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August 16, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A karate school isn't simply a bare room with mats on the floor. At Rifkin Professional Karate Center, J.D. Rifkin, master and owner of the school, says martial arts and the studio are the constants in his life that keep everything together.
Rifkin got his start in martial arts at age 16 when he joined a karate class. He later graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and joined the entertainment industry. Before leaving Florida, his first stop was a little place called Disney World.
While in California, Rifkin appeared in 18 films, such as Total Force and The Ultimate Game, and as a model in several magazines, including Men’s Workout. In addition to filming and doing stunts, he taught karate part time.
After teaching for eight years, Rifkin opened his own martial arts school in California. Now he splits his time between his school in Los Angeles and his new school in Columbia. Rifkin’s goal for the studio is to provide tough training for martial arts while also having fun. His curriculum combines karate, kickboxing and aikido.
How did you get your start in films?
I went to an open casting call and worked as a stuntman in the Wild West Stunt Show at Disney World. I went from there to LA to do stunts and martial arts in movies. I was teaching part time, as most guys do, and then I got my first break in a movie called Airheads with Adam Sandler.
Which film was your favorite to work on?
Probably a film called Kazaam with Shaquille O’Neal. I got to do a fight with Martial arts instructor Shaq, which was a lot of fun. We spent two weeks shooting one fight, which is really cool because usually they spend one day, maybe two, shooting a fight. But it was Disney, so they had a ton of money to spend.
What did you take away from working with the other actors?
I’ve been very lucky. The people I’ve worked with have always been encouraging; they give guidance and can be very professional about it. They have impacted me by showing me that no matter how successful they are, they’re not above helping someone who’s just starting out.
Why did you move to Columbia?
I had been in LA for almost 20 years. I grew up in the Northeast, and I wanted to raise my children in a smaller town. My wife grew up in Fulton from the age of 7, so a lot of family is here. It’s more family-oriented.
What have you learned that you want to pass on to your students?
You don’t train hard to be average; you try to be the best that you can be. That’s not just martial arts. It’s in being a father, any sport, any hobby you want to be good at. If you take the heart and soul that you put into your training and apply it to other aspects of your life, you can’t help but be successful. I can’t think of anything more difficult yet more rewarding than martial arts.
Who inspires you?
When I was a kid, Chuck Norris, whom I now know. We have a mutual friend, and we’ve worked with a lot of the same people on stunts.
Do you think you’ll expand the businesses?
I’m happy with my two schools right now. If the opportunity presents itself and we outgrow this school, then I could open another school here. But I certainly wouldn’t want to open another far away. Traveling all the time is not fun.
What do you hope to bring to Columbia?
I would like to provide Columbia and the surrounding area with an intensity of training and attention to detail in martial arts that is rare. We train hard, and students truly earn their rank, but they also have fun doing it. A lot of people don’t understand that martial arts can be a lot of fun.
How involved are you with the school in LA?
Every day I'm emailing, calling, texting my instructors and staff back there. The phone still forwards to me, so I still answer all the phone calls from LA as well as this one. I'm running both schools even though I might not be on the mat as much there. But this is my primary focus now.
Who are some of the actors you've gotten to work with?
I liked working with Timothy Bottoms. Shaq, obviously. He's not an actor, but I liked working with him. I meet a lot of big names, but I don't actually work with them. Paul Michael Glaser, he was Starsky in the original Starsky & Hutch, actually directed a film I did and brought me on board. He's a great guy and very humble in all his successes.