The Reign That Was RBWI
Robert Bussey's Warrior International Sat
Atop the Ninjutsu World for 20 Years.
By Norman Leff
Reprinted with Permission
In 1997, to the surprise of thousands
of practitioners and coinciding with the 20th
Anniversary of this organization, "RBWI"
founder and president, Robert Bussey, announced
the end of his martial arts empire, retiring as
a patriot of combat realism.
For two decades, a distinct group of warriors
flourished throughout the martial arts landscape.
They were comprised of all walks of life and practiced
what they considered to be an all-encompassing
system of protection based on the teachings of
its founder. The methodology of mid-Western born
Robert Bussey covered a veritable cornucopia of
combat practices, and seemed to break new ground
with provocative titles and names not generally
associated with martial arts or military practices.
Titles developed by Bussey to represent what he
called his, "chain of influence."
Instead of earning conventional colored belts,
he established "Side Bar Distinctions"
for his "Ardor Members." In place of
rank requirements, he provided "Grade Guidelines"
which measured the talents of his members on their
individual merits. There were no degrees of black
belt. Rather, Bussey created no less than eight
"Recognition Associates" with titles
such as, "Instructor Senior Status"
or "Instructor Chieftain Status" to
In the height of its glory, RBWI had scattered
the landscape with facilities know as "Warrior
Training Branches," which allowed participants
access to customized equipment and uniforms in
addition to their specialized training.
At the forefront of every decision affecting
the organization was Bussey, who went to great
lengths to make sure that all RBWI items were
custom made in the U.S.A. From materials to labor,
no product was imported. Although decisions like
this greatly decreased profits coming into the
headquarters, it helped to maintain Bussey's commitment
to invest in America.
By anyone's account, the practice of RBWI was
considered both brutal and highly diverse. The
details of both will be covered later in this
article. However, in addition to its pragmatism,
RBWI is said to have flourished in large part
due to the made-to-order training tactics and
honest commitment to make each member feel part
of an elite group.
Bussey made sure that everyone was treated as
if they were important contributors to the total
development of his organization. With this kind
of thinking, Bussey was able to foster an atmosphere
of creativity which, in turn, allowed RBWI to
constantly change and upgrade its methods.
Scott Hutchinson, a career military specialist
and RBWI instructor points out that, "RBWI
was in a constant state of evolution. Robert motivated
everyone to expand their horizons. Consequently,
RBWI would improve when everyone worked collectively."
As RBWI fades into the fabric of martial arts
history, it leaves behind a legacy to thousands
of practitioners scattered from Boston to Brussels.
Along with it, a future not fully realized by
its founder, Robert Bussey. It was the creative
resources of this sole individual that designed
an entity set apart from all those that came before
it, and which surely will influence future warriors
of the 21st century.
So, after building momentum for 20 years, one
might expect that the demise of Robert Bussey's
Warrior International would set into motion a
power struggle within the organization itself.
Would battles be fought over who would succeed
the man considered by many to be the quintessential
martial artist? Apparently not. RBWI had no dramatic
The consensus among members seemed to be feelings
of pride and emotion. Some considered Bussey's
teachings "misunderstood" and as one
man aptly put it, "a diamond in the rough
and probably the best kept secret in the martial
"I don't think a day has passed when I
didn't struggle with the responsibility of leadership,"
Bussey once said.
Yet, the leadership qualities that he possessed
were never more apparent than when he was coaxed
into making a personal appearance at a convention
of martial arts experts in Banff, Canada. Lured
by his love of the outdoors and as an expert in
primitive survival skills, Bussey thought that
the northern Rocky Mountains might just be the
place to escape, think and relax. The event featured
a star-studded cast of instructors, including
his brother, Michael Bussey, legends Joe Lewis
and Bill Wallace, as well as Dr. Jerry Beasley,
Peter Cunningham and others. Bussey was scheduled
to instruct two separate one-hour clinics. However,
Bussey's R&R would be short lived.
According to Dale Kliparchuk, host of the event,
"Once Robert initially exposed the participants
to his ideas, he ended up teaching several three-hour
segments because of the demand. He was very generous.
I've had the opportunity to observe many of the
best in the world, but his techniques were so
fluent and effective that I have nothing to compare
The "originality" of Bussey's creation
was not so much his re-invention of martial arts,
but his ability to shred the myths associated
with fighting through his analogies and performance.
