A Candid Interview With: Al Gene Caraulia
The score was tied as the closing seconds dwindled. Both fighters stalked one another with cat-like caution. One blitzed forward with lightning speed as the final punch met its mark. Al Gene Caraulia, an unknown brown belt from Hawaii had just won the championship in the first major Karate tournament ever held.
CLEVELAND’S AL GENE CARAULIA won the first major Karate tournament ever held in this country, The Chicago World Championships in 1963. He continued his string of victories by placing in almost every tournament of the time. Now a top tournament producer and teacher of the Martial Art, Mr. Caraulia is one of the leading exponents of really professional Karate in this country today. With this in mind, we approached him for a very candid and personal interview.
P.K.: Where were you born, Mr. Caraulia?
Caraulia: I was horn in the city of Wahiawa on the island of Oahu in the then territory of Hawaii in the year of the dragon under the sign of Capricorn.
P.K.: What motivated you to begin Karate?
Caraulia: I took up Karate after I had been studying Aikido. I studied Aikido and Judo for about a year. That was in 1954. The reason I started lessons in the first place was because of self defense. I remember specifically it was after getting my shoulder bruised in a fight. It was a dumb fight because it was the kind that was between friends. We had a pick up basketball game and, like most unsupervised activities, there was an argument. We scuffled around a bit and I got my buddy into a headlock and he just picked me up and deliberately dumped me to the floor. All the time I was going up I was deliberating whether I should crush his nose as I had him in this hammerlock, but I kept thinking, “this is dirty fighting”. When I hit the gym floor I just couldn’t believe that he did that to me. I spent the next few days thinking about what I would do if that situation ever came up again. That was when I heard about Aikido — where you can control your opponent almost at will. So I started lessons and I got good enough so I began studying Judo too because they were related. I guess by that time I was hooked on the martial arts because I became curious about all that stuff. Then I heard about Mr. Emperado’s karate club being taught at the local Y.M.C.A. and I started to go there. Mr. Emperado had not changed to Kung-fu as of then and that’s where I started to learn Kaju Kembo from his instructor staff. By the way, many people ask me if I knew Al Dacascos at that time. I was just a junior student as I think he was and never went to any of the other clubs. I believe there were 3 or 4 other Kaju Kembo clubs on the islands at that time. And soon after I left Hawaii to enter Northern Michigan University.
P.K.: Were you an athlete in school?
Caraulia: Strange enough, as athletic as I was in high school I was too small for any of the organized sports plus the fact that I was usually too busy with my music studies to get involved with organized athletic activities. As a matter of fact, my parents frowned on my getting into those sports because they were always afraid I was going to get hurt and ruin my music training. I majored in music in college as a brass major and played the french horn. Back in high school, I did find time to make the R.O.T.C. Rifle team. Kind of nice to look back. I was rated eleventh in the U.S. Army Pacific Rifle Competitions held in Diamond Head, Hawaii in 1957. I had already been sneaking to go to Judo, Aikido and Karate practice. When I left the Hawaiian islands, I went to college and I did finally earn a letter in swimming and diving back in 1962. I’ve always been involved in sports one way or another.
P.K.: How long did it take you to reach black belt and what style was it in?
Caraulia: I didn’t make Black Belt until 1963, so from 1954 it took me about 8 years. I should have been a Black Belt sooner, but I had several disadvantages (you might say). First, I was busy for a few years just hitchhiking around the country having some interesting experiences. As a matter of fact, in 1960 I worked at Squaw Valley, California to see the 1960 Winter Olympics. I also had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Southwest United States and I finally went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where Northern Michigan University is located. Nobody heard of Karate there. The Swedes and Fins thought it was an oriental appetizer because they all they knew about was skiing, bobsledding and bundling. So, I ended up organizing a group of interested college students just to keep from forgetting what I knew. I still have some old students up there like a Swede named Rich Johnson who is an excellent student. By that time, I had been coming down to Chicago from Michigan to work during the summer. I use to teach for Mr. Gene Wyka who owned the Chicago Judo and Karate Centers so I had to relearn a lot of forms. They were big on kata in those days. Finally, I passed the Black Belt examination held by the U.S.K.A. there in Chicago.
