Northern Utah veteran finds empowerment, purpose through cane fu self-defense

Wednesday , November 23, 2016 - 5:00 AM3 comments

STEPHANIE CHAMBERS, Standard-Examiner correspondent

Though some see canes as signs of weakness, a local veteran has learned they’re powerful weapons that can transform lives.

Over the past year, U.S. Air Force veteran Al Hawley has developed a passion for cane fu, a self-defense exercise system designed for people who use canes. It’s gotten the West Point resident off the couch and given him a new purpose in life — and now, he’s working to teach others about it.

In December 2015, Hawley said he wasn’t doing much to stay fit. The retiree spent many of his days watching Fox News and caring for his granddaughter, Millie. 

The 65-year-old has diabetes and knew he needed to start exercising regularly, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

But when news of the San Bernadino terrorist attack broke, something clicked.

“I looked at that and said, ‘I need to learn self-defense because the world is getting too dangerous,” Hawley said. “I need to defend myself and my wife and Millie.’”

At first, Hawley looked for karate schools — called dojos — where he could learn basic self-defense. He didn’t know a cane martial arts system existed and thought he might learn tai chi.

Then a martial arts teacher at Sky’s Old School Martial Arts in Sunset put him on a different path. 

Skylar Bright, who owns the dojo, chatted with Hawley about his interest in cane fu. Hawley was intrigued, and eventually, the men decided to learn the system together.

Hawley started researching the martial art, which seventh-degree blackbelt Mark Shuey invented after hearing about an attack on two elderly women with canes. Hawley purchased Shuey’s instructional videos and got to work.

“When I first saw the video being done, I thought, ‘I’ll never learn that,’ but now it’s not that hard,” Hawley said. “You keep learning, little by little.”

After Hawley progressed through the first two belts in cane fu, he decided he wanted to teach the art to others. He got in touch with Shuey and planned a weekend of seminars through the Warrior Cane Project — a nonprofit organization that teaches veterans and wounded soldiers cane combat to help rehabilitate and empower them.  

After they spoke, Hawley spent a weekend in early November teaching veterans at Hill Air Force Base, feeding his need to help others through cane fu.

Similarly, Shuey said serving others through cane fu has become his calling.

“Most seniors think the cane is a crutch,” he said. “The hardest person to sell a cane to is a senior, because they think the cane makes them look old, but once they get it in their hand, it empowers them.”

For example, one technique Shuey teaches is how to swing a cane at 200 mph. He said this trick and others quickly convince students canes are powerful tools they can use to protect themselves and their loved ones.

To spread the word about cane fu, Shuey and Tom Forman — founder of the Warrior Cane Project — travel 35 weeks out of the year teaching the system and giving out handmade canes.

Hawley said that even though he’d like to be stronger, quicker and more flexible, he could successfully defend himself with cane fu if he needed to.

He occasionally hears people say a concealed weapon might be a better means of defense, but Hawley disagrees.

“If you carry a concealed weapon, you really can’t pull it until you’re at the point where you’re ready to use deadly force,” he said. “I’m not really comfortable to go from talking about it to deadly force. I don’t want to kill anybody. I want to get away. My goal is to do no more than I have to do to be able to escape.”

Hawley said he’s planning to host more seminars in the future and is willing to hold demonstrations for private groups. For more information, contact Hawley at or at 801-499-1099.

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