Thursday, September 27, 2012

John Gehlsen

John Gehlsen

One of the highest complements I ever received was “This guy could be good.” Now on the surface, it would not appear much of a complement. I was already 3rd dan and had won a fair amount of sparring trophies by then. But it was the person saying it and his personal standard that made it special to me.

It was the late 60s or early 70s. We were at Soke Takayuki Kubota’s IKA Headquarters on Kenmore in Los Angeles, the same dojo where they filmed the dojo scenes for the movie, The Mechanic, with Soke, Charles Bronson, and Jan-Michael Vincent. I was in an advanced class that met on a Saturday or Sunday afternoons, forget which. Soke was taking us through a drill he called “Attack-Defense.” Each person had to await the spontaneous attack of an opponent, defend against it, and launch a successful counterattack. If the counter failed, you had to wait for your partner to attack again. This went on until your counter was successful. Then, you got another partner and repeated the drill.

I was paired off with John Gehlsen. I don’t remember his attack or what I did in response but it was John who said to Soke, “This guy could be good.” Although not many people outside Soke’s organization were aware of John’s skill, I considered him (both then and now) one of the toughest fighters ever trained in this country.

John was a tall, lanky, thick-boned man, who worked both undercover and regular duties for LAPD. I first met him at Ed Parker’s Internationals. It must have been around 1965. Soke Kubota had recently arrived in the U.S. and Ed invited him to demonstrate at his annual event, the largest and most prestigious tournament in the world at the time. (I think I spoke previously about that event.) John was only a green belt at the time.

When I hosted my first tournament, the U.S. Winter-National Karate Championships in San Jose the following year, I also invited Soke to demonstrate. He brought both John and Tonny Tulleners with him. Chuck Norris drove up with Chris Wells and one of his other students. And Bruce Lee also demonstrated. I had met Bruce through someone. I think it was a great, old Kung Fu friend, James Yimm Lee, but not sure. (Bruce lived with Jimmy when he first came to California.) In the finals, Chuck fought Roy Castro, GM Ralph Castro’s brother, for the grand championship and Chuck prevailed, winning his first grand championship.

John and Soke Kubota shared an apartment back then in Hollywood, on Vine Street, if I remember right. It was on the second floor and they used the large front room for the dojo. I would fly to LAX in the morning on my one day off. I’d rent a car, drive to Hollywood, take a private lesson from Soke, and participate in every class. Then, I’d take the long drive to LAX, catch the last flight to SFO, then drive the 40 miles to my home in San Jose. (I relate this story whenever someone tells me the dojo is too far from their home – usually 5 miles or less – to train with us.)

As I mentioned, John wasn’t known to many beyond Soke’s dojo. But in 1969, or thereabouts, he was asked to accompany an American team that Sensei Nishiyama assembled to compete against several university teams in Japan. A friend, who was a senior student of Sensei Nishiyama’s, went on the trip too. He told me that the Japanese treated John and most of our fighters with a degree of disdain much of the time until his first fight. John had been an alternate to the team and didn’t fight during the first couple of competitions. But when they finally put him in, his opponent refused to stop when John scored on him and kept trying to hurt John. So he drove the guy out of the ring, into the stands, and didn’t stop until the officials grabbed him. My friend said everyone in the large gym jumped to their feet and applauded. After that, he was treated with respect wherever he went.

In 1970, WUKO held its first World Karate Championships in Tokyo. The U.S. sent five teams, comprised of many of our top fighters at the time. John and Tonny Tulleners, also from Soke Kubota’s dojo, were on one of the teams. In the individual competition, Tonny tied for third with the legendary Dominic Valera. John didn’t make it to the finals but received one of the Outstanding Spirit (Tamashii) Awards distributed to the most respected fighters.

In 1972, the United States sent just one team to Paris for the second World Championships. John was selected to this team as well. This event was highly controversial. The U.S., Japanese, and several other teams walked out due to what friends termed the inadequate quality of the officials. (I heard they used judo, kendo, and/or aikido officials in matches – depending on who told me. But I wasn’t there so I’m not sure if any of this was true. I just know teams walked out.)

Well, enough for now. I’ll be writing more posts on John Gehlsen and what I learned from him. Thanks again for your patience and continued support.

Postscript: Here is a link for footage of Senseis Gehlsen, Smith, Tulleners, etc. at the team selection tournament for the 1972 WUKO World Karate Championships in Paris. There is a clip at the bottom of the DVD ad.


  1. Hi Jim,

    You've captured some great memories on IKA. Loved reading it! Sensei John was an intimidating figure at the dojo. Macho, tough, rigorous and an outstanding fighting spirit. His classes at Kenmore were terrific. Of course I couldn't truly appreciate how good classes were then until years later after some reflection.

    Side story on Sensei John and Soke Kubota:

    I heard this dojo story around the early 70's, maybe 72-73. My memory is a bit rusty here, therefore I can't with 100% certainty verify what actually happened. As the story goes, Shihan Kubota (Soke now)had a guitar and it apparently was a prized possession. Loved listening to Soke play a nice Japanese song one day. It was very creative. Anyway, John decided to play a joke on Shihan on his birthday. Soke Kubota and Sensei John were either at home or at the dojo just the two of them. John grabbed Soke's guitar and smashes it against the wall or ground while Soke watches in horror. Soke may have confronted Sensei John at this point. Sensei John then pulls his revolver and points it at Soke. Angered and confused, Soke might have been ready to take appropriate action, but in a split second, Sensei John begins to laugh...indicating to Shihan Kubota that this was all a joke. (a very macho kind of prank) Realizing this and probably relieved that one of his prized students and close friends was not absolutely nuts. Sensei John then presented Soke with a brand new guitar as a gift.

    Like I said, I was never able to verify this story. (or can't remember doing so)
    Good times for sure! Chuckling here thinking about it.

    Stay well,


  2. Great story! Thanks for sharing it. Sounds like John. I was working on another post on John last night and made the comment that he was an acquired taste who took a while to get close to. Thanks again, Jim

  3. Just found this. Old clips of Sensei John G, and others on the 1972 USA team.

  4. Great! Thanks! I'll have to get the DVD. A lot of great old footage of men from The Golden Age of U.S. karate. For some reason, the link isn't active. I'll try to add it to the blog piece to see if it will make it easier for people to see it by simply clicking on the link, rather than having to cut and past the link.

  5. Jim,

    I enjoyed reading your history on John Gehlsen. I started training in a associated Dojo of Takayuki Kubota’s and Tonny Tulleners in Alhambra CA. I met john when 15 or so Black belts visiting from Kubota's Dojo in LA. Shortly after I was training full time with John at the IKA Headquarters. John Gehlsen became my close friend and Mentor. I went to Japan in 1969 with the team you mentioned. I also went to Brazil with the USA team in 1973 in John place after he passed away.

    David Vaughan

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