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NFL and the Martial Arts: The Dangerous Dozen   

the black belt list

NFL & Martial Arts

As we gear up for the big game, we are celebrating those gridiron warriors who not only had a passionate dedication to martial arts, but also served as ambassadors for martial arts.  These professional football players recognized early in their careers that the techniques learned in martial arts would also help them excel on the field!

Here are 12 very skilled martial artists who made careers in the NFL: The Dangerous Dozen 

In chronological order:

  1. Fred The Hammer Williamson

  2. Randy White 

  3. Ronnie Lott

  4. Marcus Allen

  5. Andre Tippet

  6. Herschel Walker

  7. Lorenzo Neal

  8. Tony Parrish 

  9. Olin Kreutz 

  10. Andre Carter

  11. D'Brickashaw Ferguson

  12. Demarcus Ware 

Special Mention: Tunch Ilkin

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Fred "The Hammer" Williamson

Fred Williamson

Defensive Back, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs


Martial Arts Styles: Karate, and Kung Fu 

Instructors: Bruce Lee and Aaron Banks 

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.

Fred Williamson

Notable appearances include his role in Robert Rodriguez's "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996), where he played a vampire-killing biker alongside FX guru Tom Savini. Additionally, Williamson showcased his comedic skills as grumpy Captain Dobey in "Starsky & Hutch" (2004).

Randy White

randy white

1st round 2nd pick Defensive Tackle, Dallas Cowboys


Martial Arts Styles: Jeet Kune Do and Muay Thai 

Instructors: Chai Sirisute

Legendary Randy White, former defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys from 1975 to 1988, may have been one of the first high profile NFL stars to incorporate martial arts training into football. 

The Pro Football Hall of Famer was the second player selected in the 1975 NFL Draft, and was moved to middle linebacker, where he was a backup to Cowboy legend Lee Roy Jordan, playing mostly on special teams his first two seasons. During his third season, White was moved to right defensive tackle, the same position formerly occupied by "Mr. Cowboy," Bob Lilly, from 1961 through 1974. That year would prove to be his breakout year; he was named to his first All-Pro team, his first Pro Bowl, was named co-MVP of Super Bowl XII with teammate Harvey Martin, making him one of ten defensive players to win that honor. In 1978, White was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year, and would be named to nine consecutive All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams. He would retire in 1988 (coincidentally, also the last season on the sidelines for original Cowboys coach Tom Landry), having played 209 games in 14 seasons, only missing one game during that span.

White is nicknamed "The Manster" (half man, half monster). He studied Thai Boxing under Chai Sirisute, the founder of the Thai Boxing Association of the USA. White's round kick reportedly registered 400 psi on a gauge after two months of training.

randy white
Randy White with Dan Inosanto

His introduction to martial arts and football came through the legendary Dan Inosantos who consulted for the Dallas Cowboys In the summer of 1977, Dan Inosanto ran a secret martial arts training program for the Dallas Cowboys, he was brought on by Bob Ward, a college friend, who had taken lessons from Inosanto in the past and was the team’s conditioning coach. Ward saw the potential benefits of martial arts training, especially for the team’s defensive line. In 1978 Dallas won the Superbowl.

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Ronnie Lott

ronnie lott

USC, 1st round 8th overall pick, Cornerback/Safety, SF 49ers/LA Raiders/NY Jets/KC Chiefs


Martial Arts Styles: Tae-Kwon-Do

Instructor: George Chung 

The toughest and most versatile defensive backs ever to play in the NFL. Ronnie Lott, NFL Hall of Famer, made 10 Pro Bowls at three separate positions (strong safety, free safety, and cornerback), the hard-hitting Lott helped the 49ers win four Super Bowls in the 1980s. 

Tom Landry, the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame coach, once said of Lott. “He’s devastating. He may dominate the secondary better than anyone I’ve seen.” In 14 seasons – 10 with the Niners and two each with the Raiders and Jets – Lott totaled 63 interceptions and over 1,100 tackles.

