An American Martial Arts Icon: Sifu Larry Hartsell
(This article originally appears in AMAM Magazine)
Forward provided by Richard Bustillo
Larry Hartsell is considered to be among the premier Jeet Kune Do fighters in the world. Larry began his martial arts training by studying Judo in North Carolina from 1957 - 1960. He then moved to California, and for the next four decades, studied exclusively with his mentor and personal friend, Guro Dan Inosanto.
During the 1960's, Guro Dan Inosanto introduced Hartsell to the famed Sensei Edmond Parker, Sr., and began his studies in Kenpo Karate. Shortly after receiving his black belt in Kenpo, he went into the army and served in Vietnam from 1966 - 1967. After his discharge, Hartsell returned to California, at which time, Guro Dan Inosanto re-introduced him to Si Gung Bruce Lee. Hartsell is an original student and member of the Los Angeles Chinatown Group founded by Si Gung Bruce Lee, for which Guro Dan Inosanto was eventually appointed the head instructor. Hartsell was also accepted as a private student of Bruce Lee's, and trained privately at his home in Bel Air, California and also became a close personal friend to Bruce Lee. Lee considered Hartsell to be his "Premier" JKD fighter.
Larry Hartsell's background and knowledge is not merely speculative. Over the past 40 years, he served in the following capacities: as military policeman (M.P.) and security specialist assigned to protecting high-ranking officers in the jungles of Vietnam; in Hollywood on glamorous movie sets as a bodyguard to celebrities, including Mr. T and Larry Flynt; "bouncing" in drunken redneck bars in his native North Carolina, and as enforcement in the august halls of justice. Hartsell states, "The experiences I've had in dealing with resisting criminals, crazies or drunks have only reinforced in me a gratitude for my instructors, initially Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto, who encouraged me to specialize in grappling techniques."
As a long time practitioner of the martial arts - most notably Jeet Kune Do - Hartsell was one of the first in the United States to embrace and train in Japanese Shoot Wrestling when it was introduced at the Inosanto Academy. Hartsell has always been open-minded and eager to learn. Guro Dan Inosanto states, "Larry has often joined me in training and researching systems, such as Indonesian Pencak Silat, Thai Boxing, and the Filipino Martial Arts. Over the years, Larry modified his fighting structure and geared his training more toward the arts of grappling and submission. Combining his knowledge in the arts of grappling and submission with his skill in the trapping and striking arts, Larry has taken his art to a new dimension."
Guro Dan states, "Larry is one of the few martial artists who has always been open-minded and known the benefits of cross-training. Knowing the importance roll-conditioning and physical fitness play in the complex game of survival in the martial arts, Larry incorporates the proven methods of the past alongside the cutting edge techniques of the future."
Larry Hartsell is the Founder/Chief Instructor of the Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do Grappling Association (jkdassoc.com) and is a Full Senior Instructor at the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts. JFJKDGA seminars are known world wide. When not on the road travelling, Larry accepted only a handful of private students.
“Bruce Lee taught us to learn how to go with the flow".
Intro by Paul S. Lewis
It’s rare for an experienced student or novice instructor such as myself to find a new teacher who is able to consistently introduce such volumes of advanced martial arts techniques as Sifu Larry Hartsell has for me during each of my training sessions.
His seemingly endless knowledge of self-defense information never ceased to provide me with extremely valuable insights and approaches towards my own training. Under his expert guidance I successfully accelerated my abilities and increased my potential more than I ever thought possible!
Instead of struggling primarily on my own or with the help of certain books and materials, I've studied Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do "Concepts" straight from one of the most innovative and accomplished sources available.
Those of you who are avid martial arts enthusiasts know what level of impact this must have on me; it’s like being an up and coming musician and getting the opportunity to study guitar with a virtuoso like Eddie Van Halen or learning the piano from someone as accomplished as Elton John!
For me it was a once in a lifetime chance to benefit from the incredible experiences and detailed instruction of the "Premier JKD Fighter" Sifu Larry Hartsell. I came to think of him as my mentor and sort of a father figure to me and I am forever grateful to be able to call him my friend!
The following Interview was conducted at Larry Hartsell’s personal gymnasium in Los Angeles, California. It was written by Mick Shore and originally published by Combat Magazine of the United Kingdom.
On Bruce Lee, Dan Inosanto, JKD & life after 40 years in Martial Arts!
Q: WHEN & HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH MARTIAL ARTS?
LARRY HARTSELL: I started in 1957/58. I was playing high school football in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was on the wrestling team too. A judo instructor from the East-South Judo Club in California moved to town and trained us twice a week at the local YMCA. That was my very first experience with martial arts. I graduated from high school with a football scholarship into Jr. College. There I started training in Tang Soo Do with some visiting Korean students.
