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Last update: 03/02/10
Part I

A belt or sash is only a strip of colored cloth—anyone can buy any colored belt you want and wear it.  Putting on a Black Belt does not make you a "black belt".  Nor does holding a rank of Black Belt qualify you to be an "Instructor".

What is important is your diploma awarding you a Dan or Kyu rank—which can only be awarded by those that have the authority and power to award such a rank.  And no matter how high of a test fee one pays, the rank is still not valid without a signed diploma by a legitimate instructor.

Warning:  a black belt is only a black belt—your rank is your Dan or Kyu rank. Anyone one can buy a belt that’s black. It’s like putting a title of DR. in front of your name and claiming to be an actual DR. You only become a DR. by having the diploma from an accredited medical school to prove it. This is true of every college degree.

The martial arts world is full of people claiming "black belt" rank who have never heard of the Dan and Kyu rankings, and instructors claiming to be an "instructor" without anyone's certification or recognition of such.

Remember:  A Black Belt is only a piece of colored cloth. Your actual rank or “grade” is your authentic diploma—properly awarding a Dan or Kyu rank which is the universally accepted standard by all major systems:  Japanese, Korean and Okinawan.

The Chinese have their own ranking system, however they have had to accept the "karate" standard for rank.  This is shown when they put anyone in competition and they must place their student according to "belt rank".  As a matter of fact, many Chinese systems have now adopted the colored belt system.

The Judo—Karate Connection

Myths and Reality

Something about the martial arts encourages myths and legends.  Perhaps it's the questionable "history" of the arts themselves, or the adventure-seeking nature of many of its practitioners.  Whatever the reason, this tendency toward grandiose fact bending is nowhere more evident than in the various explanations for our belt system.  One of the most common myths—told and repeated by many "authorities"—is that in days of old all students started by wearing white belts, which eventually turned brown from use and dirt and at some magical point beyond that, turned black.

Not a bad story — "Grasshopper" — but all you need to do is observe the well-worn belt of a high-ranking Black Belt to see through this fantasy.  In fact the reverse is more likely true — look at that black belt and you will notice it is almost white where use has made it threadbare; even the black dye has been reduced to white.  A white belt would wear out before it ever turned black.

Another misconception is that the belt system in the Martial Arts originated with Judo.  Like so many of our accepted myths, this one has a grain of truth:  most martial arts systems do copy their current belt systems from Judo, but the belt system did not originate with Judo. When Professor Jigoro Kano developed Judo (The "Gentle Way" or "Art") he didn't have to look far to come up with the ranking system.  He simply borrowed the system in use at the Japanese public schools where belt ranks (Obi in Japanese) were used by different athletic departments, most notably for ranking swimmers.

The use of belt ranking for the swimmers is deeply rooted in Japan's martial arts mystique.  Japan is a small country surrounded by water.  The entire country is a maze of rivers, streams and lakes, surrounded by the sea. Throughout Japanese history these waterways were inevitably crossed and re-crossed by warring factions, as countless important battles took place there or near the expanses of open water which separated one island from another or the different islands from the sea.

In battle — to make it even more difficult — the Samurai was burdened with heavy armor, which could become a death trap in the water.  For this reason every feudal lord, in addition to a fencing hall and archery range, had various ponds for swimming, with and without armor, or even on horseback.  It wasn't enough that a Samurai could swim; his mount (horse) had to be able to swim as well, carrying an armor-weighted rider in the midst of battle.  Swimming was divided into three main divisions:  1. Suiei-jutsu (swimming) 2. Oyogi-jutsu (swimming in armor) 3. Katchu Gozen Oyogi (heavy armor).  As late as the end of the 19th century, after the Meiji Restoration (1868), the school programs of the new Japan included special tests of skill in the water.  The military character was evident in its organization and execution as well as from the weapons used.

Matsudaira (a Japanese historian on that period) describes such a competition that took place in 1907.

The whole number are divided into two parties, one wearing red caps and the other white caps, and each man wears also a small plate, kawarake, on his head tied on with a string, and carries a straw-made stick held in his head above the water.  Under the command of their respective leaders, both parties enter into combat, and at once the surface of the water becomes the center of mimic warfare.  Fierce hand-to-hand fighting takes place with the straw swords.  Those who have their head-plates broken have to retire, and at last the party whose leader may have lost his plate is adjudged by our umpire to have been defeated.  All the movements are carried out in the sea or river where the water is very deep.

To this day in Judo contests, contestants are still designated as red or white.  The same custom has been carried into Karate tournaments as well:  a red ribbon is placed on one contestant's belt, white on the other.  The judges signal a point with either a red or white flag.  The skill level of the contestants was designated by the rank of a belt (sash):  white, brown or black!  From such unlikely beginnings are Karate traditions born.

