With a long white beard and white hair tied back, Ahmad Ali Mazhari looks like a man with much wisdom to impart.
It is wisdom that inspires extreme loyalty among his followers, some of whom were in a recent evening session at his Shotokan Karate Center in Rapid City.
Speaking in a firm, fatherly English accented by his native Farsi, Mazhari led his students through a regimen of crisp blocks, kicks and punches.
His commands drew eager, reverent responses of “Osu Sensei” (acknowledgment of, or gratitude for, a teacher, or "sensei," pronounced sen-say) from the class, including five devotees who uprooted their lives last year and followed him from Virginia to teach or study karate in Rapid City.
“Where Sensei goes, I follow Sensei, because my whole life, my livelihood is tied to Sensei and my training,” said Golnesa AsheghAli, 31, who took her first lesson from Mazhari 19 years ago and is now an instructor at his dojo.
“I’m blessed that so many of my students who have trained with me for so long, they move to South Dakota with me,” said Mazhari, a seventh-degree black belt, fourth-generation master and an internationally known karate judge, coach and examiner.
AsheghAli said her husband, Ramzi Soubra, and a student, Elizabeth Biondi, 25, also chose to follow Mazhari to Rapid City.
“It was a no-brainer,” AsheghAli said of the move.
“We never had the discussion of ‘What are we going to do? What’s going to happen there? What about my job?' It was just, ‘Sensei’s going, we’re going too,’” she said.
“There are very good schools out there in the world. Sensei makes it different. His standard is so very high. He is a force to be around,” AsheghAli said.
“For me it’s been a lot of confidence and self-esteem," said Biondi, who first had to convince her family that she would be safe moving sight-unseen to South Dakota. "I have definitely grown a lot with the amount of encouragement and support. The Sensei has been amazing.”
Biondi quickly noted the change in altitude and attitude in the heartland: “It’s a lot closer to the sky. You can notice the elevation change from Virginia. It’s the friendliest place. I love it.”
Born in 1950, Mazhari became enthralled with karate growing up in Tehran, Iran. He began formal martial arts study in 1965, training that intensified after he watched an 8 mm movie of a world championship match featuring a Japanese master, Keinosuke Enoeda.
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He opened a successful school in Tehran, but left for London to find and train under Enoeda.
The political unrest embroiling Iran and the western world in the late 1970s forced Mazhari to leave England when his temporary visa expired. He landed in Greece and continued to teach karate in Athens until 1982, when he was finally able to join family members already in the U.S.
He operated a dojo, or school, in Falls Church, Va., for 35 years, but a love of the outdoors brought him to South Dakota.
As a youth, he hunted pheasants near the Caspian Sea. In Virginia a deer-hunting friend recommended he come to South Dakota to hunt the game bird. He made his first trek to the state in 1998.
“I have experienced nature in a lot of places," he said. "South Dakota stands out. It was very, very good.”
Some of his students accompanied him on the annual pheasant hunt.
“It was like our family trip," AsheghAli said. "Every year Sensei would come, and every year it would become more difficult to go back (to Virginia). He just really fell in love with South Dakota.”
A rancher-host in central South Dakota suggested Mazhari check out Rapid City, and he was impressed with the open spaces, smaller population and slower pace.
“Maybe it’s crowded for the people who live here. For me it’s very easygoing. The look of the city, the nature, the combination of the prairie and the Black Hills, these are things that are important,” he said.
His experiences in such metropolises as New York, Tehran and London compelled him to say, "I’m done with the big city.”
This year, Mazhari opened his Shotokan Karate Center, named in honor of the traditional style of his master Enoeda, at 3405 Sturgis Road, one floor below the Prima School of Dance.
Mazhari and his instructors don’t expect to attract a huge following.
“The nature of the training is very hard," he said. "It’s for a certain group of people. It’s not the around-the-corner place of convenience where people leave their kids. People who are looking for the hard-core training and the discipline and something individual, they’re going to find this place very interesting.”
That training is arduous and never-ending for all devotees of traditional karate, which is as much about self-discipline and self-confidence as it is about self-defense.
“It’s all encompassing," AsheghAli said. "The bar is constantly raised. Like for me, you could train for 20 years and never feel complacent. You never get to a point where your ego allows you to think that you’re really good.”