Western Martial Arts History

The Life and Times of American Martial Arts Pioneer Donn F. Draeger, Part 2

Donn F. Draeger’s personal life remains a mystery, if not actually mysterious. It’s fairly well-established that he was once married, possibly to a fellow Marine, and that the couple had a son before the union ended, but to date nothing more is known of that part of his life. Lady friends came and went, but not one remained long after she realized that his ultimate devotion in life was to martial arts training and study. Focused like a laser, he was too self-directed for permanent or, apparently, even long-term relationships.

While that would make it appear that he was somewhat self-absorbed, anecdotal evidence indicates something very different. Practically all those who came in contact with Draeger recall his essentially gentle and easy manner — quick to advise, help or educate without thought of personal benefit. As one of the earliest postwar foreign budoka in Japan, he seems to have acted as a true anchor and one-man support system for the many foreign martial artists who came to study in the 1960s and ’70s, helping them adjust to life in an unfamiliar culture.

Donn Draeger(Photo courtesy of Paul Nurse)

During his own early years on the Japanese islands, Draeger began training in the classical martial arts and was permitted to join the Kobudo Shinko Kai, the Classical Martial Arts Preservation Society, a research organization in which he was the sole international component. Believing the society’s focus too narrow, however, he eventually broke away to form what became known as the International Hoplology Research Center, now the International Hoplology Society.

Well-read in a variety of disciplines, particularly history, anthropology, engineering, sociology, physical education and cultural studies, Draeger nevertheless found his attempts at establishing hoplology as an academic discipline to be an uphill struggle. He faced a generally hostile scholarly fraternity that was aghast at the idea of formally studying combative behavior in human activity, and as something of a “jock” personality — a typical Marine, he was fond of ribald puns and bawdy limericks — he was not taken seriously by the professional scholarly community, which viewed him as nonintellectual. (However, witnesses to the occasional debates Draeger had with professional academics maintain that he acquitted himself extremely well. In addition, his books are soberly written treatises on what even for many Asian specialists are esoteric subjects.)

Course Correction

In the meantime, Donn Draeger continued his career in the Marine Corps. Some time in the early 1950s, he was sent to South America on behalf of both the USMC and the State Department on some sort of intelligence duty before returning to regular service. As second in command at the Inter-American Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., he practiced judo regularly at the Pentagon dojo with such stalwarts as Robert W. Smith and Capt. John Denora. He also continued his weight training and pioneered the postwar establishment of judo associations in the Americas.

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A career as an officer would be a full enough plate for anyone, but Draeger’s involvement with his chosen arts hardly ended with training. In America, he co-founded the first national judo body, the Amateur Judo Association, and later played a role in establishing the Judo Black Belt Federation, which became the United States Judo Federation. He also co-founded the Pan-American Judo Federation and either founded or helped develop several Eastern U.S. judo clubs as well as the East Coast Black Belt Association. For many years, he acted as the liaison between Japan’s Kodokan Judo Institute and the United States Judo Federation. Later, he introduced the Japanese stick-fighting art of jodo to Malaysia and America, helping establish that system’s international federations.

Donn Draeger

(Photo courtesy of Paul Nurse)

A reduction in U.S. forces in the postwar period meant that Draeger wouldn’t enjoy a full career in the Marines. Possibly riffed out in 1955 or 1956 (rather than resigning his commission, as is generally assumed), he took his discharge after roughly 16 years of service to end with the peacetime rank of captain and the wartime rank of major.

Thereafter, he moved to Japan and commenced a career as a student, teacher and writer of the martial arts, penning a series of articles for Strength and Health and Muscular Development magazines and writing the first Western, nonpopular pieces on shindo muso-ryu jodo and Mas Oyama’s kyokushinkai karate-do. His first book Judo Training Methods: A Sourcebook, co-authored with Ishikawa Takahiko, was published in 1961 and has recently been reissued by Kodansha.

