What is Tom Callos To BJ Penn?
By Tom Callos special to Hawaii Sports Page
The man pictured here is former Big Island / Hilo resident Tom Callos. He is a sixth degree black belt in taekwondo who started studying the martial arts in 1971. Here Tom is posing with one of his students in his school, West Coast Martial Arts, which was located across the street from Ken’s Pancake House in Hilo.
At his school’s peak in the late 1990’s, Tom taught about 200 Hilo residents both stand-up martial arts (taekwondo and kickboxing) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Before Tom started his school in Hilo, in fact, on the first day he and his bride to be Kathleen Harris moved from Kamuela to Hilo, Tom put up fliers in local gyms looking for judo players and wrestlers to train with.
The next day BJ Penn’s father called Tom and said his boys were interested. Coincidently, Tom had met JD Penn the day before, as he was leasing one of the Penn’s rental properties on Kauila St.
BJ Penn, his brother Reagan, and a number of their friends started meeting Tom two to three times a week at the Waiakea Recreation Center. Tom taught BJ and “the boys” what he knew, as he had just started training in Jiu-jitsu a 18 months before, and BJ became Tom’s 5th degree black-belt-test training partner.
“I’m going to guess that I have tapped out BJ Penn more than anyone in the world, “Said Callos in a recent interview. “Of course, that was in the first three months of training with him, because after a few months, BJ was a formidable and eventually an unbeatable opponent.”
When Callos’ instructor, Ernie Reyes, Sr. was having his 50th birthday party in 1997, Tom suggested to JD Penn that BJ could go to San Jose with him. Tom offered to introduce BJ to his former teacher, Ralph Gracie (the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu pioneered the worldwide popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu).
Shortly thereafter, BJ’s father arranged for BJ to live near --and train with -- Ralph Gracie’s Academy. Two years later BJ would earn his black belt (normally a 5 to 8 year process) and win the world championships, earning him the nickname, “The Prodigy.”
Callos on BJ Penn: “One day I was too tired to grapple with BJ, remember I was 37 and he was 17, and so I suggested that we ‘slap-box’ a little bit. Well, at that time I had already been studying the martial arts for more than 25 years; I was no stranger to fighting and I had way better than average hand speed. So, we took our stances and BOOM, before I knew it, BJ had hit me three or four time in the face! I remember getting real wide eyed and, well, not angry, but determined to teach him a lesson, so I started after him –which only gave him another opportunity to hit me a few more times before I could react. It was really humiliating! I left the workout that day thinking I was just too old and washed up to be doing this kind of thing with a bunch of kids. Of course, now that he’s clearly recognized as one of the best fighters in the world, I don’t feel so bad.”
While Tom was in Hilo he even got BJ’s mom, Lorraine Shin to try a few classes.
Lorraine is, I think, tougher than BJ, “laughs Callos. “My wife grappled with her once, just once, and I don’t think she ever got on the mat again.”
Tom Callos now lives near Lake Tahoe, California and is a professional consultant to the martial arts industry. His most recent teaching program is called The Ultimate Black Belt Test and can be seen at www.ultimateblackbelttest.com. Tom brought some of his students to Hilo last year to train with BJ. (See pictures).
“BJ’s dad used to come to me every so often and say, “You know, BJ’s going to be the best fighter in the world.” And me, having heard that same thing from 500 other dads, would smile and say, ‘You think so, Huh?’ Well, He was right!”
There were no Brazilian Jiu-Jistu classes or students on the Big Island before Tom Callos arrived. Now, just 10 years later, Hilo may very well be the mecca for grapplers all over the world.
“Of course, I’m honored to have played a part, albeit a small one, in BJ’s career, “says Callos. “Today Hilo, Hawaii is THE place for martial arts. Maybe I should come back and take some lessons?”