AFTA Martial Arts teaches real-life defense tactics

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118175367019887.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘“We’re one of Rockford’s best-kept secrets,” said AFTA Master Joel Bowling. “Once people find out about us, we don’t have any problem getting them to come.”‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118175369920924.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘AFTA Master Joel Bowling trains about 10 fighters for kickboxing and mixed-martial arts competitions. He is training fighters for a July kickboxing event in Beloit, Wis. ‘);

AFTA Martial Arts Master Joel Bowling offers 23 years of experience

Violence can occur at any given moment. Whether it’s in a parking lot, an alley, outside a bar or while walking along the street, people are susceptible to violent, threatening circumstances. The people who usually escape unharmed are the ones who are most prepared to do so.

Prepare for combat.

Master Joel Bowling, an eighth-degree black belt, has dedicated the past 23 years of his life at AFTA Martial Arts and Fitness at 7326 N. Cherry Vale Mall Drive, teaching the tactics and techniques available for dealing with these real-life combat situations.

“We’re one of Rockford’s best-kept secrets,” Bowling said. “Once people find out about us, we don’t have any problem getting them to come.”

Bowling, 45, started training Tang Soo Do in New Milford, Ill., when he was 13 years old. He studied and eventually mastered the arts of combat Tae-Kwon-Do, combat Karate, combat ground fighting and Asian weapons.

“The training was fairly harsh,” Bowling said. “When we first started sparring, we didn’t have hand pads or foot pads, and we trained on a cement floor.”

In 1984, Bowling decided to open his own school in Rockford, where he works full time to train others in what he called the combat aspect of martial arts, as opposed to the sport aspect, which can be impractical in the street.

“In a sport situation, even the UFC, you have a ring doctor, a padded floor and a ring,” Bowling said. “You have someone to throw the towel if it gets too rough and an official to stop it if it gets too rough. In the street, none of those things are afforded you. You’re on your own.”

Since its inception, Bowling’s school has evolved into a 4,000-square-foot facility, about the size of two indoor volleyball courts, complete with heavy bags, banana bags and speed bags, a large open space of mats, weights, cardiovascular equipment, a 16-foot by 16-foot “no escape ring” and two rows of wooden benches for spectators.

Its windows are lined with a number of trophies won by Bowling’s fighters in competition. Asian weapons, kickboxing title belts, fighting caricatures, mirrors and martial arts slogans decorate the walls that suspend the Japanese, American and Korean flags. Painted along this wall is, “Here we train hardest for…The fight we hope never comes.”

Not only has his facility evolved, but Bowling’s instruction has also. In 2006, he was inducted into the USA Black Belt Hall of Fame for the third consecutive year, and he received the Founder of the Year Award for developing a martial art called Tatakai No Shinjutsu, which Bowling said means the “truth about fighting.”

“These people just want to know how to defend themselves, their family or friends, and that’s what we do,” Bowling said. “Fighting comes down to strategy and knowing that whatever strategy you’ve got can change any second.”

While Bowling’s focus is to instruct students in the art and discipline of combat fighting, it does so by combining an array of tactics and techniques such as: striking; holds, locks and throws; ground fighting; breaking; pressure points; weapon defense and weapon use. He also teaches his younger students about stress management, goal setting, the dangers of drugs and how to handle malicious situations, such as stranger abduction.

Bowling trains about 10 fighters for kickboxing and mixed-martial arts competitions. He is training fighters for a July kickboxing event in Beloit, Wis.

His success has not only been recognized by his students’ wins and losses, but also through their individual accomplishments. Bowling is proud that one of his students earned acceptance to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, and another, who had no prior military experience, is now training to become a Green Beret.

“The self-confidence and self-discipline gained from this are lessons people will never get from anywhere else,” Bowling said. “We’re dedicated to what we do here. And we know, the best chance people will ever have to survive in a situation, we’ll be able to give to them.”

The U.S. Martial Arts team also offered Bowling a coaching position, but he had to decline because of commitments to his school in Rockford.

Bowling’s goal is to have 150 students, but no more. He has about 20 openings for annual contracts. A one-year contract costs $95 per month, and two- and three-year contracts cost $85 and $75 per month, respectively. Bowling said AFTA also offers a buddy system discount of $75 per month for people who join with a friend. Information about AFTA Martial Arts and Fitness is available at

“The best thing to do is simply to come in and try it,” Bowling said, regarding his free trial period. “You get a week free, no obligation. In that five to seven days, you’re going to know if this is for you or not.”

from the June 13-19, 2007, issue

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