Martial Arts Master

By Kristine McNulty

When he was six-year-old his father enrolled Marcus Fernandez in a martial arts school for children. Now 23, Sensei Fernandez teaches at the same school, Excel Martial Arts in the Bronx. Although many of his early memories of the school have faded, it has had a profound impact on him. Excel is his second home, the staff he grew up with his aunts and uncles and the friends he trained with his brothers and sisters.

Fernandez earned his black belt at only 11 years old and started leading classes three years later. He now works at Excel from the after-school program till the last class ends at 9:30. He says that even with life’s ups and downs he wouldn’t change how his life turned out thanks to Excel.

From a young age Sensei Fernandez had a sense of what he had to do to earn his rank at Excel. “My earliest memory, funny enough, is when I got my white belt taken away because I was trying to kick one of my friends or something like that while we were doing free playtime,” says Fernandez. “I think I remember that because after I got it back, like from training during class, being focused doing exactly what my instructor told me to do. I was like okay, so this is the path that I gotta take.”

Sensei Fernandez remembers his black belt test, a three-day strenuous examination that cost about $200. It was a rather difficult challenge for an 11-year-old. “Oh god, making me relive my hell,” Fernandez says. “It was definitely one of the most physically but also mentally strenuous things I’ve ever gone through for sure.” He explains the first day as two hours of strictly endurance-based exercises, all the things you learn from the white belt all the way up to brown multiplied by 500. “Asking an 11-year-old to do it, it’s crazy but it’s possible because I did it.”

The second day is endurance but making sure they are ‘traditionally sound,’ the forms you learned from the beginning, and the third day was endurance, forms and fighting. “So, each day got more and more challenging,” Fernandez says. “Where most people would look at that and hear that and ask ‘Why is he putting himself though that?’ I feel like I proved to myself more than anything else that anything I set my mind to I can accomplish.”

Fernandez started working at Excel at the age of 13. He was sent to public and private schools to teach and was assisting two classes at Excel’s locations.

Sensei Fernandez watching over his BBC 3 students doing their basic forms.

Fernandez says he loves being a teacher. Excel is not only about the classes students take and moving up the ranks, he says, but about becoming good people on and off the mat. “Like seeing that they’re improving at school, being respectful at home, that’s the most fulfilling thing in the world. Seeing it is awesome but all so hearing it from the parents,” he explains.

Interacting with a parent after her child’s class about what needs to be worked on, on the mat and at home.

The sensei hopes to instill the mindset of self-confidence in his students through trial and error. “I want them to embrace mistakes,” he says.

Teaching his students to break a board. Many failed in the task, but they were not upset and more thrilled to have tried at all.

Fernandez had a wide variety of teachers growing up on the mat. He takes something he learned from each teacher with him when teaching his own classes. “With Sensei Nick I get my more assertive side, more assertive with the kids, more disciplinary,” he says. “With Sensei Johan I get the more relatable maybe comedic side.”

The current leader of the school, Shihan Joseph Rivera, he credits for his intellect in his teaching. Rivera created Excel along with his late wife Shihan Jessica Fuentes-Rivera, more commonly known by her students as Shihan China. Seeing the late Shihan on the mat was a rarity, he said, but she did teach classes from time to time. She proved to be a formidable adversary and was even inducted into the martial arts hall of fame in 2012. Fernandez says he was lucky to get more than a few classes taught by her. “Terrifying,” he says of them. “That woman put the fear of god into me like no other besides my own grandmother and my own mother.”

Fernandez says that when visiting the instructor during her final days that she knew he would basically be running the school and gave him advice on how to do so before her passing. “I tell her this every time I walk in, and I see that picture on the wall, he says. “I tell her that I hope I make her proud, I really do.”

Shihan Jessica Fuentes-Rivera’s picture hangs on a wall of the school.

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