Clay Johnson – JKD’s Wheelchair Warrior

written by Foster Reves

In The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Sijung Bruce Lee stated, “Cultivate your awareness by imagining an opponent attacking you – while you are sitting, standing, or lying down, etc. – and counter that attack with various moves. Simple moves are the best.”

Enter Clay Johnson. Born August 10, 1961 in Clifton Forge, Virginia, Clay was born with cerebral palsy, a motor function disorder caused by a permanent, non-progressive brain lesion or defect present at birth. Cerebral palsy may result in a variety of manifestations including, in Johnson’s case, quadriplegia. Johnson has the use of his hands and arms, as well as a very strong neck. Clay is able to walk on crutches, but otherwise has very limited use of his legs.

Johnson states that he was approximately five or six when he first realized that he was different from other children, adding that during his school years, he did not have many friends, often being ostracized and even bullied.

Around the age of 10, Johnson became interested in the martial arts. When asked what factors influenced his interest, Johnson states, “I was watching a late night sports special on ABC and there was this amputee guy in a wheelchair that took out five or six other guys in a demo, and I thought to myself, I could do that.? Also around that time, Johnson states that his father took him to the movies to see “Fists of Fury” with Bruce Lee.

Finally deciding to pursue training, Johnson’s initial search was unsuccessful. He states that there was a school in the area and his uncle was willing to pay. However, he was not accepted at the school because of his inability to kick. After this initial setback, Johnson says that he did not pursue training again until approximately ten years later, when he was in college. Clay says, “I was taking administration of justice courses and thought that it would be good to incorporate some martial arts techniques.? This time his search was more fruitful. He found Jimmy Mays, a local tae kwon do instructor, who accepted him as a student. Clay trained under Mays for approximately one year, at which time, Mays was involved in an automobile accident and unfortunately had to quit teaching. After searching somemore, Johnson began studying American freestyle karate, eventually earning a second-degree blackbelt under Eddie Thomas.

Wanting to add to his training, Johnson had heard that Guru Dan Inosanto taught regular seminars in the region. On April 1, 1989 Clay, attended his first seminar under Guru Inosanto in Charlotte, North Carolina. During this seminar, Johnson was impressed on how Guru helped him personally on many of the techniques being taught, even to the point of pulling up a chair himself to see how the given technique could be performed from a sitting position.

Johnson was immediately drawn to the arts being taught by Guru Inosanto. This was due in part because they were so different from his previous training in karate, but mostly because the use of the Filipino weaponry opened up a new world for someone who does not have the use of the lower body. After the seminar, Johnson had a new goal: to begin training in the Filipino martial arts and Jun Fan Gung Fu as taught by Guru Inosanto.
After a few seminars, Johnson began training under Guru Rob Kelly in Charlotte, North Carolina once a month. Johnson asked Kelly if it would be possible for a handicapped person to become an instructor. Kelly said yes, but the process could take at least five or six years of rigorous training. Johnson then sent a letter of intent to the Inosantos expressing his desire to become a candidate in the instructors program. Over the next five years, Johnson attended every seminar that he could, and made regular training visits to Rob Kelly and other JKD/FMA instructors and practitioners in the region.

Johnson states that at times he became frustrated, but continued to work toward his goal. Clay realized that he must not only do his best to become proficient in the techniques that he could execute, but also have a clear understanding of the footwork in order to properly teach others. During this period, Johnson also began training in Muay Thai under Adjarn Chai Sirisute. According to Johnson, he was always curious about Muay Thai and went to one seminar just to watch, thinking that with all of the kicking involved, it would not be worth the time to actually train. Before the seminar began, Adjarn Chai walked over to Clay, introduced himself and informed Clay that he would be training. At Adjarn Chai’s request, Clay began training in Muay Thai as well. Johnson recalls that at a seminar in 1992, Adjarn Chai told him on Saturday that he would be taking his instructor’s test on Sunday. Not knowing what to expect, Johnson said that he became so nervous, he just wanted to go home. The next day, Johnson was given a lengthy written exam in which he had to detail the history and techniques of Muay Thai. His anxiety was prolonged because he had to wait for several months before he learned that he had passed.
On July 1, 1995, Clay Johnson received his certificates as an apprentice instructor in both the Filipino Martial Arts and Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu. When asked to describe his feelings at the time, Clay says, “Well, it’s kind of funny to see a 33 year old guy cry!”