P.K.: What rank do you hold now?
Caraulia: I am a Yodan 4th degree Black. Belt and Chief Instructor of the Karate Institute and a Nidan 2nd degree Black Belt in Judo.
P.K.: What do you feel should be the requirements of a Black Belt today?
Caraulia: I can only base that on how we promote at the Karate Institute. I have modified many of the old training methods to tit modern needs. I feel that Karate is a living art form and as a necessity must grow and improve in methods, while remaining true to the philosophies and traditions. My system, which is KI Kaju Kembo, has evolved from the older Kaju Kembo system with heavy emphasis on self-defense and improved kicking methods which was not done as extensively in the older system that I began with. I promote by knowledge in the novice belt ranks: by performance and attitude in the advanced ranks (Brown Belt up to 1st degree Black Belt) and by teaching ability and character in my senior Black Belts. Really, if you look at it, I have room for the dabbler, room for the performer-competitor and most important, room for the people who will represent and perpetuate KI Kaju Kembo Karate.
One last word, I feel that all Black Belts should have what we call in Hawaii, “Mele”. This is simply the ability to recite the name of his instructor and his style all the way to the beginning of his system, (the way a warrior chieftain in Hawaii was able to recognize or check on a person’s authenticity). In other words, if you could trace a Black Belt’s instructor to his instructor, you would have less of these people who would learn out of a book and happen to perform with natural ability, but yet not have the background or depth of formal training to teach. Everybody should remember who promoted him to Black Belt and everybody who promotes a Black Belt, I’m sure remembers his student.
P.K.: Do you still work out?
Caraulia: Yes, I work out. As a matter of fact, one of my pleasures is a two mile run every other morning. Let me clarify that. It’s after it’s over that I really enjoy it. I enjoy doing kata forms, but fighting is not as pleasurable as it use to be. I work out so I remain prepared to fight anybody in a self defense situation. I’m very confident in doing that because of the fact I’ve got a good grasp of all my physical goals. As far as sport Karate, I’m not real men-tally tuned up that way anymore, because I’ve eliminated it as my goal. However, in any tournament, I bet I’ll always win my first match. I don’t care who you get in front of me because that’s the way I feel. But it’s hard for me to have the mental edge to continue in a tournament because I think I’ve gone beyond that right at this point.
P.K.: What training practices do you advise for Karate students today?
Caraulia: Well, it’s simple. It’s just a matter of dedicating yourself to at least 3 hours of practice a day. Not only should you practice your basic techniques, you should also do weight training, timing training and last but not least you should run 2 to 3 miles a day, if you’re going to be a serious competitor. That’s the minimum. In these running periods, you should include two 50 yard wind sprints to build up your endurance. Just a matter of good conditioning and pin-point discipline. Many of these things will be multiplied by having a good coach. Although this game has a lot of luck involved, all this training will prepare you to take advantage of any “luck” available. My secretary coined a great one liner: “Luck is the residue of good planning. And practice is physiological planning.”
P.K.: What was your most prestigious award?
Caraulia: I would have to answer that as being the 1963 World Grand Championship trophy awarded to me in Chicago. It was the first major tournament held in the United States. It was my first tournament and it held the words, “1st World Karate Championship.” It was held in the days when most tournament promoters didn’t understand what the “bye” system was so I fought eleven matches and, during the round-robin, I defeated a Green Belt and a 3rd Degree Black Belt for the Grand Championship match. One note — the most rewarding point was the last point I scored on the third Degree Black Belt. All four flags went up and the Chief Referee awarded me the point and it was a fantastic feeling to be declared Champion.
P.K.: What would you attribute your success in fighting from a physical stand point?
