A conversation with actor/martial artist Jeff Speakman, ’83

Jeff Speakman, a 1983 Missouri Southern graduate, oversees Kenpo 5.0 karate franchise schools in 20 countries.

Jeff Speakman

Jeff Speakman

The Chicago native has been featured in 10 films, including 1991’s “The Perfect Weapon,” and has another in the works.

One of the most popular martial artists in the world, he has 9th degree black belts in American Kenpo karate and Japanese Goju Ryu. His non-profit Champions Foundation helps underprivileged children in the U.S., Bolivia, Mexico, Germany, Australia and Chile.

Speakman recently discussed his passion for Kenpo, his battle with cancer and his effort to make the world a better place from his studio in Las Vegas.

You grew up in Chicago. Why did you choose Missouri Southern for college?

“The family of one of my closest friends in high school had bought a small ranch in Anderson.  My friend said, ‘Come live with me, go to Southern.’ I looked into it, it worked, so I went. I have nothing but good memories of my time at Missouri Southern.”

During your time in Joplin you started martial arts training. How did that happen?

“Again, it was through a link made through a friend. He introduced me to Lou Angel, who was working as a night sergeant for the Webb City Police. He began giving me lessons in an abandoned jail cell in the basement of the police department. One light bulb hanging from a cord in the ceiling, concrete walls.”

In 1983 you hit the road for L.A. where you met Ed Parker. How important was he to your career?

“Extremely important. I moved to California to study Kenpo with him. I sold my car, paid for a U-Haul and handed him a letter of recommendation from Lou Angel.

Lou said, ‘If you want to make it in martial arts, study with Ed Parker. He’s the best in the world.’ I eventually became a private student under Mr. Parker, one of only two or three. We became very close. He passed away in Hawaii in 1990.”

You, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris are mentioned in the same sentence. How do you feel about being held in such great esteem?

“I look at things like the windshield of my car. It is very wide and great for looking forward. I spend very little time looking in the rearview mirror.  This has been especially true after being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. At that time, I assessed my life. I knew I had helped people, helped kids. I have made a full recovery. Now I am super-motivated to break down barriers and do the best I can. I think I am making a difference in the world. I think I am making the world a better place.”

Did you ever contemplate a career as a movie actor?

“Not at all. It wasn’t on the radar but in California someone from the movie industry met me and encouraged me to study acting. I rejected the idea at first but she came back with the name and number of an acting school. My first weekend in acting class coincided with the opening of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie ‘Blood Sport.’ I saw that movie and thought, ‘I can’t wait till people see Kenpo.’ Five years later I became the lead of ‘Perfect Weapon.’

“I have starred in 10 movies and produced three. We are very close right now to getting funding for the next film, which we believe will be the biggest one yet. We’ve been working on it for six years. It takes that long.”

What is special about Kenpo 5.0 karate?

“Well, Ed Parker brought his version of Kenpo from Hawaii in 1954. Its very nature is to evolve and change, not to become obsolete. Old Kenpo had no way to defend yourself on the ground. We felt it needed that component needed to be added. There was a 3.0 and a 4.0, which was Ed Parker’s version. We adapted all the ground fighting techniques. So we went to 5.0.”

Jeff Speakman Kenpo 5.0 Karate is truly international, isn’t it?

“We have studios in many different nations. I spend about a quarter of every year overseas teaching seminars. Australia is very strong for Kenpo 5.0. It also has really taken off in New Zealand. The indigenous people there, the Maoris, are traditionally a warrior tribe. They have taken to it like crazy. Bolivia is the center for me for all the South American countries. Later this year, the South American Championships will be held in Bolivia.”

What’s your life away from your career like?

“My entire life has been built around health and fitness. I spend nearly every night teaching in a karate school and spend time every day in the gym. I survived Stage 4 esophageal cancer in 2013. I am dedicated to advancing martial arts in the world. I want to be the best in the world at what I do and that means you largely can do only that.

“The downside is that I have no children. I have the drive for that and the need to fulfill that but it hasn’t happened. Other than that, it’s a great life. I love my life. I have love and satisfaction from a Kenpo 5.0 family across the world.”

What is the value for adults and children of studying Kenpo 5.0?

“We do have a children’s version of Kenpo at some of our studios but parents should know that it is a very elementary version of the techniques and applications. Children should not be taught the adult version.

“If you’ve ever seen Kenpo 5.0 for adults, you know that it is extremely punishing and unforgiving. Still, we take the position if you are going to spend the money, time and energy, learn a system that works. A vast majority of martial arts have no practical application. It really is about structure, discipline, respect.

“That is how we keep the art in martial. There is something today called mixed martial arts but it is anything but. It is just mixed martial fighting.

“We make sure that wisdom, strength and kindness are always a part of what we teach in addition to structure and discipline. To gain an art, you should make things better, not make things worse.”

To learn more about Jeff Speakman, visit www.jeffspeakman.com.