Whatcom Magazine

Bellingham black belt teaches patience and respect, along with martial skills

At Pacific Martial Arts, sensei Michael Cain, top, puts brown belt student Adam Bellingar in a knee and arm lock as they practice bunkai, for Bellingar's upcoming black belt test, on Thursday Jan. 19, 2012 in Bellingham.
At Pacific Martial Arts, sensei Michael Cain, top, puts brown belt student Adam Bellingar in a knee and arm lock as they practice bunkai, for Bellingar's upcoming black belt test, on Thursday Jan. 19, 2012 in Bellingham. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Black-belt banter rarely impresses Michael Cain. Better to try a different approach.

Cain, who runs Pacific Martial Arts with his wife, Marsha McKenzie, says the black belt has lost its panache, a trademark standard now eroded by martial arts studios taking shortcuts.

"It's become a meaningless concept," says Cain, a karate fixture in Whatcom County. "You can go to a school that says, 'We'll guarantee you a black belt in three years.' Is the music teacher going to guarantee you the second chair in violin in three years?"

To Cain, a black belt can't be "sold." Rather, he says, instructors' expertise and a strong curriculum enrich a belt's value, fostering the assimilation of essential physical and psychological principles.

It's a process that takes time.

"Students always ask, 'What belt are you?'" says Cain, 63. "The first thing they should ask is, 'What are you learning?'"

Not surprisingly, the Bellingham resident considers himself primarily a teacher, although his life's résumé spreads much wider. For more than 30 years, Cain has worked as a general contractor specializing in small remodels.

"What I like about it is solving problems for people," he says.

He also helped start the Whatcom County's first crisis clinic, four decades ago.

An accomplished backgammon player, Cain ran Bellingham Backgammon Association as a small business in the '80s before folding it when he and others lost interest in the game. He re-established it as an informal club three years ago.

Cain flourished as a backgammon player, placing second in the 1985 Pacific Northwest Amateur championships, but eventually discovered he was a better teacher of the game.

"He's very generous to share his knowledge," says Penny Tillson, a longtime Fairhaven resident and club member.

Tillson, who has known Cain since the early 1980s, when they started playing backgammon together, appreciates his wit and intellect.

"We often talk philosophy," she says. "I lived in Japan for a while, and there are cultural differences that we both recognize. We understand each other."

Cain was raised in Seattle's Catholic school system and entered Western Washington University in 1968, a time when fresh ideas resonated across campuses. He absorbed Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, scrutinized political activists, often disagreeing with them, and lived in a cabin without heat or running water.

He later ran a small city farm with goats and chickens and worked as a carpenter, a forerunner to his contracting career.

"I saw two sides," Cain says. "One, I was raised in a rigorous, parochial environment. Then (at Western), I saw everything pulled apart, questioned and reconstructed. I started trying different things."

In his sophomore year, he took a three-month break for a "walkabout," stuffing $80 in his pocket and hopping freight trains to travel. He made it to New Jersey before borrowing $20 from friends.

People offered him shelter. Many envied him.

"It was their fantasy," he says, "what they all wanted to do."

Cain returned to Western, where he earned a degree in social anthropology and made Bellingham his home.


The karate connection came later, at age 33, his role gradually expanding to do-it-all status. He earned his black belt, began competing regularly, and twice won senior national titles in "kata" -combinations of karate movements and positions.

He also worked as a referee, organized competitions, hosted national teams and, oh yes, taught.

Cain embraces a traditional, classical approach at his studio on North State Street, one of the oldest of about a dozen martial arts centers in Whatcom County.

His students, who have ranged in age from 6 to 83, receive physical and psychological training while being taught the importance of manners, tolerance and self-control.

"You have to learn how to be hit and keep your composure," Cain says.

His martial arts school, or "dojo," sports a mix of ages, gender and political views, creating what Cain hopes is a healthy dialogue. He wants students talking to one another.

"That's self-defense," he says, "getting a discourse going."

Cain's approach centers on a demanding repetition of body mechanics, beginning with the fist and punch, then moving toward the core.

"What goes into the body is deeply conditioned muscle memory," he says. "You'd equate it to classical ballet. It's a long time before you can do a performance."

Conversing. Learning. Communicating. Respecting.

The environment lacks the flash of modern mixed martial arts that cultivate hip, often coarse, spectacles, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. That's exactly what Cain wants to avoid.

It comes down to a choice: the importance of winning versus the importance of gaining awareness. Cain, the teacher, knows his choice.

"It's a continual endeavor toward improvement," he says. "You can never master yourself, but you get closer and closer to self-knowledge."