Hanshi McGrath Presents Master Ralph Passero The First Devil Dog


In choosing the first “Devil Dog,” I wanted to ensure that the individual would be made of “The Right Stuff,” the embodiment of the term “Devil Dog” as it is used by the Marines. The person that I needed, stood close to me and held the guardianship of Grand Master Don Nagle, as an honored vow.

I first met Mr. Passero at a Nick Adler tournament, in Long Island . I was chief referee for the black belt heavyweight division and he was one of the contestants. Sizing up the match, in my mind, was easy. Mr. Passero looked a bit older and not in the same shape that he was in, when he was the terror of the tournament circuit. His opponent, was younger, with an Olympian build. While Mr. Passero stood still awaiting the start of the match, his opponent was jumping up and down, with a vertical leap of about four feet. I was sure that this young man would overwhelm his older opponent with speed, stamina and technique. We bowed in and I signaled the match to start. The young man stepped right in and caught a round-house kick from Master Passero, to the left temple. I awarded him the point and restarted the match, again watching the younger man circle Passero this time. Passero threw another round-house kick, which the opponent spun away from, only to have Master Passero with a burst of speed, close with him, throw a side kick that was blocked and simultaneously, score with a backfist to the face. I signaled the match over and Master Passero the winner. I then pulled him aside and said that I was sure the younger man, full of vim and vigor would win and that he totally surprised me. His comment was something akin to, “Yeah, I get that a lot.” Later, we sat and chatted and he has been one of my closest friends since. I depend upon his judgment in many instances, especially, when it comes to people’s character. Mr. Passero is the proto-typical street kid and the wisdom that he has comes from his experience and keen observance of people of all stature. I also knew and grew to love his father and can still picture him, as I arrived at a tournament with my bag over my shoulder, sitting in a chair, hands crossed atop his cane, half-turned in his chair, with a beatific smile on his face, “Yelling, “Eddie (no one ever called me Eddie, but Mr. Passero) sit over here, with me.” I would sit down and listen to him discuss his beloved Ralph and daughter-in-law, Lisa, with love and caring. Then he would often tell me a story, usually imparting some wisdom. Later, I found that Ralph would do the same, telling me a story about some human circumstance, which imparted a moral and insight into a particular situation. He has become my friend, my contact with more people that I ever met before. Everyone who meets him, loves him, because he is straight-up, loyal, truthful and above all, without fear or prejudice. I value his friendship.

The Beginning:
Ralph D. Passero, started Isshin-ryu at the Bayonne Dojo on April 1st 1968 , April Fools' Day. The school was known as Don Nagle's American Okinawan Karate Association. It was established in 1966. The head sensei was Joel Buchholtz a 7th Dan. At that time one of Master Nagle's most knowledgeable students. An excellent teacher and a dedicated Isshin-ryu karate master. His staff of instructors included Mark Wzorek, Dennis Wright, Robert Doria, Robert Mansfield, Ed Badjbeck, Ralph Chirico on occasion, many others I don't remember. My original intention was to fight one of their instructors who had a reputation of being an outstanding black belt and vicious fighter, I knew him prior to this. He was Mark Wzorek.
I was just discharged from the U S Army, 82nd Airborne Division, and a Viet Nam Veteran I had served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, 1st Brigade Airborne, I was a combat vet who thought I was invincible. My Airborne Combat training had me convinced as all airborne troops are, we are the ultimate weapon. I was about to enter a dojo, for the first time in my life and they had a different idea. I walk in the school, I challenge Mark Wzorek to a fight, he explains to me, that before he can fight me in this school, I would have to join, pay $20.00 for dues, and $20.00 to join the AOKA. I did not have $40.00 to do this.
I have a friend Butch Nagy and we are both working for my father in a dress factory, my dad pays for the both of us for the first month. I know we won't be here after the first night, but I want to fight this guy. Which turns out to be not such a good idea. The paper work is done, we are both on the floor, class is in progress and then about 8:00PM osh is called, and all line up, aswatti is called we all sit down. And Sensei Wzorek announces that he will be fighting all the black belts, this is my chance to fight I guess.
