Every year in Long Beach, California, a huge karate tournament takes place. Since 1964 this tournament, the prestigious International Karate Championships, has been a proving ground for superstars like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis and Mike Stone. Even today, celebrities such as Bill Wallace, Jeff Speakman, Gene LeBell and Eric Lee make appearances there to sign autographs and speak to fans.

What many newcomers — and even veterans — to this tournament are unaware of is the rich history and tradition of the illustrious event. The man behind it all, Edmund K. Parker, left it as part of his legacy. His death in December 1990 stunned the martial arts world, but the tournament, and so much more of Parker's work, is being carried on.


Martial History

At age 16, Ed Parker began his kenpo karate training with Frank Chow in 1947. When Frank Chow's well of knowledge began to run dry, he arranged for his brother, William K.S. Chow, to help Parker reach a higher level. Parker was in awe of William Chow, who for some mystical reason inspired in Parker such a love-at-first-sight reaction that he would make kenpo his life's work.

After just two years of training, Parker left his home in Honolulu to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Even with this small amount of training — he had made it to brown belt — he was motivated to continue practicing kenpo while in college. Shortly thereafter, he started teaching it to a small group of college students.

Teaching kenpo brought new depths to Parker's understanding of the art and undoubtedly enabled him to consolidate much of his budo knowledge. (He had earned a black belt in judo at age 15 and had become a skilled boxer and a veteran street fighter by the time he was 16). By now, Parker had begun to conceptualize his own ideas regarding motion, striking and defenses against multiple attackers.

Parker not only enjoyed teaching but soon discovered a phenomenon that occurred when he explained a technique to someone while simultaneously demonstrating that technique. After several repetitions, he could perform the technique in a "no-mind" state of consciousness. Consequently, he soon developed his physical skills to the level of someone who had been training for many years.

In 1951, after his sophomore year at BYU, Parker signed up for a three-year tour of duty with the U.S. Coast Guard. Fortunately, he was stationed back home in Honolulu, where he could be near his family, friends and his future wife Leilani Yap. Parker's return to the island made it possible for him to continue his training with Chow whenever he was in port.

Two years into his stint with the Coast Guard, Parker realized what was perhaps his biggest dream: On June 5, 1953, he was awarded his black belt in kenpo from William Chow. During the next year, Chow taught Parker more of the "master key movements" that he would later need when he restructured and standardized what was to become American kenpo karate.

Parker went back to college in September 1954, just one month after his discharge from the Coast Guard. It wasn't long after his return to BYU before he was once again teaching kenpo karate, this time in the wrestling room of the school's athletic department. In December 1954, Parker had the opportunity to demonstrate his martial arts skills during a basketball game between BYU and UCLA. The demo was so successful that word soon spread to law-enforcement agencies, and Parker found himself teaching self-defense to police officers from across the state. When the next semester began, BYU was offering college credit for law-enforcement officers who enhanced their hand-to-hand skills under Parker.

Living Laboratory

While Parker was providing self-defense training to the police community, that same community was providing him with a "living laboratory." Correctional officers would report to Parker when a particular technique was effective or ineffective. Policemen who were involved in fistfights would discuss in detail their encounters. Parker and those lawmen labored to develop effective fighting techniques to deal with situations in which an officer found himself outnumbered and was forced to use his hand-to-hand skills. This resulted in the weeding out of useless, outdated maneuvers. Aside from Parker's training with Chow, this interaction with the police was probably the single most important factor in Parker's ability to refine his kenpo karate into a modern realistic combat system.

Parker graduated from BYU with a bachelor's degree, then promptly moved to California with his wife Leilani, whom he had married in December 1954. By now he was confident in his teaching and had honed his live-performance and public-speaking abilities by giving several demonstrations in Utah. Consequently, he believed he could open his own kenpo karate school and attract enough students to make it successful.

In September 1956, Parker opened a dojo in Pasadena, California. Although the early going was tough, he began to build a clientele of eager, dedicated students. What he didn't count on was that when he offered hand-to-hand combat training to the local police departments, they were not interested. This may have been Parker's biggest break because if he had been teaching the police force, he might never have had the time or the opportunity to teach celebrities and become the American film industry's first martial arts technical advisor.

American Kenpo Karate

Before returning to college, Parker was under the impression that he and Chow would at some point open kenpo karate schools on the mainland. The fact that this joint venture never materialized had lasting consequences. While Parker was disappointed that he would have to go it alone, he was free to develop his own form of kenpo without interference.

Parker created his art by taking what he deemed to be the best techniques from Chow's kenpo, as well as from judo, boxing, kung fu and various other arts that he had studied, analyzed, compared and reviewed. His system also overcame the shortcomings of his old "hold and throw" training — which was fine for one-on-one encounters but not for multiple attackers. Parker was successful in reaching his goal: Not only was his fighting system effective against multiple attackers, but it also worked for everyone, including smaller men, women and the elderly. After much refinement, revision and restructuring, American kenpo karate was born.

