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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Dennis Nackord was raised on the San Francisco Bay peninsula. His grandfather was a city councilman and mayor of San Carlos, but most of his family was in the building trades—including his father. He studied architecture before his life changed course.

At 20, Nackord began taking classes at a local karate studio. By 1966, he was working there. Three years later, he moved to Philadelphia to expand Tracy’s Karate, a system that still exists—though it’s a mere shell of what it was in the early 1970s.

The first East Coast Tracy’s was on Cottman Avenue off Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia. It’s still a karate studio today—one franchised to American Karate Studios, a corporation Nackord formed and ran until 1980. One American Karate location is run by Mark Schiffman, a student Nackord promoted from a fifth- to seventh-degree black belt in January.

Schiffman first met Nackord in 1975. After completing an introductory course, his parents couldn’t afford additional lessons, so he negotiated a deal with Nackord. Since he was working at a local gas station, he figured he could afford to pay $10 a week. Nackord asked if he could rake leaves. Schiffman said he could and recalculated what he’d pay per week.

“Then he asked if I could cut lawns,” Schiffman recalls. “He told me to be at his house the next day at 8 a.m. For the next few years, I cut grass, raked leaves, cleaned out flooded basements, repaired lawn equipment—and took full advantage of our agreement by training almost every day.”

After the initial course, Schiffman never paid for lessons again. In 1983, he became a black belt. From 1986 to 1993, he was ranked among the top 10 in the country in his division of the United States Karate Federation. He bought his own school in 1987.

Nackord’s most popular site was at King of Prussia Plaza; before that, he had schools in Havertown and Ardmore. At first, his family looked at him “like he was a zombie” when he entered the karate business. Then, with a hint of encouragement, his grandfather asked, “Well, what kind of business is it? Can it be profitable?”

Twenty-three years later, in 2007, Nackord moved to Gateway Shopping Center.

The advantage to starting a martial arts business can also be a disadvantage: It doesn’t take much capital, and there isn’t any licensing to regulate who starts a studio. “You can’t license artists,” Nackord says. “Anyone can [start a martial arts business], but most don’t have any context, so they can’t correct problems.”

The notion that everyone is a master in karate is “baloney,” says Nackord. “They all say they do what I do, but what’s their lineage?”

Nackord was an eighth-degree black belt for years, despite heading his own system. If he was like others, he would’ve formed a board geared on self-promotion. Karate, it turns out, is an insular art full of nepotism. Proponents promote their own within their own unregulated, unlicensed systems. “I just stayed where I was,” Nackord says. “I didn’t care. The number didn’t make a difference.”

Tenth is the highest black belt, but Nackord says almost every rank is too high, including his own. “It only exists because of the structure,” he explains.

Right now, two of Nackord’s students are eighth-degree black belts. At some point, he’ll have to expand his own hierarchy. “You have to create space below,” he says. “But what rank you are is no indication of what skills or knowledge you have. Certificates don’t equate to skill.”

Performance does. In the 1970s, Nackord and Lewis were on an undefeated five-man national fighting team that battled the likes of Chuck Norris’ team and the Canadian national team. “In those days, we fought bare-handed, and many battles were quite bloody,” Nackord recalls. “One had to be pretty fast at getting one’s head out of the way. One year, I fought in 10 tournaments and KO’d nine opponents. The experience of that era gave me the ability to teach the correct use of the bare hands. Today, almost all sport karate uses some sort of gloves as well as other pads.”

These days, Nackord’s workout regimen involves four rounds of boxing and riding a bike for 45 minutes to an hour three or four times a week. He also hits the heavy bag for four three-minute rounds with 30-second intervals. And, of course, he practices his martial arts moves. “I’m a student first,” he says. “Every day, I’m studying and learning more so I can teach my students more.”

Right now, he’s learning the Chinese sword, an art form that integrates stillness within movement. “I don’t want to sound weird—and some martial arts guys do sound weird—but it’s not violent just because you have a sword in your hand,” he says. “It’s more about fluid movement and relaxation. It’s like taking a walk in the park and looking at—and listening to—the birds.”

Nackord doesn’t need vacations away from his Malvern home, but he takes them with his wife, Lorraine, a retired pediatric nurse. They have four children—Amy, Jessica, Elizabeth and Jason (a brown belt)— and six grandchildren.

With his family and at work, Nackord prefers not to over-manage. He’s a facilitator and a counselor, favoring dialogue over threatening consequences. This even holds true in the after-school program he began last fall for students at the neighboring Valley Forge Elementary School. The five-day program includes transportation, a homework period, time for a snack and rest, and a karate and exercise period.

“I talk to people about where I want them to be, not where they are,” Nackord says of his approach. “That has to be the consistent message over time.”

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