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By Brendan Higgins, contributing writer
I asked George Thibault how old he was when he became interested in Martial Arts. Without hesitation he said, “The first time I saw Bruce Lee; I was around five or six years old.” He told me while other kids were watching Sesame Street and cartoons, he was watching Enter the Dragon on Laser Disc. At that moment his journey was ignited.
Growing up in Coventry, George briefly played baseball, basketball, and wrestled but his true love was Martial Arts. By his own admission he was a punk in his youth. He was not a good student, but he did possess artistic ability. In fact, the artist in him would play a role in his life for years to come.
His first experience with Martial Arts came via a family member. His father’s uncle was Dan Silvia, a Nick Cerio trained Black Belt in Kenpo who was blind in one eye. During the 1980s summertime visits to his uncle’s house on Johnson Pond, George would hound him for training. His uncle would give him lessons and he was hooked. His passion to learn may not have been exercised in school, but his desire to learn was on full display when he met with his uncle.
The dots continued to connect when a childhood friend named Brian Johnson introduced young George to a more formal karate environment. Brian was attending New England Tae Kwon Do in Warwick. He showed George his uniform and different colored belts, and George’s eyes lit up. Brian also demonstrated some of the basic kicks he was learning, and George started doing them, too. Located in the lower level of the Airport Plaza this school was run by legendary Martial Artist Thomas A Bakalakis. George sat in the back and observed the classes with great interest. He liked what he was seeing. He wanted to join the school. After a brief experience in Warwick, George landed at New England Tae Kwon Do in West Warwick. At just 12 years old, and after constant requests to his parents to take lessons, they informed him they had signed him up for three months of classes. They handed him a uniform and also told him how much he owed them for the classes.
So, he got his wish but also a sizable bill he needed to figure out how to pay. He managed to work off the bill delivering papers and working as a dishwasher at the Maple Root Inn. He lied about his age so he would be allowed to work. At his new Karate school, George progressed to blue belt. He was never really interested in the forms one needed to learn to progress through the ranks of Tae Kwon Do. Instead, he was drawn to kickboxing and fighting. That was, and still is, his true passion. He gravitated towards the much older men at the school who were putting on boxing gloves and fighting each other. He recalls them cranking heavy metal music like Slayer and King Diamond while sparring with each other. That was where he truly wanted to be.
He was constantly reprimanded by his instructors for not taking the time to practice what they wanted him to learn. Instead, George questioned the practicality of what was being taught and received even more friction from his instructors. He recalled getting “his ass kicked” in the locker room of the school by his instructor for questioning what was being taught. His questions were valid, and they went unanswered. After spending the better part of his teenage years in a stagnant Karate environment, his journey went in a very different direction.
Just prior to his eighteenth birthday George came to his personal crossroad. He was not aware of it at the time, but he easily recognizes it today. He is very open to sharing about it, too.
One night George was at a high school dance with his girlfriend. They were having fun dancing together when another kid and his associates that George didn’t like very much in the first place, started to tease George and eventually told George to “F” off. At this point George punched the kid in the face and also punched one of his associates. George moved around and noticed the first kid holding his face, so he ran towards him and hit him again with a flying knee knocking the young man to the floor. George moved in picking him up kneeing and kicking him several more times.
What bothered George most was the fact that the teen who told George to “F” off had a grin on his face as he taunted him. At this point the dance was over for George, and he needed to make a quick exit. As he bolted from the dance, he was upset that he failed to knock the other boys out. He evaded the police hiding under a friend’s car until the coast was clear. Unfortunately for 17-year-old George, this ordeal was far from over.
He was suspended from school. He hoped that would be the end of it, but he would not be getting off that easy. He was notified that he would be going to court and was being charged with assault.
We all have that person in our lives that comes along right when we need them, to help us course correct. For George, that person was Brad Inman. George remembers the date he met Brad (March 23, 1991) because it was his court date to answer for himself after he assaulted multiple students at his high school dance.
George walked into Kent County Courthouse with his mother that day. He was understandably very nervous. In addition to the other people in court, an elementary school class was in the court room, observing the proceedings. This made George feel awful. To make matters worse, some of the people going before the judge prior to George were swiftly being sent to jail. George was convinced he, too, would be behind bars soon.
Then fate reared its head and said, “not so fast.” The universe had another plan for George Thibault.
While standing in front of the judge, George was given community service and was court appointed to Brad. This meant that George would be answering to someone other than his parents. Brad is a large intimidating looking man that George said reminded him of The Big Boss Man in WWF (World Wrestling Federation). He didn’t realize it standing in court, but later, George realized he knew who Brad was because he lived on the next street over from George. In fact, all the neighborhood kids knew who Brad was. In George’s words, “he was a big scary looking cop.”
This, of course, was exactly what George needed. Brad informed George he would be in touch in a couple of weeks, and George walked out of court dodging a major bullet. After a month George had not heard from Brad and he thought maybe he would skate on doing his community service. Then one day George received a serious phone call from Brad. He directed George to come to the Kent County YMCA to perform his service. Upon his arrival George quickly became aware that Brad was (and still is) a highly respected Martial Arts instructor. At the time, his school was located inside the Y at the A frame. The name of the school is Yang Ki Yin Jiu-Jitsu. Today, its located in Coventry.
The first day George arrived at the Y Brad put him to work. George was told to unroll the large wrestling mats the upcoming class would be training on. Then he had to mop them down and dry them. With his Karate background, George was ready to take on the class. He knew he was going to excel and probably kick some ass. He started to run his mouth to Brad about wanting to participate in class, but Brad cut him off and said “Why aren’t you doing your work? You need to finish what you are doing.” George did as he was told. Then class began.
