History of Modern Sport Karate

sportkarate history Chuck Norris

A few years back I asked my friend John Corcoran to research and write an article about the early history of Sport Karate in America. An article describing how Americans adopted traditional Asian martial arts like Karate, Tae Kwon Do or Hap Ki Do and turned them in to a competitive fighting sport, first known as: Sport Karate. This later became known as Fullcontact fighting and kickboxing as we know it today. John, who is one of the best martial arts editors and historians I know, wrote an outstanding piece of paper about this and I am happy to have found the original English language copy to post below. This is the first of 2 parts.

Chuck Norris Kick
Chuck Norris Kick

Charting the history of American sport karate is no complicated task. But tracing its erratic development is another matter altogether. Browse through any karate publication today and you’re bound to encounter a wide variation of the types of competition in which martial artists engage. No other sport in the United States embraces so many contradictory elements. It can be viewed as inventiveness run rampant. And yet, enthusiasts unpredictably turn out in droves for the favored events. Moreover, its success defies scientific explanation. Somehow, despite its many faces and the fact that it’s only been around 22 years, sport karate has managed admirably to thrive on both amateur and professional levels. Only by presenting the curious evolution of sport karate is it possible to fathom when and where the sport reached its critical turning points. And only then can the author lend rational explanation to the chaotic transformations the sport has experienced and the heights it has reached on its way to generating international popularity.

Briefly, let’s examine the sport’s background before its entry into the United States.
Karate in its earliest sportive form can be traced to Okinawa where Yasusune Itosu, an exponent of shuri-te (shoreiryu), is generally acknowledged as being the first to teach karate as a sport. Itosu made this alteration in 1905 for middle-school students after the Japanese authorities authorized karate for inclusion in the physical education curriculum. But it is the Japanese who are cited as the pioneers in the use of “Karate-do” as an amateur sport, and the Americans in the use of karate as a professional form of competition. In spite of Itosu’s efforts, Okinawan karate was in no sense viewed as a sport until it succumbed to Japanese influence. In Japan, Gichin Funakoshi’s shotokan initiated “jiyu kumite,” or “freesparring,” in 1936. This development eventually led to the adoption of competition and championshipsin 1957, the same year the Japan Karate Association (JKA) was officially founded. Called the All-Japan Karate Championships, these annual tournaments marked the first time that karate competitors engaged in organized matches under a structured set of rules and regulations. While they have been open to contestants of other styles, these tournaments have been nevertheless dominated by shotokan practitioners.
The technical progress of Karate-do in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s was characterized by the formalization of the techniques, tactics and training methods of each style. This in turn created in many practitioners the desire to formulate a Japanese standard for karate. Toward this end, the participation of great numbers of high school and university students in karate-do tournaments brought popular appeal to the sport aspect. In fact, it made it a sport of national importance. Today, according to martial arts scholar. Donn Draeger, “The majority of Japanese engaged in karate-do train for the purpose of becoming skillful in competition; all else is secondary.” As early as 1952, when tournament karate did not yet exist in Japan, Tsutomu Ohshima, a young protege of Funakoshi’s, invented an organized system of conducting matches. As well as laying out rules, Ohshima helped originate the policy of using corner judges and a center referee, a practice later adopted by karate promoters across the world.

The first known karate tournament staged on American soil took place in 1955 when Robert Trias, president of the United States Karate Association (USKA), conducted the 1 st Arizona Karate Championships at the Butler Boys’ Club in Phoenix. Among other contestants, many members of the Arizona Highway Patrol participated. Trias, who also taught classes at the Boys’ Club, had earlier formulated the first set of rules for U.S. karate competition. These same rules, with updated variations, are still being used today in areas throughout the world. Later in 1955, Trias held another tournament, this one at the Phoenix Madison Square Garden (no relationship to New York’s Madison Square Garden) on 7th Street, where boxing and wrestling bouts were frequently presented. Trias estimates that 80 to 100 competitors participated in the proceedings, which took place after a wrestling card.