As Butch and I watch, Sensei Wzorek fight the class one after the other is getting a beating, these fights were real, and there was no equipment. You got hit, and you hit back if you could. Butch and I sat there in awe. I can't describe accurately what I saw because what was happening was happening so fast, I did not know the name of the back kicks, jump kicks, spinning back hands, shuto's, take downs, to me at this time was just a vicious display of fighting techniques. Each time the match ended, they would both bow out and shake hands. This was new to me.
After Sensei Wzorek finished with them, he looks at me and says does any one want to kumite, what do I know what kumite means, I don't answer. Then he says in English who wants to sparr, fight. I lowered my head and looked at the floor, and said NO. My best friend Butch, suggests to me, to fight him and if I start to loose, he will jump in. I can't say on this bio what I said to him. I knew I was gong to get murdered if I fought this guy. I did not, class ended. On the walk home from the school Butch and decided to return and make peace and become students. That was the beginning of my Martial arts life 36 years ago.
We both returned to class the next night, as humble students, ordered a gi, got our basics and spent two hours on six exercises, not talking and then watched as the rest of the class did kumite. Eventually, Sensei Wzorek became my sensei, and a true friend. He spent a lot of time and was very patient with me, I was having a hard time with this. He was trying to teach me timing, balance, focus, the snapping technique, all that is required for the Isshin-ryu punch to be effective.
I was a slow learner and probably one of the most difficult students he encountered. His patience I will never forget. I was on my basic upper body exercises almost forever, my kicks I had no problem with at all. I would watch Sensei Wzorek and Sensei Dennis Wright do these exercise and could not believe, how sharp, fast and focused they performed them. Both were trained by Master Nagle I finally get my chance to kumite, I am fighting a black belt named Bobby Doria, he is a little guy, half of my weight and he is all over me, the more I try to hit him the more I am getting hit. He was incredible, and then he says he can't fight too good, he has a bad knee.
I fight another guy, Sensei Wright, I never saw half of techniques he hit me with, he was super fast, hard as steel, and his timing wore me out. I knew I was going to be fighting this guy again and again. He was one of Master Nagle's super fighters. He had a personality second to none, a very gentle man, patient and never complain, and would not say a bad word about any one. I immediately had total respect and admiration for the man. He was one hundred sixty-five lbs and half my size. I weighed about two twenty, over the next four months, he would beat over thirty lbs off me. His endurance was endless, he would along with the other black belts in the school, fight matches for over thirty minutes.
Every night that I trained, I would fight him, and we would meet on Saturday and Sundays, I would fight him as hard as I could and he would, sometimes I think he was just playing. We fought constantly the harder I hit him, the harder he hit me back, this was a battle. This was the best feeling I ever enjoyed in my entire life this was a high second to none.
When I did fight in competition, I didn't care who I fought, in my mind no one was any threat to me whether I won or lost, I fought without fear, they were n o comparison to Sensei Wright.
When we fought on off days at the school, spectators, and students would watch and not under stand how we would try to beat each other to death, draw blood, give and get black eyes, body bruises, and what ever and then when we both had enough, shake hands clean up, go next door to Als Sportsman Bar, enjoy a beverage and go home, and the formal class we would fight after class ended, for some times a half hour, this was after Sensei Wright fought the rest of the class. I would some how manage to walk home, Sensei Wright would to work, over a mile away, to work the midnight shift at Pirelli Cable. I don't know how he did this. The man was not a normal human being.
What we shared no longer exists in most dojos. Back then no one sued for and injury received in kumite. Today, if you touch a student the wrong way, you could have legal problems. This was also a time when there was no equipment, it was not required because it did not exist. When it did exist, it took our school until 1983 to adapt to it.
Finally the time comes for me to be tested for green belt, Sensei Mansfield was instructed to test the four candidates for advancement. I know I can wipe them out, but my kata is not good, no terminology, the three others get promoted, I don't. In a few months they leave. I am still there. I was told by Sensei Mansfield , that I had no future in Karate, try something else. I was determined to make this rank, but it would not happen until the shiai at Fairlegh Dickinson.
