Martial artist and boxing instructor at ECC dies at 79

Mits Yamashita, age 75 in 2017, was a part-time boxing instructor, who first learned the art of jiu jitsu before becoming prolific in boxing training with the likes of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. (Reyna Torres/ The Union)
Mits Yamashita, age 75 in 2017, was a part-time boxing instructor, who first learned the art of jiu jitsu before becoming prolific in boxing training with the likes of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. (Reyna Torres/ The Union)

Mitsuru “Mits” Yamashita, martial artist and self-defense instructor at El Camino College died at the age of 79 in the hospital after battling an existing heart condition.

Yamashita, who died on April 14 was a prolific martial artist with his main art being aikido, but he was also trained in karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Thai boxing, Yanagi-Ryu, Aiki-jujutsu and judo.

With all these arts and their varieties of striking and grappling, being versed in many forms helped Yamashita incorporate them all into his aikido, making it his own versatile art. Yamashita taught aikido in his dojo, Sanbukan Dojo.

Johann Hellmannsberger, one of the current senseis at Sanbukan Dojo, said that Yamashita admitted that aikido alone was weak and shouldn’t be taught by itself. Yamashita had a mixed martial arts (MMA) mentality.

During the 40 years that Hellmannsberger has spent with him, Yamashita has been a friend and mentor.

“As teachers go, I don’t think I’ve ever had a teacher who was just as motivating or as interesting as he was. He made the art fun and very interesting,” Hellmannsberger said.

Hellmannsberger first met Yamashita by accident at ECC in 1980 after entering the wrong five-digit code for a course in Administration of Justice. He wanted to take a class in law but ended up taking a class in self-defense for police officers.

With no knowledge or interest in martial arts, Hellmannsberger would just give the class a try, only for him to end up loving it, sparking his interest in the martial arts world with the help of Yamashita.

“It was my favorite class and he ended up being my favorite teacher,” Hellmannsberger said.

Yamashita taught boxing at ECC and the students that were in his class were taught the fundamentals behind boxing which were stances, keeping your guard up and throwing a proper punch.

Music major with a minor in physical education, Michael Nicoli, 33, was a former student in Yamashita’s class, which was a welcome place for students, no matter their weight class or background.

“He kind of creates an environment where you’re not being judged,” Nicoli said.

Ever since Nicoli took Yamashita’s class back in 2010, of all the fighting lessons he learned from the class, he feels like the class should be taken more than once.

“He’d give you way too much information for one class. I took it for ten years and I feel like I’m still missing parts of it,” Nicoli said.

At ECC, students were only allowed to take the boxing class once, but Nicoli was allowed to audit the class many times, at one point becoming Yamashita’s assistant in the class for ten years, helping him out and listening to the life lessons he’d deliver every session.

“I was fortunate enough to be there every semester,” Nicoli said.

Nicoli made an Instagram account where he gives one-on-one boxing lessons to the public based on the boxing lessons he learned from Yamashita, passing on his lessons to others.

“I basically start the class the same: stance, hand positions, how to properly throw punches, how to move with the punches, defense, and then we get into the drills,” Nicoli said.

Nicoli also created another Instagram account for Yamashita’s boxing class that archived all of his lessons and class activities over the years, leaving a sense of the kind of person Yamashita was.

Nicoli said it is now a memorial of the class.

Fred, the owner of the South Bay Moo Duk Kwan introduced me to their dojo where Fred and Mits Yamashita once trained on Wednesday May 4,2021 in Torrance, California. (Francisco De La Cruz/Special to The Union)

Yamashita has his own YouTube channel where he posted videos of his martial arts lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Nicoli said that Yamashita held back a heart surgery years ago in fear of losing his job at ECC because he loved to teach, but since classes became virtual, Yamashita had more time to get the surgery and recover.

Yamashita had always lived with a defect in his heart valve, and after having six heart stents for 15 to 20 years, he took the quadruple bypass surgery that doctors recommended him.

According to the Sanbukan Dojo Facebook page, Yamashita was admitted to the Keck Hospital of the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 1, at 7:30 a.m.

Before Yamashita went to the hospital, he posted a video on YouTube announcing to his students about his surgery and how he’s not too worried about it.

“I can tell you the honest truth, I have not worried one minute about it,” Yamashita said in the video. “I have no fears. No anxieties. I sleep well every night.”

Jeremy Johnston, a friend of Yamashita and dojocho (administrator) of Sanbukan Dojo, said that he battled his heart defect by being active through martial arts and teaching.

“He’s been a teacher, being active constantly his whole life, and this last year, he hasn’t been able to be as active and I think that really took a toll on his body’s ability to fight off this heart defect that he’s always had,” Johnston said.

Johnston gave updates on Yamashita’s time at the hospital through the Facebook page and since visitations at the hospital are limited, only two people, Gary Abraham and Mike Jackson were allowed in the hospital with Yamashita to circulate updates directly to Johnston by phone.

“Took a little bit longer, but the surgery itself actually went very well and he was progressing slightly ahead of schedule of his initial recovery,” Johnston said. “He was feeling good as far as his mindset and his temperament.”

Yamashita took long rests after his surgery while doctors put him on machines to keep him stable and give him heart medications.

“I know they did everything they could. I think his heart had just been damaged so much over the years. I don’t think there’s anything anyone could have done for him,” Hellmannsberger said.

A fighter. A philosopher. A friend.

Yamashita is remembered by his students and peers as a driving force to succeed in becoming a better fighter and humble from within as he passed on his philosophy of not worrying, calling worry a waste of time and saying that it will all work out.

“We’re all better, not only in our abilities to the martial arts but better in our character because we knew somebody like him,” Hellmannsberger said. “He had a profound effect on a lot of people and I think a lot of people would tell you the same thing.”

Editors Note: A spelling correction was made on Mitsuru Mits Yamashita’s name on May 13, 2021.