A yondan in judo by the time he arrived in Japan, Draeger spent his years in the Pacific Rim living a life that would later read like an entry in a who’s who …

The Life and Times of American Martial Arts Pioneer Donn F. Draeger, Part 1

On October 20, 1982, the martial arts world lost one of its most dynamic and charismatic figures. Donn F. Draeger, USMC (retired), budo kyoshi (full professor of Japanese martial arts and ways) and ranked martial artist in perhaps a dozen combative systems, passed away from cancer at age 60 in his home state of Wisconsin.

Draeger is remembered today chiefly as the author of more than 30 books and numerous articles about the Asian martial arts, as well as for being one of the best-qualified and most experienced Western exponents of the combative arts. The oft-repeated legend that he either had or possessed the equivalent of some 100 black-belt ranks is perhaps apocryphal, but he no doubt was among the most accomplished martial artists of his generation, possibly of all time. He held a sixth-degree black belt in judo; a seventh degree in jojutsu (Japanese stick fighting), kendo and iaido; and a menkyo license in the tenshin shoden katori shinto-ryu of bujutsu.

Donn Draeger

Yet Draeger was a private man, and little has been published about his background and how he came to be such a pioneering figure in Western martial arts history. More intent on studying and analyzing than on promoting himself, he made perhaps his greatest contribution to combative studies in the form of the reactivation of hoplology — the scholarly study of weaponry and human combative behavior, a field with which he became familiar by reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s The Book of the Sword. This volume, first published in 1882 (and available today from Dover Publications), is a seminal hoplological text devoted to a cultural history of the sword from the earliest times to the Roman era, and it had a profound influence on Draeger’s thinking concerning weaponry, systems of combat and their place in global culture.

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But it’s as a pioneering figure in the worldwide investigation into martial culture that Draeger deserves attention, both for his acknowledged contributions and his extensive influence. What follows is a brief attempt at reconstructing Draeger’s personal history from various sources. Whenever possible, the facts have been checked and double-checked to produce an accurate sketch of one of the most remarkable Americans of his generation.

The Beginning

Donald Frederick Draeger was born on April 15,1922, probably in Milwaukee and most likely of German or Dutch descent. Little is known of his family — he may have been an only child — although it appears that after his biological father’s death, his mother remarried, for he had a half-brother named Gary. What is known is that as a boy, Draeger was fond of sports and the outdoors, spending his summers living with members of the Chippewa nation in the northern Wisconsin wilderness. There he learned various aspects of woodcraft and gained the respect of adult tribesmen via his ability to grapple and defeat boys older, larger and stronger than himself.

It was perhaps from this early association with the Chippewa that during the first half of his life, Draeger became an avid hunter. His first recorded fascination with weapons was with firearms. Buying a .22-caliber rifle with money earned from odd jobs, he was able to progress from stalking small game to hunting on most of the continents and accumulating more than 40 trophy heads, including those of the grizzly and Alaskan brown bear. Later, however, he came to detest killing animals except as a means to procure food or when required for self-defense. He renounced the sport and became quietly passionate in his respect for life.

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His early prowess with the rifle, however, was nearly unmatched. In time, Draeger became so efficient that while in the U.S. Marines, he qualified as a distinguished marksman, able to shoot from the hip with the same expertise as many who shot from the shoulder. Only a family death prevented him from accompanying the Marine marksmanship team to the national championships.

Martial Roots

From all accounts, Draeger was a natural athlete, one of the few who possess the right physical equipment for most endeavors. Standing in maturity 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing between 195 and 215 pounds, he was fortunate in that he was big-boned, with large hands for gripping. Beginning the study of jujitsu at age 7 in Chicago, he soon switched to judo and progressed so rapidly through the kyu grades that he attained nikkyu at age 10.

