Gichin Funakoshi, known as the father of modern karate, once said, ‘Spirit first, technique second.’ Jim Fuller, owner and chief instructor of Jim Fuller’s U.M.A.S. Karate, shares the belief that character supersedes self-defense in the practice of martial arts.
Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris all drew Jim Fuller into his love affair with karate. Their presence on his family’s UHF TV, namely the Saturday afternoon movies on Channel 36, captivated him as a young teenager. As soon as Fuller could drive, he began taking karate lessons at the Academy of Sports in Atlanta and started fulfilling his dream of becoming a martial arts master.
He dove into his passion headfirst and progressed from white belt to black belt in just two years. At age 18, he was asked to teach at Joe Corley Karate—Atlanta’s first full-time martial arts studio. He soon developed his own curriculum: United Martial Arts Systems, which he still uses today.
“I also taught at dance schools, churches, daycares, anywhere that would let me in the door,” Fuller said. His first teaching position in the local area was at the Covington YMCA, but the demand for his classes soon outgrew the space. At the time, he was employed as a police officer for the City of Covington. While on patrol one day, he drove by an empty building for rent on U.S. 278. “I pulled over, called the landlord, and from there, I was all in.”
Later, Fuller opened a second location off Salem Road in Conyers. Due to a Department of Transportation road-widening project, that studio had to relocate to a new space on Ga. 138 in April. Each school is taught by instructors who grew up under the UMAS banner and later joined Fuller’s teaching program. Fuller’s UMAS studio teaches American karate, which incorporates a mixture of different martial arts systems and styles.
“Our goal is making people better people, and making our community better by teaching positive character traits.”Jim Fuller
“It blends things like boxing, karate and kickboxing but removes the Eastern religious aspects,” Fuller said. “That strong sense of discipline and respect remains, but we are in America, so we teach to fit American culture.” When he started teaching, Fuller had to answer many questions about the program’s philosophy. “Martial arts is very young in the U.S. It only began in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Do you meditate?’ was one question parents asked a lot. They didn’t want their child being taught things they didn’t teach in their house or that might be contrary to their faith.”
“Now, with TV, movies and social media, even if you’ve never taken karate, you already know a lot about it because you’re exposed to it constantly,” Fuller added. From the beginning, his attention has been on the people he teaches instead of a single martial arts style. “I teach my staff that it’s not what we teach, but it’s how we teach, and we always put people first. Our goal is making people better people, and making our community better by teaching positive character traits. Parents think their kids are just learning how to block-punch-kick, but they end up loving the discipline they learn.”
In fact, Fuller revealed that parents sometimes come to him with kids who struggle to keep their hands to themselves. The parents are worried that learning a martial art will just make the behavior worse. However, it almost always has the opposite effect, as karate teaches students the value of self-control. Fuller calls karate a vehicle that allows him to do what he loves: teaching.
“I fell in love with teaching others,” he said. “I love character development, teaching people positive characteristics like focus, self-control, patience, courtesy, respect. Of course, the physical aspect, the self-defense, is what draws people in, but I think our focus on the whole person is why we survived COVID-19 when many studios didn’t.”
Fuller credits his wife Courtney with her many roles in making their venture successful.
“She is instrumental in keeping the business going,” he said. “She does all our payroll, retail, memberships and advertising. She does an amazing job.”
For many years, Fuller worked over 80 hours a week at the studio. Now, he has cut back to a more reasonable schedule. The Fullers and their two young sons, Timothy and Nicholas, live on a small farm he calls “a daily labor of love.” Fuller is a self-described outdoorsman who enjoys riding horses, hunting and fishing when he is not at the studio or working on the farm. He also enjoys being involved in his church and spending time with his two grown children and three stepchildren.
Fuller has one piece of career advice he shares with the young people he instructs: “I tell them it’s easy to get locked into a job that you don’t enjoy, so figure out what you love to do, then do that, and everything else will fall into place. I’m so grateful to be able to put my passion first.”