Always learning: Craig instructor Paul Cruz looks back on 3 decades in martial arts |

Always learning: Craig instructor Paul Cruz looks back on 3 decades in martial arts

Paul Cruz, fellow instructor Shasta Hyer and their intermediate class display martial arts poses.
Andy Bockelman

The number 12 bears special significance for Paul Cruz.

It was the 12th day of the 12th month of the calendar at the start of his 12th year of life that he first began down a path that would last for decades to come.

Cruz recently celebrated 30 years in the world of martial arts with a gathering with his students at Northwest Colorado Tae Kwon Do/Hapkido.

The Craig Press recently caught up with the local teacher on his time in the discipline and how he’s honed his instruction across the years.

Craig Press: How did it first start for you getting in the field?

Cruz: I was up at my babysitter’s house, and she was doing (martial arts) moves. She told me she was doing karate and she had a test coming up. I said, “Oh, I’m a black belt! I know karate!” She said, “Oh, well, can you help me with this?” And I said, “Oh, I was just kidding, I don’t know any of that.” But, then I found out there was a karate school in town, and my parents asked we what I wanted for my birthday, and I just happened to start lessons exactly on my 12th birthday, 12-12-88, just two doors down from where I am today. The old studio where I started was where The Embroidery Shoppe is now. Every time I have a birthday, I like to celebrate this more. Getting older is one thing, but 30 years in this has been a big deal for me.

When did you first start getting serious about the discipline?

I remember traveling to Missouri for a convention, and my instructor’s wife asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and she was really into education. I told her I wanted to teach karate, and she said, “I know you can do that.” That was when I was about 14, and I started taking more classes, some in Denver, and I knew that’s what I exactly what I wanted to do. It took me about five years to get my first-degree black belt, and I just got my fifth-degree last June.

I started teaching with my first instructor, he was taking me around to schools and seminars. We opened a school in Vernal (Utah) and one in Rawlins (Wyoming), like seven different schools in three states. I went with him everywhere he went, sat in the front seat and got to learn everything you could teach. I didn’t really learn the business side of it until I had another instructor who taught me how to run and maintain a school.

What kind of changes have you had throughout the years?

Jason Thomas is my master now, he’s a seventh-degree in tae kwon do, a fifth-degree in hapkido and first-degree in karate. I’m also a second-degree in hapkido and red belt in karate. The reason I left my first instructor was I was learning how to kick and punch, but I really wanted to learn the self-defense side of it as well.

The self-defense of most tae kwon do schools isn’t exactly the same as what I do. We use knives and sticks and learn how the weapon itself can turn into moves if you don’t have it. Say I have two sticks and then get my hands moving really fast and take the sticks away. Those moves are still intersecting the attacks coming after you, and I really wanted to learn close quarters stuff. I was always the guy with the long legs keeping people away from me, but if somebody got in really close and took me to the ground, what would I do? I wasn’t learning that kind of stuff, and I wanted to learn all martial arts not just tae kwon do, learn what everyone else is doing. With my students, I take them to open tournaments where you’ve got karate guys, judo guys, kung fu guys, and we put ourselves up against people we don’t train with. We know what we can do, but we go up against other cities and find out these guys train just as hard as we do. A lot of it’s universal, punching is punching, kicking is kicking, but how do those instructors teach them to put it all together?

When you get to master’s, fourth- or fifth-degree, you start to learn it’s not just all these kicks, punches and blocks, now you learn how to make a move out of it. Instead of just block and strike, you can turn one technique into three techniques. Once you get up there, you can teach better because you understand the level that it took to get you to that point. I’ve heard from a lot of people, “Well, this is just a hobby for me.” For me, this is a way of life. I’ve put everything I have into teaching this and learning from as many different people as I can.

How do you believe the culture of martial arts has evolved? Do students take it as seriously as you’d like? 

A lot of people treat a tournament like tag, if you will; you’re just trying to touch the other person and get a point. Here, we’ll put on our gear and we won’t go for knockouts, but we’re also not going to take it easy on each other. We’ll know what it’s like to get hit. If you’re walking down the street and get hit for the first time, it’s going to phase you. In here, we’re not beating them up, but we’re hitting pretty hard. You want to be able to protect yourself or your parents or whoever else you’re protecting. This is a contact sport, not knitting. We want to do realistic stuff, and you never what someone’s going to do on the street. What are the clues if someone tries to hit you, like raising the elbow.

Some of my students have gotten bullied, and they think I’m going to kick them out if that kind of stuff happens. No, I’m teaching you this so that doesn’t happen. You’d better not be the one starting it, but if you’re defending yourself for real, that’s what I’m teaching you, and how to be a good person outside of the school. It begins and ends with courtesy. I have a kid who’s been with me for eight years, and another kid at school just kept choking him and pushing him down. Finally, I started doing private lessons with him and taught him two moves. This is all you’ve got to do to escape. Guess what; that kid didn’t pick on him ever again. He didn’t have to hurt him, but he did a move to put him on the ground and ask, “Do you want anymore?” and the kid’s like, “No, no!” If they’re going to be attacked, I’m going to let them use it. They’re protecting themselves, and there’s no reason it should be any other way.

What does this three-decade milestone mean to you?

It’s been my dream. People say you can dream whatever you want and do anything you want, and this has allowed me to do everything better. Say you want to play a game of pool. I understand what focus means and understand the angles in it. Training like this has helped my mind to accept everything that comes my way. There’s always going to be a barrier, but it’s how you accept that barrier. You can either quit and go on or face it head-on. A lot of people don’t like to learn new things, the fear of not knowing something makes them feel like a child again. It’s a great feeling, almost spiritual. I just learned something new and it makes me feel even better because I’m not afraid of it. I’ve learned how to accept everything in a manner that’s beneficial to everybody around me. If I can’t take care of myself, there’s no way I can take care of these guys.

It means everything to me. I never thought I would be here as a kid. Maybe it was just a dream then, but as I got older, I saw this is what I wanted to do, not just learn martial arts but teach it. A teacher is just a student that hasn’t quit. A white belt that hasn’t quit. I’m always going to be a white belt because they’re always learning. If I have that mentality, I could wear a white belt, and these kids won’t even care because they know what I can do. It’s what I’ve put into it that makes it count.

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