Nathan Ingram: The Bruce Leroy Overdoer
A look at martial artists Nathan Ingram, whose compelling story contributed towards one of the most popular films in hip-hop history, Wild Style.
Before The Last Dragon, before the Wutang Clan, the film, The Deadly Art of Survival fused hip-hop and martial arts culture.
This article was previously published on Kung Fu Cinema — Circa 2009.
When I set out to interview Kyoshi Nathan Ingram, as a follow-up to reviewing THE DEADLY ART OF SURVIVAL, I wasn’t sure what to find. A series of Googling and newspaper databases didn’t provide much since he had stopped a bank robbery in 1981.
What I did come across was the number of students who had trained under him and were either teaching at their own schools, champions or very good fighters. There was absolutely nothing that spoke about him as a person and the work he has been involved in since the film’s release in 1979.
After getting in contact with Nathan and being invited in for an interview I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I thought I’d come across an egotistical type of bully or some Black man who was so ingrained in Chinese culture that the sight of a black face at his school would cause him to be standoffish.
When I arrived at the school, I didn’t receive any weird stares or a sense of apprehension. I took some time to look at the trophy case in the school. Among the pictures and magazine clippings, I could not find a picture of the DVD THE DEADLY ART OF SURVIVAL.
While sitting, I took some time to survey the environment. It was obvious that Nathan was a part of this culture. I knew it would be impossible for him to exist in the center and for the people of Chinatown to accept him otherwise.
I heard Kyoshi Nathan before I actually laid eyes on him.
“What’s going on bro?” boomed Nathan.
I shook his hand and I could see that the kid from the movie was long gone. Nathan is huge. Not out of shape, but a giant. Nathan’s broad forearms would suggest that he was a bodybuilder instead of a martial arts instructor. I had him all wrong, Kyoshi Nathan was very pleasant and cordial. As he spoke to some of his staff members, I could sense their respect for him. I was impressed by his professionalism and his ability to still come across as a homeboy.
Nathan led me down to the second floor of the fitness center, to an isolated and quiet section. From this location, you could see many people lifting weights and working on various machines. As we sat, I looked at the Chinese members who exercised there. They didn’t pay Nathan any mind. He wasn’t disregarded, but a fixture who was visibly a part of the environment.
As we began the interview, Nathan asked me a very intelligent question. “So where are you from?” I thought this was a very calculating question, because with my experience in journalism when people ask this, they get a sense of who you are and things you have gone through. This will ultimately determine the way they respond and interact with you.
As a journalist, you’re trained or you often learn about other stories through one interview. Nathan’s story, is so dense and so concentrated, that at certain times, I was overwhelmed. Every answer he provided, pointed me in another direction. He wasn’t name dropping, mind you. I asked him questions, and his responses would lead to encounters with legendary people, and some stories that would be great material for any fiction novel.
The appropriately named style of fighting “Deadly Art of Survival” was created out of a need to survive. New York City during the 1970s was plagued with heroin. There weren’t any options in the Smith Projects. The martial arts taught in a community center was an alternative to the streets, filled with violence and crime.
Nathan started training at the age of 11. Influenced by a friend, Nathan trained in Chinatown and I wondered if he felt out of place. “No, not at all, the Smith projects has always been diverse,” said Nathan. Considering proximity to Chinatown, it all made sense to me.
After providing Nathan with a brief introduction, and how I came to find him, he immediately said, “That movie, don’t buy it, it isn’t me,” with a sense of amusement. Although director Charlie Ahearn is respected by Nathan and the two have a friendly relationship, he doesn’t like the way he was portrayed in the film.
“Charlie had me saying things that I normally wouldn’t say. I was cursing and stuff. People who knew me then and know me now, know that isn’t what I’m about,” said Nathan.
Although I enjoyed the movie, I could understand where Nathan was coming from. I could clearly see, that the movie did not communicate the message that was intended by Nathan and his students when they first approached Ahearn for the project.
However, certain parts of the movie did take place. “Yeah, like the guy being kicked into the water. I really did that,” said Nathan. His adversary in the film was a weed-smoking sensei who exploits his students and sells drugs. “This was something that was happening in the community center where I worked. The center organizer had actually sold drugs,” said Nathan.
Nathan had a reputation in his neighborhood as someone who did not tolerate drug dealers. “I was the guy that when I walked through a certain area, drug dealers cleared out,” said Nathan. It made sense, after all, his sacrificial way of life and devotion to the code of martial arts was the antithesis of the flashy and selfish lifestyle that drug dealers lived by.
One of the most important lines in the movie is when Nathan’s character is having inner reflection and he says, “Money is the real deadly art of survival!” I could understand the statement. As someone who has seen those who hustled, and appear to live more prosperously than those who worked hard or by some moral guidelines.
I asked Nathan if he ever shared those sentiments. His answer was honest and candid, “Yes, and for a while I did.” Nathan had admitted that he had worked as a bodyguard or a tough for some people he shouldn’t have worked for. His candid answer had segued into a very interesting story.