His martial arts training started only two years into his career with George Chung who incorporated martial arts training drills into football performance exercises. Lott would spend more than a decade in training and credits much of his martial arts practice to extending his career.

ronnie lott
George Chung (left) with Ronnie Lott (right)

Today he continues his legacy leading multiple foundations and giving back to the community and the sport of football with the Lott Impact Award. Perhaps out of all players in the NFL Lott was known for his devastating hits. His career was indeed Total Impact.

Marcus Allen 

marcus allen

USC, 1st Round draft 10th overall pick, Running Back, Raiders, Chiefs


Martial Arts Style: Tae Kwon Do 

Instructor: Simon Rhee

Heisman Trophy winner at USC, Marcus Allen was a 1st round pick of the 1982 NFL Draft and earned AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He was selected to 5 Pro Bowls as a Raider. Allen was named AP All-Pro 1st Team twice. He was named NFL Most Valuable Player for his efforts during the 1985 season. The Raiders all-time leading rusher gained 8,545 yards on 2,090 carries with 79 TDs. He caught 446 passes for 4,258 yards and 18 TDs. He set then-Super Bowl records with 191 yards rushing and a 74-yard TD run and was named Super Bowl XVIII MVP in the Raiders 38-9 win over the Washington Redskins. He spent five years with Kansas City at the end of his career. Allen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

His martial arts training in Los Angeles occurred under the tutelage of Tae Kwon Do Master Simon Rhee. It was those training sessions that inspired Ronnie Lott to pursue martial arts.  

marcus allen
Marcus Allen with Simon Rhee

Allen used the techniques of martial arts as a cross-training program to increase his flexibility, focus, and endurance. He spent several years using the Korean Arts as a way to optimize performance on the field.

Andre Tippet

andre tippet

Iowa, 2nd Round draft 41st overall pick, Linebacker, New England Patriots 


Martial Arts Style: Karate 

Instructor: Chuck Merriman 

Andre Tippett has always identified himself as a martial artist above all else. His journey in martial arts began in 1972 at the age of 12, predating his illustrious football career. Operating a karate school concurrently with his football pursuits, Tippett honed his skills in Okinawa under renowned traditional karate masters.

At the age of 12, in East Orange, New Jersey, Tippett initiated his martial arts education with bando. Recalling his early fascination with martial arts, he mentioned being captivated by Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers’ film "Five Fingers of Death." Despite financial constraints, he persevered, saving 50 cents monthly for Black Belt Magazine. From 1970 to ’72, he studied bando at a local YMCA, and had the instructors not departed, he might have remained with bando.

From 1986 to 2000, Tippett immersed himself in Okinawa goju-ryu under the guidance of sensei Chuck Merriman in Niantic, Connecticut. Merriman, his mentor, broadened Tippett's perspective beyond kumite, instilling the desire to be well-rounded.

Tippett's dedication and athleticism led to swift promotions in his martial arts journey. In 1988, he attained first-degree black belt and shi-doin certification. By 1991 he achieved third-dan and jun-shihan certification, and in 2007, he earned a 5th-dan and shihan certification. Continuing his pursuit of perfection, he attained his 6th dan in 2012.

Simultaneously, starting in 1989 with a 2nd dan, Tippett delved into kobudo, specializing in yamanni-ryu under Shihan Toshihiro Oshiro. In 2017 and 2018, he obtained kobudo instructor status from Shihan Kiyoshi Nishime, completing his circle of learning.

andre tippet

Tippett emphasizes that he's not driven by rank but strives to uphold respectability. His retirement from tournament competition in the late 1980s led him to pursue roles as a referee in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Under Merriman's guidance, he became a well-rounded AAU referee for ten years.

Currently, Tippett serves as a senior member of the dan testing board for Okikukai Northeast. From testing candidates for under 3rd dan in 1991 to grading all black belts under 6th dan since 2007, he continues to contribute to the martial arts community with dedication and respectability.