Professor Kano established his first school, named the Kodokan, in 1882.  The term Kodokan breaks down into Ko (lecture/study/method), Do (way/path), and Kan (hall/place/school).  Thus Kodokan means "a place to study the way."  Kano's first studio, or dojo** (from the Buddhist interpretation for meditation), was only a 12-mat room, 12' X 18', where he taught nine students. In Japan all rooms are laid out to hold a given number of rice straw tatami mats, which are three feet by six feet.  The Japanese measurement is the "Shaku" which is 11.96 inches, about as close to our measurement of the foot as you can get.

HISTORICAL NOTE:  **Dojo:  The word dojo has a much deeper Buddhist meaning than just meditation.  The first historical Buddha, before he received enlightenment, was born prince Gautam of the Sakya clan.  From sect to sect his birth is placed anywhere from 983BC to 440BC.  The accepted version is that he was born in the 6th century BC and died in the 5th century BC. Before he became a Buddha, he left his wife and family, and spent years in fasting, searching and meditation.

One morning while in mediation (sitting on a straw mat, under the Bodhi tree) he looked up and saw the morning star!  At that moment he attained enlightenment:  all was made known to him (although he could never find the words to explain it to others).  The exact spot where he sat under the Bodhi tree, on his straw mat, when he became enlightened was the DOJO (the place of enlightenment).

NOTE:  In the future we will be adding an entire section on Buddhism and Zen (Chan) Buddhism, as it relates to the martial arts.


The following is taken from the official Kodokan publications:

"In 1886, under the auspices of the chief of Metropolitan Police, a grand tournament was arranged between the leading Jujitsu school, led by Hikosuke Totsuka, and Professor Kano's Kodokan Judo.  This was a decisive battle.  Defeat would have been fatal to the Kodokan.  But in that tournament, to which each school sent 15 picked men, the Kodokan won all the bouts excepting two which ended in a draw.  That brilliant victory established once and for all the supremacy of the Kodokan Judo over all Jujitsu schools, not only in principle but also in techniques." ***… Now Judo initiated a rapid growth — not only in Japan but also throughout the world.

And along with Judo's ascension came the introduction of the belt system to the martial arts.  Professor Kano devised the Belt System along distinct lines.  At the highest level were the Dan ranks (black belt and above).  Below a black belt were Kyu ranks.  Originally a sash was used to designate ranking.  In 1906-07 the belt as we know it today was initiated by Professor Kano.  In 1909 the Kodokan became an official organization, and in 1911 the Kodokan Black Belt Association was formed.

Note that the belt ranking is done simply by numbering (counting).  In the Kyu grades - counting is done backwards - starting with 5 then 4, with 1 being the highest grade in the Kyu ranking!

This order is reversed with the Dan Ranking.  1st Dan being the lowest grade (step); 10th Dan being the highest!

“Shodan” means “lowest rank”.

The following is the original belt system that gave the world its first official standard.

Gokyu 5th Kyu White Belt
Shikyu (or Yonkyu) 4th Kyu White Belt
Sankyu 3rd Kyu Brown Belt
Nikyu 2nd Kyu Brown Belt
Ikkyu 1st Kyu Brown Belt

Violet Belt (Purple) in the junior division was used for all boys below the age of 18, in place of the adult Brown Belt. No Dan rankings (black belt) were ever given to anyone under the age of 18!  There were no exceptions!

HISTORICAL NOTE:  At the "Gathering of Eagles" held in Las Vegas in 1999 there was unanimous agreement among all the "Senior Yudanshakai Masters":  NO DAN RANKING FOR ANY YOUTH!  Most wanted a minimum age of 18, however all agreed never below the age of 16!


Dan (step or rank) -- This is the first graded rank!

Shodan 1st Dan Black Belt
Nidan 2nd Dan Black Belt
Sandan 3rd Dan Black Belt
Yodan 4th Dan Black Belt
Godan 5th Dan Black Belt
Rokudan 6th Dan Belt of Red and White Sections (or Black)
Shichidan 7th Dan Belt of Red and White Sections (or Black)
Hachidan 8th Dan Belt of Red and White Sections (or Black)
Kudan 9th Dan Red Belt (or Black)
Judan 10th Dan Red Belt (or Black)

To fully understand and appreciate the oriental mind in relation to the Martial Arts you only have to look at the TRUE translation of SHODAN!  To the western world, achieving SHODAN or 1st Dan Black Belt is the ultimate achievement — I have arrived, I am now a Black Belt.  This after only 18 months.

How differently the Japanese look at Shodan.  After years and years of training, (usually starting as a youth), you are finally promoted to Shodan.  (SHODAN: "Lowest Rank" is the true translation!)  You are no more than a beginner. Only now, for the first time, may "Sensei" consider you ready for training and advanced knowledge.

True training only starts with the Shodan rank!  That's why there are no young "masters" (except in the U.S.)!  Anyone with less than 20 years of training is considered a beginner in both China and Japan!

