Larry Hartsell – An American Icon

Larry Hartsell reaches out his hand and as mine comes in contact I am impressed at the power of his grip. It is not the bone-crushing squeeze of someone who has something to prove but rather the subtle touch of a man who is wonderfully in control of both his physical and mental being. Hartsell is not threatened by anyone and for good reason.

He is the JKD world's premier grappler and an American icon when it comes to ground fighting.

Less than 72 hours before I was being gently introduced to the Jiu Jitsu of Rickson Gracie at a seminar in Eugene Oregon. Today contributing editor Don Smith and I are standing in the parking lot of our hotel in Milton-Freewater, Oregon chatting with Larry and his wife and business associate, Debra. Jim Keating is hosting a Hartsell fighting seminar in nearby Walla Walla and FULL CONTACT couldn't pass up the opportunity to observe and work out with the man who both Ed Parker and Bruce Lee earmarked as their "hit man."

Hartsell, recently married and pursuing a rigorous fitness program and diet, looks like every top-notch 1st Sergeant with whom I have ever served.

His time in the Army includes combat in Vietnam where he served with the military police.

Larry, already an accomplished Judo man enjoyed sparring with soldiers from the elite South Korean ROK division stationed nearby. "They were tough:' he recalls with a reserved smile," and always got mad as hell when I'd straight blast them." The war taught Hartsell a great deal about himself and his fellow man, and there's a veteran's pride in his eyes when he shares such experiences with those who've served honorably.

Our first day in the gym was spent introducing the students to what grappling is all about. Hartsell was a patient teacher and makes good use of such training aids as a large chalkboard, upon which he outlined the flow of the class for the benefit of us note-takers. He is a quiet man by nature, and upon seeing this, I repositioned myself so I wouldn't miss anything he had to say. Debra, an intelligent and attractive woman, sat nearby where she artfully laid out her husband's books, t-shirts and other seminar goodies. They make a good team, both respectful of the other's talents and presence.

"If a boxer can keep a wrestler out of this range, he will have the advantage. However, if a wrestler can bridge the gap and maintain this range, he will have the advantage," Hartsell explained.

As Hartsell introduced techniques, I availed myself of Jim Keating's talents and we practiced together. Larry ran through a move, explaining and demonstrating, then with a loud "It's yours!" we were free to make his teachings our own. He later told me that Bruce Lee used to use what is now Larry's signature phrase, offering, "Bruce always added that if you didn't get it the second time around, whatever he was showing you remained his. He was an impatient instructor." As Keating and I went to the ground, I was aware of our instructor's attentions even as he moved from tag team to tag team. A shift of position is suggested here, a tighter body position there. If Hartsell missed anything going on around him, it was not apparent from where I was having my leg bent.

Anyone who spends any amount of quality time researching ground fighting knows who Larry Hartsell is. He holds direct lineage from Bruce Lee and remains one of the man's most ardent supporters.

"I'd like to mention a quote from Bruce Lee. He said, 'Jeet Kune Do is just a name. It's like a boat and you walk on.' In other words, it's just a concept. You don't stop. You just walk on and find your own path."

Several weeks after the Walla Walla seminar Larry, Debra, Rich Chen and I enjoyed dinner and conversation at their home in Marina Del Rey. Tucked away in a back bedroom, carefully displayed, is a small treasure trove of Lee artifacts, including Larry's original Gung Fu membership card and several letters written by his mentor to Larry. In all honesty, I couldn't help but deliver a few light taps to the homemade punching pad that Hartsell tells me Bruce used to practice with while watching TV, and I copied down one letter's contents that reflected the thoughts of famed football coach Vince Lombardi.

At any moment I could expect Hartsell to fire off something that he had learned from Lee. On the morning of our second session in Walla Walla, it was a simple leaf-pattern foot shuffle that Bruce had perfected." He used this all the time to blast past someone's punch, and then hit them from the side:' Larry told me as he swiftly went through his paces outside the gym. If you're not careful you'll miss a lot of what this grappler is all about because he seems to be always teaching, even during casual conversation.

As our mat-work progressed, I ventured forward, requesting that Larry personally demonstrate a lock, a hold or a complicated technique. Feeling is believing, and feeling is how you learn.

Larry Hartsell (second from left) and Friends.

