John McSweeney: Ed Parker's Best
have had many martial arts teachers in my life, most
of whom were Chinese. Even those Chinese teachers
who could speak a little English did not have a total
command of the language, so communication was
always a challenge. I could only copy what the teacher
showed, leaving most questions unanswered. The
questions had to wait until a Chinese student who
understood English was able to translate for me.
However, even when answers were obtained, they
were not detailed answers. There are terms in Chinese
that are difficult to translate into English. I have seen
even Chinese teachers differ in their opinions on the translation of a Chinese
character. You see, Chinese characters don't always translate to a single word, but
rather to many various symbolic meanings. With over 50,000 characters in the
Chinese language, perfect translations can become a near impossible task.
So, in order to open better communication with a Master, there are a only a few
solutions. One option is to learn how to read, write and speak one of the many dialects of
Chinese, preferably the same dialect that your teacher speaks. If you pick the
wrong dialect, you might as well have learned to speak French, because your
teacher will still not understand your questions. The second option is to study
under an American-born teacher. Now all you have to do is find an American
teacher who has all the skills and knowledge of the philosophies of the art you
seek. This is not a simple task. I had this chance when I found my one and only
American-born teacher, Grandmaster John McSweeney.
John McSweeney has trained with some of the best in the field of martial arts. His
most famous teacher was the late Grandmaster Edmund Parker, who brought the
art of Chinese Kenpo to the United States. Parker has a rich heritage passed down
from William Chou. Parker was not only a master practitioner of the arts but he
also had a vast wealth of knowledge in Chinese history and traditions which made
him one of the most sought after instructors in America. Among the first to learn
from Parker was Master John McSweeney. John, being a well-educated man, and
a physical strong and capable man, was quick to drink up Parker's knowledge and
John McSweeney was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father was an attorney and his mother was a
school teacher. John was raised in the a tough city
neighborhood, and fought for his survival. He always had an interest in the pugilistic arts, having taken
lessons from his father. When he grew older, he joined
armed forces boxing teams. He excelled in his boxing
career and won many of his encounters. This is what
lead him to further his training with the study of Judo
and Jujitsu, although by 1959 he had given up Judo,
finding it to be too much of a "sport". His instructor in
Jujitsu was Gene Combs, a Master Sergeant in the
U.S. Army and head of the Jujitsu team. Gene was a back belt in the Aichido
Jujitsu style. He was a tough man, and fully capable of handling anyone with his
Gene took a liking to John's skills and his determination to learn and master his
art. He taught John long and hard until he finally realized he had shown him all he
could. However, John was still eager to learn more, so Gene recommended that he
next study a hard hitting art, such as Kenpo, to enhance his knowledge. Gene felt
John's hitting power would be ideal for such an art, since that was what John did best.
He recommended Ed Parker, whose reputation as a fighter was well
known by martial artists.
Master McSweeney sought out Ed Parker, who was
easy to find, since he was the only one teaching this art in
Los Angeles. John introduced himself to Parker. Parker took an immediate liking to
McSweeney. He saw in John
the quality of man he was looking for to
pass his art . John McSweeney recalls during his
interview with Ed Parker how Parker kept walking
around saying, "John McSweeney, I know that name
Parker felt there was some kind of
link between them he could not put his finger on. But,
he knew he liked John and therefore took him under his
wing to study his Kenpo style, and the birth of a new
Kenpo Master had begun.
Master McSweeney always had a deep respect for all his teachers. There were
no ritualistic ceremonies between John and his teacher. Parker, with all his
knowledge and skills, was a man's man. He was easy to talk to and it was easy to
understand his views on the art. Between the two men was a simple bow for
respect, and the rest was man to man instruction.
Master McSweeney saw in
Parker something he wanted for himself, the knowledge of Kenpo that
Parker possessed. He felt Parker looked, acted and proved his ability more than
John said, "One night we were all practicing at Parker's school, and a big
tough looking man who towered over Parker entered the school. Parker
approached the stranger and asked if he could be of any help. The man stared
down at Parker and asked if this stuff was any good in a real fight. Parker knew he
was there looking for trouble. With one quick devastating blow Parker K.O.'ed the
"As he lay on the floor unconscious, Parker requested that I and a few
other students drag him outside and leave him in the lot next door to the school.
The stranger was out cold and lifeless. He might have been dead for all I know.
What I do know is that we never heard from him again." This was the Parker way.
He was a nice enough man, but when it came to fighting, few could equal him.
His reputation as a hard hitting knowledgeable martial artist was without question. This
is the very reason even the noted singer Elvis Presley hired Parker as a personal
John McSweeney was one of the first in a group of Americans that Parker taught.
At this time the Parker name was mainly known to those who lived in Los Angeles.
The Ed Parker studios always drew from the cream of the crop for students.
Master McSweeney took full advantage of all his exposure to the other martial
artists who came to Parker's school. He studied and trained with the best of them.
