Interview with Kenpo Karate Instructor and Author Irvin Gill Part II

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Irvin Gill. Read the first part here.

 Irvin Gill Sensei began training in the Tracy System of American Kenpo in 1990 and has been teaching since 1994. After almost thirty years of training in American Kenpo, he recently published his book, American Kenpo Karate: The Key Principles and Rules of American Kenpo Karate. With Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Gill Sensei touches upon his recent release, his time as a dojo owner, and the current state of martial arts. All images provided by Gill Sensei.

MAYTT: An art lives on if there are those who can teach it. Thinking about future instructors, there is debate regarding what would be the best way to build a better instructor, someone to carry on the art’s legacy. Some propose it to be the responsibility of the dojo itself, by an in-house instructors’ program. While others contest that it would be best facilitated and maintained by organizations on a much larger stage. What are your thoughts?

IG: Define “better.” Is it a better success in generating revenues? Is it a better recognition/media coverage? Or is it a better program, whatever that means? People are people. They understand what they can, do what they can, teach what they can. There is no perfect solution.

There are martial arts systems that indeed utilize the larger stage for advancement and instructor certification. It creates homogeneity. Everyone is on the same page. There is less confusion for the students. Have you ever been in a class where the teacher demonstrates how various masters perform a certain movement? I have. Watching the class, you can just see them becoming exasperated. Finally, someone may blurt out, “Could you just show us what you want us to do?” They need solid starting points, well grounded in the principles and concepts of that system.

With the smaller schools, you are approaching instruction from a boutique or craft model. There is more leeway for molding the lessons to the comprehension and physical abilities of the students.

Trees live on. They grow. And while they are recognizable, they are different each and every year. The bark and the shape of the leaves look the same, but there are more of those leaves. The branches lengthen and thicken. Perhaps a storm has blown some of the dead branches down, pruning them. The tree casts a larger circle of shade.

Dr. Maung Gyi, the founder and Head Instructor of the American Bando System once told me, “A system should not be a prison for control and punishment. A system offers a home for growth and development.”

MAYTT: How did your dojo address developing new/future instructors?

IG: That was a deficit. There were those with potential. Two of them were asked to teach the junior tigers’ class when it was initiated, but that program died after six months when the school closed. But I did not do that well and have considered how that should change in the future.

thomas orum
Here, sempai Thomas Orum working with some new adult students when Gill Sensei had his dojo.

With my new class, the plan is to use a mentoring system to allow higher ranking students work with newer ones. That allows me to see what the seniors know well.

MAYTT: Recently, several martial arts writers have claimed that traditional martial arts like karate have been on a steady decline since 2004. Do you agree with the assessment? Have you shared a similar experience, or has it been different?

IG: I would agree although I would also have to ask you to clarify the phrase “traditional martial arts.” I am sure that there were those who said this in the year 1900. Western influences were sweeping through the Orient, strengthening their grip. The purpose and teachings of the martial arts were changing. They sought to throw out these invaders. Look up the Boxer Rebellion.

Then there was all that unpleasantness of the two World Wars, then the police actions in Korea. It seems that the new tradition of the martial arts sprung like Athena from Zeus’ forehead, gaining a toehold in America during the 1950s and solidifying itself in the 1960s. Before that, there was judo and boxing here is the States.

MMA and other new “flavors” become popular. But that’s true of anything. What’s old becomes new. The Martial Arts are not for everyone anyway, just like there aren’t too many Eddie Van Halens out there.

MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic, specifically males, is very low, almost vacant, in karate as well as other traditional martial arts schools across America. Is this accurate? If so, what do you think is contributing to such a decline and can traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics among their membership numbers?

IG: I have no statistics to confirm or refute that question. At my school, that demographic did have some significant representation. I might even lower that age to sixteen. Late teens to the early twenty’s seem to be a difficult age bracket to bring into the arts as new students.

As I see it, there are three factors. That age group would rather play video games to relax in their down time; they’d rather go to the gym and pump up; or the ones that are working, are working so much that they do not have sufficient time to apply to martial arts training.

I believe that “traditional martial arts” will decline if things keep going as they are. Perhaps smaller, more devoted clubs or even master/ apprentice instruction will prevail.

The last point would be how traditional martial arts are perceived by that age demographic. Karate is something that little kids do while wearing pajamas; yelling, kicking, punching and falling down on the mat. IT’S JUST NOT COOL! Once that judgement has been made, it is all but impossible to change it.

MAYTT: In your opinion, Sensei, did the Americanization of karate influence the art’s initial rise to popularity in the United States? And in turn, do you see that same Americanization contributing to the art’s now decline?

