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February 1996

Elvis Is In the House

Two-time world figure skating champion Elvis Stojko and his teacher sifu Glen Doyle, brought the house down with a performance that combined beauty and power.

By Herb Borkland

Last March 9 in Birmingham, England, defending world figure skating champion Elvis Stojko narrowly edged Todd Eldredge to retain his title.

Thanks to his signature triple axels and quadruple toe loops. But, what does the hottest skater on ice do when he takes off his blades? Well…

Five months later, on Aug. 19, 1995, the 23-year-old Toronto, Ontario, Canada, native made his U.S. kung-fu debut in Baltimore, Md., as "Official Star" of The 1995 World Wushu-Kungfu Championships.

A mini-feeding-frenzy had set in beforehand among Charm City's sports media. For the first time Stateside, the superstar would be performing, skates off, a new and different kind of show program -- martial arts set to music.

Refuse to Enthuse

But, looking forward to Stojko's demo, some of the town's long-time kung-fu practitioners could only refuse to enthuse.

"One more Ed Parker black belt wrapped around the hips of yet another Elvis," predicted a well-known area stylist.

It's true that, like his Kingly namesake, Stojko holds black-belt rank in Ed Parker's kempo karate. But, at bottom, even the Championships' staff who invited him had no clear idea what to expect from Elvis Stojko, martial artist.

So, just how did this figure skater nobody ever saw throw so much as one punch suddenly end up "Official Star" of the biggest kung-fu tournament on Earth?

Looking back a year or so, it started with a simple announcement: "Elvis Stojko does kung-fu."

The phone number for the Canadian ice skating rink where Elvis Stojko practices came from a member of The United States of America Wushu-Kungfu Federation(USAWKF).

At that time, January 1995, this particular master happened to be sitting on a USAWKF tournament committee. He and some of his fellow ultra-achievers had boldly undertaken a big-time international sports gamble. They were importing the World Championships, that very summer. "Elvis really loves kung-fu."

The committee received this news calmly, as one passing item of information brought up during a long Sunday working session. A dozen masters were present, including America's savviest Chinese tournament promoters. They were talking about 1,000 athletes, coaches and officials: a multilingual 60-nation tower of babble with a $1.2 million bar code landing ka-blam! on their doorstep.

Who is Elvis?

"Who is Elvis Stojko?" one of the attending masters asked.

Men's world figure skating champion, it was explained. The Olympic Charmer, the Rebel, the Innovator, Pride of the Great White North -- that guy.

Terrific. Everyone in attendance was glad to hear Elvis Stojko does kung-fu. His phone number was welcomed. Committee chairman Anthony Goh asked a USAWKF advisor to try it out: "Invite him." And then the committee passed on to other, more pressing matters.

The advisor began by calling up the Ontario rink and explaining things to whoever answered.

In due course, then, the advisor received back a long-distance phone call from someone who identified himself, in a boyish Irish tenor, as Glen Doyle, Elvis Stojko's hung gar instructor. He went on to speak promisingly of Elvis' participation at the Worlds and wondered if he, sifu Doyle, might also come along. Absolutely. Never mind that over the phone he sounded awfully young for a sifu.

During the following months, as the tournament committee's learning curve got steeper, staging the Championships ceased to be an exercise in the massive deployment of expertise. Instead, it turned ruggedly Biblical, became an epic with heroes, villains, miracles, its cast of thousands and a mise en scene as vast as the planet.

In short, it turned into a holy mess. But there was always one bright, yang side for the yin-shocked staff to cling to. When it came to dealing with Elvis Stojko, relations just went from good to better.

Appearance fees were waived. Elvis and sifu Doyle immediately volunteered to perform a first-time ever live demo. They also arranged their schedules to arrive in Baltimore a few days early, solely to help promote the Championships by doing TV shows, a hospital visit and newspaper interviews.

Considering how valuable Elvis' time is, nobody at the Championships' Harford Road HQ could get over how nice these Canadians were being.

Why Are They Doing This

At one point, a committee member was even moved ot ask: "Why are they doing this?"

The advisor shrugged. "It's just possible they're martial artists."

So, it came to pass, that the Championship's hyperkinetic TV commercial touted Elvis' appearance--his photo did a triple axel into the picture while electric guitars boomed. The Elvis face and/or name were also hyped in four hectic radio spots, a full-color poster and numerous flyers and press releases. Nor was it until the advent of Elvis Stojko that this world-class tournament finally did succeed in attracting the jaded, big-market, Balto/Washington media's full attention.

Gratefully, then, Anthony Goh's office passed along word that Elvis Stojko was to be declared "Official Star" of the 1995 World Wushu Championships. His demo--whatever it was--would be the crowning finale to the lavish Opening Ceremonies slated for Saturday, Aug. 19th.

