Review of Now with Kung Fu Grip!

Miracle, Jared. Now with Kung Fu Grip!: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America: Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016. 188 pp. $29.95 Paperback.

Reviewed by Richard Ravalli

Kung Fu GripAs its attention-grabbing title implies, Jared Miracle’s Now with Kung Fu Grip!: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America promises a sweeping, irreverent account of the popularity of the martial arts in the twentieth and twenty first century United States. Unfortunately, there is a little too much that is unconventional about this book, making it a worthwhile read for a limited audience. Ostensibly a revised anthropology dissertation, the volume’s missteps include heavy doses of stilted jargon and analytical tangents that weigh down Miracle’s narrative and will likely prove distracting for many, if not most, academic and popular readers. Still, it is a slim study with some charms, and Miracle has assembled an interesting array of published and archival sources and interviews, including material from the Robert W. Smith Martial Arts Collection at Texas A&M University. Focusing mostly on the Japanese martial arts of judo and karate, the author offers critical frameworks for understanding their origin and American diffusion—such as masculinity traditions in Asia and the United States, and the roles played by individual practitioners and promoters—even as the crux of his story too often remains hidden by the legends and folklore he attempts to uncover.

The book begins with a chapter titled “The YMCA, Christian Muscle and Breakfast Cereal,” and sets the social and cultural context of “Muscular Christianity.”. As Miracle writes, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, American men were in the grip of a crisis. Social commentators became critical of the negative effects that burgeoning urban, white-collar jobs had wrought on a once virile and active male population” (p. 26).  Thus, numerous reformers advanced physical exercise, new dietary measures, and by the 1920s and 30s bodybuilding and boxing were becoming increasingly popular. Miracle links these trends briefly with Asian martial arts by discussing Japanese jujutsu (or “gentle method or technique”), which began to appear in British and American contexts at the turn of the century, and “Bartitsu,” a unique self-defense method developed around the same time by English engineer Edward William Barton-Wright. Yet how the disparate traditions and individuals discussed in the chapter fit together or how Muscular Christianity paved the way for the reception of martial arts in the United States is largely unexplored, at least in this section. Moving swiftly across the Pacific, Chapter 2 presents “Karate, Boxing, and Other Japanese Creations.” While another reviewer has perhaps rightly questioned the inclusion of an entire chapter focused on Meiji Era nationalism and masculinity in a book about the martial arts in America, as a non-specialist I found the section helpful for understanding the histories of judo and karate, even if Miracle misstates facts regarding the founder of judo, Kano Jigoro.

In “U.S. Occupation and a New Manly Art,” Miracle brings East and West together by analyzing how American servicemen after World War II helped to import Asian martial traditions to the United States. As Japanese leaders engaged in a process of “auto-orientalization” to fit the assumptions of the occupying forces, servicemen—many of whom had already been exposed to judo training—took to karate, an art that had been imported to Japan relatively recently from Okinawa and thus escaped being banned by United States officials in the immediate post-war years. According to Miracle, karate appealed to Americans in Japan in the late 1940s in part because it “had taken on a militaristic flair that it never had in its original context on Okinawa. There were uniforms, ranks, set rituals, a defined curriculum, and paying of obeisance to the national flag” (p. 83). The “sportification” of the art prior to the war through the development of controlled sparring methods also resonated with men familiar with competitive boxing. Navy boxer Robert Trias founded the first karate school in the United States in Arizona in 1946. As boxing declined after the war, Asian martial arts were promoted in media outlets as exotic alternatives to traditional masculine pastimes, spurring an initial boom of interest during the 1960s.

Miracle examines a handful of associated individuals who promulgated judo and karate in America through the middle decades of the twentieth century in “In Search of the Death Touch.” Most of the chapter is given over to intricate details involving the ideas of and the relationships between Robert W. Smith, Donn F. Draeger, and Jon Bluming, with unfortunately minimal context. While the non-specialist reader feels left out of this discussion, we do learn that Draeger, a former Marine and martial arts author, worked briefly as a choreographer and stuntman for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and was sensationalized in media reports as having the “Deadliest Hands in the World.” Even more colorful a character was Chicago native John Keehan, who served in the Army, studied with Trias in the late 1950s and early 60s, advertised himself as the “Deadliest Man Alive,” and, claiming royal Spanish ancestry, changed his name in 1967 to Count Juan Raphael Dante. Sifting through karate legend, Miracle summarizes, “What is certain is that Count Dante owned a chain of karate schools, sold used cars, was a licensed hairdresser who worked for Playboy, operated pornography stores in Chicago, and unsuccessfully attempted to launch his own brand of Count Dante cigarettes” (p. 119). Yet absent from these engaging accounts is a clear sense of how the men influenced American martial arts from the top down. Only in closing are we told that the narratives surrounding their lives and careers “formed the basis for popular culture of the 1970s through the 1990s” that transmitted exotic Asian fantasies to a new generation. However, other than in the example of Frank Dux—made famous being depicted by Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport (1988) and whose personal story Miracle quickly dismisses as unbelievable—the connection is difficult to see. The author could have spent less time in the chapter providing an insider’s perspective of these American masters and given more attention to teasing out their broader historical and cultural relevancies.

Miracle attempts to bridge this gap by turning to popular culture and the recent popularity of mixed martial arts in “Bigger Muscles, Mutant Turtles and Cage-Fighting Philosophers.” In the beginning of the chapter, he claims that the work of the practitioners discussed in the previous section “was in full service by the 1970s as a gateway for Americans to appropriate Asian martial arts for their own ends” (p. 124), but he offers limited evidence for this, providing another reference to You Only Live Twice (a 60s film) and a brief discussion of the television series Kung Fu starring David Carradine. Miracle claims that Asian martial arts stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were more successful overseas than in the United States and thus Caucasian actors like Carradine were predominate in martial-arts-oriented productions, yet beyond these (unsourced) assertions the reader is left questioning how this relates to the likes of Smith, Draeger and Bluming. Miracle is on seemingly more stable footing when discussing 1980s popular culture, linking late twentieth century hyper-masculine identities with hardbody action stars and, by connection, films such as The Karate Kid (1984), Missing in Action (1984), and American Ninja (1985). A section on the 1990s contains short readings of Fight Club (1999) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), the sensationalism of the latter suggesting that “martial artists cannot truly eat their cake and have it; fighting arts media could either be aimed at children or serious adults, but not both at the same time and in the same way” (p. 130). The remainder of the chapter focuses mostly on the origins and contemporary culture of mixed martial arts (MMA). Miracle cites ethnographic evidence including his own interviews with fighters. Contrary to the bulky muscle of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, MMA competitors stress “that leanness and skill are the true indicators of how hard one has worked to achieve one’s goals” (p. 134). According to Miracle, his informants emphasize that MMA is, in the words of one interviewee, “becoming too sportish,” and they feel that its recent commercialism is a necessary evil that threatens the purity of why individuals fight.

The flaws in Now with Kung Fu Grip! are disappointing, as on many occasions I found myself cheering on Miracle to succeed, only to be let down at the end, as if Ralph Macchio missed the crane kick and had his leg swept. While martial arts researchers may find valuable nuggets of information in this book, most readers will probably be left with more questions than answers about the history and culture of the martial arts in America.

Richard Ravalli is Associate Professor of History at William Jessup University. His has written for Journal of American Culture, Journal of the West, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, and The Historian. He is currently researching the history of bodybuilding.

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