Was Elvis Actually Any Good at Karate?
Like all of us, Elvis Presley's life was marked by different stages. Unlike the rest of us, his stages are crisply defined like action figure special editions. There's Rockabilly Elvis, Army Elvis, Cowboy Elvis, Hawaiian Elvis, and, of course, Karate Elvis. Whereas some of these identities were contrived or merely parts he played, Elvis had a legitimate love of and passion for karate. But was he actually any good at it?
Elvis's decades-long karate biography goes like this: He first started training while stationed in Germany (Army Elvis, 1958-'60) with a man named Juergen Seidel. Upon returning to America, he met Ed Parker, a kenpo master, at a karate demonstration at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The two became friends, and Parker taught Elvis on and off until Presley's death in 1977. In Memphis, Presley earned his first-degree black belt in 1960 under Chito-Ryu stylist Hank Slemansky. Later, Elvis trained in a Memphis dojo under Master Kang Rhee, who bestowed upon him a seventh-degree black belt, before Elvis opened his own center, the Tennessee Karate Institute.
There's a little bit of a debate within the karate community over The King's skills and the veracity of his seventh-degree black belt. Whenever doubt is raised, people who knew or trained with Elvis always defend him. It's also worth noting, however, that Elvis tended to surround himself with pro-Elvis people (and disparaging Elvis just don't fly, mama).
Al Tracy, one of Ed Parker's pupils, writes that Hank Slemansky really forced Elvis to earn his black belt because of a rash of phony celebrity black belts during the late 1950s. This apparently culminated when Ricky Nelson—who was, by all accounts, terrible at karate—was given one by instructor Bruce Tegner. Because of this, Slemansky put Elvis through a rigorous six-week training program to justify his belt. After Presley passed, Slemansky told Parker, "The kid ain't pretty, but he's tough and he's a Black Belt." (Which is an odd thing to say because Elvis was, in fact, very pretty.)
Wayne Carman trained with Elvis under Master Kang Rhee in Memphis and wrote an entire book about the experience, Elvis's Karate Legacy. In it, he documents how he met Elvis and brought him to the dojo ("Elvis wants some of his security people to learn the nunchakus"), Elvis's quirks ("He was the only person I ever saw wear boots into the dojo"), and his peculiar training methods ("When Elvis...practice[d] self-defense demonstrations, he insisted on using real firearms. Most everyone used wooden guns, but not Elvis"). Most of all, he remembers Elvis as a passionate martial artist. "In martial arts, he wasn't Elvis, the Entertainer. He was Elvis, the Black Belt, with 15 years' experience," Carman writes. "That was impressive to all of us, since there weren't many karate practitioners in the country with as many years in the art."
Despite this, the book still casts some doubt on Elvis's seventh-degree honors. Naturally, a Cadillac is involved:
"Elvis, who believed seven was his perfect number (there are numerous instances in the Bible to this being God's number), really wanted his seventh-degree black belt. Trouble was, Kang Rhee couldn't promote him higher than he himself was...
"One day, Kang Rhee called a meeting of the black belts and brought up this dilemma. He said, 'Elvis wants his seventh-degree belt. What can we do?'...
"You see, in order for this to take place, we would have to vote Kang Rhee his eighth-degree belt. In the days that followed, however, the promotion took place. Heck, Elvis was so persuasive and you wanted to help him so much...I would have probably done the same thing. Elvis was promoted to seventh-degree...
"Elvis's gratitude upon his promotion is obvious. After class, Elvis gave Kang Rhee a Cadillac."
Still, Carman maintains that Elvis was a talented martial artist, right until the end of his life. "Elvis really looked sharp that last time I saw him," he says. "His technique was crisp and powerful and his movements were graceful."
Carman also recalls a time when the singer had to use his skills while performing at the Las Vegas Hilton: "During the show three men jumped on stage and rushed the entertainer. Elvis' security team, thinking fast, jumped into the action. The Hilton stage soon took on the appearance of a Hollywood film set brawl. People were flying everywhere. Elvis was still punching and kicking even after the dust settled." (Efforts to find news clippings about this onstage melee in a packed Las Vegas amphitheater were unsuccessful).
In 1974, Kang Rhee and Carman helped Elvis shoot footage for "The New Gladiator," a karate documentary that was never released. Presley wanted to use the film to propel karate into the mainstream's consciousness. "Elvis had sketched out a handwritten script of how he wanted the documentary to go," Carman says. "Elvis estimated the film would gross nine million dollars within the first month after it was released. Of course, those were astronomical figures for then, but the star's drawing power might have pulled if off." Elvis didn't follow through on his plan, but the initial footage (narrated by Wayne Carman) survives on YouTube. It acts as the only real empirical evidence of Elvis's karate skills, so you can watch and determine for yourself whether or not he was actually any good:
Perhaps the question shouldn't be, "Was Elvis Actually Any Good at Karate?," but rather, "Will we see someone teach karate like Elvis ever again?"