In Judo promotions within the white and brown belts were loosely structured, with no requirements that a student must make progressive steps.  One could go directly from a white belt to 1st black belt — assuming one had the skill. The thinking was very exact:  you were either a graded belt (black belt) or you were not.  For all practical purposes a 1st brown belt held little more prestige than a 3rd brown belt.  This is not true of the Dan rankings, where each advancement is made one step at a time.  The Kodokan also established the minimum age for Shodan (1st Black) as 16. And there were very few of them at that tender age, as there were no weight divisions!

The original belt ranks for females:  those who hold Dan or Kyu grades in the girls' or women's division, which correspond to those of the boys' and men's division, use respectively the red, red and white, black, brown or violet (purple) belts but with a white stripe running lengthwise through the center.  This provision is no longer rigidly adhered to.

A separate woman's division was created in 1924.  Women could achieve ranking in one of two ways:  Randori (freestyle) or Kata (there are nine official Katas).  In the 1988 Olympics women's Judo was introduced as a demonstration sport — given the same status as Tae Kwon Do. And now women's Judo has been elevated to a permanent full medal sport, as has Tae Kwon Do.

As a rule men advanced through the ranks by competing in a promotional Shiai* where you were matched against men of your own rank or higher.  You continued to fight until you lost.  This testing procedure was used through the 4th and 5th Dans.  From this point on, age became a major factor and promotions were awarded based upon knowledge and dedication to the principles of Judo.

HISTORICAL NOTE:  *Shiai The first Karate tournaments in the U.S. would follow this format:

1. No weight divisions

2. You fought until you lost

3. Brown belts could fight against Black belts for advancement.

HISTORICAL NOTE:  Just this weekend (4/25/1999) I was having a discussion with Grandmaster Al Novak (age 82).  Al started training in Karate back in Japan after World War II after General Douglas MacArthur OK’d the teaching of Karate but not Judo.  We had both attended the first Karate "Shiai" sponsored by Duke Moore in San Francisco in 1963.  The above rules were used.

HISTORICAL NOTE:  Most of the original Karate systems fought against ever trying to make "Karate" a sport or even allowing "KUMITE"!  To paraphrase Master Nakayama - I pray that when I go to heaven that Master Funakoshi does not beat me for introducing Kumite into Shotokan!

The loose rule:  if you were 18 and defeated two Black belts in a row they were eligible for advancement.

You were only "physically eligible" - if you did not have the "true spirit" or the right attitude you were not promoted regardless of physical ability.  As a general rule a person would never have advanced to this point without the "right attitude" - they would have been kicked out of the Dojo at the first sign of disrespect - or lack of "fighting spirit"!

Provisions were also made for weaker players who could not win in open competition.  They could be promoted because of their knowledge, dedication to Judo, and time dedicated to the martial arts.  And what they "gave back" to the art.

In the United States we associate the "Dan" or "black belt" ranking only with the martial arts; this is not true in Japan, where a great many endeavors that require skill are awarded the "Dan" or "black belt" ranking.  The best examples of this are GO (a game of strategy, played with white and black stones), and Shogi, the Japanese equivalent of Chess, where the skill level is also ranked by "Dans."

As Bruce Lee foretold it:  "The old Sifu has to watch what he tells the young student, because someday the young student may become the old Sifu."

May we once and forever bury the story:  "… in days of old all students started by wearing white belts, which eventually turned brown …"


* "That brilliant victory established once and for all (see below) the supremacy of the Kodokan Judo over all Jujitsu schools, (they only fought one style) not only in principle but also in techniques."

Notice how this same claim would much later be made again from the closely related descendant style of Judo, Brazilian Jujitsu, most notably by "Gracie Jiu-jitsu", to promote their art.

This is a story of its own — these are the official words (propaganda) taken directly from the Kodokan, but most of it is untrue.  Why?  In truth, of the 15 men selected to represent the Kodokan, only a few were Kano's students.  The others were masters from other Jujitsu styles teaching out of the Kodokan (they did not teach or practice Kano's Judo).  One such master was Shiro Saigo, a master of Daito-ryu Jujitsu (an Aiki system).  Because of the misrepresentations, lies, and propaganda used by Kano to promote Judo after this match, Master Saigo in 1891 left the Kodokan and went to Nagasaki, forever turning his back on Jujitsu, the Kodokan and professor Kano!

"… once and for all the supremacy of the Kodokan Judo over all Jujitsu schools, not only in principle but also in techniques."

Quite the contrary!  First of all they fought only one other style — that hardly made them superior over "all Jujitsu schools and styles!"

In 1900, Judo (the Kodokan) suffered a devastating defeat by the Fusen-ryu Jujitsu.  Up to this point, the Kodokan had concentrated only on Tachi-waza (standing techniques), and when a Judoka was taken to the Tatami (mats) he lacked Ne-waza (ground work) skills.  It took another series of defeats before Kano instituted Katame-waza (grappling) methods into Judo six years later in 1906.

