RODNEY BATISTE wanted to be a contender. Instead, he became the champion. His sport is full-contact karate, in which accomplishment and fame do not go hand in hand. He is the U.S. middleweight champion, and No. 1-ranked contender for the world title of the Professional Karate Association.
And yet the world hardly notices.
"I thought all along that karate would supersede boxing," Batiste says. "When I first started out, I was getting $500 for a three-round fight.Now you get that for an eight-round fight. I feel that I have done all the things that Ray Leonard or Roberto Duran have done. The training, the working your way up. The difference is, I haven't made any money at it."
Chop, punch, kick: all karate movements to be accompanied by loud yelling.
In the brightly lit troglodyte world of the Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do Institute beneath the sidewalk at 20th and L streets, a 10-year-old completes his lesson.
"What is more important? That you inflict serious trouble, or that you handle yourself convincingly?" the champion asks.
Three men, three women and three children consider their instructor's question. The answer is the latter. The spinning back kicks and thrust punches of their workouts is not a design for prolonged battle, but for a furious moment of self-defense. Talk your way out, and if not: AEEIIIII!
His students aim leg kicks at X-ray pictures held as targets by their partners; each anonymous thorax or thigh bone represents a skeletal aggressor-mugger, bully, rapist, traffic-enraged beer-drunk attacker. Batiste strolls among the snapping sounds, commenting. "Remember, force equals mass times acceleration." His leg rises in demonstration, extends suddenly like a medieval catapult. The blow struck, his foot returns to the floor, poise unaltered. The students marvel.
That's all for today. Recite student pledge.
"To build true confidence through knowledge, honesty and strength. To keep friendship with one another and to build a strong community. Never fight to achieve selfish ends but to develop MIGHT FOR RIGHT!" The nine disperse.
The boy approaches the master. "Mr. Batiste, there's a kid who's giving me a lot of trouble and stuff. I was wondering, should I teach him a lesson?"
"Do what is necessary," Batiste says. "Nothing further."
Karate conforms to its image. Practitioners wear loose-fitting white garments bound at the waist by colored belts indicating rank. They may break boards with ferocious chops, but the tradition of man-to-man combat is one of ritual and form: the blow withheld in favor of martial pantomime.
In the mid-1970s, a full-contact version of the sport was introduced by promoters. An exponent was Jhoon Rhee, a South Korean immigrant to Washington, who developed the special gloves and foot pads required in the contact version. His method, which includes "light contact," caught on here. By 1975, a dozen congressmen, including Walter Fauntroy, were practicing karateists.
As professional kick-boxing sought its place in the panoply of American sport, Rodney Batiste, native of Brooklyn, N.Y., former student of goju and kung fu, ex-U.S. Army finance clerk, current resident of Fort Myer, Va., did what was necessary to become middleweight champion: fought 30 times, with four losses; and what was necessary to become a successful teacher: which was to develop a certain eloquence.
He does not smoke or drink, and to his recollection has never used a vulgarity in the presence of his students. He is a likely candidate for his own Jhoon Rhee franchise. "Yes, it's up for discussion."
He is also, at 29, a gladiator whose salute goes unreturned by the coliseum. He is a champion, but few know his name. He has just turned down two fights in Las Vegas -- not enough money was offered. He has fought six times on television, on cable's Entertainment and Sports Programming network. But the card says "Pro Karate" -- not Rodney Batiste.
Unfailing politeness, unfailingly reciprocated. To his students -- the lawyers, restauranteurs, wives and children each seeking to develop might for right for a fee of approximately $60 a month -- he is "Mr. Batiste."
One of them is Carl Feldbaum, a former assistant Watergate special prosecutor and inspector general for Defense Dpearmtent intelligence. "I had been making some progress," Feldbaum explained, "and one day Rodney invited me to spar with him. My wife was there, and so was my son, Harley. We went at it, and I was doing great, hitting him from time to time, slipping some of his shots. When my turn was over, he was very complimentary.
"I went home that weekend feeling pretty good. Very good, frankly. Did some shadow boxing.It occurred to me that I had some talent for this. Yes, turning pro crossed my mind -- not that I would, but maybe I could've. I was really looking forward to our next workout.
"This time just some other guys were there," Feldbaum recalled. "And suddenly I couldn't land a blow. He started hitting me, and I couldn't get out of the way. Then he started hitting me twice with each blow, and I still couldn't get out of the way. Eventually I just wound up curled in a ball, waiting for him to stop."
Unable to lick him, Feldbaum joined him. And -- after touting Batiste's skills to a reporter -- decided to become his master's manager. "The deal is just to get Rodney some bigger purses. He's really a terrific athlete," Feldbaum explained.
"As a kid in Brooklyn I fought every day," Rodney Batiste said. "I would choose my sneakers according to the expected conditions." At 15, he began studying karate.
His first professional fight was in Asheville, N.C. "We didn't know anything in those days, because we had no experience with full-contact. We had learned these deadly moves, and I really believed that if they were unleashed, somebody would get hurt. I was actually afriad that I would injure my opponent with a reverse kick or something, and be sent off to jail.
"The fight turned out to be trauma city. No ropes on the ring. Barehanded. The only rules were 'karate technique.' You could knee the other guy, smash his head on your knee, whatever you wanted. I headed for the door. The guy ahead of me was my opponent.
"But we went ahead with the fight, and I got knocked out of the ring three times. The purse was $150. I lost on a decision, but I still got $75."