"He's so versatile that it causes him to
move differently from everyone else
an original," claims Stephen Bowers, the
6-foot, 4-inch California veteran of RBWI. "It's
like watching a great painter who, with one stroke
of his brush, makes the art come alive. Robert
is constantly processing while he is in motion."
It has also been said that Bussey's movement
had no real beginning or end. There was no static
interpretation of technique. He described his
explosive displays as "living movement."
RBWI in turn, mirrored these tendencies. RBWI
was unique in that it represented a certain kind
of movement and conduct which permeated through
an army or practitioners without all the usual
stylized restrictions, structured requirements,
style name, or even a supreme leader for that
"I was more of a guide
an example, than
a master of an art," Bussey once said.
THE IMPACT OF A FORMER NINJA
There are several ways in which the legacy
of Nebraska native Robert Bussey has formed modern
martial artists, no matter what style or skill
level. He labored to raise awareness among martial
arts instructors to strive for technical integrity.
This helped to implant true "realism"
as an ethic among instructors whether practiced
or imagined. He created a sub-culture of no rules,
reality-based technicians well before it was vogue.
In fact, his multi-faceted concepts stretched
past the normal boundaries of no-rules fighting
to include weapons and multiple opponent fighting.
It was a period in the early 1980s that he recounts
as being "ground breaking but occasionally
Besides his scary dynamism, Bussey's philosophy
represented a radical departure from the popular
Eastern views commonly associated with martial
arts, crediting his conversion to the Christian
faith as the turning point in his revolutionary
view of the arts.
According to Dr. Lou Verner, a long-time instructor
of RBWI, "Robert has always, to my knowledge,
been a very deep thinking individual and a person
of great personal conviction. What he is leaving
behind will be self-perpetuating."
Bussey imparted many of these philosophies in
a book titled, "A Biblical Perspective of
the Martial Arts," available through Cross
Training Publishing. In it, he redefines many
of the ethics and demands within the martial arts,
and as a result, demystifies many commonly held
views which link the martial arts with spiritual
James Rosenbach once said of his best friend
that, "The only thing that can compare to
Robert's enormous talent is his heart."
Since the closure of RBWI, Rosenbach has
remained in the birthplace of the art, Fremont,
Nebraska, and operates a half dozen training centers
A NINJA COLLEGE
Partly because he is rarely accessible,
Bussey has largely remained unnoticed in the martial
arts community, despite his contributions and
accolades. He is best known for pioneering the
ninja art from Japan to America as early as 1979,
but his credentials stretch far beyond those examined
by the public. By 1984, he was running the largest
ninja training facility in the world, a 12,000-square
foot ninja college of sorts, centrally located
in Omaha. In its heyday during the ninja craze
of the 80s, Bussey's academy attracted technicians
from around the world and seemed to create a rift
between himself and the classical representation
of Ninjutsu practiced by Stephen Hayes.
Bussey's life was divided between the diplomacy
of handling training guests and dissecting various
fighting strategies by putting them to the test.
He was young and thoroughly dedicated to his craft.
Bussey's performance seemed so far removed from
conventional martial arts that publishers and
videographers urged him to organize his own art
and preferably label it with an oriental name
to lend credibility to his teachings. At first,
it is said that Bussey resisted the idea. However,
he eventually adopted the title of founder, refused
to concoct a name for his style and chose the
acronym RBWI, the heading he used for his various
unions of academies.
Admired by most, and considered controversial
by others, Bussey has never really been able to
escape the image that links him to Ninjutsu.
"It is an image which he has fought
to reverse for years," claims his brother
Michael. "RBWI was Robert's vehicle for exposing
the inefficiencies of martial arts by discovering
new ways to train and defeat aggression."
Perhaps one of the reasons Bussey is a lesser-known
personality in the martial arts community is because
he remained uncomfortable with what he viewed
as politics within the martial arts and loathed
being a salesman of his methods. RBWI emphasized
the perfection of technical adaptability and Bussey
himself advocated that his instructors intelligently
understand the defects associated with eastern
symbolism, etiquette and religious customs of
some classical styles.
Further, he avoided tournaments and seminar
circuits. Most of his followers mirrored his non-political
views and remain to this day, out of the limelight.
