Martial-arts tournaments are noisy events. At mid-November's Pennsylvania State Karate Championship, every 10-year-old in a gi screams from the diaphragm. A dozen mats lie on the floor, and judges sit in chairs, watching their young pupils spin bo-staffs, whip nunchucks and chop the air with bare hands.
Yet here in a high school gymnasium in New Kensington, Yusuf Owens is calm. He sits in a chair, straight-backed and marble-faced, and amid all the heat and clamor, Owens says sagely: "If you're willing to accept a martial art, it's willing to accept you."
Owens operates Martial Arts Against Street Violence (MAASV) with co-instructor Malik Muhammad. Founded in the North Side, MAASV has been based in a former East Liberty auto-repair shop for the past three years. In everyday life, Owens and Muhammad are humble guys — Owens is a stoic truck driver, Muhammad a bright-eyed phys-ed teacher. You'd never guess they run a taekwondo studio. Yet their elementary-age students are practically undefeated.
"My passion is to show kids how to love each other," Owens intones. "I grew up in these same streets. I know what they're facing."
Both men have studied taekwondo since they were children, and Owens' fighting prowess in the late '80s and early '90s is legendary. Neither man can even imagine his life without martial arts. ("I'd be in serious trouble," Muhammad says, "or I'd be doing nothing at all.") Of Muhammad's seven children, five study taekwondo; three are state champions. Any given week, the two men will teach 15 to 20 pupils; most are kids, though one student is 50 years old.
"We'll take anybody," says Muhammad with a laugh. "Not everybody can pay full tuition. We have a severe problem in our community with money. But we say, ‘Come anyway.' The discipline is the main thing."
And along with the discipline comes a respect for a variety of cultural influences. Both instructors are African American; Muhammad is a practicing Muslim. But they are steeped in the history of a martial art that stretches across centuries — and across an ocean. Their black belts are specially imported from Korea. Owens waxes eloquently about Taoist themes, and Muhammad draws parallels between Islam and Eastern philosophy. When he designed MAASV's logo, Owens combined three elements: the ankh, an ancient Egyptian icon frequently used to represent African spirituality; the lotus, the symbol of the Buddha; and the Yin-Yang, for Taoism.
And in a way, their fight is spiritual in nature. Violence in poor neighborhoods is intense, often driven by ugly relationships and peer pressure. "Our community is sick right now," says Owens. "I know for a fact that we can't change the adults. So we're trying to reach the kids."
As teachers, their power is palpable. A moment before Muhammad's son, Jelani, steps onto the mat with a pair of sticks, Owens crouches next to him and whispers into his ear. Jelani nods.
"I told him to stay focused," Owens explains. "You see him talking with the other kids. But he has to pay attention."
When Jelani approaches the judges, he bows, announces his name and begins a solo routine. Most of the tournament showcases "forms," not actual sparring, and Jelani moves with dance-like precision, ambidextrously stabbing and blocking with his two sticks. Then he stops, bows, and retreats to the rank of other students.
MAASV has little online presence, and the organization doesn't advertise. Instead, Owens and Muhammad rely on word-of-mouth referral. Their studio is basic, with mats, mirrors and a small administrative office. Yet their students are top-notch, earning high rankings in every tournament they attend. Muhammad's 13-year-old daughter, Malaka, has not lost a bout in a year-and-a-half, a period in which she's faced roughly 50 fights. On the surface, Malaka looks like a shy teen-ager, but like many of her peers, she has enormous potential. Owens and Muhammad hint at Olympic aspirations.
"But honestly," says Muhammad, "I'm more proud of the kids we have on the Honor Roll." That roll hangs on their studio wall, just a few paces from their mountain of trophies.
At the end of the tournament, their record shines: One fourth place, four second places, one first.
"Not bad," Muhammad says.