Meet the veteran B.C. martial arts expert who wants students to know self-defence

Avoid fights, says Warren Lee, who works with world-famous Royce Gracie, but be prepared if a fight comes to you

Lee's two sons, Royce Gracie, Warren Lee, and his nephew / supplied by Warren Lee

If someone attacks, what are you going to do? Run! advises every expert, from police officers to martial artists, who agree no fight, or thing, is worth risking your life for.

But if you can’t escape, knowing self defence is an insurance policy, said Warren Lee, whose Port Alberni martial arts school is among B.C.’s oldest dojos. “If someone pulls a knife on you, go the other way,” he advises. However, he adds, “your hands should always be ready.”

Gracie and Lee, supplied by Lee.

Some 150 students, aged four to 81, learn Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu each week at  Dragon Martial Arts Academy, in Port Alberni’s former Zeller’s store.

The dojo made news this summer when champion Mixed Martial Arts fighter Royce Gracie, whose family popularized Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, dropped by to teach. The dojo is the only Gracie-certified school in Canada, said Lee, who earned a rare black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu four years ago, adding to his earlier black belts in Taekwondo.

Supplied by Lee.

That was the result of years of intense training.

When Lee was 13, his Port Alberni school offered a choice of electives: band or martial arts. The choice was easy, Lee recalls in an interview with West Coast Now, because he was inspired by Bruce Lee, already a film and martial arts superstar.

Supplied by Lee.

“Martial arts gave me focus and purpose. I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. By age 19, he’d earned his first black belt in Taekwondo, and when friends asked him to teach them, he obliged.

That was more than four decades ago, and he’s still teaching, at his Port Alberni dojo as well as at affiliated schools in Campbell River, Victoria, and on Saltspring Island. 

Dragon Martial Arts Academy

“I didn’t plan on being an instructor,” he laughed. Indeed, it was always a passion and never his full-time job. He’s always taught on the side while working full-time as a paper maker at the Catalyst mill in Port Alberni. But he retired two and a half years ago from the mill, and can now be found most days at his dojo.

Lee’s focus is not fighting, but “self-defense, honour, discipline, and loyalty … teaching my students to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, and actually avoiding the fight.”

“But you’d rather have a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war.”

Dragon Martial Arts Academy

His oldest student, age 81, is from another Vancouver Island community. “He drives 90 minutes once a week to train with me.” The student signed up six years ago, he said, “because his neighbour was bullying him. He’s never had an altercation, but now he feels confident that he could defend himself.”

Dragon Martial Arts has a wait list of 18-24 months, he said, and he’s now teaching children of parents who were once his students. In his decades of teaching he has only given black belts to 20 students, he says proudly, because his standards are so high, and his focus is more on teaching self-defence than giving belts.

Dragon Martial Arts Academy

When Lee began teaching martial arts was rare in B.C. Now, private dojos are in almost every B.C. community, and martial arts are taught in schools and community centres. 

When choosing a school for yourself or your child, he advised, do some research. “If you’re looking for self defence, pick Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu. If you want sport, pick a sport Karate school. You have to make a choice of where your focus is.”

Dragon Martial Arts Academy

Martial arts seem to be having a moment, which Lee partly attributed to growing interest in the sport of competitive fighting.

Also, he said, “School makes you academically independent, and martial arts school makes you physically independent.”


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