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January 19, 2018

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87-year-old martial arts master’s toughest battle lies ahead

Friends and students are impressed by Dan Sawyer’s humility and techniques


Steve Marcus

Karate master Dan Sawyer, left, demonstrates a technique with instructor Andy Dowdell, a fifth degree black belt, during a class at his home Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. Sawyer teaches in a garage behind his home that has been converted into a karate dojo.

Karate Master Dan Sawyer

Karate master Dan Sawyer demonstrates his form at his home Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. Sawyer teaches in a garage behind his home that has been converted into a karate dojo. Launch slideshow »

The old man walks into a homemade garage gym on the other side of the pool at his house and squints with one eye, as if he is deep in thought, working to solve a riddle.

Students move onto the mat-covered floor as they do each Sunday morning. They commence with their stretches in front of a 20-foot-long mirror and a swath of martial arts certificates and awards scattered across the walls. The 87-year-old karate grand master peers at them. He looks over a nose that has been broken more times than he can remember, and every now and again, he’ll smile as he surveys his pupils.

Soon after the class begins, he strides to one of his instructors to show the group — ranging from middle school girls to men in their early 20s — his signature move. He seizes the man’s wrist, locking his arm at the elbow. He leads him to the ground, and just as the old grand master squats to execute the next step of the move, something rare happens: He loses his balance and falls over.

Something is wrong.

• • •

The 60 years Dan Sawyer has spent learning to fight in tournaments and on the streets have not been kind to his body. His doctors say X-rays show dozens of old breaks that have healed, more than they’ve ever seen; and he can’t be sure how many times he’s busted his nose. Seven, he thinks.

His ribs?

“I broke them, five times maybe?”

His body has been conditioned to take the heavy strikes of his opponents. He’ll challenge you to punch.

“Come on, hit me,” he says as he offers up his stomach.

If the punch is halfhearted?

“Come on, really hit me,” he’ll say.

And his grip. That can still crush a man’s hand, he’ll say without smiling.

After all these years, he’s attained the rank of grand master, but he calls it an honorary distinction. As he’ll tell you, each martial arts discipline can only have one person at the highest rank.

His hair is still brown from hair coloring, and his left eye spends most of the time closed. Occasionally, the green iris will peek through.

His long-practiced skills are executed with a fluidity that belies his old age. He’ll snap off a series of moves in a blinding flash. It’s true, he has lost a step. But his quickness doesn’t come from what strength he has left; it has been built over decades of practice.

“I can teach you a technique in 30 minutes and you’ll do it well, but you’ll never use it,” Sawyer said. “It’s not second nature.”

He’s taught many to learn to make it second nature. It takes years, he said, to become a true black belt, and to promote someone to a higher level prematurely is a disservice.

Alex Dabash, 62, practiced martial arts nearly two decades ago. Now he brings his 10- and 13-year-old daughters to lessons at Sawyer’s home studio.

“Sawyer has a big reputation all around, but you have to seek him out. He doesn’t promote,” Dabash said. “This is the real deal. His techniques are superior.”

Sawyer has been teaching martial arts since he came to Las Vegas in the mid 1960s, but not anyone can work out at his home gym. Most of his students are brought to him through friends and other connections. The fee isn’t fixed, around $50 to $60 a month, and classes meet about four days a week and teach a variety of skills, including jiujitsu.

Andy Dowdell has been a friend and student for 18 years and helps Sawyer with his classes.

“We don’t just go out there to teach someone to kick, punch or beat someone else up,” he said. “We go out there to make someone a better person.”

That’s the sort of humility Sawyer wants his students to buy into: Leave the macho attitude at the door.

“A lot of martial artists say: ‘I’m the best. I’m God. Don’t screw with me,” friend Gary Marino said. “Danny wasn’t like that. He was very secure with himself.”

The two met in 1975 at Marino’s martial arts studio downtown. Marino said that in a business that is rife with deception, he has never heard his friend lie.

Sawyer also has lived a life of adventure that seems to defy belief.

For years, he made his living as a fixture of the entertainment industry in Japan in the 1950s. He brought acts such as Luciano Pavarotti and the Temptations to the island nation. And as Sawyer tells it, a nightclub he owned mysteriously burned down when it came in competition with a watering hole owned by the Yakuza criminal organization.

He’s lived through many things: a stint aboard an oil tanker in World War II, a few years as a police officer in Hawaii and the wrath of a powerful criminal enterprise. For Sawyer, the constant has been his martial arts.

• • •

Sawyer had felt sick that morning when he tried his signature technique; the one he had done a thousand times. When he fell over, he began to feel worse. His stomach was upset, and the slight dizziness he felt when he toppled to the ground intensified. He began to lose feeling in his hands and feet, too. He stayed in bed for about a week before going to the hospital last week.

The news the doctors gave him wasn’t good.

“They found a sizable tumor in his neck,” Marino said. “Anytime you go under the knife at 87, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

The news came even as he plans to help run a March 16 fundraiser to collect money to help an old friend and martial artist with the bills for the friend's cancer treatment.

Details about his tumor are unclear. He’ll find out soon what battle he has ahead of him.

“He’s a tough guy; he’s a fighter,” Marino said. “We know he’s going to get through it.”

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