Celebrity Martial Artists, Part 2: The King of Rock 'N Roll

Just a Hunka Hunka Burnin' Karate-Kickin' Love

Most folks remember Elvis Presley in just a few of his many roles: King of Rock 'n Roll on stage and on the airwaves, baby-faced draftee in the U.S. Army, guitar-toting troubadour in his many films, tragic drug addict in his last days, TV Guide's Entertainer of the Century. But one lesser-known role that Elvis took very seriously throughout his life was that of a dedicated martial artist.

Elvis took up karate under shotokan sensei Juergen Seydal while stationed in Germany. But it was chito-ryu instructor Hank Slemansky that awarded Elvis his first black belt, sometime before Elvis' return to the U.S. in 1960.

In 1960's and 1970's America, all kick-punch arts were called "karate." The arts were too new to carry the distinctions we know them by today. Elvis started in shotokan, earned his first black belt in chito-ryu, would dabble in tae kwon do in his later years, but was influenced the most by the free-flowing, free-thinking style of American Kenpo. And who better to learn kenpo from than the "Father of American Karate" himself, Ed Parker?

Ed Parker (no relation to Elvis' long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker) was a legend in his own right, introducing the art of kenpo to millions of Americans. Parker learned kenpo from William Chow in Hawaii, and added his own refinements and improvements when he came to the mainland.

Parker's revolutionary. untraditional teaching methods, like having instructors count and deliver commands in the language of the school's country--rather than Japanese or Chinese--undoubtedly attracted Elvis, who at one time told Parker, "You seem to be a rebel in your field as I am in mine."

Parker bestowed many of Elvis' dan ranks, up to Elvis' (largely honorary) 8th degree black belt in August 1974. While many folks scoff at Elvis' elevated ranking, chalking it up to celebrity influence, Elvis was at least a legitimate black belt.

At least one "expert" biographer has stated that Elvis wasn't a real martial artist because "no one seriously trains in the martial arts in outlandish costumes--like capes." Hey, this was the 1960's and 1970's, baby! One viewing of Austin Powers and you'll think that Elvis' dojo attire might not be all that out of line--especially for a wealthy, eccentric rock star. Some of Elvis' karate uniforms and equipment can be seen in the web catalog from Guernsey's 1999 Las Vegas auction, including a decorated gi and Elvis' sparring gear.

Elvis' tae kwon do instructor was Kang Rhee of Memphis, who was the recipient of much Elvis-style generosity. Elvis gave Rhee $50,000 to build a new school ($196,391 in 1995 dollars!), a Cadillac, jewelry, and guitars, some of which can be seen on display at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Rhee devotes a whole area of his web site to his relationship with the King.

Elvis' immersion into the martial arts world is just too deep to cover in a single article. Besides his friendship with Parker, Elvis also worked out with kickboxing champion Bill "Superfoot" Wallace, at one point flying a California acupuncturist out to Graceland to heal Wallace's injured leg. Elvis was also connected to famed fighter Mike Stone, a pupil of Bruce Lee and one of Parker's best black belts. Stone became Priscilla Presley's personal karate instructor, and just before Priscilla's 1973 divorce from Elvis, was rumored to be on very, very personal terms with Mrs. Presley.

Elvis was perhaps one of biggest promoters of the martial arts during their big rise in the United States. Through his fight scenes in his movies, or his on-stage kata-inspired dance routines, Elvis introduced millions to the martial arts. Unlike many celebrities who got into the martial arts for movie roles, or because it was the "in" thing to do, Elvis truly believed in the martial arts and the benefits of martial arts study. So if The King isn't dead as many believe, instead hiding from the hazards of too much fame, he's probably still practicing his karate. I certainly think so.

[Also, check out our previous article on celebrity martial artists, including football players, politicians, and figure skaters.]

For more on Elvis and the martial arts, consult the following links:

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