Although he respected all arts and teachers, he
considered some to be "very talented experts
with blinders on" and "capable yet reluctant
to see the bigger picture." He stressed that
any system could work if the artist was stronger
or more skilled than his foe. However, he strived
to design sure-fire moves that most anyone could
add to their repertoire. He formed many of his
opinions based on what he called "the total
scope of self-preservation," adding that
"my only allegiance is to provide individuals
with tools to survive, regardless of their distinctions."
Generally, he was reluctant to write articles
or make public appearances. Today, few disregard
his impact upon the martial arts community or
cutting edge vision, and those who know him best
describe him as an encyclopedia of the science
of fighting. Keith Trottier, of Lifespring Martial
Arts, was a former jujitsu instructor in Southern
California who spent three years honing RBWI skills.
"I firmly believe that he opened my eyes
and mind to what real self-defense is all about,
and to many other aspects such as wilderness survival
and an overall awareness of what really happens,"
Surprisingly, Bussey had made very little
financial gain from RBWI, choosing instead to
filter profits back into the organization and
into the pockets of his struggling representatives.
Bussey perceived RBWI to be more of a mission
than a business.
He opened his first commercial school
when he was only 15. By his mid 20s Bussey became
synonymous with other top leaders in the field
who were twice his age. According to many, it
was a well-deserved distinction. Author Keith
Jones stated in his book "The King of Combat"
that Bussey was, "A true genius of the martial
Well-known Hollywood actor, Geoffrey Lewis,
concurs. An avid martial arts enthusiast, Lewis
has worked out with some of the best, including
the Machado brothers, Jean-Claude Van Damme, the
Gracies, Gene LeBell and Chuck Norris.
"Robert's stuff, his RBWI, was no-nonsense
and really well-rounded
it had a lot of dimensions
So it came as a complete shock to his modernist
following when Bussey made the announcement to
withdraw from active service and relinquish his
now credible organization. The question on everyone's
mind seemed to be, "Why?"
RBWI boasted an estimated 10,000 enthusiasts
with 200 instructors
most recently expanding
to South Africa, the Bahamas, Australia and Belgium.
With these numbers and branch locations dramatically
increasing throughout the world, why would the
founder and president of RBWI suddenly disband
a structure that had such a significant impact
on the lives of so many people? It is a question
that no one seemed to be able to answer with any
Some speculate that Bussey grew increasingly
uncomfortable with the size of his organization
and the varied interpretations of his teachings.
Others conclude that it was strictly the result
of economics, while some point to the numerous
bodily injuries he sustained over the years.
Whatever the reason, the beginning of the end
began with a simple letter.
It was the summer of 1997 and on the eve of
Bussey's 36th birthday. Sanctioned RBWI instructors
from across the globe were making preparations
to converge at Bussey's legendary 17th annual
summer training camp. This historical camp, usually
held in the nation's rural breadbasket, has traditionally
been the most comfortable setting for Bussey to
perform and deliver his strategies. Rarely if
ever, did he expose these tactics in the mainstream
martial arts community.
Over a decade earlier, the editors of magazines
such as "Fighting Stars" satisfied readers
with histories and coverage of Bussey's annual
retreats."To fully recreate the emotion,
feelings, experiences and knowledge gained from
each camp, volumes of magazines and photo albums
would be needed," the magazine once stated.
For those attending that year's event, the anticipation
of Bussey's versatile instruction was strong.
However, expectation gave way to disappointment
and puzzlement when each instructor was sent a
personal letter from Bussey that stated his intentions
to relinquish RBWI.
In his final statement, Bussey expressed his
gratitude and extreme privilege to "teach
and uncover dormant abilities and to help people
to become more reflective about their own personal
He went on to say, "From these years, I
remember most those who tempered their training
with compassion. Those who were teachable. Those
who had ethics and attained a level of commitment,
eager to grow in talent."
Although Bussey was aware that many of his people
had not escaped the trap of mediocrity, he felt
that everyone was significant and had made a contribution
to RBWI. His genuine concern for others seemed
to inspire people to expand their boundaries of
skill and knowledge. He closed his letter by instructing
his followers to present their talents through
their own individualism, further stating, "If
you shout the name of a mountain in any language
you will see that the majesty remains.