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Herschel Walker 

Herschel Walker 

Georgia, 5th Round draft 114th overall pick, Running Back, Cowboys, Vikings, Eagles, Giants


Martial Arts Style: Tae Kwon Do and MMA

MMA trainers: Javier Mendez and Bob Cook

Herschel Walker is considered by many to be the greatest college football player of all time. As a freshman at the University of Georgia, Walker helped the Bulldogs win the 1980 national championship. He earned consensus All-American honors three consecutive years in both football and track & field, set 10 NCAA and 15 SEC records, and capped a sensational college career by winning the 1982 Heisman Trophy. In 1999, he was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame and was selected as the greatest player in college football in the last half-century.

During his 15-year pro-football career in the USFL and NFL, Walker played for the New Jersey Generals, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants, setting the current single-season pro-football rushing record of 2,411 yards, leading the NFL in rushing, gaining more total yards than anyone in professional football history, and receiving numerous All-Pro and Pro-Bowl honors.

Herschel Walker 

A longtime student of martial arts, he earned a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and went undefeated as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. 

Additionally, Walker broke a world record in the 60-yard dash and represented the United States in the 1992 Winter Olympics in bobsledding. In 2022 he ran for US Senator in the State of Georgia. 

Lorenzo Neal

Lorenzo Neal

Fresno State, 4th Round draft 89th overall pick, Fullback


Martial Arts Style: MMA 

Trainer: Chuck Liddel

Lorenzo Neal was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round of the 1993 NFL Draft. And played sixteen seasons in the NFL. The four-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro, was also a member of the New York Jets, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Tennessee Titans, the Cincinnati Bengals, the San Diego Chargers, the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders. Considered one of the best blocking fullbacks in NFL history, Neal blocked for a 1,000-plus-yard running back in eleven straight seasons from 1997 to 2007.

During his high school years he was an accomplished wrestler and won a state championship as a senior. He also wrestled while in College at Fresno State earning All-American honors at the 1992 NCAA wrestling tournament. 

While at Fresno State he got to know former UFC champ Chuck Liddell and the two often train together, each preparing for their respective sports. During the Japan Bowl, he defeated a sumo wrestler in an exhibition match.

Tony Parrish 

tony parrish

University of Washington, 2nd round 35th overall pick, Safety, Chicago Bears /SF 49ers/Dallas Cowboys


Martial Arts Styles: Tae Kwon Do and BJJ

Instructor: George Chung and Rigan Machado 

Tony Parrish, All-Pro Free Safety and All-American Washington Huskies, was selected by the Chicago Bears in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft with the 35th overall pick. He was an Associated Press All-Pro in 2003, and is listed on the 49ers' All-2000s team. Parrish was also a member of the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, playing safety for nine seasons in the National Football League (NFL). 

tony parrish gi

Parrish's martial arts journey began over 20 years ago with 49ers martial arts trainer George Chung. Parrish was known for his early use of cross-training including yoga and martial arts for over 20 years. He later studied privately with BJJ Master Rigan Machado earning a blue belt in BJJ.

Parrish has hosted more than 50 television shows on martial arts resulting in some of the most memorable interviews that include Bill Wallace, Benny Urquidez, Michael Jai White, and Ernie Reyes. He currently serves in the executive role of Head of Global Content for Black Belt Magazine and JungoTV. 

tony parrish

He is also very active in the Right to Play organization as an Athlete Ambassador. Right to Play brings the concept and benefits of team sports to over a million children around the world on a weekly basis. He also volunteers for Armed Forces Entertainment and Pro Tour Production organizations, and travels abroad to visit US military personnel. He has visited over a dozen military bases in 5 countries to date including Kuwait, Bahrain, Singapore, and Djibouti (Africa).

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Olin Kreutz

olin kreutz

University of Washington, 3rd round 64th overall pick, Center, Chicago Bears


Martial Arts: BJJ

Instructors: Mark Vives, Marcelo Alonso

Martial arts influence: Tunch Ilkin

Olin Kreutz was an NFL center for fourteen seasons. He played college football for University of Washington, and earned consensus All-American honors. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft and spent 13 seasons with Chicago where he was selected to six Pro Bowls. He also played four games for the New Orleans Saints in 2011. Kreutz was a semifinalist for the NFL Hall of Fame in 2020 after being named to the 2000s All-Decade Team.

