Since 1976

August 2015

Busting the Myths about Rank

I co-authored an article in the last “Official Karate Magazine” Annual edition about the myths surrounding karate ranks, belts and titles. There have been so many requests for the contents of that article that I have attached it here as a PDF that you can download. Suffice it to say that most karate instructors don’t know the first thing about the actual history of the titles they claim. I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

Allen Steen's 50th anniversary

Reproduced from the September issue of Martial Arts Professional Magazine.
1959. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Alaska became the 49th state. The movie Ben Hur set box office records. The first Super Bowl was still eight long years away and a small, South Korean army officer’s demonstration at the University of Texas birthed a revolution in the largely unknown and mysterious Asian martial arts.

In the crowd that witnessed Jhoon Rhee that day was a young Texan named Allen Steen whose fascination and ensuing love for the martial arts would lead him to establish one of the first dynasties in American karate. He was a pioneering champion, one of the original martial arts businessmen, and an internationally known instructor and coach. Today Mr. Steen is 75 years old and still keeps up with the martial arts world. He sat down with one of his original black belts and
Martial Arts Success’s Keith D. Yates to reflect on what he’s seen in five-plus decades of training.

Q: You’ve had a number of firsts in the martial arts in America, from being Jhoon Rhee’s first black belt, to opening the first commercial karate school in the state of Texas, to being the father of Texas “blood ’n’ guts” karate. You have seen the martial arts evolve tremendously over the years. Let’s start with that demo at UT in 1959.

STEEN: Well, it was at the Student Union building but they couldn’t call it martial arts or karate so it was going to be a demonstration of stretching. That’s why the football and baseball and track teams were all required to be there. I was on the track team and like everyone else, was just there for the fun of it. Even though Mr. Rhee was doing full splits and everything no one seemed to paying much attention and everyone was talking among themselves so he finally had enough and stepped up to the microphone and asked for the biggest athlete to come down front. That kind of quieted everyone down and the football players looked over at coach Darrell Royal, who had just started at UT, and he just shook his head “no.” So Rhee says, alright, give me the two biggest. Royal is still shaking his head. Now Rhee says he wants the THREE biggest and then he says something like, “and no babies,”—his english wasn’t that good at the time. So finally Darrell Royal nods his head and the two Talbert brothers from Texas City and another kid go down. These guys were huge, Diron Talbert, in fact, went on to play for the Washington Redskins.

So Jhoon Rhee says to the older Talbert brother, “Do you think you’re fast enough to hit me with a punch.” He shrugs yes. So Rhee says he is going to give him permission to try and do so. When he starts to swing Mr. Rhee side kicks him in the stomach and the guy drops down to one knee, out of breath. Rhee looks at Diron and invites him in with his hands so Diron rushes him and Rhee just steps aside and Diron almost falls down. Meanwhile the older brother is still on one knee and the other kid is hightailing it back to his seat.

After the laughter and applause died down you could hear a pin drop and I perked up my ears too. I had boxed in ten “smokers” on campus to earn some money. Actually I lost the first five—by knockout. So I went to the boxing coach to learn how to fight. Then I won the next five—by knockout. So I was 5 and 5 as a boxer and I was really intrigued as to how Rhee could stop a guy with one kick, especially with my long legs.

Afterwards they passed a notebook around to see who wanted to sign up for “stretching” classes and 184 guys did. I know this because Mr. Rhee gave me the notebook when I went up to ask him about the classes and he told me to start calling people to tell them when it was.

So we started the next semester—at first they wouldn’t even let him teach on campus—but later he somehow convinced the administration to let him have classes in the student union. And he was ROUGH. The class ran like a military boot camp, three days a week for two hours. There were lots of calisthenics. Every class you wanted to quit, but he would always get you to gut out one more push-up or sit-up. We spent over two months in basic stances before we did anything else. At the end of the first semester there were only six guys left.

By the end of the next semester I was the only one who had earned a brown belt. I’d go to Mr. Rhee and ask to learn the next form even before I was eligible to do it. He’d show it to me but said not to let the other students know. I’d go home and practice until I got it down. From those lessons I learned focus. That’s one of the biggest complaints I have about students today. They have such sloppy techniques—not everyone, but even some of the black belts I see.

Q: OK, so you graduate and go back to Dallas and want to open your own karate school.

