Legendary karate pioneer Ed Parker begins his sojourn as a Black Belt columnist this month in our continuing effort to bring readers the most knowledgeable essayist in the martial arts. Parker, one of the true greats of the martial arts world and a Black Belt Hall of Fame member, is a storehouse of memories and anecdotes about people ranging from Bruce Lee to Elvis Presley. He is also perhaps the world's leading authority on Kenpo karate. We think you'll find his monthly column amusing, informative, and downright fascinating. – Ed.
To understand karate techniques and how they function, you must have knowledge of physics. You must study the body and learn how the senses - through the principles of mass, speed, body alignment, angles, momentum, gravitational marriage, torque, focus, stability, power, and penetration - can make the body function intuitively. An in-depth study of these principles of physics will also reveal the sophistication contained within basic techniques.
"He who hesitates meditates in a horizontal position" is a statement that I use to imply the need for prompt action. It is a statement referring to speed. "Do it now," “I wanted done this instant," You’d better be fast," and "Be quick about it" all are phrases that imply speed or hasten velocity regardless of direction. As we study these terms, we learn that they are concepts related to distance and time. By definition, speed is equal to the distance divided by the time it takes to move.
Speed, however, goes beyond this definition. Like the Eskimo who uses a number of terms to describe the types of snow, we too must distinguish and categorize speed to make it meaningful to the karate enthusiast. There are three categories of speed: perceptual, mental and physical. However, while the categories are separated in order to analyze why to speed in tales, they function as one.
Perceptual speed is the quickness of the senses in: monitoring the stimulus they receive; determining the meaning of the stimulus; and conveying the information to the brain so that mental speed can arrange the proper response. To the karate practitioner, it is the feel or smell of trouble, a sound, sign or gesture that suggests trouble, the site of an incoming strike, or the opportunity to attack or counterattack. The speed of this type can be increased by maintaining alertness and by conditioning the senses to develop environmental awareness.
Mental speed is the quickness of the mind to select appropriate movements to effectively deal with the incoming stimulus. Speed of this type can only be increased by practicing various karate techniques on a regular basis. This involves learning the techniques to a point of total familiarity and instinctive response. As you broaden your knowledge of combat alternatives, and can tap into the movements and concepts stored in your subconscious, the speed of your instinctive response increases.
Physical speed is the quickness of physical movement - fluency in response to stimulus, and the speed in which one executes the technique. The speed of this type can be increased through stretching, body conditioning, and other methods of training. Stretching exercises helps increase elasticity, which automatically develops a reach. Body conditioning prevents fatigue and allows a high level of speed to be maintained for longer periods of time.
Knowledge of the principles of economy of motion also contributes to speed. It helps you avoid erroneous angles and teaches you how to administer your strength. This principle stresses the importance of: being relaxed when striking, tensing only at the moment of impact; making one aware that time is crucial; using movements that follow direct angles and paths; eliminating "telegraphing" of techniques unless as a means of deceptive strategy; continuity, flow, and rhythm; responding to combat from natural postures; learning about target accessibility; and distance, or range.
In conclusion, while speed often enhances power, it is not the root of power. Synchronization of body mass and speed is a major ingredient that creates power.
It seems as though only a short time has elapsed since I began my venture into the karate profession. I started teaching commercially in 1954 at a gymnasium in Provo, Utah, and also held a self-defense course for law enforcement agencies at Brigham Young University. After graduating from college with no experience in business, I moved to Pasadena, California, and opened my own school in September, 1956. I was determined and confident I could make it, and as I look back, I found that my ignorance really worked in my favor. Had I listened to my experienced business advisors, who would have warned me of all the pitfalls of my profession, I would never have been successful.
The following true story is a good analogy. A black belt was hired to protect a rock group on tour. A party was held on closing night, and a gate-crasher and his friends got out of hand. Their leader attacked the black belt, but he found he had overestimated his ability and was badly defeated. As his friends escorted him out, they yelled to the black belt "You'll regret this! This is the national heavyweight boxing champion!" Would the black belt have been as effective had he had previous knowledge of the party crashers identity? Would I have been effective if I had been told about the pitfalls that awaited me in the martial arts business?
