His Old Self

An octogenarian in training restores strength and range of motion to levels he hasn’t reached in years through martial arts practice.

Author: Edward R. Ricciuti '59

The education I received in Notre Dame’s classrooms — and during a graduate fellowship at Columbia — has enabled me to scratch out a living since 1959 as a writer, editor, freelance journalist and author. Now in my 80s, I still peck away at a keyboard but the business is tougher than ever. So I supplement my income in these allegedly golden years with additional skills I learned under the Golden Dome, not in a classroom but on the second floor of the old Fieldhouse where, we were told, Rockne’s backs practiced his epic shift.

Generations of Bengal Bouts boxers learned to punch and block in that big room under the caring eye of Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano ’32 ’33M.A. I dedicated my first adult book to him and still have the boxing shoes he gave me. After meeting him, my educator father opined that Nappy had an influence on me so beneficial that it alone made attending Notre Dame invaluable.

Growing up in gritty Waterbury, Connecticut, I knew nothing of Notre Dame until, when searching colleges, I saw a copy of Scholastic featuring the Bengals. I wanted to box and had trained a bit at the YMCA (and, unfortunately, on the street) so I figured that since my father insisted I attend a Catholic college — I was public-schooled until then — why not Notre Dame? As far as my Jesuit-trained father was concerned, it might as well have been Southern Methodist, but he relented and, at age 17, I got on a plane to South Bend.

I boxed under Nappy for three years and then worked for him as a trainer my senior year. I led cals and taught boxers and members of the football varsity who, in those days, trained with boxers to get in shape for spring practice. Several footballers also took it all the way to the Bengals as boxers. The highlight of that year was teaching the late Monty Stickles ’60 a left jab. I like to think it was part of the reason he developed a killer straight-arm on the football field.

The techniques of teaching and boxing I learned from Nappy enabled me to work with amateur and professional programs as a volunteer in my 30s and 40s. Now these same skills bring in a little extra cash for me as head of a nonprofit martial arts school and teacher of Chon-Tu-Kwan Hapkido, a martial art focused purely on self-defense. I also study the Chinese internal arts of Tai Chi Quan and Black Dragon Kung Fu under a world-class master, whose Taoist retreat and horse farm fortunately is a mile up the road from me.

I had tried several martial arts over my adult life, even fought in a few no-holds-barred tournaments, then sat on my duff a couple of decades. Attempting to get healthy after too much booze and not enough exercise, I returned to martial arts with a vengeance in my 60s and today am a fourth-degree black belt and senior Hapkido instructor.

For several years I have taught classes and trained as an internal arts student, keeping me in solid physical shape despite advancing age and the health problems that attend it. In order to throw and be thrown, punch and be punched, kicked and be kicked, perform breakfalls and rolls, I had to add a couple of hours a week exercising at home and also plugged in Tai Chi and a few Kung Fu forms daily.

A portrait of the martial artist in his home studio. Photo by John Himmelman

Then, in March, COVID-19 shut down the classes I taught and attended. Without them, I knew my physical condition would quickly go down the tubes. When it comes to maintaining physical fitness, age does not allow layoffs that youth may permit. Without having to prepare for and teach classes, I had plenty of extra time to train so it turned out that the shutdown had a silver lining.  By mid-August, when I began teaching again — only outdoor, no-contact classes — I was in better shape than I have been for almost 40 years. My training program has been rigorous, requiring extreme discipline: at least an hour, often more, five to six days a week, whether or not I’m tired from writing or stacking firewood, or sniffing from spring allergy.

In an outbuilding that once was my office and now houses fishing and hunting gear, I set up a freestanding heavy bag. I rigged it with a set of attachable arms that mimic those on the wooden dummy, the mook jong, used in various Chinese arts as an inanimate sparring partner. On it, I practice the biomechanics of footwork with hand strikes, blocks, deflections, knees, elbows and kicks.

Age steals the flexibility of legs and hips required to kick well; my kicking had become an embarrassment. I started a routine of leg and hip stretches that hurt so much I knew they were working. Gradually my kicking skill and range improved until, for the first time in years, my kicks were reaching shoulder, if not head high.

I also got my hands on some relatively light free weights and started using them to rebuild muscles and, to my delight, my arms began once more to have the semblance of biceps and triceps. My best equipment, however, was my own body. Different sets of crunches improved my abdominal muscle and I intensified my pushup routine. Once upon a time I could do pushups forever. Today I am working towards 50 in two minutes, the test used for some military and police recruits.

What really put me over the top was employing exercises from the internal arts that involve self-resistance, pitting muscle against muscle, particularly two called Iron Buddha and Snake Turns Over. These probably are the most demanding and productive exercises I have ever performed. Almost as challenging are exercises that doing nothing — or at least not moving — holding a mediation position or one of the many stances used in the arts for as long as mind and body allows.

I continued daily Tai Chi and upped the number of forms. Even the English translations of their Chinese names seem wonderfully Kung Fuey: Fleeting Monkey, Mantis Stalks a Fly and Crashing Elbows, to name a few. The names are not capricious. They describe the essence of the technique.

With classes resumed, I have altered my training somewhat. On class days I can execute kicking drills, stretches and exercises such as pushups and crunches while leading my students. My home workout, therefore, need not be as long. Now that I have profited so much from my pandemic-induced training program, I would be the fool of all fools to end it.

After all, as the old saw goes, I made something sweet out of a lemon.

Ed Ricciuti has been reporting and writing for 60 years and teaches martial arts near his home in Killingworth, Connecticut.