RICHARD LENCHUS: The Legend
I’ve seen a lot of scary things in my lifetime and you have, too, but most of the scarier stuff was on a big screen or a TV set or in a Stephen King novel. Most of the scarier stuff you’ve seen, that is. My scariest moments have been when Rick Lenchus is in the house.
I’ve told this story before, but the first time I heard the name Lenchus was in the hallways of my high school. One wisenheimer—Fast Tommy Spanelli—was talking about the new girl in town, a sultry little freshman with long brown hair and an adorable walk.
"Stay away from her," said one of the other guys. "Her father’s a madman."
"Yeah—my father’s a madman, too," said Spanelli.
"You don’t understand," said another kid. "This guy is the real deal. He’s like a crazy Jewish super Ninja. I heard that some guy’s dog crapped on his lawn and this crazy motherfucker came outside and kicked the dogshit back at the guy and it hit him in the head and knocked him out cold."
Everyone laughed when they heard that, but it didn’t take long to find out that any story—and I mean any story—about the crazy ninja Rick Lenchus had a modicum of truth to it. Probably more than a modicum.
A few weeks later, I became friends with his daughter. Her name was Kim. She was cute and she did have an adorable walk, but I wasn’t going anywhere near that. Not after she showed me the scar on her lip.
"Where’s that from?" I asked.
"My father," she said.
"He smacks you around?"
"No--I was doing a demonstration with him at the Garden. I was four years old at the time and he would have me put a cigarette in my mouth. Then he’d knock it out."
"With a kick?"
"No, with a shurikan."
"A throwing star. He’d stand like 100 feet away and throw them at me. One time I turned my head and the star caught me in the lip."
"Jeezus Murphy!" I said. "Weren’t you scared?"
"Naw. He wasn’t wearing the blindfold that day, so I knew I had a pretty good chance."
Apparently, when you grow up with a father like that, nothing scares you anymore. But I hadn’t grown up with him, so he scared the crap out of me. But that didn’t stop me from enrolling in one of his karate seminars. Hell, I was one of the toughest kids in the neighborhood and the thought of learning karate from this guy was pretty cool. And it was free.
I walked into a room of about 50 boys roughly my own age. We were all in sweatpants and t-shirts. Sensei Lenchus lined us up in age order. "How many of you have had some karate experience?" he asked. I raised my hand. I’d actually taken six months of Ishin-Ryu at a local dojo.
Sensei Lenchus smiled at me. I’d never seen a smile like that before except, perhaps, on my friend Roger’s pet lizard. He called me to the front of the room. "What’s your name?" he asked.
"Clifford Meth," I said.
"Mr. Meth, this is Mr. Becker." He turned and I tracked with him. Standing at the doorway was another kid wearing a gi and a greenbelt. He was bigger than me and a few years older.
"Mr. Meth?" I looked back at Sensei Lenchus. "Try not to hurt him too badly." There was that smile again. That was the last thing I saw before Becker knocked the hell out of me. He had no mercy. None. He’d learned from a man who didn’t believe in mercy. He believed in endurance.
Becker wasn’t wearing just any greenbelt either. It was a Lenchus-Legend greenbelt. Today, you can earn a greenbelt in anywhere from four months to a year, depending upon where you train. Under Sensei Lenchus, it was a minimum of two years. Minimum. And that’s if you were badass and didn’t miss classes; if you were a diligent and dedicated karateka, disciplined in both kata and kumite. A Lenchus-Legend greenbelt knew all five basic Shotokan Heians, as well as the Tekiokus, and two katas that Sensei himself had written ("the Mask" and "elbow kata"). And you had to fight through a gauntlet of upperbelts to wear your new ku. Of course, after two years of getting beaten on by Sensei, that was a cakewalk. Sort of.
I’m talking greenbelt, friends.
Imagine our brownbelts? Our blackbelts?
Comparing what I see in today’s dojos to what we were doing back in the early 70’s… Well, I just feel sorry for these students, if you want the truth. They’re not prepared for the real thing. A two- or three-year blackbelt earned while fighting with a chest protector on might qualify them to win a game of speedtag, but I'd like to see them fight their way out of a bar in my home town. After six months of Lenchus-Legend karate, getting attacked by a gang was like a night off. It was like practicing on crash-test dummies. It was a joke.
Grand Master Richard Lenchus (who everyone just calls "Sensei") came up the hard way. Truth is, what Sensei Lenchus learned on the street was almost as valuable as what he learned from his masters.
