He worked out with Bruce Lee. Yeah, that Bruce Lee.
Ron Bledsoe, who never lost in 32 tournament bouts, is approaching his 50-year anniversary of teaching karate on Spokane’s north side and his door remains open to anyone who wants to train.
Bledsoe shakes your hand with an iron grip and his eyes read your weaknesses as he smiles. He is the last 67-year-old in the world that you want to try to bully.
“I’m the nicest guy around,” Bledsoe said. “I believe you should be polite, be humble, be courteous and have a plan to kill everyone in the room.”
The danger below the surface aside, Bledsoe’s reach in the community can’t be understated. He volunteers his time to train developmentally disabled people to defend themselves.
“Everyone who is teaching karate in this town I either taught or they grew up watching me,” he said. “It’s a discipline. Everyone has a good time. But respect comes first.”
He works, for free, with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Inland Northwest and his lessons have been received, in some cases, by three generations of Spokane families. Some of his students have trained under him for 25 years.
“I don’t think I’ll ever retire. It’s not that I can’t, I don’t want to,” he said. “An idle mind is not a good thing.”
Bledsoe, who also works as a real estate agent, has a plaque on his wall signifying him as the 1978 world champion. He only talks about it when prompted.
“I plan to do a fight when I’m 70, just to make sure … to see where I’m at,” he said. “I never picked a fight in my life, but I love the competition. If you pull a knife on me on the street, you are going to lose a knee.”
Bledsoe grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Hillyard and boxed at a time when its popularity drew kids off the street. It was an era when boxing greats were giants, not pawns in a business corrupted by promoters who have chased the sport into near obscurity.
He boxed from age 8 to 14 “like the Hillyard Hammer (Chauncy Welliver). He’s my hero,” Bledsoe said. “To this day, I love boxing.”
But he then started karate as a boy and then opened “Spokane Korean Karate Academy” on July 22, 1964, when he was 18.
He fought competitively and he has a photo that depicts his hair flying as he drives his forehead through seven, 1-inch wooden planks and he also did the same thing to bricks.
“In 61 years in karate, I’ve never been attacked by a brick or a board. That stuff is exhibition, not karate,” he said. “But it gets people’s attention.”
Early in his career, Bledsoe said he had the honor to work out in Seattle with Bruce Lee, a martial arts giant who became famous when he starred in a serious of movies before his death in 1973 at age 32.
“I enjoyed watching Bruce Lee perform. Everything was perfect. That man really knew karate,” Bledsoe said.
During one demonstration, Lee asked Bledsoe to put up a hand to protect his ear.
“He said, ‘I’ll kick your ear’ and bam, he would. His speed was phenomenal,” he said.
In 1990, Bledsoe changed the name of his academy to “Bledsoe’s Karate Academy” when he moved into a building at the intersection of North Monroe Street and West Mansfield Avenue.
But a fire gutted that building on Aug. 12, 2005, and Bledsoe has since taught at his current location, 2727 N. Madelia St.
Little has changed through the years, except that Bledsoe admits that his philosophy has softened.
Bledsoe said he was the pupil of a strict Korean teacher who once kicked Bledsoe’s jaw and caused him to bite through his tongue as a lesson to keep his tongue inside while he sparred.
As a result, he was not as forgiving with his pupils when he first started teaching karate.
“Many, many pupils now come for the fitness. I have more women in a single class now than I did for 10 or 12 years,” he said. “My goal is to make you better than I am. That’s my goal as a teacher.”
Bledsoe said he also spends more time with younger pupils than he did years ago.
“The most important student is the youngest person in a karate uniform,” he said. “Your influence on a child is tremendous. I don’t take that lightly.”
As the popularity of boxing has faded, interest in mixed martial arts, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has skyrocketed.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Bledsoe said. “They ask me how I’d do in MMA. I say, ‘I’d win. It’s fighting.’ ”
But he said combatants in MMA are allowed to use elbows and other blows that are barred in karate competition.
“MMA has stretched it to the point to where it’s dangerous,” he said. “But there is no group of athletes who are more physically able. I’m too darned old for it, or I’d probably be out there rolling around with them.”