Most recently Johnson attended a JKDU seminar held by Sifu Burton Richardson. Training against a resisting opponent was the key element of the seminar, and Johnson fought against aggressive opponents in all ranges. In order to simulate a potentially very real danger in a street situation, Sifu Richardson had Clay pulled out of his chair and wrestled down to the mat by a resisting opponent. Impressed by the emphases on ?aliveness training,? Clay has since joined Sifu Richardson’s Jeet Kune Do Unlimited Organization as well.

Johnson has been operating American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy in Covington, Virginia since January 1990. According to Johnson, he often gets strange looks when new students enter his school for the first time and realize that he is the instructor. Sometimes receiving criticism, Johnson states, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something until you try it for yourself!” Johnson goes on to say that he often takes cues on how to conduct himself as an instructor and as a person from Guru Inosanto.

Sijung Bruce Lee has been quoted as saying, ?Training deals not with an object, but with the human spirit and human emotions.?

When asked about future goals, Clay says that he only wants to improve as an instructor: ?When I first started this, I never thought that I could go any higher than associate instructor, but now I want to keep on going”.


Anderson, Kenneth N. (Ed), Mosby’s Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary, 5th Edition 1998, Mosby, Inc. St. Louis. PP 300

Lee, Bruce, Tao of Jeet Kune Do, 1993 (reprint edition), Ohara Publications, Inc. Santa Clarita, PP 27.

Photos by: Tim Dean

From Where I’m Sitting

written by Clay Johnson

Hello. My name is Clay Johnson. I was asked by Simo Paula Inosanto to help with the setting up of this page, and I said yes, gladly.

I have Cerebral Palsy. I’ve had it since birth. The Cerebral Palsy I have affects my balance, and the left side of my body slightly. I also don’t have a left ear lobe. All this is a result of being born three months early. Because of my disability, I’ve undergone 30 corrective surgeries from age 6 months to 18 years old. I use a wheelchair to train in, and in order to be more expedient. I can also walk with crutches.

As a child, I didn’t have too many friends, except for adults. When I entered public school in 1967, I was the only disabled person in the school system. I liked school at this time. First grade was fun, and I met a lot of new people, teachers and classmates alike. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Eaton, was very supportive and didn’t treat me any differently than the other kids.

As I said earlier, I have had a lot of surgeries over the years. I underwent two, sometimes three surgeries a year. During my second grade year, I missed a lot of school because of this. I did pass second grade, but because I had missed so much school that year, it was thought I should retake that grade. I didn’t like the idea. First, I was losing the friends I’d had since first grade. Second, I was a kid and didn’t understand, if I passed, why do it over?

In the long run though, it was the right thing to do. This was around the time I started feeling different. I began to get picked on a lot, and called names. The class bullies told me I’d get beat up if I didn’t give them my milk and lunch money. This went on until I got to high school. Even in high school I was picked on and made fun of, but not as much. I didn’t go out, or go on dates then.

When I was in 10th grade, I took Driver’s Ed, like everyone else and passed it, but the school didn’t have a car at the time with hand controls in it. The only reason I can drive today is that my mom made them get hand controls put on the car when I was 18, so I could do the behind-the-wheel part of Driver’s Ed and finish it, and get my driver’s permit. The school system learned not to make my mom mad!

My interest in martial arts began when I was ten years old, but because of my inability to kick, I was not accepted at the local martial arts school that was in our area at that time. Ten years later, when I was in college, my interest in martial arts was rekindled because I was taking administration of justice courses. I thought that having some martial arts experience would be beneficial to being in law enforcement. At that time, I found a local Tae Kwon Do instructor named Jimmy Mays. I trained with Mr. Mays for approximately one year, at which time, he was involved in a traffic accident that left him unable to teach for a long time.
After searching for quite some time for a school that might be willing to teach a person in a wheelchair, I found a teacher who took a chance on me. In 1983, at the age of 22, I started training in American Freestyle Karate under Eddie Thomas of Salem, Virginia. I travelled to Salem once or twice a week to train with Mr. Thomas. When I started to train under him, I was very shy about being in public. Eddie noticed this, and eventually had me doing demos and competing in tournaments, and it was great fun. I got to meet new people. Once again, I was the only disabled person competing at that time, and there were no handicap divisions in these tournaments, so I competed with other able-bodied people. Sometimes I did well, and placed. Other times, I didn’t. Every once in awhile, I would hear that some guys I was competing against complained that I should have my own division, because I guess they thought the judges felt sorry for me and gave me a trophy. That would make me mad, and I would put my anger into my kata, or form, and end up beating them sometimes, not often, but sometimes. I would smile to myself and think, See, I’m as good as you are. As a result, I gained a lot of respect from the other competitors and black belt judges.

