The Karate Master: A Beginner’s Guide to Elvis Presley’s Martial Arts Obsession

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

Willie Nelson blew his fair share of minds last week when he announced that he was about to be awarded his fifth degree black belt in Gongkwon Yusul, but he’s far from the first famous musician to achieve a high rank in a martial art. He wasn’t even the most unlikely or outlandish one to do so.

Long before The Red Headed Stranger took up Taekwondo, The King was racking up karate black belt degrees and showing off his moves every chance he got. That’s right: Elvis Presley was a giant (and occasionally embarrassing) martial arts nerd.

His passion for karate might not have achieved the notoriety of his passion for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and barbiturates, but it was an important part of his life and remains a surprisingly extensive area of study after his death.

It’s a little overwhelming, actually. For starters, two of his friends and martial arts training partners, Master Ed Parker and Wayne Carman wrote books about their karate and life experiences with The King. Raw footage of Presley’s training, narrated by Carman, was released as a DVD in 2009 (and is now available on YouTube). And then there are the heated debates about the veracity of his ranks and karate prowess that you can find all over the internet.

So I’ve assembled the following primer to help introduce the uninitiated to the world of Elvis Presley: The Karate Master.

Elvis discovered karate while he was in the army.
He spent his free time in Germany training under a German shotokan instructor named Juergen Seydel and spent his leaves in Paris working with Japanese shotokan instructor Tetsugio Mirakami.

He trained with Kenpo master Ed Parker for the majority of his martial arts career.
Elvis met Parker at a Kenpo demo in Beverly Hills in 1960 and started studying under him immediately. The pair remained lifelong friends.

Ed Parker made Elvis earn his first degree black belt under another instructor because Ricky Nelson ruins everything.
According to Al Tracy, who also trained under Parker, the karate community had become increasingly suspicious of the qualifications of celebrity black belts after an instructor named Bruce Tegner dubiously awarded one to film and pop music heartthrob Ricky Nelson. So Parker told Elvis that he’d have to earn his black belt and sent him to a particularly strict instructor named Hank Slomanski. Elvis impressed Slomanski enough for him to tell Parker, “The kid ain’t pretty, but he’s tough and he’s a black belt.”

Elvis was awarded his seventh degree black belt by in 1972.
The King started training with Rhee on Parker’s recommendation. Elvis went on to teach kenpo with Master Rhee at the Pasaryu Karate Association..

Despite his apparent love and mastery of the physical aspects of the discipline, he looks like he’s going to die in pretty much all existing training footage of him.

Elvis’s uniform looked a hell of a lot like his trademark Vegas jumpsuit.
Complete with the dangling belt hanging low on his increasingly ample waist. There’s also footage of him wearing sunglasses in the middle of training. According to Master Rhee, though, that was a special uniform he made for a demonstration/performance that Elvis wanted to put on for his students. In normal training, he wore a more traditional uniform.

Elvis went commando when he trained. And he once ripped his pants during a demonstration in front of a full class.
According to an account by Master Rhee himself: In the early part of the demonstration, Elvis was demonstrating a kicking technique, when his pants ripped. Embarrassed, Elvis explained to me and the class that he did not wear any underwear, and asked me 'Now, what do I do?'

Elvis started filming a documentary about karate in 1974. Then he lost interest and stopped.
Shortly after founding the Tennessee Karate Institute in 1974, Elvis decided that he wanted to fund and film a documentary about the martial art. But he quickly changed his mind. The footage that does exist from that project was eventually released, with commentary from nunchuck master Wayne Carman, on a DVD called Elvis Presley Gladiators in 2009.

Elvis made ridiculous faces during his karate practice because of “the passion he loved training with.”
And no, “passion” is not a euphemism for “ridiculousness.” Wayne Carman says those words with a complete lack of irony in the commentary for Elvis Presley Gladiators.

Elvis is responsible for that garish American flag gi that Superfoot Bill Wallace (http://superfoot.com/) is wearing in Elvis Presley Gladiators.
Elvis paid for it as part of his sponsorship of the U.S. karate team on their 1974 European tour.

Karate is allegedly responsible for ruining Elvis’s marriage.
Priscilla allegedly cheated on Elvis with her own karate instructor, Mike Stone. Apparently Chuck Norris introduced them.

Elvis used his extensive martial arts knowledge to choreograph fight scenes in some of his films.
The King is responsible for all of the action in flicks like G.I. Blues, Wild In The Country, Blue Hawaii, Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad.

Elvis also used his extensive martial arts knowledge to choreograph dances.
From Bill Copeland’s blog on the subject:

Presley choreographed a martial arts dance routine to his song ‘If You Talk In Your Sleep.’ The funky, R&B song has a persistent groove, so it lent itself to a dance number. Released in 1974, at the time Presley was booked at The Hilton International in Las Vegas, playing two shows a night, ‘If You Talk In Your Sleep’ became longer with each performance as Presley added more and more karate poses. He even kept moving to drum solos that interrupted the number.”

Elvis did, occasionally, mention his karate accomplishments on stage.
And talked about Fat Albert. And how he definitely wasn’t on drugs.


Check out this related story:

Willie Nelson Has a Fifth Degree Black Belt (And It's Not In Weed Smoking)