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Early in his judo education, Draeger began looking into weightlifting as a form of supplementary training — …

Revisiting Museum of the Moving Image Screening of The Black Kung Fu Experience Documentary, Featuring Ron Van Clief, and a Look at Chinese Martial Arts in Contemporary Black History

Revisiting Museum of the Moving Image Screening of The Black Kung Fu Experience Documentary, Featuring Ron Van Clief and a Look at Chinese Martial Arts in Contemporary Black History

Dennis Brown (left) in The Black Kungfu Experience, a 2012 documentary.

When I attended a screening of the documentary The Black Kungfu Experience at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image last year, I noticed the film pointed out something that many have observed over the years: There appears to have developed a social intersection of African-American and Chinese culture that finds its crossroads right in the middle of the kung fu world.

How to explain such a juxtaposition of two disparate cultures? Noted New York kung fu practitioner and former BET reality-TV star Novell Bell, aka The Black Taoist, offered this insight: “Brothers just love kung fu. It’s the rhythm.”

Potential stereotyping aside, there seems to be a level of agreement about the nature of kung fu movements from other prominent African-American practitioners. Legendary martial artist Ron Van Clief, who’s featured in The Black Kungfu Experience, is better-known to film fans as “The Black Dragon.” Drawing from his extensive experience in both Japanese and Chinese arts, Ron Van Clief opined that the harder Japanese styles are “ugly” compared to Chinese arts, which simply flow better.

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In all likelihood, the ethnic fusion of African-American and Chinese culture reached its zenith in 1985’s The Last Dragon. The movie follows the adventures of a black kung fu expert named “Bruce Leroy,” who spouts fortune-cookie philosophy while walking the streets of Harlem bedecked in a frog-buttoned kung fu jacket and huge wicker hat.

Bruce Leroy has passed, in certain circles, from camp to cult status, and his style from The Last Dragon continues to be imitated. UFC fighter Alex Caceres likes to bill himself as “Bruce Leeroy,” after the Bruce Leroy character from The Last Dragon. And at the underground kung fu fights Bell stages around New York, you can see various African-American masters attired in their own kung fu jackets — and even the occasional wicker hat, as seen in The Last Dragon.

Many attribute the ongoing fascination with the Chinese martial arts to the enduring power of cinema. Indeed, the roots of the African-American kung fu phenomenon stretch back before Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon — all the way to the 1970s, when Hong Kong chopsocky films drew crowds in practically every inner-city theater in America.

“The theme in a lot of kung fu movies is about the underdog fighting against the oppressors,” said Martha Burr, who, along with Mei-Juin Chen, produced and directed The Black Kungfu Experience. “And that resonates in the black community.”


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While the underdog theme may have drawn African-American audiences to the theater, it was undoubtedly the way Chinese masters kicked butt on the silver screen that pulled them into the kung fu schools. Cinematic masters didn’t just kick butt; they kicked it with style. This, as much as anything, may explain the allure of Chinese martial arts.

“Both cultures have a shared emphasis on style,” said Warrington Hudlin, a filmmaker and a trustee of the Museum of the Moving Image. “It’s a decorated, ornamented, performed experience. Think about those movies and the way guys came out posing. You don’t really fight in those poses — it’s a stylized version of the art, and that’s very much a shared aesthetic. But that shared aesthetic goes both ways: I remember Bruce Lee wearing a blue dashiki in the TV show Longstreet.”

Despite any shared aesthetics, for some early African-American enthusiasts, the Chinese martial arts community was unwelcoming at times. Noted praying mantis kung fu instructor Ralph Mitchell once recalled in Black Belt how it took him several months to gain entry into a Chinatown kung fu school in the 1960s.

Tayari Casel, another martial artist featured in The Black Kungfu Experience, remembered having his kung fu belittled by a Chinese master at a tournament because Tayari Casel didn’t know the Chinese names of the techniques he was performing.

Nevertheless, in a time when many traditional martial arts are experiencing slowed growth because of the rise of mixed martial arts, interest in kung fu — at least in the African-American community — remains high.

