Mary Davis Cates (1951-2006)

Preferred Title:


Began training: 1971


Cuong Nhu - Hachidan

Hall of Fame Award:

2021 - 30 years


Mary Davis Cates

Mary first began her martial arts training in 1971, under the Founder of Cuong Nhu, Grandmaster Dong Ngo, who was seeking a Ph.D. at the University of Florida before returning to his homeland, Vietnam. Upon his departure in 1974, twelve black belts were left to further his style, known then as the Cuong Nhu Karate Association.  Mary Davis was one of two women in that group who had attained 1st degree black belt.

From then on, she dedicated her life to furthering the primary goal and first tenet of The Cuong Nhu Code of Ethics and Moral Conduct: To strive to improve yourself and your abilities in the martial arts in order to serve the people.

Master Mary helped build the Cuong Nhu organization in many ways, serving on the Black Belt Committee and on the Board of Directors. Her professionalism set a standard, as one of her first students, Sensei Anne Ponzio states: “She inspired all of us by example, especially her dedication to service.”

Along with working full-time, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and continued her own training while teaching classes as Head Instructor of UF’s Cypress dojo from 1977 to 1984 she had brought self-defense for women onto campus in 1975 at the onset of the movement to stop rape and violence against women, and held Sunday women-only CN classes believing, “It is inspiring to train with women martial artists and to see women develop confidence, strength, and maturity in their bodies and minds.”

In 1984, Master Mary moved to Atlanta, GA and joined Cuong Nhu’s Sung Ming Shu Dojo, soon becoming its head instructor. She remained active in teaching Cuong Nhu across the U.S. and overseas and coordinated the technical update and publication of the Cuong Nhu Instruction Manual. She was a participant and trainer for the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists and the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation training camps. Master Mary also became a certified IMPACT Self-Defense instructor, teaching self-defense in the Atlanta metro community and for the U.S. military.

In 1995, she attained Master rank as the only woman testing with fellow CN instructors for 6th degree. Her talents extended beyond martial arts to Kanji painting. She told me that Kanji painting lessons helped to further her chi practice, and that she got to “green belt” level before moving away from her Atlanta teacher.

In 2003, Mary married Professor Ernie Cates, founder of Neko-Ryu Goshin Jitsu. She moved to North Carolina and continued to travel and teach Cuong Nhu and Neko-Ryu until her passing in May 2006. Just prior to her untimely death, Cuong Nhu’s Head of Style, Grandmaster Quynh Ngo, had informed Mary she would be promoted to 8th degree, the highest rank yet awarded in the style. He recently said of Mary: “Her passion for progression matched her true love for humanity. She loved to work on her craft and learn new aspects of all martial arts, as much as she loved to teach others. She set high standards and never wavered for herself and others.”

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