STEEN: Yeah, I looked around and found a little space in Snyder Plaza just down from SMU. I talked the landlord down to a three-month lease for $200 a month—that included utilities and the phone. I didn’t know if it was going to work out or not. I’d never even seen a karate school before but I did know business procedures (ed. note: Steen was a business major at UT). The space was probably 20 by 60 feet and I strung up a curtain in the back so students could change. I was going to charge $75 for three months to see if I could make it work.

Q: And it did?

STEEN: In just a few months I had four hundred students at that little school and at several locations I had set up around town—places like the National Guard Armory, the YMCA, and at corporations like General Dynamics and Texas Instruments. I grew up with not a lot and to me that was good money. I guess it seemed so to the landlord too because then he wanted to raise the rent to $1000 a month. I declined.

Q: What did you do then?

STEEN: I kept teaching at those other locations, sometimes driving all over town teaching three or four classes a day and kept signing up new students. I then found a place on Hillcrest Avenue just around the corner from that first school and that became the foundational Texas Karate Institute. Eventually I had eight different TKIs all over Texas and interests in a slew of other schools across the country and even in some foreign countries run by my black belts.

Q: You, yourself, weren’t even a black belt when you opened that first location.

STEEN: That’s right. I opened that school in June of 1962 and Mr. Rhee came to Dallas to give me a black belt exam in September of 1962. Being Jhoon Rhee, it was pretty rigorous of course and that set the stage for what I considered a black belt should be. Now, the next month I put on a little tournament and called it the first Texas State Championships. I had to round up black belts because there just weren’t many in those days and I think we had eight, guys like Johnny Nash and Lou Angel. Anyway, I won that with ease because I was like a hundred pounds heavier than some of them.

Q: So there were no weight divisions?

STEEN: No, that didn’t come until years later. There were no divisions for women or kids either because they were no women or kids in karate. That tournament was a success so I decided to do another one in February or March of 1963. I went all out and even printed up a one-page flyer to promote it. By then we had a few brown belts come and I think 14 or 16 black belts. I won that one also. In 1964 we moved to the SMU Moody Colosseum and I changed the name to the Southwest Karate Championships. That was also the year I founded the Southwest Karate Black Belt Association.

Q: That tournament became the United States Karate Championships in 19xx, and became one of the big three tournaments in the country.

STEEN: Yes, and 1972 was probably our biggest one. ABC’s Wide World of Sports came and we had over 2000 competitors. There were hundred of black belts who came because they thought they’d be on TV. We had 44 rings set up and of course nobody wanted to judge. I told them they had to judge or they couldn’t fight! We had folks competing out in the hallways and I was ready to have matches in the parking lot. Bill Wallace won the grand championship that year.

Q: So what happened to karate tournaments?

STEEN: Well if you have just five or six big tournaments a year like in those days, everyone will come out. But now everyone wants to have their own tournament and they are all called the “Nationals” or the “World Universal Championships.” This started long ago. In New York there were, like, 20 world champions but they had won tournaments with four black belts—all from their own school! You know, in those days we tried to get everyone together to stop some of the charlatans, to set up standards but we only partly succeeded.

It applies to ranking too! A guy in California would call himself the “king of black belts.” I went up to him in San Francisco and bowed to him and did like this (circling his hand in front of his forehead). He asked if I was making fun of him and I said, “Yes, I am.” One guy, when asked what rank he was, answered, “one more than you.” I was standing next to Chuck Norris and we just looked at each other.

Another time Skipper Mullins and I were vacationing in Acapulco with our wives and we saw a Taekwondo school. We decided to go check it out. When we walked in there was a life-size poster of me, one of Skipper and one of Chuck. So I go and stand next to it. The teacher looks up and seeing we are Americans says in English that he’ll be right with us. After he walks over he’s looking at me and then at the poster and then back at me—finally he says, “Mr. Steen?” And I say yes, and he says, “Mr. Mullins?” And Skipper says yes. He asks, “Is Mr. Norris here too?” I say he is not. So I ask him who he got his black belt from and, of course, he says Chuck Norris.

So when I got back home I called Chuck and says did you know you have a black belt named Hector whatever it was in Acapulco? He says no I don’t!

Q: Speaking of Chuck Norris, your most famous of all your wins was beating Norris and Joe Lewis on the same day to win the 1966 Long Beach Internationals. Who would you say your toughest opponent was.

STEEN: Actually I would say Mike Stone. He had a fantastic charge and he never stopped. You’d block the first or second technique but he’d hit you with the third one before you could respond. And in the later years, the toughest guy was Joe Lewis—he was a true warrior. You know we’d laugh at some of those guys and their so-called “kill points.” I’d be willing to let so many of them just hit me full-power in the body and it wouldn’t hurt at all. Not so with Lewis, he really WOULD kill you.