One of the things that made Parker's system so successful was that it fit in well with the American mind-set. Kenpo students were not forced to learn a foreign language, and Parker's books gave them something that they could read and study at home. A person could finish a beginning or intermediate kenpo course and be happy with his accomplishment. But if he decided to go to the next level, there was always more to learn — because Parker was always creating and expanding.

The International Kenpo Karate Association, originally called the Kenpo Karate Association of America, was formed just six years after Parker opened his school in Pasadena. With so many people asking to join Parker and teach his system, the IKKA grew into an organization that gave its member schools roots. It continued to grow in America and other parts of the world.

Parker was fortunate to have students who trained with him in Pasadena before returning to their home overseas to establish the Ed Parker system there. To ensure the success of these foreign programs, Parker or one of his senior assistants would travel to these distant lands to work with new kenpo instructors on the master key movements and on any changes in the system. The IKKA continues to be the leading sanctioning body for kenpo stylists around the world.

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In 1964, after two years of planning, Parker hosted the first International Karate Championships, also known as the Internationals, at the Long Beach Auditorium in Southern California. It was his brilliant idea for bringing together martial artists from all styles and all parts of the world. It grew and was eventually moved to the Sports Arena. Year after year, it churned out one champion after another.

The event's demonstration segment also served as a steppingstone that allowed those who contributed to the martial arts to gain recognition and prominence. Without Parker and the influence of this event, many of the champions and instructors that we revere would not be known today.

Answering the Critics

The movers and shakers of the martial arts industry always receive more than their fair share of scrutiny. Parker's success over the decades brought him personal and financial rewards — as well as criticism. Among these criticisms are the following:

• Ed Parker lacked the formal training and experience needed to successfully structure and synthesize a true combat system.

His critics like to forget that his budo training included earning a black belt in judo and that the combat effectiveness of his kenpo karate came from trial-and-error testing involving experienced street fighters and law-enforcement personnel. His techniques and strategies were developed from a foundation of proven models, not unproven theories.

• Ed Parker put blinders on the martial arts community.

On the contrary, Parker sought to take the blinders off. He thought that there were too many instructors who hid behind a bundle of secrets. He was not fond of instructors who used mysticism and rhetoric to control their students or those whose doctrine required their students to train with them and no one else. Parker encouraged his students to learn as much as possible about the martial arts.

• Ed Parker was not traditional enough.

Parker was traditional in ways that many of his critics failed to recognize. He taught the martial arts for self-defense and as a way for practitioners to attain personal growth and enlightenment. He stressed that students should seek balance in mind, body and spirit. He differed philosophically from many others who held traditional views, however. He believed "truths" are "truths" regardless of whether a person is told them or learns them on his own. Thus, his students were not bound to him as their only source for enlightenment.

• Ed Parker ruined karate.

There was a time when a few Ed Parker kenpo karate schools had a less-than-qualified instructor/owner. Even members of Parker's "road team" — protégés like Richard Planas and Benny Urquidez, who traveled to different schools to work with the owners — could do little to help those instructors be more than a cheap imitation of the real thing. This situation posed a legitimate problem for Parker, one that probably caused him some regret.

• Ed Parker's system is an ineffective slap-art that looks good only in movies and on television.

Part of this criticism resulted from Parker's teaching of television and movie stars. Critics would say, "Since the movies are not real, the karate must not be real, either." Others misunderstood Parker's "checking principle" and believed that the many open-hand techniques involved in checking were just useless slaps. In reality, thousands of Parker kenpo practitioners find comfort in their self-protection abilities, and many have successfully defended themselves on the street. Furthermore, law-enforcement agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department now have experts from Parker's kenpo karate train their officers in hand-to-hand combat.

On the other side of the coin, some of Parker's core black belts agree that a large number of American kenpo karate instructors do indeed teach a slap-art. Those old-timers say that these people run kenpo schools and profess to be black belts but do not understand the master key movements or teach the way Parker would have wanted.

Conclusion

Was Ed Parker one of the greatest innovators the martial arts world has ever known, perhaps on the same level as judo's Jigoro Kano and shotokan's Gichin Funakoshi? The answer has to be yes.

In addition to creating American kenpo karate, Parker did more to publicize the martial arts than any other person or group. He did this with the aid of celebrities like Elvis Presley and Bruce Lee, who took it upon themselves to help him promote the martial arts internationally.

The greatest testimony to Ed Parker is that American kenpo karate is still going strong around the world. With the efforts of his family, friends and students, the Parker legacy will continue for years to come.

Story by Floyd Burk

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