The class lined up on one side of the mats and George stood alone on the other side. The class warmed up as George stood and looked on. Then one by one the students matched up with George and proceeded to throw him all over the mats. Each of them practiced on George thoroughly and then a fresh student would take over introducing George to the mat. This went on for the duration of class. They failed to explain to George about breaking his fall or something known as tapping out.This is an extremely important thing. It’s a code between all fighters to release a hold as their opponent is giving up or submitting. A simple tap of the hand is all that’s needed. Unaware of tapping out, George screamed in pain and that served as his tap. On that day, George screamed a lot. One of the students in the class was blind. His name Eugene Vernon Hazard. The man said “So I hear you have some pretty good kicks. I want you to kick me.” At this point George wanted to kick someone, anyone after the beating he had endured. He threw a kick at Gene’s head and the next thing George knew he was looking at the ceiling and the man was on top of him laughing. He gave young George all he could handle. George was amazed at what was going on around him. Eugene or “Gene” would become a major influence on George in years to come. In fact, George said “He was like a second Dad to me until he passed away.” After class George had many questions, but Brad remined him to repeat the process of cleaning the mats like he had done before class.
Over the next year George trained at the Y. He left the path of troubled youth and fell in line under Brad who would help mold him into the man he is today. After about a year he went back in front of the judge and was given an award for turning his life around. George also approached the person he assaulted at the school dance and made amends to him.
George graduated from Coventry High School in 1991. After taking six months off, he enrolled in Community College of Rhode Island for one semester. He also attended the Arthur Angelo School of Hair Design and went to work at Super Cuts on Thayer Street on the East Side of Providence. Then he went to school for art, and attended the Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey. During these years George continued to cut hair while improving as a martial artist and became an instructor/coach.
As life pressed on George did everything he could to broaden his martial arts knowledge. He recalled being at Tae Kwon Do school in his youth, and knowing the self-defense being taught was not going to work in real life situations. He wanted real answers and started reading all the martial arts books he could get his hands on.
When he was younger, he would tag along with his mother when she would go shopping in Boston. Once there he would go off on his own through the infamous Combat Zone, making his way to Chinatown. He would visit all the cool stores like Silky Way in search of Bruce Lee books. The first book George found was The Art and Philosophy of Bruce Lee by Dan Isosanto. This book in addition to George’s training debunked all the ineffective self-defense moves he had been force-fed in Tae Kwon Do early in his martial arts career. He found more books by Tim Tackett and others. He would read these books from cover to cover, over and over. He realized his mindset was firmly cemented in Jeet Kune Do. He took pieces from different styles and made them his own. George was getting mentally, physically, and spiritually stronger by the second. He knew he was on the right path. He never once questioned his direction, and he never looked back. There would be other martial artists who would greet George on the path of his life’s journey. George met Matt Donahue, and more doors swung wide open. George describes Matt as his gateway drug to all the cool martial arts he does today. Donahue introduced George to Mat Santos, of Team Santos Fighting Academy. George has been training under Mat for over 20 years now. For the past decade he also assumed the role of instructor/coach.
He also met the likes of the late Jim Ingram, the late Bob Orlando, the late Frank “Buddha” Denninger, Bill White, Steve Lombardi, Clinton Perry, Bryce Frank, Kevin Seaman, Tom Sotis, Mark Dellagroette, Keith Allen, Chris Thompson, and a whole host of others.
George was very quick to announce it would be difficult to mention everyone who influenced him along the way. With all the various styles and disciplines George has trained with I asked him which is his favorite. He told me he couldn’t pick just one. From my observation George has immense respect for everyone he trained with from his early Tae Kwon Do instructors to everyone he ever crossed paths with. He comes across as respectful as a person can be.
One of the most amazing twists and turns in George’s life was becoming a martial arts coach for law enforcement with his first Jiu-Jitsu teacher Brad Inman. Starting in the 1990s he taught men and woman self-defense in departments all over New England. That led to George becoming a national trainer. Now he trains individuals from all over the country who then go back and train their local departments.
He is also training Rhode Island’s own professional MMA fighter Jorge “Tyson” Vega, a heavyweight fighter on the rise with a bright future.
One of the most remarkable things George told me was if he meets a student who is looking to learn a specific thing and he knows one of his colleagues is more knowledgeable and proficient in whatever it is, he will refer them without hesitation. He seems free from ego. That in itself is rare.
In a serious tone George told me if it wasn’t for Brad Inman taking him under his wing as a teenager, he would be in prison or dead. Instead, George gives back, coaching others.
At 49, George resides in Coventry. He is married to his wife, Nicole. They have 2 children: Jude, 13 and Mae, 11. Martial Arts coaching is his full-time job. He teaches in several locations including his home gym, Team Santos, in Pawtucket, Just Train Fitness-Martial Arts in North Kingstown, and Team United in Providence.
I asked “coach” what’s next for him. He sat for a moment and pondered the question. Then he smiled and said “It’s the hustle. If I ever stop seeking, I’m in big trouble. So, first to grow as a person and provide for my family. Then to be that person for my students. I’m going to keep doing this until I’m in a wheelchair. Then they can wheel me in front of the class or in front of the cage and I’ll still be barking. Family first, then Martial Arts and everything else in gravy.”
Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.
We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.
To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/
Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”