Life and Times of American Kenpo Master Ed Parker

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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Judo
Saddleburn

Two-Time Black Belt Hall of Famer Hayward Nishioka has been campaigning for judo in the United States to harvest more shodans (1st degree black belts) Shodan literally means student. It's analogous to being a freshman in college. It's not the end but the beginning according to Jigoro Kano, the Founder of Judo.

A very dear friend and sensei of mine the late Allen Johnson, may he rest in peace made a home at Emerald City Judo. In Redmond, Washington.

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Jackson Rudolph
Photo Courtesy: Century Martial Arts

Sport karate has been buzzing on the Black Belt Magazine platform recently with a live stream from the Pan American Internationals, a world tour event of the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), reaching over 6.3 million users on Facebook earlier this month. The millions of views and thousands of engagements show evident public appeal for the sport, but I have found that sport karate is heavily underrepresented in martial arts studios across America. Some of this is due to traditionalists who are set in their ways and never intend to accept sport karate, this article is not for those people. I believe that much of this issue is the result of martial arts instructors who have never heard of sport karate, don't think that they are capable of teaching it, or fear that tournaments could introduce a toxic environment for their students. However, I feel that the potential benefits of sport karate with regard to student retention far outweigh those concerns. I'll begin by describing these three key retention-boosting benefits, then provide some helpful resources for learning sport karate at the end of this article.

1. Meeting Student Expectations

Martial Arts Superhero

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I started my journey in martial arts, in part, because I loved the cartoon series Samurai Jack. The generation before me may have started martial arts because of The Power Rangers, and before that it was the iconic martial arts movies of the 70's and 80's. Today, many students come to martial arts schools because they see their favorite super hero kicking and punching their way to victory in a Marvel or DC Comics film.

The funneling of super hero-loving kids to martial arts studios is great for the industry, but this source of inspiration presents the challenge of new students who expect to become the next Superman or Captain America through their training. Imagine if you were the eight-year-old girl who begged mom and dad for karate lessons after watching Black Widow, then you had to spend the first three months of your training learning how to do basic blocks, stances, and stand at attention. You would probably be pretty disappointed, and would decide to go play soccer or be a cheerleader with your friends from school.

I'm not saying that those foundational skills aren't important, they are essential to basic martial arts training. My point is that supplementing traditional curriculum with sport karate skills can be a valuable tool in meeting the expectations of those students who are anticipating superhero-level training. If they are already learning stances and punches, is there any harm in adding a leaping "superman punch" with a big kiai to make them feel like they just took down a big, bad villain?

The moves commonly used in extreme martial arts routines at sport karate tournaments for performance value, like the "superman punch", are often criticized by traditionalists in the comment section who proudly proclaim that it would never work on the streets. Maybe it won't, but it just might keep students coming back into your school so that they can learn the techniques that would actually be effective.

2. Curriculum Enrichment

Black Belt

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Another period in which schools often lose students is right after they get their black belt. They may stick around for a little while so that they get to wear their new belt in class for a few months, but over time many of them fade away before climbing much higher in rank. I believe that this is frequently caused by a lack of satisfactory curriculum beyond first degree black belt. I have observed many martial arts schools that have a seemingly random black belt curriculum, in which the "black belt class" really just consists of whatever the head instructor feels like teaching that day. This lack of formatted curriculum quickly becomes repetitive and it is easy to see how students inevitably get bored.

Introducing a sport karate curriculum is an excellent way to provide a diverse program beyond the rank of black belt. This can be done in a variety of ways. Maybe your traditional style doesn't feature much weapons training, which would be a perfect opportunity to bring in sport karate-based training of the bo, nunchaku, kama, or sword. What if you don't want to steer away from traditional martial arts at all? Then maybe your students can have the opportunity to learn another style of martial arts (like Tae Kwon Do black belts learning a Goju-ryu style form) to use in tournaments. If you are more willing to try the extreme aspects of sport karate, those students could take their kicking skills to a new level by learning tricking. I haven't even mentioned point fighting yet, which introduces a multitude of new techniques and strategies for students to wrap their minds around.

Regardless of which element of sport karate is selected for your school, each of those examples could provide years of additional instructional content that will keep black belts intellectually and physically engaged in their training. We are taught as martial artists to always be students, forever seeking to learn as much as we can. Give your students the opportunity to keep learning through sport karate.

