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Thomas LaPuppet: Remembering a Pioneer of American Karate and Fighter From the Legendary Tong Dojo

Thomas LaPuppet: Remembering a Pioneer of American Karate and Fighter From the Legendary Tong Dojo

On March 23, 1999, shotokan stylist Thomas LaPuppet — often called the greatest karate fighter to come out of New York City — lost his four-year battle with cancer. His passing marked the end of a stellar career in the martial arts.

Born Thomas Carroll on February 7, 1938, he earned the nickname “La Puppet” (the puppet) because of his superb ability to mimic other stylists, his wife Marie Carroll-LaPuppet said. He was born in South Carolina but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served four years on active duty and 16 years in the Reserve. He retired at the rank of first sergeant.

In 1962 LaPuppet became one of “New York’s Bravest,” a firefighter who ran into burning buildings and risked his own life to save others, standing in the eye of the hurricane during almost every disaster that befell the city. After having served at Brooklyn’s famous Tin House Fire Station, he retired in 1982.

Thomas LaPuppet, left

LaPuppet began his journey down the martial path as a jujitsu stylist in 1959. Soon afterward, he started training in shotokan under George Cofield at the Tong Dojo in Brooklyn. LaPuppet earned his black belt in karate in 1965.

At a time when martial arts greats such as Joe Lewis and Mike Stone were making a name for themselves, LaPuppet was busy winning tournaments, helping to create curiosity and raise interest in the New York martial arts community. One of his most impressive victories came in 1965 when he was named the undisputed winner of the All-American Championship at Madison Square Garden.

The following year, in addition to defending his title and winning many local and regional tournaments, LaPuppet accumulated three major championship titles: the Canadian International Tournament in Toronto, the Greater New York Metropolitan Championships and the Boston Invitational. He remained a tournament favorite for years and was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame in 1969 as Karate Player of the Year.

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LaPuppet was a formidable opponent for many contenders and up-and-coming champs. Two of them were Chuck Merriman and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. “When I was competing back in the ’60s, if you had any hopes of winning, you knew you had to go through Tom LaPuppet,” Merriman said. “I will never forget fighting him — and losing, of course — because he always had this big smile on his face.”

Wallace has different recollections of the champion: “LaPuppet wasn’t smiling at me when I fought him at the first Battle of Atlanta in 1969. When the center referee said, “Hajime!” (begin), here was this traditional shotokan guy moving around the ring like a non-traditional fighter. All of a sudden — wham — LaPuppet nailed me with a reverse punch. Here I was, behind in points, and everyone knows that kickers like me hate having to play catch up, especially in those days when a kick to the head was worth only one point.

“Then my luck seemed to change when LaPuppet started working his way in to finish me off with another reverse punch. I tagged him with a hook kick to the head. When time ran out, we were tied at one point apiece. Now we were in overtime, and LaPuppet must have changed his strategy a little bit because instead of him coming to me, I was now trying to edge myself into range. I really wanted to win that tournament. But it wasn’t to be, as LaPuppet cracked me right in the ribs with a rear-leg front kick. That was it — my day was over. I have to say, after giving me that sparring lesson, LaPuppet was always extremely nice to me. He was a great person.”

Left to right: Gregory Hines, Thomas LaPuppet and Ron Van Clief (Photo Courtesy of Marie Carroll-LaPuppet)

Steve “Nasty” Anderson was one of LaPuppet’s biggest fans. “I heard about LaPuppet before I heard about Bruce Lee,” Anderson said. “I don’t want my comments to seem racist, but LaPuppet came from an era when it was really, really hard to be black. Young black fighters like Billy Blanks, myself and other members of the Atlantic Team — we used to follow Thomas LaPuppet around and listen to what he had to say, hanging onto every word. I know I speak for the others when I say that LaPuppet set a path for us to follow. Indirectly, he was probably our greatest mentor and teacher. And LaPuppet was the nicest man I ever met. He was one of American karate’s true pioneers, a guy who came out of New York City and who made me proud to be an American martial artist.”

Martial arts instructor and actor Ron Van Clief first met LaPuppet at the All-American Championship in 1965. “Tom LaPuppet was an awesome martial artist,” Van Clief said. “I really respected his self-defense skills — so much so, in fact, that when we bounced together at the Electric Circus and The Dom, New York’s premier nightclubs, I felt secure when he was watching my back. LaPuppet also contributed to the success of many amateur karate and athletics organizations and was a driving force in getting the martial arts recognition in the Olympics.

