Legend of a Sensei: Remembering Miguel Palavecino

I could tell you about the time that his leg swung high in a pure arc up to a student’s head, not even touching the guy, then swung back in a complete opposite arc with that same astonishing blur. He was demonstrating, and as he rattled off the permutations of kicking a mawashi-geri, he seemed to forget himself in that moment and the effect he was having on us, because zoom, zoom, zoom — on he went, kick after amazing kick, never touching, as he said, “Or you can do this or counter here…” And our mouths just hung open. I could tell you how he instructed us one afternoon in breaking boards, which was not a stupid circus stunt for entertainment but which really measured the power of your kime. He punched a pine board resting against a student’s belly, and the energy passed through the student and ended up giving the guy a small bruise on his back.

Martial arts students love to brag about their sensei, their teacher. Yes, ours was incredible, but it’s one thing to be impressed by an amazing athlete. He matched that virtuoso physical skill with a scholar’s curiosity and an encyclopedic knowledge of the field. He could look at almost any form from a wide selection of arts — Tai Chi, Wushu, aikido, karate — and he could tell you its evolutionary history, the innovations in it, which masters made it their own…

His name was Miguel Palavecino. He was my karate teacher. He was also my friend. He died more than 20 years ago, and I am still mourning him. And if you study any martial art at all, you should, too.

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Miguel Palavecino in Tai Chi uniform demonstrating with sword

The stories, my gawd, the stories… All of us at Hoko Dojo, our school in Toronto, had a story about Miguel, and the damn shame, the absolute crime, is that he died only a few years before the Internet really took off. Others would never get to know. They would never get to see. Someone out there must have video footage of him, of what he could do, and if it were uploaded— hell, an interview that merely captured his charisma — would ensure that kind of immortality we seem to measure everyone with these days, the kind with “views” and “impressions.” I just went to Google him, and it saddens and appalls me that the only result for him in English is a link to an article I wrote for a minor trade magazine, one in which I briefly pay him homage. He deserves far more attention than that.

He approached karate and Tai Chi with the insight of a graduate of physical education, which I believe he was. Our dojo, like many around the world, started out as strict adherents to the Japan Karate Association style of instruction; literally by the book, meaning what you’d get in Nakayama’s 10-volume set of Best Karate paperbacks. Miguel came into the school one day — and understand this is a man who had studied the art for 30 years — and he almost apologized to us as he said basically, I think it’s time we departed slightly from what the JKA is doing. The footwork can be made more dynamic. We can do this move this way. We can do this better like this.

So the real test is not how jaw-dropping fantastic your sensei performs. It’s how your students excel. And his were karateka to behold. There was the senior whose punch seemed to come at you like the end of a transporter beam; like frames of a film had been cut out, and his fist was suddenly there, scoring on you. There was another senior who seemed to load and hurtle himself at you like a slingshot, and even though you could see his process — too fast, far too fast. You couldn’t react in time; boom. There was the guy who got me interested in all this, a bald, “mild-mannered” fellow with a neatly trimmed mustache, but he was like a tank when he sparred with you. He would just keep advancing, taking ground. Sure, you blocked and defended, but you were the one backing up. And there is no question that Miguel’s innovations helped all of us improve and go beyond the standard.

Keep in mind that all of this happened in a non-contact school. We were trained to punch and kick within a hair’s breadth of an opponent’s chest or nose. The way it should be: safely. Ours was a dojo of collaborative joy. We didn’t go there so we could win trophies at tournaments. I think only one or two of us ever competed, just to see what the circuit was like, and those who did quit that ugly scene soon enough and got back to the real business of learning.

We weren’t about beating the crap out of the other guy to feel big either. Many of us signed up in the beginning to learn how to defend ourselves, and we all wound up on a journey to polish our character. You could really watch people mature and grow in that space. And we were proud that we could count maybe two serious injuries in years of training, accidents that were rare and always should be. The standing joke was that folks got hurt outside. Somebody would come back from winter’s vacation, having broken their leg skiing. They didn’t get hurt in our school.

It was also, in fact, one of the most inclusive places I can think of, well ahead of its time. That’s a tribute to the atmosphere that Miguel and his business partner, an accomplished sensei in his own right, Gary Lynch, created. We had a black British fellow who I’m told was a brilliant hotel chef, a First Nations gentleman, Poles, Greeks, you name it; we had Bay Street banker types and aircraft engineers, janitors and journalists and even a Roman Catholic priest. And woe to the sexist jerk who thought karate was a male thing; I knew women who could take you apart like a tinker-toy. One of them was a lovely French-Canadian woman who was also a crack shot with a .45, while another went on to become a skilled sensei in iaido, the art of drawing the Japanese sword. I remember one session where she giggled every time she scored on me — not at my expense, she was just having such a good time.

