Martial Arts in the Age of the War on Terror: An Interview with Master Daniel Gimenez

When I was a kid growing up in St. Augustine, I took karate lessons from the great Taekwondo Instructor Ken Durling. Even then, more than thirty years ago, the always kind and soft-spoken Mr. Durling was something of a local legend. I vaguely recall one day before class, sitting huddled with other elementary or middle school aged kids, one of the older kids telling us with great sincerity and enthusiasm of how Mr. Durling had once killed an opponent by punching through his chest, snatching his heart, and showing it to the man before he died. Needless to say, at a young age when I was more willing to entertain stories like that, I was likely a bit quicker in snapping to attention that day and promptly obeying all of Mr. Durling’s commands during class.

I have no idea where this particular myth originated. For all I know, the “showing your opponent his heart before he dies” myth probably began with Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris and then found its way to local heroes or legends like Mr. During, to be endlessly repeated by young students and fans who lionize their indestructible martial arts instructors. The myth itself might be silly, but not the respect that young students have for such instructors. Martial arts instructors are often extraordinarily important role models for kids, who look to them for guidance not only in dealing with a bully, or any sort of dangerous situation, but also more generally in terms of character and discipline.

It was for this reason that almost two years ago I decided to stop in the Karate America martial arts school located off of Solana Road in Ponte Vedra, Florida. I figured I would check into it for my kids, as I knew first hand of the many character building benefits and great memories children receive from a well-structured and well led martial arts program. That’s when I first met Master Daniel Gimenez, who warmly welcomed me. I explained why I was there, on behalf of my kids, and by the time our twenty minute conversation was over he also had me excited about entering the program as well, so I (on the spot) committed the whole family to taking future classes.

Master Gimenez gave me his card as I left that day, headed home to…ahem… explain to my wife what I had just signed us all up for, and it was then that I first got a sense of his impressive credentials. Indeed, his approachability, humility, and kindness during our brief conversation never suggested his extraordinary career as a martial artist as detailed on the back of his card.

To begin with, he is a sixth degree black belt in Taekwondo (a student of Chief Master Bill Clark, who is himself a legend in the martial arts community), which earns him the title of Master. Yet he is also a fifth degree black belt in Kodenkan Jiu-Jitsu, a fourth degree black belt in Kyokushinkai Karate, and a first degree black belt in Krav Maga. In case you lost count, that’s four black belts in four types of martial arts. He has also won multiple world championships in Taekwondo, Karate, Jiu-Jitsu, and kick-boxing. In 1992 he was awarded the title of “Outstanding Fighter of the Year” by the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Of his many martial arts championships, Master Gimenez points to his first World Title in Brisbane, Australia in 1988 as his most important. It was then that he fought thirteen times in ONE DAY to win the title and open doors for him to compete in seventeen countries in the years to follow.

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I recall leaving the karate school after first meeting him and sitting in my car reading over this list of accomplishments on the back of his card and thinking, “Was this the same friendly and helpful guy I just met?” Yes, he was, and I am quite happy to know someone so accomplished (as well as encouraging) is overseeing the instruction of my family and I as we study martial arts.


Images: (L) My son Jack standing confidently with Master Gimenez; (R) My daughter Claire ready to rumble. These pictures are nine months old and both are currently Brown Belts.

Indeed, not only is Master Gimenez an extraordinary martial artist, having been inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, but he is also a great teacher.  This has been recognized in his three “Instructor of the Year” awards, as well as the four times his school has won the “School of the Year” award. I also know of his excellent instruction first hand from the experiences my family and I have had over the nearly two years since we first signed up. The school is run by Master Gimenez and his wife, the extraordinarily talented Amber Smith (a former college athlete and highly ranked martial artist herself). Mrs. Smith is a fifth degree black belt and masterful instructor who often manages the school while Master Gimenez is traveling or overseeing other schools. After being exposed to Mrs. Smith’s abilities, I came away convinced that she would give Ronda Rousey a serious run for her money in the Octagon, but more important is the excellent role model she has become for my children.


