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Mendon native Huff earns title of Junior Grandmaster in taekwondo

By Robert Tomlinson
News Director

YPSILANTI, Mich. — Like any good student, a lot can go through your mind before taking an important test.

These thoughts can include making sure you have practiced and studied the material hard and well enough, reviewing what you know in your head, and even meditation or reciting mantras and words of affirmation to take a positive attitude into the examination.

For Mendon native Michael Huff, that was exactly what was going on in his mind before his big test back in April in Paducah, Ky. Only, this wasn’t for a test in a traditional school class, like science or math, this was a test for the 66-year-old to become a Seventh Dan Junior Grandmaster in taekwondo, also known as a seventh-degree black belt, one of the higher rankings a person can get in the martial art.

“Up until the test, a lot of things go through your mind. Have I performed this enough? Is my technique good enough? I’m going to do this and that, and I can do this. My technique is my technique, my steps are my steps. I haven’t fought anybody for six, eight, ten years, so can I still do it?” Huff said in a recent phone interview. “Once I’m there, this is my show. I am a performer, and I am going to show my best, and so everything else goes out of your mind. I’ve done it a thousand times.”

Testing in front of two other seventh-degree black belts, three eighth-degree black belts, and one ninth-degree black belt (the highest rank a living practitioner can get in taekwondo), Huff performed admirably, performing all the different forms he had perfected and mastered over 46 years in the martial art, which included a variety of different punches, kicks and blocks, sparring with a partner, and, yes, breaking boards with strikes and kicks. If he fails to perform well enough, he cannot test again to get this belt; he needed to pass.

Ultimately, Huff was able to pass the test and earn his seventh-degree black belt, becoming one of the newest junior grandmasters of taekwondo and, in Huff’s estimation, one of about 1,000 in the world to do so.

“Considering there’s over 50 million practitioners in over 100 countries, it carries a lot of responsibility,” Huff said. “It’s very rewarding, and it’s a big accomplishment, one that I never would’ve thought of when I first started out; I just wanted to be a black belt and protect myself.”

Huff’s journey to get to this point in taekwondo, where he is now teaching seminars and judging tournaments and tests as part of the Tae Park Institute of Taekwondo, involves a broken nose, a local YMCA, and a little bit of divine intervention.

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Huff graduated from Mendon High School in 1976, having played football for the Hornets teams of that time. He continued his football career into college at Albion College, where he got injured and had surgery, ending his football career. In 1978, Huff recalls, he was back home over Christmas break hanging out with friends when his group got into an unprovoked fight. In the process, Huff received a broken nose.

About a week or so later, Huff, who had an internship in Jackson at the time, checked his mail and found something that was just a tiny bit ironic, given the situation he was in a week prior.

“I’m back in Jackson and was doing an internship, and I get this flyer in the mail for taekwondo at the Jackson Y center,” Huff said. “I went down, and there were about 25 to 30 other white belts, and I said I’ll give this a try.”

The class was led by Tae Zee Park, a national taekwondo champion in South Korea for six years in the 1960s who immigrated to the United States, founding the Tae Park Institute in 1976, and is a ninth-degree black belt. Huff said one big thing stuck out from Park’s instruction on his first day training and practicing at the Jackson YMCA.

“When I got into class, one of the first classes, this Korean instructor, in broken English, said, ‘If you get a black belt in my organization, no one will ever contact your face,’” Huff said. “I had just had my nose broken in a fight, and I said, ‘I’m in.’ That’s how it started.”

Huff estimated it normally takes someone just starting out in taekwondo to reach black belt status in two or three years with enough practice. Due in part to his athletic background and being able to train with a world champion who was taught by the founder of modern taekwondo in South Korea, Huff said he achieved a first-degree black belt in just 18 months, doing so in 1980.

He said it was difficult to learn the techniques at first, but with the help of Park and some of the senior students, he would eventually master the techniques being taught.

“I heard the word ‘no’ over and over and over again. Every time I would do a technique, I would hear no. That meant I wasn’t doing it correctly. I would do it so many times, watch, and I had senior students that would help me, and some of my senior students had started three or four years before I did, so they would help translate what we’re trying to accomplish with each technique,” Huff said. “Ultimately, it came down to when I didn’t hear no, I knew I was doing it correctly.”

When he looks back at how he got started in taekwondo, Huff, a Christian, said being able to train in the martial art under a master such as Park, and doing so when he did, called that mailing he got in 1978 in Jackson “divine providence.”

“It was just a flyer from the YMCA in Jackson, and it happened to be focusing on taekwondo. I call it God’s hand, divine providence, because there are a lot of instructors around the world that do a very good job, but I just was fortunate enough to be able to have an instructor who was instructed by the founder of modern taekwondo.”

Over the years, Huff slowly worked his way up the ranks in taekwondo, balancing his practices while also juggling jobs with Pepsi, Coca-Cola and A&W, while also starting a family with his wife Barb, in which they have four children. He also started teaching himself, opening the Huff Institute of Tae Park Taekwondo in Ann Arbor of 1985, which operated until 2020.