“I learned a great deal from this amazing man, as did a lot of other people. There are countless martial artists, including students and champions of other instructors, who owe much of their success to [him]. It was LaPuppet who taught me the true essence of shotokan kata. He and I remained close for … years. I will never forget my fellow Marine, my martial arts brother, my good friend — Tom LaPuppet.”

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Regarded as a skillful and well-rounded competitor, Thomas LaPuppet surprised everybody when he announced his retirement from the circuit in 1970. In addition to being one of the all-time great fighters, he would often win in kata competition. From the full-contact karate team that he trained — the New York Puppets — to those splendid demonstrations he performed, such as his “blind-warrior” routine, there was nothing LaPuppet couldn’t do. He blazed a trail that included the expansion of his own dojo and the founding of his own organization.

LaPuppet’s reputation was such that he was often asked to teach people of prominence, but he never abandoned his roots, which was demonstrated in his work with underprivileged kids at several community centers. He also taught classes at the Hunter College Elementary School and the Brooklyn Health and Racquetball Club. Meanwhile, many exceptional students and several instructors who opened their own schools came out of LaPuppet’s Ronin Shotokan Karate-Do Dojo.

According to Van Clief, one of LaPuppet’s best students was dancer and actor Gregory Hines. Other celebrities who trained with LaPuppet include Ralph Macchio (Daniel-san in the Karate Kid movies), Steve McQueen and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. LaPuppet also traveled with businessman Donald Trump, providing personal security for the man who would become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee.

Although he normally kept a low profile, LaPuppet would occasionally do film work. He starred in various martial arts movies, such as Force Four and The Super Weapon. In his last film Angel With a Kick, LaPuppet even got to play the starring character, the angel.

“Tom LaPuppet was instrumental in bringing national recognition to karate schools in New York,” Dan Ivan said. “But more important was his role in improving amateur martial arts competition.”

Thomas LaPuppet in a scene from the 1998 film Angel With a Kick. (Movie Photos Courtesy of Marie Carroll-LaPuppet)

When it came to judging problems and other areas of disarray in karate tournaments, LaPuppet was less than complimentary. His initial involvement in a national organization was with the Amateur Athletic Union in the 1960s. He found himself in a situation for which there were no answers. The outspoken Ed Parker, who was also involved, was quoted as saying, “The AAU needs an enema.” (The AAU has since become one of the leading amateur martial arts governing bodies in the United States.)

LaPuppet wanted to see some changes, so he turned his efforts to the more progressive USA Karate Federation. There he served in various capacities, including senior coach, national chief of tournament operations, arbitrator and executive officer. He was also a nationally and internationally certified referee and member of the World Union of Karate-do Organizations and Pan-American Union of Karate-do Organizations organizing committees. He was a board member of the Central Taekwondo Association and Kwanmukan International, as well as a member of the new World Karate Federation Organizing Committee for Olympic Development.

For more than three decades, LaPuppet traveled the world on behalf of those organizations; he taught, arbitrated and promoted fair and honorable martial arts competition. He brought people together, forged coalitions and used his experience working with nonprofit organizations to analyze and implement complex dealings and changes, never ducking the tough decisions. “Tom LaPuppet didn’t just sit around and gripe about some of the things that needed to be revamped,” former Black Belt columnist Jim Mather said. “He got up and went at it. By example and good old-fashioned hard work, he a made a positive impact on the entire amateur martial arts competition arena.”

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Nearly four decades before his death, Thomas LaPuppet began his journey in shotokan, becoming skilled in all aspects of it. He was well-read in shotokan’s history and terminology, as well as in other martial arts such as jujitsu and kenpo. He was a peace-loving man who had no desire to prove his techniques worked on the street. His favorite statement was, “If someone confronts me on the street, I will run like hell and hope he doesn’t catch me; if he does, he’s in trouble.”

LaPuppet earned an eighth-degree black belt and truly became a master of the arts. He was a fearless champion, and although he was noted for his iron-jaw facial expression, he displayed good sportsmanship when he was out-scored in the ring. He always extended his hand in friendship and walked away with a smile — and he taught his students to do the same thing. He instructed thousands of youngsters for a very low fee — or none at all. He took great pride in advising martial artists and acted as a confidante to those who knew him. His students — especially his black belts — loved, trusted and remained loyal to him until the very end.

Floyd Burk has more than 40 years of experience in the martial arts. He serves as senior adviser to Independent Karate Schools of America. He would like to thank Marie Carroll-LaPuppet for providing much of the background information, as well as several photos, for this article.

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