Martial artist breaking age barriers Columbian, 80, is world's oldest black belt in ninjutso

July 05, 1992|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

While many senior citizens are relaxing in retirement, 80-year-old Bingham Ford is flipping men half his age over his back.

Nearly two weeks ago, Mr. Ford became the oldest person in the world to earn a black belt in ninjutso, a Japanese martial art that combines several styles. Last year, Mr. Ford received a black belt in taijutso, an unarmed version of ninjutso.

"Age is relative," said Mr. Ford, who is a month shy of his 81st birthday. "If you think you're old, you're old."

It has taken the agile octogenarian only three years to earn the belt at Will Maier's United Martial Arts studio in Columbia, where Mr. Ford is an assistant teacher and advisory consultant.

"I have to hustle to keep up with him," joked Mr. Maier, who said the Columbia resident is an inspiration and role model for everyone.

When people in their 40s suggest they're old to participate in martial arts, Mr. Maier tells them about Mr. Ford.

"There's that disbelief," Mr. Maier says, his mouth dropping open for emphasis.

But doubt quickly changes to admiration as Mr. Ford deftly chops in half a block of wood or slides from a sitting position to a crouch.

Unlike the flashy kicks that mark the acrobatic styles of Chuck Norris or the-late Bruce Lee, ninjutso is a practical self-defense system that relies on relaxation, natural body movements, and flexible knees and ankles.

That graceful style is right up Mr. Ford's alley. As a young man, he worked as a dance instructor for the Arthur Murray School. He has also taught acrobatics and tap dancing.

Ninjutso's similarities to dancing -- timing, rhythm, body position, and muscle control -- appealed to Mr. Ford, who took a brief karate course at boot camp at Fort Meade before World War II.

Mr. Ford, who flashes a friendly smile at everyone he meets, said his classmates were not always so comfortable throwing jabs and kicks at an 80-year-old.

They've loosened up since then, he said. Now "they throw me around," Mr. Ford says, laughing.

Although he spends four days a week at the studio and the Swim Center in Columbia, Mr. Ford said old age has caught up with him.

"When I can't get my leg up that high I use my knee," he said, slicing the air with a right knee.

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