Wyatt Earp and the End of Karate

Wyatt Earp and the End of Karate.

By Robert Hunt

Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, Morgan and Virgil, along with Doc Holiday, all young men (thirty-something), strode resolutely down Wyatt Earp Fourth Street in Tombstone, Arizona, one October afternoon in 1881.

There was snow on the ground from the night before. Doc whistled as they walked. They turned west onto Fremont Street and then continued a block more to an alley behind the OK Corral.

Clanton’s and McLaury’s were waiting in that alley and three of them were killed (some say “murdered”) amid a hail of bullets and a 27 second gunfight that echoes still in our common memory.

Everyone in the fight was hit except Wyatt. It is a little hard to grasp, with so much media having been devoted to Earp over the years, but this is historical fact; it actually happened. There was a trial and witnesses who swore to their testimony. It wasn’t concocted in the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

Wyatt, his notorious friend Doc, and his two brothers walked down a dusty street on a cold October day in southern Arizona, well before the advent of the protection of Kevlar vests, keenly aware that this might be their final day on earth and that the men about to face them were just as hardened and deadly as they. They were intent, Wyatt’s eyes allegedly calm, cold and hard.

Forty years later, that same Wyatt Earp, old and seasoned, eyes still calm, cold and hard, sat on a movie set in Los Angeles, California and coached pretend gunfighters Tom Mix and William S. Hart on how it was done. A real western lawman, an icon whose early life was spent in the pursuit and company of outlaws and guns – a “master” of the art, if you will – passed on fighting techniques to eager apprentices who were blissfully unaware of what it was like to actually shoot a bullet into a person’s chest and watch them die in a pool of blood.

The reality of it all struck me on a recent visit to Tombstone with my grandchildren, while wandering the streets of the preserved old town – strolling down Fourth Street, then turning west on Fremont and a block more to the same entrance to the same alley behind the same OK Corral.

The reality, in fact, overwhelmed me – that Wyatt actually walked these streets, and, there in that alley, drew a cold, heavy revolver from the pocket of his long black coat, aimed it, fired it and, in a burst of smoke and emotion, slaughtered those men who were intent on slaughtering him.

The more I pondered it, the more fascinating it became that I was actually standing on one of those spots where fantasy and reality meet. It was a cathartic experience – like seeing a ghost. It opened a door in my sedate modern life and let in a glimpse of a deadly past.

What also occurred to me, while standing there and, in the days after, was that there is a parallel to Wyatt Earp’s journey from real gunfighter to movie coach, a similar transformation, in the history of the Okinawan karate that I have been trying to master and understand for almost 50 years. Maybe that’s why Wyatt’s story struck such a chord.

With a few notable exceptions, most people who study modern karate have never stared down an enemy pledged to kill them.

My karate friend, Lee Gray, like other soldiers, had a taste of that experience in the jungles of Viet Nam. My part-time teacher, mentor, hero and friend, the late Dan Ivan, experienced something like it and had tales to tell, from his time with the Criminal Investigation Division of the US Army (the CID), in the years immediately following the Second World War, in the raw streets of war torn Japan.

I have another karate friend who was hunted by a biker gang, intent on his death after an altercation with their leader. He was forced to escape California for sanctuary in rural mid America. Even now I hesitate to mention his name on the outside chance that one of the bikers might read this (can they read?) and realize he is still alive somewhere.

I will guarantee you that the doctors, engineers, designers, the random parents and children who stand in front of us two or three nights a week in Ray Hughes’ spectacular dojo in Scottsdale, Arizona, kicking and punching and practicing the arcane bunkai of our art, have never contemplated death in the face of an enemy and, hopefully, never will.

I realized, some time ago that karate, as we practice it today, is not really a “martial” art – that is to say, we don’t really practice it with anything more in the forefront of our conscious minds than surviving mock battle.

I kind of thought I did, in the beginning, fifty years ago when I started studying, but, as I think more about it now, not really and certainly not any longer.

We used to work out diligently in a back room dojo, running for conditioning, lifting weights, punching makiwara, throwing each other around and generally preparing for the attacker who, after fifty years, thankfully, has never shown up.

I don’t approach teaching that way now and few others do, either. Mainly because few people would show up for class, if we did.  (There was a reason why there were only eight people in our dojo).

