After years of sharpening his skills and competing, Mike Thomas has opened his own dojo.
Mike Thomas, known as “Rhino” when he competes, has loved the sport of karate since he was a kid.
Enamored by movies and shows like Three Ninjas and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles growing up sparked a love for the sport, but it wasn’t until Thomas was in his late 20’s that his journey in karate began.
Thomas said that he was always athletic but never had a chance to compete in organized sports as he began working as a freshman in high school due to complications with his mother’s health. When weighing the choice between working or turning to crime for money, in his own words, Thomas began working 40-hour weeks as a teenager.
Then years later, at 26 years old, that path took an unexpected turn.
After losing a friendly wager over a basketball game, a friend decided that the bet would be waived if Thomas agreed to enroll with him at Chris Welbon Karate in Plant City.
“I liked the atmosphere and then I was really good at it,” Thomas said. “I was already flexible, I can jump, I could already kick. I could throw a kick well one time, but I couldn’t do it multiple times. You could tell that I was somebody who just got lucky and did it the first time and it went from there… I had no skills. I was just fast, I could jump, I could kick but I wasn’t good.”
Thomas went on to practice Shotokan Karate under Welbon for a number of months but eventually began training with Rudy Rogers, as it was a better fit around his full-time work schedule. Under Rogers, Thomas began to mold that natural athleticism into technical skill. In his first tournament, following just three months of training, Thomas placed second — with the scoring of that contest still a point of contention for the duo to this day.
“It went well, I met a lot of friends there, Chris (Welbon) is a good guy,” Thomas said. “He taught me some things but I was still a beginner. When I got with Rudy, he started to sharpen my skills and it was a better setting for me because I was getting one-on-one training.”
Rogers, 75, has worked in martial arts for over 45 years and runs his own outdoor dojo called Open Air Dojo, the first and previously lone branch of the Rogers Nisei Karate Federation.
Since beginning his training in 2015, Thomas won a number of competitions as an underbelt and has continued that success after earning his black belt in 2018, all while continuing to support his family as a full-time employee now with the City of Tampa’s Transportation and Stormwater Operations Division.
Most recently, Thomas finished second in the Black Belt Class A division at the 2021 U.S. Open in Orlando earlier this month.
“I don’t even know what I would be doing right now if I wasn’t doing karate,” Thomas said. “That’s how much it’s taken over my life, I love to do it.”
And Thomas has propelled that love for the sport a step further, doing his part to pass on his passion and knowledge after opening up a dojo of his own this past February, the same month in which Thomas was honored as an inductee to the Plant City Bing Rooming House Museum’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Now the second branch of the Rogers Nisei Karate Federation, Thomas currently has around 10 students under his instruction from four to 12 years old.
“I ask them questions, I sit down and I talk to them.” Thomas said about what makes his dojo unique. “I don’t just come in and say, ‘do this.’ Each one of my students, I ask them how their day is going or if they have a headache or if there’s any problems in school, if they need help with anything, and they talk to me… I try to treat them, not like adults, but I like to let them open up to me and talk to me so that they feel comfortable.”
What was once a mere childhood dream of learning karate has grown into much more, not just competitively for Thomas himself, but for the next generation of kids that he teaches.
“I always say that it’s like a dream,” Thomas said. “I don’t even believe it. Every day that I get up and I go in there, I still can’t believe that I’m teaching these people, that these people look to me to teach their kids… I don’t know how to describe the feeling of it. It feels great, but it feels more than great. It feels like something that I’m supposed to be doing.”