Nine years ago, both Rudolph Barfield and Montez Dennis, co-owners of the Golden Sun Dojo in Hampton, made karate history, becoming the first African-Americans to earn their eighth-“dan,” or degree, black belt in Shorin-Ryu, their Okinawan-based discipline of karate.
In fact, the two, who earned “Kyoshi” or master status with the promotion, became part of a select group. Very few martial artists ever attain the rank of eighth-degree, and it is even rarer considering that Shorin-Ryu is best known on Okinawa, its home base, south of mainland Japan in the Ryukyu Islands, as well as on the West Coast.
For both Barfield and Dennis, earning their eighth-degree was the culmination of decades worth of practicing and teaching in the martial arts. At the time, Dennis, who started as Barfield’s student, was in his mid-50s, while Barfield was approaching the standard retirement age (65). It would have been easy to rest on their laurels and continue operating their successful school, which has been at the same location on Big Bethel Road since its opening in 1994.
Yet, the men had more to prove. And on May 1, 2015, Barfield and Dennis accomplished a feat that is almost unthinkable, the earning of their ninth-degree level of mastery within the Tadashi Yamashita International Association.
To gain a rudimentary understanding of the significance of this accomplishment, one only needs to look at the certificates that were awarded to both men. As Barfield talked about the process of earning this degree, he slid out a piece of 11-x-17 parchment from under the mat on his desk. Underneath the inscription noting the granting of the rank in recognition for “your constant devotion to karate do,” was a blank line filled in with black ink – “Barfield #5.”
“Dennis is number 6,” Barfield said. “We are the only ones on the East Coast who have reached this rank.”
And since Kyoshi Yamashita is the only 10th-degree practitioner, he had to personally make the trip from California to conduct the test, which is less involved with the physical aspects of the sport than expected.
“It takes years of techniques and training that you have to remember,” said Dennis, now 61. “But it depends more on how you teach it to others.”
In fact, while earning lower degrees requires a strenuous weekend of physical karate activity, the ninth-degree test only lasts one day.
“He (Yamashita) watches you teach and give a seminar,” Dennis said. “The test is shorter, but the knowledge is longer.”
Dennis added that in the higher degrees, the focus switches to how much knowledge a student has passed on to others.
And when does the student feel confident enough to call the Grand Master to be tested?
Added Dennis, “The instructor tells you when you are ready. We don’t tell the instructor. If you ask, you’re not ready.”
Would it be possible for Barfield and Dennis to attain their 10th-degree, seeing that only one man, Yamashita, holds the rank?
“To get promoted again, someone will have to die,” said Barfield, 73. “Or retire,” added Dennis.
Asked about the possibility of the 76-year-old Yamashita stepping aside, Dennis smiles and said, “No time soon.”
There is plenty to keep Barfield and Dennis busy. They have been busy taking their message of personal accountability and discipline through martial arts to the street, working with local leaders to form a community-based network. Two events have been held, and the first was at Heritage High School.
“We had the kids on one side and the adults on the other,” said Dennis, adding that police officers, counselors, city council members and even Rev. Anthony Cooper, his senior pastor from the Miracle Temple Baptist Church, are involved with the movement. “We’re aiming to get kids off the street.”
Dennis was surprised to learn that both adults and children shared some of the same concerns and was impressed with their level of questions for the community leaders.
To add another incentive for visiting Golden Sun, boxing classes have started at the dojo on Monday and Wednesday nights, as well as Saturdays.
If the classes fail to get one’s attention, perhaps a demonstration of the masters’ skills will. Barfield reflected on one type of skeptical spectator watching him perform.
“I have a demonstration where I cut a cucumber off of someone’s head. And it seems like there is always someone there who is just talk, talk and talk. So I’ll invite the person up to assist and ask him to get on his hands and knees. Once he sees the blade on the knife, his eyes start to roll around in his head.”
Karate remains a family affair for Golden Sun. Dennis’ wife of 31 years, Natalie, is a sixth-degree black belt and instructor, while sons Carlos and Nikko have been students, and instructors, at the dojo. But the lineage of the students training at Golden Sun is just as important.
“We have students who go on to attend Harvard and other Ivy League schools,” said Dennis. “But they start out as kids and end up bringing their kids to the dojo. We have third- and fourth-generation students here. Hopefully, we’re doing something right.”
On April 3, Golden Sun Dojo will co-sponsor the East Coast Martial Arts Tidewater Challenge at Bethel High School. Now in its 28th year, the tournament has something for everybody, with more than 300 participants from 110 divisions engaging in many different styles of karate, including Kendo, Tae Kwon Do and Shorin-Yu.
The event is open to all styles and associations, and there will be a cash prize for black-belt grand champions. For more information, visit goldensundojo.com, or call (757) 722-5702 or (757) 531-5493.