Why I love American Kenpo Karate

I’ll be brief with the history, but American Kenpo was organized as a martial arts system by former Hawaiian street fighter Edmund Parker.  After moving to southern California, Ed Parker trained many celebrities, including Elvis Presley. He was a student of Chinese kung fu and Japanese karate, and I can clearly see both in the techniques and forms of American Kenpo. You can see the fluidity and economy of motion from kung fu, and the raw power and solid stances from karate. Mr. Parker died in 1990, but his legacy lives on in Kenpo schools all over the world.

American Kenpo Karate refers specifically to Ed Parker’s system. There are many other forms of Kenpo or Kempo out there. I was taught that “Kenpo” is translated one way to mean “law of the fist”.  This makes sense to me because Kenpo takes into account many laws of physics, particularly “cause and effect”. If I do this, how is my opponent going to react and what will his body do?

There are a multitude of concepts and principles in Kenpo (many of which I have yet to learn) that deal with manipulating the opponent’s body. Kenpo does this differently from, say, jujitsu where the object is to latch onto the opponent and restrict his movement (and his air and blood flow). Kenpo tries to avoid getting wrapped up with the opponent for one very good reason. Ed Parker knew very well that if you get in a street fight with someone, he is likely to have friends nearby. So Kenpo always keeps in mind the possibility that you may have to handle multiple opponents. You may have to transition between several people very quickly, and you can’t do that if you are wrapped up with the first guy.  I have seen karate and aikido practitioners use one opponent as a shield against two or three others, but this is a very risky and short-lived solution, which requires both great skill and luck, and doesn’t take care of your problems immediately.

When I first started training formally in American Kenpo (I had been trying to learn from books for years) I felt like I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. I had previously studied jujitsu, tae kwon do, and traditional karate, but none of them started off with such complex moves and so much to learn! The form of tae kwon do I studied had something called “one-steps” which included three or four moves, like blocks, kicks, and punches, in a sequence. But from my own personal impression, the first Kenpo self defense techniques had far more going on. What you do with your feet compliments what you do with your hands. This is true for any martial art, but my Kenpo instructor stresses precise footwork to his new students. “It will make everything else you do better.” And in Kenpo, when one hand is striking or blocking, if the other is not striking or checking at the same time, it is busy covering your vital areas. Chambering is only used in long forms to develop punching power and a proper path of travel. There are times when you have one foot planted firmly on the ground while your hands and other foot are busy attacking or defending. Typical self defense techniques south of black belt have five to seven steps, and any of these steps may include simultaneous moves with two or more limbs. So Kenpo is not an art that will make you attack proof overnight, but I have great respect for anyone who sticks with it long enough to learn what it has to offer, because one could become quite deadly.

Yes, Kenpo has fancy moves, but the fancy moves work.  When you begin to understand pieces that are not so obvious to a casual observer, it becomes clear that someone has obviously thought this stuff through. Every little move compliments then next one.  For example: a kick or strike to a lower region like the groin or stomach brings the head forward into the next strike.  And in between the major blows of a technique are minor moves like checks that utilize “frictional pull” and covers that protect your vulnerable spots.

I knew that a major concept in Kenpo was manipulating the opponent, but I was thinking mostly about faking, feinting, and otherwise fooling the opponent with your moves. While this does play a part, Kenpo does not take for granted that these tricks will work. Once again, I’m no expert, but I think feinting and faking probably work better with a cautious person in a sparring match, and not so much with a charging mugger or enraged bully. The way Kenpo manipulates the opponent’s body with brief physical contact which often results in a huge payoff.

By way of example: One of the first techniques I learned is called “Deflecting Hammer”, which directs the attacker’s front kick to step down forward using a diagonal outward downward block. The attacker is almost stumbling into you. The second move is a sliding check with your inverted left palm which pins the attacker’s right elbow to his ribs and jerks down into the elbow pocket. This little move accomplishes quite a bit that you might not think about. A: It pins the right arm to prevent it from striking. B: It allows you to control the opponent’s body from spinning too far clockwise or counter-clockwise (your block should have planted the kicking foot without spinning the opponent, but Kenpo takes nothing for granted). C: The downward jerk into the elbow pocket grounds the front leg, preventing it from kicking again. D: Since the opponent cannot spin back toward you for half a second, it effectively neutralizes the left arm as well, so it can’t reach you. E: Because of the sideways position of the attacker in relation to you, his own body is in the way, preventing the rear leg from kicking effectively. And best of all, F: The downward jerking motion pulls the shoulders and head forward into a devastating elbow strike! Of course, a lot of other things contribute to making it work, like proper footwork and hip rotation, precise timing, and enough speed to take advantage of “borrowed force” (the attacker’s momentum toward you only adds to the force of any counter-attack you execute)  and an off-balance attacker.

Now at my level, smack in the middle of the colored belts, I consider some Kenpo techniques too tricky and complicated for me to pull off in a real fight. I’m not at that level yet. As Client Eastwood said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” But this “Deflecting Hammer” I just described is both simple to execute and very effective. It basically neutralizes an incoming kick and sucks the attacker into your elbow strike. This is so easy to pull off that I found it tricky NOT to hurt practice partners when working on a live body at close to full speed.

Kenpo still retains much of the structure, discipline, and etiquette of a traditional martial art, but it’s also a modernized and practical style with enough complexity and cool moves to keep someone like me engaged.