At the time of my schools opening, there was no one in the karate business to appraise me of their experiences; there was no track record for me to follow. Learning the basic principles of business is not enough, because they are not the same for all businesses. A recent case in point: a very successful insurance executive decided he wanted to get into the karate business. I was consulted and gave him my advice. His plan to have big businesses sponsor underprivileged kids was a valid idea most of us in the profession had not considered. We have brought sponsors into the tournament scene, but not into the schools. After listening to his plan, I was impressed. However, as he revealed other aspects of his plan, I knew that his business practices would clash with ours. His monthly overhead, not including salaries and other miscellaneous expenses, was $15-16,000 a month. To meet these expenses he would have needed 400 regular students. To pay salaries, another 100 to 150 regular students would be required. I predicted he would stay in business a year. I was wrong. He closed in six months.
"Tailoring" is a very important concept. In Kenpo karate, tailoring describes your ability to fit moves to your body size, makeup, speed, and strength in order to maximize your physical efforts. Tailoring is also viewed as the ability to adjust your attitude to fit each situation. These concepts also apply to business. What works in one business may not work in another. Likewise, teaching and business procedures at a karate school will vary from one country to another, state to state and city to city. Economic conditions, ordinances, age groups, an annual income are some of the considerations that change with time and must be heeded.
One of those considerations is competition. Many of us have read about the Old West, with its gunfighters and challenges. Similarly, during my early years in business, I too became acquainted with challenges. Since karate was virtually unknown during the early 50s, I had my share of challengers. Because I had the only commercial school listed in the Yellow Pages, I was frequently sought out. I once had a challenger who said he was a "jujeeti" expert. He couldn't even pronounce the word "jujitsu" correctly. As much as I tried to avoid a confrontation, he persisted. You can only take so much, so I gave in. He proceeded to stalk me, traveling clockwise, and I faked a right punch. He attempted to grab my punch with his right hand and I instantly contoured the underside of his right arm and executed a right inward elbow strike to his upper rib cage, cracking a number of ribs. It was my intention to knock the wind out of them, not the fracture his ribs. As I escorted him out of the school, I felt remorse for what I had done, but I was angry with him for placing me in such a position.
I recall another incident where the gentleman in question did not actually challenge me, but felt he had the fastest hands in town. He wished to prove to me that he could block any punch directed to his head or body. I shot a right punch, and he blocked it successfully. I've been shot a left punch, which he blocked. I commented "Hey, you're really good." As his head swelled, I asked if he could block a right and the left punch combination. He again succeeded. I then delivered a left and a right combination. He beamed as he successfully blocked my blows. I commented that I had met a lot of martial artist, but that he was the best I had seen. His head was now so swollen he could have floated to the ceiling.
My last comment to him was "Can you block a right “with” a left combination?" He nodded his head, indicating he could. As I simultaneously delivered both punches, he blocked my right punch and was drilled in the face with my left. He did not expect to punches delivered at the same time, which is what I countered on.
That was one of the ways I used my wits to survive in the early days of karate.
I traveled extensively throughout Northern California during the 1960s. My travels afforded me the opportunity to meet and become friends with many kung fu masters and their students.
Among the close friends I made during this time was the late James Lee. He and I spent hours comparing the concepts and principles of his kung fu and my Kenpo. Although he was not a big man, he was tremendously powerful. He could break a six bricks with a single back fist. You could select the brick you wanted him to break, and he could break it without disturbing any of the other bricks. He was wiry, full of energy, and always seeking the ultimate challenge.
In September or October of 1963, I received a call from Jimmy. His voice is full of excitement and he could hardly contain himself. "Ed," he said, "I just met this kid from Seattle who you've got a meet. He is a Wing Chun man and he is something else! Not only is he fast, but boy does he pack a wallop! He isn't big, but he hit me with a one-inch punch and sent me clear across my garage - at least 15 to 20 feet. Unbelievable, unbelievable. I've never seen or felt anything like it."
