Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Analysis: Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate Part II

Yesterday I introduced the first work of American Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker: Kenpo Karate, the Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand. The book is divided into two courses. Course 1 covers basics from the wearing of the uniform to exercises and conditioning to basic strikes with hands and feet. Course 2 is an in-depth examination of specific responses to a wide range of attack scenarios.

Grandmaster Parker begins with a look at the theory about speed, power, accuracy, and distance. Parker writes about how all work together to make an effective strike, and that lacking certain ones - particularly distance, can make even the best attack fail.

Beyond that, the remainder of the book is a series of self-defense techniques. I found these very interesting both for what was and was not there. Let me digress for a moment.

As best as I can ascertain, the style of Kenpo I'm currently learning follows a lineage as so:

1. Grandmaster Parker trained Al Tracy and his brothers throughout the 1960s.
2. Al Tracy trained Lee Thompson, who opened a "Tracy Kenpo" school in Liverpool, NY.
3. That school was eventually transferred to Steve LaVallee, who would change the name to Steve LaVallee's Sport Karate and later to LaVallee's East Coast Karate and LaVallee's USA Black Belt Champions.
4. LaVallee operated the school along with Rick Iannuzzo, who I've been told was primarily responsible for curriculum content and direct instruction. Eventually (in the early 1990s, I think) Iannuzzo would open his own school, and LaVallee went on to open more than a dozen facilities in Upstate NY and Florida.
5. In 2010, FiveStar Martial Arts opens in North Syracuse, NY, under the instruction of Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore. Both studied in the 1990s under Steve LaVallee and Rick Iannuzzo, then trained independently while pursuing their education.

You'll note that I'm not citing sources for this information. That's a topic for another article - it hasn't been easy to track down and the sources I've found haven't been easy to authenticate and verify with what I'd consider to be a high degree of journalistic or academic accuracy. My gut tells me that this is in the ballpark, however, which will have to be good enough for now.

Sometime after the departure of Napoli and Pastore from LaVallees around 2000, LaVallee's moved, at least in spirit, completely away from their Kenpo roots and adopted a Mixed (or blended, depending on who you ask) Martial Arts curriculum that also included some heavily-modified Kenpo kata and self-defense techniques. But what Napoli and Pastore teach is, at least ostensibly, Kenpo.

It's just not the same Kenpo you'd see at a modern Tracy-style or Parker-style karate dojo, however. At least, not from the evidence I've found online. And it's the changes, the metamorphosis of the style and the techniques over the years, that fascinate me. Who decided to do a certain technique this way rather than that other way? Who decided to change a particular kata to eliminate certain moves and modify others to the point where it's only superficially similar to its original form? And, most importantly, why were those changes made? Were they deliberate efforts to water down a challenging curriculum to make it more accessible to younger students? Or were they carefully-considered decisions about body mechanics, force, and the need to develop certain skills? Or some combination of both? Or something else completely?

This information is particularly difficult to pin down, because even the originators of the style - Parker and the Tracy brothers - made their own modifications over the years, both before and after they trained together as well as before and after they taught people like Lee Thompson. So the differences I'm seeing between modern-day Parker Kenpo and modern-day FiveStar Kenpo could have been introduced by any of at least six different people (Parker, Tracy, Thompson, LaVallee, Iannuzzo and/or Napoli/Pastore (who for the purposes of this exercise count as one entity)) at any point in the last thirty to forty years.

For instance, who decided that the makiwara (or the striking board) and the buckets of flour used to condition the fingertips were no longer necessary? You won't find either at the FiveStar dojo, nor did I ever see them at LaVallee's. Did Parker himself move away from them? Did the Tracys decide they preferred more modern equipment? Thompson? LaVallee? Iannuzzo? I have no idea, but they're definitely there in Parker's first book and they're entirely missing from the dojos I've trained at in 2010 and 2011. The Okinawan "Hojo Undo" training equipment and techniques didn't just disappear from Kenpo, either - they tend to be largely absent from nearly all western martial arts dojos.

At some point, both the Parker and Tracy styles of Kenpo developed a complex series of named techniques, using fanciful terms for everything from a left-handed attack to a ridgehand (or sword-hand) strike to a grab of the hair. You'd end up with technique names including (and these are actual Parker Kenpo techniques) delayed sword, mace of aggression, and captured twigs. These technique names, at least, are entirely missing from LaVallee and FiveStar kenpo. Why? Were they invented after Thompson finished his training under Tracy (I'm almost certain they were not), or did LaVallee or Iannuzzo decide to change them? I suspect the techniques - most of them, anyway - are still around in some form or another, but the colorful names have been simplified to "two-handed wrist grab" instead of "captured twigs." Again, who decided that and why?

So to bring that lengthy digression back around, one of the things I looked for in Parker's first book were similarities and differences between the defense techniques he presented and the ones I'm learning now. What's interesting is that I saw both.

For example, the two-handed wrist grab (which in this early book is called simply that - nothing colorful or fanciful) is actually very similar to how I've been taught it at FiveStar (and quite different from the same technique as it was taught to me at LaVallee's). Likewise, the cross-hand wrist grab is extremely similar to how I've been taught it at FiveStar, though a bit more detailed. It's also very much in line with a technique used in the Short 3 kata as I've been taught it at FiveStar.

There's a defense technique against a side-shoulder grab that's entirely different than the one I've learned at FiveStar. Nothing too surprising about that, as the bulk of the techniques from Parker's book are more different than similar. But what's fascinating to me is that the technique shown in the book is completely in line with yet another movement in the Short 3 kata. So while it's different in one portion of the curriculum, it's the same somewhere else. Furthermore, Sensei Napoli explained that the more advanced version of that side-shoulder-grab defense is actually very much like what's shown in the book, I'm just not far enough along in my training to have seen it yet.

Other than those techniques, the other dozen or so are all completely different than what I'd seen at either of the two dojos I've trained at. Could it be that there will be more similarities at more senior ranks? Or could it be that, like the colorful names, but techniques themselves have changed over the years as different instructors each put their own spin on them? Heck, it isn't as if there's only one way to defend against these attacks. I have to constantly resist the habits I developed studying Aikido, which also had very effective defenses against these sorts of assaults.

Overall, I found Parker's book a fascinating window into the origins of this most American (or Americanized, if you will) of martial arts styles. I found that much of what Parker espoused, from breathing to conditioning to specific strikes, was covered in much greater depth and detail than I've seen in my training. Again, that could be because I still have much to learn, or it may simply be that some of Parker's original message and philosophy wasn't carried on through the entire forty year journey to today's practice of the style he practiced. As I continue my own training, I'll be looking for more hints of Parker's influence (or lack thereof) and seeking a greater understanding of the skills I'm being taught, as well as the changes introduced over the years that affected how those specific skills are practiced today. But I certainly would recommend Parker's book to anyone who wants a first-hand look at the origins of Kenpo Karate in America.


  1. Interesting observations in both your posts on this subject, Mike. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Mike, I recently ran across an image of Ed Parker's black belt "family tree" which shows some of his primary black belts and their top students. (See This diagram traces instructor lineage from James Mitose to William Chow to Ed Parker to Al and Jim Tracy to Lee Thompson. We know that LaVallee trained under Lee Thompson. I trained with Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore in Cicero and got my black belt the same day they did. The head instructor at the Cicero location where we trained was Jeff Ianuzzo until about 1992, then Shihan Jeff Sgarlata took over. We were all promoted to black belt by Shihan Sgarlata.