Q: Did you make up your own rules and regulations for those first tournaments.

STEEN: Well, I used and modified the rules from the Japanese Karate Association although some of them were “one-point” tournaments—meaning if you scored one full point you won. In retrospect we probably should have called body shots, like reverse punches just half points and things like kicks to the head full points. Like I said some of the techniques were really pretty weak. The Japanese tended to use lunge punches and front kicks not like the side kick I learned from Mr. Rhee.

I remember one tournament in Chicago where Mike Stone did a side kick to the body but he pulled it. It had landed but when Stone looked around there were no flags. So the next time he literally knocked the guy down with his side kick and all the flags went up. So in those days you had to really hit someone to get a point.

Q: Or to get disqualified.

STEEN: Well, I got disqualified in Hawaii once. I was fighting a Koyokoshin black belt and they were known as being pretty tough. He did a front kick-punch—typical of a Japanese attack. He did it three times and I kept blocking it so on the third time I just punched him right between the eyes and knocked him down. I got disqualified. I said, “In Texas that would have been a point!”

So that’s how “blood ’n’ guts” got started. Some of us, the toughest, just went straight for the decisive blow. In Texas at least, all the black belts fought like that —so some of the California or New York guys knew if they came here it was going to be rough. But those who did come took it back with them and eventually you’d see “blood ’n’ guts” in places like St. Louis and Miami.

I guess the best, or worst, example of it was that one in 1969 or ’70 when we must have had 20 guys taken to the hospital. I have to admit I cringed but you know what, no one sued, no one complained. They even said this is the way it should be—I’m talking about guys like Jim Harrison, Ed Daniel and Mike Stone. In fact, Stone told a reporter, “I like to hit and to get hit.” I had to follow up with the reporter and tell him that the “professional” fighters were doing things at a different level and that we didn’t teach our beginners like that because I didn’t want to scare away the students.

Q: Speaking of students, how did you get students in those very early days? You opened your first school and you basically did everything yourself from signing people up to teaching to sweeping up the floors.

STEEN: Oh yeah. I would have to quit teaching to talk to someone coming in, either that or just let them watch and then maybe they would leave. So I got one of my first women students, Marian Erickson, to sit at the desk up front and greet people. She was great. At the end of class I walk over and ask how we did and she’d say you have eight new students (ed. note: Marian became Steen’s first female black belt). Soon I knew we had to have people like her at each school. We didn’t call them program directors at the time, Marian was the secretary, but later we came up with that title—in fact I think it was Pat Burleson who used that term—he got it from the Fred Astaire dance studios.

One of the biggest ways we got new students was from the demonstrations at the Texas State Fair. Thousands came by to see our hourly demonstrations and put their name in the drop box to win a karate lesson. Of course, everyone won. We’d call them and tell them they were a winner and when they came in they got the first-class treatment. We’d show them a few self-defense techniques and they’d inevitably sign up. We’d fill up every school in the weeks after the State Fair.

Q: I remember as a brown and black belt doing those demos on the stage.

STEEN: Yes, we required all the instructors to do their rotations with me or the other seniors. I’d have hecklers sometimes. Guys would yell out things like, “that won’t work.” I’d invite them to come up on stage and after I’d blast them they’d sign up. I guess you couldn’t do that today (chuckling).

Q: So your original organization is over 50 years old. Has it turned out like you expected?

STEEN: Well, we wanted to try and establish standards in both competition and in belts and ranking. From the earliest days competitors would pop up and their standards were just all over the board. I tried to start the American Karate Congress with Jhoon Rhee, Ed Parker and some others but we just couldn’t agree on things. It was tried several times by me and others but it just wasn’t meant to be. So I just started my own thing with the Southwest Karate Black Belt Association in 1964 and changed the name to the American Karate Black Belt Association in 1972. At first I just got black belts associated with me, like Pat Burleson, but soon others started to join as well. I never incorporated the name because I naively wanted everyone to be free to have their own “regions” and have their own best practices.

Of course now there are so many different organizations, just like tournaments, with high-sounding names but that are really just one or two schools. I’ve come to accept it at this point in my life but I am proud of the current AKBBA because they have a quality board of governors and high standards that they expect all their members schools to adhere to. Fortunately I was so damn rough in those early days that my first generation of black belts have, for the large part, maintained those standards.