Why did Kano deliberately mislead the public in relation to Judo?  "The end justifies the means."  But why did he feel he needed to do it?  That's a story of its own!  And it was brought about by what happened to Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu.

More to come ...

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Portions of this article ©1996-1999 by Al Tracy.  All rights reserved.  No portion may be reproduced without permission.



Last update: 03/02/10

The secret to the success of the Tracy System is no secret at all:  Provide a quality service—Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu as self-defense that actually works—taught through private instruction by competent, qualified, courteous full-time instructors and personal trainers.


Before the Tracy brothers began their Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu training they had trained in western martial arts, fencing, boxing and wrestling from their earliest years, so the eastern martial arts were natural for them.  Al Tracy was the "powerhouse" among the brothers, and while Will Tracy was studying Judo in Japan and Karate in Korea while in the Army, Al excelled in weight lifting while he served tour of duty in the Air Force.

The Tracy Brothers Learn Kenpo

In 1957, there were fewer than a half dozen karate schools on the Mainland U.S.  As fortune would have it, Ed Parker had recently opened his Pasadena Kenpo Karate Studio, which was only a few blocks from where the Tracy brothers could attend college as pre-law students.  A close relationship quickly developed between Ed Parker and the brothers, and Ed started his first day-time-class to fit into the Tracy brother's class schedule.  The Tracy brothers were the only regular students in this Kenpo class, and with this early form of "private instruction" they advanced quickly in the evening beginning class to the intermediate class where Ed Parker's first black belt, Jimmy Ibrao , dazzled everyone with his mastery of Kenpo.

The Tracy Brothers Begin Teaching Kenpo

Within six months the brothers were teaching the beginning students their first private lesson to prepare them for the group class.  And Ed Parker revolutionized the karate business when Will Tracy introduced the 3-month program he used for selling membership at the American Health Studios he managed.  Instead of signing up for one month, as all karate schools did, students now paid for three months in advance; and where the first month drop-out-rate for students had been as high as 90% when the brothers began training with Ed Parker, by the end of 1958, 90% of Ed Parker's new students were still training after 3 months.  By that time, Ed Parker, who had no real patience for teaching beginning students, had turned the teaching of all the beginning and intermediate classes over to the three brothers, and James Ibrao taught the advanced classes.  Where Jimmy Ibrao was renown for his spectacular kicking ability, Al Tracy became the powerhouse of Ed Parker's studio and took over all the brick and board breaking demonstrations.  It was Al Tracy who did the breaking at the Beverly Hilton demonstration where Ed Parker met Elvis Presley in 1960.

Why They Began

The Tracy brothers didn't begin their kenpo karate training with any thought of becoming karate instructors.  Karate was something they wanted to learn, and no one, not even Ed Parker, was making money teaching karate at the time.  Kenpo had a distinct advantage over karate, in that Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu had over 500 techniques, which, unlike karate, could be learned quickly.  The brothers wrote down each move and technique they learned as soon as their private instruction or group class was over, then, when they got home, they would practice the move and put it on 8mm film.  (Many of these 8mm Kenpo and Jiu jitsu techniques can now be seen in the History of Kenpo Video Tapes.)  After a year of training, the brothers saw the potential for making enough money teaching Kenpo to put themselves through law school.

Their Immediate Success as Kenpo Teachers

Ed Parker's Kenpo school had brought in less than $300 a month when the Tracy brothers started training with him.  That equates to about $1,500 in today's money.  But there were months when Parker brought in less than $150, and this was barely enough for him to pay the rent.  By the end of 1958, Ed's school was bringing in $400-$600 a month, and for the first time since he had left Hawaii in 1954, Ed Parker had enough money to go home to visit.  He also wanted to continue training under his instructor, Professor William K. S. Chow , because he was running out of techniques to teach his advanced students.  But Parker and Chow were not on good terms, and Will Tracy was sent to Hawaii to study with Chow and soften Parker's return.

The Tracy Brothers Run Ed Parker's School

Ed turned his school over to the Tracy brothers in the late summer of 1959 in preparation for going back to Hawaii.  The first month the Tracy brothers ran his school, it brought in over $1,000.  That equates to over $5,000 dollars in today's money, and the studio never brought in less than $1,000 a month as long as the Tracy brothers ran it.  This of course made Ed very happy.  The brothers developed a sales approach for new students, and personally taught all of the new students before they went into the group classes.  They established an order in which the Kenpo techniques would be taught in each class, and personally taught all of the beginning and intermediate classes.  During the long period Ed Parker was away from his school, the brothers went through Ed Parker's technique file and had Jimmy Ibrao teach them all of the techniques in the advanced class.

Ed Parker Returns

Ed Parker was only in Hawaii about six weeks, but seeing the success of his school without him being there, he didn't come to the studio more than once a month for over 9 months.  Each day, the brothers would take the receipts from the previous day to Ed's home where he would teach them in his small back yard.  Then Ed would go back to writing his book, Kenpo Karate, The Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand.  It soon became clear that Ed Parker had indeed taught all the Kenpo he knew.

When Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate, The Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand was published in 1960, it contained the 63 techniques the Tracy brothers had organized for the beginning class.  Ed, however, was running out of material to teach his advanced students and took James Ibrao and some of his other top students to San Francisco to learn from some of the Chinese Kung Fu (Gung Fu) masters.  It was there that Parker met Jimmy Wing Woo who was one of the most respected kung-fu masters in the United States, and brought him from San Francisco to live with him in Pasadena, so Woo could co-author a new book he was planning on "Chinese" Karate, later entitled Secrets of Chinese Karate.

James Wing Woo Creates Traditional Kenpo

Jimmy Wing Woo was exactly what Ed Parker needed.  Where as Ed Parker had run out of new Kenpo material to teach, Woo had a wealth of new knowledge.  With this new teacher of kung fu, Ed Parker began adding the forms Woo created for Kenpo to Ed's new system that would become known as, "Traditional Kenpo".  The Jiu-Jitsu techniques that had been a large part of "Original Kenpo" were eliminated, and all belt promotions were put on hold while Parker made the transition from "Original Kenpo" to "Traditional Kenpo".  Al and Jim Tracy were Ikkyu (1st degree brown belt) with only James Ibrao, Rich Montgomery, and Rick Flores as black belts and Ed Tabian (Ikkyu) ahead of them in rank.  They had no objections to not being promoted until they had learned the new Kenpo system that was still being created, but many of their students did object, and the intermediate class took a sharp drop in enrollment until Ed Parker agreed to continue awarding "belt tips" under Original Kenpo.

Ed Parker's Black Belts Leave Him

In the spring of 1961, Woo and Parker had a bitter parting of the way in which all of Parker's black belts, including Ed Tabian who had just been promoted to Shodan, and most of his brown belts and high ranking white belts left him to continue studying with Woo.  Woo had lived with Ed Parker and received his food and a place to live with the promise of sharing in the book they were writing together.  Then when the book was near completion, Parker cut Woo out.  Ed's advanced students set Woo up in a school, and without any encouragement, most of Ed's high-ranking students went with Woo.  Those students have remained students of James Wing Woo for over 35 years, and are still learning from that great kung fu master as recently as 1997.  It was this pivotal moment where Ed Parker would begin down a path of "hiding his knowledge" so that "no future student could lay claim to having his complete original Kenpo knowledge and teachings except himself".  This would become Ed's primary reason for his final system of "American Kenpo".

The Tracy Brothers Stop Teaching Kenpo

Ed Parker was furious over his black belts leaving, and in a rage he told a group of intermediate students that the Tracy brothers were "in on it" and he would strip them of their brown belts.  But the brothers knew nothing of the defection.  Al Tracy had helped remodel and open Ed Parker's second school near Beverly Hills, but the brothers taught in Pasadena and seldom went to the other school, which was run by the students who left Ed.  When Al and Jim Tracy heard of Parker's threat to strip them of their belts, they went to his office, threw their belts on his desk and told him he could keep them.  They then refused to teach any longer for Parker because they did not want to give him any reason to believe they were pirating students for Woo.

The Brothers Return

For the first time in a year and a half, Ed Parker's Pasadena school was making less than $1,000 a month, but now it was seldom even making over $600 a month.  A few months later, in October of 1961, Will Tracy, who had been gone for nearly two years, returned to Pasadena and the split between his brothers and Ed was mended.  Parker would, however, harbor a lasting resentment toward Al and Jim Tracy for not telling him that Ed's students were leaving him, even though the brothers knew nothing about it.  With Al Tracy teaching Kenpo for Parker again the Pasadena studio was back to making over $1,500 a month.  But Ed Parker's problems were only temporarily solved.  Woo had taught all of the Kenpo and kung fu forms to James Ibrao, and "Jimmy" had been teaching them to Al and Ed Parker.  With "Jimmy" gone on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters , there was nothing new for Ed Parker to teach and he had to create new forms on his own, and with the help of his students.  As Ikkyu, Al and Jim Tracy were his highest-ranking belts Ed Parker had left, and there were only three other brown belts besides them who had stayed with Parker.  To fill this void, Parker had promoted half a dozen white belts to Sankyu (third degree brown belt).  Will Tracy had received his Shodan in Hawaii from Fusae Oshita and Professor Chow in November 1961.

Shodan was the highest rank in Kenpo until December 1961, when Kenpo, following the Shotokan Karate lead, made Godan (5th degree black belt) the highest rank in Kenpo.  On January 7, 1962, Ed Parker promoted both Al and Jim Tracy to their long overdue Shodan.