Enter the Kung-Fu Crusaders

Through no fault of his own, 30-year-old Glen Doyle does look too young to be a sifu. It doesn't show in his face that he is a C.A.F Armored Recon vet or a three-time (1989-91) Canadian national kung-fu champion who also sports the traditional family tattoo--in Doyle's case, a boxing leprechaun--on his right arm.

At 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, Elvis is taller and slightly heftier than his 5-foot-5, 148-pound teacher. But, because they move alike, even in small ways, the two athletes always seem a pair.

The chemistry is partly cinematic. Yugo Hungarian Elvis is all leading man, with his thunderous jaw, disarming grin and lightly curly hair. Sifu Doyle plays his perfect silver-screen sidekick--a glib, cherubic-faced Donald O'Connor-type Irish boy who's French-kissed the Blarney Stone but still loves a good donnybrook.

"I started kempo karate when I was ten years old, and went with that for about eight years--got a black belt when I was about 16," Elvis explains.

"I met up with Glen at about 17 or 18, and he gave me a hint of hung gar kung-fu, and I really enjoyed the differences of the kung-fu as opposed to the karate. I found the karate a little stiff for what I needed for skating."

"When I met Elvis," Doyle explains, "he blended in right away, Like, I was laid back but so was he. And everything was just dead on. He was so into it, so hungry…Horse stances and footwork and when he saw the circles, he just got so excited because circles were like skating."

"Glen helped me to loosen up a little bit and become a bit more free with the style," Stojko adds. "I work more with the circular motion techniques which also help me with my skating. We really focus on concentration, more breathing, chi kung.

"The martial arts--it's a sport, an art, it's a way of life, it's a way of thinking, and I really apply it to everything that I do, especially skating. And I think that's why it gives me a kind of an advantage, just by the way I look at things, in the skating world."

"We have to say how thrilled we are to be invited," sifu Doyle told Anthony Goh at a welcoming dinner their first evening in town. "Martial arts-wise, Canada's really got to grow," Doyle continued. "Kung-fu gets no respect compared to, say, tae kwon do. So, Elvis and I were talking about it one day, and we said we're going to become Canada's 'Kung-Fu Crusaders', and we're going to get back on top of the food chain."

Seriously Speaking

That's why Elvis came to Baltimore. Far from feeling anxious about being taken seriously, Stojko and his sifu were jetting down to America telling themselves that they were on a mission from Shaolin.

It turns out, Elvis has been fighting, not to be accepted as a martial artist, but, on the contrary, to get the martial arts accepted. A competitive figure skater since he was nine, Elvis was 15 when he put together his first martial-arts influenced show program. People weren't ready yet--especially the judges. But later, after seeing Dragon, the 1992 Bruce Lee biopic, Elvis created a program in honor of the Little Dragon and son, Brandon.

"The judges didn't accept it as quickly. They want 'traditional'--traditional balletic-type skating," he admits. "But I got a lot of letters saying: It's nice to see something different, something with a lot of power that still has finesse and grace to it.

So, I argued with the judges: 'Kung-fu isn't an art? Go tell the masters who've been practicing it for a thousand years."

Elvis and sifu Doyle checked their lighting and music cues and rehearsed their piece for the last time on the afternoon of the 18th at the Baltimore Arena, site of the Championships.

As they got closer to the next day's performance, they wore their game faces more. Elvis' star-presence and Doyle's Irish pluck had brought them this far--to the brink of global ridicule, if things went badly.

Working out together, however, they always fell into the easy rapport of brothers, recognizing in one another the loving sons of strong, ethnic fathers. Stojko's dad is a Yugoslavian who owns a landscaping business. "Dad did a lot of scrapping when he was young. Bigger guys always picked on him, but he's like a little brick, he's very strong, very much, I think, like Glen's dad."

Sifu Doyle says: "My fighting heart came from my father and my style from my sifu."

Some say the Irish are pugnacious by nature. Do you subscribe to that?

With a laugh: "Oh, Jeez, yeah."

Doyle was born in tiny, remote Middle Arm, Newfoundland. "In Canada, if you ever want to go to Ireland and not leave Canada, you go to Newfoundland."

When Glen Doyle was growing up, his father, Greg, ran marathons and boxed in Japan and Australia for the Canadian Army. After the senior Doyle's discharge in the mid-1950's, he made his living as a steelworker.

"Before I was seven," Glen recalls, "I'd been in every State in the Union, and Germany, France, Switzerland, and Sweden.

"My background is very Irish-based, very traditional, very family-oriented, very hit-you-rather-than-look-at-you type of ideal. Get your point across usually by loud talking and fisticuffs. One minute you're fighting a guy and you knock him down, and the next minute, he's your best friend."

From his pugilist dad, Glen started picking up the rudiments of boxing at five years of age. His father also passed on a generations-old family style of Irish stick-fighting called Uisce Batha Rince, once used to defend distilleries and IRA rallies.

