Spotlight: Thomas ‘LaPuppet’ Caroll – The Puppet Master

If someone confronts me on the street, I will run like hell and hope he doesn’t catch me; if he does, he is in trouble.

Thomas LaPuppet

Known as the “Gentleman of Karate“, Thomas LaPuppet was a pioneer of American karate. A ferocious competitor, he was nicknamed “La Puppet (The Puppet)” for his ability to mimic other fighters.

Thomas LaPuppet was born Thomas Carroll in South Carolina in February 1938. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He was one of three children, having a brother and sister.

LaPuppet graduated from the Franklin K. Lane high school in 1955. The school was shut down by the City of New York in 2012 for poor performance.

LaPuppet attended the State University of New York College at Old Westberg. However, he dropped out to pursue a career in the US Marine Corps. He served four years on active duty and a further sixteen years as a reservist. He retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of sergeant.

In 1959 LaPuppet started learning Jujitsu. He has seen some fellow Marines practising for the Judo team. Judo was popular at the time and membership for the team was full. However, what he saw piqued his interest in the martial arts. On his return from his tour of duty, he found a Jujitsu club in the New York area.

LaPuppet trained at the St John’s Recreation Center, located in Bed-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. He eventually got to green belt level. Around this time he was training to become a fireman. He stopped his Jujitsu practice after he sustained a shoulder injury. He did not want any injuries that would jeopardise his chances of becoming a New York fireman.

In 1961 LaPuppet started learning Shotokan Karate at the Tong Dojo in Brooklyn. He said his instructor was George Coffield, an early pioneer of Karate in the United States. Coffield had learnt Shotokan Karate while serving with the US Army in Japan. A demanding instructor, he only wanted the best for the students. He set an example by being a dedicated martial artist.

By 1962 LaPuppet had achieved his goal of becoming a New York fireman. He would hold the position for the next twenty years.

In 1963 LaPuppet entered his first tournament, as a junior grade. The tournament was organised by American Karate pioneer, Gary Alexander.

As a brown belt, LaPuppet entered a number of tournaments in 1964. In a tournament held in Pittsburgh, he made it to the final where he was runner-up. He also entered Taekwondo legend, Jhoon Rhee’s National Tournament, where he won the brown belt category.

In 1965 Coffield promoted LaPuppet to 1st Dan.

1965 was a breakout year for LaPuppet on the tournament scene. He entered the All–American Championship organised by S. Henry Cho at Madison Square Garden in New York. Cho wanted to host the biggest tournament in the United States, as a showcase for great fighting talent. LaPuppet emerged as the undisputed winner of the tournament. Later that year he entered the Westchester Grand Championship, which he also won.

With his tournament successes, LaPuppet started receiving invitations to compete in tournaments around the country. In 1966 he retained his All-American Championship. This was followed by wins at the Boston Invitational; The Greater New York Metropolitan Championships; and the 5th Canadian International Tournament, held in Toronto. He also won numerous local and regional events.

By 1967 LaPuppet’s reputation as a top-level competitor was growing. He placed in every tournament he entered. That year he also won the Universal Karate Tournament lightweight title. He was also voted Karate Fighter of the Year.

LaPuppet successfully defended his Universal Karate Tournament lightweight title in 1968. This was particularly impressive as he had badly injured his eye in an early bout.

With all the successes LaPuppet had as it has a tournament fighter, he was above all, a martial artist. He was still a student of George Coffield. By 1968 he started assisting at the Tong Dojo.

1969 saw LaPuppet win the 1st Battle of Atlanta. In the final, he faced legendary fighter Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. The match was decided in an overtime extension. Wallace had tremendous respect for LaPuppet, having seen him compete in numerous matches.

In 1969 LaPuppet was inducted into Black Belt Magazine’s Hall of Fame as Karate Player of the Year. He was the second fighter inducted into the Hall of Fame, and also the first black man to be inducted.

In 1976 LaPuppet starred in the movie, “The Super Weapon“, with good friend Ron van Clief. He first met van Clief, a martial arts instructor and actor in 1965 at S. Henry Cho’s All-American Championship. LaPuppet also starred in the 1998 film, “Angel with a Kick“.

LaPuppet retired from the tournament Karate scene in 1969. The following year he founded the Ronin Shotokan Karate-Do Association, a not-for-profit organisation, located in Brooklyn. His aim was to bring affordable training to the residents of the area.

After twenty years of dedicated service, LaPuppet retired from the New York fire department in 1982. That same year he became part of the coaching setup of the United States Karate Team.

As part of the US coaching staff, LaPuppet has coached at two WUKO(WKF) World Championships. He was a part of the coaching staff at the 1982 World Championships held in Taipei, Taiwan between 21–25 November. In 1986 he was the head coach of the US Team, at the World Championships held in Sydney, Australia, between 21–25 November.

As a member of the USA Karate Federation LaPuppet held a number of roles over the years. Apart from being Head Coach of the US Team, he has also been the National Chief of Tournament Operations. He has also been a national and international certified referee.

LaPuppet was a strong believer that Karate could be used as a vehicle to bring people from various backgrounds together. He was a member of several organisations, that included:

  • World Union of Karate-do Organisations (WUKO)
  • Pan-American Union of Karate-do Organisations (PUKO)
  • Central Taekwondo Association
  • Kwanmukan International
  • World Karate Federation Organising Committee for Olympic Development

On 20 March 1999, Thomas LaPuppet died after a four-year-long battle with cancer. He was survived by his wife Mary Caroll-LaPuppet and their son Thomas Marice.

In memory of LaPuppet, the Ronin Shotokan Karate-Do Association organised the “Thomas LaPuppet Memorial Classic“. An invitational event, it is held annually in New York.

Apart from the students, he trained at the Tong Dojo and at the Ronin Shotokan Karate-Do Association, LaPuppet has also trained a number of celebrities and politicians. These include Gregory Hines, Ralph Macchio (Karate Kid), Steve McQueen, and Benjamin Netanyahu. He is also provided private security for the likes of Donald Trump.

For a generation of young competitors and martial artists, Thomas LaPuppet was a trailblazer. He influenced fighters like Steve “Nasty” Anderson and Billy Blanks. As a competitor, his opponents read like a Who’s Who of American martial arts. They include Chuck Merriman, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and Joe Lewis. He embodied the true essence of martial arts, as a vehicle for self-improvement. His association made it possible for people to learn Karate in some of the poorest areas of New York.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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