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Martial Arts in Singapore: Richard Lenton tries out Taekwondo

I fell in love with the sport of boxing when I was still at primary school. It was a Saturday night in the mid 1980s, and my dad allowed me stay up and watch Irish hero Barry McGuigan win the world featherweight title against the legendary Panamanian fighter Eusebio Pedroza.

At the time, many of my friends were attending Taekwondo classes, but after watching McGuigan in action, the idea of kicking and grappling instead of just punching simply didn’t appeal. Even Bruce Lee films or The Karate Kid failed to pique my interest in mainstream Martial Arts; give me Rocky Balboa knocking out a seven-foot-tall Russian any day of the week.

So after nearly 30 years of being steadfastly against Martial Arts, it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invite to train at the JH Kim Taekwondo School at Millenia Walk. My only experience of watching a Taekwondo contest had been during the Olympics, and to say I was underwhelmed by the dull, pitter-patter points scoring would be a sizeable understatement.


However, the training at JH Kim is totally different from the Olympic version of the sport. Santos Rivas, the protege and top disciple of Grandmaster Jae Hun Kim, who the school is named in honour of, teaches an all-encompassing version of Taekwondo – one that many fans of UFC and the Mixed Martial Arts scene would identify with. This is the real deal; masters of this form of Taekwondo are likely to feel supremely confident if, heaven forbid, they are ever faced with a physically threatening situation. Santos teaches Taekwondo as a holistic martial art, and says: “the way we do it makes it relevant and real.”

In a technically challenging one-on-one session with Santos, I learnt the basic fundamentals of his programme. Previously, I’d never kicked anything other than a football, but soon I was able to launch both feet at the target and mix it up with punches, as well as learning how to slip out of range and fire back. I loved every second of it, and now wish that I’d not been so set in my ways and actually embraced martial arts – and specifically Taekwondo – many years earlier. 

Ask the expert:
Santos Rivas (Founder & CEO, JH Kim Taekwondo Singapore Network); former US Open and US Cup Taekwondo champion.


A lot of people think of Taekwondo as a kids’ sport. Why should adults do it?
It’s true that a lot of kids take up Taekwondo, but in the beginning it was invented for the Korean army and not meant for kids. It was preparation for unarmed combat – the techniques helped you to defend yourself and incapacitate the enemy

Some young adults may see a direct correlation between the way you train at JH Kim and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts or UFC.
We started well before UFC – this full range of sparring began back in 1975 at our school in Boston, USA. At the school, Grandmaster Jae Hun Kim started teaching red belt and black belt students a complete range from punching and kicking to grappling. I’ve taken that on board at the schools here in Singapore; it makes us unique.

Why did you take it up?
I’m from El Salvador, but then I moved to East Boston without being able to speak English. It was a very rough neighbourhood. One day in 1994 I opened a telephone directory and the first thing I saw was an advert for JH Kim and they taught Taekwondo in Spanish, so I went along. I fell in love with the sport, eventually competed at a high level and then started teaching.

Do you train all levels?
Yes, and we’re open seven days a week. The classes range from learning the fundamentals to intermediate level to advanced level, to black belt only, to full range. Adults choose the classes they like the most. We don’t say ‘you have to do sparring’ or ‘you have to do self defence’. We also have a specialist fitness class twice a week for conditioning where we do a lot of body-work – push-ups and so on.

So why should adults join the school?
You’re not just getting fit but you are learning the art of self defence as well. When you master our techniques it fills you with a sense of inner strength so that if you ever find yourself in a situation on the street then you feel confident. That confidence I’ve found in the past has made people back off without it ever getting physical.

Is it a school where families can all come along and join in?
We have a special class designed for parents and children. We believe that it’s a good venue for them to connect, especially if you’re a working parent who doesn’t get that much quality time with your kids. We also work with children with learning difficulties, whether that’s ADHD, autism, Down Syndrome, whatever. We believe that Taekwondo is a good medium for those kids to feel completely accepted.

Why Taekwondo when there are so many other fitness or fighting sport options available?
We don’t go with trend. We are very niche in terms of technique and we are down to earth. We don’t want to produce fighters, but if you are forced into a fight then we will teach you how to defend yourself. We welcome everybody. If you want to learn to fight in six months then this is the martial art for you.