Images (Top) Master Gimenez and Amber Smith in a promotional picture. Note the height of her kick. (Bottom) A family picture with their extraordinarily talented son, also a Black Belt.

It has also been a great experience for me. As a historian and academic who seems to live half his life planted in a seat either in front of a computer or with my nose in a book, I constantly struggle to find the time to exercise or stay in shape. Indeed, I seemingly always have some overdue grading or an editing project to attend to. Fortunately, an intensive hour and a half Friday night competition class (involving forms, weapons, and sparring) gets my heart rate up and blood pumping. Plus, perhaps more importantly, it is a great way for me to spend quality time with the kids. The drive to and from practice involves a lot of discussions about karate goals and the hard work and responsibility necessary to reach them. Plus when the kids start fighting with each other or misbehaving in the car I can tell them to settle down or “I’m going to tell Master Gimenez!” (Or Mrs. Smith). This tactic has a fairly high success rate.

But beyond that, I could not help but think a bit about how such training also overlaps with my professional life in some ways. Prior to beginning my current twelve-month sabbatical, for example, I had a student approach me about becoming a faculty sponsor for a college martial arts club, which I would have loved to have done if I would have been around for the year, but the sabbatical insured I would not be. Maybe next year…

But more significantly, I also provide a lot of public commentary and quite often it has been about thorny issues such as events in the Middle East and modern terrorism. Indeed, since the invasion of the so-called Islamic State into Iraq in June of 2014, I have given nearly 40 television or radio interviews about related topics for local media. I have also blogged quite a bit about related subjects and some of those blog posts have been highlighted in major national or international media publications. Recently, I even had the privilege to give briefings on the Islamic State to U.S. Marines. As a result, I think about issues related to terrorism and the potential for terrorism related threats quite a bit, perhaps more than is always healthy for my sanity and peace of mind.

One of the most troubling aspects of the threat of modern terrorism is the willingness of such groups to directly threaten the lives of Americans, often military or law enforcement, and their families here at home. Such threats are made against Americans both collectively and individually. Collectively, as anyone who has been following the news will know, supporters of the Islamic State and other radicalized Islamic terrorists regularly issue threats for attacks against Americans in the United States. They call on their followers to attack by any means necessary, with any means at their disposal.

Obviously, the attacks of September 11, 2001, when around 3000 Americans were killed (with thousands of additional casualties), is certainly the best known example of terrorism on U.S. soil. But since then there have been a number of other attacks, including the recent Islamic State inspired attacks in San Bernardino (14 dead), as well as other Islamist inspired attacks such as the Muhammad and Malvo attacks (10 dead), the attacks in Chattanooga (5 dead), Fort Hood (13 dead), the Boston Marathon Bombing (4 dead- with 264 additional casualties), the Washington and New Jersey killing spree (4 dead), the Oklahoma beheading of 2014 (1 dead), the Little Rock Shooting of 2009 (1 dead), the Seattle Jewish Federation Shooting of 2006 (1 dead), and the Los Angeles Airport shooting of 2002 (2 dead). This is not an exhaustive list of domestic attacks on Americans due to Islamic extremism, but it includes the more well-known of those since 9/11 that might be designated more specifically as a form of “terrorism.”

In many of these cases military personal were specifically targeted. Consider how one of the planes that brought about the devastation witnessed on 9/11 targeted the Pentagon. Or how the Fort Hood attacks were directed against military members on a U.S. base. In the Chattanooga and Little Rock attacks military recruiters were targeted in their recruiting offices. Moreover, since the rise of the Islamic State, their supporters have released lists of the names and addresses of U.S. military and law enforcement members at home, calling on their supporters to target them and their families here in the United States (see examples here, here, and here).

