A VERY SPECIAL CHAMPION (from 1969)
AMERICAN KARATE’S PACESETTER, CARLOS NORRIS by Roger Newhall
A substantial number of native Americans, by their tenacity and their enthusiasm, have now mastered the techniques and absorbed the authentic spirit of Oriental ‘karate’, some even without the actual experience of travel and study in the Far East, to the extent that they are able to teach it on a level of success with the Orientals. Many of the younger of these American “senseis” are also active in tournament competition, and among this group of “sensei”— champions Carlos Norris is by general agreement outstanding, not solely because he has captured a staggering number of major tournament titles and trophies and been the country’s most consistent ‘karate’ winner during the greater part of his three-and-a-half-year, tournament career, but even more than that because of his quality and stature as a human being.
Chuck is a very popular champion, and deservedly so. One would have to look far through the ranks of America’s sports world to find his equal as athlete and as man, and it is not too much to say that he has raised the prestige of ‘karate’ in America and the respect that it commands just by being a part of it. Tournament audiences everywhere are grateful to Chuck for the skill and excitement of his performances, which have rescued more than one plodding meet from tedious insignificance and climaxed many a good meet with unforgettable displays of ‘karate’ at its greatest, but what have impressed them fully as much as his speed and technical brilliance in ‘katas’ and combat are his poise, his unfailing sportsmanship toward his opponents, and the attractive personality implicit in his bearing. Speaking of a player like Chuck, one is tempted to say and to believe that this even-tempered and sportsmanlike conduct appears so natural it must be instinctive. That, of course, is an illusion: such poise, displayed even under intense pressure, for from being inborn, is always the result of a careful balance of inner forces, a balance achieved over a period of time, often in the face of severe difficulties, and sometimes requiring a sustained effort of will. There is little in Chuck’s early background to suggest that he would ever achieve this balance, much less that he might develop into a championship athlete who in maturity could face the world with confidence and optimism—which make his accomplishments all the more remarkable.
Carlos Ray Norris was born on March 10th, 1940, in Ryan, Oklahoma, on the Texas border. Ryan is a very small town and the advantages of being born there are even smaller. The Spanish form of his first name has no special significance: apparently his mother or father fancied it, in an environment where many Spanish-Americans were living and Spanish names were common, but Chuck has no Spanish blood. As his family name would indicate, he is mostly Irish, 75% — and the rest is Indian: his paternal grandmother, who still lives in Oklahoma, is a full-blooded Cherokee wonton. Chuck’s appearance gives next to no indication of this Indian heritage, so completely has it been dissolved in his Irish ancestry, but his younger brother, Willie, shows a trace of it. The Norrises were a family of modest means from the start. They lived a wandering existence, moving continually, and Chuck and Willie, who was born three years after him, moved from one temporary home to another through the South-west. Chuck has vague memories of starting grammar school in Wilson, Oklahoma, but much of this period is a blur in his mind, and he can say only that up to the time he was ten, the family did not spend even so much as a year in – a single place.
The one crucially important positive factor in this history — aside from his early indication of above-average intelligence – was Chuck’s mother, of whom he always speaks with warmth and gratitude. A woman of strong religious convictions and considerable courage, Mrs. Norris apparently never faltered in her determination to hold her family together or ceased to encourage them all to hope for a better future, even under the most trying circumstances. She worked and sustained the family almost alone, for there was little help—when money was gone, and there was no food in the house, as did at times happen, Chuck remembers they went hungry because there was no one his mother could turn to. In these conditions it is obvious that Chuck had no real childhood, as the term is usually understood: his mother needed him to run the household, and he was made to assume responsibility at an early age, baby-sitting while she went to work and performing regular chores around the house before he was ten. This robbed him of participation in many boyhood pursuits, but it gradually developed in him attitudes mature beyond his actual years. He learned to handle the responsibilities imposed on him and so found the confidence to assume others; he inwardly resolved while still a child that as soon as he was old enough to earn his own living he would escape from poverty and never endure it again; and to this end he determined to make the most of every opportunity he had, and to give his best efforts whatever the situation in which he found him-self and whatever the job to be done.
