One thing that’s for certain is Chicago values the hell out of toughness. For years we were hog butcher to the world, city of big shoulders and all that. We revel in our brutal weather, freezing our collective asses off on el platforms in the dead of winter. Our traffic has brought many to tears. But we endure. Our football team’s defense seems more important than anything else about the game to the fans because, according to the old saying, “If you can’t beat them, beat them up.” Bears fans will tolerate a crappy offense if only they can enjoy that one shining moment when an opposition player, preferably a Green Bay Packer, is blown up by Brian Urlacher.
It is only appropriate, then, that this city would spawn some tough customers. For the record, I am not tough. I do, however, know a legendary tough guy: Master Bob Schirmer. Unless you’re part of the so-called “no holds barred” fighting community (hereafter referred to as NHB), you’re unlikely to know who he is. For those unfamiliar with NHB, it is definitely an “extreme” sport. It’s the closest thing you can get to “Thunderdome” in the legitimate sporting community. Two combatants enter the field of battle and, by any means necessary (barring eye gouging, biting, fish hooking, and crotch punching), render their opponent unconscious or force them to submit. Only the referee, trainers, or ring doctor can stop the fight before time runs out. Critics call it barbaric, but the fans of the sport see it as the greatest test of martial-arts skill available today. Another designation is mixed martial arts (hereafter referred to as MMA), which encompasses all styles that include standup and ground fighting, whether or not they go to the extreme of NHB. Kicking, punching, and grappling are all part of the game, and that’s where the story of Master Bob comes into play.
Bobby, as he was known as a child, started to train for his career at three years old, punching hands with his dad. If your pop is the interservice boxing champ in the European theater and a decorated airborne ranger, you have to start young in order to maintain the tradition. Bobby started wrestling at about seven years old, and in his first season won the city championship. His wrestling coach, seeing a rare combination of talent and enthusiasm for combat sports, found him a sensei for judo. At 12 he began to study traditional tae kwon do, a very different sport from today’s Olympic style, which bars all punching to the head. Bob describes the Olympic style as “artificial” and “too sporty,” postulating that “they didn’t want to see a figure skater do a beautiful pirouette and get jacked in the face.”
During his teenage years, when he was a self-described “itty-bitty kid,” Bob’s friends got him into a lot of fights by taunting big, tough guys into challenging him. His neighborhood was infested with gangs as well, so there were lots of fisticuffs, this being long before the advent of wholesale gun violence. Inevitably a lot of supposedly tough guys would end up in a hold with Bob slapping them in the face, saying, “See what I can do? Behave yourself.” People quickly learned that you could neither tackle the kid nor beat him standing.
One of the great turning points in Bob’s life came in 1969, when one of the guys in his dojo brought in a film of the legendary Helio Gracie in action. “Here’s this skinny, little guy, like me—I was a skinny, little guy—beating these big strong wrestlers,” said Bob, “and I go, man, this guy’s like me. I wanna be like that!”
Bob credits a man named Mr. Kim for helping him endure the rough treatment he got at the dojo. Most of his instructors were Japanese, and they didn’t take kindly to him roughing up their kids. As a result the 16-year-old, 120-lb. Bob would find himself paired up with 240-lb. behemoths for judo sparring. He got tossed around pretty bad until Mr. Kim took him under his wing and taught him how to exploit angles and directions to take full advantage of speed and technique over sheer mass. His high-school physics teacher told him,” Bobby, it’s all physics!” Bob marks this as the beginning of the style that he created, called combat-do jiu jitsu. He started taking everything he had learned from wrestling, judo, boxing, and tae kwon do and adding it all up. Friends and fellow competitors started calling it “Bob’s hooji stuff,” for lack of a better term, because nobody was really putting it all together quite like him.
Bob joined the Marine Corps out of high school, initially providing security at the Talega Refugee Camp in California immediately after the fall of South Vietnam. While attending raider and scout swimmer school at Coronado Island, he participated in an open wrestling competition on base, dominating his weight class and beating the navy’s champ as well. Days later, after an early morning swim in frigid water, Bob remembers a car pulling up onto the beach. Out popped an officer who ordered him to pack up his gear and get ready to leave. He was to report to Quantico to wrestle for the Marine Corps.
