We just wrapped up 3 days of seminars with one of martial arts most influential people, J. Pat Burleson. While he may not be a household name for non-martial artists, he certainly is famous in the karate universe. And his friends and colleagues sure are famous… Names like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jhoon Rhee.
History of an Icon
History records Mr. Burleson as America’s first karate pioneer and “Father of All Karate Champions” because he won the first U.S. Karate Championships in 1964, held in Washington D.C. He also has the distinction of holding the highest American Tae Kwon Do ranking under Master Jhoon Rhee and is Master John Worley and Larry Carnahan’s instructor. In addition to teaching the martial arts, Mr. Burleson later became a movie and stunt actor with regular appearances on the television show “Walker, Texas Ranger” with Chuck Norris. He currently travels the world as a speaker and trainer.
It was such an honor to host someone of Grand Master Burleson’s stature in our Chicago National Karate Schools, and his seminars were really quite fun and amazing. It was one of those moments where the participants will be able to say, “I once took a class from one of the greats!”
Lunch with a Legend
But for me, the most memorable part of the week was that I got the opportunity to take a legend to lunch everyday before we went to the seminars. And you could bet that I wasn’t going to waste time talking about the weather. Having access to a true karate pioneer would be like having lunch with George Washington and asking what it was like during the birth of our country, or like having lunch with Bill Gates and being able to ask him what it was like starting a company like Microsoft that changed the way the world does business.
So many questions with so little time. Here are a few…
Question: What was your relationship with Chuck Norris?
Burleson: “Me and Chuck were fellow Texans and martial arts enthusiasts when the great sport was first starting to grow in America. Chuck was my best man when I was married and we owned karate schools together for a while. When Chuck became famous he had me be a stunt actor in some of his movies and the television series, Walker, Texas Ranger. If there was a guy getting kicked through a window, it was probably me.”
Blood and Guts Era
Question: Those early days of karate in America were known as the “Blood and Guts Era”, and it was reportedly common for good ole boys to walk into karate schools and challenge the instructor to a fight to see for themselves if martial arts was real or not. Did that really happen?
Burleson: “Yes it happened, and on a regular basis. You had to be able to back it up in those days. I had a school next to a bar so I would get visitors pretty regular. One of the more memorable challenges came from a hockey player who came in with his friends and challenged me to a fight. I asked him to sign a ‘release of his life’, but he wouldn’t sign it. He also said he wasn’t leaving until I fought him. So I said OK but we will take it outside so we don’t wreck my school. On the way out the door he tried to sucker punch me so I hit him with a ridge hand in the nerves in the neck and knocked him out. His friends ran and I had to put him in the car and drive him to the hospital.”
Question: Did you really know Bruce Lee?
Burleson: “The first time I met Bruce was at a fancy dinner event in Los Angeles for the top martial arts “muckety mucks” from all over the country. Because I had won the National Championship, I was invited. When Bruce Lee made his entrance he dramatically looked the room over. (He was always very dramatic.) I was a big guy from pumping iron and when he saw me he stopped and pointed at me and challenged me to a Chinese arm wrestling match. At that moment I knew that I didn’t like him. I was used to the respectful humility of martial arts, and Bruce Lee was gregarious and brash. I was going to turn this little guy on his ear! When we joined hands for the arm wrestling match, I noticed that Bruce Lee’s forearms looked like steel cables. Then Bruce dropped me to the floor. At that moment we became friends and would be close until his death in 1973.”
“When he was filming the Green Hornet we would go to China town and watch karate movies in LA. Once when exiting the movie theater a group of teens from a Chinese gang started taunting Bruce from across the street. Bruce said, “Let’s go over there.” I assumed we were going over there to fight so as soon as one of the gang members approached Bruce, I stepped up and knocked him out. All the gang members scattered. Bruce then began to chew me out because I ‘used violence unnecessarily’. I was just trying to do him a favor.”
“When Bruce finished filming Enter the Dragon he autographed a self portrait that was used as a promotional piece from the movie and mailed it to me. It said, “To my buddy Pat. Peace, Love and Brotherhood.” –Signed Bruce Lee. He died three days later. It has been confirmed that this is the last signature that Bruce signed before he died. That is a very treasured gift.”
After the last seminar at our schools, Mr. Burleson pulled out a copy of that last Bruce Lee autograph, and in turn autographed it to me and our instructors. “To Cris Nelson and National Karate – a light to your community. –From Bruce and J. Pat Burleson.
That is a very special gift indeed.
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