Don’t think this represents a distant and unrealistic threat. There are currently around one thousand Islamic State related law enforcement investigations in the United States. Scores of potential domestic attacks have been pre-empted by U.S. law enforcement and security agencies since 9/11. According to the FBI, Islamic State recruiters and supporters are active in all fifty U.S. states. It’s against this background that U.S. military service people and their families have been alarmed to find themselves (and their home addresses) on Islamic State hit-lists released online.

Also, this threat is not just a national concern, but a local one as well. This is not a problem only in the far off Middle East, or in distant California or New York, as there have been local arrests here in North Florida of Islamic State sympathizers and military residents of North Florida were among those who had their personal information posted online in an effort to encourage sympathizers to attack them and their families. Indeed, as First Coast News reported last March, one local wife and mother was terrified after finding out her military husband was named in an Islamic State hit list, and that her family was “being directly targeted.” Feeling like she was not getting enough support from the military, she said: “I cried almost the entire day. I didn’t know what to do…”

Some examples-

Suspected ISIS Terrorist Arrested in Jacksonville-

ISIS ‘kill list’ targeting Northeast Florida residents-

Jacksonville mom fears for life under ISIS threat-

On a personal note, one of the concerns of public commentary on controversial issues is that not everyone likes what you say and some can be quite bitter about it. To be clear, I have never received a threat, but I have received some comments from people quite angry with my commentary given during a television interview or available online. This worried my wife more than me, as on more than a few occasions she has expressed concern about what “crazies” might be upset with me out there. As a result, we are a bit more security minded at home than we used to be and I see taking karate as a part of that. After all, one never knows when a good well placed side kick might come in handy.

While over the last year and a half, in the course of my research about modern terrorism, I have spoken with military experts, academics, politicians, and law enforcement officers in an effort to gain insights, I never thought to speak with Master Gimenez about it. This was a mistake on my part, as during his career as a martial artist he has trained people in law enforcement, SWAT team members, Secret Service personnel, U.S. Marines, and other organizations in self-defense techniques. Currently, he is a certified instructor in Thai boxing and active as an instructor of the increasingly popular Israeli martial art of Krav Maga, which is also the official self-defense program for all ATA schools.

What about the case of individuals (or their families) worried about modern terrorism? What can an elite world champion martial artist, one who has trained the Secret Service and law enforcement in self-defense, share with regular Americans who are security conscious in an era when terrorists sometimes directly threaten the families of American service personnel? What can that family do to better insure its safety?

Master Gimenez has kindly agreed to answer some questions and provide his insights. He also wants to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Alfaro, Chief Instructor of the  ATA Warrior Krav Maga and Kickboxing Center in responding to the following questions.


Question 1: How did you get started in martial arts? What drew you to it and what inspired you to make it your career?

I began studying Martial Arts in 1977-78 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. I was always very active in sports especially Futbol (soccer) since I was very young. I continue to play soccer and practice martial arts (Free Style  Kyokushin Karate and Ju -Jitsu). At the age of 15 I started training in boxing and kickboxing to improve my fighting style. I really enjoyed it and felt I was part of a group that was not just training to win medals or titles. Parents and instructors looked out for and cared for each other. Collectively, parents and instructors emphasized discipline and keeping us focused and on track, which led to around 200 black belts training in one school.

I continued to train and compete around the world for many years and I continue to stay engaged by running various schools. I love Martial Arts and I am grateful for the opportunity that it gave me to grow as an athlete, a person, and as an instructor.

My father was an important influence in my development. In 1996, I was invited to compete for the professional Full- Contact Sport Ju- Jitsu title in the United States, but I declined the opportunity because my father had passed away just a few weeks before the tournament. Prior to this, I recall having an important conversation with him. I had worried he was disappointed with me because I decided to pursue martial arts as a career rather than professional soccer, but he told me he was happy that I had made such a decision on my own as it was a sign to him that I was ready for life.


