Life & Times
of Ed Parker
The Controversial Kenpo Master Revolutionized the Martial Arts in America
by Floyd Burk
Every year in Long Beach. California, a huge karate tournament takes place.
Since 1964 this tournament, the prestigious International Karate Championships
(IKC), 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, the now legendary 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 legacy, is being carried on.
At age 16, Ed Parker began his kenpo (law of the fist) 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 (BYU) 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 (warrior ways) 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
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 United States 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.
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
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 (training hall) 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
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
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 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
One of the things that made Parker's System SO Successful in America was that
it fit in well with the American mindset. 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 lie 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 (IKKA). 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.
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
The event's demonstration segment also served as a stepping stone 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
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 the 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" protégées
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.
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. People still enjoy coming to the International
Karate Championships, and with the efforts of his family, friends and students,
the Parker legacy will continue for years to come.
About the author.- Floyd Burk is a freelance writer and martial arts instructor
based in San Diego. To learn more about Ed Parker's legacy, pick up a copy
of Memories of Ed Parker. For information about the International Karate
Championships, write to International Kenpo Karate Association, 1705 E. Walnut
Street, Pasadena, California 91106.