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Black Martial Artists that Influenced the World

The Black Belt List

top black martial artists

In the span of the last seven decades, the global growth, achievements, and heightened awareness of Martial Arts owe much to the contributions of numerous Masters, champions and stars featured on this list.

The editorial team at Black Belt acknowledges that, for many years, the magazine lacked diverse coverage across race and gender. While this list doesn't alter historical oversights, it serves as a recognition of the past. 

Moving forward, there is a commitment to embracing diverse global coverage as we progress into the next generation of martial arts. Here is a special feature on Black Martial Artists that influenced the world.

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George Cofield 

george cofield

George Cofield emerged as one of the pioneering black instructors of Karate in the country.  Born in 1934, in Roosevelt, New York, George Cofield enlisted in the US Marine Corps in the mid-1950s. He experienced deployments in Korea and Japan, where his journey into the world of Shotokan Karate commenced.

Upon leaving the Marine Corps in 1959, Cofield returned to his roots in New York and established the famed Tong Dojo in Brooklyn.

karate club tong dojo

Here he instructed a notable cohort of students, including Thomas LaPuppet, Alex Sternberg, Doug Frazier and played a key role in shaping some of the most accomplished competitive Karate fighters of the 1960s and 1970s.

He dedicated over three decades to leading and nurturing the dojo, leaving an indelible mark on the legacy of Karate in the United States.

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George Harris

george harris

A distinguished figure in the world of Judo, George participated in the inaugural Olympic Judo team of 1964. Notably, the team's composition reflected the ethos of equality on the Judo mat, a powerful statement during the height of the Civil Rights movement. 

Under the tutelage of former US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, George Harris received training that transcended societal divisions, emphasizing the equality of all participants on the Judo mat.

Later he achieved the esteemed rank of 9th dan through a lifetime devoted to both the sport and his country.  His legacy extends far beyond the mat, leaving an enduring body of work and service of equality, and sportsmanship.

Thomas La Puppet 

Black Belt Magazine cover featuring Thomas La Puppet

An American martial arts pioneer, he gained notoriety as a champion achieving the distinction of being the first Black man featured on the cover of Black Belt Magazine in 1968.

His expertise extended beyond the competitive arena, as he played a key role in training actors Gregory Hines and Ralph Macchio of "Karate Kid'' fame.  Thomas “Lapuppet” Carroll born in 1938, Initially a practitioner of jiu jitsu, Carrol transitioned to Karate under the guidance of George Cofield. Attaining the rank of 8th-degree black belt, his contributions were acknowledged with an induction into the Black Belt Hall of Fame in 1969, solidifying his status as a trailblazer and influential figure in the martial arts community.

Ronald Duncan

ronald duncan

Professor Duncan, often hailed as the "Father of American Ninjitsu" and the "first American Ninja," made significant strides in the 1960s by successfully demonstrating Ninjitsu.  He served as a member of the United States Marine Corp Judo team, earning a black belt. Proficient in various martial arts disciplines, including Hakko Ryu Jujitsu, Dai-nippon Jujitsu Ryu, Sosuishi Ryu, Kin Dai Gakko Ryu, Aikido, Aiki-Jujitsu, Kempo, Kobujitsu (weaponry), and Shinobi No-jutsu (Ninjitsu), Ronald Duncan was a showcased performer at the Oriental World of Self Defense on ABC Television.

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The Black Karate Federation “BKF”

Cofounders: Jerry Smith, Cliff Stewart, Ron Chapel, Steve Sanders, Donnie Williams, Karl Armelin and Curtis Pulliam

In the late 1960’s, young black martial artists in their mid-20s began meeting and training at various locations in and near Los Angeles. These men included Jerry Smith, Cliff Stewart, Ron Chapel, Steve Sanders, Donnie Williams, Karl Armelin and Curtis Pulliam.