Question 2: You have obviously run (and continue to run) successful karate schools, but you have also provided (more specifically) self-defense training for many individuals as well as law enforcement agencies. Could you give us a better sense of the kind of training you offer, both to individuals and law enforcement professionals? Maybe also provide a couple of examples of the types of people that have come to you for self-defense training and how their needs can differ from one student to another?

Anyone has the possibility of being attacked, crime doesn’t discriminate between race, sex, or social class. Our students are not negligent to that possibility and are looking for ways to increase their safety and survival. We train a lot of different students from all walks of life, from doctors to the soccer moms, from the police officers to military personnel.

Initially, students come in with a goal of learning self defense and getting in shape. We educate and empower them with prevention tactics and dynamic responses to survive violent attacks. One of the great things about our curriculum is that it laid out so anyone can come in at any point, train with a class, and walk away with something valuable.

We do teach several law enforcement officers and work with different police departments but on a civilian capacity. Meaning we do not offer a separate LEO class. However, with litigious nature of their job and the scrutiny in which they operate in, we give them a variety options when it comes to use of force.


Question 3: I have sometimes seen self-defense classes offered specifically for women. How do the self-defense needs of women differ from those of men? How and why would the training or emphasis be different, if at all, for women?  

Women’s Self Defense classes are a segue for women to train in our regular classes. It’s difficult for some women to jump right in and get acclimated to class. Either they are hesitant because of the close contact with another person or the level of aggressiveness we want them to perform at. So by offering a Women’s only class or seminar they can build up to training in the normal classes.

The emphasis is really the same when it comes to self defense: awareness, avoidance, and action. We don’t differentiate between men or women. We follow principles and proven tactics as a modern method approach to dealing with violence.


Question 4:  Terrorist attacks come in many forms. In Israel, recently, its citizens have been subjected to a campaign of knife attacks and stabbings. In the U.S. and elsewhere some terrorists have attacked using knives and other bladed objects as well (see examples here, here, here, and here). What sort of training do you offer in response to this sort of attack? Also, what would you tell someone with no martial arts training that is the most important thing to do if they realize they are about to be subjected to a knife attack?

We divide knife survival into 3 categories: Knife Threat Response (KTR), Knife Attack Response (KAR), and Tactical Knife.

KTR is when the attacker is using the knife as a form of intimidation or perceived power to achieve an objective (possessions, bodily harm, information, recognition).

KAR is when the blade is in motion and the attacker is trying to kill or injure you. Tactical Knife is the offensive use of a knife or knife like object in self defense.

The most important advice is you will get cut, but keep in mind the initial wounds may not be fatal, so keeping fighting to get away.


Image:  Master Gimenez brought in his friend, Master Apolo Ladra, for a excellent special seminar on knight fighting that I had the chance to attend on April 22, 2016. Over the course of an hour and a half I was enlightened to just some of the many practical and effective moves that a martial artist can employ against an attacker with a knife.

Question 5: Terrorists obviously like to use guns, as seen in San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, and elsewhere. One might think that a martial artist, if he does not have a gun as well, can do little against a firearm. Yet I assume there are practical situations in which martial arts training can be useful against someone holding a gun. What are those situations? Around the karate school, I have noticed plastic pistols, which I assume are used as training props. What sort of training takes place that can aid those confronted by someone with a firearm? What key piece of advice would you offer someone put in this situation?

Gun defenses are possible and have been made. The race is not against the trigger pull but against the cognitive recognition that a defense is being made. With proper training and mindset an individual can disarm an assailant.

We do teach gun defenses from a variety of positions of disadvantage as well as how to use a handgun as a tool for self defense.


For more information about Master Gimenez’s karate school, which offers training for Black Belts in Taekwondo, Krav Maga, and Kickboxing, see the following links.

Karate America- Ponte Vedra Website


Karate America-Ponte Vedra Facebook Page

Karate America Headquarters- Main Site