By TATUM MAPES
Meet Josh Uslu. He is a junior at Redlands East Valley High School who plays a sport that is nearly impossible to find on a high school campus. Josh does Taekwondo and even has a national title in it.
“When I was younger I wrestled a lot. My dad and I were always messing around, and I got tired of it. I started Taekwondo four years ago because I was not good at any other sport,” Uslu said as he was describing his first experiences in Taekwondo.
“I got into my first match after six months, and I was competing with people who had been doing it for five years. I have been doing it ever since then,” said Uslu.
Flash forward several years and Uslu is a champion in Taekwondo. “Last year I had to compete…with 16, 17 and 18-year-olds because I was beating the 14 and 15-year-olds. I was the youngest, but everyone else was 17 and 18.”
That was also the year of his most memorable fight. He was fighting against his friend Samuel, a senior from San Diego. “He beat me that last year in the beginning of the year by a lot,” Uslu said, “I think to score was two to ten. I got whupped. It was in the back of my mind a lot of the time.”
By the time state championships came around, however, Uslu was ready, as he had trained specifically throughout the year to combat Samuel’s fighting style. The hard work paid off, because in the last second, he won with a kick to the stomach.
Uslu is a national Taekwondo champion. The term “national” includes the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and other southwestern states. “The level above that is ‘World.’ Everyone in their different country has their own way of Taekwondo.”
Uslu clarifies what “the American way” means. “Brawling. You know in the old cartoons when you see a bunch of smoke and don’t see what happens? That’s the kind of brawl. My mom says I’m going to get my face messed up.”
In his last tournament in Las Vegas, Uslu was up to defend his national title. “It was really surprising to me because the competitors there were all really popular. I was the only one without the words ‘district champion’ or ‘world champion’ on my back. I only had ‘state champion.’
Everyone there was renowned. To get state, it’s a point thing. For district, you get put in a room with 40 people and it’s similar to a tournament level, last man standing. I haven’t gone because it is in Arkansas.”
At the tournament, Uslu got two bronze medals in the 130-pound weight class and one silver in the 125-pound weight class, his natural weight.
“They had different rules at this tournament and it completely threw me off,” Uslu said, “I do kickboxing, and this was a Taekwondo tournament. I couldn’t punch them in the face. I could only punch in the body and kick them in the head. I went there and, in the second round, I was exchanging with somebody, and I accidentally knocked him down by punching him in the jaw.”
The new rules were why he got silver instead of gold. “They took two points away from me. It was instinct. He was close to my body and automatically I just punched him across his jaw.”
The new rules also affected how his coach, Todd Simpson, interacted with him during a match. “My mom, dad and instructor went. You’re not allowed to coach during Taekwondo, so he just sat there watching me there whole time,” Uslu said, “I bet he was judging me. He posted videos on Facebook telling me that I had to work on some techniques.”
Even when he’s not fighting, Uslu’s physical fitness habits play a big part in the sport. It came to the point where he had to quit other sports so they would not get in the way of his Taekwondo. “I used to do cross country, and I got super skinny. I lost ten pounds from running.” He had to stop cross country and now he trains himself. “I train five days a week, Monday through Friday, 4 to 8 p.m. every day. Saturdays and Sundays, I’m off.”
“Eating is a big part of it too,” Uslu explained, “You have to stay healthy.” He tries to avoid carbonated drinks and sweets. “I’ll eat during third, lunch and fifth. I just pack on food. I eat nuts, a sandwich and protein: The good stuff.” However, Saturdays are cheat days for him. On weekdays, Instead of three big meals, he will eat all throughout the day.
When asked about plans for life after his schooling, Uslu replied, “For my future, I want to get out of Taekwondo and go more into MMA. There’s not much money to be made in Taekwondo.”
The last four years of Taekwondo has had a huge impact on Uslu’s life. “It taught me how to live more. I learned how to get out of my comfort zone. It takes a lot to punch somebody in the face. Respect is huge.”
There is also a lot of honor involved. “You have to go out there and do it for yourself. My dad always tells me not to do it for anybody else. Be you. I’m myself when I’m out there.”
Uslu also teaches Taekwondo to children at the American Taekwondo Association gym. “Coach Kelly, the old wrestling coach here, I teach his daughter Taekwondo.”
Josh values the process. “I do it for the experience and I do it for meeting new people,” said Uslu, “There’s something about kids who do martial arts. They have a lot a respect for the people around them. They’re all intelligent. They’re not just brutes who punch and kick. They’re good people. “
“I learned that you have to have a heart. I love my competitors—even if I lose. They give me a challenge and it’s amazing. No one is going to do this against me except me. If I lose, at least I lose at doing something I love.”