Mastering Martial Arts

Instructors Provide Insight Into Their Respective Disciplines

By Rachel Studebaker

From an engaging hobby to a challenging workout to valuable self-defense knowledge, martial arts are an appealing pursuit. These deeply rooted traditions each boast a unique style and function that both children and adults of any age can enjoy the process of mastering. Martial arts teach discipline, foster mutual respect, and demand physical skill and mental focus.

Martial arts can be traced back for dozens of centuries, the origins of these unarmed fighting systems depicted in ancient artwork and texts. For some martial arts, centuries-old techniques inform modern-day practices, while others emerged as recently as last century. Whether old or new, martial arts continue to thrive thanks to skilled instructors who have dedicated decades to learning and teaching their arts. Chattanooga is home to dozens of martial arts studios, whose instructors provide insight into their respective disciplines and share what it takes to become a martial arts master.



Evolved from a Chinese monastery founded in antiquity, with origins tracing back even further, kung-fu is a storied martial art. Kung-fu mirrors nature through movements that imitate the fighting stances of animals. For nearly two millennia, people have assumed the positions of a striking tiger or poised snake in meditation, exercise, or defense. The practice made its way to the Western world and soared in popularity in the 20th century, when movie star Bruce Lee brought kung-fu and its stances to the big screen.

Trevor Haines, owner of Dojo Chattanooga, knows these stances by heart. Trained in both the Five Animal Kenpo and Wing Chun styles of kung-fu, he sheds light on their histories.

“The roots of both arts are from the Shaolin Temple. Wing Chun was developed about 300 years ago by a Shaolin nun who named the new style after her first student. The essence of the style is to control your opponent’s center of balance with minimal physical force and to maintain your attack once their center is controlled, until you are safe.”

The term kung-fu means “achievement through great effort,” an accurate moniker, as achieving the required level of control often means rewiring entire instincts. “The body tenses when the mind tenses. The mind tenses when the body tenses. Learning to reverse that feedback loop, to trust in relaxation and not rely on brute force, is counterintuitive to many,” explains Haines.


What led you to learn a martial art?


Trevor Haines, owner of Dojo Chattanooga

Trevor Haines, owner of Dojo Chattanooga

Trevor Haines: I originally wanted to learn fencing when I was 10 years old, but I was told I was too young. I started learning martial arts as a “plan B” and fell in love with it.

Mickey Swafford: I was always interested in martial arts as a kid, but there were no schools where I lived. When I saw Royce Gracie fight in UFC 2, I knew I had to learn Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

Rick Hall: I began my martial arts training during college. When I was a young man in the late 1960s and early 1970s, martial arts were not as well-known or as popular as they are today. As a former boxer, I was interested in combat arts, and Bruce Lee had just burst onto the scene. “Kung Fu” was a new series on television, and I became interested.

Jessie Thornton: I wanted to learn how to protect myself; I was getting bullied in school. I got started in 1974 with Mr. Ray Reeves in Ringgold. In 1975, Robert Harris and Chester Greene introduced me to Mr. Ben Kiker at Ben Kiker’s United Karate Studio – I have been training with him for 47 and a half years.

Larry Scott: I started martial arts to build confidence. As a young boy, I experienced being bullied. I saw a clip of Bruce Lee filming the movie “Enter the Dragon” and was mesmerized by his impeccable martial arts skills. I asked my father Gary Scott, an Air Force Master Sergeant, about taking lessons. He signed me up for my very first lesson, and I got started in my martial arts career in 1972 at the age of 10.

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Another martial art refined by centuries of practice is jujutsu, the foundation of multiple modern martial arts. This defensive combat method developed in feudal Japan and was taught to Samurai warriors should they need to fight unarmed. While it originated on the battlefield, jujutsu began to develop into a competitive, ground-fighting combat sport and merged into new disciplines. Judo was formed in the early 20th century and was shortly followed by jiu-jitsu. The latter emerged halfway across the world from its predecessor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when Carlos Gracie and his family founded a jiu-jitsu school in the 1920s. Today, this Brazilian style of jiu-jitsu, also known as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, is widely practiced.

Mickey Swafford teaches Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to students at the Chattanooga Jiu-Jitsu Academy. A 4th degree black belt with over 25 years of experience, Swafford expertly instructs his students in ground-fighting, grappling techniques. Jiu-jitsu allows a fighter of any size to gain the advantage, from initial takedowns to holding an opponent from any position. “Through understanding the techniques and the use of leverage, strategy, and patience, a smaller, weaker person can defeat a larger, stronger opponent,” explains Swafford.

He continues, “Learning jiu-jitsu is like putting together a 100,000-piece puzzle with no clue what it will look like in the end. You just have to be patient and get 1% better every day. After a year or two, you will be amazed at what you have learned and how far you have come.”


What skills do martial arts foster?


Trevor Haines: You must learn to relax, especially under pressure, and use your opponent’s force instead of directly fighting against it. Positioning your body at angles that both deflect force and line your structure to transfer your power to the opponent’s center requires the skill to defend and counter-strike at the same time.

Mickey Swafford, owner of Chattanooga Jiu-Jitsu Academy

Mickey Swafford, owner of Chattanooga Jiu-Jitsu Academy

Mickey Swafford: An open mind and a willingness to be disciplined in your practice. It is one thing to mentally know what to do in a certain situation. It’s another thing altogether to be able to physically do it with a resisting opponent.

Rick Hall: Any exercise program requires the mental discipline to get up and participate on a regular basis. With martial arts training, you must learn patience. You do not develop great skill immediately – it takes time and commitment. You must learn to respect and enjoy the journey.

Jessie Thornton: No skills are required to start learning. The skills acquired will be agility, focus, self-discipline, and better stamina and overall health. Also, better flexibility and self-confidence!