There were only three books out on karate at that time. One was “Kyokushinkai, The Way of Truth” by Masutatsu-Oyama. One by Ed Parker on Kenpo Karate and another was on Shotokan by Hidetaka Nishiyama. I left my home in North Carolina and moved to California in 1961 and soon started my training with Hidetaka Nishiyama at UCLA in Los Angeles.
One night in 1961, by fate I drove by a Kenpo Karate school and for the first time saw Ed Parker with Dan Inosanto conducting a class. I watched and thought, “This is more for me than Shotokan”. I began training in that until 1964 when I got drafted into the army. I served three years and trained with some army instructors. I kept it up when I went to Vietnam from 1966-67. I was also a military policeman. After my discharge, I returned to California and started training again with Ed Parker and Dan Inosanto, who’d introduced me to SiGung Bruce Lee.
Q: WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO TRAIN WITH BRUCE LEE WHEN YOU WERE ALREADY TRAINING WITH AN ACCOMPLISHED MARTIAL ARTIST AND A BLACK BELT IN JUDO AND KENPO?
LARRY HARTSELL: I’d met Bruce at the 1964 Long Beach Internationals held at the Convention Center and was impressed at how quick he was! I was home on leave before going to Vietnam and was sparring at Ed’s Kenpo Karate studio when in walked Bruce. He asked me if he could move around with me for a bit so I sparred with him, but there was no way I could touch him! It was like a cat playing with a mouse! I was pretty big back then too, because of all the power-lifting I did while stationed in Alaska before going to Vietnam. Lifting weights and practicing martial arts was all there was to do there.
Q: WHAT TYPE OF TRAINING DID BRUCE LEE HAVE YOU DO & HOW DID YOU DEVELOP IT?
LARRY HARTSELL: Well, he was constantly changing his JKD by adding and deleting at the Chinatown school. At first he wasn’t so into grappling, but he started to incorporate it more towards the end. He was training with Judo Gene LeBell, Hayward Nishioka, Wally Jay and he also did Silat with a guy I think was named, John Ritter. Bruce was constantly borrowing a variety of aspects from different martial arts such as Thai boxing (He called it the John L. Sullivan of the ring) and French Savate. It was mostly very physical boxing /Kickboxing. I got most of my grappling from my Judo training and slowly incorporated it from trapping into grappling. A lot of my grappling also came from Guro Dan Inosanto and the Filipino martial arts. Later on I worked with Yorinaga Nakamura from Shoot-wrestling. Nowadays Erik Paulson, a student of mine I am very proud of, keeps me up to date with all the latest moves, though everything comes together a lot more after forty years of being in the arts. I try to put together what works for me specifically.
Q: DO YOU THINK BRUCE WOULD HAVE GONE MORE INTO GRAPPLING HAD HE LIVED?
LARRY HARTSELL: He was experimenting with grappling before he passed away. He had somewhere around thirty-three established grappling moves in his “Tao of Jeet Kune Do”. You can see a lot of his drawings and illustrations in there.
Q: HOW DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR SIGUNG BRUCE LEE?
LARRY HARTSELL: I remember him as a very charismatic person. You couldn’t believe how quick or how strong he was!
Q: YOU WENT ON TRAINING WITH GURO DAN INOSANTO AFTER BRUCE LEE’S DEATH. WHAT KIND OF TRAINING DID YOU DO WITH DAN?
LARRY HARTSELL: We came up in the Shoot-wrestling ranks together. We trained together with Yori Nakamura. We also both trained in Lamenco Eskrima under Guro Edgar Sulite. I still train today with Guro Dan, when he has the time (He is extremely busy!). I am his student and always will be!
Q: THESE DAYS YOU USE THE BRAZILIAN GUARD POSITION, IS BRAZILIAN JIUJITSU SOMETHING THAT’S INFLUENCED YOU RECENTLY OR SOMETHING YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A WHILE?
LARRY HARTSELL: I’ve been asked this question before. I really like Brazilian Jiujitsu. Guro Dan is a black Belt in Machado Jiujitsu and he’s trained me a lot in it! We used that same guard position when I was doing Judo but there it was referred to as the scissors. I enjoyed the blend of Filipino Dumog, Judo, Jiujitsu, Sombo and Shoot-wrestling.
Q: WHAT ARE THE AIMS OF THE JUN FAN JEET KUNE DO GRAPPLING ASSOCIATION THAT YOU’VE FOUNDED?