He went on to win the Marine Corps title and the interservice title as well. He also competed in the AAU National Tournament for the armed services, placing fifth in freestyle and second in Greco-Roman. He continued on to recon training and just about everything else that the services offered, eventually training others as an NCO. He captained the Marine Corps tae kwon do team and won the interservice title in that as well, without the benefit of weight classes. Bob was keen to point out that this was old school: “If you hit ‘em in the head, you got four points; if you jacked ‘em and knocked ‘em out, you won.” Martial arts in the military were treated as a means to disable an enemy, so competition was bloody and brutal.
Bob left the Marines and came back to Chicago, coaching at Lane Technical High School, boxing at Hamlin Park, and fighting in various karate tournaments. During our interview Master Bob focused on his participation in martial arts, but then jokingly mentioned, “Oh, I was a cop, too. Forgot about that.” He was a Chicago police officer for 10 years, and, although he enjoyed it on many levels, he feared it would make him an “ugly person” on the inside. Of the people he dealt with, he said, “They don’t invite you for tea and crumpets…You were always dealing with this one fighting with that one…it was rough.” He felt it was time to move on and dedicate himself full time to his true passion, martial arts. In 1993 he opened the All American Academy of Martial Arts, AKA Combat-Do, in a little storefront in Cicero, Illinois. It was in that location that he got the dojo rolling, attracting a strong core of serious students and budding NHB fighters.
About a year or so after Bob opened his doors, the Ultimate Fighting Championship rocketed to popularity via pay-per-view cable. It was the first exposure many people had to the concept of mixed martial arts and NHB, myself included. My roommate, a judoka, and I watched a pirated broadcast in our home, swilling beer and getting fired up by the show. The winner of the event was a total surprise due to the fact that he didn’t look like much of a fighter. A fairly thin Brazilian weighing less than 180 pounds, Royce Gracie, son of the man that so impressed Master Bob way back when, faced and destroyed a succession of monsters. At my home the quarterly events became a regular pastime and always ended in living room judo, complete with carpet burns, bruises, terrified neighbors, and broken furniture.
Because I was an out-of-shape wuss with a passing interest in martial arts and a very limited background in judo, a friend of mine who was an avid student dragged me to Bob’s dojo one evening in 1998. The next thing I knew I was pounding out pushups, crunches, arm circles, and leg throwdowns in rapid succession, sweating like I was in a sauna. We went through a technique drill that befuddled me, and then we started “rolling.” This is a term used for practicing jiu jitsu, so called because it quite literally involves rolling around on a mat, trying to make your opponent submit via grappling. Unlike wrestling, which ends when one competitor’s shoulders are pinned, this continues until someone “taps out” (i.e. gives up), that term coming from the fact that you have to frantically tap your opponent with a free hand to indicate you’re unable to continue without some vital part of you breaking.
I remember the first night: I got caught in various painful holds and tapped out many times. I also remember that it was a killer workout and I found it fun in a very different way from most sports. I continued going to the dojo, and was surprised by how quickly I was able to get comfortable enough not to totally panic when I got my wind cut off or my joints manipulated. For a guy whose fighting experience mainly involved getting beat up, it was a major confidence booster. I eventually fought in a mixed martial arts tournament and beat a black belt in karate on points. The guy kicked me in the gut really hard, but I remembered Bob’s sage advice: “Knock ‘em down and beat ‘em up.” After eking out a victory, I was soundly beaten by the next guy, catching a nice overhand right in the eye.
Combat-Do now occupies a large facility a few blocks away from the original location. Bob’s space is now large enough to accommodate many events, and has become a hub of competitions, exhibitions, and clinics. I could go on forever about the various titles his teams have won. Especially successful are his female students, most notably his stepdaughter, Theresa Vega Schirmer, four-time world jiu jitsu champion and mixed martial arts powerhouse. She won the first of her titles at the age of 14, fighting adults.
Master Bob is a grizzled badass in the truest sense of the words. Don’t just take my word for it; he is one of only six members of the North American Grappling Hall of Fame:
Because he leads one of the greatest gyms on Earth;
Because for four decades he has personified Cross Training and Cross Competing;
Because of his dedication to youth, the future of our sport;
Bob Schirmer is hereby inducted into the Grappling Hall of Fame as a Founding Member.
Copyright 2005, Joe Martinez
Photos: Joe Martinez
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