When Chuck was fourteen, his mother divorced his father. It meant, however, that he had to contribute still more time and work toward helping to meet the family’s practical daily needs. He had finished Gardena Junior High, and next went straight on through North Torrance High School, but while a student there he worked regularly after class hours and on Saturdays at different jobs to pick up whatever extra money he could for the family and for his own pocket. With this pressure to “produce” constantly upon him, he had little free time for leisure or day-dreaming, but he learned to make the best use of the hours at his disposal. His school work was’of first importance to him, and his scholastic record in high school was an excellent one: through concentrated effort and his own intelligence, he received top grades. In addition, he also found time for a certain amount of football, and he developed himself through gymnastics so that when he had completed high school he was in fine condition and possessed a number of athletic skills, as well as an alert mind. And in the midst of his successful high school career, he met someone who became of inestimable importance to him. Well before they were graduated, he and Diane Holechek, an attractive girl of Czech ancestry, had reached an understanding and knew that someday they would be married and make a life together.
During the year that Chuck was seventeen, his mother remarried, and her second marriage turned out very fortunately. Chuck’s new step-father, a Mr. Knight, accepted his step-sons enthusiastically, and assumed responsibility for the family. By this time, Chuck was near to being self-supporting, but the fact that a very capable person was taking over the burden of the family’s finances for the future relieved him of many worries, and for the first time he felt free to think and to plan in terms of leading a life of his own — with Diane, naturally. He and Diane were both graduated from North Torrance High School in June of 1958, and there was kind of implicit understanding between them that they would probably marry after Chuck’s military service was out of the way. Chuck went to work for Northrop Aircraft, but as the time for him to be drafted drew near, he decided that from his standpoint there were more advantages in making his own choice of a service branch through enlisting: he signed for a four-year tour of duty in the Air Force in August of ’58, and was subsequently assigned to the Air Police. Off he was shipped for basic training —but when he returned to Los Angeles for a short leave that December, he and Diane were so happy to be together again that they determined they would take no more chances of losing one another and were married right there and then.
Chuck did well in the Air Force: he made Airman, First Class, within a year. And when he was transferred to Osan Air Base in Korea in February of 1960, an entirely new and unexpected development occurred in his life. Chuck had seen some ‘judo’ in Los Angeles before joining the service, and been vaguely interested — now, in Korea, with off-duty time heavy on his hands and only limited cash for Seoul’s amusements at his disposal, he cast about for something worthwhile to do close to the base, and hit upon the idea of giving ‘judo’ a try. He joined the local ‘judo’ club, and began to train under a ‘sensei’ Ahn, who held the rank of Seventh Dan in the art — but after only a week in ‘judo’, he saw ‘karate’ for the first time! He was immediately attracted, and while he did not abandon ‘judo’ entirely, he chose ‘karate’ as the Martial Art on which he would concentrate from then on. He could not
know at the time that his choice had also determined his major area of activity for years to come, and possibly his life’s work, but he apparently sensed, as if by instinct and after only brief exposure, that he needed the ‘karate’ and that it could solve problems for him. At any rate, scarcely had he involved himself in the classes of the Osan ‘karate’ instructor, `Sensei’ Cha Chu Shin, than he decided he wasn’t just going to play around with it casually, he would master it. He attacked the problem of assimilating the techniques of the ‘Tang Soo Do’ style with a passionate dedication. He trained with unrelenting in-tensity, six nights every week, Mondays through Saturdays, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. And on Sundays he relaxed and enjoyed a change of pace by spending the day on ‘judo’. Lest it be imagined that this rugged pace so depleted his energies that he could not function efficiently at his regular Air Force post, we should mention that while he was over-seas Chuck was singled out for the honor of being named “Airman of the Month” for the quality of his work at Osan. During this period he did manage a couple of brief vacations to Japan, part of the Air Force’s “Rest and Recuperation/Recreation” schedule for its enlisted personnel in the Far East, but, as might be expected, his “rest and recreation” consisted of visiting and training at a number of ‘dojos’ in the Tokyo area to get an idea of the different styles of Japanese ‘karate’. As a result of his natural athletic ability and his intensive training program, when he left Korea in the spring of 1961, after fifteen months’ service there, he held the rank of First Degree Black Belt in ‘Tang Soo Do’ (the branch of Korean ‘karate’ originating from China), and Third Degree Brown Belt in ‘Judo’.
