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Longtime Norris pal is hooked on karate

John Presti's office in the karate center he owns on Pine Avenue is packed with awards, degrees, black belts and photos of Chuck Norris.

The star of the 1993-2001 television show "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the karate kid from Niagara Falls have been friends for nearly 30 years.

Presti, Norris and Norris's brother, Aaron, are on the board of the United Fighting Arts Federation. The three will team up Friday in Las Vegas for their annual International Training Convention, where they run a seven-day course for nearly 400 karate instructors from across North America.

Presti, 51, has trained in the martial arts since 1967 and runs three schools -- in Niagara Falls, Lewiston and Corning. He has three children -- Lindsay, 26; Jillian, 2; and Carly, 6 -- and lives in Wilson with his wife, Shirley.

He says he puts in 78 hours a week among the schools. Niagara Weekend caught up him one day last week between classes.

How did you get to know Chuck Norris?

I fought professionally from 1974 to 1977. I was rated No. 3 in New York State. My personal instructor said it was time I met Chuck Norris. He's an icon in the martial arts. "Oh, yeah," I said, not believing him, "I'm going to meet the Chuck Norris." Well, I did, and I've known him ever since.

Are you good friends?

My wife and I honeymooned at his Texas ranch -- Lone Wolf Ranch. My daughter, Carly, calls him Uncle Chuck. I still call him Mr. Norris.

Why is that?

Out of respect for his stature in the martial arts. He's my instructor, and I'm his student. I'm still learning.

Did you ever appear in his TV show?

Just bit parts. I've got pictures of those scenes -- on the wall over there.

Tell us about happened at the convention in Las Vegas two years ago?

It was during the awards ceremony. I was sitting there with my little girl on my lap, and my cell phone rang. It was my mother, Ann, calling from Wilson, to congratulate me.

For what?

That's what I asked her, and that's when Mr. Norris singled me out for the Weiland Norris life achievement award, named after his brother who was killed in Vietnam. This was like getting an Oscar in the martial arts. My wife had been told beforehand, and she told my mother. I wasn't expecting it. [He pauses and there's a catch in his throat.] I still get emotional about it.

How did you get into karate in the first place?

In school I was picked on because I was short. I always fought back, but it was only a matter of time before I got seriously hurt. I needed a weapon. Now I have 10 weapons: a pair of hands, fists, elbows, knees and feet.

Do most of your students take up karate to defend themselves?

Self-defense is a big reason. Other reasons are to meet people in the class, lose weight and gain confidence in themselves.

Do many women take the course?

I have more women students than ever. About 25 or 30 years ago, 90 percent of my students were men. Then, when the Karate Kid movies came out in the 1980s and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were on TV, I had about 80 percent children and 20 percent men. Now, there are about 50 percent children, 25 percent men and 25 percent women.

How do the women do?

These are women who are getting black belts. You tackle them at your own risk. One of my students, a mother of five children, is very petite, but looks are deceiving. Any assailant she might encounter had better watch out.

Did you always plan to be a karate fighter and instructor?

I actually wanted to be a funeral director. I got an associate degree in mortuary science. I liked the embalming, it was the grief of the bereaved families I couldn't stand. I'd be in there crying with them.

That's when you chose karate as a career?

My big brother, Joe, got into it first, and I followed. In 1967, we ran the karate center part time. I worked in the pathology department at Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital. In 1988, I went into karate full time. It's kind of a family thing. Joe and I and my other brother, Carmen, are all black belts.

How are you holding up after 40 years of doing karate?

I've been kicked and beaten, and now I'm feeling the pain. My whole body aches. I've had broken ribs and fingers. The last 10 years have been rough and the last four years really bad.

I guess you're looking forward to getting together with Chuck Norris later this week.

He's a great guy, and he's tough. We do very little fighting together. We don't want to hurt each other.


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