As a reflection of the times, there was a push for a united voice in sport karate. Black martial artists were tired of being cheated so often at tournaments. If it was not because of race, it was because of bias towards a particular style or system. It was said that was the decisive factor for forming the Black Karate Federation (BKF).

The first official BKF School opened in late 1971 in Los Angeles. Known as "The 103rd Street School", it was the home of the original students of the BKF. Martial arts champions such as Joe Lewis, Cecil Peoples, and Benny Urquidez often visited the school to train. 

black karate federation featured in karate illustrated

The 103rd Street School achieved notoriety as the location chosen to film a portion of the immortal martial arts films, "Enter The Dragon" starring Bruce Lee.

Over the past 50 years, the BKF have continued to grow their legacy which has included countless masters and champions of the martial arts including Sam Pace, Lenny Ferguson, Alvin Prouder, Ray Wizard, Cynthia Prouder, and Barry Gordon.

Fred Hamilton 

Fred Hamilton 

From 1968 to 1973, Grandmaster Fred Hamilton harnessed the power of karate in Operation Helping Hand, a program aimed at empowering inner-city youth. The initiative yielded substantial results, redirecting thousands of kids and adults away from the crime-riddled streets of Harlem.

Hamilton embarked on his journey in Karate-do in Japan from 1940 to 1968, culminating in his return to the United States. A seasoned practitioner and instructor, he specialized in Traditional Japanese and African martial arts while also making significant contributions as a martial arts promoter and visionary.

Directly mentored by Tomosaburo Okano, who learned directly from the eminent Gichin Funakoshi and Gigo Funakoshi (Yoshitaka Funakoshi), Grandmaster Fred's lineage traced back to Karate's foundational figures.

In a groundbreaking move in 1975, he organized the inaugural bare-knuckle full-contact professional karate tournament in the U.S.A. Notably, Grandmaster Fred shattered barriers by being the first promoter to welcome women to fully participate in all categories of martial arts competition. His visionary approach earned him the title of "The Great Black Hope" by Black Belt Magazine, acknowledging his pivotal role in pushing the boundaries of martial arts inclusion and competition.

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Moses Powell

Moses Powell

Moses Powell (1941–2005), trailblazer held the esteemed rank of a 10th-degree black belt and gained acclaim for his extraordinary one-finger forward roll.

Powell made history as the first martial artist invited to showcase his skills before the United Nations. Breaking barriers, he became one of the earliest African Americans to impart martial arts instruction to agencies such as the DEA, FBI, and the Secret Service. In 1965, he took center stage as a featured demonstrator at New York's World Fair.

His influence extended to instructing movie star Wesley Snipes, showcasing the breadth of his impact. Beyond his personal achievements, Moses Powell was the visionary founder of the Sanuces Ryu Jujutsu system, further solidifying his role as a pioneer and leader in the martial arts landscape of the United States.

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Vic Moore 

Vic Moore 

Victor Moore is a 10th degree black belt in Karate and was one of the late Robert Trias' chief instructors of the Shuri-ryū Karate system.  Moore is considered to be one of the first major Black martial artists and was one of the first African-Americans to win a major karate competition in 1965 at the USKA Grand Nationals. And went on to be one of the winningest of his era.

Captured in a legendary moment in time, in 1967 Vic Moore appeared at the Long Beach International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California and participated in a martial arts speed drill against Jeet Kune Do founder and movie star, Bruce Lee. The scene is forever replayed and remembered in history and movies.

In 1973, Vic Moore and Joe Lewis introduced kickboxing to America on the Merv Griffin TV show in 1973. 


Jim Kelly 

Jim Kelly on Black Belt Mag cover

Jim Kelly, an iconic figure in the world of martial arts. Rising to fame in the 1970s, Kelly was a skilled martial artist and actor. His iconic role as Williams in the film "Enter the Dragon" alongside Bruce Lee showcased his martial arts prowess and charisma, establishing him as a trailblazer.