Caraulia: My success came from the understanding of the Zen maxim “enter at one stroke”. Always I had the feeling that if I attacked fast enough, I would never fail. So even now I train my fighters in entry pat-terns that help them literally explode into their opponent. This is why I felt I was successful. All techniques remain the same but you must get in close enough to hit the guy. I remember training for the 1963 World Championship in Chicago by trying to cover the distance of eight floor tiles with one stroke. I was very successful and during the tournament I told Maung Gyi, who teaches Bando from Burma. Mr. Gyi called it the ghost step. I remember one match when I was even surprised myself. I must have been the distance of the hash marks in the fighting ring and when I attacked. I covered the distance so quickly that I overshot my roundhouse kick and I ended up scoring with a punch to my opponent instead. What had helped me. I think, was that I was running around a golf course where I worked in a New Jersey mountain resort and doing a lot of wind sprints from cabin to cabin. I also used to lift weights because I am small. I’m only 5.5— and at that time weighed only 138 pounds. So being that small I had to gain some strength. At that time I could military press 150 pounds five times and snatch 90 pounds with one hand. over my head. I trained very hard so I could pinpoint all my targets and physically I could take any shot that anyone would give me. I really hated to lose, of course. I had a lot of that Hawaiian pride.
P.K.: What are your favorite techniques?
Caraulia: I have always felt that I could skip roundhouse kick a guy faster than he could block that kick. Bill Wallace has perfected it even more than I have, mainly because he can whip that kick up to his opponents head. My technique was basically down in the belt region. If an opponent was guarding against it, for instance in a horse stance with the forward hand down. I was always fast enough to get in with a back fist. My two forward weapons then were the skip kick and the back fist. For power shots, when I really had to charge a guy, I made sure I would charge with a front kick reverse punch. In addition, I also had my arsenal of counter techniques. My favorite counter technique was a spinning back kick. I could set that up pretty well by seeing if that person was a kicker or a blitzing puncher. Depending upon his attack pattern. I would adjust and usually turn fast enough to stick him. I’m really not a fancy technician so there isn’t much else I do in a fight.
P.K.: What was your most memorable tournament?
Caraulia: Ha’ All the ones that I won. My most interesting one and the one I enioy talking about was the 1968 International in Long Beach, California. I hadn’t competed in a year because I was so busy trying to establish myself in business. At that time I had other goals other than just going to tournaments and I had just moved to Cleveland. Ohio from Chicago. It was really quite a challenge at that tournament because the guys were getting much better. As a matter of fact. I looked at some old films of myself taken in 1965 and did I look horrible. Some of my Green Belts today look much better than I did at that time. I found that the guys were getting better and better and most of the national champions had made a great improvement even then from 1965 to 1968. I especially enjoyed the tournament because I won every match up to the Grand Championship match and each match that I won was before the two minute time limit with absolutely no points scored on me. It was just a fantastic feeling to be able to out zip those guys.
P.K.: Who was your toughest opponent?
Caraulia: Who wasn’t tough? They were all tough. These guys would never let me win automatically.
P.K.: Who is the best fighter you have ever trained’?
Caraulia: Personally I don’t think that I’d like to choose between any of my students because they have all different types of qualities, but I feel they will all be in the spot light sooner or later. Right now the person who is winning the most that I have trained is John Bell who is rated eighth in the last showing but didn’t rate so good this past time probably because of his sportsmanship. John has a fantastic native ability. Of course his only problem. as I see it right now. is his maturity and a lot of people do not like his brand of sportsmanship. But of course that is probably one of the factors that makes him a winner. The other is that he hates to lose. If he would mature iust a little bit more and learn how to take coaching and more discipline, we will probably see a tough national champion within a year. There are a couple of other fellows that I think will make it because of this desire. Denny Janes, who now teaches in Chicago, is really a tough guy. He has the attributes of a real warrior champion because he doesn’t seem like he’s afraid of anybody. He gets beat because he’s young at this game but he has tremendous power for a man his size. He’s over 200 pounds and he moves like a light weight. One of the few guys that has beat the “Monster Man” Everett Eddy, in the region. Another member is Randy James, who is only 17 years old and has tremendous natural fighting ability. Again all he needs is maturity. I’ve only been seriously training tournament fighters since l’ve been in Cleveland and I’m happy to say it’s working. I’d like to add one more name. The late Mark Galeski, who could have been the best of all three, died last summer during a heart operation. Before he went in, everyone that knew him earmarked his future as great . He was only 18 years old, 6 feet, 195 lbs., and really had a great attitude. We have a memorial scholarship award in his honor to the outstanding student each year.