As it takes a minimum of two years to test for a second-degree black belt, three years for a third-degree black belt, and so on, it took a while for Huff to get to where he is now, but he managed to find a sort of balance in his life between work, family, and the martial art he loves over the years.

“There were some years where I didn’t travel during the week and I was able to teach classes on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, but for the most part, for 20 years, I taught classes on Saturday mornings,” Huff said. “So, the balance was my family gave up seeing dad on Saturday mornings for an hour and a half to two hours, and then we would have our normal family with kids in swimming, baseball, gymnastics, and participating in a lot of activities. Dad was able to be there.”

Huff said there is a lot he learned from taekwondo, and a lot that others can learn from the martial art. He pointed back to the eight tenets of taekwondo: Respect, courage, integrity, humility, courtesy, confidence, discipline, and perseverance, all wrapped in what he called an “indomitable spirit,” or a “never-give-up” attitude. The biggest thing he learned out of the martial art? Self-confidence, self-esteem, and discipline.

“I’ve seen people grow from introverts to extroverts, so that helps people some out of their shell. I see it as, for many, it’s a mental escape, it’s an emotional lift for their day. We used to have a saying when I was practicing in college, that for two hours, I could escape the world and only focus on taekwondo. All of the problems would disappear, and I think everybody needs that kind of emotional release, and taekwondo provides that,” Huff said.

“At the same time, through the years, it helps build discipline. If you want to be good, you have to practice and practice consistently. As you practice, you get better, and as you get better, you gain confidence, and as you gain confidence, you become humble and courteous. You walk with more respect and courtesy and integrity for others. I see all those tenets that I talk about earlier manifesting in people who practice taekwondo. If you practice long enough, just like life, you’re going to experience ups and downs, and you’ll have the opportunity to develop that indomitable spirit.”

As he has gotten older, Huff said it’s still a bit of a process to practice and maintain skills, as his body has changed quite a bit from when he started in his 20s. However, Huff said that while his body moves differently than it did when he started, his power is “just as strong, if not more” than what he was, because, “I know how to use my body better.”

“I don’t know if I coined this or not, but when you’re a young man, your mind tells your body what it can do, and when you’re an old man your body tells your mind what it cannot do,” Huff said. “Then, you have to find out how to make your body work the way it needs to work to accomplish your objective, which is to be able to defend yourself. I’m confident if I had to defend myself on the street, I would be able to do so.”

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Moving onward and upward in taekwondo and in the Tae Park Institute, Huff said he wanted to get to the seventh-degree black belt because it would be a good thing for the future of the taekwondo organizations he belongs to.

“There’s two things with the Eastern Dan philosophy: there’s respect for elders, and there’s respect for people of accomplishment; very high-level respect for people and very-high academics, and respect for people because you’re older and wiser,” Huff said. “I saw that I would have the ability to have more influence across our organization and potentially impact the long-term growth, health and development of taekwondo for the future. The higher I was able to go, to be able to sit with eighth- and ninth-degree master instructors, I have a seat at the table as a seventh.”

To test for his seventh-degree belt, a lot of coordination had to take place over eight to nine months. This included getting a recommendation from Park, who also coordinated with the host site in Paducah, getting recommendations from seniors and peers, and getting judges aligned with the event, since a ninth-degree black belt needed to be part of the panel for the test.

Getting those recommendations required a bit of discussion, Huff said.

“Everybody in our organization, the eighth-degrees and seventh-degrees in our organization, they had to agree with my instructor that I had the character, the techniques, the potential to have an impact in the future, and if I met that criteria, then they would agree with my instructor that, yes, I’m a good candidate for seventh-degree as part of my organization,” Huff said. “Because my instructor is traditional and is recognized as one of the foremost taekwondo men in the world, he always went the extra step to make sure all of his senior students were involved in the decision of a more junior student when it came time for them to test to that level.”

After he completed the test in Paducah in April, Huff said he was “relieved,” because of the stress that such a test was. He added he took three weeks off of practicing to relax after the test.

“You don’t really realize it when you’re going through it, but after you realize it was stressful,” Huff said. “Number one, your instructor is recommending you, so if you mess up, it’s not reflective of you, it’s reflective of your instructor. Number two, it’s reflective of your organization. Number three, if you don’t pass, you don’t get a second chance. At this level, you’re one and pass or one and done.”

Huff said his family, which includes a couple of black belts itself, was proud of him for his accomplishment.

“My wife is obviously thrilled; she’s my biggest cheerleader. My kids were tremendously excited,” Huff said. “They grew up with me giving every Saturday morning to my students, so they saw the progression of their dad becoming a master, and now reaching the status of a junior grandmaster, so they were very proud.”

Huff credits his family, parents, students, senior instructors, Park, and Jesus Christ for his success in the martial art. He said if he stays healthy, he may test for an eighth-degree black belt in eight years “if the opportunity is there.” If not, though, he said he’s satisfied where he’s at in his taekwondo journey.

“If I stay practicing like I plan to, and I still am, there may be an opportunity for me in another eight years to test for eighth-degree,” Huff said. “If not, then I’ll be satisfied with where I am as a seventh dan. But, if the opportunity is there, I’d like to pursue that. It’s just another new goal.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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