Kelly's significance lies in being one of the first Black martial artists to attain mainstream success in Hollywood. His on-screen presence broke racial barriers, portraying strong, charismatic Black characters in martial arts films. 

Beyond his cinematic achievements, Jim Kelly became a symbol of empowerment for the Black community. He embodied strength, resilience, and excellence in a genre where Black representation was scarce. His contributions resonated as he inspired many, especially Black youths, to pursue martial arts and break stereotypes as he became a cultural icon, bridging martial arts and the Black community, leaving an enduring impact on the landscape of both realms.

Fred Williamson

Fred Williamson

Nicknamed "The Hammer," he gained recognition for employing martial arts techniques during his tenure as a pro football star for the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs.  His martial arts practice included time in Hong Kong with Bruce Lee and in New York with Aaron Banks. 

Pioneering the "blaxploitation" genre in the early 1970s, Williamson emerged as one of the first African-American male action stars portraying powerful black action heroes. With a career spanning almost 50 years, he has excelled as an actor, director, writer, and producer.

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Pam Grier 

Pam Grier on the poster of Coffy

Pam Grier, a cinematic legend, stands alone as the first female action star period! Best known for her powerful and trailblazing roles in the 1970s era, Grier shattered stereotypes and paved the way for representation in action cinema in films like "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown," she seamlessly blended her martial arts prowess with charisma, creating a powerful archetype that resonated with audiences. Her later work includes "Jackie Brown," "Above the Law" and the 2023 "Pet Cemetery 3." Her presence is still in high demand. 

Grier's training in martial arts adds a dynamic layer to her legacy. During her youth, she honed her martial arts skills on military bases, where her father served. This early exposure to self-defense and discipline laid the foundation for her physical prowess, which she would later showcase on the big screen.  

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Ron Van Clief 

Ron Van Clief 

He is known worldwide as "The Black Dragon," Ron Van Clief is an American martial artist and acclaimed actor in both Hollywood and Hong Kong action films. Renowned for his roles in 1970s kung fu films.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and was stationed in Okinawa where he embarked on a distinguished martial arts career. He went on and studied under Gōjū-ryū masters Peter Urban, Frank Ruiz, and Moses Powell, as well as Wing Chun Grandmaster Leung Ting, Modern Arnis (Remy Presas), and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Joe Moreira).  His exceptional skills led him to secure victories in numerous national tournaments and world championships.

In 1994 at the age of 51, became the oldest competitor in the UFC, facing Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Royce Gracie. Although Gracie emerged victorious with a submission via rear-naked choke, Ron's participation marked a significant milestone in UFC history.

Ron Van Clief and Chinese Goju on Black Belt Mag cover

Following his competitive years, Ron Van Clief served as the commissioner of the UFC. He officially retired from competition in 2002 after securing victory at the All American Karate Championship at the age of 60. Over his illustrious career, he participated in over 900 tournaments across 40 years, earning the title of a 5-time world karate/kungfu champion and a 15-time all American champion. Remarkably, Ron continues to compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments since 2015, showcasing his enduring passion for martial arts. Additionally, he is an accomplished author and creator of instructional books and video recordings, leaving an enduring legacy in the martial arts community.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar 

Kareem Abdul Jabbar & Bruce Lee

While attending UCLA ,a young Kareem Abdul Jabbar was eager to learn martial arts. Through the suggestion of Mito Ueyahara (the then publisher of Black Belt Magazine), he was introduced to Bruce Lee. The basketball star had just returned to Los Angeles from New York to finish his last year at UCLA. He’d studied aikido in New York from Yoshimitsu Yamada and wanted to continue with the martial arts.

Bruce had to be convinced to teach the young athlete. Ueyahara mentioned to Bruce about Jabbar's height and Bruce remarked “I’d like to meet him. I wonder how it feels to spar with a guy that tall. Can you arrange for me to see him?”