IG: To answer the first question: Yes…by definition of terms. Also, as a result of the times and the charismatic first generation of instructions who seeded this country with their knowledge and personality.

To answer the second question: We are not that same America. I see America’s apathy and complacency as the culprit. Besides, in the vast majority of America, the only reason to fight is because your sister won’t get out of your room. We are safe as a flock of sheep.

There is also a culture of entitlement developing here. I am sure you can think of examples on your own. The martial arts have no room for this in a good curriculum. This would also contribute to its decline.

MAYTT: How do you think traditional martial arts, such as karate, can adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and that of the American business model? Can the two concepts truly coexist? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times and be profitable?

IG: In any art form, there are always those who say that they must “stay true to their art.” I am sure you have heard that before. There is condescension by “true artists” to those who have “sold out” to pursue commercial success. Well, we all have to eat; we have to somehow keep a roof over our heads and keep our loved ones safe and snug. In the real world, that takes money. If you choose the martial arts as a product to sell, then you must look at it as a business. You are only successful if you show a profit. It matters little if you are offering the best system in the world (whatever that may mean) if no one signs up. Your doors will close and your many years of practice as a martial artist will be little help finding your next job.

To that end, successful businesses change and adapt to the current marketplace if that intend to grow. That growth keeps the product alive. We all drive cars, right? Not too many Model A Fords out there now, are there? When Henry Ford was at the top, sales were soaring, he was asked about offering other colors. He said, “They can have any color they want, as long as it’s black!”

Is that how the car industry works today? Of course not. The American market is flooded with various makes, models and colors. Custom shops offer enhancements to those who something that will stand out from the crowd.

And look and how large this industry has grown. My grandfather’s family did not have a car when he was young. Taking their produce twenty miles down to Market Street in Philadelphia from what is now the suburbs was a very long day’s journey – by horse and wagon. How far have we gotten on six generations?

Businesses can keep a product alive. By their success, they can keep it fresh. And as long as it is alive, there is a chance for growth.

So, the short answer – No. Maintaining integrity maintains inflexibility. The McDonalds Restaurants is the American Business Model. So then are “McDojos,” like I mentioned before. And the people want Happy Meals. Billions are sold.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many will point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the chief factors. Do you feel that MMA and BJJ are contributing causes to the overall decline of traditional martial arts or is it something more? What do you see MMA and BJJ offer in comparison to karate and other Japanese martial arts like judo and aikido?

IG: First, I do not agree that there are any traditional martial arts. I would agree with Grandmaster Parker, who knew a lot more about this than I, when he said, “There are no pure styles of karate. Purity comes only when pure knuckles meet pure flesh, no matter who delivers or receives.”

How far back do you go for the basis of tradition? Who gets to set the bar? The historicity gets cloudy beyond 1900 or so. And yet we can be fairly sure that martial systems existed in ancient times. There are papyri and tomb art from Pharaonic Egypt. Here are two:

Egypt Photos

There were all new and created by someone, at some time. They were new then. Most of what we practice today has only been in this form since the end of the Second World War and/or the Korean Police Action, sixty years or so. There was some judo around between the two World Wars. I would guarantee you that martial art instruction in any of the various locals before 1900 would have been entirely different than today.

MAYTT: In your opinion, is there something that karate offers that may not be present to MMA and BJJ that would still make it a valid choice for people?

IG: Absolutely! Do you see many Mixed Martial Artists practicing in their seventies and eighties? We do not fight every day. If you did, maybe you should consider moving to a new neighborhood.

But we must live. We must raise our children & tend to our elderly. We work at careers and relationships. This takes a healthy mind and body. The martial arts can help with that. The mindset & physicality helps combat aging. A great example is Willie Nelson. Look at what the martial arts has done to turn his life around!

Willie Nelson get fifth
Country singer Willie Nelson receiving his fifth dan in Gong Kwon Yu Sul in 2014.

MAYTT: According to martial arts writer Jesse Enkamp, most karate schools focus on teaching defense tactics as from only one of the three basic approaches that “bad guys” would use to take advantage of their intended victim, that being the “blitz,” where as an attack is being initiated such as one step sparring. The other two approaches often neglected are the “con” and the “surprise.” In what ways do you see where karate can create a stronger, more well-rounded self-defense foundation that would include training for all three methods rather than focusing solely on one? Is this possible and how can such training methods be implemented for the average practitioner?

IG: You ask some really in-depth questions! [Laughs].

