Spotlight: Chuck Merriman – The Evolutionist

Physical development is easy to see because you can measure it in terms of increased flexibility over what you could do, say six months previously. What aren’t obvious are the internal changes that take place, because character development is very subtle and happens over a period of time. But character development is long lasting.

Chuck Merriman

For many years Chuck Merriman has been one of the most recognisable faces in Karate. This American Karate pioneer has featured on the cover of many martial arts publications. He has been instrumental in popularising Goju-ryu Karate around the world.

Chuck Merriman was born in Waterford, Connecticut on 8 January 1933.

By 1952 Merriman had graduated from Bulkely High School, New London, Connecticut. He attended Little Rock University, Arkansas, where he studied Drama and Speech. On graduating from University he worked at General Dynamics, building submarines.

In 1960 a co-worker of Merriman introduced him to Judo. The Judo club he attended was run by Norbert Bellinger in Norwich, Connecticut. Merriman had to watch the classes for a month before been invited to join. However, after about six months, Bellinger stopped showing up for classes.

Merriman started training with In Soo H’wang of the local Korean Judo College for a short period, before deciding to move to New York. Some years later he would resume his training with H’wang.

For Merriman, training had become an important part of his life. However, now with a wife, Lillian, and a child to support, he moved to New York looking for work. He found a dojo, run by the “Judo Twins“, Bernie and Bob Lepkofker. Because of a lack of funds, he was allowed to sleep and train at the dojo in exchange for keeping it clean, and opening and closing it for classes. His wife and son moved in with her mother in Pennsylvania. He would visit them on the weekends.

Merriman trained with the Lepkofker twins through the 1960s and 1970s. He also had the opportunity to train with Nakabayashi Sadaki. Sadaki, who taught and trained at the dojo, was a three-time All Japan Collegiate Champion. Merriman learnt a lot from him. Merriman competed in a lot of high level Judo competitions at the time.

In 1962 Merriman started training in Shito-ryu Karate under Chris DeBaise. The Karate dojo was located in the same building as the Judo dojo. He had started watching classes before joining. He was impressed by DeBaise’s leadership and focus.

On joining the Karate club, Merriman found that his Judo training was beneficial. Typically, he would practice Judo from 6-8 pm. This was followed by Karate practice from 8-10 pm. Merriman has credited DeBaise with having a big influence on the direction of his Karate, as his first instructor. He provided Merriman with a solid Karate foundation, plus he influenced his outlook and approach to life.

In 1966 DeBaise had a falling-out with the Judo Twins and decided to stop teaching. Merriman continued his Judo training was the Lepkofker brothers.

DeBaise wanted Merriman to continue with his Karate training. He took him to a dojo run by the legendary Peter Urban. Urban was a pioneer of Goju-ryu Karate in the United States. He had trained with Karate masters, Gogen Yamaguchi, Mas Oyama, and Richard Kim. His dojo was located in China Town, with classes 5 nights a week. Women, and children under the age of 16 were not allowed to train at the dojo. He had a three-month waiting list to join his dojo. Urban was a strict, but innovative teacher. As a favour to DeBaise, Merriman was allowed to train with Urban, starting in 1966.

During Merriman’s time in New York he had many jobs. This was due to the importance he placed on his training. If a job impacted his training, he would leave it.

In 1970 Merriman opened his first Karate dojo in Connecticut. He named the dojo “Karate International“. Some of his Judo friends had asked if he could teach them Karate. Within the first few weeks of opening the dojo, 50-60 students had signed up. Merriman started teaching classes twice a week.

Merriman was a successful tournament competitor. In 1974 Official Karate Magazine named as one of the “Top Ten Competitors in the USA“.

After his competitive career was over, Merriman made the transition to becoming a tournament judge and referee. By 1977 he was the Chief Referee at the WUKO World Championships, held in Tokyo, Japan. That same year he was appointed to the 1st WUKO Referees Council.

In 1978 Merriman was appointed Head Coach of the US Karate Team. He held the position until 1980. At the 1980 WUKO World Championships held in Madrid, Spain, he became the first coach to lead his team to gold, silver, and bronze medals. American, Tokey Hill won gold in the -80 kg Kumite event. Teammate, Billy Blanks won silver in the Open Kumite event and bronze in the +80 kg Kumite event.

1980 saw Merriman inducted into the Black Belt Magazine’s Hall of Fame. He was named Instructor of the Year.

In 1984 Merriman was appointed Coach of the New England AAU Team. The following year he co-organised the Bermuda International Grand Championships. This was the first Karate tournament to receive major corporate sponsorship. The tournament had prize money totalling $25000. He was also responsible for organising the tournament the following year, with prize money totalling $50000.

Merriman continued to receive awards and accolades. In 1986 he was elected into the Inside Kung Fu Magazine’s Hall of Fame. The following year he was inducted into Official Karate Magazine’s Legion of Honour.

In 1987 Merriman organised and coached his first Professional Karate Team, consisting of around 24 people. The team was named and sponsored by Atlantic Refining & Marketing Corp. The team was later renamed Transworld Oil Karate Team. The team was undefeated for five years in both national and international competition. Apart from the competitors, the team also included a team doctor, two assistant coaches and Merriman’s wife who was the team manager.

Merriman was invited to train with the legendary Goju-ryu master, Eiichi Miyazato, in Okinawa in 1994 . Miyazato had been a senior student of Goju-ryu founder, Chojun Miyagi.

In 1995 Merriman was re-appointed Head Coach of the United States National Karate Team. Karate was included for the first time at the 12th Pan American Games. In a successful games, the US team won 7 medals – 1 gold, 1 silver, 5 bronze. The same year he was appointed Head Coach of the US team at the PUKO Championships held in Medellin, Columbia. The team won 13 medals – 3 gold, 5 silver, 5 bronze. The following year he was named AAU Karate Coach of the Year.

At the Okinawa Karate, Kobudo World Tournament, held in Naha, Merriman with appointed to the Referees Council as Chief Referee.

In 1997, on his way to a Karate tournament in Okinawa, Merriman suffered a stroke. The plane carrying him and a group of people, including his son Chad, had stopped of in Alaska to refuel. He had collapsed and was admitted to a hospital in Alaska. It was found that he had a blockage in his brain. He attributed his Karate training in helping him recover from his stroke. Because of the need to train left and right sides equally in Karate, his body was able to recover from stroke much quicker than it would have. His doctors were surprised at how quickly he had recovered from a full blown stroke.

In 2008 Merriman gave up having a full-time dojo. He moved to Phoenix, Arizona.

Away from Karate Merriman has been a bodyguard to a number of celebrities, including singers Diana Ross, and Gene Simmons of Kiss fame.

For many years Chuck Merriman has been at the forefront of popularising Goju-ryu Karate. He has written books and appeared in videos demonstrating his style of Karate. He had the opportunity to train with some legends of the art, including Eiichi Miyazato, Morio Higaonna, and Peter Urban. He has managed to straddle the line between traditional and sport Karate. Even though he has been hampered by disability (stroke, hernia, and aneurysms) he has not let it disrupt his training. He has just adapted. He believes that one’s Karate should change as one matures. His son Chad has followed in his footsteps, by becoming a successful Karate instructor.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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