That Hartsell is a powerful man is an understatement. When he moves it is with precision and direction; all energy is focused toward the end result. Working with Rickson Gracie is like attempting to fend off a lion in his prime. On the mat Rickson literally— but with a great deal of respect—plays with you. His physical sense is supple, smooth and always way ahead of whatever move you think might take him by surprise. Hartsell, on the other hand, is like stepping in front of a bad-ass locomotive with a full head of steam. When Rickson locks you up, it is as if he is merely folding along the dotted lines. Larry's package is not precut. He snaps you into place, bringing his entire weight as well as superbly directed physical power into play. Rickson flows over one like water over a sandy bottom; Hartsell slams you as if he were an unstoppable wave, his clinch allowing for nothing but submission—which occurs as fast as you can tap out! Both men accomplish the same goal—winning the battle—but each is unique and exceptionally accomplished in how he goes about it.

Best of all, both men are vocal in their mutual respect and often refer students to each other as a professional courtesy.

To many, Larry Hartsell represents the very best in American grappling. His judo background is supported by a career in high school wrestling, and he has since pursued Shoot Wrestling as an additional tool in his vast ground fighting arsenal. His talent on the ground so impressed Lee that Larry was chosen to develop JKD's grappling philosophy. "Bruce was eagerly pursuing grappling at the time of his death:' says Hartsell." He'd approved of 33 moves that he'd taken from people like Gene LeBell and Hayward Nishioka. Bruce had also been studying Chin Na, from which he found more practical material." Going on, this wealth of historical knowledge from the early days of Jeet Kune Do, Hartsell observed Lee's belief that the grappling range was "the most dangerous in a fight:' and "the most realistic where many fights ended up.''

Hartsell pulls no punches. "Read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do" he instructs. "In it you'll find Bruce's notes on single-leg takedowns and locks, toe holds, head and neck manipulations, his observations on specific judo and jiu jitsu techniques he liked. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Bruce Lee was into grappling doesn't know much about the man and his art!"

Hey, is this a good looking couple or what?

Like Lee, this grappling master has put his thoughts to pen with the best selling two-volume series Jeet Kune Do Trapping/Grappling and Counterattack! Grappling Counters and Reversals. Volume One is solely Hartsell's work, with Volume Two reflecting the sage input of Tim Tackett. Hartsell points out Gene LeBell's direct influence on Lee's knowledge base in the grappling arts, and receives hearty praise by Linda Lee, who offers, "Bruce would have been proud of Larry's continued growth in the arts' in her introduction for Volume One.

Over a two-day period, I learned a lot from and about Larry Hartsell. He is an honorable man, who freely gives of himself without asking much in return. Loyalty is extremely important to him, and he takes being compromised by those he considers close very hard. With the recent surge in ground fighting, which has swept not only the United States but many other countries, Larry finds a bit of humor at the sudden craze. "I've been doing this for over 30 years:' he pointed out over dinner, "so I'm just happy to see people beginning to understand the potential they gain in the grappling arts." He and Debra are proud of Larry's expanding Jun Fan/Jeet Kune Do Grappling Association, which is now in its fourth year. The association serves as a testing and training vehicle for Hartsell's world-wide following of students, and is a means of attaining certification under the Hartsell banner. Larry gives credit to Dan and Paula Inosanto for the inspiration to set up his organization, which also protects Larry's body of work and knowledge base.

Debra Hartsell is an intricate part of her husband's professional life. Like Paula Inosanto, she has taken on the challenge of keeping things moving forward as well as protecting her spouse against the many negatives encountered along the way. "Larry is very quiet, very giving, and some people simply take advantage of him because of his nature:' she told us over dinner in Walla Walla.

Since becoming husband and wife, the two have made it clear that Larry's seminar routine includes Debra, who puts as much effort into promotion and sales as Hartsell does his teaching. "This is what Larry does, so this is what I do," she confides. "I train, and I handle all of the things that Larry doesn't have time for when we're on the road. People need to realize that this is our life, and we're living it together. Marriage, to us, means always having each other nearby."

Upon the completion of my brief excursion into Larry Hartsell's world, I came away with the following thoughts. If there was fertile ground for today's serious students of shoot wrestling, grappling and jiu-jitsu, it was tilled by Larry Hartsell, beginning years ago when he first hit the mats in high school. His martial development includes high rankings in several recognized arts including a long-time and much-valued association with Kenpo Karate's Ed Parker. "Bruce Lee showed me what was possible," Larry remembers, "and Ed Parker gave me my fighting spirit." Because of Hartsell, the high art of grappling was sustained during the lean times when many turned to either fad styles and practices or chose to ignore the reality of ground fighting all together. Today, it's the wise Marti list who is turning his or her sights on how to take the battle to the mat, and Larry Hartsell—as always—is there with an encouraging word and a devastating technique.

For seminar information and how to join the Jun Fan/Jeet Kune Do Grappling Association, contact:

Larry Hartsell
P.O. Box 9424
Marina Del Rey, CA 90295


Article by: Greg Walker

Source: Full Contact, December 1994


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