I was definitely not one of Miguel’s better students. I got by. I advanced to my nidan or second-degree black belt, was working towards my third-degree, but I certainly don’t rank myself with these giants I mention. I started off gawky and never really became supple, but I was reasonably quick and I got faster. I even grew with the school so that I could occasionally fill in to lead a few classes, but I was no great athlete. I learned that you can truly love something while not having to be the star or master of it.

And beyond all our capabilities was Miguel, our teacher, our sensei. Pushing us, encouraging us, gently scolding us. White belts found him intimidating like the drill sergeant out of An Officer and a Gentleman, only he never needed to yell. “Move the leg, honey,” he’d say gently to them. Guy or girl, the gender didn’t matter. In print today, this looks mildly patronizing, but you have to judge by intent. He indulged fools but didn’t suffer them long.

Traditional karate instruction is by nature autocratic, even mildly fascist. No one’s going to pat you on the head for gracing them with your presence. You’re not a special snowflake. Just shut up and punch. And kick. Now do it fifty more times. But there is a big difference between discipline and a gentle but stern word, and those martial art schools where there is bullying. Miguel would be horrified to learn of an instructor somewhere else hitting a student.

When exasperated with juniors, he used to imitate the police commissioner gone mad out of The Pink Panther comedy films. We white belts were a bunch of clumsy Clouseaus to him, if only we’d wake up. You wanted to laugh, but you didn’t dare. As you progressed up the belts, the “honey” got dropped (except on special occasions when you were particularly dim), and you learned how much he genuinely cared about the safety and well being of his students. Because you stuck with it. That’s when the doors would open and the truths be revealed.

I consider myself lucky to have gotten to know him better. I got to share meals with him and others, I got to discover his eclectic tastes in music. I remember moments on some evenings where others chatted around us, and he and I stood in front of his packed book shelf. He would yank out a volume, declaring softly, “This is a good book. You must read this…” There was one time he looked at me with a grin of mock-pity, declaring, “You’ve never read Howl? And you call yourself a writer?” He loaned me his copy. It was from Miguel’s library that I first read Candide. It was on the hardwood parquet floor of his apartment that I rolled laughing my ass off as his stereo played Steven Wright’s classic comedy album, I Have a Pony.

Once, I flew off to New York City for a couple of days for the sake of a job interview, and my girlfriend at the time came down with her first and only bout of migraine headache. She’d never experienced one before, and she was nearly crippled in agony. But there was nothing I could do for her miles away. After I flew back and got into Pearson Airport, I phoned to see how she was, and she said, “Please just come home…” I rushed back, finding her sobbing with the pain, and within minutes of my arrival, there was a knock at the door. There was Sensei Miguel with his partner, a very skilled shiatsu massage therapist.

I don’t know whether he had called me for something and she’d mentioned in passing her trouble or she had called him for help directly, but here he was with his partner — both of them generously abandoning their own plans for a Sunday to come help us. Off went the young therapist into our bedroom as I sat making conversation with Miguel on the couch. About an hour later, our guests had gone, and my gal was out of bed and on her feet as if nothing had been wrong, no more pain at all. And if you’ve ever experienced migraines, you know what a difference they made.

At one point, I hoped to get Miguel’s innovative teachings into a book, but that project lost momentum and was abandoned — it’s a long story. So I must rely on memory to offer the few scraps I can of a brief biography. Some things he told me directly, others I picked up from fellow students.

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Miguel was born in Uruguay, and I believe he spent his formative years in Montevideo. His sister later told a charming, touching story about how as a boy, he practiced magic. His capital being a port city, he had become entranced on seeing some Japanese merchant marines casually sparring on some docks. At nineteen, he was already becoming proficient in aiki-jitsu (he once showed me a rare photo of himself at this age in his keikogi). His curiosity over martial arts was all consuming. He learned boxing. He learned classical fencing. He had a genuine French commando teach him combat knife-fighting (he demonstrated it once to us with a practice weapon that had no real edge; in a blur, he “cut” several vital artery spots before I could even react to the first one). He trained under Sensei Michihisa Itaya in Buenos Aires and under Nakayama, which gave our school an incredible pedigree of lineage: we could trace our dojo through its instructors back to the original modern founder of karate himself, Gichin Funakoshi.

I was told a story that while living in Buenos Aires in the dangerous 1970s, in what I presume must have been around the time of Perón’s return to power, Miguel got rounded up like so many innocent others and was taken to a police station. Why he was pinched hardly matters. People simply disappeared in that era. This is it, I’m done for, he must have thought. And then out of nowhere, a police officer hanging about the hallway turned out to be one of his karate students. “Sensei!” The cop walked up in surprise, recognizing Miguel and vouching for him on the spot. This man should be released, let him go, said the cop. It wasn’t too long after this that Miguel apparently moved to Canada with the help of his sister.