Born in Honolulu, Hawai he first began martial arts and excelled in wrestling and track and field. He received All-State and SuperPrep All-America honors while serving as football team captain during his senior year, and would additionally go on to win the Hawaii state wrestling heavyweight championship.

He began his martial arts training before his pro career and continued it while in the NFL.

Andre Carter 

andre carter

Cal, 1st round 7th overall pick, Defensive End, SF 49ers/Redskins/Patriots/Raiders


Martial Arts Style: Tae Kwon Do/BJJ

Instructor: George Chung/Rigan Machado 

Andre Carter was selected 1st round as the seventh overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, for the SF 49ers and had a long career between 2001-20013. He also played for the Washington Redskins, New England Patriots, and Oakland Raiders.

andre carter

Carter was born in Denver, Colorado, grew up in San Jose and studied martial arts as a youth earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. During his early years at the 49ers he trained extensively  with 49ers martial arts coach George Chung and in the off-season studied under the acclaimed Rigan Machado in BJJ. Today Carter still pursues BJJ and holds a brown belt in Brazilian art.

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DeMarcus Ware

DeMarcus Ware

Auburn, 1st round 11th overall pick, Linebacker/Defensive End, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys


Martial Arts Style: MMA/JKD

Instructor: Valentin Espiricueta

Ware is part of a growing number of NFL pass rushers who have adopted the grappling and striking techniques of MMA. It helped them outmaneuver the ever-expanding 330-pound tacklers and get to the ever-quicker quarterbacks before they could throw the football.

Denver defensive end DeMarcus Ware considers himself a mixed martial artist on the football field.

Ever since his rookie year in 2005, he's spent as much time in the off-season working on his handwork with a second generation Bruce Lee student as he has working out at a traditional gym.

Ware credits the moves he's learned and refined under the tutelage of Valentin Espiricueta, owner/operator of Applied MMA in Dallas, for helping him amass 127 sacks over his decade in the NFL.

D’Brickashaw Ferguson

D’Brickashaw Ferguson

UVA, 1st round 4th overall pick, Offensive Tackle, New York Jets 


Martial Arts Style: Karate 

Instructor: Ed Ferguson

The former professional football player was an offensive tackle for 10 seasons with the New York Jets of the National Football League (NFL). He played college football for the Virginia Cavaliers and received first-team All-American honors. He was picked by the Jets fourth overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, and was selected for the Pro Bowl three times. Ferguson made 160 consecutive regular season starts and never missed a game in his entire career.

Starting martial arts as a child and taught by his father Ed Ferguson, he has cited that his training in martial arts has vastly improved his coordination and discipline using hand speed and skill in his work on the offensive line. 

Special Mention: Tunch Ilkin

Tunch Ilkin

Indiana State 6th round / 165 pick Offensive Tackle, Steelers, Packers


Martial Arts Style: The Tunch Punch 

Ilkin, the first native Turk to grace the NFL, was born in Istanbul but relocated to Chicago during his early childhood. From 1984 to 1992, he dominated the field as a staple at tackle for the esteemed Black and Gold. His unwavering presence contributed significantly to the Steelers clinching two AFC Central titles during this period. Notably, his remarkable performance played a pivotal role in the Steelers' electrifying 26-23 overtime Wild Card victory against Houston on New Year’s Eve in 1989, where the team's rushers achieved an impressive six-yard average carry.

Despite being an undersized tackle at 6-3, 263 pounds, Ilkin defied expectations, earning accolades such as being a two-time Pro Bowler and securing a spot on the Steelers' all-decade team for the 1980s. Recently, his outstanding contributions were honored with induction into the Hall of Honor.

Tunch Ilkin

Over the span of his illustrious 13-year career with the Steelers, Ilkin initiated a revolution in lineman pass protection through his innovative "Tunch Punch" technique. By integrating elements of martial arts into his blocking and punching maneuvers, he elevated the standard for lineman play. His mastery of this technique extended beyond the field, as he proceeded to disseminate his knowledge through instructional videos and personal coaching sessions. Remarkably, his dedication to the Steelers endured for 37 years, transitioning from a celebrated player to a distinguished broadcasting career.

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