“There are still a lot of African-American kids doing kung fu now, and I think that’s because they’re able to study with these pioneering black masters,” Martha Burr said. “But in a way, it’s really an American martial art now. I think black people took Chinese culture …

Savate: From the Back Alleys of France to the Martial Arts World

Savate master Salem Assli in Black Belt magazine. Most martial artists know that savate is the official fighting art of France, but beyond that, they would probably be hard-pressed to recite any details about the style. That’s unfortunate because it possesses a long and distinguished history that makes it a valuable addition to the world of martial arts. The following is an easy-to-digest list of facts and is designed to enlighten all martial artists about the history, rules and techniques of this dynamic form of fighting. If it inspires a few to sign up for lessons, so much the better.

A Brief History of Savate

  • The roots of savate are unclear, but some scholars believe they can be traced all the way back to the legendary Greek fighting art of pankration.
  • More recent records indicate that it sprouted from various street-fighting systems used in France during the late 17th century.
  • Boxe francaise, an alternative name for savate, was founded in 1838 by Charles Lecour.
  • Before that, two fighting arts were popular in France: la savate and le chausson. The former was a system of street fighting that used all parts of the body for striking, while the latter was regarded as a milder system and the ancestor of the sport of boxe francaise. Both taught self-defense techniques.
  • After losing a friendly sparring match with English boxer Owen Swift, Charles Lecour was inspired to combine le chausson with English boxing.
  • Charles Lecour’s loss led to tremendous technical changes in savate that spanned decades. It was finally codified as a ring sport in Joseph Charlemont’s L’Art de la Boxe Fra Francaise.
  • Although the teachings of Joseph Charlemont have remained definitive, they are still open to modification. All changes must be approved by the executive committee of the French and International Federation of Boxe Francaise Savate and Related Disciplines.

Savate as a Martial Art

  • Despite its grace and beauty, savate is an effective method of self-defense.
  • It has been described as fencing with the hands and feet.
  • Kicking, punching, grappling, wrestling and weapons training were once parts of savate. Today, the system includes only empty-hand techniques delivered while standing or jumping. The other skills are taught separately under different names.
  • The official moniker for modern practitioners of the art is savateur or tireur (French for “shooter”).
  • During training, savateurs wear shoes that are specially designed for kicking. In fact, shoes are regarded as the primary weapons of a fighter and can be deadly on the street. In France, it is said that practicing savate without shoes is like playing tennis without a racquet.
  • All savate strikes are the result of scientific study and more than a century and a half of ring experience.
  • In Western boxing, punches are thrown so quickly and from such short distances that beginners rarely have enough time to deflect the blows correctly. That often results in the game of parry, escape, counter and attack being reserved only for advanced students. In savate, even though the feet are fast and powerful, the distances are much greater. That enables the average practitioner to successfully employ offensive and defensive moves without fear of injury. The student can more easily develop self-control and confidence.

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  • The savateur strives to attack with combinations and frequently invents strategies that involve feints and real strikes. He is forced to anticipate and adapt to changes in distance and speed while demonstrating his awareness of timing and space — all while using the sophisticated footwork for which the art is renowned.

Savate Competition and Techniques

  • Savate competitions are held under two sets of rules: “assault” and “total combat.” In an assault match, participants may wear protective pads — headgear and shinguards, for example. Thus, the risk of injury is reduced. In a total-combat match, they enjoy a full-contact ring experience similar to what is found in Western boxing. Knockouts are often seen.
  • The fist savate techniques are similar to those of boxing. The main ones are the jab, cross, hook and uppercut. The foot techniques of savate fall into four categories: low shin, side, roundhouse and reverse. Variations include kicks executed with the lead leg and the rear leg, as well as spinning, jumping and cross-stepping methods. An experienced savateur can combine those four punches and four types of kicks to form thousands of combinations.
  • Kicks can target an opponent’s legs, body or head. One of the savateur’s favorite methods of attack is to deliver a low kick followed by a roundhouse to the body with the tip of the shoe. Kicking with the tip of the shoe can be devastating. Over the years, it has knocked down more than a few experienced kickboxers.

