Teaching at Elvis Presley’s Karate School

I was probably 24 or 25 years old and was doing graduate work at the University of Memphis (then called Memphis State University) in Tennessee. I was already the national champion, and my kickboxing career hadn’t started yet. One of the reasons I’d gone to Tennessee to open a martial arts school for somebody else, but the school had closed. So I went over to Kang Rhee, who ran a large school in Memphis, and introduced myself. He recognized me and offered me a teaching position. Thank God he was there because otherwise I’d have been hurting. In addition to showing his students how to fight, I had to learn all his forms and techniques, but I didn’t mind because I really enjoyed teaching. One evening when I was working out, in walked Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Kang Rhee stopped the class and asked everybody to sit down, then introduced me to Elvis Presley. He said he’d seen me win the U.S. championships in Dallas, where I knocked out Skipper Mullins, and complimented me on my kicking. We talked for about 10 minutes and I thought, Wow, that was fun, thank you very much. Elvis Presley just dropped by to say hello and didn’t work out or demonstrate anything. It wound up being the easiest job interview I ever had.

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Not long after that, Elvis Presley asked me to come work for him. About two years later, he said he wanted to open a karate school in Memphis and would like me to run it. Also wanting a place to train, he said he’d stop in once in a while and work out—with me. Basically, Elvis Presley was doing self-defense techniques because he couldn’t spar—it was simply too dangerous. He had to preserve his looks and voice, so contact to the face or neck was out. He also didn’t want to risk breaking any bones, so he’d just demonstrate self-defense moves and some Ed Parker stuff like taking full-power shots to the stomach. I’d throw kicks at him, but I knew I couldn’t hit him. Elvis Presley was a fine athlete, but he wasn’t a fighter because of all the restrictions that came with his career. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to fight, though. His technique—his side kick and his punches—looked as good as anybody else’s. He wanted to do karate because he’d learned a bit of it in the Army and really liked it. When he came back, he got with Ed Parker because he was the big name in the late 1960s. With his fame, Elvis could go right to the top guy. The best part for me was beating up all of Elvis Presley’s people. I just relegated them to pulp. I sparred with Red West, Sonny West, Jerry Shilling and others. They worked out with us, but they only trained because Elvis Presley did. Red West made black belt under Ed Parker, so he was more serious. It was fun kicking Red West. When I won the championship in September 1974, Elvis Presley presented me with a motorcycle and did some really nice things. I worked at the school until 1977 when he died. Then I was hired to start a new program at the University of Memphis. I taught karate, judo, wrestling and helped out with boxing. Just before I retired from competition, I went to a party at Mick Fleetwood’s place in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day in 1980. I met John Belushi there, and we became instant friends. He’d also seen me fight and asked what I was doing during the summer. I confessed that I didn’t have any plans except for my retirement fight on June 15. He said: “We’re going to do the Blues Brothers tour. Would you like to come with us?” I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” In the first week of June, John Belushi called and asked whether I was still up for it. He sent me a ticket, and I flew to Chicago after my last fight. He wanted to start learning karate that day, so I worked on his flexibility. He didn’t want to lose any weight yet because he still had to look like a roly-poly Jake Blues. John Belushi had no prior training in the martial arts, but he’d wrestled in high school and college a little. He liked one-on-one competition. Ironically enough, he was more flexible than Dan Aykroyd, who had trouble kicking you in the knee. We had a ball. I taught John Belushi how to kick and punch, how to move. We’d spar, and I’d kick him at will. It’s funny when somebody has no speed at all. He really started enjoying it, though. Dan Aykroyd loved it, too. Both of them did a good job, as did the members of the Blues Brothers band that I worked with. We did three things together: the Blues Brothers tour, then John Belushi and I did Continental Divide and then the three of us were together again for Neighbors. We were working on another film called Noble Rot when John Belushi died. After what happened with Elvis Presley and him, I didn’t want to train stars anymore. Money’s not that important. (Bill Wallace is a former kickboxing champion and a Black Belt Hall of Fame member who now teaches seminars around the world.)
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