John McSweeney made close ties with many Chinese Kung Fu stylists such as
Jimmy Woo, a White Crane stylist, and James Lee who later became a training
partner with Bruce Lee. In fact many of his former classmates became quite well
known, with such names as Al and Jim Tracy who now run numerous martial arts
schools throughout the country, Dan Inosanto who became the conservator of the
Bruce Lee art of Jeet Kune Do, and John Keehan, who later became known as
Master McSweeney did not waste time. He eagerly mastered technique and form
until Parker finally awarded him his approval for Black Belt rating.
He was promoted to Shodan by Ed Parker in September, 1962 after having received
the unanimous approval of the entire Kenpo Yuudansha which included Grandmaster
James Mitose and Grandmaster, William, Professor, K. S. Chow, among others. And he
was issued the first IKKA (International Kenpo Karate Association) certificate and given
the first rank of Shodan in the IKKA."
According to historical records gathered by the Tracy Brothers, the highest
ranking students of Grandmaster Edmund Parker are: James Ebrao (Senior
Ranking Back Belt under Parker), Al Tracy (Second Ranking), and John
McSweeney (Third Ranking). John McSweeney's name has been added to the
Kenpo hall of fame.
Will Tracy, January 1997
Recently, through the effort of such people such as the
Tracys, the Kenpo history being fully told and documented for the American
people. There are thousands of Kenpo people in the United States today, but
few can claim to have been present at the beginnings of Kenpo in this country. Few
can say they had a close relationship with the American founder Ed Parker. Fewer
yet can say they have seen the original Kenpo before Parker modified it for the
American people. John McSweeney is one of those people.
Chinese Kenpo and Master McSweeney, the Teacher
Chinese Kenpo is a very different art form compared to the many hundreds
of systems in existence. Many Kung Fu stylists might easily become confused
hearing the word Karate associated with a Chinese system. To understand
why it is called Kenpo Karate and not Kenpo Kung Fu requires an understanding
of the root of the word Karate (which I cannot get into here.) However, once
you see the traditional Kenpo which Parker advocated, you can immediately see
the heavy Chinese roots and theories.
It is practical, fast moving, and powerful.
The art is known for its fast hands and numerous fighting techniques. It rarely uses
high kicks but rather relies on combinations of hand techniques and
low kicking. John McSweeney was perfect for this type of art form.
Kenpo complimented John's hitting power and naturally fast hands.
This, coupled with John's teaching ability and understanding of
Kenpo's in-depth theory, made him a very informative and capable
Master McSweeney could hold an audience spellbound as he
described the inner workings and practical use of Kenpo as a
defensive art. Occasionally I would assist McSweeney in his Kenpo
demonstrations. I recall that often John would let some of his
strikes hit a bit to demonstrate the power of Kenpo. These strikes
left their marks on a person for weeks. To this day he is still a
strong man, and even at the age of sixty-nine he can easily knock a
man out with one well-placed Kenpo blow. He is the personification
of Kenpo, in that he is a perfect reflection of his Master.
My meeting with Master McSweeney came in 1963. Then I was a
fresh graduate of ten years of training in the Chinese Shao-lin
Martial Arts. I often traveled from the lower East side of New York
to the Bronx where I was continuing my training at the Temple of
Enlightenment. It was there that I noticed a small store front with the
heading: Kenpo Karate.
When I first laid eyes on John he was
sweeping out his newly opened school of Kenpo. I introduced
myself to him, but I was really very leery of his credentials,
since he was the first Non-Chinese martial artist teacher I had ever met. I
was used to Chinese teachers, and along comes this
big Irish American, teaching Chinese Kenpo. It did not take long
for me to realize how good this man was after he demonstrated his
hand speed and powerful techniques. I was fascinated by the many
circular combinations of his hand techniques, which reflected what I
had learned in the circular Chinese systems.
Up until this time, how to make full use of all I had learned from my Chinese teachers had
remained cloudy in my mind. Although I had learned a great deal, I was still
searching for more insight into better applications for street conditions.
McSweeney's Kenpo seemed to be a part of the art I was missing. With its
vast array of techniques and in-depth analysis of fighting combinations, I
instantly fell in love with the art of Kenpo. I felt that in this art, with a
teacher like John, I would be able to truly amplify what I had already
learned, and gain a more complete understanding of excellent hand
All my knowledge until then was dormant, waiting to be
stimulated into action. My Kenpo years under John accomplished
that. I learned how to generate more power, and most important, I
learned how to take all the movement I had learned over the years
and use it to mold and create. By learning numerous techniques
one's movements soon begin to happen naturally. Learned, fixed
techniques begin to disappear and naturalness takes over.
Combinations of hand techniques take on a life of their own.
Learning under Master John McSweeney was just what I needed
to catapult me into a higher level of understanding of combination
What John taught was a direct reflection of Ed Parker's thoughts,
techniques and forms. However, John had another great attribute
of his own: he knew how to teach and to relate to people. He had a
simple hands-on approach with his students. He
was always well mannered and eager to answer any questions a
student might have.
If you didn't know John, you would get the
impression that he was too polite to fight. In reality the opposite is true.