When Nathan was a street mercenary, he received a call from someone who was a sergeant for Nicky Barnes. Unknowingly, Nathan accepted the assignment and went up to Harlem to obtain some funds owed to Barnes. His assignment was to get the funds from a member of the motorcycle gang known as the “Black Falcons.” Nathan approached the person in question saying, “Nick needs his money and your going to get it now!”
The biker had refused and it was funny to hear Nathan describe what happened next. “I lit that guy up so fast and so bad, his entire crew was laughing at him.” Nathan returned to the Smith projects and later received a call from Nicky Barnes’ sergeant, saying, “Man, what did you do to that guy? They’re calling you the black Bruce Lee all over Harlem! Nicky wants you to do some more work for him.”
It wasn’t until later, when relaying the story to a friend, that Nathan learned who Barnes was. When he found out that Barnes was a notorious drug dealer, he called the sergeant back and told him that he wanted nothing to do with him.
With him not knowing who Nicky Barnes was at the time, it was clear to me that Nathan was completely in another world, a world of martial arts and Chinese culture. His trip up to Harlem in 1979 as an enforcer was his first visit.
I thought to myself, how could that be? It became clear when Nathan described the world that he had been living in and apart of. Nathan had been associated with Chinese tongs for several years. His world was Chinatown and during those years, he was a member of one of Chinatown’s most infamous gangs, “The Ghost Shadows.”
For years Nathan was close to one of Chinatown’s most infamous gang bosses, “Nicky Louie.” During this time, Nathan was a part of one of the most infamous battles in Chinatown, known as “The Pool Hall Massacre,” where eight people were stabbed. The legendary fight involved a rival gang known as the “Black Eagles.” It was at this time, that the older Triad bosses in Chinatown had a sit down with the young gang members and told them that the violence had to stop. “It was something out of a movie. We were in a basement with some of the older bosses. I remember being the only black guy there. Things were so out of control, they had to intervene,” said Nathan.
Nathan’s experiences had sounded so surreal, something straight out of a movie. I told him that he was the real-life version of Bruce Leroy. He laughed, “Yeah, I used to train with Taimak. He is one of the most underrated fighters I’ve met. He has terrific skills!” Nathan then shared experiences, working as a bodyguard and how he first met Taimak, who before starring in THE LAST DRAGON had worked as a guard briefly himself.
Seeing as how he had experience with the “Last Dragon,” I thought I’d ask about “The Black Dragon,” Ron Van Clief. “Yeah, I knew Ron, but he never wanted to fight me. He would never accept my challenge,” said Nathan. I was pretty sure that Ron would have his own explanation, but it made perfect sense. Ron would have too much to lose. If he fought and beat Nathan, then he would gain nothing in the process. A loss would jeopardize his status and celebrity in the martial arts world.
Nathan admits that he wasn’t the baddest guy on the streets. There were others, a fighter who trained with the Black Panthers gave Nathan one of his toughest fights. The result of the fight was that both men were hospitalized. Nathan had actually had photos of the fight on display in the school. This, however, wasn’t Nathan’s only encounter with the Black Panther party. He had trained many Panthers in Brooklyn and recalled meeting Huey Newton.
Some of Nathan’s toughest battles have been outside of martial arts. Like anyone, he has had difficulties with relationships, going through a divorce at one period of his life and being shot while working as a bodyguard. When I asked what had sustained him and allowed him to persevere, he gives credit to God. “My relationship with God, not martial arts has allowed me to do everything that I’ve done. God has allowed me to do everything I’ve done in martial arts!” said Nathan.
Throughout the interview, many of Nathan’s young students were entering the school. As they came down the stairs, each greeted Nathan emphatically and respectfully, rushing towards him, giving him high fives and hugs. I was both moved and impressed with Nathan’s relationship with his students and their parents, the majority of whom were Chinese.
Nathan Ingram is a clear example of how powerful art is. His martial art skills have allowed him to transcend race, age, and other cultural boundaries. Kyoshi Nathan realizes how important his story is. He is in the process of completing a book on his life, appropriately titled, “The Deadly Art of Survival.” He is hoping to release the book later this year, on the eve of his retirement from teaching.
I felt like I was talking to a superhero, and that is exactly what Nathan is. New York is running short on heroes. We’re looking for them, trying to create them, but we ignore the ones who live among us. I’m guilty. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked through Chatham square and completely ignored the school. I can assure you that won’t happen again.
Nathan Ingram, mister I’ll kick you in the water man. The Nicky Barnes disser, the drug dealer hater, the Taimak sparring, Ron Van Clief didn’t want to fight me, man. The Black Panther teacher, the bare knuckles champion, the Ghost Shadows representer, the mister-when-drug-dealers-see-him they ran, the Black Falcon crusher aka the mister go up to Harlem and get your money man.
Nathan Ingram, the teacher who adores his students man, the proud father and Chinatown feeler, the thug who became a “Kyoshi” man.
The God-lover and the peace pursuer.
The Bruce Leroy Overdoer!