A few weeks ago I was surprised with an invitation from Tony Merafuentes to be a guest on the panel for his 5th Dan Black Belt exam. As Master of the Merafuentes Tae Kwon Do Academy of Martial Arts in Turlock, Tony and I had spoken about his students and their accomplishments in the past. He had relayed to me the tenants of tae kwon do and I had formulated a rough understanding of the art, but even that did not prepare me for the demonstration I was slated to witness.
I entered the Turlock Community Theatre on Saturday both unsure about my responsibilities as a panel member and about what I would see. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large crowd in the theatre as I took my place beside the other members of the panel — Turlock Mayor John Lazar, Stanislaus County Fair Director Chris Borovansky, Master Donna Tilley and Tony’s teacher, Grand Master Sang Ho Lee—and waited intently for the exam to begin.
Once the curtains parted and Tony took the stage I quickly realized I was in for something special.
“It’s very rare for Masters to perform such lengthy demonstrations,” Grand Master Lee told me just before the beginning of the exam.
Sixteen years earlier, the two martial artists met for the first time when Tony and his wife Laura began training with Lee in North Carolina. Under Lee’s tutelage, Tony earned his 4th Dan Black Belt and title of Master in 2005. Now, all these years later, the teacher was visibly excited to watch his student ascend to a higher level of tae kwon do expertise.
“Tony was already an experienced martial artist when he first came to me. I helped him in the areas where he was lacking but from that point I saw him making his own growth,” Lee said. “Becoming a fifth degree black belt doesn’t come over night. It’s not just the physical skills; it’s the longevity that’s involved with training.”
At 47 years old, Tony’s longevity and endurance was on display from the onset of his exam. Tony began with a number of poomsaes, or techniques, in which he demonstrated the systematic and scientific movements involved with tae kwon do. His eyes projected his focus and his brow showed the toll of both the hot lights above him and the physical strain of the exam, but he didn’t waver.
Tony continued the demonstration as he moved through self defense techniques against would be assailants that were armed and unarmed. The crowd cheered as he used a variety of techniques to disarm a prop knife and gun from the hands of his assistant, Robby Cummins, and they sat in impressed silence as he wielded weapons of his own for a traditional demonstration and an open musical form.
Though the first half of the exam was impressive, the second half was by far the most entertaining, beginning with a situational street skit in which Tony, Laura, and their son fought off a hoard of home invaders in their pajamas. Tony then demonstrated his endurance and ability to withstand punishment with a demonstration of strength that involved a number of his students kicking and punching him in the stomach.
Tony put the final touches on his performance with the crowd pleasing breaking of boards and bricks via front, roundhouse, and butterfly kicks as well as elbow, hammer, and palm strikes.
“It was extraordinary,” Mayor Lazar said. “Tony’s an extraordinary person and we’re very fortunate to have his program in our city.”
“At the end I got very excited because my favorite part is the breaks,” Tony said. “This all becomes a part of life. Generally, when you first start out in martial arts you have a goal of becoming a black belt, but once you reach that you start setting more goals. This has been a long time coming.”
With the completion of his exam, a sweaty and tired Tony stood on stage with the members of his academy as Grand Master Lee presented him with his new, 5th Dan Black Belt. The emotion of the moment was palpable in the faces of both men.
“Not only was it important that my Grand Master was here supporting and representing me, but it was very important for me to have Turlock and the community here and behind us,” Tony said.
“I was absolutely proud of Tony today,” Lee said. “To come down here and watch him not only succeed physically with his exam, but to see his tight bonding with his students really fulfills me.”
Tony put his body to the test for more than two hours, but for all his physical feats his most impressive demonstration was the connection between himself and his students. The exam wasn’t just his chance to reach a higher level in the world of tae kwon do, it was a shared experience with his students who were able to perform alongside their Master throughout the night and participate in an important moment of his life.
“I want them to see what tae kwon do has done for me, and with their own eyes they got to witness it,” Tony said. “If I can do it, they can do it.”