The Tracy Brothers First Kenpo Karate Studio

When Jim Tracy, who had gone into the National Guard for 6 months during this period, returned, he went to San Francisco (Spring of 1962) and opened the brothers first Kenpo karate studio.  Al and Will Tracy stayed in Pasadena to teach for Ed until that summer, and by July, all three brothers were in San Francisco where their studio was not yet called Tracy's Kenpo Karate Studio but simply Kenpo Karate Studio and this was the Northern California branch of Ed Parker's organization, as the pamphlet from the following year clearly shows.

The Tracy Brothers Create the Kenpo Colored Belt System

One of the first things the Tracy brothers did when they opened their own school was to create three new Kyu ranks, and instead of giving brown tips on the white belts, they awarded orange, purple, blue and green belts to the earned Kyu ranks.  White belt, which was unearned and could be worn by everyone, became Hachikyu (8th Kyu), Nanakyu (7th Kyu was orange) Rokkyu (6th kyu was purple) Gokyu (5th kyu was blue) and Yonkyu (4th kyu was green).  Each belt required the student to learn 40 Original Kenpo techniques, and one Form (Kata) from the new Traditional Kenpo.  Ed Parker came to San Francisco in the summer of 1962, for the first promotion and adopted the new 8-Kyu system, but rejected the color belts for his Kenpo students.  He would continue to use four brown tips on a white belt until converting to the Tracy-color-belt-system in 1966.  After that, most of Kenpo (and not much later the rest of karate too) adopted the Tracy belt system.

The Tracy Brothers Standardize the Belt System

When the Tracy brothers first began training in Kenpo, white belt promotions were little better than a roll of the dice.  Some white belts knew more and were better practitioners than some Sankyu (3rd degree brown belts).  Only the Shodan and top two ranks of brown belts required ability.  But there were no tests or standardized set requirements.  Rank was given according to the instructor’s judgment.  The Tracy brothers had moved up the Kenpo ranks quickly in Ed Parker's school, but they could see the effect subjective belt rank had on the other students.  The Kenpo Karate Association of America (KKAA) had been established to control how belts were awarded, but until Jimmy Ibrao became a Shodan, there was little control, and no standard.  Since the Tracy brothers were teaching the beginning and intermediate classes, they required a student to know 80 techniques to advance from the beginning class to the intermediate class.  To advance to the brown belt class they required 160 techniques.  The brothers ignored the belt tips awarded by Ed, and advanced many students to a higher class even though Ed Parker had not awarded them a "brown tip" or brown belt.  It was ability that counted for the black and brown belts who was promoted to Nikyu, Sankyu and Shodan.

After the "Woo split" Ed Parker would only allow one new technique a week to be taught in the beginning and intermediate classes.  This would take over a year and a half to advance from white belt to the first brown tip under the system the Tracy brothers had established.  So Ed simply reduced the number of techniques and promoted students he thought deserved rank to one and two tips even though they knew fewer than half the required techniques.

After the Tracy brothers established the Tracy colored-belts, they created belt manuals, which originally required 40 techniques for each belt (all material was being required by Shodan at that time), and students were promoted as soon as they met the requirements.  Since one to two new techniques were taught each week in the classes, Tracy students were earning Orange belts in 4-5 months, and Purple belt in 8-10 months.  Some Kenpo students, who were taking private instruction, were earning as high as Blue belt in as little as 9 months to 1 year.  When some of these students visited Ed Parker's studio, Parker's students were so impressed with what the Tracy students knew and how quickly they learned, that Parker asked Will Tracy to come back to Los Angeles and help him implement the same program.

Why Most of the Jiu-Jitsu in Kenpo is Often Only Taught to Black Belts

Ed Parker had removed all of the Jiu-Jitsu techniques and the falls and rolls from his system of Kenpo when he changed to Traditional Kenpo in 1960.  The Tracy brothers brought these with them to their Kenpo school, preserving the Original System.  As they became successful, they had no problem getting insurance for their school after the insurance agent watched half a dozen of their Kenpo classes.  However, the agent could not get an American Insurance company to cover the Ju-Jitsu aspects of the system and submitted this coverage to Lloyds of London, which for a high enough premium was reputed to cover every risk.  When the application came back it was boldly stamped, RISK NOT ACCEPTABLE.  No insurance company in the world at the time would cover Jujitsu, and all of the "potential injury" causing techniques had to be either discontinued or taught only for the black belts (expert level).  Many instructors continued to follow this rule even after insurance became obtainable decades later, and it is for this reason many instructors either don't teach any of the Jiu-Jitsu of Kenpo (if they never made it to Shodan in the original system then they never learned it) or they still only teach it after their student achieves Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt).

The Tracy Brothers Expand

The Tracy brother's success was almost immediate, and a second Kenpo studio was opened in Sacramento in late 1962.  A third Kenpo studio was opened in San Jose in late 1963.  The foundation for the Tracy success had been laid in their Kenpo training and the teaching methods they had developed.  They had just created a new manual where the techniques were given unique names, like "Attacking Circle", "Raising the Staff" and "Delayed Sword".

