
Jet, August 18, 2003, p.55.
"Kuden Jutsu: A Self Defense Oriented Art Comprising 6 Styles." Romatron: Kuden Jutsu Enterprises, www.romatron.com (September 17, 2004)
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Michael Copeland on September 19, 2004.