(February 12: Major faux pas, forgot to include a title when I originally posted this. I trust people still understood what the post was about)
When you have too much time on your hands, you do a lot of useless things, like coming up with lists. So here I present my own list of the top 40 most important and influential figures in the history of Asian martial arts. A couple of things to note: first, this is not a list of the “best” martial artists, rather it is simply a list of who has had the greatest influence over the way martial arts have been perceived and practiced around the world, which means one doesn’t even necessarily have to be a martial arts practitioner himself to make the list; second, it’s a list having to do with the Asian martial arts, not of all fighting arts and sports. Thus, no one whose influence was exclusively confined to western sports like boxing or wrestling is eligible for consideration. This is, admittedly, a somewhat arbitrary delineation. For example, though both Russian sambo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu have their roots in Japanese judo, BJJ figures were considered for inclusion on this list while, ultimately, sambo figures were not, simply because BJJ somehow seems more directly connected with its roots as an Asian martial art while sambo has become a wholly western sport. Now, without further ado, I bring you part one of the 40 most important and influential figures in martial arts history…
40. Sokon Matsumura – A famed 19th century Okinawan martial arts master sometimes credited with originally coining the term “karate” which, at the time, meant “Chinese hands” though the meaning of the written characters for the word was later re-interpreted as “empty hands.” His shuri-te style laid the basis for many of the modern Okinawan and Japanese karate systems.
39. Curtis LeMay – A U.S. Air Force general who, while in charge of the Strategic Air Command in the early 1950s, instituted what was probably the first widespread U.S. military effort to incorporate Asian martial arts into regular military training, recruiting leading Japanese judo, karate and aikido experts to tour American bases.
38. Honor Blackman – Best known as Bond girl Pussy Galore and the original female lead in TV’s The Avengers, Blackman was among the first female cinematic action heroes and certainly the first one to show women could defend themselves with the aid of martial arts. Though early female champions like judoka Rusty Glickman and kung fu expert Malia Dacascos were far more accomplished, Blackman was the original face of women’s martial arts back in the 1960s.
37. Munenori Yagyu – The 17th century fencing instructor to the Tokugawa shoguns, Yagyu was probably the first Japanese martial arts exponent to write of the connection between martial arts and spirituality, something that has now become a standard facet of the Japanese systems.
36. Bruce Tegner – One of the most prolific writers in the history of martial arts. Prior to the publication of Black Belt magazine in the 1960s, Tegner provided a large percentage of all the written material available on Asian martial arts in the English language.
35. Peter Urban – One of the earliest American karate instructors, he’s best known for breaking away from his Japanese teacher, Gogen Yamaguchi, and creating his own Americanized version of goju karate in the 1960s, thus becoming the first westerner to declare himself the grandmaster of a martial arts style.
34. Gene LeBell – Rising to prominence in the early 1950s as U.S. judo champion, Lebell remains active today as a coach for UFC women’s champion Ronda Rousey. His longevity as an ongoing major contributor to the martial arts world may be unmatched by anyone in history.
33. Donn Draeger – A renowned judoka, martial arts writer and historian, he’s credited with bringing classical Japanese bujutsu styles to prominence outside Japan and turning the study of martial arts history into a serious scholarly pursuit. He also aided a generation of western martial arts enthusiasts in gaining entrance to Japanese dojos starting back in the 1950s.
32. Yip Man – The grandmaster of wing chun kung fu best known as Bruce Lee’s instructor. He taught a plethora of other students besides Lee, who went on to spread Wing Chun around the world making it one of the most widely practiced Chinese styles.
31 Emilio “Mel” Bruno – One of the first Americans to achieve a black belt in judo in the 1930s, he introduced the style to the U.S. Navy during WW II and later became Curtis LeMay’s point man for martial arts, instituting judo training for the air force.
30. Henri Plée – Originally one of the early French judo black belts in the 1940s, Plée eventually took up the study of aikido and karate. He’s considered by some to be the father of the latter art in Europe having taught many of the continent’s leading experts at one time or another.
29. Bill Wallace – Known by his nickname “Superfoot,” Wallace was one of the early kickboxing pioneers in the U. S. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was, perhaps, the most visible martial arts expert in the country, appearing several times defending his middleweight “full contact karate” title on network television. His unique style of throwing multiple kicks off the same leg without putting his foot down inspired a host of imitators.
28. Chojun Miyagi – An Okinawan karate master credited with founding the Goju-ryu style, which has spawned numerous branches. He taught a number of major karate experts throughout the first half of the 20th century.
27. William E. Fairbairn – A former British Royal Marine who later served with the Shanghai police in the early 20th century. While in China, he studied judo, ju-jutsu and Chinese martial arts, reputedly engaging in hundreds of street fights during his police career. Creating his own method of combat, defendu, he taught various elite military units in Britain and the U.S. during WW II becoming one of the first people to incorporate Asian fighting methods into military hand-to-hand combat.
26. Akira Kurosawa – Famed director of Japanese samurai films. Much as John Ford created a good portion of the western cowboy myth through his films, Kurosawa’s movies helped create the modern popular conception of the samurai and Japanese swordplay, particularly as viewed in the west.
25. Jon Bluming – Could largely be considered the father of Dutch martial arts. Having studied judo and karate in Japan in the 1950s, it’s possible no individual has had a greater influence over the martial arts history of a single country than Bluming has had with Holland. Most of the major modern figures in Dutch martial arts, including MMA fighters Bas Rutten and Alistair Overeem, kickboxer Semmy Schilt and Olympic gold medal judoka Willem Ruska can trace at least part of their martial arts lineage to Bluming.
24. Aaron Banks – The first great promoter of martial arts in the U.S. His karate tournaments and tireless courting of the media helped several martial artists, notably Chuck Norris, rise to national prominence in the 1960s. He went on to promote the Oriental World of Self-Defense, a circus-like demonstration of various martial arts, which appeared yearly on ABC television’s Wide World of Sports show in the 1970s and early 1980s.
23. Dan Inosanto – Bruce Lee’s most prominent student and the main purveyor of the jeet kune do system throughout the world. He also helped bring notoriety in America to a number of previously lesser known martial arts like muay Thai. Perhaps most significantly, he was probably the first person to introduce the Filipino martial arts to a wide-scale western audience.
22. Masaaki Hatsumi – The man most responsible for the ninja boom. Though there is much dispute as to whether he actually studied ninjutsu under a legitimate instructor or simply recreated the style from old texts and other martial arts, beginning in the 1960s his promotion of ninjutsu made the concept of the masked, black-clad, ninja assassin a pop culture fixture.
21. David Carradine – Along with Bruce Lee, Carradine is probably most responsible for the first major western boom in martial arts popularity in the early 1970s. The star of the TV series Kung-Fu, the first and still the most successful fictional television series to revolve around martial arts, his portrayal of Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine inspired an interest in martial arts among millions of viewers.
(Stay tuned for the top 20 in Part 2)