Having been born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, Clay Johnson, Jr. has become the first physically disabled person in the world to earn the rank of associate instructor in Thai boxing.
Recently, Johnson, who was born in Clifton Forge on Aug. 10, 1961, moved his dojo, American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy, from 202 Chapel Drive in Covington to 503 S. Highland Ave. in Covington.
Ernest “Ernie” Clay Johnson, Sr., Clay’s late father was from Clifton Forge, and his late mother, Mildred “Smittie” Smith, was from Rainelle, W.Va.
Clay attended Clifton Forge City Schools, and after graduating from Clifton Forge High School, he received a certificate in computer science from Dabney S. Lancaster Community College.
It took Clay 27 years of training to achieve the instructor rank in Filipino Martial Arts after beginning his pursuit of karate with Eddie Thomas, a black belt grandmaster who trained under world heavyweight karate champion Joe Lewis.
Thomas has owned and operated American Freestyle Karate in Salem for decades, and Clay began driving to Salem three days a week. Soon he became Thomas’ protégé.
By 1987, Clay had become a black belt instructor in American Freestyle Karate, and part of his legacy as the first physically disabled black belt in the U.S. is that he has now trained the following black belts: Joe Proctor, Jonathan Ayers, Jordan Gillette, Tyler Crance, Sharon Ayers, Aaron Seay, Stephen Taylor and Joey Schelch.
Clay remembered, “When my father died in 2005, I awarded him an honorary black belt.”
As for the way COVID-19 impacted his dojo, he remarked, “I was closed for three months, and Betty Swoope Angell who I was renting from did not charge me rent.”
At his new dojo location, he offers classes from white belt to black belt, and he provides instruction in a variety of styles: Arnis/Kali/Escrima/FMA, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Jeet Kunedo, karate and Muay Thai.
Currently, he is providing instruction to nearly two dozen students.
Clay explained, “Right now it is summer, and enrollment in our white belt class will increase (our numbers) after school begins.”
Four karate halls of fame have inducted Clay, and he continues to associate with Thomas who has attained the rank of 10th degree black belt as a grandmaster.
After Clay’s parents died, Chai Sirisute, the Thai martial arts instructor who is the founder and president of the Thai Boxing Association of the U.S., became Clay’s surrogate parent.
Clay recalled, “I went to Carson, California to study with Chai who became like a father to me.”
As for his greatest challenge to become a black belt while being confined to his wheelchair, Clay said, “Just doing the work, and Eddie will tell you that it was a challenge for him too.”
After becoming a black belt karate instructor operating a dojo, Clay gained fame across the nation for overcoming his physical disability, winning several competitions in kata.
He reminisced, “After I turned 50, HBO contacted me about competing in an undercard match against another black belt in a wheelchair before a W.C. boxing match, but when they learned my age, they said that I was too old to compete.”
Clay noted that there are no competitions in the martial arts held for those in wheelchairs and that should he be pitted against an opponent not in a wheelchair that he would roll his wheelchair against a wall in order to prevent his opponent from attacking him from behind.
Thomas, who has won more than 200 karate trophies in competitions over the years, has high praise for Clay, and he has cast one of Clay’s students to perform in “Talos: The Dark Lords of Xibalba,” the karate movie sequel to “Talos,” Thomas’ first karate film in which he stars.