One of the San Jose students was a dance instructor by the name of Tom Conner.  Conner had never studied any martial arts before coming with Tracy's, and he knew nothing about fighting.  He was, however, a fantastic dancer and salesman.  He brought with him a sales program he had adopted from Arthur Murray's Dance Studios, which started all students on 5 introductory ½ hour private lessons for $19.50 (about $95 in today's money).  The student would be tested on the 4th private lesson and then go on a program of private and group lessons combined.

This concept was sound and perfectly suited for Kenpo.  The brothers knew the advantage of private instruction, as they had always started each student off with at least one private lesson to prepare them for the group classes.  They had also seen how quickly a student advanced when taking private lessons, but few could afford $50 an hour.  The half hour private lesson was exactly what they had needed, as the brothers had found that a student just could not learn as many Kenpo techniques as they could teach in a full hour anyway.  Al and Jim Tracy took over teaching the introductory private lessons, and then when the student was tested, Tom Conner would make the "sale" for a program of private and group instruction.

As soon as the regular students saw how quickly the new students were advancing on private lessons, they too wanted to get on the program.  In the next 12 months, the San Jose Studio outgrew 15 locations, and there were over 800 students, all taking private lessons, and the brothers producing the instructors needed to teach all of the private lessons.

Tracy's Kenpo Karate is Founded

In mid 1964, Ed Parker turned the Kenpo Karate Association of America (KKAA) over to the Tracy brothers, and became the head of the newly formed International Kenpo Karate Association (IKKA).  This new organization only required 32 techniques for each belt, and the Tracy brothers agreed to this.  But the IKKA also required a written "thesis" for "black belt", and the brothers rejected that outright, as few of the black belts who had been promoted to that time could have met this requirement, not to mention it gave an unfair advantage to a student with a college education, which had nothing to do with their martial arts ability or knowledge.  The brothers agreed to join the IKKA on the condition that the KKAA standards of the past would be kept for their students.

There was another difference in the belts awarded in the IKKA and those of the KKAA.  The Tracy brothers got permission from the other Kenpo Yuudansha (Individuals ranked Shodan or higher) before promoting anyone to Shodan.  Ed Parker refused to get the approval of his fellow Yuudansha, and gave "first degree black belt" instead of Shodan to most of his black belts on their diplomas.  This became Ed's way of promoting someone without really promoting them, as "Black Belt" has no real meaning - only Shodan means something in the Japanese rank structure.  The different standard for belts was a major problem, but when Ed Parker changed the name of his system from "Kenpo" to "Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate" and refused to implement the private lesson program, the brothers changed the name of their schools to Tracy's Kenpo Karate Studios.

The Sales Program Falters

The Tracy brothers had been promoted to Sandan (3rd degree black belt) in 1964, and under the new private lesson program they were producing more Shodans than all the rest of Kenpo combined.  Jim Tracy opened a fourth studio in Phoenix Arizona, under the name TraCo (Tracy-Conner).  Unfortunately, the Tom Conner's sales program could not be duplicated, and Tom would fly into Phoenix each Friday to close the sales Jim had prepared during the week.  The brothers knew that without a sales program they could never go beyond a few schools, and their black belts would never match their own success unless a sales program could be developed that anyone could use.  Tom Conner knew the success of Tracy's depended on him, and even though he could not learn the material to progress beyond Green Belt, he insisted that he be given Black Belt.  Tracy's refused.  It was about this time that one of the Phoenix students who was with the District Attorneys office in Phoenix called Jim Tracy in to ask him about drug dealings at the Phoenix school.  The Tracy brothers have always had a zero tolerance for drug use in their schools, and when it was discovered that the time of the known drug deals coincided with Tom Conner being at the school, the brothers turned the school and TraCo over to Conner and severed all relations with him permanently.

Tracy's Goes International

The Conner's sales program had been based on the Arthur Murray's Dance Studios sales program, so Al Tracy hired Hal Bowen, who was the top sales closer for Arthur Murray's in San Francisco to train the Tracy instructors.  At the first sales meeting, Hal told everyone, "I'm here to work myself out of a job".  And he did just that.  The sales program he developed for Tracy's was so simple that not only could everyone learn it, just about everyone could also teach it to others.  Within three months Tracy schools were opening throughout California.  Three months later, Tracy black belts were opening in other states.  Tracy studios were doing so well that instructors from other systems of martial arts joined Tracy's and the Tracy brothers formed Tracy's International Schools of Self-Defense, where Kenpo was taught to beginning students using the Tracy sales method, and then they were taught the system of the instructor; Kajukenbo, Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Gung Fu and other systems to name a few.