In the meantime, Ohshima immigrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. Three years later, in 1958, he produced the Nisei Week Karate Championships, held in conjunction with the annual Nisei [second-generation Japanese-Americans] Week celebration. Because of its early date, participation was strictly limited to his own students. Ohshima’s event employed the same judging and rules policies earlier used in Japan. Those policies are still used today in both open and closed U.S. karate tournaments. The Nisei Week Karate Championships, now in its 19th year, is the longest-running annual tournament in American karate competition and is chiefly supported by Japanese stylists. For the hext few years, until 1963, several local and, at best, regional tournaments were conducted in different parts of the United States. Principal among these were the AllAmerican Karate Championships and the North American Karate Championships. The former was first staged in December, 1961, by Hidetaka Nishiyama, who had been recommended by Ohshima to represent shotokan karate while Ohshima was traveling. After forming the All-American Karate Federation, Nishiyama launched his first promotion at the old Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles as a benefit fund-raising event for the “March for Muscular Dystrophy.” Participants were chiefly shotokan stylists, most of them California residents. Others came from as far as Canada and Hawaii. James Yabe, who would become the tournament’s perennial favorite, won both kata and sparring.

Skipper Mullins
Skipper Mullins versus Ron Marchini in 1968. Mullins was American sport karate’s first great kicker prior to Bill Wallace’s emergence as a fighting star.

Another landmark tourney was the North American Karate Championships staged on November 24, 1962. It was the first karate program ever held in prestigious Madison Square Garden, and it was considered a career highlight by Japan’s famed Mas Oyama. He was the first Asian to make a solo appearance in the Garden that day. Between the seml-final and final matches, Oyama took over the ring where Joe Louis had boxed Rocky Marciano in 1951. He gave an impressive demonstration, crushing granite rocks, snapping bricks and splitting boards with his bare hands—feats new and startlingly unusual to American audiences back then.

Taking first-place sparring honors that day was ex-Marine Gary Alexander of New Jersey, who later that year initiated an international winning streak when he also won the 1st Canadian Open Karate Championships. At this particular tournament, the sportsmanship award went to a young Korean stylist from Michigan named Russ Hanke. Hanke became a respected Midwest tournament official, while Alexander developed into a businessman and martial arts promoter. In January, 1963, the first tournament to use the title of U.S. Karate Championships was fostered in St. Louis. A severe snowstorm kept attendance to a minimum. From what can be determined, this was a combination regional judo tournament and so-called “national” karate championship. Participants included Jim Harrison, Bob Yarnall, Bill Dometrich, James Wax, Mike Foster and relative unknowns Bill Marsh and Jim Shannon. It was later discovered that Shannon, a green belt, was posing as a black belt. In sparring, Marsh won the white belt division, Harrison swept the browns, and Yarnall, who had defeated Shannon and Dometrich, won the black belt title. For the grand championship, Harrison beat Marsh, then lost to Yarnall in what Harrison has always considered a highly controversial decision. Back then, a brown belt defeating a black belt was considered in bad taste.

Skipper Mullins

On July 28, 1963, Robert Trias and John Keehan, later known as Count Dante, hosted the 1st World Karate Tournament at the Chicago Fieldhouse. Based on the overwhelming national response, contestants and judges came from every corner of America to take part. It was the first U.S. karate championship of real national significance. On hand to officiate and assist with the promotion were Ed Parker, Jhoon Rhee, George Mattson, Philip Koeppel, Harold Long, Anthony Mirakian and Canada’s Mas Tsuroaka. Cleveland’s AlGene Caraulia, a then-unknown brown belt, captured first place in the black belt sparring division. First place in kata went to Jerry Fastbender, while Roberta Trias, the then 14-year-old daughter of Robert Trias, took,an unprecedented second place ahead of 22 male black belts. She was the first known female karate competitor in America and the first to compete successfully against men, remaining active in karate to this day. Trias’ event was the first of many so-called “World Karate Championships” promoted in the United States. To date, this name has been used more than 20 times in conjunction with tournaments held in America alone, and it is still employed today despite its understandab!e ambiguity. Many promoters probably adopted this popular title because they actually thought competitors would attend from all over the world. The next year, 1964, was one of the most important in the metamorphosis of American sport karate. Trias once again staged his World Championships in Chicago and another then-unknown brown belt won its title. He was a private serving with the U.S. Army at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. He was Mike Stone. Runner-up was Chicago’s Ray Cooper.

Trias then changed the name of the tournament to the USKA Nationals until 1968, when it adopted its present name, the USKA Grand Nationals. Although it has twice changed titles, it has operated annually since its inception and is the longest-running national karate tournament in America. The USKA Grand Nationals has been exceptionally popular in the Midwest, even though its location alternates each year. All of the most noted Midwest karate champions, at one time or another, have won its titles.