During their meeting Bruce impressed had Kareem hold a kicking shield and had his wife Linda do a kick which threw the young future Hall of Famer back several feet. The power impressed him so much that the relationship began and a lifelong study pursued.  

Kareem Abdul Jabbar on cover of Black Belt Magazine

Film fans remember the two in their work in Bruce Lee's last film "The Game of Death" with the memorable fight scene in the film.

Jabbar would go on to become not only one of the world's greatest basketball players but also a role model for athletes and martial artists as he carried himself with great humility and respect for others core tenants of the martial arts. 

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Howard Jackson

Howard Jackson on Black Belt Mag Cover

Howard Jackson was a former World Kickboxing Champion (W.K.A), a World Muay Thai Champion (W.K.B.A), a world rated Karate point fighter, and a world rated boxing contender. He was born in Detroit, Michigan. He began studying Kung Fu in 1967, switching to Tang Soo Do. For many years he would be the personal trainer partner to Chuck Norris.

He began his point fighting career while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. His speed earned him the nickname "California Flash." In 1973 he won every major tournament on the karate circuit making him the sport's biggest money-winner on record at that time, as well as being the first African-American fighter to be ranked number one in the United States. In 1973 he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as "Fighter of the Year." In 1974 he was voted as the Black Belt and Professional Karate Magazines #1 fighter in the U.S.


Dennis Brown

Dennis Brown

Considered a pioneer in the teaching of Shaolin Kung Fu and Wushu in the USA. In 1982, Dennis Brown made history as one of the first Americans to venture to Mainland China. His mission was not only to train but also to study and earn certification at the prestigious Jiangsu Sports Center in Nanjing.

Dennis Brown, a stalwart in the world of martial arts, embarked on his journey in 1965 in the Washington Metropolitan area. His dedication and pursuit of excellence took him to new heights, making him a pioneer in the martial arts community.

A true scholar of the martial arts, Dennis Brown returned to China many times after demonstrating his relentless pursuit of mastery in diverse martial disciplines. With such devotion and expertise the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., officially recognized him as the Official Consultant of Wu-Shu for the People’s Republic of China. 

In 1999, Dennis Brown received a prestigious induction into the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame, earning the title of Kung Fu Instructor of the Year. 

Linda Denley 

Linda Denley on Karate Illustrated cover

Considered the GOAT of women's sport karate, Linda Denley is an American karate champion who was born in Houston, Texas. She was rated number one in Sport Karate from 1973 to 1996. Her influence inspired a generation of women to compete in martial arts. 

She was still in high school, when she qualified for the Olympics in five track and field events, but because of her professional winnings on the karate circuit, she was ineligible to compete in the Olympics. She graced the covers of numerous martial arts magazines and was featured in local newspaper articles and TV programs. She worked with Jackie Chan in "Armour of God" and with Chuck Norris in "Sidekicks."

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Tayari Casel 

Tayari Casel 

Tayari Casel achievements include exhibitions and fighting matches during the world tour of the Oriental World of Self Defense in New York’s Madison Square Garden his classic fight with Master “Little” John Davis was highlighted on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. A national champion across forms, fighting, and weapons in Karate Star Ratings, in 1980 Casel was one of the first to popularize ground fighting in competition. He was the only non-Karate practitioner picked by Chuck Norris to represent the USA in team fights. 

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Steve “Nasty” Anderson

Steve “Nasty” Anderson on Karate Illustrated cover

In the Sport of Tournament Karate there was one man considered unstoppable for over a decade, that title of GOAT of men's Kumite goes to Steve "Nasty" Anderson. After an NCAA career that included football, wrestling, and track and field, Anderson was an accomplished athlete and had special forces training in the Navy. Using his knowledge of combat and performance athletics, he was able to dominate Sport Karate from 1980-1990 winning 10 World Championship titles. His martial arts background was in Kenpo training with the famed Orned "Chicken” Gabriel in San Diego, CA.  In 1982 he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame for Competitor of the Year. He passed away in 2020 leaving a legacy in Sport Karate. 