Sent from his home in Brooklyn to live with his mother and younger brother in Richmond, California, eleven-year-old Rick Lenchus got his first taste of the real world in 1949. "I was not considered White or Black," he recalls. "Every day, on the way to school, the White kids beat me up. On the way home, the Black kids got me." One day, the White gang hung him by his thumb with a make-shift meat hook. On his forehead, they wrote JEW with his own blood. "They did that so I wouldn’t forget where I came from," said Lenchus. "I never forgot."
Young Lenchus was discovered in this predicament by a Hawaiian man named Pete. "He asked me, ‘Didn’t your father teach you how to fight?’" Lenchus recalls. "I told him I didn’t have a father." So Pete began teaching him Kempo three times a week for the next few years until he returned to New York.
By the time he hit Coney Island, Lenchus was little more than a fight looking for a place to happen. He fought in the streets; and for the P.A.L. He competed in Golden Gloves bouts and was a gangbanger warlord in 1950s greaser gangs. His rap sheet was good and long before he ended up in the U.S. Marine Corps, and there the fighting continued. He fought on the USMC Boxing team; on the U.S.S. Breckenridge, The Sullivan, The Independence. He served in Japan (from Okinawa to Atsugi) from 1957-1961. It was there that he came under the tutelage of Sensei Kenjiro Kawanabe, a direct student of the legendary master Gichen Funakoshi. Kawanabe awarded Lenchus his shodan in 1960.
Upon returning to the states, Lenchus opened one of the earliest dojos on the east coast. Located at 142 Neptune Avenue in Brooklyn, he received such notables as Lou Angel, George Coefield, Steve Kaufman, Eddie Gross, Harvey Cohen, and Thomas LaPuppet.
Grand Master LaPuppet once told me, "I don’t remember Mr. Lenchus doing katas, but oh could that boy fight!"
You better believe he could fight. Lenchus was part of the 1962 Blood and Guts era with Mas O'Yama at Madison Square Garden—with Peter Urban and Don Nagel. He sat with Sensei Nishiyama when Gary Alexander won the first U.S. championship. He was there at the Gladiators Arenas—at Sunnyside Gardens and those early bone breakers at the Beacon Theater and The New Yorker Hotel. He taught at Jerome MacKays with Senseis Slocum, Mori and Ansei, as well as at Judo Inc. where he trained champions like Malachi Lee.
Sensei Lenchus’s credentials are like a heavy bag filled with gold coins. He’s judged competitions all over the world. Along with being part of recognized associations such as the USA Karate Federation and the AAU, he’s also co-founder of The International Grandmasters of the Round Table and The Grey Belt Society of Elders. He’s done demos for the United Nations and played bodyguard to dignitaries from Moshe Dayan to Simon Weisenthal. He’s even written several martial arts books as well as a weekly self-defense column. His Vermont home is bedecked with hundreds of trophies, plaques, medals, plates, cups, and certificates. He has more Hall of Fame acceptances than a shark has teeth.
Marking his 56th year in the arts, Lenchus spends his time these days providing seminars and delivering motivational speeches. He continues to dedicate his efforts to uniting the martial arts community along with his close colleagues Joe Onopa, Rico Guy, William Louie, Aaron Banks, Dr. Terrance Webster-Doyle, Carlos Varon, and Raymond Alamo. Of the many dojos that have sprung from his progeny of respected blackbelts, he is perhaps proudest of his heirs Master Alan Fisher, Master James Keller, and Grandmaster Bernard "Frenchy" Scarda, whose Legend Shotokan School in Staten Island is among the most feared on the east coast.
Lenchus has been addressed as Hanshi, Shidoshi, Soke, Kaicho, O'Sensei, Shihan, but he still prefers Sensei. That’s what I’ve always called him. And when he calls me, I still stand up, even if we’re on the phone and he’s one thousand miles away. He can’t see me on the other end of the phone, and it doesn’t matter if he knows I’m standing or not, because I’m not doing it for him. I’m doing it for me. I’m standing for the man who taught me that Martial Arts is not just a game of tag but a way of life.
It has nothing to do with the way that guy looked in the parking lot after Sensei tore his jaw off.
(Clifford Meth, a Lenchus-Legend blackbelt, is the author of numerous books and is frequently syndicated by The L.A. Times Entertainment Newswire. He is currently working on Gene Roddenberry’s Starpoint Academy for New Arc Entertainment).
(c) 2005 Clifford Meth. Reprinted with permission by ACTION MARTIAL ARTS MAGAZINE