I was finally able to get a few words in and ask him who this guy was, where he was from, and where he got his training, and other questions. Jim said "his name is Bruce Lee. He was born in San Francisco, and spent most of his life in Hong Kong, where he practiced Wing Chun."
I consented to meet Bruce in Oakland, California, where James Lee lived.
When I first met him, he struck me as clean-cut and handsome. He was extremely friendly, joked continually, and was obviously a philosophy buff, judging from his conversation.
He proceeded to discuss his martial art and its merits, along with his own concepts. Then he began to punch, and the sleeve of his windbreaker literally "popped" the air. His movements were graceful, crisp, and powerful. As I observed his technique, I could see his unyielding balance as his body settled with each punch. He had obviously mastered the concepts of body momentum and precise angles of impact. These factors contributed to his power.
Once I observed Bruce’s extraordinary talent, I knew that I should introduce Bruce to the film and television producers and directors I knew. A number of TV and movie people were expected to attend my first International Karate Championships in 1964 in Long Beach, California, so I asked Bruce to demonstrate his skills there. Bruce's demonstration was captured on film, and after the tournament I show the film to producer Bill Dozier, who hired Bruce as Kato for his Green Hornet television series. The rest is history.
I still think about the times that Bruce and I have spent traveling from coast-to-coast, and the memorable discussions we had. He once asked me which of the nation's three top point karate fighters generated the most power on contact. When I gave him my answer, he was shocked, because I had made the same choice after he had worked out with all three of them.
"Tell me how you knew," he said.
I answered, "because of the synchronized timing of body mass with the strike. That's why you're good, Bruce. Upon impact, your whole body is in focus with your natural weapon."
He looked at me for a while, and with a slight smirk on his face, comfortably sat back in his chair.
On another occasion, Bruce told me of his experiences on a live TV show in Hong Kong, where he and four other kung fu masters were asked to demonstrate their skills. The first master settled into a stance and invited a second master to throw him off balance. The second master was not able to do so, nor was the third. The first master then told Bruce, "hey, you young punk, you come up and try."
Bruce, ignoring the gentleman's impoliteness, calmly stood before him, settled into his stance, then punched the master in the face and dropped him. Bruce said "When I fight, I punch, I don't push."
Falling, diving and rolling are essential ingredients of the martial arts. While most people associate falling with jujitsu, judo or aikido, Kenpo karate also encourages its study and practice. The ground can be an enemy; knowledge of falling, diving and rolling can avert injury.
A person falls to avoid being hit (defense), or falls after being hit or thrown (offense). Falling is an exaggerated method of “riding” an attack. Although riding normally is done while remaining upright, it can be combined with a fall, roll or turn.
When learning to fall, students must contemplate methods of landing safely. They must learn to: dissipate the force of the fall to reduce or limit injury; control breathing to limit loss of air upon impact; and make every effort to quickly regain a proper defensive posture.
Falling also requires proper use of the kiai (yell). Employing the kiai reduces natural buoyancy, so exhaling on impact prevents hitting the ground with air still in the lungs. If the lungs are even partially filled with air, there is the possibility of broken ribs, because tightening of the abdominal muscles is limited. However, exhaling completely tightens the abdominal muscles during the fall and minimizes injury and damage by helping the body to absorb the shock. It is also necessary to tuck the “hard corners” of the body (head, shoulders, elbows, knees, etc.) toward the more muscular areas of the torso. This allows the body to support and brace its joints prior to impact with the ground. This tuck posture not only decreases injury, but places the body in proper alignment to defend or attack with increased effectiveness.
The limbs also play an integral part in dissipating the shock of a fall. The limbs are used to slap the ground upon impact, which disperses the body weight over a wider surface, like having a book fall flat rather than on its corner. Your limbs can also be used aggressively; instead of breaking your fall, you may with to direct it toward an opponent already on the ground in the hope of hurting him. With proper timing, the power of gravity can be added to the power of the fall.
