James Hirth has studied a variety of martial arts for nearly 40 years. Growing up in Edison Park, he is the youngest of 8 children. As a boy, James’ oldest brother took him Downtown to the theaters of The Loop on Saturday mornings in the late 1970’s to see martial arts films. The Chicago Theatre, the United Artist, the State/Lake, The Woods, etc., all showed “kung fu cinema” on the weekends. Like many youth of that day, seeing Bruce Lee on the big screen changed his life. The same older brother would introduce James to the art of Tae Kwon Do a short time later and he found his calling.
Mr. Hirth first met Grandmaster San Chel Chung in 1983 when he stopped by the original school – then known as Kwon’s Tae Kwon Do and Hap ki do located about a block away from the current location – to buy some nunchakus with his mother. Grandmaster Duk Gun Kwon is Master Chung’s brother-in-law and Master Chung was teaching and helping him run the school in those days. In wasn’t until 1989, that James started training under Master Chung at the school’s current location. He would be in class 4-5 times a week, honing his skills and working with some of the school’s earliest black belts including Su Chae, Bruce and Gary Jones, Eric Blue, Felix Pinter, Bob Schilling and Dr. Bernard Walker. Master Chung took notice of Mr. Hirth’s dedication to training. He was allowed to teach beginner’s classes as a color belt and attend black-belt only classes as a brown belt. He trained there from 1989 until 2000 and even helped Master Chung run a second location in Park Ridge for a few years. During that time, he also trained Master Chung’s son Michael for tournaments and privately trained 1995 Illinois State Tae Kwon Do Champion Robert Canning for state, regional and National tournament competition.
While earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Operations, Mr. Hirth co-developed and taught the Street-Smart Women’s Self-Defense Program on the DeVry University campus. Upon graduation he spent 5 years in the field of Marketing Research and Product Development in The Loop. It looked as though he left martial arts in the rearview mirror, but fate would bring him back. After the 911 tragedy, many companies had mass layoffs and he would return to teaching martial arts for the YMCA in Chicago. Running his own show for the first time, his highly structured curriculum struck gold and his program grew rapidly via word-of-mouth in what was a highly competitive area (there were 5 martial arts schools in a 2-mile radius). After 11 years of instruction and supervision and earning the unique title of Martial Arts Program Coordinator (the first and only for the Y) it looked like there were only great things ahead. He had built the biggest in-house developed YMCA martial arts program in all of Illinois, encompassing nearly 200 students training at 3 YMCAs and in 5 off-site (area school) programs studying the arts of Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Judo, MMA and Fencing under his supervision. But situations out of his control forced his hand and it was time to move on again. He ran a private/franchised martial arts school in the Northwest Suburbs for 2 years, but it just wasn’t his calling.
Having taught programs in more than 20 different schools and facilities throughout the Chicagoland Area, it seemed like things had finally run their course. Then last February, just by chance, a current student at Chung’s attended one of Mr. Hirth’s self-defense classes at Fitness Formula Clubs in Park Ridge. The student noticed his original Chung’s belt and the two talked about training. It was brought to his attention that Chung’s in Edison Park – the school he trained at for more than a decade – was looking to bring on new leadership. Once contacted by the new management team, a meeting was set. The trio hit it off immediately, and the everything fell into place.
Now, nearly 20 years after his departure, he returns “home” with a modern spin on martial arts training and a time-tested curriculum in hand to help bring Chung’s Martial Arts full circle.
In addition to his black belt-level knowledge of Tae Kwon Do and Hap ki do, Mr. Hirth sought out additional training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai Kickboxing, Western Boxing, Freestyle Wrestling and Krav Maga in his journey to become a complete martial artist. He also trains with a variety of traditional weaponry including nunchaku, kali/escrima, tonfa, bo staff, sai, three-section staff, sword and shuriken. For a period of time he regularly trained Cook County Juvenile Probation Officers in ground fighting and weapons disarms and has had the pleasure of instructing the children of 2 Chicago-based FBI Special Agents.
Mr. Hirth has also covered the sport of Mixed Martial Arts in a variety of media outlets for 20 years. Over the years he has interviewed more than 25 professional MMA fighters former UFC champions including Bas Rutten, Maurice Smith, Carlos Newton and the late Kevin Randleman. He’s also interviewed both Frank and Ken Shamrock and 4 members of the legendary Gracie family (Royce, Renzo, Carlson Jr. and the late Carlson Gracie Sr.) His work has appeared on the internet, in magazines, on the radio (WGN/WCKG) and on local television (WGN/CLTV). When a major local event takes place in Chicago, he regularly provides local coverage of major MMA fighting promotions such as the Professional Fighters League, Bellator MMA and the Ultimate Fighting Championships.