The Unearned Kenpo Belt Ranks

When the Tracy brothers and Tom Conner went their separate ways, Conner was only a Green Belt in the Tracy System of Kenpo.  He immediately went with Ed Parker who promoted him to an "Honorary Sandan" (3rd black) and opened 9 schools in the Denver Colorado area called CoPar (Conner-Parker).  Parker hoped Conner could lend the same sales success to Parker's schools which he had originally lent to the Tracy's.  Seeing Tom Conner receive an unearned black belt rank, other Tracy Shodans quickly went with Ed Parker who promoted them to 3rd degree black belt with little or no training with him at all.  Tracy Purple, Blue and Green Belts were given unearned ranks of 1st degree black belts and higher by Ed Parker.  But unearned belt rank was not what sold Kenpo, and CoPar quickly went bankrupt, and by 1970 all of Ed Parker's franchises were in financial trouble.  By 1971 most of Ed Parker's schools had failed, including the school he had with Chuck Sullivan.  This was the most productive and expansive period in all of the martial arts with hundreds of Kenpo and karate schools opening.

The Tracy brothers held no resentment toward Ed Parker for taking their instructors.  They felt this was a unifying, rather than a dividing move.  J. T. Will, Steve LaBounty and Steve's student, Jim Kelly, were Tracy Shodans who took the Tracy sales method, along with the Tracy belt manuals with them when they went with Ed Parker.  The Tracy brothers felt these were the men who would help create Ed Parker's system of Kenpo, and the closer the Tracy and Parker systems were, the better it was for Kenpo.

What the Tracy brothers did not like was the selling of belt rank, and they refused to give unearned rank for instructors to stay with them.  Many instructors who had received unearned rank from Parker stayed with him until they could get no further rank and then they left to form their own systems of Kenpo.  The failed wisdom of this is shown in the failure of those systems who were given unearned rank, and therefore of course gave unearned rank to their students, and the success of Tracy's by comparison, where rank must be earned.

Tracy's Remains Kenpo

While Tracy's opened their system to all styles of karate, and added much of these other styles to their system, they kept Original and Traditional Kenpo unchanged.  And it was Original Kenpo that was the foundation for their success both in business and tournaments where Tracy's dominated the karate & martial arts world.

Ed Parker, on the other hand, had removed all of the Jiu-Jitsu and nearly all of the takedown techniques, while modifying his system of Kenpo continually from 1960 to 1970.  Then over the next decade, he implemented changes that took most of Original Kenpo out of the system, and by 1982 Ed Parker had changed his system into what he now called American Kenpo so drastically as to make it, in his own words, "no more than 10% Kenpo".  It was about this time that Tracy's completely broke from Ed Parker.  When he died in 1990, American Kenpo was no longer Kenpo.  But American Kenpo was not "Ed Parker Kenpo".  American Kenpo was a system for those who were not Ed Parker Kenpo - a lesser version, so to speak.  American Kenpo was designed without structure, so those from other systems could learn Kenpo and when they met Ed Parker's standards, they could become "Ed Parker Kenpo".  While changes that address the vicissitudes of fighting are always good, change that abandons the tried and proved techniques of the past, adds nothing to any martial art.  When Kenpo proved to be ineffective in tournament competition because most of the techniques were not allowed (because they were too dangerous for the opponent), Tracy's brought world champion, Joe Lewis, in as their national karate & martial arts director.  The Joe Lewis system became part of the Tracy system, and Tracy Kenpo and karate students dominated the tournament scene for over a decade.  Tracy's then developed a new form of competition, which they called “Kickboxing”.  However, because of the Tracy dominance in this field, Joe Lewis and many Tracy students could not get matches until Tracy student, Jay T. Will formed the PKA.  The Tracy System of Kenpo has proved itself from the inception, and has continued to evolve into an effective art of self-defense.  With the advent of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and its devastating defeat of Tae Kwon Do and all other systems in no-holds-barred competition, only Tracy's Shootfighters have been able to stand up to the competition.  And with the formation of the United Fighting League, and the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), which have established rules for "open" fighting, it is Tracy's and the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu systems that dominate realistic fighting and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) competitions.

On the other hand, the theories of both American Kenpo and Taekwondo have proven to be impractical, and many American Kenpo and TKD (Tae Kwon Do) instructors find the art they teach to be quite ineffective in use, and completely incompetent in open fight competitions (MMA, etc.), only working instead when the competitions are within their own style (the opponent "agrees" to fight the same way).  But then, many American Kenpo instructors who began their training in the Tracy System later switched to American Kenpo, where their belt rank was easier, unearned, or in some cases could simply be bought, and they have lost sight of the Tracy tradition of excellence in Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu, Shootfighting®, and the martial arts.  Opponents in open competition (mixed-martial arts) and on the street in real world self-defense rarely, if ever, will follow the "rules" of any "style" of fighting.  Try telling your opponent he's not allowed to punch, or not allowed to kick, or not allowed to take you to the ground.

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Portions of this article ©1996-1999 by Al Tracy & Will Tracy.  All rights reserved.  No portion may be reproduced without permission.


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