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Florence Karate group pays tribute to late legend Richard ‘Iron Dragon’ Bustillo, honoring their ‘Ohana’

By Evan Merrill
NKyTribune reporter

Students and family have paid tribute to the late Richard “The Iron Dragon” Bustillo, a close friend and mentor of Michael Peterson, founder of The Inner Circle martial arts facility in Florence.

The memorial is a Zen garden as well as a headstone in front of The Inner Circle at 7009 Burlington Pike in Florence. It is an International Martial Arts and Boxing affiliate.

A crowd of more than 60 members and family were there for the recent event, surrounding the front to hide the memorial, revealing it as Peterson approached.

Michael Peterson

Many members, including teachers Chris Hamon and Sandra Gustafson helped organize the memorial for Bustillo to surprise Peterson upon his return from California, where he was attending an IMB instructor’s clinic.

“[I] got choked up but refused to cry,” Peterson spoke of encountering the memorial and work of his students and family. Too many people here to witness that, so I thought of baseball.”

The group finished just before Peterson’s arrival back at the gym.
Under the headstone, members brought in items significant to Richard, things they remembered him by, and buried them underneath.

Peterson, founder of The Inner Circle and a Los Angeles, Calif. native, began his martial arts journey back in 1984 and eventually learning from the late Bustillo, a close friend and original student of martial arts legend, Bruce Lee. Bustillo taught several of Lee’s children as well.

Peterson joined the Marines in 1987 amidst his training, went to combat for the Persian Gulf War, prior to his honorable discharge in 1992, after which, seeking to become an auto mechanic.

In 1994 the devastating Northridge Earthquake took place, which caused his mom to relocate to Northern Kentucky soon after. Peterson followed her to the area.

Peterson first started teaching in 1999, then followed opening his first martial arts gym in 2004, having moved five times since in Florence — now the gym is located just across the street from Boone County high school.

He first encountered Bustillo through the US Martial Arts Hall-of-Fame in 2004, where a bond immediately developed. Bustillo wanted Peterson to learn from him, help teach and pass on his legacy.

“I’ve learned everything from him,” Peterson said. “He’s taught me patience, persistence, discernment. He’s guided me through troubles, he’s been my coach, my mentor, a big grandfather to my kids.”

Bustillo passed away in March from stage IV liver cancer, very surprising for all of his former students.

At the memorial, Peterson and his daughter and fellow instructor, Bailey Peterson

“I was actually going to train with him the next month,” Hamon said. “I remember hearing he was in the hospital, thinking I hope he makes it. A night after teaching I got a text saying Richard passed away. I sat there for a minute, I didn’t know how to be upset about this, it just feels empty now. Not only is he gone, but he was the foundation to the IMB, this school, all the students all the people that knew him were very struck by this.”

Since then, members such as Hamon and Gustafson had been thinking of ideas honor Bustillo for his accomplishments and cheer up Peterson.

“Mike is extraordinarily perceptive, so it was very hard,” Gustafson said. “We played it off as every time Mike leaves, his wife and I remodeled something in his house. He kept asking what she and I were going to rip up this week, so we kind of played it off as, “oh nothing. Just tear the bathroom up or something.” So he [thought he was] coming home to something in his house to be demolished.”

Peterson particularly values one thing that Bustillo taught, Ohana, or family. This teaching was exemplified through the acts of his many students and family.

“The Ohana is kind of crazy, that’s a Richard thing,” Peterson said. “Richard is Hawaiian-Filipino. . . He was born in Hawaii. His family took his ashes back to his hometown in Hawaii, so that was a pretty big deal. He talked about Ohana, that’s a big thing with IMB. It’s all about family and making sure you don’t leave them.”

As a part of the family, they all felt the need to show that they’re there for Peterson in remembering their former mentor, Bustillo.

“Once you are in Mike’s circle, you’re there for good,” Gustafson said. “Mike will do anything and everything he can for you and to help you, even if it hurts him, he’ll help you. He’s given a lot to everyone and he never lets anyone give back to him. That was the idea behind this, he can’t say no because I did it without his permission.”

The US Martial Arts Hall-of-Fame recently inducted Peterson and honored him as an IMB ambassador.

Picture of Richard Bustillo

“I’m committed to the US Martial Arts Hall-of-Fame because that’s where I met Richard and sit on the council,” Peterson said. “So that’s it. I’m not interested in other organizations, I stay true to them. I’m a loyalist like that.”

While on his California trip, Peterson received the permission from Bustillo’s family to write a novel about a motorcycle Bustillo gave him that he had personally built back in 1974.

All proceeds from the book on the motorcycle will go straight to the IMB in Torrance, Calif.

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