P.K. Who do you feel are the best Karate fighters on the tournament circuit today?
Caraulia: Those that have been winning the professional tournaments are certainly the best. Look at the Top 20 rated by Professional Karate magazine. Among them, I would have to rate the top money winners like Darnell Garcia, John Natividad, Jeff Smith and Howard Jackson as really super. But there’s going to be a big surge of new champions next year. Now I’ve seen how much the Brown Belt division quality has been last year and this year many of them just made Black Belt. Because of the lack of experience, they didn’t do too well, but by next year, after they gain experience, watch out. I predict there will be a lot of new names and faces in the Top 20 next year.
P.K.: What Karate men do you have the most respect for?
Caraulia: This is the kind of question that tends to alienate people if you mention names and leave theirs out. I’ll mention some, but mainly I’ll mention the groups. Teachers and coaches get the most admiration from me. People like Dave Praim have trained twice as many Karate champions. Some of us have champions that include Everett Eddy, Mike March, Johnny Lee who always make the top cut in the tournaments. Even guys like Allen Steen and Chuck Norris, they always have great competitors. They train people so that they have this great quality of performing. But it’s not only great champions that I like to see. like to see people that teach so that they have people of good character. This is the group that has the greatest impact on Karate’s future more than anybody else, these teachers and coaches. They are the ones generally interested in building all of Karate. The other group, and really about the most important to us now are the people who are willing to go out and officiate. Sometimes we have ego freaks out there but the good ones will fight not only the competitors but the coaches and fans to make a good decision. Coaches, teachers and officials – God bless them all.
P.K.: Are you in favor of professional Karate?
Caraulia: I certainly am. Professional sport Karate is a fantastic boom. First of all, it will force competitors to train much harder than they are doing now. This is one of the criticisms of American Karate — they are not as well disciplined. I think it will lead to a point where you will see a great deal of technical expertees. As far as those who are interested in the spiritual growth, I think that like all physical aspects, we can probably wait until they get older. But younger competitors are more interested in performing rather than any-thing else and money is a good incentive. Professional karate will also demand that tournaments become more uniform in rules and officiating. Officials will probably have a true national forum in which karate rules will be updated and examined. This will give us a stronger direction to follow. Even better than that, there will be a tremendous amount of news and public relations ammunition, whereas in the past, we would usually have to wait for a crime to be committed before karate would get some headlines. Well develop local champions and have an opportunity for those who are training hard and have charisma to reach the same height of recognition as an Arnold Palmer. Professional karate is really growing.
P.K.: If you could change Karate today and have all the cooperation of the leading Black Belts, what would you do?
