Much has been made in the media of Elvis Presley�s musical career and about his sad demise. However, what does not get much attention is his involvement with the martial arts, except for his custom made $1000 karate gis.

Elvis� interest in the martial arts began in 1958, when he witnessed a judo/jujitsu demonstration, shortly after his induction into the US army. His first karate instructor was a German Shotokan karate-ka, by the name of Juergen Seydel, who began teaching him while he was stationed in Germany. It is also known that around this time, Elvis trained with Vietnamese martial artists whilst on leave in Paris.

Back in his hometown of Memphis during 1960, Elvis qualified as a shodan whilst training under Hank Slemansky, a Chito-Ryu stylist. It was this same Slemansky who provided early training for Dan Inosanto, a prot�g� of Bruce Lee. The only other information we have about Elvis� interest in karate at this time, is that he spent many hours training with an ex army pal called Rex Mansfield. It would appear that whatever endeared Elvis to karate, also endeared him to others physically involved in its practise. Some of his closest friends were chosen for their enthusiasm for the martial arts.

Elvis could be given credit for exposing karate in films. During a fight scene in GI blues, made in 1960, he can be seen using karate techniques. The only other example of martial arts in celluloid prior to this was in a 1946 film titled �Blood on the sun�, where James Cagney used judo techniques to dispose of an opponent. Throughout Elvis� movie career during the 1960�s, all his films featured martial arts in the fight scenes, and although crude and unimaginative compared to the slick sophistication displayed in the Bruce Lee films of the 1970�s, they still captured attention.

Ed Parker, the pioneer of Kenpo karate, a style which incorporates a lot of dynamic self-defence techniques, was to have more influence on Elvis, than any other karate-ka during the early 1970�s. This transcended itself to his routines on stage, which accompanied his singing, sadly hideously parodied by Elvis impersonators today.

By 1975, Elvis had gained considerable weight. Prior to this during late 1974, he was filmed training at the Memphis Karate Institute, a club run by Bill �superfoot� Wallace, at that time the world middleweight karate champion. Elvis rarely allowed himself to be photographed whilst training. The resulting exposure was featured in and American publication called �People�. With its vast readership, this represented another substantial Presley endorsement for karate. In total about forty minutes of footage was filmed, of which only two minutes has been released. However, I have just discovered that it is now available on DVD in its entirety.

In the final years of his life, Elvis seesawed between states of excitement and depression. Two of his bodyguards recall karate sessions when Elvis would warm up, meditate (mokusu) and then sit around eating while the others trained. If only he�d trained at our dojo!

There is no doubt karate played a large part in Elvis� life. As a practising martial artist for some nineteen years, his fascination was hardly whimsical. He was a credible shodan who unselfishly used his money, power and influence to enhance the growth of karate. Sadly, his dedication went unsung during his lifetime.

With regard to Elvis� advanced 8th dan grade, this can be explained by virtue of his famed generosity.

The aforementioned Bill Wallace was Elvis� instructor in Memphis for a period during the early 1970�s. Wallace promoted Elvis to seventh degree black belt at the same time that he [Elvis], gave him a brand new Cadillac. The strange thing is that Wallace himself was a seventh degree black belt! Reportedly, Master Kang Rhee, a Korean tae kwon do instructor, who taught in Memphis, bestowed an honorary eighth degree rank on Elvis in 1974. Perhaps the fact that Elvis had given him a car too had nothing to do with it!

 

Tony Hetherington