Over 30 years, he became an expert in Shotokan and Shito-ryu karate, Tai Chi, different styles of gung fu and weapons. Even by his own admission, his training regimen was ridiculously fanatical. He would practice a thousand reverse-punches, a thousand front kicks. While he was phenomenal in execution, this did have an impact on his body, and the consensus is that he caused long-term damage to his heart. And yet, you would never know it from looking at the man. There were days when he apologized and said that he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t demonstrate, but they were few and far between.

Sensei Gary Lynch once told me a story — from a day years before many of us had come along — of how standing yards away, he was supposed to do an upper block against Miguel coming at him and deliver a reverse-punch. Miguel got in every time. From yards away. Every single time. I looked at the impressive distance Miguel would have had to cover. “How’d he do it?” I asked. And Gary shook his head and said almost in a whisper, “I don’t know.”

Another favourite tale was that years ago, when Ontario first thought of allowing mixed martial arts in the province, some regulator consulted all the top martial art instructors. They were even brought in to pound on a motorcycle seat connected to some pedestal or dummy or device, with meters measuring the speed and impact of their blows. One behemoth after another wailed on the target, punching and banging away. Then Miguel politely stepped forward, sent a foot in one of his signature power kicks and knocked the seat clean off its pedestal. The guys doing the measuring couldn’t believe it and muttered, “Um, thank you, Mr. Palavecino… I guess that’ll be all.” MMA didn’t come to Ontario that year, though it came later.

That was long before I knew Miguel, but I didn’t doubt that’s how it happened. Then on a snowy Wednesday evening, January 11, 1995, he went down the line of us senior students in class, smiled at us and asked, “Have I given you your kata?” And each of us replied, “Yes, Sensei.” It was the form we were to practice to advance to our next grade. My own was Gankaku, and I was terrible at it, struggling along. Oh, well. “Have I given you your kata?” he’d ask the next person. And on it went. A few minutes later, in going over a sparring combination, he demonstrated a counter, and even our fastest, most proficient student on the floor couldn’t score on him — Miguel was that damn fast. A blur. And then in mid-sentence, as he was instructing us, he suddenly dropped to the floor. Heart attack.

I had never seen someone die in front of me before. I hope I never see it again. Someone phoned Gary, who got to the hospital in record time — even before some of us from class managed to drive there. As we came into the waiting area, there wasn’t even time for suspense. Gary came through a set of double doors and said softly, “He didn’t make it.” Miguel was only 51.

We filled a church, some of the students showing up in their keikogis, a brave choice but one I didn’t feel comfortable doing myself, and Sensei Okuyama, famous within the Toronto martial arts community, paid a great honour in showing up for the service. Gary gave the eulogy, and Miguel’s sister talked about the brother that only she knew. I don’t think there was a heart that didn’t break as Miguel’s partner wished for him to come back to her. And I don’t think that quiet chapel had ever been quaked with the shouts of “Osu!” before, as we sent off our teacher with the Japanese acknowledgement we used so often to indicate yes, we got it, yes, we understood.

And now it is more than 20 years later, and I’ve just marked a birthday for an age that is a only a handful of years older than Miguel was when he died. I confess that I have mourned him badly. I should have kept training, helped in my oafish, clumsy way to keep up his legacy, but life took me elsewhere, into some nightmares and eventually to some long-cherished ambitions finally fulfilled. I confess to an older man’s laziness and weakness of will. And to be fair to myself, I’m also spoiled for having trained with the best. So now I am a bald middle-ager with a paunch. But I am still a witness. I’m writing about him because while there might be others who have more to tell or could tell it better, they haven’t. They still should.

My teacher, my friend, Miguel, whom I knew for 10 years both within the dojo and sometimes outside of it, was a complex man with his own faults, which I won’t discuss here. Here is where I celebrate the remarkable athlete and innovator, who really deserves a book devoted to him some day and more importantly, his unique instructions adopted into dojos. We can measure the impact of our teachers by how much they stay with us, and I find myself thinking about him often. I imagine how much he’d laugh over people in the street with their heads down, studying their phones instead of the world in front of them. “Awareness!” he’d admonish. I wonder what he’d make of this or that political development or the fight choreography in a Jason Bourne movie.

But most of all, I consider myself damn lucky to have trained with and known such a man at all. The counterfeit coin of today is celebrity; it’s the antithesis of martial arts, a discipline in which you get rid of your ego as you excel in movement, until you’re so good that it looks effortless. But there are some who are so brilliant, you must remember them, you must pay attention to the artist as much as the art. Miguel was like that. He moved his limbs the way a calligrapher dances his black brush across virgin paper. Now he’s gone, and I keep wishing there were more pages…

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Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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