Zachary Belway gorged on tofu hot dogs when he was 2 years old. Growing up in Santa Barbara, he said, “Environmentalism is in my DNA.” His friends called him “Nature Boy.” He achieved one of those ridiculous four-point-whatever GPAs at San Marcos High. He was accepted to Yale University and is majoring in environmental engineering. His favorite recreation is ballroom dancing. On a biochemistry field trip to a rain forest in Ecuador, his team discovered a fungus that eats plastic. He took a year off to tour the Mideast, exploring all sides of the hot-button political issues in that region.
“I went back and forth talking to Palestinians, Israelis, settlers, soldiers, refugees, activists … everybody has a story,” he said. “It’s hard to blame anybody. I felt absolute wonderment at how huge and complex the world is.”
For a few minutes a year, Belway enjoys a state of absolute simplicity where all doubts, misgivings, and scruples are cast out of his mind. It’s when he engages in the full-contact martial art of Koei-Kan Karate-Do. At the annual Foster Cup national championship last month in Totowa, New Jersey, Belway led Team California to its sixth consecutive title.
“I really like the combat,” Belway said. “It’s primal aggression. It feels really pure. You give everything you have in a concentrated way. Every single muscle in your body is constantly exploding. It’s amazing how quickly you burn energy. You’re exhausted in two or three minutes. It’s pretty awesome. The gloves, kicking pads, and facemasks let us beat the shit out of each other without getting hurt.”
Belway was a champion wrestler at San Marcos, and he also took karate lessons from his coach, Tony Becerra, at the Academy of Koei-Kan Karate-Do on San Andres Street. He became a black belt at 18. He was the most accomplished fighter to come out of the dojo since Chuck Liddell, another San Marcos athlete, who took his karate skills into the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and became famous as “The Iceman,” a vicious marauder in the light heavyweight division.
While Liddell always fit the menacing image of a guy whom nobody would like to meet in a dark alley or a UFC cage, Belway hardly looks the part. Meet him on the street, and he might want to discuss climate change or the pros and cons of fracking. Becerra called him “The Baby-Faced Assassin” at San Marcos. His record as a senior wrestler was 48-8, and he finished in the top 10 at the state championships.
Belway said he’s been “wrestling a little” at Yale — enough to be captain of the wrestling club. It’s a low-key sport at the Ivy League school. He also started a mixed martial arts sparring tournament on the campus. Even though the demands of Belway’s studies kept him from achieving top physical condition — and he had a recurrence of chronic fatigue syndrome — Becerra said Belway has been the dominant performer in the Koei-Kan Karate-Do championships the past three years.
“He doesn’t have the cardio training, but he has muscle memory and tenacity,” said Becerra, coach of the California team. “He’s our closer. He always has the most exciting match. He’s ultra-limber for a big guy. He can move and maneuver and do the splits two ways.” The lanky Belway (at 6’1”, he just tips the scales at 200 pounds) described his opponent in New Jersey last month as “huge — 6-foot, 8, 250 pounds. I couldn’t throw him. I hit him a lot and head-butted him.” And he ultimately subdued him. Then Belway made like a hockey player with a traditional handshake. “He’s really good-natured,” Becerra said. “It’s rare to see such a great sportsman.”
Belway is back at Yale, where he’s a year away from his degree. Is it at all conceivable that his enjoyment of hand-to-hand combat might lead him to become a professional fighter in the UFC? “I imagine it all the time,” he said, “but I don’t know if it will manifest itself any more than that.” More realistically, Belway said, he’ll be working for a green energy start-up firm. But he doesn’t rule anything out. “I tend to take an open-minded approach to life,” he said.
Kathryn Belway terms her son’s approach as “an unbridled lust for life.” As an infant, she said, Zachary would always wake up smiling. He had an enormous appetite. “I would come home, and the childcare person would say, ‘He’s eaten everything in the house.’”
Belway recently took a job as a waiter at an upscale sushi restaurant in New Haven. “He’s into recycling, so I’m sure he’s eating all the leftovers,” his mother said. The preparation of sushi would seem to be another Japanese art he might try to master. An unlikely prospect, said The Baby-Faced Assassin: “I don’t think they’d trust me with those knives.”
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