Steve Muhammad

Once said to have the fastest hands in Karate, Steve Muhammad is a nine-time World Champion. A pioneer of tournament Karate, he made it acceptable for black people to compete in tournaments at a time when favouritism and racism existed in many tournaments.

Steve Muhammad was born Steve Sanders on 2 July 1939 in Indianola, Mississippi, United States. He was one of several children.

Growing up Sanders was a natural athlete and excelled in American Football, baseball, athletics, and boxing.

In 1950 the Sanders family moved to Topeka, Kansas.

Looking to earn some extra money, Sanders managed to find a part-time job at a Chinese restaurant when he was 13. He continued in the job until he was 18.

It was at the restaurant that Sanders got his first exposure to martial arts. His employers and co-workers practised Tai Chi. He began practising with them for the next five years.

In 1960 Sanders graduated from Hayden High school. He attended Kansas State University on a football scholarship.

After university Sanders joined the US Marine Corps and was stationed in Camp Pendleton, South California. It was around this time that he started practising Kenpo Karate under the legendary Ed Parker. Sanders would drive to Los Angeles twice a week to train with him at his West Los Angeles dojo. He continued doing this even after being transferred to the El Torro Marine Base.

Sanders was eventually deployed to Okinawa and had a tour of duty in Vietnam. While in Okinawa he had the opportunity to learn Goju-Ryu Karate.

In 1963 Sanders left the Marine Corps. He started working as a police officer for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and would remain with the department for 27 years.

Sanders mainly worked in the Department’s gang unit and served undercover for several years. He also served as an investigator and a training officer. He had resumed his training with Ed Parker. Because of the nature of his job he was frequently involved in real-life fights and his martial arts training proved to be very useful.

Dan Inosanto and Chuck Sullivan were instructors under Ed Parker. Sanders had trained under Inosanto for a while. He eventually started training under Sullivan. In July 1966 he was graded to black belt by Sullivan. It was around this time he actively started competing.

For the next three years, Sanders competed in numerous competitions with very little success due to poor officiating.

In 1969 Sanders established the BKF (Black Karate Federation) alongside Donnie Williams, Ron Chapel, Jerry Smith, and Cliff Stewart. Open to all races, the BKF was established as a backlash against the unfair treatment black competitors had faced in some tournaments. Sanders became the organisation’s first President.

For a time the BKF was mistakenly thought to be associated with the Black Panther Party. There were occasions when BKF competitors arrived at tournaments only to have the police called on them. In time they were recognised as a legitimate Karate association.

By the 1970s Sanders had become one of the familiar faces of the tournament scene. He also established a successful BKF dojo in California.

In 1973 the classic martial arts film, “Enter the Dragon” was released. He starred Bruce Lee who was a friend of Sanders. Sanders appeared in the film as the instructor of Jim Kelly’s character. The scene was filmed inside the actual BKF dojo in California.

Sanders decided to join the Nation of Islam in 1982. He was given the surname Muhammad by Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan. For a time he was known as Steve Muhammad. He eventually chose the name Sijo Saabir Quwi Muhammad.

For a time Muhammad was responsible for teaching martial arts to some of the Nation of Islam’s security team. He also provided personal security for Minister Farrakhan.

In 1982 Muhammad appeared in a training video, “World of Martial Arts” alongside Benny Urquidez, Chuck Norris, and John Saxon.

Muhammad was inducted into the Black Bell Magazine’s Hall of Fame as “Instructor of the Year” in 1984. He also appeared as a tournament referee in the year’s blockbuster film, “The Karate Kid“.

By 1989 Muhammad’s time with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was coming to an end. That year he formed his own security company. He eventually provided close security for Wesley Snipes and worked for him for 10 years.

On 1 September 2002 Muhammad co-authored “BKF Kenpo: History and Advanced Strategic Principles“, alongside Donnie Williams. Muhammad and Williams had previously written the book, “Championship Kenpo“, which was published in 1983.

Muhammad was inducted into the Battle of Atlanta’s Hall of Fame in 2012. He was presented with the Centurion Club Hall of Fame Award. The Battle of Atlanta is one of the biggest national tournaments in the United States.

Between 19-20 July 2019 the Black Karate Federation Hall of Fame Inductee ceremony was held at the Hilton Atlanta Hotel, in downtown Atlanta. The event celebrated 50 years of the BKF and also Muhammad’s 80th birthday. He attended the event alongside his wife Sababirah, oldest son Asaad, and one of his sisters. The 1st Annual Sijo Steve Muhammad “Fight like a God” Championship Tournament was also held.

Now a 10th Dan in Kenpo, Sijo Steve Muhammad can rightly be considered a pioneer of United States Karate. His successes made it acceptable for black people to compete in tournaments and be treated fairly. He still teaches classes at his home to select students and also over Zoom.

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