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?"

Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?

Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:

The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?

As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out

If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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