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Mormon Martial Arts
The Ed Parker Story
   
 

 

He was one of the most influential men who ever stepped into a dojo. Ed Parker changed the face of American martial arts. He took an oriental discipline, one too esoteric and esthetic for most Yankee tastes, and added a practicality with a distinctly American flavor. Like Joseph Smith did with religion, Ed Parker Americanized martial arts.

Ed Parker, the father of American Kenpo.

 

Born and raised in Honolulu, Parker was one of many Hawaiian natives who had been recruited as part of the huge missionary movement begun by the Mormons in the late 1800s. At the age of 16 he met fellow Mormon Frank Chow in a sacramental meeting. It was after this important meeting that Parker began his kenpo training. Chow had bragged of beating up a local bully. Due to Chows diminutive stature, Parker at first did not believe him.

"I couldn't believe it," Parker recalled. "I thought this guy was lying to me right in church."

Young Chow convinced Parker that he was telling the truth. He took Parker to meet his brother William. Thus began Parker's training in the essentials of Kenpo This training was the beginning of a career that would change the face of martial arts.

Martial Arts Adapted

While learning the art of Kenpo, Parker would incorporate street fighting techniques he had learned on the mean streets of Honolulu that would make the traditionalist system more practical. He also incorporated Mormon doctrine into his own system. He was particularly impressed by Christ's use of parables to further his religious doctrine

"Wow," he said to himself. "Is it possible that I could do the same with kenpo that Christ did with the teachings of the scriptures?"

It was this melding of religious ideology (both straight Christian and Mormon) with classical martial arts techniques that would produce a fighting system that would push past the daunting oriental formalism and create something that would appeal to pragmatic westerners.

Ed Parker broke away from static martial arts and tailored training to the individual.

 

Parker's most revolutionary ideas in the martial arts came from a realization that what people needed to learn from martial arts varied from individual to individual. A 220 pound six-foot-three bruiser would need different tools than a 5'4'' 105 pound woman. He would tailor training to the individual.

He was also a firm believer in incorporating techniques from other systems. Unlike the traditional Chinese school that leaned towards sticking with one form for life (as anyone who has seen a chinese kung-fu movie can attest, "Your crane-fist style is no match for my eagle claw,") Parker realized that many of his students would move onto other martial arts forms. In fact, he encouraged it. He wanted to teach strong fundamentals that would easily morph into other martial arts training. That in a nutshell was American Kenpo

Parker emphasized closing the gap and inflicting as much damage as possible. Unlike that other popular form of martial arts that has taken hold in America, Taekwondo, he demphasized flashy kicking techniques for strong hand and arm attacks. Also his early training in Judo ( in which he earned a black belt) incorporated a sense of importance in grappling. It has been said that Kenpo is the perfect fighting form to use in a phone booth.

His pastiche of martial arts techniques now only needed a public to embrace it.

Kung Fu Comes To BYU

Like many good Mormons, Parker attended college at BYU in Provo during the 1950s. It was here that Parker began teaching classes in self defense. This was probably the first time chinese martial arts was made available to westerners in the continental United States.

At first, Parker limited his teachings to fellow Hawaiians, but soon his classes drew the attention of Utah law enforcement. Police officers across the state attended BYU classes given by Parker, making Utah's cop force the first in the nation to get training in karate.

After graduating from college, Parker moved to Pasadena, California. He opened his dojo and began cultivating students. His attempt to teach Californian police officers, however, never took off. The Californians found Parker's system a tad too extreme. This may have been Parker's biggest break.

The King Learns Kenpo and a Dragon Enters

Though the cops were uninterested, Parker's system began attracting a more high profile clientele; Hollywood stars. He became the first martial arts advisor in American films. Among his students were such of the moment luminaries as Nick Adams and Rick Jason. His biggest Hollywood coup, however, was the King. Yes, Elvis Presley studied under Parker and became a black belt in Kenpo.

Parker's greatest achievement was that he introduced the world to the biggest martial arts superstar of all time, Bruce Lee. In 1964, Parker hosted the first International Karate Championship in Longbeach. Young Lee gave a demonstration that wowed the audience, many of whom were Hollywood big shots. Next stop, the big screen (by way of television's The Green Hornet).

Bruce Lee gave an eye-popping demo of his skills at Parker's International Tourney.

Parker and Lee had a lot in common. Both were innovators in martial arts, believing in incorporating elements from many systems. Both also developed a complex system that took off in a big way in America (Lee's Jun Fan and Parker's American Kenpo). Both bought a traditionally closed discipline to a broad audience. Both worked within the film community to popularize martial arts. And finally, both eschewed esoteric techniques for more practical street fighting applications.

Through out his life, Parker remained a devout Mormon. His LDS beliefs informed his martial arts. And there are many parallels between Mormonism and American Kenpo. Martial Arts traditionalists have criticized Kenpo as a "slap art", not understanding Parker's devastating system of hand checks combined with simultaneous strikes. Like Joseph Smith, Parker took something foreign and Americanized it in a way that took off big time in the U.S. Also, following Parker's untimely death in 1990, Kenpo splintered into many groups, all claiming to be his true heir. Unfortunately, no Brigham Young has materialized to lead Kenpo into a new era.

Still, Parker's system revolutionized martial arts and his influence is evident in its ongoing popularity.

 

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