We’ve got to get the kids interested in Karate, to give them a view to helping them discover an interest which will sustain them through their adolescence. We must give them pride about themselves and encourage them to realise what they can accomplish through the use of their own energies.George Cofield
A pioneer of Karate in the United States, George Cofield was one of the first black men to teach Karate in the United States. His many students including Thomas LaPuppet, Alex Sternberg, Doug Frazier, and the Wilder Twins, Melvin and Calvin, are among some of the best competitive Karate fighters of the 1960s and 1970s.
George Cofield was born on 13 October 1934. He grew up in Roosevelt, New York.
A streetwise kid, Cofield enlisted in the US Marine Corps in the mid-1950s. He served in the Marine Corps for four years. He served in Korea and Japan. While in Japan he began learning Shotokan Karate.
By 1959 Cofield had left the Marine Corps and returned to his native New York. He had loved the principles he had learned in Karate and wanted to pass them on to the kids in his neighbourhood. He established the Tong Dojo, located in Brooklyn between Brownsville in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He would go on to run the dojo for over 30 years.
Cofield also taught Karate at the St John’s Recreation Centre in Brooklyn. It was around this time that he met Maynard Miner. Miner had recently left the army and frequently visited St John’s to practice his Karate. Cofield had seen him practising and was very impressed by his techniques. He approached him to help teach him and his classes.
Maynard Miner had served in the army for four years and had spent a three-year tour of duty in Japan. Looking to learn Karate on his days off he had managed to find a dojo located in Tokyo. This was the original JKA Hombu, located in an old movie studio.
Training at the JKA dojo was very tough and consisted of plenty of basics, kata, and kumite. Etiquette was very important. Miner trained three days a week with the likes off Masataka Mori, Takayuki Mikami, Tetsuhiko Asai, Hirokazu Kanazawa, and Yutaka Yaguchi. Miner was also graded to black belt in 1957 by JKA Chief Instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama.
By 1961 Cofield and Miner had established a small and loyal following of students. They continued to train at the St John’s Recreation Centre, with Cofield running his Tong Dojo.
In May 1961 Teruyuki Okazaki arrived in the United States, initially for six months. He was the second JKA instructor sent to the United States by Masatoshi Nakayama. He settled in Philadelphia. Miner had previously trained with Okazaki in Japan. He resumed his training with him and would travel to Philadelphia once a month with some of the students.
Although training under Miner, and by extension the JKA, Cofield continued to run his Tong Dojo in his own way. He was a demanding instructor, but a very dedicated martial artist. He had a gruff personality and pushed his students to their limits. He didn’t care whether his students loved or hated him. He just wanted them to learn from him. His students were fiercely loyal to him. New students only gained their white belts after 6-9 months of dedicated and committed training. He also infused Black Nationalism and positivity into his teaching.
Having grown up on the tough streets of Brooklyn, Cofield understood what his students had to deal with on a daily basis. He taught his students techniques that they could use in the streets to protect themselves. He made the Tong Dojo into one of the toughest and most respected dojos in the New York area.
By 1961 Thomas LePuppet had started training at the Tong Dojo. He would go on to become one of Cofield’s best students. Cofield would develop some of the best fighters in the early tournament scene in the United States. At the dojo, Cofield’s top fighters were known as the “Gunners“. Only these students were permitted to compete in tournaments. Through the 1960s and 1970s Tong students were among the nation’s top competitors, and frequently finished on top of the podium.
Cofield would eventually have a 10-dojo network in Brooklyn. He did not operate his dojo as a commercial concern. Some of his students could not afford the training fees and he would allow them to train for free. Although he was a proud black man who espoused black empowerment, his dojos were open to all races. His only criterion was that students came to the dojo to learn Karate. In fact, one of his most successful students was Alex Sternberg.
By 1963 Cofield had been training with Miner for four years. He would eventually be awarded his black belt by him.
In 1963 Cofield entered Thomas LaPuppet into his first major tournament. The tournament was organised by another American Karate pioneer, Gary Alexander.
By 1968 Maynard Miner and his group, of which Cofield was a part, had been training with Teruyuki Okazaki for several years. However, a rift has started to develop between Cofield and Okazaki.
A proud black man living in 1960s America, Cofield had infused Black Nationalism into his Karate training as a way of providing a positive influence to his students. However, Okazaki didn’t fully understand the struggle black people were experiencing during the 1960s and 1970s. He thought Cofield was a troublemaker and for a long time, he wanted Miner to get rid of him from the organisation.
For his part Cofield found the JKA to be pompous and not willing to adapt Karate to the environment it was being taught in.
Cofield eventually parted ways with Okazaki, Miner, and a JKA. Free from any restrictions on what he could teach, he deviated slightly, teaching a mix of Traditional Shotokan Karate mixed with black positivity.
Cofield’s fame and reputation as an instructor had spread. He was one of the first black instructors to feature in Black Belt Magazine. He was featured in the November 1968 issue of the magazine.
Through his tough teaching and discipline, Cofield provided a positive influence and helped turn the lives around of kids heading for a life in gang culture. During the 1960s and 1970s, New York developed a big street gang culture. However, the Tong Dojo had developed a reputation for developing very strong fighters. Cofield students were respected and were rarely troubled by any of the gangs in their neighbourhoods.
Apart from having his student successfully compete in tournaments, Cofield established a much-in-demand demonstration team. He and his top students would give well-received demos and many of the top tournaments. The demo team included Thomas LaPuppet and the Wilder Twins. Cofield was also actively involved as a judge and referee in many tournaments.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Cofield continued teaching at his now world-famous Tong Dojo.
On 30 April 1994, the Tong Dojo celebrated its 30-year reunion at the LaGuardia Marriott Hotel. The event was attended by many previous students of the dojo.
On 22 March 2001, George Cofield died, aged 66.
Sometimes described colloquially as “Karate’s Baddest Sensei“, George Cofield is a true pioneer of Karate in the United States. Using Karate as a vehicle for providing a positive self image, he gave poor black children the opportunity to learn Karate. Unapologetically black, he successfully merged Asian philosophy with black empowerment.
For Cofield Karate was about dedication and teaching his students about survival in the tough streets of Brooklyn. He wanted his students to develop the discipline that they could use to become successful in their own endeavours. In a lasting testimony to him, many of his students have gone on to have successful careers outside of Karate. Many of them cite the positive influence Cofield had on them.