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1990s - Black Martial Artists that Influenced the World

Fredia "The Cheetah" Gibbs

Fredia "The Cheetah" Gibbs

Gibbs made history when she became the first African-American female Kickboxing ISKA World Champion. She earned the name "The Most Dangerous Woman in the World" after an upset in 1994 in her fight against World Champion Valérie Wiet-Henin of France in the "Battle of the Masters" pay-per-view event in San Jose, California.

She is an American former professional martial artist, kickboxer, and boxer who competed from 1975 to 2005. During her kickboxing career, she held ISKA, WKA, and WKF World Titles. Before her kickboxing career she was an All-American in basketball and track.

She went on to become one of the most dominant champions of all time, and remains a significant historical figure in light and super lightweight kickboxing divisions. She competed from 1991 to 1997, amassing a record of 16 wins, 0 losses, and 15 KOs, and three world titles. She also competed as a top contender in women's professional boxing from 1997 to 2005 with a record of 9 wins, 2 losses, and 1 draw.

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Wesley Snipes 

Wesley Snipes 

As one of the first Black actors to lead successful martial arts franchises, he became a trailblazer, inspiring a generation of aspiring martial artists and actors from diverse backgrounds. 

His breakthrough role in the film "Blade" (1998) catapulted him into martial arts stardom, portraying the vampire hunter with unparalleled martial skills. Snipes' dedication to mastering martial arts for his roles brought authenticity to his performances, earning him admiration within the martial arts community.

Beyond the cinematic realm, Wesley Snipes has actively promoted martial arts and fitness as essential components of a healthy lifestyle. He has been an advocate for martial arts training, emphasizing discipline, mental focus, and physical well-being.

Billy Blanks 

Billy Blanks on Karate Illustrated

Billy Blanks, the Karate champion from Erie, PA, became a household name with his Tae Bo system. Blanks developed the routine in 1976 by combining dance with elements from his martial arts and boxing training to form a workout regimen. During the 1990s, a series of videos was mass-marketed to the public; by 1999, an estimated 1.5 million sets of videos had been sold by frequently-aired television infomercials. As a result, Tae Bo became something of a pop culture phenomenon in the late 1990s. Gyms began offering kickboxing-based fitness classes similar to Tae Bo. Today Cardio Kick Boxing, a form of martial arts exercise, is practiced in nearly every gym in the world and that can be credited to Billy Blanks. 

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Maurice Smith 

Maurice Smith 

Maurice Smith is heralded among the true pioneers of MMA, and is revered as a striking specialist in the sport of MMA. He held the WKC (World Kickboxing Council), WKA (World Kickboxing Association) and the ISKA (International Sport Karate Association) world heavyweight championship. A professional competitor since 1980, Smith has formerly competed in kickboxing for the companies All Japan Enterprise and K-1, Pancrase, RINGS, PRIDE, Strikeforce, International Fight League and RFA.

In 1997, he won the UFC heavyweight title facing and defeating MMA legend Mark Coleman via unanimous decision at UFC 14 on July 27th, 1997. Considered by many as one of the best fights of 1997. The win put Maurice Smith’s name in the history books as the first Black fighter to win a UFC championship and the UFC heavyweight championship, he was later inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2017. 

Michael Jai White

Michael Jai White

Michael Jai White is a former special education teacher who became a global superstar. 

He was the first Black American to portray a major comic book superhero in a major motion picture in the 1997 film "Spawn." His action films are countless with major hits that include "Black Dynamite," "Falcon Rising," "Blood and Bone," "Never Back Down" and his most recent "Outlaw Johnny Black."

White started training in the martial arts at the age of four in Jujutsu. He next took up Shōtōkan and moved on to other styles later including Kyokushin Karate, Goju-Ryu Karate, Shotokan Karate, Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do, Kobudo, and Wushu.

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