It was a long time to wait but I made it. We came back to school, I saw George Wanko carrying his Brown Belt, and said, are you carry someone's gi and obi, did I pay for that, I had found out just how good a fighter this man was. I learned a few lessons from George Wanko , the hard way. No regrets, that was the beginning of a life time friendship, family style.
My fighting was getting better and better, I worked for my dad. In a dress shop and was constantly punching and kicking bolts of material, the shop employed about 90 women some thought I was a mad man. They were old and did not under stand what I was doing. Making green belt to me was a turning point in my fighting and I was enjoying it more and more.
It was great being a student at this school, times when you left in pain, you returned the next night, got new injuries, and forgot about the old ones. This was continuous. The school had a reputation and returning marines who had heard of the living legend Don Nagle, would visit the school. Those with good intentions left that way, those who wanted to challenge this school's fighters did not leave happy. All who wanted to challenge Sensei Nagle could not get past Dennis Wright, or Mark Wzorek. I did not get a chance because I was just a kyu grade.
This school was for real, you trained hard fought hard and this is what we did, some stayed some left, this was my home and I was not going any where.
George Wanko
As time when on from when I was a green belt, the new black belt on the floor was George Wanko. He was as tall as me, by very thing, and lanky, I knew him when I was younger we hung around with the same group of guys, and we were friends so to speak. He was a black belt now, and I wondered how did he do this. I was about to find out.
Even though I had mad a crack about him holding someone else's gi and obi, he got over that, or didn't pay it much mind.
He was now teaching me, but he had a different approach than the other instructors. He was going to be a Police Officer, that was his goal. His fighting tactics could not be used in the school. He was taking his time with me and explaining in detail about each punch, how to effectively drop someone without hurting them, that was for the school where a minimum of contact was to be used. (this applied to only the new and frail students, as they progressed so did the level of contact) in an actual street confrontation his methods were very effective. I immediately tuned in to his way of thinking. He was the new Black Belt on the floor, Sensei Wzorek and Sensei Wright were senior to him and he gave them that respect always, and I learned what this respect was all about. They taught and helped him and his was doing that to me.
George and I sparred as often as possible, on off days and after class at the school. George was not a competitor, but did compete sometimes, he would either win or get disqualified. He was not much into controlled contact and playing tag. He was also a student of Don Nagle, and this touch and tag was not for him. I was in this school at the right time, the right instructors who came originally from Master Don Nagle.
George and I would kumite and be reprimanded by our head sensei, that's not the way . But we would continue to beat each other up and enjoy it. For all who think I was a great fighter, I was trained by the best, Dennis Wright, Mark Wzorek, and George Wanko, these were the instructors at the AOKA, they were all for real, no nonsense, and they were gentleman. Sensei Wright was called the black sheep, for his color and being a little too rough on all, but we all loved it. The head sensei referred to him by that and some other names I won't mention. For 27 years that I was a student there he was the only black person to stick it out, and that's another story.. George, Mark and I became great friends, good times and bad we remained the same, I am the head of the AOKA School, and we are partners together. I am the senior man in rank, but they are my sensei's and will always be senior to me, a piece of paper can't change all that.