House of the Demon Fighter

But, in the late 1970s, a free lesson at a tae kwon do school proved that, boxing skills or not, Glen was vulnerable to kicks. A heaven-sent 1982 Bruce Lee double-feature at The Varsity Theatre revealed the answer--kung-fu.

Four months later, after tearing the city apart looking for a school, on Oct. 3, 1982, at 7:17 pm, while walking down Hagerman Street in Toronto's Old Chinatown, Glen Doyle heard what sounded like a martial arts class in progress. Following the noise, Glen climbed up a fire escape and peered into a large room…

And he was immediately welcomed into the Jing Mo Kung Fu Club of Toronto's famed, "Demon Fighter", sifu James Lore (Lore King Hung).

"Sifu James Lore is such an incredible sifu and yet he's so laid back. For the first six years of my training, I called him Jimmy. I didn't have to bow to him or anything; as long as he knew the respect was there, he was happy. The moment the respect wasn't there, you learned nothing else, and you knew.

"So, because of my background in hung gar, I'm very laid back as well. My attitude towards martial arts is: I'll be serious when I have to be, but before it's time to be serious, I'm kind of goofy and I'll have a good time.

"And I get that from my club. Because the martial arts are a very serious thing but you have to take everything in stride. If you walk around with your spine stiff because you're in a martial art, eventually you're going to hunch…"

By the morning of the Opening Ceremonies of the 1995 World Championships, Elvis and sifu Doyle had arranged to make their entrance into the Baltimore Arena in the company of the Canadian Wushu team.

Canada came alphabetically early in the spectacular Parade of Nations--the Opening Ceremonies' highpoint. Marching behind the flowing colors of their flags, wushu teams from 54 countries filled the Arena.

But there was lots more: The William Tell Overture and a computerized light show, live big-band music, the Coast Guard Silent Drill Team and color guard, a glow-in-the-dark dragon, and the drama and emotion of the Great Wall of China Dance Troupe. Not to mention a decidedly soigne Cynthia Rothrock, who was mobbed by fans and ended up needing a police escort to get out of the building.

The Big Finish

Original Photo by Dan Garrett/USAWKF
This is from a photocopy - Apologies for the quality

But then, for the big finish, Master of Ceremonies sifu Leon Trescott introduced, first, the teacher and then his famous senior student.

The house lights went dark and theme music from the brand new Virtuosity sound-track pumped raw energy into the Arena. A single spotlight picked up sifu Doyle down on one knee next to his bench.

Matching the tempo of his performance to the throbbing music, Doyle threw himself over the bench and into a well-honed solo. His is a weapon rarely seen outside of early Jackie Chan or Samo Hung movies, and he handles it with similar panache and authority.

Anything you can do with a bench--punch, block, spin, sweep and twirl--Doyle did flat out and fluidly; and then, with a dancer's perfect timing, just as the music hit a crescendo, he sat down on it, too. Crossing his legs, he dusted his knee with a funny, stylized little slap that turned into a shaolin salute to his audience.

Then, both hands shot outward, shaking with dynamic tension, just as the soundtrack guitars made a sexy power-sound like giant springs compressing--and the spotlight went dead.

The crowd roared at this showmanship.

Now, in turn, Elvis was lit up, also crouching, with one coolie-hatstyle bamboo shield in each hand. The music changed, it became the tension-filled, churchbell-punctuated soundtrack to a Sergio Leone spaghetti-western shootout.

Stojko worked the heavy, lacquered shields like pistons. He blocked and struck, cat-rolled over them and kicked from in between. In the power and flow, it was easy to miss a flash of the skater's famous elevation as he effortlesly popped up four feet for a jump front kick.

As his theme song crested, Elvis, too, subsided back into a crouch and received a hot burst of applause; and then the music shifted into "attack" mode and the guitars began strafing runs. Twin spotlights hit both men.

Striking left-right left-right with his bench, Doyle threw himself at Stojko's shields. Being battered and banging back, student and teacher circled, smashing, and then sprang apart. Again. Once more they went at it full-tilt before, finally, ceremoniously laying aside their weapons.

The demo's last sequence started with a moment of uncanny synchronicity. Moving in perfect opposition, they sprinted backward half-way around the ring and then feinted forward aggressively, only to shy off after slapping the soles of their feet--giving each other five--with spinning kicks. They did this twice, and the mirror effect was even more seamless the second time: they flowed like each other's shadows.

Finally, after a quick on-stage chi break, Elvis and Doyle burned through a traditional hung gar empty-hand dacha (fighting set). Sifu Doyle missed one block but Stojko pulled his uppercut so skillfully that, at the speed they were going, hardly anybody noticed anything except how hard they were hitting.

Then the music went bang! and the demo was over. Canada's "Kung-Fu Crusaders" bowed out while the multinational crowd gave them, not one, but two ovations. They whistled, they hooted and barked, so there's no doubt about it now.

Elvis was in the house.

Herb Borkland is a frequent contributor to Inside Kung-Fu Magazine.

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