When James Pat Burleson entered this world on April 27, 1936, his parents could not have known that by the time he was destined to depart — on October 31, 2021 — he would be renowned as a martial arts pioneer, a front-runner in the "blood and guts" era of American karate, a mentor to youth and an inspiration to tens of thousands of martial arts students, if not more.
Like many of his contemporaries, Burleson had his interest in self-defense ignited by boxing, which is not surprising when one considers how little instruction in the Asian martial arts was available in the 1950s. Then, while stationed in Japan in 1957, he managed to devote several months to the study of wado-ryu karate. Not long afterward, the fun started.
"During my tour in the United States Navy, I spent some time in Asia and Indochina," he told Black Belt in 1993. "While there, I fought some bare-knuckle, full-contact exhibition matches, and most of the time, the rules were not clear.
"The fights were supposed to stop when someone was knocked down or knocked out, but this was not always the case. As a result, someone often ended up with broken bones or his teeth knocked out. In fact, there were a lot of situations where one could have died."
Pat Burleson (left) goes airborne to attack Fred Wren.Photo by Oliver Pang
After he was discharged, the scrappy Pat Burleson continued his training, now under a martial artist named David Laynn, who guided him to red belt. "I then studied under Allen Steen, who taught me sparring and advanced techniques," Burleson said.
Burleson's lifelong journey in the American martial arts was well underway. He soon started competing, and by the early 1960s, he was making a name for himself on the tournament circuit.
In 1964 Burleson entered the black-belt sparring division — he'd earned his taekwondo first degree the previous year — at the Southwest Karate Championships in Texas. He defeated Keith See in the preliminary round, then bested John Nash, Harley Reagan and Steen in the semifinals.
In the final, Burleson faced the formidable David Moon. Moon landed twice, forcing the Texan to pull out all stops in an effort to even the score. However, Moon went airborne and connected with a shuto, relegating Burleson to second place. And that left him hungry.
Pat Burleson completes the jumping shuto strike, making contact with Fred Wren's neck.Photo by Oliver Pang
Later in 1964, Burleson, who also had trained in tang soo do, entered Jhoon Rhee's first National Karate Championship in Washington, D.C., and took top honors. At the 1964 United States National Championships, Burleson became the sparring grand champion when he defeated Herbert Peters, a member of the tough Hawaiian team.
"I didn't get paid, but I don't feel bitter about it," the always philosophical Burleson told Black Belt in 1975. "A man has got to take a look at his worth when he asks for money. He cannot ask for more than he really is worth, and that worth is determined by how he draws on the open market. He cannot expect to receive more than he is worth to the person paying him the money."
In 1965 Burleson was hot. He placed first at the Texas State Championships, the Southwest Karate Championships and the All-American Open Championship.
At the National Karate Championships that same year, he found himself in the final facing Mike Stone. In overtime, Stone managed to connect with a full-power knifehand to the throat. The blow caused referee Ed Parker to disqualify Stone for excessive contact. A man of honor, Burleson refused to accept the win, arguing that he hadn't earned it.
Burleson's first appearance in Black Belt occurred around that time. It continued when he won the U.S. Championships in 1966 and went on for decades.
In 1978 Pat Burleson starred in an ad campaign from Century Martial Arts. This one ran in Black Belt.Photo courtesy of Century Martial Arts
Although he never capitalized on it for self-promotion, Burleson trained under Bruce Lee in the mid-1960s. The 18 months he spent learning jeet kune do from the art's founder began after the two met in 1964. Recalling their first encounter, Burleson explained how Lee challenged him to an arm-wrestling match and soundly defeated him despite a sizable weight difference that favored the Texan.
In 1969 Burleson's success started earning him coverage in Black Belt's sister publication Karate Illustrated, which was devoted to competition. While not as well-known as his peers who were frequently seen in the magazine's pages — people like Chuck Norris, Mike Stone and Skipper Mullins — Burleson was every bit as talented and victorious.
By 1970 Burleson, a keen observer of the industry, was beginning to sense that the arts were evolving. "Today, players have more techniques than we did," he told Black Belt. "I think today's brown belts are almost the equivalents of the black belts I fought then.
"Players are more sophisticated now. They set up a strategy before the match. We couldn't plan any strategy since we were not as familiar with the other players. We didn't know a competitor's weaknesses or his strengths, and tourneys were few and far between, [so] we couldn't learn about them through experience."
He summed up the key to his generation's success even as he recognized its shortcomings: "We fought harder and with more guts. We did not need the conditioning types of training that are used now. Today's competitors do a minimum of sparring before a tourney and do a lot of conditioning exercises like jogging instead. We did a lot of sparring before a tournament, and many of us were not able to compete at the event because of sparring injuries."
Pat Burleson referees a kickboxing match involving Dennis Alexio.Photo by Chris Farina
Because he and his contemporaries didn't have access to arsenals that were overflowing with techniques and combinations, they had to rely on their brains, which meant using strategy to win. "One of the smartest players was Mike Stone," Burleson said in a Black Belt interview. "Mike didn't have much finesse in technique then, but he sure used his brains to outsmart his opponent on the floor. He beat me in the finals at the 1965 National Karate Championships, and that catapulted Mike into a national karate figure."
Elaborating on how basic a fighter's arsenal was during that era, Burleson spoke to Black Belt in 1970: "We had almost no techniques for close quarters. We just grabbed our opponent and tried to tackle him down. Our biggest weapons were our feet. We used to apply the roundhouse kick heavily in order to score. Today, more and more shotokan techniques like the reverse punch and the front kick are being used in competition."
When Burleson shifted from competing to teaching, he focused his powers of analysis to the new endeavor and recognized early on that the martial arts were not a one-size-fits-all proposition. "People from different areas of the country come to a karate school with different attitudes," he said. "On the West Coast, they are more prone to [Asian ways]. There, you can teach a beginning student repetitious exercises hour after hour, and he will come back for more because people on the West Coast take up karate not only for self-defense but also for health purposes.
"But in Texas, you can't do this. The students don't have as much patience. I know because I taught this way at the beginning and had a turnover of between 70 to 80 percent. A Texan enters a dojo in order to learn how to fight. He wants to fight and he will take on anyone."
In contrast, Burleson said, students in Mexico prefer to approach the martial arts like a sport. And people on the East Coast are hostile until they get to know each other in the dojo, after which they warm up — and quickly develop a reputation for their fighting prowess. "They are the best in sparring with the Texans coming next," he said in Black Belt. "But in recent years, the karate men from the West have distinguished themselves in both delivery of techniques and in sparring."
Pat Burleson appeared on the cover of MASuccess magazine's June 2011 issue.Photo courtesy of MASuccess
Always a practical man, Burleson, who also was an accomplished instructor and referee, was confident about what mattered in martial arts. "Sparring in karate is the most important aspect of the art," he said. "All the techniques we have learned in the dojo are no good without sparring. A student cannot have any idea of how he will fare in a real fight if he has not had sparring experience."
And by all indications, the 10th-degree black belt never veered from that view. That's not to say he was obsessed with it, however, for he also kept an eye on the big picture: health and longevity. "Boxing can be considered closer to a real fight, but in the process of learning how to defend himself, a boxer may end up becoming punch-drunk or permanently damaged," he said. "And that's not the name of the game."
Clearly, Pat Burleson followed his own advice on self-preservation, as evidenced by the fact that he lived to age 85. In his later years, whenever he wasn't busy with his two schools in Fort Worth, he engaged with youth through local school districts to pass along life skills he'd gleaned from decades in the dojo. Those closest to him affirm that he never hesitated to dispense his hard-earned wisdom on the martial arts and life to the very end.