Bruce Tegner: another Western pioneer of martial arts

Oh boy - if you thought Ed Parker was just a little "unorthodox" in his technique, you haven't seen anything.

Along with Ed Parker's "Secrets of Chinese Karate" my brother's and my martial bookshelf was also home to a couple of other books that were "cornerstones" of martial information in their day.  One of these books was Bruce Tegner's "Complete Book of Karate".

Straight off, we could pretty much tell it was very, very basic: lots of stepping in zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) with single, rather awkward looking, rising blocks or simple lunge punches.

The "kata" were really endless reconfigurations of the same basic patterns - sometimes a step to the left, sometimes a step to the right, sometimes a kick, sometimes a punch, sometimes a rising block, sometimes a rather awful chest level block.  Sometimes a chop.

Looking back, I can see that someone must have shown Tegner some shorin ryu (I am reminded that it was Tani-ha shukokai) karate kihon (basics) in the most rudimentary fashion.  He then seems to have gone away and constructed some of his own basic kata based on this brief experience, capping it off with something that looked like pinan (the way it would look if you learned it from a book - which was precisely what we were trying to do with Tegner's book!).

But back then it was pretty much the only information anyone had on karate.  And Tegner provided what was essentially a "complete" course.  It had to be good - right?

What continued to draw me in was the cover: Bruce Tegner's side kick just looked plain awesome!  I'd never seen anything so... straight!  He looked like he had great form.

The only problem was, the interior photos showed something altogether more awkward - although with still images you couldn't really tell whether it might look less awkward in motion.  I mean, there was still that great side kick - right?

In the end, after dissecting and replicating each of the kata, we pretty much decided that the book wasn't a functional karate text and gave up on it.

But every now and again we'd come across another Tegner tome - and invariably buy it.  He wrote books on kung fu and tai chi, savate, jujutsu, self-defence...  You name it, this guy seemed to know it and write a book about it.  Some are actually still quite decent introductory texts (eg. his book on judo).

Not only was all this writing inspiring in itself, in each case there would be something so physically impressive that you had to take another look - just like his side kick in karate book.

His treatise on savate was a case in point: the cover featured him jumping with a double leg kick; the interior depicted him striking a heavy bag with the same technique.  Kicking a heavy bag with a both legs simultaneously?  And not falling on your ass?  Seriously?

Clearly, Tegner was no slouch when it came to physicality.

But looking through the books on the more esoteric arts we started to notice a familiar pattern: the same basic, movements were being repackaged under a different guise.  The solo techniques were stilted and ungainly in execution.  The defences were either totally improbable "one step" affairs with a lengthy set-up or preposterous counters (like his ubiquitous "karate chops").  Or they were essentially the same judo he had employed elsewhere (functional and well-executed, but not "karate" or "kung fu" etc.).

If anything, that seemed to be something that Tegner could do convincingly: judo.  His athleticism was congruent with that.  I suppose this is hardly surprising because judo was Tegner's only real qualification in martial arts.  Apparently he won a California state title in the early 1950s.

Whatever his judo career, he obviously went on to capitalize on the blossoming public interest in the exotic Oriental martial arts, writing his many books and taking on many celebrity students including 1960s teen idol, Ricky Nelson, Superman actor George Reeves and, of course, actor James Coburn (who didn't Coburn train with?).

Sadly for Tegner, he never managed to leave the sort of imprint on martial arts that Parker did.  I suspect Parker was a lot better at the marketing himself.

But leaving that aside, what did Bruce Tegner's karate actually look like?  Was it all that bad?  Surely it must have been better than Parker's... I mean, Tegner at least had some decent athleticism; I can't imagine him doing a spinning kick and almost falling over (like Parker).  Maybe the still photos just didn't do him justice...

Luckily my mate Rick has just alerted me to this classic footage of Tegner teaching Ricky Nelson some karate in the The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet TV show.  Check it out:

It's really quite stunning in its oddness, matching and exceeding the awkward, book-learned movements hinted in the photos.  Yet there is also something irresistibly admirable about it at the same time.  I can't help but feel sincere respect for Tegner.  He might not have known a lot about karate, but there is a sort of "alpha male", pugnacious authenticity, toughness and diligence to his movement that makes you want to meet him, shake his hand and say: "Well done mate."

While Tegner's commercial success as a instructor, and influence on martial arts direction, might not have been the same as Parker's, I note that he did go on to choreograph many fight scenes in movies, including the fight scene between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva in The Manchurian Candidate.

In it, you'll notice Tegner's trademark "karate chop" - a technique that became synonymous with karate in the public eye for decades to come.  While the "judo chop" had been seen before, notably in Peter Lorre's "Mr Moto" movies series, it seems to have become de rigueur for action movies only after Tegner's fight choreography above.

So I think that if Tegner had any lasting influence on Western culture it is this: the impression that karate (and oriental martial arts generally) make extensive use of chopping actions.  And that those actions are lethal.   This perception continued in practically every movie/TV fight scene until the mid-70s when the other Bruce - Bruce Lee - retired the whole concept.  But up to that point, the "karate chop" was a movie fighter's weapon of choice.  And Tegner was its main proponent.

His influence is now largely forgotten.  But every time you see an old movie or TV episode with an action sequence featuring a chop - whether it's William Shatner in "Star Trek", Robert Culp in "I Spy" or James Coburn in "Our Man Flint" - give a nod to one of the original pioneers of Oriental martial arts in the West - Bruce Tegner.  He's the one who started it all.

And apart from that, don't forget that Tegner was one of the first people to introduce arts like
judo and karate to the West, providing the only information available at the time.  He is the reason many of us sought out proper instruction.

So here's to you Mr Tegner.  Well done mate.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic


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