Larry Scott: Be willing to apply skills on awareness, learn to react without complacency, and create leverage by learning how to use balance and breathing during the techniques that are being performed. Physical training, self-discipline, and engagement in training scenarios also play a huge role.

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Karate was born in Okinawa, influenced by Japanese fighting styles and Chinese kenpō. Its name simply means “empty hand,” reflecting its unarmed nature and emphasis on using the hand to attack and defend. While the exact timeline of its origin is debated, karate’s influences significantly predate its eventual rise to international popularity in the 20th century. A continually modified art, karate can take different forms, but all maintain an emphasis on its fundamental hand techniques.

Jessie Thornton (left), owner of Jessie Thornton United Karate Studio

Jessie Thornton (left), owner of Jessie Thornton United Karate Studio

Jessie Thornton has been honing his martial arts skills for nearly 50 years and instructs students in karate at his studio, Jessie Thornton’s United Karate Studio. Here, Thornton strives to create a family environment where students can experience holistic growth.

“Martial arts challenge the student physically, mentally, and spiritually. This is an individual sport, and everyone’s challenges are different. I see these challenges as individual goals; we set goals, earn rank, and set new goals. We’re always improving,” shares Thornton.

He believes that any age is a good age to begin learning, and his classes are living proof: “We have students as young as three, and our oldest training student was 87! Many parents and grandparents train with their children. It’s for everyone.”

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A more recent, but just as popular, martial art debuted in Korea in the 1950s when several preexisting Korean martial arts – many with centuries of history – united to form taekwondo. Loosely interpreted to mean “the way of kicking and punching,” taekwondo is known for its powerful kicking and striking techniques. General Choi Hong Hi, considered the father of taekwondo, suggested this name during the merge and became known for his Chang-Hon style of the art.

Rick Hall, owner of Rick Hall’s Tiger Martial Arts

Rick Hall, owner of Rick Hall’s Tiger Martial Arts

Rick Hall has been teaching this original style of Chang-Hon taekwondo at his Chattanooga studio, Rick Hall’s Tiger Martial Arts, for the past 35 years. He holds a 9th degree black belt, one of the highest levels awarded, and is respected by his pupils as Grandmaster Hall.

“When I went to Korea to train for the first time, I learned that taekwondo was not only taught and used in the military for combat, but also taught to civilians who were interested in health, fitness, and mental clarity. The training is dynamic, but not brutal. We want to improve our bodies, not damage them,” describes Hall.

Taekwondo focuses on tenets such as honor, perseverance, and self-control to guide students in their approach to its techniques and to day-to-day life. Hall adds, “In our classes, we are all partners trying to improve our lives through taekwondo and also trying to help each other improve our lives and skills.”

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Krav Maga


While most well-known martial arts hail from East Asia, krav maga was founded by an Israeli man living in Slovakia. Born in 1910, Imi Lichtenfeld grew up training at his father’s gym and became a talented competitive boxer and wrestler. He adapted this knowledge into the krav maga system of self-defense during World War II to help Jewish communities defend themselves against antisemitic attacks. He fled to Israel, where he continued developing his system, and by the 1960s, krav maga was an established and accessible martial art.

Today, krav maga is taught to American law enforcement agencies and civilians alike, equipping them with practical self-defense skills. Krav maga emphasizes real-world situations and prepares its trainees for any potential encounter.

Larry Scott, lead krav maga instructor at Agoge Combatives

Larry Scott, lead krav maga instructor at Agoge Combatives

Larry Scott has over 50 years of martial arts experience and teaches krav maga to participants of the Agoge Combatives program. “I am passionate about safety and giving others the tools necessary to ensure a better chance of keeping themselves safe,” he shares, adding, “It’s all about community safety … helping others learn and live safely is our goal.”

Scott explains how krav maga promotes safety: “The foundational elements of krav maga start with situational awareness. Paying attention to your surroundings and incorporating surprise, speed, and aggressiveness against the threat is the outcome krav maga produces. The key rule of our training is to go home safe.”

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Interested in learning a martial art or just getting started? Here’s what the experts have to say.


Trevor Haines: Be patient and kind to yourself and enjoy the process of learning. Take corrections you receive positively and realize that every student and your instructors are all on this journey together.

Mickey Swafford: Go for it! It’s hard to put into words the impact that jiu-jitsu has had on my life. I have seen that and received that feedback from more students than I can count as well.

Rick Hall: There are many styles of martial arts – not all are for everyone. Try out different schools and find one that is a good fit.

Jessie Thornton: Try it! You have nothing to lose. Trying karate was the best thing I ever did.

Larry Scott: Follow through and give it a chance. You are worth it! It’s not only about your safety and well-being – it’s also about your family and friends.


Cultivating Community

These martial arts, among many others, provide discipline and recreation to people in the Chattanooga area and beyond. Even more so, they provide valued communities. “Our students become our family,” says Thornton. “Often, students will say, ‘Welcome to the family!’ when a new student joins.”

The instructors emphasize that in addition to creating friendships, the community found in martial arts studios is a vital part of the training process. “The friendships and camaraderie are crucial for maintaining motivation. On a practical level, training partners truly round out your skills by touching hands with different heights, strengths, and psychologies,” explains Haines.
Swafford echoes this sentiment, saying, “We are all sharing information with one another and working to make each other better. As we raise the level in the room, our level increases as well. A rising tide lifts all boats.”


Leaving a Legacy

By imparting their knowledge, these local instructors are investing in a larger, worldwide legacy. Together, they carry on traditions rich with history and inspire their students to do the same.

Haines adds a word of encouragement to anyone thinking about getting involved: “Don’t wait to start something new when every condition in your universe is perfectly aligned, or you never will. Just jump in, have fun, and grow from the new experience.”

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