I practice karate now for its health benefits, for its social benefits, for its mental health benefits, for its connection to history, for its philosophy and for a myriad of other reasons, none of which include down-to-the-death battle.  Not to say karate practice doesn’t make you tough. Some of my karate friends are very effective and I believe that we can hit hard and fast and would probably survive a weaponless encounter or possibly even one involving weapons, but rare are the times when I fear that, if I couldn’t defend myself, I might lose my life, or at least some important limb.

But karate, at one time in history, was certainly practiced with survival in mind. There was a generation of Okinawan martial artists whose lives spanned the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, who walked in both the old world of real battle and the modern one of re-creation, warriors who started out training for combat and ended up, like Wyatt, advising simulators.

There are numerous such Okinawan warriors with names like Kian, Aragaki, Higaonna and Uechi.  Karate history is full of them.

Itosu Anko, is a typical representative, and his time on earth even loosely matches that of Wyatt Earp. Itosu died in Okinawa in 1915; Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929. They were both authentic 19th Anko Itosu century warriors who lived to see calmer days and died in bed in old age.

Itosu, unlike all of us around today, might be justifiably referred to as a karate master. He studied with the legendary Bushi Matsumura in the middle of the 19th century for the purpose of becoming a bodyguard for the last Okinawan King. You can be assured that his training was intense and he was prepared to die in that service.

In his book Shotokan’s Secret: the Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins, Bruce Clayton postulates that Matsumura and Itosu stood alongside the King (or possibly a surrogate) when Admiral Perry’s troops, armed for battle, marched up the streets of Shuri, the Capital, to force a royal audience in Okinawa on their way to open trade relations with the Shogun in Japan.

The Okinawans had no idea what the Americans would do and were certainly prepared to die for their King. They probably expected to.

Thirty years later, that same Itosu, who once stood by his King, found himself training kids – students in an Okinawan middle school – modifying his deadly art into a physical fitness class (thereby making it even more remote and harder for us to understand and apply), passing it along for the added purpose of preserving the tiny bit of national heritage Okinawa still possessed.

Among the other early students who punched and kicked with Itosu were Funakoshi Gichin and Mabuni Kenwa, more or less the KenwaMabuni founders of the  Shotokan and Shi-To Ryu karate systems respectively. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be willing to bet that those two dedicated students never faced a deadly enemy and probably never expected to die in battle.

Karate’s martial applications, considered deadly in Itosu’s time, have become little more than academic curiosity today simply because there was no real purpose for them to develop further.  Modern civilized times have generally eliminated the need for an empty handed martial art, as certainly as they have the need for a fast gun.

Sure, people fight and there are occasions when they shoot at each other and certainly brave police officers face death daily. Once in a while you even hear about a karate guy beating up a thug.  There was a video on YouTube of some guy knocking out a pimp with a back fist strike. But most of us who spend hours in a dojo don’t expect to fight our way down a dark Asian path or a dusty Western street, and if we did, we would probably have a gun in our hand.

Karate is a fighting art “frozen in time.”  It ended not long after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, with a generation of warrior-teachers who mostly died off before the First World War.  Okinawa became part of Japan and the modern world claimed its victims, one of which was the chaos of unorganized times. It was carried on by a few early Okinawan students and has become a worldwide phenomena, but anything added to karate after that last generation of warriors is as irrelevant as learning to fast draw.

And what of the so-called modern karate masters we hear so much about? Masters of nothing more than our own imagination.

Funakoshi and Mabuni were school teachers, not fighters.  They learned from the warrior, but could only pass on the warrior’s techniques, not his soul.

It’s great that they passed on this art.  It has enriched my own life in a manner that I could never begin to assess. But those teachers only gave us the shadow of a martial art, what our friend Marlon Moore refers to as the “museum pieces.” We can play at it and beat it into the ground and get a taste of what battle in Okinawa and China might have entailed, but we will never be warriors, any more than actors are gunfighters.

Wyatt Earp’s spirit resides in our American folklore and mythology, an active member of our film heritage. It fills our books and movies and embodies a bygone, romanticized era. Thank you, Wyatt.

Itosu Anko’s spirit lives on in my dojo and yours. It supervises the transmission of the deadly art he spent a lifetime mastering and, then, bequeathing to the world.  I am sure his warrior spirit relishes our practice. I often wonder what he would say about a class filled with 8 year-old American kids stomping and shouting through his katas. I think he would be pleased.



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