3. Prolonged Goal Setting

Jackson Rudolph Chuck Norris

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The most common reason that students stop training in martial arts is because they achieved whatever goal they set out for in the beginning. Oftentimes this is obtaining a black belt, sometimes it is meeting a weight loss goal, and other times it might be gaining a baseline knowledge of self-defense. We try to combat this with the classic adage about "pursuing the unattainable goal of perfection" or preaching the "never give up attitude", but sometimes this just gets old. Some students need a clear, well-defined goal to continue sacrificing their time and money to come to class.

Once again, sport karate can solve this problem. Although a school does not have to participate in tournaments to use sport karate in their curriculum, much of the philosophy behind the techniques is designed to make a practical movement more visually appealing or optimize it for speed in a point fighting match. Therefore, it just makes sense to compete if you are teaching sport karate. The world of competition organically introduces a near-endless list of goals that could never be obtained within the walls of a single studio. Competitors can seek to win first place in their division, become ranked by some league or region, win a grand championship, get sponsored by a national team, become a world champion, compete on television, and so much more.

The two most common anti-tournament concerns I hear from school owners are fears that losing will make their students want to quit and the fear that if another school's students win, students might leave for the school across town. As for the worries about quitting after a loss, I believe this 100% comes down to culture. If students are appropriately taught to view losing as a source of motivation to train harder and improve their skills, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which losing a tournament makes a student quit martial arts all together. Regarding the concern about losing students to another school, I have seen this extremely rarely in my fifteen years of competing in sport karate tournaments. The only times that I have seen this occur is when there is direct mistreatment of the student by the original instructor, such as the instructor threatening the student to only train with them and not seek private lessons. If the instructor handles the student and their parents professionally, I have never seen a student change schools simply because they lost a tournament.

In addition to the goal-setting benefits of competing in tournaments, I would be remiss to not mention the importance of the social relationships built through sport karate competition. Sharing the ring with other martial artists, going to dinner with them after the event, carpooling on the way home, and so many other aspects of competition are proven to foster lifelong friendships. These friendships will keep students coming back to continue their martial arts training even when times are tough, because they know that the next tournament is when they will get to see all of their best friends again.

Helpful Resources

Sport Karate University

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I could list dozens of more reasons that people should start training in sport karate. I firmly believe that this sport and style of martial arts has shaped me into the man that I am today, and I wish that every martial artist could experience the same blessings that I have. From a martial arts school owner's perspective, a sport karate curriculum could be your key to meeting students' expectations early on in their training, retaining those students after they achieve their black belt, and giving each of them a multitude of goals that will keep them in the martial arts for years to come. Here are some helpful links to start sport karate training or introduce it to your school:

Sport Karate University is probably the most diverse and cost-effective training tool to get started on the forms and weapons side of sport karate. I joined Sammy Smith in this project to provide world class training on bo, nunchaku, open forms, tricking, and more for as little as $29.99 for one program.

The Flow System is a more in-depth option that is a bit pricier for martial arts schools that want to go all-in on introducing a weapons program. I started the project with a complete bo curriculum, and Mackensi Emory was recruited to include a kama program as well.

Retention Based Sparring is an excellent program that was created by Team Paul Mitchell Executive Director and successful school owner Chris Rappold to help instructors teach sparring in a way that will keep students coming back. A world champion during his competitive career, he balances teaching techniques that really work in the ring with methods that make sparring a more inviting experience.

Adrenaline Action Design is a new product founded by Maguire and Jimmy Kane that directly introduces Hollywood stunt training into a martial arts curriculum. The featured instructors include actual stunt doubles who have performed in blockbuster movies, such as Caitlin Dechelle who doubled Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Their Adrenaline Worldwide website also has a membership that provides a ton of content for tricking and extreme weapons training.

There are plenty of other resources for learning sport karate and bringing it into your school, but these are some programs that I have intimate knowledge of and would recommend to anyone interested in this unique aspect of martial arts. I would also highly recommend hosting seminars with world champion competitors or taking private lessons to learn specific elements of sport karate. I encourage you to contact me personally on social media for recommendations. If you have already identified a notable competitor who you would like to train with, most of us are easily accessible via social media and are happy to spread sport karate to as many people as we can.

Bruce Lee museum
cdn.i-scmp.com Dickson Lee

An immersive feature in the revamped Bruce Lee exhibition in Hong Kong.

On what would have been Bruce Lee's 81st birthday Saturday, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum unveiled a new Lee exhibit which opened to the public on Sunday. Following on the heels of the museum's previous Bruce Lee exhibition, which ran from 2013 to 2020, the new exhibit, A Man Beyond the Ordinary: Bruce Lee, is slated to run until 2026.
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