Mike Stone struck paydirt again in ’64 by winning the grand crown of Ed Parker’s 1st International Karate Championships. Since its inception, the Internationals has never failed to draw more competitors than any other tournament in American karate. It reached a zenith in 1974, when more than 6,000 contestants vied for its coveted titles. Parker’s first tournament took place in the Long Beach Auditorium, which has since been razed; later, he would move into the spacious, 15,000-seat Long Beach Arena. An interesting feature of this event is the Friendship Trophy, presented to Parker by Dr. Olaf Simon of Canada in 1968 as a symbol of international friendship. Also known as the “Perpetual Cup,” the trophy is awarded to each grand champ of the event to keep until he relinquishes the title. Originally, those champions who repeated two years in succession were accorded the honor of having their names permanently engraved on the trophy. This was later changed to accommodate each and every grand champion.

The Internationals established its appeal for several reasons. First, the West Coast, where the tourney is held annually, has a larger martial arts population than any other region in the United States. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the event drew all the stellar fighters and forms competitors from throughout the nation, probably because of the thorough coverage by locally-based BLACK BELT magazine. Even the demonstrations were a highlight. For instance, the late Bruce Lee performed on the Internationals’ stage in ’64, a presentation responsible for his eventual discovery by Green Hornet TV series producer William Dozier. Finally, giving the tourney a luster uncommon to any other U.S. karate event, famous Hollywood celebrities were abundantly present at ringside.

In the Southwest, tournament karate was launched as early as 1962, largely because of the single-handed efforts of Texas karateka Allen Steen. In 1963, Steen inaugurated his popular U.S. Karate Championships, which would become one of America’s foremost elimination events. Interestingly enough, Steen won his own grand championship that year over runnerup Elby McCoy. Back then, it was common for the tournament director to take part in his own show. A turning point for Steen’s tournament came in 1965, when veteran competitor David Moon won the first of three consecutive grand championships there. AlGene Caraulia was the runner-up in ’65, and, as an established champion, his appearance solidified the event’s national acclaim.

Jhoon Rhee and Harrison
Jhoon Rhee (r.) and Jim Harrison

1964 was also the year Jhoon Rhee of Washington, D.C., presented his 1st National Karate Championships, another truly national event, which ran continuously until 1970. Pat Burleson, a student of Steen’s, won its first grand title. Runner-up was Sgt. Herbert Peters, instructor to Mike Stone. Rhee gained national prestige in 1965 when his tournament became the first in karate history to receive national television coverage via Wide World of Sports But, unfortunately, a heated match between grand champ Mike Stone and Walt Worthy, in which blood ran freely, prompted the Wide Wor/d execs to put the footaye on ice. (Nine years later, they returned, to televise Steen’s U.S. Championships in Dallas, and, ironically enough, it was Stone who persuaded them to film the event.) Finally in 1964, one of the most unusual and startling incidents in karate’s tournament history took place in Los Angeles. A white belt beginner defeated all comers, taking top honors at the annual Nisei Week Tournament. Promoter Tsutomu Ohshima had only one division in his Championships instead of the customary weight categories used today. This sole division was open to competitors of all ranks and weights. Using a powerful and accurate leg sweep backed up with a reverse punch, the white belt dominated all his opponents. Absolutely no one could stop him. The white belt’s name? Hayward Nishioka, the reigning national black belt judo champion at the time! Nishioka’s amazing feat has never been duplicated by anyone.

During the mid and late ’60s, the number of tournaments began increasing substantially on a regional, state and especially on a local level. Yet, for a multitude of reasons, as tournaments increased, so did their problems. Promoters began to disagree on tournament rules, regulations and procedures. Inconsistencies became a predominant feature, and the sport suffered a lack of standards, a problem still nagging it today. And since sport karate in the United States was not and is not regulated by the government, unlike its counterparts in Asia, Europe and Great Britain, it further lacked organized control. For these and other inherent reasons, the sport, in its early stages, became increasingly violent, even though the rules called for no contact. The most common expression of this trend often turned into bloodbaths. This situation continued until 1968, when Pat Johnson initiated the “penalty point” system for excessive contact at Sam Allred’s National Black Belt Championships in Albuquerque. The “Johnson Rule,” as it was dubbed by KARATE ILLUSTRATED, put an end to the uncontrolled blood-and-guts era of so4alled “noncontact” sport karate. Johnson’s thoughtful innovation is still in use today in amateur competition.