Sho Dan Testing
Finally the day comes for me to be tested for Sho Dan. It is now 1971, and the honored guest at the Shiai will be Kichiro Shimabuku. I am going to meet Soke Shimabuku's Heir to the Isshin-ryu System I was tested on my basics, kicks, and kata, the testing for Sanchin, including me being struck by Sensei Wright Sensei Wzorek, Sensei Cooling and Sensei Buchholtz, I was beat about the neck, throat, back, thighs, stomach I did not care, I could not wait to fight. I was right where I wanted to be, fighting for my black belt, I was ready thanks to Sensei Dennis Wright, the week prior to this he an I were banging it out and I sprained my wrist, but I didn't care. I had been fighting with injuries for so long it made no difference. I fought, and I fought and I fought, I don't know how many black belts I fought, but Ricky Kaminsky was one of them, he was a defensive fighter and I could not hit him, Finally the test is over, and they call osh, the gym is silent all are lined up. This was at the old PAL in Bayonne N J. A decent size gym. They call all the names of the new black belts and my name is not called, all get the belts and the audience applauds, I am shocked, what is happening, Sensei Mark Wzorek goes to the center of the gym, all is quiet, calls my name I go to him not knowing what the hell is going on, he sits aswatti, I kneel, he takes off his obi and takes off my obi, puts his obi one me, the obi Sensei Nagle gave to him. Now I am in shock, this was the most emotional moment I had ever experienced. I relive it every time I put an obi on a new black belt. Kichiro Shimabuku shakes my hand after we bow, and says you are most high man here today THIS IS AS IT WAS
Constant Competitor
Immediately after I made black belt, I became a constant competitor, our school would travel all around the country. Wherever we competed, our school would do well, The AOKA fighting team from Bayonne consisted of Dennis Wright, Joe Lagriola, Robert McKittrick, Richard Perseghin all were good fighters.
I was a place fighter, winning grandchammpionships, 1st, 2nd and 3rd place shared by me team mates. We would all bow out to Sensei Wright. We all had a tremendous amount of respect for him, and still do. He made us all fighters. I managed to acquire about 200 trophies, plaques, medallions. I was not always victorious, but I left may mark the best I could.
John Shields & The Grizz
I have great memories, even when I got ripped off, and felt I was robbed of a point costing me the match, I always ended my match with a bow, and a handshake. Except for one, I was selected to fight a fighter from the Bronx only known as the Grizz, and his name fit him well, including his manners, which had none. Before that match I was a fighter of Gary Alexander, in his U S KICK FIGHT LEAGUE, I was to fight a full contact match against Richard Gorrell, an excellent Isshin-ryu fighter who I had fought five times in non contact, but at Alexander's tournament that was just a term for don't not kill any one. His tournaments were always contact, Richard and I had some great fights, he had bested me five out of five. We were fighting buddies. When I was chosen to fight him full contact, I knew I was in for a battle. The first round Richard Gorrell is all over me but I'm not getting hurt, I am dealing with this, and in the second round I am all over him with kick punches and what ever, he is laughing and I see he has no teeth, I can't stop laughing but we're are still fighting, Third round we both go at each other he is laying punches on me to the body and I am hurting, I'm fighting back and I score with some round house kicks and set him up for a punch, I catch him with a good hard round house to the gut, he bends a little, I catch him with an over hand right, he goes down for the count. I could not believe I beat him, as I looked at him with my arms raised, and saw he was hurt, I didn't enjoy the win. I went over to him the people around pushed me away and when he looked up at me he smiled and we both laughed. We were still friends.
Now I am loaded with confidence, and I am scheduled to fight another match for Alexander, this one is at the Pines Manor in Edison N J. An unknown fighter named John Shields, Frizzy hair, stocky and coke bottle glasses, he is 5ft 10, and I know I am going to take him apart. The fight night arrives, its a full house, but the ring is set up in a ball room, and when I get in it the ceiling is just inches away from my head, no big thing. We enter the ring and I insult this guy about his Irish heritage, he makes some kind of strange noise from his mouth we hit the corners and the fight starts, the referee is Master Bowe and Aikido master, who was probably wearing the wrong glasses this night. As soon as both of us meet, John Shields breaks my nose, goes under one my round house kicks to his head and picks me up and throws me out of the ring, and this is the beginning of the first round. Gary Alexander forget to mention to the both of us the rounds were five minutes and there were no rules. When we both got back into the ring, we clashed again, and this time I throw John out of the ring, and go after him, but we landed on the announcers table. The fight goes back into the ring, and we are fighting each other I am hitting him but he is hitting me with everything but the kitchen sink, the round ends, and we are both tired. Round two we start over and it is pretty much of the same, but John is getting the best of me, I catch him with some good kicks, but I am careful not to let him grab my leg, cause he will throw me out of the ring. Round three, we are mixing it up punching and kicking at a slower pace now and we wind up against the ropes and the rope that holds the ropes together is raped around my left hand, I can't hit back and I can't get out John is taking advantage of this and punching me and then throws me out of the ring, Richard Bow the Ref, is standing there best view in the house and he does not see this.. I am pushed backed into the ring, the round ends, and John Shields said to his trainer Ray Martin if Passero comes out, throw in the towel, Ray goes to the ref and says Passero doesn't look too good check him out, Master Bowe asks me how many fingers do I have up as he put his hands behind his back, and I answered three, he stopped the fight and John Shields was the winner. Some of my friends seem to think I was winning, I don't know what fight they were watching, but John Shields won that fight, I was beat, if I had continued I would have been knocked out. John Shields and I became good friends, and to this day we speak regularly and laugh about how we met. I had a concussion, broken, nose, two broken thumbs, and a rib cage that was bruised badly.