This question brings to mind one of the first talks I had with a handgun trainer and writer by the name of Walt Rauch. His book, Real World Survival: What Has Worked for Me, should be in every martial artist’s personal library, especially if are licensed to carry a concealed firearm. I met him at a local range almost twenty years ago. I introduced myself, found him very approachable, so I posed a question. I asked him if there was, in his long and expansive career in law enforcement, were there a pattern to attacks. He looked at me if I had two heads. “If there was a pattern, why would you be there in the first place?” The was the first, but not last, time that Walt introduced me to reality as seen through his long-suffering eyes.

Walt Rauch
Walt Rauch at the shooting range. The green bag that is at the top is Gill Sensei’s.

So, my take-away was that we must practice and train for the unexpected. You’ve all heard that before, right? After all, Walt was right. If you expect trouble – WALK AWAY!

What we should be training for is split second problem solving. The solutions must arrive from the limbic system of your brain. Conscious thought takes too long to process. Regardless of your style or system, to survive a determined attack on the street, your response must be second nature, fast, brutal and efficient.

How can such training methods be implemented for the average practitioner? One suggestion is to be sure that your curriculum includes free-style sparring. There are some deficiencies, but you will learn timing, accuracy & evasion. You will also learn how to read someone, to tell where the attack will come from and when it will be launched.

But sparring has rules; fighting does not. At my school, we had 8 “High Gear” suits from Tony Blauer. At that time, I was told that I was one of the first private sector schools to purchase them. Then I could allow my better fighters and myself try to utilize all of our training at full speed and at some level of power. For the average student, this will be quite an experience. As in a fight, the only rule is to survive. You learn to get your hit in there first, no matter who initiated the action, and maintain the pressure by continuing your counter-offensive. And you learn to keep fighting after the shock of a strike to your body or head. Or when the blood is running out your nose.

padded suits
Gill Sensei on the High Gear suits: “This is quite a thrill! On a couple different levels. If you get the chance, try it!”

Lastly, learn from the news. Practice differing scenarios. Become a better “bad guy” by going into that dark place. Learn to adapt & improvise in real time.

MAYTT: In addition, martial arts Youtuber Icy Mike asserts that karate is missing many “pieces of the puzzle” for good, solid self-defense, citing Kyokushin’s rules of no strikes to the head and the art’s emphasis on kata as two main reasons. Do you agree with his assortments? Is karate missing valuable pieces to the puzzle and if so, how would the art go about adding more contemporary and proven methods and strategies to its overall curriculum?”

IG: You ask, “Is karate missing valuable pieces of the puzzle…?” Let’s look at that question for a bit. You are painting with very broad brush strokes. What are you defining as karate? I just Googled “Karate” and found this in Wikipedia: “Karate (空手) (/kəˈrɑːti/; Japanese pronunciation: [kaɾate]; Okinawan pronunciation: [kaɽati]) is a martial art developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom. It developed from the indigenous Ryukyuan martial arts (called te (手), “hand”; tii in Okinawan) under the influence of Kung Fu, particularly Fujian White Crane.” Does that mean that traditional karate must be derived directly martial systems originating from the Ryukyu islands, south of Japan?

However, to make things more confusing, I Googled: “How many types of karate are there?” “Karate” was transposed to “Martial Arts.” The results – hundreds of styles and systems. From all over the world. Somewhere in the past, each and every one of these systems sprang from the desire of someone to try to improve his odds of survival. Wikipedia lists more than fifty different types of martial arts, and it doesn’t go into specific styles!

Time is not fixed. Events of the past are tied to it. We are silly to impose our view on earlier times. Anything that was a radical departure from the norm could become traditional within a generation or two.

Moving on, I do not feel that “missing the pieces” is an issue with American Kenpo. That is the only system I would comment on. However, I see too many people seeking the “thirty-ninth level” technique (or whatever). The real crux is right there in front of them, hidden in plain sight.

What I do feel is an issue is the pedagogy of the system, how it is taught. Are we including scenarios and attacks from today’s news? Are learning something because it has been handed down the line over the years? Are we being ingrained with a skill that allows us to adapt to a precarious predicament and prevail? You cannot do that practicing on a wooden dummy, with or without flesh.

MAYTT: How would you describe the modern-day approach to martial arts training as compared to what you experienced coming up through the ranks or to that of your instructors? Do you see a big difference or is it all relative?

IG: Kenpo used to be an exclusive system; now it is an inclusive system. At lunch with Grandmaster Joseph Palanzo in late August 2016, he mentioned how originally, potential students had five introductory classes. Then they would be reviewed by the head teacher according to such criteria as “integrity,” “ability,” “character” and then may or may not be admitted into the class.

“Do I see a big difference…?” Between what? Between what I am doing now and what I did then. Absolutely yes.

