From tiny Cabot, Arkansas, to Munich Germany, BayouLife recounts the Martial Arts adventures of BayouIcon Bob Allen
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Martin G Meyers
Anytime Bob Allen is sitting behind his desk in the Bob Allen Dojo, chances are he’s facing away from the people surrounding him. Students, parents, and old friends stream through constantly. Some are coming to work out or practice. Others are dropping off their monthly dues or retrieving the random piece of equipment left behind. Still others are just popping in to say hi.
He greets each visitor with a smile, a kind hello, and for the black belts entering, he stands and bows, one of the hundreds of rituals that fill the life of a master practitioner of a martial art. But Allen isn’t just any practitioner. He’s one of America’s premiere authorities on the sport of Karate, a 7th Degree black belt who, at one point, was nationally ranked and competitive on the world stage. Former world champion Tokey Hill remembers Allen well. He should, if only because he squared off against Allen in his march to that first world championship.
“What a great match it was,” Hill told BayouLife. “Yet today, I still think about it.”
Today, Hill divides his time between Ohio and New York, where he operates a successful dojo. He’s still involved in the national Karate scene, too, but not as a competitor. He’s the head coach of the U.S. National Karate team, and Allen is a member of his coaching team.
Hill laughed when he began thinking about Allen’s personality in and out of the ring. Hill likened Allen to a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Outside the ring, Allen is polite and reserved. Things change inside the ring. “Once you get into that ring, he’s vicious,” Hill said.
But it’s a good vicious, Hill adds quickly, and it’s good because even in the ring, Allen approaches karate with the same measured consideration he approaches life. That doesn’t soften the surprise of Allen in the ring. “He’s got such a warm, pleasant personality that, if you never saw him at a tournament or in a gi, you’d never know he’s a fighter.”
On an unseasonably warm December morning, Allen was at the dojo early–he’s there every morning by 9 a.m. to work out on weights and bags with friends. After a spirited powerful workout, he dressed to receive a group of non-traditional students. These kids, ranging in age from 6 to 15, are a part of his homeschooled class.
He took his place at the front of the room and began leading the students through the paces. First, there were calisthenics. Then, for a significant portion of the class, the students worked through patterns. Then, class ended with stretches and a gentle reflection, led by Allen.
Even in a gi, Allen strikes a more paternal note than coach note. For Allen, Karate is a link back to his own youth, just not in the way one might immediately think. “My best friend, Carlos, started taking when I was in junior high,” Allen said. “I was so jealous that, when I joined the Marines, I started Karate.”
The year was 1967. Though the Vietnam War was raging, Allen’s first stop was Yuma, AZ, where he would remain for two years. While there, he joined a Karate club and began to compete in tournaments around the Southwest. Allen also accepted Christ, became a Sunday School teacher, and was a song leader during worship service. His plans were to become a Southern Baptist youth minister. Vietnam would interrupt those plans. “Most people can’t remember when they finished reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but I finished it when I got to Da Nang, Vietnam,” Allen said. “I read the last three chapters that night.”
For two years, Allen served in country in Vietnam. Like many of his comrades, he couldn’t get out quickly enough. “One tour was enough,” said Allen, who left Vietnam in 1969, with just three months left in the Marine Corps. He was transferred to Okuni, Japan, with less than three months remaining. While Allen taught English to Japanese students ranging from two to adulthood, he picked up his study of Karate.
here was a Karate club on base,” said Allen. “The instructor was a most unusual man.” Hitoshi Akiyama was not just an instructor at the base dojo. He was also the chairman of the Japan Karate Association, the largest federation in the nation. For Akiyama, Karate was a hobby and a passion, and soon, Allen was captivated by the master. “He was a big man, very strong,” Allen said.
The first day Allen set foot in Akiyama’s dojo, he was just a brown belt. But two months after landing in Japan, Allen would hang up his brown belt for good when Akiyama promoted him to 1st Degree black belt. Before he left five years later, he had attained his 3rd Degree black belt. He had also returned to tournament competitions, appearing in the All-Japan championships as part of Akiyama’s five-man team each of the five years he was in Japan. In his last All-Japan championship, he won three fights and lost the fourth. It wasn’t a bad showing for an American competing in the land that had invented the sport.
When he returned to the states, Allen settled in Monroe temporarily, where he studied English at then Northeast Louisiana University. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in English, then followed it up with a Master’s degree with the intention of returning to Japan. While in Monroe, he opened his first Karate club, expecting the move to be temporary. “The club started to do really well,” Allen said.
In the meantime, he won six national championships. By 1977, Allen was captain of the U.S. national Karate team, a world-class athlete at the top of his sport. This was where he got to know Hill and dozens of other competitors. On the world stage, Allen perfected his pursuit of the sport.
Thirty-seven years later, Allen remains as involved in Karate as he was then. Even at 66, he’s still a formidable athlete. He works out every morning with weights, dresses out with the classes and leads most of them. And that quiet, intense demeanor persists. He’s also established a legacy.
His son, Hiroshi, leads a successful club in Las Vegas. Hiroshi is a nationally recognized competitor, too. So is Hiroshi’s daughter, who recently finished third in the Pan-American championships. Though Allen is no longer competing, he’s still frequently seen in the ring–as a referee, which Hill points out is a huge honor in the world of competitive Karate, where few individuals ascend to the rank of referee.
Allen knows it’s an honor, and he appreciates the position he’s been entrusted with. After competitions ended for Allen, he was invited to become a judge, an honor in and of itself. “Very few make it to referee,” Allen said.
The referee’s job is to help determine who wins or loses a match. “Being one of the people who decides who is world champion is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” Allen said. The position has taken him from Monroe to Munich, with stops in Rio de Janeiro, South Korea, and even back to Japan. “It gave me a chance to go around the world.”
He’s still coaching with Hill on the national team, and they’re hopeful that Karate will be made into an Olympic sport in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Their chances are good, too, because the 2020 games will be held in Tokyo.
Faith continues to play the most significant role in Allen’s life. Christianity finds its way into his classes. “I teach from a Christian perspective, where Christ is Number One in my life. My children are second,” he said, emphatically. Watching him with students, it was easy to see that children, even other people’s children, are a close second. Children and their interest in the sport are one of the reasons he’s kept at it all these decades.
“Besides loving it, and I feel blessed doing it, I can really help others, especially children, to strengthen their bodies and their minds and also to fill their spirits,” Allen said.