As everybody knows, Chuck’s “karate” career embraces successful teaching and successful tournament competition simultaneously: no other top-level “karateka” in America or the Orient, even the most distinguished “senseis,” can match his record of consistent tournament victories. Chuck came to tournament competition relatively late, well after he had acquired his black belt ranks, when he was already twenty-five years old. He entered his first tournament in April of 1965 when he went with a team of three of his white belts to compete in Salt Lake City. It was not an auspicious “debut” for Chuck personally and left him a little embarrassed: his three white belts all won, 1-2-3 in a row, with Jerry Taylor at their head — but Chuck lost! He was also eliminated at the 1965 “Internationals,” his second tournament appearance. But after that he began to win: he took the 1965 “Winter Nationals” in San Jose, California, and from then right on up to the present time he has continued to capture Grand Championships in an unparalleled series of almost uninterrupted victories, gradually expanding his sphere of tournament activity until it now covers practically the entire country, including Hawaii. 1967 was his biggest year, and his major conquests include the Grand Championships of New York City’s “All-American” and Long Beach’s “Internationals,” BOTH for TWO YEARS running, ’67 and ’68, along with the New York City “Tournament of Champions” (1967), various “Tang Soo Do” Tournaments over the country, a liberal sprinkling of California contests and several team competition tournaments to which he has contributed victories. Chuck has enough trophies to stock his home and the front windows of three or four “dojos,” where they form the major part of displays supplemented by the many trophies won by his students.
Chuck’s attitude toward tournaments is that they are an important part of the American ‘karate’ scene, and he urges his students to take part as soon as they are ready, both to test the techniques they already have in hand in actual competition and to encounter new styles and techniques from which they may learn. He also regards tournament competition as an important step and test in the development of sportsmanship. Additionally, he has found his tournament victories a useful means of advertising his schools and the quality of his teaching. And fundamentally he enjoys competing: before a match he may experience a terrible feeling of gnawing tension and uneasiness right in the pit of his stomach — he isn’t so keen about that—, but he nonetheless wants to get at the challenge that awaits him in the ring and is invariably eager for victory. Risking new techniques under pressure in combat and taking the measure of a worthwhile opponent are equally dear to him. Although he trained initially in the Korean style, and that training was intensive, Chucks’ persona) style today is best described as “selective”: it has by no means remained the pure ‘tang soo do’ style that one sees, for instance, in Joseph Hayes, or in a Korean stylist like Mitchell Bobrow, with primary emphasis upon rapid high kicks. Chuck has not hesitated to appropriate and adapt elements of other styles to his own use, and he commands today the most extensive repertory both of offensive and defensive techniques of any of the men participating regularly in tournament competition.
