(Note: This material is made up of my thoughts and observations, and it shouldn’t serve as any sort of an ‘official’ definition or commentary on American Form Karate in general or Red Dragon Karate in specific.)
Easily one of the most recurring questions I get, right after ‘Who would win in a fight, Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee,’ is ‘What is American Form Karate’ or ‘What is Red Dragon Karate?’
The explanation to both of those questions goes back to the early day of US military men bringing back martial arts from their time spent overseas post World War 2 or the Korean War. A lot of service men came back with some form of training generally in Judo or one of the forms of Japanese, Okinawan, or Korean (later known as Taekwondo) Karate. A number of them began teaching what they had learned during their time abroad and the easiest way to ‘sell’ the teaching to the American public at large was to call it by the most recognizable name at the time, Karate.
Red Dragon Karate founder, Louis Casamassa, on the US Marine Corp Judo team
in Japan, circa 1961.
That is where it started for Red Dragon Karate. Louis Casamassa came back from a tour in Japan, having received a black belt in Judo at the Kodokan from Risei Kano (son of Judo founder, Jigaro Kano) in 1960. As was common for the time, martial arts instructors of various schools would get together and exchange forms (tips, techniques, katas, etc), and as a teacher learned those forms he’d begin to incorporate them into his own instruction. What was created fairly early on (back even as early as the late 60s) would have been the first mixed-martial arts forms…and it was all lumped together as ‘American Karate.’
So, when you see an American Form Karate system that lists a bunch of different martial arts styles, this is the reality. They’ve studied and compared notes with other teachers and have begun to implement bits and pieces into their systems, adapting it to their own styles and philosophies. Ed Parker’s Kenpo is a fine example of this. As is Shihan Casamassa’s Red Dragon Karate. They are both ‘living’ systems that continue to grow and evolve every day. Really, the best description goes back to that ‘mixed martial arts’ label because that’s what that first wave of pioneer instructors were teaching.
The Red Dragon system’s roots are Judo and Shotokan Karate with a lot taken from Steven Fisher’s Shorin Ryu. Most of the self-defense forms and a lot of the katas can be traced to those schools, along with a bunch brought over from Ed Parker’s Hawaiian Kenpo and Aikido. There are bits integrated from all over, but the bulk of the Red Dragon training comes from those places. The biggest addition to the traditional Japanese styles is the addition of a ton of different weapons forms — nunchaku, bo, katana, sais, Chinese broadsword, fan, tonfas, kamas, Escrima sticks, and more as you get higher in rank.
My big warning for anyone out there looking to get into an American Form Karate system (or any martial art at all) is to make sure you research the heritage and lineage of the school itself. There are a lot of wannabe martial artists out there who may not have even reached Shodan (first degree black belt) starting schools and creating their own styles, referring to them as ‘American Karate.’ Be wary of those schools…do some research on the people running them and find out where they come from. See if they’ve got the skills or background they are advertising. The worst thing you can do is waste your money at a small school run by someone without the skills to properly instruct you or your child.
I hope that helps!
-Mathias Nastos, The Karate Geek