ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. -- Walk through any neighborhood in New York, and odds are, you will see one. The glimmering equipment spreads out over hundreds of square feet, dotted with everything from grappling mats to heavy bags. Each facility looks like a neophyte mixed martial artist’s dream, but they seem more likely to draw belly laughs than anything else. Welcome to Tiger Schulmann’s Mixed Martial Arts -- the best McDojo around.
The term “McDojo” has long been the ultimate putdown for any school that teaches the kind of “martial arts” that are more tragic comedy than sound self-defense. Some still stick that tag on Tiger Schulmann’s MMA, thanks mostly to the chain’s previous incarnation as Tiger Schulmann’s Karate.
A karate dojo masquerading as a mixed martial arts gym is hardly new. Ever since the UFC evolved into an obscenely profitable business, traditional martial arts schools have been tacking on faux Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay Thai classes. However, the explanation is not quite so simple when it comes to the how and why behind Schulmann’s switch to MMA.
The answer is a long one, more of a story, really, and it starts in Germany.
The Ghetto, Martial Arts and Nationalism
As World War II raged, living in Germany was a dangerous proposition for anyone who was not buying into Adolf Hitler’s propaganda. The Schulmann family had to make a choice.
“My grandfather decided to leave Nazi Germany because of everything that was going on, so he just gathered his stuff and took his three boys with him, including my father, David.” Schulmann says in a reserved tone that fits the stark subject matter. “There was no way to get to America, so they went east and ended up living in a Shanghai ghetto.”
Growing up in China during the Japanese occupation made for a unique experience. While the Japanese military was notoriously cruel to the native Chinese population, the Schulmann family’s European appearance kept them as safe as they could have been under such circumstances. That tenuous grip on safety was mostly lost on young David Schulmann, who spent his days entranced by imagery that would serve as fuel for the following generation of the Schulmann family’s success.
“My father would sneak out of the ghetto and watch the Japanese military do their formations and martial arts drills from behind a chain link fence … just watching them do that all day, he grew to admire their strength and discipline,” Schulmann says, as he unconsciously creates a fist with his hands. “It was something he wanted for himself and his kids.”
When Schulmann makes a fist, his knuckles tell a story all their own. They are calcified, blunt force objects that only come from a lifetime of fighting. Those knuckles have been putting in work since before Schulmann knew what to make of girls.
“Eventually, my family ended up in New York after the war, and because of the war, my father wanted me to start training,” Schulmann says. “He wanted me to be tough and he wanted me to learn martial arts in a Japanese school. So here I am, this 9-year-old kid, and he drops me, my brother and my cousin at a Mas Oyama Kyokushinkai Karate school in Spring Valley, N.Y.”
At first, Schulmann was turned away because of his age, but his father insisted the school give him a chance. Schulmann, determined to prove himself, quickly won over the skeptical instructors and even Mas Oyama, who dubbed him “Tiger” after realizing his prodigious pupil was born in 1962 -- the Year of the Tiger.
Over the years, Schulmann stuck with the notoriously brutal training regimen emphasized by Oyama -- namely full contact, with no pads; the only limitation was the exclusion of punches to the head. Schulmann eventually started competing on the full-contact Karate circuit as a representative of the Mas Oyama Kyokushin Karate team.
“I was competing, winning all my tournaments in America. There were only two weight classes: 165 and under and 165 and over, lightweight and heavyweight; that was it. I weighed about 135pounds, but I made it to the World Open Full Contact Karate Championships in Tokyo at the Budokan. This was in 1979, and I was a 17-year-old kid fighting men. It didn’t bother me, though. I didn’t know any different,” Schulmann says before jumping into an anecdote that made him realize just how serious this tournament was. “There were no weight classes at the World Open, and when I first got to the Budokan, I remember it being like the movie ‘Kickboxer,’ just a big stadium with this huge gong and a crazy crowd.
“So I start watching one of the fights, and there’s this huge guy, like 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, fighting someone maybe a little bit bigger than me,” he adds. “The big guy hits him right in the face with a knee kick and totally breaks his jaw. They put this poor guy on a stretcher, and as soon as they get him out of there, the next fight starts.”
The massive slab of humanity that shattered Schulmann’s teenage illusions of invincibility was Dolph Lundgren. Still, Schulmann made it to the second round of the tournament and managed to keep his jaw intact. It was a moral victory quickly overshadowed by the creep of adulthood and the decisions that go with it.
At first, Schulmann resolved to go the traditional route and earn a college education, but the lure of fighting proved too great.
“I said, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna make a run at it with martial arts, and I don’t care if I never make any money,’” Schulmann says without a hint of irony, as he sits inside the headquarters of the wildly successful business that bears his name.
The decision was made all the more complicated by a falling out with his instructors, a falling out Schulmann maintains was caused by the Japanese nationalism that pervaded the hierarchy of Mas Oyama’s dojos.
“I got a call from one of the Mas Oyama instructors asking me to go down to this tournament in Alabama on three weeks’ notice. I didn’t want to go, but they begged me into it, basically,” Schulmann says. “So, anyway, I get there, and instead of lightweight being 165, it’s 170. Then I find out that they did that because there’s this Japanese guy, Hioki, they were trying to build into a superstar so they could have a Japanese guy on top, basically.”
The details are all summoned from memory, since it all happened nearly 30 years ago. Schulmann does recall one event with the utmost clarity.
“I wasn’t gonna make a fuss about anything, y’know? I was there to fight, so I figured I’d fight and whatever happens, happens,” he says. “At first, I’m handling him pretty good, but out of nowhere, he kicks me in the balls, and I knew it was intentional. You fight for long enough, [and] you learn when someone is hitting you low just to get out of trouble.”
A second kick to the groin soon followed and Schulmann, frustrated that the referee was doing nothing about the situation, warned his opponent that another foul would end poorly for him. Sure enough, a third kick to the groin landed, and Schulmann responded by hitting Hioki with a left hook to the jaw. It got Schulmann disqualified, but the satisfaction of the knockout was enough for him.
That decision fractured his relationship with the entire Mas Oyama organization and eventually led to his exile.