The History Behind Elvis’ Passion For Karate

(Top) Domingosh90PT / YouTube/(Bottom Left) Maurice Magne / YouTube/(Bottom Center) Maurice Magne / YouTube/(Bottom Right) Elvis Australia / YouTube

Karate’s Immense Influence In Elvis’ Life

You’ve seen the footage. Elvis Presley performs, dressed head-to-toe in one of his signature white jumpsuits. He moves around on stage in an erratic fashion, ditching the swoon-worthy dance moves that made him famous early on.

The above description paints a picture of what many of Presley’s performances looked like in the later years of his career.

But there’s a reason why Presley suddenly stopped gyrating his hips in favor of orchestrated kicks and sharp movements. And that reason was karate.

Longtime fans of Presley know that “The King” loved karate. We’re sure many of you were aware of that as well. You could probably recall how he practiced it for years, or even recite how those signature white jumpsuits of his were inspired by karate gis.

However, you don’t know as much about Presley’s obsession with karate as you may think. It’s an obsession that was stronger and dates back further than many have ever realized. And it’s absolutely fascinating to read about.

How It All Started

In 1998, John Corcoran authored an article in Black Belt magazine titled The King and Karate. In that article, Corcoran explored Presley’s decades-long love of karate and how it started.

As Corcoran stated, many believed that Presley first became interested in karate after watching a judo demonstration at Fort Hood in 1958. But he refers to Presley’s longtime friend and road manager Joe Esposito, who claims that Presley developed an interest in karate while stationed in Germany.

While in Germany, Presley reached out to a friend in Memphis and had him find a karate instructor for him.

That instructor was German Jurgen Seydel, who started teaching Presley in the shotokan style at his off-base home. He also started to condition his hands for board breaking by repeatedly striking his fists against hard surfaces.

When Presley had the chance to take leave from the Army, he traveled to Paris. While there, he met and trained with Tetsugio Murakami to further hone his skills. He trained with Murakami for nine straight days, and for many hours each day.

After Presley returned home to the U.S., his passion for karate did not dwindle. He qualified for a first-degree black belt just two years after picking up karate, while he was training under Hank Slemansky in Memphis.

A Black Belt Celebrity

Presley’s black belt made him a standout spokesperson for karate. It was not popular in the U.S., so Corcoran estimates that Presley was one of “possibly only 100 Americans to have black belt-level skills at that time.”

“The King” helped popularize karate by featuring it in his movie fight scenes. Later, he showcased karate-inspired dance moves during the famous stage shows we described before.

Presley remained devoted to karate for the rest of his life, and was a multiple-degree black belt at the time of his death. He reached that point thanks to years of practice and devotion.

It was clear that Presley was not like other celebrities who participated in martial arts as a fun hobby. He took it seriously, worked to better himself, and worked to expose others to karate as well, whether they were his friends or his fans.

Elvis admitted that his love for karate was second only to his love for music,” Corcoran wrote.

Elvis’ Karate Passion Project

Presley was so passionate about karate, that he developed a “dream project” to film a documentary about it. “The King” rarely allowed himself to be photographed or filmed while practicing karate, but made an exception in this case.

The documentary, titled The New Gladiators, was unfortunately never released in Presley’s lifetime. It finally debuted in 2002 after being remastered.

Thankfully, footage from the documentary made its way online, and you can catch some of it below. It perfectly demonstrates how passionate Presley was about karate, and showcases his skill as well.

Did you ever realize how long Presley had been practicing karate, or just how much it influenced his life and career? Now that you know more about the whole thing, it makes you have an even greater appreciation of “The King!”