Meet the 70-year-old karate kid who's still got a six-pack

Joburg-based sensei Malcolm Dorfman, who cured his own spinal injury with exercise, believes martial arts are about building 'character' not collecting Olympic medals

12 November 2017 - 00:00 By david isaacson
Malcolm Dorfman was recently awarded ninth Dan, the first time this rank has been bestowed on a Westerner by a Japan-based, mainstream Shotokan organisation.
Malcolm Dorfman was recently awarded ninth Dan, the first time this rank has been bestowed on a Westerner by a Japan-based, mainstream Shotokan organisation.
Image: Masi Losi

Twenty years ago Malcolm Dorfman was told he needed a spinal fusion to fix a disc that had disintegrated in his lower back. The legendary Johannesburg karate sensei was struggling with terrible pain, but he knew surgery wasn't an option.

"I refused," says Dorfman, who was recently awarded ninth Dan, the first time this rank has been bestowed on a Westerner by a Japan-based, mainstream Shotokan organisation.

"While it might be OK for someone with a sedentary lifestyle, not me," said Dorfman, who set about adapting his exercises to strengthen the muscles around the injured area.

"I incorporated a system whereby I would not damage my back further."

Five years later Dorfman returned to the orthopaedic surgeon and had an X-ray. "My spine had fused naturally. The two vertebrae on either side of the degenerated disc had fused together."

The core muscles - all those from the thighs to the top of the abdomen - are the most important, says Dorfman who, at 70, still boasts a six-pack.

He trains once a day, although his focus is on quality over quantity, and he has adjusted his programme further to protect his joints.

Dorfman doesn't watch his diet. "I have lots of sugar in my coffee, I eat chocolate," he says. "I have a very fast metabolism. But I don't have a very big appetite so I very seldom gorge myself.

"I was once told by a famous karate instructor you must eat to live, not live to eat. I'm also not that into bread, pasta and potatoes. I have them occasionally."

Dorfman believes apart from his active lifestyle, the other two aspects that have aided him have been good genes and the good fortune of not having contracted a dreaded disease.

The good genes Dorfman inherited included those for academic ability - he started and finished school a year younger than his classmates.

I got bullied. There wasn't one break where somebody didn't klap me

"I used to come first and the older kids didn't like it. I got bullied. There was not one break where somebody didn't klap me."

He was smaller than his assailants, but he retaliated. "I fought back and took a hiding."

If one of his students is being bullied, Dorfman's advice is to hit back. "You never start, but if they hit you, hit them straight back and do a good job. A bully only understands one thing - reciprocation."

Dorfman was 16 when he entered medical school, but at the end of his first year he realised he wasn't cut out to be a doctor and switched to law.

Doing judo, Dorfman happened to watch a karate class given by Stan Schmidt, one of the pre-eminent karateka in the country at the time.

He did both martial arts for six months, reaching the South African Open quarterfinals in karate. "Something just clicked. I thought 'you have what it takes, I could be good at this'."

Dorfman started training three times a day and he dropped everything else, including his studies, which he said was a blow to his parents.

But he took an academic approach to karate, studying all aspects of the martial art and making a living from it.

"I teach intellectual karate," says the deputy grandmaster of the Karatenomichi World Federation.

"Karate is not about fighting, it's not about violence. It's about overcoming the mental and physical obstacles that are always placed in one's life. We all have problems."

He recalled valuable advice he received from a top karateka during a particularly dark period in his own life. "He said, 'Malcolm, your character is shaped by your karate training - train even harder.'"

Half a century in karate and Dorfman is as passionate as ever.

"I don't know how long I'm going to live, but whatever it is, I want to be doing karate to the last day."


Dorfman was once a formidable opponent in kumite fighting competitions, but he’s unimpressed that with karate is becoming an Olympic sport.

The Olympics are “all about winning medals and karate is about the development of yourself”.

Incapacitating blows should end matches. “It’s not a ping-pong match where you’re building up points.”

In keeping with the ethos, Dorfman insisted on being graded for his ninth Dan. His long-time friend, Matio Yahara, will grade him for 10th Dan too.

“In other organisations, ninth Dan is given as an award. Yahara and I totally refute the acceptance of an award.

“Whatever we receive must be the result of a physical demonstration on the mat. This is budo, the martial art feeling.”