AMERICAN CANYON — At first glance Emil Bautista might not look like a formidable opponent in a street fight, but would-be muggers better look again.
The 75-year-old longtime American Canyon resident is a martial arts expert, a senior grandmaster, and has taught at his school, Kajukenbo Self-Defense Institute of Vallejo, for 45 years.
Bautista, who looks much younger than his age, said his journey in martial arts began at age 23 when he started attending karate classes at Travis Air Force base. Bautista said he worked on the base as a civilian physical education instructor.
After several years of training, the East Bay native gravitated to instructor Antonio Ramos, one of the early masters of Kajukenbo, a hybrid martial arts form developed in the late 1940s in Hawaii that combines karate, judo, kenpo and boxing.
Before acquiring the building on Benicia Road in 1968, Bautista trained in a single-car garage, at private residences and other places.
“We used to train anywhere and everywhere,” said Bautista.
Like a dance studio, his school has a full-length mirror running along one wall for training purposes. Above the mirror are the words: “Yes, sir, No, sir” and “Yes, ma’am, No, ma’am.”
“Students have to learn diplomacy and courtesy,” Bautista said.
His students come from all walks of life and a wide variety of occupations, among them law enforcement, technology, even public school teachers. One of his former students is the principal of Vallejo High School, Clarence Isadore, he said.
Bautista credits his students with his success, noting that several have gone on to open their own martial arts schools.
“It wasn’t me, it was these guys that did it,” Bautista said, indicating the half-dozen instructors and students of varying ages in combative stances around the room.
Nowadays Bautista mostly lets other instructors in his school do the teaching while he critiques.
The school has never been his sole support, Bautista said. Over the years, he worked for a vending machine company, a furniture store and as a bartender while teaching self-defense in his off-hours.
“I don’t call this a business,” Bautista said.
While his calling may be violent, Bautista’s home life is stable and peaceful. He and his wife, Betty, have two adult sons and have lived in American Canyon since 1974.
“I’m very blessed,” said Bautista.