Karate King

For 40 years, Malvern’s Dennis Nackord has unassumingly forged his legacy as a martial arts master on par with the world’s best. In these uncertain times, his message of self-empowerment is as relevant as ever.

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Karate great Joe Lewis (left) and his martial arts soulmate, Dennis Nackord. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Every man has belts, but few have dozens of the sort hanging in Dennis Nackord’s closet. Black is the predominant color, but some of them are so worn that the beginner-white shows through. For Nackord, that proves how cyclical martial arts—and life in general—really are.

“We’re back to where we started,” says the 63-year-old ninth-degree black belt. “It’s all part of the flow. This is a nonlinear art.”

In today’s world, sustainability, self-preservation and self-defense are everything, and the Nackord Karate System embodies all three. With over 40 years of professional karate training and teaching experience, Nackord has flocks of devotees. He’s contributed to the opening of more than 20 schools and promoted nearly 150 black belts. In the 1970s, he owned four of the 15 American Karate Studios locations he founded. Many are still open. These days, his sole Nackord Karate System studio in Wayne is thriving despite the recession. “People have no money. They’ve lost—or may lose—their jobs,” he says. “When we live in fear, we want to take better care of ourselves.”

Women tell Nackord that he looks like Omar Sharif with less hair, but he’s not buying it. At 6 feet tall and 210 pounds, he does have a low-key charisma, with piercing hazel eyes and a chiseled chin. He’s been dubbed the father of Philadelphia Kenpo Karate. Today, 90 percent of those in the region practicing Kenpo—often called “the mother art” because many others derive from it—descended from Nackord, though most don’t realize it. Kenpo provides a support system and structure for physical, mental and spiritual strength. The goal is not only physical training, but also the education of the individual. It’s a way of self-defense, self-discipline and self-knowledge.

Regionally, Nackord is on par with West Philadelphia’s legendary Teruyuki Okazaki. A 10th-degree black belt and a native of Fukuoka, Japan, Okazaki has been far more guarded with his teaching. The common belief: Save your secrets, save your country.

Through the overt exposure Bruce Lee brought, martial arts in America began to emerge in the 1960s and ’70s. Nackord surmises that Lee’s willingness to share, and profit from, the art may be why revenge was taken on him—that is, if you buy the conspiracy theories that swirl around his mysterious death at age 32.

“He shared too much, and the traditional Chinese community from which Lee came wasn’t very happy about his teaching to the general public,” says Nackord. “He commercialized the sacred. Before him, the art was to be respected and protected.”

If you judge a man by the company he keeps, Nackord’s martial arts lineage is indisputable. He’s the highest-ranking student of Joe Lewis, who is to karate what Muhammad Ali is to boxing. Last August, the former two-time world heavyweight karate and kickboxing champion moved from Wilmington, N.C., to Chesterbrook and uses Nackord’s school in Wayne as his base. A 10th-degree black belt, Lewis won four U.S. Championships and three international championships. In 1983, he was chosen by his peers as “The Greatest Karate Fighter of All Time” in Karate Illustrated magazine.

“He has a good abstract mind,” Lewis says of Nackord, with whom he’s worked since 1968. “He likes to think in principles. Most martial arts studios don’t teach anyone to think, only to obey. But go to a Nackord school, and they do. The other schools say they teach self-confidence and self-esteem, but they don’t know the first thing about either of them.”

Nackord also aligns himself with Dr. Maung Gyi, who brought American kickboxing to the United States in 1963 and also founded the American Bando Association. Since 1970, Nackord has trained with Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Marty Feldman of Broomall. His first serious martial arts mentor was the late Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate. Both Lewis and Gyi were on hand last September to promote Nackord to the rank of ninth-degree black belt, the first in the 40-year history of the Joe Lewis Fighting System.

At issue these days is the direction the discipline is taking. In February, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission followed the lead of other states and approved bouts in Mixed Martial Arts—or extreme fighting. The state anticipates regulating four to five events per month to generate $80,000 per year in revenue.

Lewis and Nackord’s approach has always focused on inner drive. “Martial arts are in a transition,” Lewis says. “What I dislike are the tattoos. [Some MMAs] look like cartoon characters, then they go on national TV and do all that cursing like it’s professional wrestling. It’s created a home for the tough guy who’s teaching kids to challenge another person and to condone and respect violence.”

By definition, Lewis says, “violence is the loss of self-control—the exact opposite of what martial arts teach. There’s only ever been one reason to fight, and that’s to preserve, protect and dignify that which you are.”

To Nackord, mixed martial arts is a sport, not an art. Now, he and Lewis have the unenviable task of dispelling the notion that traditional martial arts are violent. “Martial artists don’t act like animals,” Nackord says. “It’s totally contradictory to what I’m doing. Our clients are here for self-improvement. I don’t want to be negative—or to criticize—but it’s not what I’m doing.”

In sports, there are rules. But if you’re in a fight for your life, there are no rules. Survival, too, is an art. In the end, this is a story about the men trying to preserve the “art” in martial arts while defending the dignity of their own careers.

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