American Ninja

He pioneered his own martial-arts style. You're probably not man enough.

Coal Akida Combat Skills
The commander (left) delivers one of his walloping blows to the arm. - Walter  Novak
The commander (left) delivers one of his walloping blows to the arm.
Down this gloomy stretch of road in North Royalton, where auto-body shops flank both sides of the road like competing fast-food chains, the best fighters in the world train to be killers.

The only identifier is a small logo -- the sign for an eclipse, framed by cross-hairs -- on a gray metal door on the side of the Right Wrench Auto Service. Upstairs is Nightbreed Tactical Combat Academy.

In this dingy room, one man has single-handedly created the most advanced fighting system in the world, aptly named "Combat Skills." There's no need here for any fancy chang-fu talk.

Planted like a pole at the center of the room stands the commander. A wiry guy with stringy gray hair jutting out from under a ball cap, Commander Coal Akida looks as if he may have wandered upstairs from the Right Wrench. Of the title, he says, "It just sort of happened. People'd be like, 'Are you the commander?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, Commander Coal. How can I help you?'"

But if you're searching for his qualifications, just try to hit him. The commander once offered $50,000 to anyone who could punch him in the face. He withdrew the offer when he realized it was impossible.

If you're still not satisfied, let the commander hit you in the arm.

After showing a visitor how to brace himself, the commander delivers a staggering blow. "That was about 5 percent," he says.

It's hard to imagine what 10 percent feels like. Trust me, says the commander. "You don't want to have all the blood vessels in your arm broken. Your body goes into shock. You get almost instant diarrhea.

"This is vomit over here," he says, pointing to stains on the mat. "This is vomit over there."

Contrary to first impressions that he was born with the instinct to kill, the commander says that Nightbreed didn't come to him until he was 10 years old. Studying at a tae kwon do studio in Fairview Park, he'd made it all the way to black belt when tragedy struck.

Sparring at a martial-arts tournament, an older guy caught one of his sidekicks and ripped his hip right out of the socket, he says. It was from the cocoon of a full-body cast that a little caterpillar emerged a tiger moth.

He spent years exploring different disciplines -- kaji kempo, aikido, kali, even Bruce Lee's jie quan dao. But none gave him the answers he was searching for. In the end, it wasn't an ancient master, but motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who gave him his long-sought inspiration.

"Anthony Robbins said, 'If you want to design a better system, you have to ask better questions,'" says the commander. "So I did."

He collected homeless people from bus stops and brought them back to his Parma apartment-turned-dojo, where he would tell them to punch him.

"They would sleep in my closet, and I would give them food and shelter, and then we'd wake up in the morning, and we'd start all over again," he explains.

But after eating a full meal, the homeless apparently regained their quickness. One day a punch got through and shattered the commander's jaw so badly, he needed a metal plate put in. He remembers his parents coming to visit him in the hospital.

"They're like, 'Maybe you need to go see somebody, 'cause there's something wrong with you,'" he recalls. "I'm like, 'No, I am researching combat on a level that's never been done before, and I am close to making a breakthrough.'"

So it was back to the bus stops. Only this time, the commander was training with a baseball bat. Then he moved his studio to the old gym. He trained with bigger and stronger opponents. And then, he says, "Something amazing happened.

"No man, no size, no strength, was able to beat the skills of Nightbreed. It was after that that I got my tattoo," he says, lifting up his sleeve to reveal the Nightbreed eclipse.

If you still don't believe the commander, just ask any of his dozens of students. They include an oboist with the Cleveland Orchestra, a financial planner, a doctor, a welder, and a 14-year-old boy.

"I thought I knew how to fight before," says Elliott Smith, a barrel-chested body builder with a Mr. Clean smile. "I've got buddies of mine that do karate, all that fancy stuff. Just nowhere near."

The commander's techniques are like no martial art in the world; that much is indisputable.

"We do a lot of crazy things out there," says longtime student Bob Varda, a 58-year-old former semi-pro football player. "Like one day, Coal decided it was time for me to train with my feet in boxes. You know, I thought, 'What the heck?' And we did it, and it was very awkward. But after that my footwork definitely went up a couple notches."

Cardboard-box training is only one of 4,254 customized "engagements" in the Nightbreed system. There's also blindfolded fighting, simulated barroom brawls, knife fights, and disarming terrorists. Students even don motorcycle helmets and punch each other full force in the head.

"You can't do it very long, because you get such an extreme headache," says the commander. "Nightbreed's ahead of its time. That's the bottom line."

But as is the case with any paradigm shift, there is resistance. On one online martial-arts forum, members express skepticism.

"These people have been sniffing too much of the good stuff, if you get my drift," writes someone called TKDWarrior.

Another member even compares the commander's video demos to "drunken transients fighting over the last sip of malt liquor."

"I'm probably the most controversial martial artist in the world," the commander admits.

But enough chit-chat. It's time to see firsthand what Nightbreed is all about. "I'm going to have you put some gloves on and try to break my jaw," he tells his visitor.

The visitor assumes a fighting stance and takes a swing. The commander swats it away like a fly.

"That was gay," he chides. "Try again."

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