LARRY HARTSELL: The aims of the association are to promote Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do concepts and to keep martial arts alive. SiGung Bruce was experimenting with grappling before he died and that’s why I founded the JFJKDGA. Some say Bruce didn’t do any grappling but that is not true. He had quite a bit of it. Watch his movies and check out all the neck locks, arm bars and cranks he entered through the trapping and sometimes the kicking ranges!
Q: HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF IN SHAPE WITH YOUR HECTIC SCHEDULE?
LARRY HARTSELL: I just try to keep a proper diet and mostly I just train. I enjoy teaching because watching students perform brings back certain things, it sort of clicks your memory and you actually learn through your students quite a bit. I enjoy seeing people grow in the martial arts. That’s why I encourage them to train under other instructors too, see what they offer and be prepared to learn from anyone. I’ve trained so many people over twenty-five years! I’ve been doing seminars all over the world and now there are quite a few of my apprentice instructors and full instructors out there who teach as well if not better than I do!
Q: WHAT ARTS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND IN THE ABSENCE OF A LOCAL JKD INSTRUCTOR?
LARRY HARTSELL: Well, some people want just self-defense. Others might want physical conditioning. I think they should look within themselves to find out why they want to do a martial art, i.e. competition or whatever. I think Judo or any grappling art, boxing, kickboxing or anything that feels right is what you should do. Look at the instructor you may train with and if you feel good about it, then do it!
Q: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE NO-HOLDS BARRED, MIXED-MARTIAL ARTS COMPETITIONS NOW IN VOGUE?
LARRY HARTSELL: I think they are good and it’s great to see competitors getting paid more instead of just getting nothing. I definitely believe that you need weight classes, though. There’s an old saying that, when all else is equal, strength will tell! So if you and I have the same technical knowledge but I’m bigger than you and have better conditioning, then the stronger of us will win.
Q: YOU TRAINED WITH THE LATE PUNONG EDGAR SULITE. WHAT WAS HIS TRAINING LIKE?
LARRY HARTSELL: His systems made us realize the value of conditioning with the fighting sticks. He embellished about six different Filipino martial arts, the main ones being Sulite, Moderno Largos, Ilustrisimo, Cabellero, Pekiti Tirsia and others that he combined into the Lamenco system. We would strike with the sticks until our hands bled. The blood in my hand from the blisters was the only thing that kept me holding on to the stick! But that was good because he really made you appreciate the value of striking, and not just fancy twirling that’s not real. His system was very combative and was made for self-defense and competitions.
Q: WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER FILIPINO ARTS?
LARRY HARTSELL: Panantukan, Pananjakman, Filipino boxing/kickboxing and Sikaran each contain different variations. From what I’ve seen, a lot of Pangamut is based on the dagger, using the same motion with the hands, or baston, or double stick. It all interchanges between empty-hands through trapping to weapons. American boxing used a wide stance and fists held forward in the John L. Sullivan style. When this way reached the Philippines it was worked into what they did. Filipino boxers would slip, dodge, bob & weave because this was weapons orientated training transferred to the empty hand. This change worked it’s way back to America and famous champions like Jack Dempsy started to bob & weave up under the punches. It was rumored a Filipino trainer taught Jack to slip instead of just bulling in taking the other guy out.
Q: OVER THE YEARS, WHICH MARTIAL ART MASTERS HAVE IMPRESSED YOU THE MOST?
LARRY HARTSELL: I’m impressed every time I see Guro Dan Inosanto. I just have to stand back because it’s unreal! There have been so many great martial artists at the Inosanto Academy, including Edgar Sulite, Leo Giron and Gene LeBell. So many people there have impressed me. I just wish I could be like some of those guys!
Q: YOU WERE A BODYGUARD IN THE 1970’S & 1980’S FOR SOME CELEBRITIES?
LARRY HARTSELL: Yes. I was a bodyguard for Mr. T (From the A-Team) and Larry Flint. Cliff Stuart and I worked together to provide personal security for some wealthy people. I did body guarding so I could have the money to train my martial arts. It was interesting work.
Q: WHAT IS YOUR PLAN FOR JEET KUNE DO IN THE FUTURE?
LARRY HARTSELL: I’d like to see it grow, to promote the Filipino arts and to see people keep up the Grappling. I want to see people get along, cross-train and keep JKD alive! I want to see my organization continue to grow.
Q: WHOM DO YOU CREDIT FOR HAVING THE GREATEST BENEFIT ON YOUR TRAINING?
LARRY HARTSELL: Guro Dan Inosanto! He’s been my mentor and inspiration.