Dives are unique moves that employ springs and flips. These maneuvers are quite exaggerated and are used to avoid an attack, work in conjunction with an attack, or can be combined as a defense and offense.
The same procedures used to reduce injuries during a fall also relate to dives. While a forward stomach dive may require use of your arms to help disperse the weight in your fall, most dives are followed by a roll. It is the momentum of the dive and roll that disperses the weight throughout the body upon impact, thus reduces shock and injury.
Rolling consists of two types; a standing method employing a ride and turn to avoid an attack, and a revolving maneuver using the ground to travel from one point to another. It is the continuous, revolving flow of action that helps to cushion the impact of the body when meeting the ground. This revolving maneuver may be used to avoid an attack by increasing distance, or can be used strategically to close the distance between you and an opponent, as well to increase the force of your counterattack. In either case, rolls revolve from a 180-degree radius to a 360-degree radius. Rolls have the same flexibility as other falling methods and can be employed while simultaneously counterattacking.
Falls, dives and rolls come in several varieties. There are back, front and side falls. There are shoulder, head-and-shoulder, and back head and chest dives. Rolls can go to the front, side, or back. These may be combined with other foot and body maneuvers, such as step through, shuffles, crossovers, jumps, flips, turns and rides, to achieve maximum effectiveness. These maneuvers may be used in any combination deemed necessary to serve the purpose. The combinations you choose should be appropriate for the situation.
We often hear the terms gap, space, distance, and range used interchangeable in the martial arts. In truth these terms each have distinct and separate characteristics of their own. In the dictionary, a gap is defined as “a separation in space.” Space is “a limited extent in one, two, or three dimensions: distance, area, volume.” Distance is “the degree or amount of separation between two points.” And range is “the space or extent included, covered, or used.”
These terms all describe the martial arts’ dimensional stages of action. These martial arts techniques use space in all its aspects: height, width, depth, and direction. They also utilize the distances that maintain, control, close and open the gap (fighting distance). They employ long-, medium-, and close-range techniques in sequences while closing in on an opponent or when defending. They include a staggering amount of alternatives for close-range techniques, including various locks and chokes, twists, dislocations, holds, and takedowns.
Gauging the distance between you and your opponent when defending or attacking requires a thorough study of the dimensional stages of action. It involves choice of weapon and target, arm and leg lengths of both your and your opponent, foot and body maneuvers, speed and accuracy, and reaction time. You must consider intentional and unintentional moves, deceptive and deliberate moves, checking (pressing, pinning, or jamming), and nullifying moves made while simultaneously striking. It further includes considering height, width, and depth zones, restrictions such as environmental encumbrances or tournament rules, or lack of restrictions (no rules, anything goes), and the possibility of injury. Only with all this information can you determine the dimensional stages necessary to defend or attack with success. It is not simple.
You should become acquainted with the different stages of range within the gap between you and your opponent. They are crucial in combat as well as in tournament competition. Range refers to what you can do with the gap. There are four stages of range that should concern you: out of contact; within contact; contact penetration; and contract manipulation.
Out-of-contact range refers to that stage of distance that places you out of the reach of your opponent, or vice versa. Unless foot and body maneuvers are used to bridge this distance, conditions are generally safe. Contact range means exactly what it implies – the distance in which you or your opponent can be reached. An injury incurred at this range may not be as crucial, but damage nonetheless can occur. Contact-penetration range refers to the distance in which a weapon can effectively penetrate to a target, thus magnifying the damage or injury that can occur. Contact-manipulation range entails controlling an opponent. At this range, injury can be administered through locks and chokes, twists, dislocations, holds, and takedown.
The four stages of range pertain to depth. Space that exists between low and high points relates to height. Space that separates points from left to right involves the dimension of width. All action that bridges the gap that exists in height, width, or depth falls into this complex but vital theory called dimensional stages of action.
