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There are many reasons why people join a martial arts group.

Some do it strictly for self-defense purposes. Meanwhile, others are more interested in getting into shape or having an extracurricular activity that builds character.

No doubt, there's a "coolness" factor that plays a role, as the public's idea of martial arts continues to be influenced by images in the popular media.

Such images range from the golden era of kung-fu flicks to "The Karate Kid" and, more recently, the Ultimate Fighting Championship matches on television.

The residents of Newton County are fortunate to have at least three schools of martial arts to choose from within the county's borders that each offer different philosophies, backgrounds and approaches to teaching the martial arts.

Aikido School of Self-Defense

Though not the oldest school in the county, the Aikido School of Self-Defense certainly takes the most traditional approach of the three schools.

Walk into its Pace Street dojo - or training hall - or its newly opened dojo and you will find a simple, functional space covered by a cream-colored padded floor. White plaster walls are accented with traditional samurai swords and the mock weapons students use for practice.

Started 10 years ago by Michael and Ginger Stabile - a third degree black belt and second degree black belt, respectively - the school teaches Nihon Goshin Aikido, a style developed in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in the first half of the 20th century which draws upon a combination of judo, karate, jujitsu, bo-jutsu and other self-defense styles.

Ginger Stabile, who is a strong, robust figure, also works as a corrections officer for the Newton County Sheriff's Office. Stabile explained that aikido uses a lot of circular motions and doesn't need a lot of strength to be effective.

"People think it's a soft art because we have fluid motions," said Michael Stabile, a former trucker who now runs Salem Road Dojo full time. "But it's dynamic, like a hurricane - calm at the center but the arms are devastating."

The Stabiles described their particular style of aikido as a hard, "street" style compared to other types of aikido because they focus primarily on real-world self-defense and less on meditation or achieving harmony. They are concerned that the world is becoming a violent, dangerous place and have led numerous self-defense workshops for civic and educational organizations.

The Stabiles began practicing aikido nearly 14 years ago while living in upstate New York. Michael was initially reluctant to join. Not wanting to be outdone by his wife, who was enthusiastic about joining, he signed up, never thinking it would eventually become a way of life for them.

By spring of 1997, the Stabiles were thinking of opening a school of their own. They came to Conyers to visit relatives, promptly fell in love with the area and by fall had moved to Georgia to open their first dojo on Salem Road. They opened a second, part-time dojo on Pace Street in 2005.

Children, adults and students of all levels train together during practices, with the upper level students accommodating the lower level students, while black belts have their own practice sessions. According to Ginger, there are no contracts and the school does not hold tournaments or charge for membership or testing fees. The focus is entirely on learning self-defense.

"This is not a fitness center," said Michael. "Sometimes parents get mad at me; I'm strict. I'm not their babysitter. I'm here to teach kids to defend themselves in the real world."

Jim Fuller's U.M.A.S. Karate

At the other end of the spectrum is Jim Fuller's U.M.A.S. Karate, the school designed to have the widest appeal to the public.

Fuller, 48, explained that his schools take a very different approach to martial arts than most places.

"Our emphasis is on personal development," he said. "It's not on the art of karate itself - that's where we're different. Most other instructors just teach the art. We teach the person first, and the art comes later on."

Fuller, a Rockdale County native, began learning karate at the age of 14 under old-school methods.

"My instructor was an ex-Marine," said Fuller. "If he thought you looked at him wrong, he'd send you to the corner to do push-ups."

Such training produced strong individuals, Fuller acknowledged. "But the only people who became black belts with the old-school methods of teaching were people who already had those characteristics in them," he said. "If you already had perseverance (and) discipline, you were going to stick with it."

Fuller's goal is to instill these qualities to kids who don't already have those characteristics. This is done through positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement, he explained.

For example, if a child makes good grades at school, they receive a patch to wear on their uniform. Good behavior at school or home - examples of what they call "black belt behavior" - is similarly rewarded.

Fuller found his approach coincided with an increased interest in having young children participate in the martial arts. Though the school also offers adult karate and kickboxing programs, children ages 3 to 12 make up approximately 85 to 90 percent of his students.

"I think the whole attitude of helping children came around 1995 when the industry as a whole was trying to embrace the younger-aged children," said Fuller. "They saw kids wanted to take karate and the industry had to adapt and become more open."

Fuller, who was a police officer with the Covington Police Department for two years, started teaching karate classes at the Covington YMCA in 1990. Four years later, his classes had outgrown the facilities, so he opened his first school in Covington in 1994. And five years later, he opened his second school in Conyers, but recently relocated to a newer facility in Covington.

U.M.A.S., or "United Martial Arts Systems," is based on American Karate and uses an American boxing stance that draws from a mix of styles such as aikido, kung-fu and karate. Fuller makes it clear that despite its origins, his system is an American product.

"Some families don't want their kids exposed to different things," he said. "We don't teach the kids different languages or meditations or religions. It's from an American viewpoint, American philosophy, but same structure and curriculum."

His next goal is to franchise the U.M.A.S. curriculum and system in order to give entrepreneurial black belts working under him the chance to open their own businesses.

"It's never been about the money," said Fuller. "It's about giving (people) what they need. Everything else falls into place."

USA Boxing, Kickboxing, & Karate Center

The newest of the schools - the USA Boxing, Kickboxing, and Karate Center - teaches elements of martial arts. But founder and owner R. Toussaint, who started the school three years ago, doesn't like to call it a martial arts school.

"Not many people are willing to have the discipline to take the martial arts the way it's meant to be taught," said Toussaint, 50.

According to Toussaint, he was trained with the old-school method where a black belt meant something.

"I think you get so many schools that are just giving away belts that people are conditioned now that 'if I pay my money, I can get a belt,'" said Toussaint. "They're actually falsifying a lot of these kids with what they think they can do. Those kids know enough karate to get their butts kicked.

"That's why I don't teach kids karate," he added.

What he does teach is boxing, kickboxing, practical self-defense tactics and a genre especially popular with young men known as mixed martial arts. The most well known example of mixed martial arts, or MMA, is the Ultimate Fighting Championship matches seen on television. Fighters draw upon a range of martial arts styles and techniques, from strikes, locks, throws and grappling moves, to compete in a glitzy, boxing-style tournament.

Boxing, martial arts and professional fighting have been a part of Toussaint's life since coming to the United States from Puerto Rico as a 9-year-old boy.

"I had to learn how to fight. It wasn't a choice," he said. "You grow up not knowing the language (and) you go to school not knowing who your friends are. You had to learn it because you're an outsider."

The father of five came to the metro Atlanta area eight years ago from Florida when he found out his son, Josiah, had a premature closure of the aortic valve. He sold his studios in Florida and moved to Atlanta to be closer to the Eggleston Children's Hospital. Toussaint is happy to report that 8-year-old Josiah is "as healthy as a horse now."

Toussaint's main interest involves teaching people real-world self defense skills, at this point in his life, he said. But he worries that everyday life is becoming more dangerous as Newton County expands.

"Anywhere you have growth, you have good growth and bad growth," said Toussaint. He would like to start teaching a self-defense course specifically for women, complete with realistic role-playing scenes.

The stern training Toussaint dishes out is not for the faint of heart and is probably geared more for adults, teens and older elementary school age kids than for young children.

"He won't let you get away with anything, but he's really kind," said student JoAnn Turlington, 42, who lost a significant amount of weight after joining his kickboxing class. "He really cares about his students."