Twenty-Five Years and Counting for Clay Johnson

Kyle Wright, left, and Michael Little, center, go through some drills on parrying punches as instructor Clay Johnson, right, looks on during. Johnson is celebrating 25 years of instruction at his American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy. (Gavin Dressler Photo)

Instructor Clay Johnson, right, uses student Kyle Wright to demonstrate the proper technique to parry a punch. (Gavin Dressler Photo)

Sports Editor




These are just a few of the words that come to mind when you take a look at American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy Instructor Clay Johnson.

Johnson is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, which he was born with.

While in school, he was picked on relentlessly and bullied by other kids who were able to run and do things that Mr. Johnson could not do.

“I was picked on unmercifully through high school,” said Johnson. “I always wanted to take karate or some form of martial arts to protect myself.

“Finally when I was old enough, I found an instructor who was willing to have patience with me and train me,” added Johnson.

Johnson’s first instructor was a local man by the name of Jimmy Mays, but Eddie Thomas of Salem was Johnson’s first professional instructor.

It takes the “Average Joe” three to four years to receive their black belt, but due to Clay’s condition he knew it was going to take a little longer.

“I was against the odds, but it was always what I wanted to do and I worked hard and received my black belt after five years of training,” said Johnson.

After becoming a Black Belt in 1988, Johnson kept climbing the charts of martial arts.

He became a Second Degree Black Belt in October of 1991 and reached the level of Master Black Belt on December 1, 2007.

Johnson, 49, now trains under the famed name of Dan Inosanto. Inosanto is the highest ranking disciple of a man everyone has heard of – Bruce Lee.

Clay is Inosanto’s highest ranking disciple and just recently took a trip out to California to see his instructor.

Inosanto and wife Paula are like parents to Johnson.
“Those are like my parents, I love them so much for everything they have done for me,” said Johnson.

Johnson has been relaying his skills to youngsters since the mid 1980s, but it was in 1990 that he opened his first American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy.

Working through the Covington Recreation Department, Johnson operated out of the former Rivermont School from 1990-1995 before moving to his current location on Chapel Drive in Jackson Heights.

Johnson offers a variety of mixed martial arts to his students.

Students can learn American Freestyle Karate.

American Freestyle Karate was developed by Eddie Thomas in the early 1980s. He combined parts of three different martial arts systems: Shotokan Karate, Americanized Taekwondo and American boxing.

Johnson also offers Muay Thai Boxing, which comes from the country of Thailand.

In Thai Boxing, hand techniques are similar to western boxing, adding strikes with the elbows, knees and delivering low and powerful kicks. This art is a must for any serious martial artist.

Kali-Eskrima-Silat is a complete, unique, self defense art that goes well beyond using the sword and the stick.

Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Jeet Kune Do Concepts is the name for the concepts developed by the late Bruce Lee and his disciple, training partner and friend, Inosanto.

The final form of mixed martial arts that Johnson offers is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art and combat sport that focuses on grappling and especially ground fighting.

It promotes the principle that a smaller, weaker person using leverage and proper technique can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant using joint-locks and choke holds to defeat an opponent.

Johnson has graced over 1,000 youngsters with his teachings, but says that it is not for everyone.

“Most people come in and try it for a few weeks and then give up,” said Johnson. “It is not an easy thing to learn. You got to have the will to want to learn.”

Most of Johnson’s students are teens and adults, but he soon hopes to be able to reach out to a younger age bracket of students.

“I really want to start teaching young kids so they can grow and really grasp the concept as they get older,” said Johnson. “Right now I’m not too good at doing that because I don’t know how to approach it in a friendly way.

“That is why I am going out to California to meet my instructor and go to his classes and see how he works with his young students,” added Johnson.

Johnson sees everyone that he teaches and that takes part in his classes at his academy as one big family.

“Everyone who comes here grows close to one another,” said Johnson. “We are all like one big family.

“People first look at me and say ‘there is no way this guy can teach karate or muay Thai because he is in a wheelchair,'” said Johnson. “I’ve personally heard people say it and it hurts.

“But just because I can’t physically show people everything does not mean that I can’t break it down in a way for them to be able to learn it. That is what I do and that is why I have been successful.”