When provoked, his politeness would totally disappear and he
would turn into a motorized, perfected fighting machine. His
strength and speed were enough to intimidate any would-be attacker.
I learned very quickly not to equate good manners and a
sympathetic ear with weakness. John McSweeney has the traits of
a polished gentleman, but if the need arises they all disappear and
a devastating fighter appears.
Master McSweeney did not make a living teaching Kenpo. He
had to work to support his family, so his stay in the Bronx lasted only
two or three years before his work sent him off to a new city,
somewhere in the USA.
However, he left three students behind, whom he
promoted to teachers, to carry on his art. They were Ed Quinones, an experienced
black belt of Henry Cho, Bob Herps, a
newcomer to the martial arts, and myself, with a Shao-lin
background. Ed Quinones and Bob Herps have both passed away,
and, presently only I remain from the original gang of three in New
York. John has promoted others to black belts since then. You can
find many of the McSweeney black belt levels listed on Ed Parker's
family tree, which was printed in Parker's series of books called
"Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Volume I."
Since my training with Master McSweeney so many years ago I
have promoted many students in the Kenpo art. Among the best,
are Chris Peck, Phil Sant, Dan Crawford, and Bob Peck. To these I
have taught the entire Kempo system. Of course there are others,
but these few hold a strong foundation in all I learned from
McSweeney. I have never stopped training in Kenpo, even after all
these years. In fact, at the American Center for Chinese Studies
the Kenpo art is still taught separately, in its entirety, as it was
taught to me.
I only met Ed Parker once when he came to New York for the East Coast
vs. the West Coast Championship Tournament held at Madison Square
Garden, in New York City. This tournament turned out to be a landmark
event in American martial arts history. Here is where all the best martial artists
from both the East and West Coasts came together to compete. Some of the best
tournament fighters of the time were there, Ed Parker, Chuck Norris, Mike Stone, George
Sanders, George Dilman, George Hamilton and Aaron Banks. The
list goes on with far too many names to mention. Anyone who was
anyone in the martial arts in the U.S. was there.
It only took one meeting with Parker to see John McSweeney's
heritage. There is a saying in the arts: "look at the student and you
know the teacher." John's heritage was immediately apparent.
Although I did not study with Parker, I was lucky enough to have
studied with one of his top protégées. And so the Kenpo lives on
because of people like John McSweeney, who continues to travel
around the country teaching the theories and skills of Kenpo.
John McSweeney Today
Since the death of Ed Parker, many of Parker's original students have moved
on, forming their own organizations. In fact there are many new Kenpo
organizations now in existence, some of which profess to teach the so called
Original Style, as it came from Chou. Others follow the so called Traditional
Style, which Parker created. However, John McSweeney follows neither. He
rarely displays the old Kenpo forms
anymore. He leaves that to the Black Belt teacher levels he has
promoted, and his organization called the American Kenpo
Association, which he now runs out of Florida. He personally
prefers at this stage of his life to perfect the hand weapons of
John himself said recently at an A.C.C.S Seminar in New
York "I am not an expert at forms. Some people can tell you all
there is to know about forms. I am beyond forms, I am no longer a
forms man; I am a hand weapon man. I can tell you how to hit, and
hit hard. I can show you how to double effectiveness."
Master McSweeney would never say to forget all Kenpo forms. On
the contrary, he also believes the best place to start training is in
the structured learning such as traditional Kenpo. I am sure John
would say that only from structure can non-structure come into
Today, John himself is teaching only the cream of what he learned.
This alone keeps him busy traveling from school to school lecturing
and teaching his concepts. Recently he has been teaching what he calls his
Tiger Movements. These are a series of strong dynamic tension
movements used to strengthen the body and promote flexibility.
John stresses how his special movements invigorate our natural chi
flow, keeping us healthy and strong. When Master McSweeney
teaches a class, he always stresses the importance of proper hand
John once said, "You will seldom see written in books
what I teach you. I have torn every movement down to its most
basic parts, and only use the best of it. It does not have to be
complicated, just powerful and effective."
John McSweeney enjoys sharing what he has learned from his
Kenpo training. I have heard him say, if I might paraphrase the
Master's words, "My training has lead me to this point in my life,
and it suits me perfectly. You may end up at a different point, but it
will surely suit your own natural abilities. This is the beauty of our
art. It has something for everyone." Master McSweeney never
looks down on anybody's preferences in the arts. He feels they all
have their own good and bad points. It is just a matter of sorting out
what is good for you.
A student's life is influenced by his teacher's knowledge. This is
the reason I still teach the entire Kenpo system as originally taught to
me by Master McSweeney. Today Kenpo is very
popular in this country. Because of people like John McSweeny,
the Kenpo secrets are out of the closet. He continues to spread his
message of strength and power through training. He will never stop
teaching-- he can't. It's in his blood. As long as one potential
student exists, John McSweeney will teach. He has left his mark on
Today I can say without reservation that without my exposure
to John's teachings I would not have made it to the levels I have
achieved today. I am proud to have Grandmaster John McSweeney
as part of my heritage.
For more information on Grandmaster McSweeney purchase his 1989