A small-town Karate instructor is going to be seen all over the world working out in a uniform he helped create.
Steve Franz, or “Sensei” in the Okinawa Karate school, is going to be featured in the upcoming Century Martial Arts catalog. Century is the largest supplier and manufacturer of martial arts gear in the world.
Franz runs two schools, one in Bryan and the other in Angola, Indiana; has more than 25 years of teaching experience as well as a global reputation as a four-time world champion in various disciplines.
He was brought into the ShorinKan Karate System as a 6th degree black belt, while on a trip to Okinawa in 2016. He is a Renshi or “polished/master instructor, a title that carries rank and certification.
Franz has earned black belts in Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Jujitsu and Kenpo at various degrees of proficiency.
He had grown frustrated in finding a worthwhile uniform for his students, mostly children, they could afford. Franz’s path crossed Century when the vice president of the company called him to find out why he no longer was a customer of their uniforms.
The reason why is the company didn’t have a traditional uniform, a good uniform and a $100 model, Franz said about the phone call.
“I got kids,” Franz said of his students. “I can’t have their mom iron it every time they come to class.
“You don’t have a good uniform.”
He told the vice president, Leon Rogers, where he got his uniforms and what the wholesale cost was and what they sell for.
“What can we do to get your business back?” Rogers asked Franz.
Develop a uniform that fits traditional karate in the $100 price range, was Franz’s reply.
“We started talking,” Franz said.
Rogers asked if Franz would be interested in developing a uniform for traditional karate. While Franz didn’t know the first thing about design, Rogers told him to show them what he was using for his business and what he was looking for. That began a process where the company would come up with a prototype and Franz would test it out and give feedback.
Because he was a professional and had been doing it for 25 years, Franz said about the company’s explanation.
The first attempt was not a good uniform and Franz told him so. After four more attempts, and four more uniforms, the last one they sent him is the one he wears now when he trains his students
“It was a test model,” Franz said about the prototype. “Three weeks of hard-core testing. Fighting grappling, weapons form and self-defense.
“It performs really well and it washes and wears really nice. The weight is correct and the cut is correct. (Traditional uniforms have shorter sleeves and shorter pant legs.)
“We started looking at it and Century is a sponsor of my tournament and Rogers came to my tournament and said why don’t you come out and we’ll put you in the catalog since you helped with this uniform,” Franz said.
Photo shoots are not his thing and he said he is not in this for personal glory, but the president told him the company needed an instructor who is respected and someone with a good reputation.
“Someone who represents the karate uniform,” Franz said.
Franz went out to Oklahoma to do the shoot. There were some photos for the catalog and video of his running through forms. He got to meet everybody, including the founder.
“The final product is what I am wearing today,” Franz said. “I think people are going to really, really like it.”
To say the whole experience was unique is an understatement.
First, it was the company that reached out to him. That doesn’t happen every day.
The company started out in the early 1970s when the founder would go to events and sell his merchandise. From there it grew to the top of the heap. Now that power is behind Franz.
“Together we built a very nice product that is going to be sold worldwide,” Franz said.
Besides the fit and durability, cost will be a factor in the new line’s success. Where most uniforms cost around $250 and the Century line will be $100.
That’s important since a youth uniform can wear out in 18 months, Franz said. Part of the training process is getting grabbed, pulled down and the uniform being ripped.
“We wanted a uniform that was affordable and could last two years,” Franz said. “We call it dojo tough, it’s made for the karate school.”
And it’s good enough for competition. Franz is a world-class competitor.
“This would be a uniform I would definitely wear in a tournament,” Franz said.
Century treated him well while he was out west. It helped when he realized some the top stars in martial arts had been right where Franz stood for his photo shoot.
“They made me feel pretty good, but I don’t care about (fame),” Franz said. “I am (already) pretty well-known.
“This is a different side for people to see. I put my intelligence to work to make a product for a company and they believed in me enough to let me do so.
“That made me feel really good. That was a major confidence booster.”
The experience has humbled a man who shuns the limelight at all cost.
“I teach karate in a small town in rural America; I only have a couple of schools,” Franz said. “I am not Chuck Norris.”
The photo shoot was a 3-hour marathon that put him through the ringer. He did every kick and punch in his repertoire so many times he said he did more in that one session than he normally does in a week.
He tried to straighten his uniform between takes and was told to leave it alone. The studio wanted him to look like he was working out. He was in awe as he realized he was standing in the same room as Norris did.
He was exhausted afterward.
“I was sweating, really sweating,” Franz said.
The experience was more than he could ever have imagined. His previous experience with corporate America didn’t turn out well. But from the flight out to Oklahoma and company headquarters and seeing people walking around in blue jeans and flip-flops told him this would be different.
His world changed when the photos were released and his Facebook friends list “blew up.”
Now he will work on other projects including graphics and having his poems printed on various media.
The company has become a supporter of the regional circuit and has taken a mentoring role. That means more to Franz than money.
“I got in into this to produce something that would last forever and it will have my name on it,” Franz said.
“It was a great experience.”
James Pruitt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org