When I came through the ranks, it was “traditional” Kenpo. I performed basic moves, forms (kata) and self-defense techniques. These techniques were choreographed. I knew exactly what the attacker was going to do, and he know what I was going to respond with.

My first instructor, Sifu J. Donald Burrier, instilled in me this love for American Kenpo. I was drawn to his warmth, his compassion, his ability, at what was to me then, such an advanced age. He was still moving well in his mid-sixties.

with sifu
Sifu Burrier, Gill Sensei’s Kenpo instructor at the latter’s school, where he was just awarded his fifth dan from Grandmaster Joseph Palanzo several months before Burrier passed.

I then was offered the opportunity to work with Dennis Tosten Sensei, now Grandmaster. This greatly enhanced my vision, understanding and teaching ability.

Several years later, over twenty years ago, I started making the trek to Pikesville, Maryland to learn from Grandmaster Joseph Palanzo. What a fountain of knowledge!

At that time, I met and also started to train with Dr. Maung Gyi. He is nothing short of being a systems analyst for martial arts. I am proud to say that he has claimed me as one of the people he mentors.

Lastly, I have had the great fortune to train with several Filipino Martial Arts Masters & Grandmasters such as Professor Michael T. Bates, Grandmaster Max Pallen & Grandmaster Crispullo Attillo. But then I met Dr. Mark V. Wiley. I was floored, and not for the first time!

All of these influences shown light upon the information and the lore of the martial arts, forcing my tightly closed eyes open and letting the light in. Let me quote Isaac Newton who said in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” All we have to do is open our eyes and look.

MAYTT: Looking ahead to five or ten years from now, how do you see the state of karate evolving given the its current state and the state of other traditional martial arts? Will things get worse and is there a possibility that such traditional arts could disappear?

IG: I do not feel that it will occur in five or ten years from now. By 2030? There will be pockets of traditional arts, even if it restricted to a particular geographic locality. But absolutely yes, it will diminish. Many individual schools and some systems, “good” and “bad,” will disappear. But that is how natural selection works. It happens all the time. Systems have cropped up many times in the past, maintained a level of success for eons, only to mysteriously vanish. Can our human creations fare better?

Then, after a while, when the need arises, the next crop of pioneers will appear. The brave little mammals pop out of the hole to fill the void. Nature abhors a vacuum.

MAYTT: Sensei, why do you think it is important for current and future practitioners to understand their art’s history and past? Does such knowledge lend itself to an overall better and more in-depth training experience? Does it provide a glimpse to the bigger picture?

IG: Understanding your art’s history and past allows practitioners to add foundations and even mythology to their arts. This can either obscure and obfuscate the goals of the system from the student or enhance them. Let me give you an example from American Kenpo.

Grandmaster Parker wanted to create a scientific method of teaching a martial system. It was not to be based on philosophy, mythology, or religion. Effectiveness was his goal, not enlightenment. While he did address some of the martial history in one of his books, rather than saying something nebulous like “You must be the dragon warrior,” he would explain the physics and bio-mechanics that were being demonstrated and learned within the techniques.

But I discovered something interesting in my research. Again, spurred on by discussions with Dr. Gyi, I started to research various types of historical martial systems for this purpose. During this discussion, he pointed out that there are nine basic body types. There are those who are tall, average and less that average in height, and then there are those who are gravitationally challenged (heavy), average, and then light in weight. Also, there are two main character types we can add. Those who advance and those who retreat; call it fight and counter-fighter, predator and prey. (Do not let those last names fool you. The most dangerous game in Africa is the hippo, killing more people than any other animal of the big Five. Not a predator, just very dangerous). Let’s show this in a table and show you an example of an animal that typifies each concept:
















White Crane












Praying Mantis








Naga (Python)






There are or at least were martial systems named after these animals. And upon deeper investigation, I found that these influences were still there in the Kenpo system. What that means for the student is another paradigm, another metaphor, to grasp on to help understand how and what the founder was trying to pass along to him or her.

MAYTT: So much talk is placed on martial arts pedigree. In your opinion, does lineage play a major role and guarantee that a practitioner will excel both in their training and ability? Or does it all come down to the individual and their level of commitment regardless of lineage?

IG: First, let’s look at this quote from Dr. Maung Gyi. “To advance in the martial arts, a person must have:

  • Persistence
  • Natural Ability
  • A competent, experienced instructor”

Lineage can create a competent instructor, but unfortunately it is no guarantee. You also may have a very competent and successful instructor, but there still can be flaws in the system.

Let’s finish this with a quote from Aristotle: “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.”

MAYTT: Thank you taking the time to talk with us today, Sensei!

IG: It was my pleasure! I hope we can do this again someday.

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Irvin Gill. Read the first part here.

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