After they have seen Chuck in action, most audiences are not likely to be particularly impressed by the general run of tournament contenders as there are only a few others in his category. The demands for his appearances at ‘karate’ tournaments and meets, first of all as competitor, but if not in that capacity, then at least for an exhibition bout, or as referee, as judge, anything, are clamorous and incessant: if he accepted all the invitations, he would be spending an expense-paid weekend away from home almost every weekend and find it impossible either to operate his own business successfully or to have any sort of personal life with his family. Feeling that he has acquired most of the important titles and accomplished about all he can expect to in tournament competition, Chuck has tried more than once in the past to retire— but the tournament directors and promoters and his public will not let him. Well, there is perhaps a bit more involved in his inability to quit once and for all than that alone: he would like to retire from competition and devote more time to his family and ‘dojos’, and for more than a year now has found it increasingly difficult to find the hours he needs in which to train and maintain his techniques at peak efficiency, but the compulsion to compete is still very strong in Chuck, even with all the titles he already owns. Now that he has established a reputation, he feels constantly that he must meet its demands. He may attend a tournament with little real thought of entering, but once he is on the scene he becomes aroused and soon bounds into the ring to prove himself again — the tournament director and the audience are naturally delighted and urge him on. In the early months of last year, after he had won the Grand Championship of Henry Cho’s First Tournament of Champions, the so-called “North American” tournament title, in New York City, he announced that that would be his last competition. The following June, however, when he arrived for Cho’s “All-American” Tournament, he was right back at it again: he could not resist the impulse to confront Joe Lewis once more. And then in late July he won a big victory at the “Internationals,” all after his first decision to retire. This last August, after winning the “Internationals” a second time, he again considered withdrawing entirely from competition, and it appeared more probable that if he declared his retirement now, at this stage of his career his decision would be final. When he did in fact get around to making a formal announcement on his future tournament plans, however, after an exhibition bout against Mitchell Bobrow (whom he defeated) at ‘Sensei’ Ki Whang Kim’s tournament in Silver Springs, Md., in late September, he stated only that he was retiring from participation in amateur competition, acknowledging the possibility that he might subsequently choose to enter some of the forthcoming professional tournaments and compete for cash. That possibility has now become a certainty as far as one professional con-test is concerned. Chuck’s presence at a tournament conveys prestige, and his name has considerable drawing power, so it is understandable that Aaron Banks should want to persuade him to take part in one of the four main events at his first professional tournament in New York City on November 24th, along with Skipper Mullins and Joe Lewis. Chuck’s attitude toward the professional tournaments was sceptical at the start; he held aloof from the initial discussions of professional matches that were taking place, and would not commit himself definitely when Banks first approached him. But Aaron Banks is crafty, and he quickly came up with an idea that he knew Chuck
was not likely to refuse: he would present him in a four-round match against Luis Delgado. Delgado, of course, is the up-and-coming nineteen-year-old who won a decision over Chuck at last winter’s “East Coast vs. West Coast” Tournament in New York; this defeat interrupted Chuck’s long series of victories, and though he accepted it with outward calm at the time, it rasped against his self-esteem and rankled him. Chuck has had it in the back of his mind ever since to confront Delgado again and trounce him if the opportunity presented itself, so he finally capitulated to Banks’ ardent wooing and has agreed to appear at the tournament, as Banks knew he would. Delgado is a spirited and determined competitor, and the match should be a very gripping one but Chuck will be doubly on his mettle in their encounter. He is not coming to New York with any intention of allowing a repetition of his previous experience, and the general opinion is that in this rematch he will fold Luis up and put him in his pocket (along with six hundred dollars of Aaron Banks’ money).
But for all the color and excitement of his tournament ca-reer, Chuck is fundamentally a teacher: that is his real ‘metier’. That he is a good teacher is proved by the record of his students, with Jerry Taylor at the head of the class: for three years in a row entrants from Chuck’s schools have won the “Internationals” Team Championships at Ed Parker’s Long Beach tournaments, which is out of all proportion to their actually smaller numbers in comparison to other groups of ‘dojos’. And six Norris students placed in the “Internationals” “finals” this year. A large part of Chuck’s success with his pupils seems to lie in the quality of the instruction he and his associated teachers give with-in the warm “family” atmosphere that prevails at the Norris ‘dojos’: his students all feel that they “belong”, and this helps them to be at ease from the start in their new Martial Arts environment and to learn more readily as they progress through their training. Chuck’s operation has expanded greatly since he opened his first school: that original ‘dojo’ on Cabrillo Street in Torrance is still in operation, serving over seventy students and nearly bursting its seams, but its size has long been inadequate, and its location has never been the best from Chuck’s standpoint, so he is closing it soon when his (splendiferous) new school opens in South Redondo Beach on November 6th —he is transferring his Torrance students there then, and believes they will find it an improvement in every way. His second ‘dojo’, which he opened in August of 1964, is his present headquarters: it is the famous one on Artesia Boulevard in Redondo Beach where most of the high school and college youngsters train and where his most gifted and dedicated students work out under his personal supervision. The Redondo Beach Headquarters serves between two hundred and two hundred fifty `karateka’. Last January Chuck opened up a ‘dojo’ in Las Vegas; he goes there twice a month, as a rule, but the ‘dojo’ has no full-time instructor and operates on a co-operative basis like a club for the benefit of its members in the area, where Chuck also occasionally organizes ‘karate’ tournaments. In April Chuck bought out Joe Lewis’ interest in the Sherman Oaks Karate Studio, and now runs it in partnership with Robert Wall. They have invested a considerable sum to install showers in it now and to make other improvements as well, and it appears to be doing fine: Robert overflows with peppy promotional plans, and has succeeded in attracting an expanding clientele. Chuck thinks that they must have about seventy to seventy-five regular students there at present.
