There is an old saying that says, “no one lives forever. “ However, many touch the lives and hearts of others and in that influence they live forever. Amongst us there sometimes walk immortals. These are our true heroes. They create in us a desire to become more, to become extra ordinary. They might be teachers, parents, coaches, co-workers, bosses, anyone even Karate instructors.
One of the most influential people I knew was a Karate instructor. He was one of my instructors, in fact one of the first. He was a performer and loved performing, earning him the nick name “hot dog”, sometimes we called him “dogger” or “dog” long before it was a colloquial expression. I was amazed the first time I saw him perform a Kata. It was 1984 and he was practicing a musical Kata to the Hawaii Five-O theme. Jeff Iannuzzo could throw a perfect round house kick or side kick vertically, looking like a perfect split position only he was standing. His Kata’s where similar to what we see performed at the top level tournaments and exhibitions of today. Mr. Iannuzzo’s Katas where perfect exhibitions of Karate and Martial arts. Each move was always precise, crisp and just perfect. From the moment I watched that 16 year old young man perform that Kata I wanted to be able to perform a Kata like that with kicks like that, even if I lacked the talent, I wanted to at least come as close as possible to that kind of performance. Twenty-six years later I am still working on that.
I was watching Mr. Iannuzzo be coached by Mr. Steve Lavallee who is now known as Kyoshi Steve Lavallee. I believe I was an orange belt at the time and still working on throwing a side kick above belt level. I was amazed that it was possible to move and put movements together like this young man was doing it. Today we see great performances on the tournament circuit, but to this day I have never witnessed the kind of energy and perfection in Martial Arts Jeff Iannuzzo had in his performance. There were more than difficult kicks and aerial demonstrations; there were precise correct Martial Arts movements, with the energy of a combat for survival. Watching “dogger” perform a Kata enabled a person to really see the raw essence of Martial Arts. I am privileged to have been influenced by these performances.
I also considered Jeff my friend, and now I am sad I will never have a chance to speak with him again. I am happy though to have his memory with me. Outside the Martial Arts he was far from perfect as are we all. However, he was a great person when he walked out of the Dojo too. Jeff’s energy filled a room like a moving wave of water. I know his art had this in it and that is why his performances were so inspiring. Mr. Iannuzzo was hot headed, he had a short fuse, he was impulsive, and sometimes he acted before he thought. However he was loyal, kind, inspiring, dedicated to his students, his art, and tied his whole personality together with his never ending humor.
Mr. I was a tough instructor, he demanded you give your best. I believe he demanded that from himself and that is why he demanded it from his students. His talent was magnified by his dedication. Rick Iannuzzo, Jeff’s brother, told me once that his brother would practice one kick, one movement, or one section of Kata for hours on end. I am convinced this is why his Katas were always outstanding. He did not sit back and depend solely on his talent he worked hard to make his performance perfect. I lack the talent that Mr. I had but I try giving this same dedication to my performance. It is also something to strive for in other life skills. Those who add to their talent with never ending enthusiasm will always be in the lead.
Jeff was also one of the fairest and giving Martial Artist I had the privilege of training with. There are stories enough to fill a novel about the “Adventures of Dogger”. There is one story that lights the way to how Mr. I really was as a person. I hope to tell it here in way that conveys just how great a man he was. It was at one of the many tournaments the Lavallee’s team attended. There was always a great buzz at these local tournaments, that in those days most students and the school as a team always attended. Competitors milled about getting ready for their events warming up, watching others. The Black Belt Kata competition was usually first. Many were standing along the sides of the gym watching the Black Belts perform. Mr. I was doing a spear Kata when the sharp tip of the weapon came loose flying off striking a young boy student from a competing school in the ankle. The child had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. I am not sure how or why, but the child was brought back to the tournament to watch. He never had his chance to compete that day. I know Jeff must have been crushed by the accident. He knew that the child would not be able to perform his Kata or get in the ring for a chance to win a trophy. Jeff went on to win Kata Grand Champion. He gave that trophy to the boy.
There are far more stories to tell about this Karate instructor. He was an adventurous individual. He always pushed the limits in everything. All of my friends, fellow students, and instructors that knew him have stories to tell. He always made us laugh, all the while pushing us to be great. Many of his students became great competitors too. Jenny Hughes was a great talent he coached to perfection, along with John Swistak and too many more to list.
The sad calling hours at his passing was a tribute to how he touched people. I arrived as they began. As I drove down the road past the funeral home I could already see a line of literally thousands of people with sad and blank faces. Most faces I recognized even if I did not remember all the names. Many I did remember as we all trained together for many years. I felt very sad that for many of us it had been years since we had been together. Now we had come together to morn the passing of our friend and Instructor. The thousands of friends, students, and family stood in line on a hot summer day to say goodbye, too soon, to the Last Dragon. A seemingly indestructible person was gone.
Inside the funeral home the line wove in and out of different rooms. As the line snaked around the rooms again I was able to see so many people Jeff had somehow touched. Students and Instructors from other schools we all competed with in the past were there. Black Belts that had not actively trained in years stood in line and talked about coming back. We shook hands and talked about the “old days” as the “new days” would now go on without our friend. I came to the end of that day’s long journey three hours, maybe, standing in line to say goodbye and to try to give some comfort to the family. I hugged Rick, and his mother and his father, and Jeff’s very good friend Scott Ogata and fellow Black Belt. I left with sadness, but also with determination that I would never again walk away from the Martial Arts. Thank you My Friend, my Instructor; you will always be an inspiration. You are truly “The Last Dragon”. You will also live forever, you are still in the hearts of all who were and are inspired by your life.
This post is dedicated to Mr. Jeff Iannuzzo January 25, 1968 – June 29, 2007.
My stories as I remember them during my journey in the Martial Arts