On an afternoon in 1960, I gave a demonstration for a group of physicians at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. Those who had gathered to see my and my students were full of enthusiasm, and were extremely amazed and pleased with our demonstration. As the group began to leave, I was shocked to see Elvis Presley present in the audience with his entourage and friends. Elvis approached me and said “I don’t think you know me, but my name is Elvis Presley.” I laughed inwardly, impressed by his humility. We went out by the hotel pool and spent about three hours talking. That day was the beginning of a close friendship that endured for 17 years.
Elvis told me of his great interest in karate. He mentioned that he had studied karate on a limited scale while in the army. He also mentioned that his mother had been very protective of him. He was not allowed to participate in any athletic activities at school or on the playground; the possibility of his being injured was his mother’s constant fear. He regretted not having participated in football or other athletic activities while he was in school, and he desired to participate in a contact sport.
Elvis felt that karate was the answer to his years of inactivity. He said he had noticed that my system was obviously innovative. He had been introduced to a rigid, traditional style of karate while stationed in West Germany, but preferred the fluidity of my style’s movements. Noting my system’s diverse methods of attack and defense, he said “It’s obvious that you are a rebel in your field, as I am in mine.” That was a great compliment, and was one of the points that solidified our friendship. Not long after, he began training with me in Kenpo.
I was impressed with Elvis’ questions. He was not a “know-it-all”; he listened intently to what I had to say and didn’t interrupt. He was always attentive, congenial, and enthused about new knowledge. No matter what the subject or who was teaching it, he remained attentive, curious, and fully engrossed in the topic at hand.
Elvis studied Kenpo primarily at his Beverly Hills home, but also while on tour, and occasionally at my West Los Angeles studio. He was an intense person; when the sprit moved him, he would study for days on end. Determination was a big part of his character. He prodded, pried and questioned. He was not only interested in how, but in why as well. He was intrigued with the logic of what I taught. He enjoyed my analogies to life’s experiences, which helped him understand Kenpo’s principles more precisely. He appreciated the realistic approaches to encounters. There were occasions when he wanted to feel the moves, wanted to be hit. He wanted to be assured that the moves he was being taught really worked. I can vividly remember his boyish grin when he was convinced that the techniques did work.
Elvis’ martial arts training greatly influenced his performances on stage. While his body language thrilled the girls, his use of Kenpo on stage did much to create interest in the martial arts. One of Elvis’ most interesting uses of Kenpo came when he would drop into a karate stance at the end of each of his concerts. He would assume a wide forward bow stance, placing his right arm above his head with his right forearm parallel to the ground, and his left arm positioned in an “L” pattern at chest level. If I was on tour with him, he would assume this pose while facing stage right, and look at me to see whether he should leave the stage in that direction. If I told him “Yes,” he would go that way. If I told him “No,’ he would assume the same pose facing stage left, get confirmation from me, and be off the stage like a shot in that direction. The audience never really knew the meaning of this pose; they just thought he was being dramatic. In reality, he was paying tribute to the martial arts.
Elvis did receive a black belt from me, and he is one of those listed under my family tree of black belts. However, Elvis was far greater as a singer and as a humanitarian.
I’d like to conclude with a story Elvis once told me. While stationed in West Germany, he was scheduled to go out on winter combat maneuvers. Elvis was looking forward to the maneuvers, but he later received orders that he was to be exempted from participating. Instead, he was given special permission to fly out of West Germany on the Pope’s private plane to entertain a private party. But Elvis refused. He said “If my buddies have to go out into the field and freeze their buns, so will I.” That was Elvis – refusing an invitation from the Pope himself for the good of his pals.
Elvis, like Bruce Lee, was one of a kind in his field. To this very day, I ask myself why I was a part of both their lives. Though I’m not sure of the answer, I do know that Elvis and Bruce were a memorable part of my life.
For every move, concept, or principle, there is an opposite or reverse.
If you can fully grasp this idea, you can infinitely expand your vocabulary of motion.