Chuck is a thousand times fortunate in Diane — and knows it! It would be impossible to determine the full extent of her influence, perhaps the strongest of all upon his life She herself modestly insists that she has played only a small role in his achievements, but the truth is that she has been indispensable at the very least. Her temperament complements his admirably, in its genuineness and exuberance, and it is possible that they are seen at their very best together, a most charming young couple (whom one would never guess to have been married ten years already). One thing is certain: they are seldom solemn; they both love laughter and good company, and the give and take of their conversation is usually hilarious. Although they are both very busy and work hard, they have a wonderful life together, and one has only to see them to realize that they are happy as few others. They have an inviting house in the Torrance-Gardena area, not too cluttered with furniture so that their two golden youngsters, Michael, who is now five, and Eric, who is three, can charge about without unnecessary collisions. Both the boys are very active and have a fine, athletic relationship with their father. They have already acquired some ‘karate’ skills, naturally, and Diane herself is a ‘karateka’ of experience. Not surprisingly, she seconds Chuck’s emphasis upon well-executed techniques, but she sometimes chafes at his dis-approval of ‘kumite’ bouts for women at tournaments. Last March in New York City at Henry Cho’s”all-American” Tournament, she got away from Chuck and did a little competing herself. She was eliminated after a jarring encounter with George Cofield’s student, Stephanie Revander, and nursed a swollen arm back to Los Angeles, but she found the experience broadening nevertheless, and will not promise Chuck not to try again. In addition to Chuck’s work teaching ‘karate’, the Norrises take an
active part in the life of their community as parishioners and attend services at the local Baptist church on the Sundays that Chuck is home. Aside from this, much of their social life revolves around the ‘dojos’, which frequently schedule outings as a part of Chuck’s emphasis on “family atmoshpere,” and create their own social environments. When they do get away for an evening by themselves, Chuck and Diane like to attend hockey matches or other sporting events, and if they are in New York they will make an effort to go to a “musical.” Chuck still feels a youthful enthusiasm for football games and boxing matches, and he keeps up his ‘judo’, which among his athletic interests is second only to ‘karate’. In the future, he would like to develop into a hunter, and has already done some deer hunting in Utah. A deer rifle hangs over his man le.
Chuck’s is an active rather than a reflective temperament: he assimilates new ideas quickly, but has little time to be alone and think things over. Late at night, however, he may come in after an exhausting day and sink down in the quiet living room of his home to relax and consider the many changes that have occurred in his life. Most of those changes he has accomplished himself, and one can understand the satisfaction that it gives him to be able to provide a warm and secure environment for his own family. But he is not much given to reminiscing, and the future is indeed the land of his love as it has always been. Will ‘karate’ continue to absorb his interest and energies indefinitely into the future? How much will he involve himself in professional tournaments, now that he has retired from the amateur field? These and other questions remain to be answered during the coming months and years. For the present Chuck Norris is, and will probably long continue to be, America’s favorite ‘karate’ hero.