Karate King
(from the Main Line Today - July, 2009 issue)

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.

By J.F. Pirro    Published June 25, 2009 at 03:46 PM

Karate great Joe Lewis (left) and his martial arts soulmate, Dennis Nackord. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
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.

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.”

An unwavering truth Nackord feels compelled to dispense is that traditional martial arts are not violent. Initially, the goal is the external control of an opponent. Then comes the physical and emotional well-being of one’s self.

Lewis’ biggest gripe with extreme fighting involves the behavior of a handful. “I resent it—it’s insulting,” he says. “I’ve been a black belt for 45 years, and it’s ruining the image I’ve worked to create. I’d like to kick someone’s butt over it, to be honest. I have one message to these thugs: Clean up your act. You’ve made a mess of our art. It’s an insulting interpretation of a sport I’ve spent a career trying to dignify.”

Under the Nackord system, internal Eastern philosophies flourish. One, “The Way of Three,” stresses health, harmony and haven. Exercises focus on breathing, stretching the body, strengthening the joints and spine (“where all energy comes from”), and calming the mind. His teaching describes the evolution of movement through another three-part system he calls MotionScience. The first level describes form; the second gives the form movement and effectiveness; the third level teaches strategies.

“The weakest link is the footwork,” Nackord says. “With any of this, if it’s taught right, there’s a progression. What I teach is a system, not a style. Plus, it takes a coach who can look at each person and say, ‘This is where you are in your development.’”

His entire program is designed for self-development and enlightenment, for learning to protect oneself from stress and unhealthy habits, and not necessarily for guarding oneself against a physical attack. “If that happens once in a lifetime, it’s a lot,” he says. “In daily life, though, you have to deal with imbalances and learn how to better protect yourself against them.”

Of the two philosophies, Eastern stipulates that we’re from the earth, so there’s confidence in our ability to be healthy and to innately move in a positive direction. The body wants to be healthy, so how do we promote that? “Western says we were put on earth, so we’re alien to the earth, and so we have to constantly defend what could happen,” Nackord says. “Medicine tries to control all that.”

Nackord is a follower of Taoism, particularly with regard to the concept of duality. “You can’t have good without the bad,” he says. “Even when something horrible happens, there’s something good in it—even if you just don’t see it.”

All Nackord Karate System classes are taught by high-ranking adult black belts. With 250 students, Nackord has a 20-year manager in John Von Cleve, and 10 instructors teach as part of their own training. Sixty percent of his clients are adults, some in their 70s. A quarter are women. He offers a corporate training program in which participants learn centuries-old wellness routines proven to fortify the body, plus fundamental martial arts techniques to build character and hone self-defense skills.

“If I teach you not to keep your head down a center line, but to always keep it moving, that’s going to apply in a courtroom, too,” Nackord says. “When we teach principles, they can be applied in other arenas. I love to hear from former students who, decades later, took the skills to the boardroom.”

Most karate schools enroll about 90 percent children. And while NKS does offer classes for kids, Nackord has always attracted a more mature audience. At one time, when parents signed up their children, he offered free lessons for the adults. Now, like a well-run law firm, Nackord’s instructors bring in their own business year after year.

“Many of my guys could run their own school,” says Nackord. “We have a deep bench, and I like that we’ve created a community of martial arts.”

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