Aaron Banks: Milestones in the Storied Career of a Martial Arts Promoter (Part 2)

No. 6
Staging America vs. the Orient in 1968

Another highlight of the Aaron Banks hit parade was a show that pitted Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis, Mike Stone and Thomas LaPuppet against a group of Asian fighters.

The Americans won the contest, taking four of the six bouts and proving to the nation that Westerners could defeat Asians at their own game.

No. 7
Beginning His Tournament-a-Month Competition Calendar in 1969

It ran in the same venue, the Sunnyside Gardens Arena in Queens, once a month for three years. “Those tournaments drew the strongest schools and the toughest martial artists who ever existed, including George Cofield, Joe Hess, Moses Powell, Frank Ruiz, Tom LaPuppet, J.T. Will, Jerry Piddington, Nick Cerio and Joe Lewis,” Aaron Banks said.

“I would give my speech at the beginning of each event and tell the competitors that the only way to get the media involved was to have a respectable tournament,” Aaron Banks said. “If there was a street-fight-type environment, they would run out, and sometimes there was too much violence and they did leave. So I had to be visible on the front lines. Whenever anything went wrong or people got out of hand, I was there to get things under control.

“I give a lot of credit to those fighters because they really worked hard. When they won, they really felt it. If they lost, they would go back to their school and train to come back next month and try to win. The fights were real battles.”

No. 8
Touring the USA in 1973

Aaron Banks took his Oriental World of Self-Defense on the road, touring a reported 25 states before heading to Europe. He introduced hundreds of thousands of spectators to the ways of the warrior.

The highlight of it all came four years into the crusade, during a trip to Great Britain. After entertaining large crowds in cities like Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, he and the rest of the team found themselves scheduled to appear at London’s world-famous Royal Albert Hall.

“Chuck Merriman did kata and sword, Ernest Hyman broke ice and performed the nunchaku, and I did my famous ‘skeet-shooting’ board-breaking routine (throwing them into the air one at a time and smashing them). The exhibition turned out to be a command performance with the Queen of England looking on.”

No. 9
Attracting 19,000 Spectators in 1974

Aaron Banks’ Oriental World of Self-Defense show, which moved to Madison Square Garden in 1972, attracted 4,000 people the first year it took place. Within two years, that number had risen to almost 20,000.

That meant maximum exposure for the biggest names in the martial arts — from traditional karate stylists like Thomas LaPuppet and Chuck Merriman to kung fu experts like Kam Yuen (David Carradine’s teacher and fight choreographer for the Kung Fu TV series). Everybody who was anybody participated at one time or another.

No. 10
Pulverizing 58 Boards in 60 Seconds in 1982

On behalf of the martial arts, Aaron Banks appeared on a gamut of talk shows — including those hosted by Merv Griffin, Dick Cavatt, Tom Snyder and Johnny Carson. But he always said the most memorable one involved his hand turning to mush while breaking 58 boards in 60 seconds during a demo of his skeet-shooting routine on the Mike Douglas Show.

Obviously, the power and discipline of the martial arts continued to amaze Americans in 1982 — even after many thought they had seen it all.

End of an Era

While engaged in his customary session of light weightlifting in 1981, Aaron Banks woke up lying on the floor with the weights on top of him. He had blacked out. His doctor told him he’d been burning the candle at both ends and if he didn’t slow down, he would be dead in three to six months. Insisting that he still had a mission to give the public a better understanding of the martial arts, Aaron Banks eased up a bit but refused to quit. He handed the reins of his 600-student New York Karate Academy to his black belts, but the TV appearances and martial arts shows continued, albeit at a slower pace.

But Aaron Banks never abandoned the love of his life — not until May 8, 2013, the day it’s believed he passed away alone in his New York apartment. He can rest in peace, however, knowing that he took the American people on one magical martial arts adventure after another.

Resources
Read Part 1 of this article here.

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