By 1977, after only six professional fights, he was the world champion of the National Karate Association, having defeated a man with 18 victories and who had never before lost a single round.
Three months later he was champion of nothing. "The NKA went defunct," he said with bitterness.
"Imagine there is a fly in the air in front of you." Batiste looks at the fly intently, then at his pajama-clad students. Instantly his fist flicks out catching it. "To attain quickness, visualize the fly.
"The defensive back punch -- is timing essential? Yes. Because you must defend yourself at the proper time. It's like baseball. You don't swing before the ball gets to you, or after it's past. Remember, all moves accompanied by loud yelling, AEEEIIII!"
Legs rise, straighten with a snap, return. The students are left slightly off balance by the awkward motion of the heel attack. But never Batiste.
"I remind the women that 80 percent of men can't fight anyhow," he says. "That includes a lot of the ones who think they're tough. Many can't even ball a fist properly, they don't know what to do with their thumb. And yet, because they have brute strength, people assume they're killers.
"You know, running a karate studio is not the safest job in the world. The riffraff do come in. Maybe they've heard of me, they want to challenge me. One guy came to me and said he wanted to register his hands. They were deadly weapons, he said. He was sitting outside the door, waiting. A little while later he called on the phone from St. Elizabeths, saying that when they let him out he would come and see me."
That for Batiste -- a serious young man -- is a funny story. But he doesn't laugh about the idea of might for right. He says he has seen youngsters' grades improve as they gain confidence in their ability to defend themselves in the schoolyard.
"I had one woman student who had been married for 25 years to a man who beat her. He'd knock her down. She'd come in with her eyes blackened. She was really leading a slave's existence. She was with us for awhile, and her confidence improved, and she got the self-confidence to be able to leave the guy.
"Remember, bullies prey on the weak. If you're not weak, you'll be OK."
"You start off in karate with one set of expectations and wind up with another," said James Mosel, a professor of psychology at George Washington University who holds a brown belt.
"In my own case, it was a taste for exotic things and the interaction of the psychological and the physical. I used to do a lot of sports car racing, which is about making the car do what you want it to. This is about making your body do what you want. Self-defense was secondary to me, but after a while it became more important. The sparring we do became more important -- the supposedly 'mild-contact' sparring that we do.
"Just the other day, two creeps did come up to me, and grabbed me," Mosel said."It didn't amount to anything, but I noticed something. My leg was in the correct position, my hands were in the right place. I was ready."
The nature of Batiste's craft is furious: kicking and punching in a series of movements that have their origin in the animal world -- the flying hoof, the claw.
"Karate was developed after the warlords of Japan confiscated the weapons. So the people mimicked the animals. The karate chop comes from the wild bear, who rears up and slashes. The palm-and-rake, that's like the paw of the tiger. Thinking of self-defense that way stimulates the imagination."
Professional fighting, Batiste says, is "frustrating, exhilarating. It can be like a drug. In a fight you don't remember the pain. You go on and on, and even though by the next-to-last round you just want to be out of there, you still are trying to win."
He vividly remembers his one brush with a knockout. "What happens is you get tunnel vision. You're looking through a long, dark hole. The tendency is to just stand there on your heels, peering through the cobwebs. But your training reminds you what to do. Surviving that is what being a pro is all about."
Batiste believes that his main strength as a fighter lies in a full repertoire of attacks. But he does concede a favored personal tactic.
"I like to bob and weave a lot. The idea is to get the other fighter excited in his attempt to land blows. As they try and miss, it totally exhausts them. But for it to work, you have to be within range all the time. You have to let them just miss you. When they have just missed, they're in perfect striking range. Perhaps then I will combine foot and hand -- two punches, ending with a kick."
He is also known for his reverse side kick, a spinning maneuver in which contact is made with the bone of the heel. When Batiste defeated the Canadian Jean-Yves Theriualt in 1981, Theriault said on television afterward that such a kick had caused his arm to go numb.
Although pro karate has not yet caught on, Batiste still hopes to catch on himself. He believes he has five years left in the kick-boxing ring. He says he looks forward to the battles to come.
"But it's true, training is no longer fun for me. It's not like when I was a kid, and would jump out of bed and run five or 10 miles. I feel I have been to the mountaintop. I shouldn't have to prove anything to anybody at this point."
What is the responsibility of a black belt in karate? Of being U.S. champ? Of being Mr. Batiste of the Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do Institute on L Street? Of being prepared for violence in a violent world?
Suppose, Mr. Batiste, that you are standing in line at the bank and a doped-up crazy appears with a gun and a note. He is a bully, a tyrant, terrorizing a community institution. But you, Mr. Batiste, know you can take him. His eyes are glazed. You can disarm him with one heroical attack, accompanied by the load yelling of your profession.
"I'd probably be up against the wall with the others," Batiste replies after a moment's thought. "But I wouldn't panic. And I think that if the person was threatening a child, or a woman -- then it would be my obligation to take a chance. Just a little karate gives you at least a chance. A lot of karate gives you a bigger chance."
But the recognition he has dreamed of is not of the amateur hero, but of the professional. So far, neither Brooklyn nor Washington has provided it.
As for his chosen sport -- "Full-contact karate is still in its infancy," Batiste says. "It lacks a super-promoter like Don King. I once thought we needed a fighter like Leonard or Duran. No, what we need is the promoter."
He adds: "Jack Dempsey said, 'What goes first in a fighter is desire.' It hasn't gone yet for me."
In the workout room, the students bow.