The introduction of team competition was the final innovation to arrive during this era. New York’s Aaron Banks conducted the first karate team event in 1967. In 1968, he expanded his previous format, calling it the East Coast vs. West Coast Team Championships, and brought in a highly-touted foursome from California. The victorious West Coast team, with Ed Parker acting as its representative, was staffed by Joe Lewis, Steve Sanders, Chuck Norris and his student, Jerry Taylor. Louis Delgado, Thomas LaPupPet, Joe Hayes and K. Tanaka, represented by promoter Banks, made up the East Coast team. For five years since 1963, tournaments had proliferated on a predominantly amateur level. Then, suddenly, several inspired promoters tried pulling karate into the realm of the professional in 1968. The ill-fated movement would last but two years before quietly declining. Apparently, it was much too soon for such a drastic change.

Bruce Lee and Joe Lewis
Bruce Lee presents the tournament flag to Joe Lewis, grand champ of the 1968 U.S. Nationals in Washington, D.C.

In February, 1968, Kansas-based Jim Harrison produced the first of many tourneys which would carry the name, “World Professional Karate Championships.” It was a closedcard event featuring eight of America’s best noncontact fighters. Harrison’s concept was to film the proceedings on videotape for use as a pilot for a regular weekly or monthly series. The legendary Joe Lewis of Hollywood won first place, and became karate’s first paid professional when Harrison awarded him with the token sum of one dollar! Harrison later lost the videotape on a plane trip to Dallas and it was returned to him several years later by Braniff Airlines. Had fate not interfered, the concept may have sold, and possibly could dramatically have altered the course of the professional sport.

By far, the grandest pro tournament of the 1960s was Aaron Banks’ version of the World Professional Karate Championships, staged at the elegant Waldorf Astoria Hotel in November, 1968. This event established Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, Mike Stone and Skipper Mullins—the four leading karate fighters of that era—as recognized world champions. It also heralded Banks as one of America’s top karate entrepreneurs. This tournament stood above others of its type not only because it was professionally produced, but also because everyone connected with it, including officials, timekeepers and scorekeepers, were paid for their services. One year later, in 1969, full contact Thai kickboxing invaded America, largely through the efforts of Californian Lee Faulkner. Faulkner presented the first kickboxing bout, between Joe Lewis and Greg Baines, at the Long Beach Arena in conjunction with a noncontact professional tournament. Lewis gained the first American kickboxing title with a third-round knockout.

The year 1970 also saw the rise of another major noncontact tournament. Joe Corley joined forces with Chris McLoughlin to produce the South’s biggest spectacle, the Battle of Atlanta. In its first year, Joe Lewis added yet another grand title to his.remarkable career by defeating lightweight champ Joe Hayes of New York. The Battle of Atlanta was the first known professional karate event to have been presented in the South, and today the meticulous promotion is considered among the nation’s top three professional semi-contact events . Meanwhile, Aaron Banks and Allen Steen had picked up on American kickboxing almost immediately. No one knows exactly how many kickboxing events were held in the United States. But it is known that Lewis was its most sparkling champion, having defended his U.S. heavyweight crown 10 times, all first- or second-round KO’s. In its homeland of Thailand, kickboxing, billed as the “sport of kings,” is the national pastime. In America, where it lasted only until 1970, it failed miserably. And it wasn’t without company: professional karate died with it. Both just as suddenly and rapidly as they had started. There was virtually no spectator support, and absolutely no media recognition other than an article about Lewis in Sports Illustrated. Promoters suffered major financial losses like never before, and they quickly resorted once again to throwing amateur non-contact tournaments.

Kickboxing, however, experienced one last-ditch effort to take hold in America when in 1971 Lee Faulkner introduced locally-televised matches in Los Angeles. These matches, pitting authentic Thai boxers against each other, enjoyed moderate popularity. One year later, the California State Athletic Commission, which regulates all boxing and wrestling contests conducted in the state, altered its existing provisions to include kickboxing. For reasons undisclosed, the weekly broadcasts were discontinued soon afterward.