American Kenpo
Ed Parker

(1931 - 1990)

American Kenpo began (and some will say ended) with Ed Parker. But American Kenpo is not a single system. Ed went through at least five transitions before arriving at what would become "American Kenpo". This left behind hundreds of students now teaching dozens of different forms of what they proclaim to be the true "Ed Parker Style" of martial arts.

Ed's martial arts training under William Chow, his teaching of Kenpo and study of other systems, his education and his life experience, all went into the composition of what would be his style of American Kenpo. Therefore, the only TRUE Ed Parker style is what he was teaching at the end of his career.

Early on, Ed was still using the term Chinese Kenpo, which he would later change to Ed Parker Kenpo. He recognized that his students would not be able to assimilate all of his new knowledge and theories immediately, so he gradually introduced his new concepts and movements over the next several years--"line upon line, precept upon precept... here a little, there a little," that he could "prove" his students "herewith."

Ed often spoke in parables and reminded others that even Jesus had said that you cannot put new wine in old bottles. Ed knew that the future of American kenpo would not be with the his existing students, because they would resist breaking their ties to the past, and most had already gone beyond kenpo to study kung fu, first under James Wing Woo, and then under Bruce Lee. And as a prophet of the new order, Ed Parker would rightfully foresee that most of his black belts and advanced students would either reject the new system, or forsake it after a few years.

Ed felt no great bitterness toward this, because American kenpo was not created to replace Ed Parker Kenpo. It was created as a way to advance to his standard of Ed Parker Kenpo. Ed knew his existing students would not serve two masters. They would not learn a system that was designed to take them where they already were, and most would go on to other systems where they could continue to develop.

What Ed eventually created as "American Kenpo" was like, and yet very much unlike, the Kenpo systems and his former styles. The differences were those of style and theory. But most importantly, this new system was the stairway to Ed Parker Kenpo. His new system would have its critics. And while much of their criticism was valid, no one could deny the genius of the man who was its father.

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Preserving the Art

Many often ask why Ed Parker did not release videos or films of him personally demonstrating his system. There were several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Ed would have to slow down so people could see his moves. Ed knew from experience that his students would mimic whatever they saw him do, and one thing Ed was not, he was not slow.

But more importantly, Ed realized that no two people are alike and the new system was to be tailored to the individual. There were also many different ways of doing a movement. Many of his black belts would find that the way Ed taught them was completely different from all the others. To put a technique on film or video would freeze the technique for all time. The form of a technique was only a framework within which the individual worked. A video would freeze frame the move which would become the way the Master did it; and the only way it should be done. The 5 foot, 98 pound woman would have to emulate the 6 foot, 220 pound Ed Parker. This would go against one of Ed's fundamental principles that he would teach correct principles and let the individual govern himself. Thus, he taught his new system differently to each person, and each way was right for the student.

To this end, Ed designed his new system as a method for teaching principles and not just as a way to teach techniques. Rather than teaching 30 techniques and an equal number of variations for each belt as he had done with the KKAA and early IKKA, Ed reduced the number of techniques to 24, and eliminated the variations. He also simplified each technique, teaching only the first part of the technique to the beginning student who could now concentrate on the principle of the movement. The student was to learn "why" a move was done a certain way, and concentrate on this as he practiced the move. Ed believed this was the best way to tailor his new system to the individual, who would then perfect it according to his own physical size and athletic ability.

By reducing the number of techniques, the black belt would only need to know about 100 applications of his new system. This was in marked contrast to his original System of Kenpo, where a student was taught hundreds of "techniques" and hundreds of variations--over 400 for first degree black belt alone. This was the system Ed no longer wanted to teach. It was the old way, the past, and breaking from this past was the very reason for the existence of the new system. But it saddened Ed that few students of his new style were able to compete successfully with the old system in tournaments. It would have been even more disappointing to Ed to see the dismal record of not one American Kenpo practitioner being able to stand up to the new ultimate and extreme fighting forms.

What Went Wrong?

I believe the failures of the "new system" lie in the way Ed taught. You see, my only problem with Ed Parker's method was that American Kenpo forms were taught with "hidden" meanings. The system was designed to lead the student through tangled and obscure paths, where the instructor was to point out the meaning of each twist or turn. Then, when it all came together, the student--the Ed Parker black belt--was to emerge from the darkness into the light of new understanding. Unfortunately, 90% never grasped the hidden meaning, nor asked for clarification when encountering one of Ed's "paradoxes". They simply accepted it, and moved on. Therefore, most of those teaching the "Ed Parker System" don't have the slightest idea what they are doing.

Those who understand the "Parker principle" also understand why Ed chose no one to succeed him. Ed Parker Kenpo was the system. No one could replace him, and American Kenpo was his legacy to the world. He had taught correct principles, and like Alexander the Great, he would leave succession to those who were best qualified. In the decade before Ed's premature death, he no longer taught. Instead, he taught through his writings. He had seen the failure of his new American Kenpo, but it was not a failure of the system. Rather, he might say, it as a failure of the black belts of his new system to apply the principles he had established. Some of these black belts left him to found their own organizations where they would teach their versions of his new system, never realizing that they could never teach the principles that would bring a student to Ed Parker Kenpo. They took with them the techniques, but for the most part, they left his "correct principles" behind; and for the most part they have abandoned Ed's system for their own systems.

The Legacy of Ed Parker

Since the death of Ed Parker on December 15, 1990, his American Kenpo empire has fragmented and shattered. The IKKA has floundered due to defections, internal politics and divisiveness. Already American Kenpo is being interpreted and reinterpreted by Ed Parker's new system black belts. Yet as Ed stated just three months before he died, none of his black belts knew the meaning of the flower he showed them.

In death Ed Parker has become a legend, bigger than life. His black belts first scrambled to fill the void in the system he created for them, by making themselves his successor. But American Kenpo is not just a system. It is the visible expression of Ed Parker's philosophy, a philosophy that holds that correct principles replace style; a philosophy that allows the same move to be taught a myriad of ways with each way being the right way. Ed lamented, some three months before his death that he had awarded black belts, but none had earned his philosopher's cloak. None had learned to think for himself. Few were innovative.

When asked about some of his ideas which seemed absurd, Ed laughed and said he had purposefully taught and written absurdities as a test. But none of his new system students had ever questioned him. He wanted each student to prove or disprove every concept. He wanted them to think for themselves. And he most certainly did not want them to become the puppets they had become. Had his students understood Ed's principles, they would have discovered that the absurd concepts were little more than stumbling blocks put in the way to prove them, and catapults to launch them into thinking for themselves.

Ed often lamented that his students knew what to think, but they didn't know how to think, and only a rare few would ever fully understand the completeness of Ed Parker Kenpo. For this reason, Ed Parker did not create American Kenpo as a system, but as an idea, an idea that encompassed all of his teachings and styles, from his first students to his last. Some were a part and some were the whole of what he taught, but only those who continued to teach what he taught, the way he taught it either in the beginning or the end, are American Kenpo.

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