"They were on a Boeing," Joe Robaina announces and then indicates a span of floor mat about as wide as an airplane cabin walkway. He's a short, solidly built man with serpentine eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee. In his right hand, he carries a walking stick covered in foam.
His apprentice, a bashful 16-year-old boy named Alex, is playing a jihad-crazed terrorist. He has a red padded mask over his head and a plastic knife in hand.
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With an angry whoosh, the cane suddenly becomes a speed-blurred propeller slicing through the air. As the villain attempts to advance, Robaina hits him hard on the wrist, causing him to drop the knife. Then he thwacks the boy's torso and head. "Any of those hits could have been fatal," Robaina declares.
Miami fitness guru Joe Robaina first realized the geriatric resting stick could double as an America-defending brain-basher in the '90s, when he became a master of hapkido, a martial art that uses the cane as a weapon of defense. Today, in his studio on Calle Ocho, he teaches a novice-friendly version in his American Cane Self-Defense class — or, as it's come to be known, "cane fu."
Robaina schools techniques such as the self-explanatory "melon-splitter." The real glory of the cane, he says, is you can take it places traditional weapons aren't allowed. A 67-year-old student recently took a cane outfitted with razor-sharp fangs and bone-breaking ribbing into an FBI headquarters building; Robaina and three students, all in their 20s, strolled onto a plane carrying similar canes. "These days, the bad guys all carry a weapon, so if you're empty-handed, you're putting your life in their hands," says Robaina, who clearly understands the lucrative potential of paranoia. "And yeah, guns are great, knives are great, numchuks are great, but can you take them into a bar? Can you walk down a South Beach street with one of those weapons in your hand?"
Every martial art has many katas — choreographed routines of moves — and Robaina's pride and joy is his "9/11 kata," which he demonstrates with his hapless apprentice. Sometimes his students arrange chairs to mimic an airplane cabin. Asked what might have happened if he had been on one of the World Trade Center-bound planes, Robaina says only: "We ain't going down like that."