I was scheduled to fight on the following Sunday, this fight with John was on a Monday night, I took the week off from work, just to recuperate, but I was going to fight Sunday no matter what. A tournament was scheduled at the Statler Hilton Hotel, and it was hosted by Master Ralph Chirico, Master Isaac Henry, and Master Thomas LaPuppet, it was the East Coast Alliance, the winners would represent NY and be on the first NY Full Contact Karate Team. The matches were to be controlled contact, in a boxing ring, I was to fight a super heavy who weighed in at 280, when I fought John Shields I was 220, after the match I was 207 lbs. I was determined to get my dignity back, I had to come back after the loss to Shields. My face was still black and blue, and my ribs were not healed. The match starts, and this Grizz comes charging, I throw a round house kick to the body, and also a backfist off the left side and score, Isaac Henry stops the match, instructs us to go to our corners, I turn around, an the Grizz jumps me and throws me on the floor, and is stepping on me. He is pulled off, I get awarded the point, he gets a warning, the match continues, it happens just about the same way I turn around and again I get attacked from the rear and the same happens again. I get the point, he gets a warning, match starts again, I score with a punch to the chest area, match stops, I turn around to go to my corner, this time I side step turn around and he is coming at me, I punch him square in the face several times, he goes down on his knees, I get grabbed by the officials, he falls over, gets rolled on to a stretcher, is disqualified and I win the match.
I lost my temper and I apologized to Master Henry, he said I should have done that at the beginning of the match. My next match was against a well known football star Mike Rowe, from the Washington Redskins. Mike was built like Arnold Scwartzneger. He had muscles I had never ever seen before. This match was at Madison Square Garden , and the promoter was Arron Banks. The winner would fight Monster Man Eddie. This fight would be an opening to fight some of the highly rate fighters from the west coast. I trained with a former sparring partner of Chuck Wepner, his name was Tony Costa, he was 6ft 3, a 32 inch waist, 16 inch biceps and a rouged street fighter. Tony would come to the dojo on the off night or after the formal class and we would box, he was tough, and his fighting skills were boxing and street combinations. He was trying to teach me to box, but he connected with his left hook to my jaw too many times. So I learned how to get up off the floor, after being knocked down and sometimes out. But fighting him was what I needed, he was enormous, and did not play by the rules. When given the opportunity he would drop you. My brother Andrew and I both trained with Tony, my brother was given him a better fight than me. The day of the Mike Rowe fight, I am confident and ready, the fight starts and I am dropping Row two and three times in each round, and then they announce the three knock rule is not in effect. The fight continues, it is round four I think and the bell rings, I have been dominating this fight from the beginning, Mike is loosing no question about it, the bell rings I stop fighting and turn away from Mike, he claims he did not hear the bell hits me in the left eye with a strong right hand, closes my eye, blood all over, I go to my corner, he gets a reprimand. and I go out to fight next round with one eye, I can't see him they stop the fight he wins. Mike Rowe, is one tough guy, he spoke and said he honestly did not hear the bell, he was to sincere for me not to believe him. He goes on to fight Monster Man Eddy and lost that fight. Mike Rowe, no matter what I hit him with, and dropped him with, got up each time and would not stop, he was like a machine, he just kept coming. I could not believe he kept coming. I salute you Mike.
Jerry Robbins