In 1986, I was named Karate Review’s Man of the Year. “Karate Review” is a Richmond, Virginia based magazine. I thank Mr. Thomas because he took the time to train me during countless hours of working on forms and sparring. I love sparring and lots of punching, and though I can’t kick, I took the time to learn kicking skills. After 5 years, I received my first-degree black belt on October 29, 1988, and received my second-degree black belt 3 years later on October 26, 1991.

On March 1, 1987, Mr. Thomas opened the Clifton Forge branch of American Freestyle Karate. This started my martial arts teaching career. I was Mr. Thomas’ assistant instructor and school manager for 3 years, and I did this on a voluntary basis, just to learn how to teach and run a school. Unfortunately, since Clifton Forge is such a small town, the school closed on December 31, 1989.

After receiving my black belt in 1988, I became interested in learning something new, and after searching, I heard from a friend that Sifu/Guro Dan Inosanto gave seminars in the Charlotte, North Carolina area once a year. So on April 1, 1989, I attended my first seminar with Guro Inosanto. I was very pleased that Guro Inosanto and Simo Paula Inosanto took the time to help me with several techniques, even getting a chair and seeing how a technique might work from a seated position. After the seminar, my passion became the study of Filipino martial arts and Lee Jun Fan gung fu/jeet kune do concepts. The reason I really liked the Filipino martial arts was that the use of weaponry gave me reach and better coordination on my left side. After the seminar was over, I remember Eddie telling me to have Guro Dan sign my copy of his book, The Filipino Martial Arts. I said, “No, way! He’s a living legend.” But I did go up, and he signed it for me. He told me to keep working out hard and he hoped to see me again.

At that same seminar, Simo Paula gave me a business card for the Inosanto Academy. I called Simo Paula every once in awhile to check on upcoming seminars in the area, and to ask her questions. I know I must have bugged her to death! I did ask her one time if she or Guro had trained anyone in a wheelchair besides me, at the Academy. I told her I was interested in maybe becoming an instructor under Guro Dan one day. She told me that I could do it if I worked hard. It could take years, but keep training. At other seminars, Simo Paula always encouraged me to try new things that I hadn’t done before, like shoot wrestling, Silat, and training on ground that I didn’t really like, but I train in it more now.

Also, in October of 1989, I attended a Thai boxing seminar in Charlotte, North Carolina, taught by Adjarn Chai Sirisute. I did not go to the seminar to train, but just to watch. Adjarn Chai informed me that I would be training. I did, and I really enjoyed it. As a result, I started training in Thai boxing along with the Filipino martial arts/Jun Fan gung fu/jeet kune do concepts.

After I completed these seminars, I started training with Guro Rob Kelly from Charlotte, North Carolina in January of 1990. Once a month, I travelled to Charlotte and trained with Guro Rob. The reason I only trained once a month was because Charlotte is 4 hours away from my home. My training with Guro Rob was very different that what I had done in karate, not better or worse, just different. Where Mr. Thomas was very flamboyant, Guro Kelly was laid back. From Rob and his training partner, Doug Braffford, I learned how to handle myself better in a real fight. I used different types of weapons, single stick or sword or double stick or double sword, single knife and double knife and stick and dagger, along with boxing and trapping and joint-locking skills. I love medium-contact boxing and full-contact stick sparring with gear on. It is so cool! Being an instructor in karate, I asked Guro Kelly if it would be possible for a disabled person to become an instructor in the arts that Guro Inosanto taught. He said yes, but it might take several years of training. I trained with Guro Rob from 1990 to 1996, at which time, he went to school to become a nurse, and he did not have the time to train me anymore. To me, he is still one of my teachers, and so is Doug Brafford. I owe them a lot.

Also in 1990, I started working out with Chip Reves from Radford, Virginia. We would get together once a week to train, and we would also go to seminars together. Today, Chip and I still get together to train every few months and travel to seminars. Chip is one of my best friends.

So, I decided to give it a try, and after several years of training in these arts, I received instructorships in them. They are as follows:

* Second-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate
* Apprentice Instructor in Filipino Martial Arts and Jun Fan Gung Fu from July 1995 to July 2001
* Apprentice Instructor in Muay Thai, Thai Boxing (1993)
* Associate Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts (2001)
* Associate Instructor, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2001)
* Senior Associate Instructor, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2007)
* Senior Associate Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts (2007)
* I am the first physically disabled person to be certified under Sifu/Guro
* Dan Inosanto and Ajarn Chai Sirisute in their respective arts.