As part of their study for second-degree brown belt, my students are required to apply this idea to every facet of Kenpo karate. Special emphasis is placed on how this comprehensive statement applies to stances, maneuvers, blocks, and strikes. Students at this level are expected to internalize the basic concepts, theories, and principles of technique movement, and the terms and definitions related thereto. Their forms, techniques, and freestyle capabilities should clearly express their successful development of coordination, fluidity, speed, and power. They would then be ready for a formal introduction to man-made weapons.
Logic combined with realistic thinking are the keys. You must thoroughly understand the terms opposite and reverse and learn to apply them appropriately. If there is a right inward block, there must be a left inward (or opposite) block. If there are inward blocks, then there are outward (reverse) blocks. Deductively, if there are inward overhead claw strikes, there must be outward overhead claws. And if there are overhead claw strikes, there must be underhand claws, etc.
The neutral bow stance is a fighting posture that requires the legs to share the body weight equally. This 50-50 weight distribution strategically establishes and ideal point of reference when fighting. Just as Switzerland has been neutral in the last two world wars, so should you thoroughly understand the benefits of neutrality and how, when properly maintained, it can aid you during confrontation. Further in-depth thinking will tell you that the opposite of neutrality is non-neutrality. Therefore, when shifting your weight into a forward bow stance, you have temporarily given up neutrality. You must ask yourself if this is what you wish and, if so, what benefits you can obtain when in that position. And what about rhythmic changes to alter your timing when shifting forward or back? Do you wish to go forward or back (reverse) in terms of direction? What about converting into another plane - another dimension? As you can see, the questions are endless.
Let’s look at weight distribution in more depth. If there can be a 60-40 weight distribution, there also can be a 40-60. If there is a 10-90 weight distribution, there is also a 90-10. If 100 percent of the weight can be placed on the right leg, then the left leg can do likewise. Logic and experience will revel the appropriate answer to each predicament. This in turn will tell you what your weak points are, the areas in which you should devote more practice.
The logical use of opposite and reverse in endless. Movement should be examined and investigated from all angles, directions, dimensions, and predicaments. For example, if you and your opponent can face each other while standing, it’s conceivable you can do the same while one is standing and the other is in a prone position. The same applies if both of you are in the prone positions, both supine, both on your sides, or any combination thereof. Circumstances will often place you and your opponent in these positions.
Other thought-provoking variables can stem from asking yourself questions about other types of predicaments you may find yourself in. Did you begin there? Did he pull you down? Did you push or pull him down? Is the ground your friend or your enemy? Is the ground your opponent’s friend or enemy? If you can fall to the rear, can you not therefore fall to the front or side? Can falling be done intentionally as well as unintentionally? If you can roll forward, shouldn’t you be able to roll in reverse? If you can roll away from an opponent, can you not also roll toward him - accomplish both if two people are present?
Think of every predicament that can logically occur. If you can dive through a doorway as an exit, you can surely dive through a doorway as an entrance. If you can dive under an obstacle, you can dive over the same obstacle. If you can maneuver to avoid and object or person, you can maneuver to utilize that object of person. If a maneuver can be used defensively, you most certainly can use it offensively.
It all boils down to your ability to think. The importance of thinking is illustrated in a story about a gentleman who bought a gadget that was disassembled. As much as the tried to decipher the instruction sheet, he found no success and was therefore frustrated. He eventually called a handyman to take on the task of assembling the gadget. In a matter of minutes, the gadget was assembled, and not once did the handyman refer to the instructions. The gentleman asked the handyman how he was able to assemble the gadget without referring to the instructions. The handyman’s answer was simple: “Well, I can’t read, and when you can’t read, you gotta think.”
If you wish to expand your vocabulary of motion, you must investigate the opposite and reverse of all maneuvers: bobbing, weaving, rolling, twisting, turning, slipping, falling, jumping, switching, shuffling, feinting, etc. Leave no stone unturned, and of utmost importance, think. Free yourself from the bondage of complacency and blind acceptance. Seek for yourself and reveal the undiscovered.