Caraulia: I hate to answer that question because inevitably someone will disagree and because we disagree we become polarized and maybe not cooperate, but let’s assume that I do have cooperation. The first thing I would do would be to use the same format that other professional sports use. They get together as team owners, coaches, or circuits like the PGA and they select officers according to their organizing and goal striving abilities. They then outline goals with the sport, and arbitrate and resolve any problems existing for the year. I know it’s not that simple. The main problem with Karate is really communication and unless you spend a great deal of time and money to travel, you only know where you are, what you’re doing and where you’re going. But, we have a bunch of Karate guys going all kinds of ways. Sometimes not in the same direction and not really succeeding quickly enough. The best way to explain what I mean is this way: Have you ever been in a group where there is no one in charge nor a leader. They are all going somewhere but they would stop so many times just to ask, “Where are you going?”, and questions like that. The time consumed and aggravation is really unnecessary. Whereas if you had someone appointed, even informally as the leader, but it was someone who could make a decision, the group would reach the destination at least a little bit more secure. This is what is happening in Karate. I’ll bet that very few people could see what is in store in the next five years for sport karate. They may think they do but they’re not really sure. Now those who have planned for this and are working with other people, are the ones who are going to be successful. Hopefully, I’m included in that group. So to recap – if we’re going to change sport Karate: 1. We should organize a group to establish a plan for the overall good of the sport and the art. 2. We have to establish a fund, even if it comes from our own tournaments. This fund is to create a professional referee’s school. 3. We have to establish an annual updating of rules and general procedure. Again, it’s not as simple as it seems but, if I could get enough people interested in this, I’d be more than glad to help and put in any kind of work to make this successful. Karate is a very, very young sport. It has a long way to go and it’s going to be extremely successful for those of us who plan ahead and cooperate.
P.K.: Have you ever used Karate to defend yourself?
Caraulia: Yes, several times, but the first and most interesting was the one that was really good for me, because, when it happened, it enhanced the continuation of a study of all martial arts. It was my proof that demanding practice of yourself is useful. Too many people stop is an animal that demands a reason for everything, and I found one reason. It happened, would you believe, in 1959? I was 18 then, and had just come off the boat from Hawaii (that really dates me doesn’t it?). I went to a dance where a good friend, Phil Burgy 5’10”, blond hair, blue eyed German was dancing very close to a 5’2″, dark, very pretty Chicano (Mexican) girl. This dance was in a Mexican neighborhood in the Oakland, California area. The inevitable happened, and the fight was on. I never considered myself a trouble maker, but I do enjoy a good physical challenge. There were three of us and about eight of them. I remember side-stepping a kick, backfisting a guy and doing a side edge kick to another guy’s leg. In those days we considered kicking to the head dirty fighting (maybe because we weren’t trained to kick that high). The fight ended pretty quick because of the police. When I got home I looked down and noticed the outline of the sole of a shoe on my sports coat right where it could have hurt me. We met the same guys two weeks later at a taco shop and became good friends laughing at our last meeting. I was particularly interested in the guy I kicked because he was still in a leg cast. That convinced me that I had skills and strength and that fighting really wasn’t that much fun.
P.K.: Do you have any other interests besides Karate?
Caraulia: Funny you should ask. A few years ago, I imposed a few priorities on myself so that I would know where I was going. In the order of importance comes my family, karate goals, writing, music, photography, and it goes on to a long and I think interesting list. My main interest is mainly my family. I have really a great wife, Cheryl, and four fantastic kids, Gene, Jr., 9 (who is the winner of six trophies), Joannie Marie, Elisa Kim and Christine Gayle. They give me pleasure after the hassel in the arena of this aggressive world. Also, I still have a few more years at the Karate Institute and will eventually give my position up to our Senior Instructor, C. Thomas Bagwell, one of the most dedicated teachers I know. Then, I would like to devote more time to writing for karate as well as myself. I’d like to produce some good work that will communicate some of the philosophy that Karate has taught me. My priority list is long. I’m just too active in life to have only one interest. This is a great time to be living.
P.K.: What are your plans for the future?
Caraulia: For me, the future looks better than ever. I see that Karate and tournaments are finally reaching a level that I can rely on as a real future. I’m involved in the U.S.K.A. Grand Nationals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 14th through 16th, which also includes a convention. I also direct the Midwest Four Seasons Karate Championships in sponsorship with Mike Stone, in Cleveland. As you know, ABC Wide World of Sports will be filming these events. I would also like to get deeper into Professional Karate Referee’s Association staff, which is really important. I understand that I was elected in Region 6. Finally, I plan to build Cleveland and my Karate Institute into a Karate power by the end of this year. I have some very fine prospective national champions. If you want to see what I mean, come to Milwaukee in June for the Grand Nationals.