Currently, I have my own American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy in Covington, Virginia. I have helped several students to achieve black belts in American freestyle karate. I have trained several of my students in what I call my multi-arts curriculum. My goal with this page is to help other disabled people become interested in the martial arts, and help the ones who are already involved in the martial arts to become better.

If anyone would like to contact me with comments or suggestions, please e-mail me at

I would like to thank the people who helped me get to this point:
My parents
My girlfriend, Kimlee Reid
My teachers: Guro Dan Inosanto, Ajarn Chai Sirisute, Eddie Thomas, Rob Kelly, Doug Brafford
Future contributions will be added by: Glen Leonard, Ken Chun, Joe Singleton.
And a special thanks to Guro/Sifu Dan Inosanto and Adjarn Chai Sirisute. Also to Simo Paula Inosanto. Without her support and encouragement over the years, I would not be doing this web page.

Clay Johnson

  • Fourth-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate (2007)
  • Second-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate (1991)
  • Apprentice Instructor in Filipino Martial Arts and Jun Fan Gung Fu from July 1995 to July 2001
  • Associate Instructor in Muay Thai, Thai Boxing (2009)
  • Associate Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts (2001)
  • Associate Instructor, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2001)
  • Senior Associate Instructor, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2007)
  • Senior Associate Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts (2007)
  • Full Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2013)
  • I am the first physically disabled person to be certified under Sifu/Guro
  • Dan Inosanto and Ajarn Chai Sirisute and Eddie Thomas in their respective arts.

Currently, I have my own American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy in Covington, Virginia. I have helped several students to achieve black belts in American freestyle karate. I have trained several of my students in what I call my multi-arts curriculum.

Ken Chun

*Blue tip belt in Trident Defense System, which is a combination of the arts of Muay Thai, Inosanto-Lacoste blend Kali, and Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts under Sifu Pat Tray.
*Brown belt in Shindokan Tozan-Ryu Okinawan Karate

I have studied different martial arts systems since 1983. The two that I consider to be the main styles in my background are Trident Defense System (a combination of the arts of Muay Thai, Filipino Martial Arts, and Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts) and Shindokan Tozan-Ryu Okinawan Karate. Along the way I have dabbled in basic joint locks, pressure point applications, and anything else that I find useful for self-defense from a wheelchair.

Glen Leonard – In Memoriam, December 7, 2009

This clip features some footage of Glen training at Burton Richardson events.

A Tribute to My Friend and Brother

by Ken Chun


The year was 1985 and I was a freshman in high school. As a disabled student in those days I had the privilege of leaving each class a few minutes early to get to my next class so I could avoid the crowded hallways. It was during one of those breaks between classes that I first met Glen Irvin Leonard II. He was a small, shy guy on crutches who didn’t say much. It took a couple of days before we actually had a real conversation. Nothing too serious, just a conversation about our classes, the teachers we had, who we liked or didn’t like – typical teenager conversation. I had begun training in the martial arts in 1984 and we would talk about martial arts often because he was very interested in training as well.

That conversation was the beginning of an unbreakable bond that would last 24 years. Even when I moved to Heidelberg, Germany in 1986 we kept in touch through the mail. I returned from Germany in 1989 and it was like nothing had changed. About two years later he finally found a place that he could train in Shotokan Karate. I remember encouraging him to pursue it because it had been a dream of his since he was a little kid. After a couple of years of training in that art he found Trident Academy of Martial Arts (now Trident Academy of Mixed Martial Arts). He had finally found his martial arts home away from home! About a month later I joined so we could train together and hopefully become instructors. Well, long story short due to our various health problems we began to attend classes less and less and we didn’t become instructors but we had a great time training and learning the Filipino martial arts of Kali and Panantukan, as well as Muay Thai and Jeet Kune Do/Jun Fan Gung Fu. We would tease each other occasionally about being slackers in our training because, I think, we both felt guilty about not going to class. We just trained on our own and did the best we could to stay active in the martial arts we loved. He especially loved knife fighting! He must have owned at least ten knives and knew how to use every one of them. He carried three knives at all times. He would get excited whenever he learned a new knife technique and he’d go home and practice it over and over again, even while watching television.

Glen died of a brain tumor on December 7th, 2009. We buried him a week ago. I wish he were here now so I could tell him to shut up, smack his hands with sticks again and then buy him a beer. Rest in peace, brah. I’ll see you later…and buy you a beer.