Jeff Speakman is an actor and Kenpo Master who made his debut in the 1991 movie “The Perfect Weapon”. Several movies followed: Street Knight, The Expert and Deadly Outbreak. He has his own Kenpo 5.0 school in Las Vegas with franchise around the world: 18 schools in America and 27 schools in the rest of the world. On 7th of July, he will go for his 10th and final degree in Kenpo and on 12th-13th of November the European 5.0 Fighter Championship will be held in Etampes, South of Paris.
KB: You are best known for your movie “The Perfect Weapon”: How did you get this role? You were advised by Kenpo Master Ed Parker?
I had been studying acting for five years prior to the filming of the movie “The Perfect Weapon”. At the acting workshop in Burbank, California, where I was studying, it just so happened that one of the acting coaches was also a writer who wrote and produced Jean-Claude Van Damme’s second movie “Kickboxer”. Eventually over time we were chatting, he is a very nice guy, and then I mentioned Martial Arts and he mentioned what he did. One day he came down to the karate school in West Los Angeles where I was teaching. He was so impressed, he went back to the producer for the movie he wrote, he was just finishing his third movie with Van Damme called Death Warrant and told him: “You have to come and look at this thing called Kenpo and this guy Jeff Speakman”. The producer was like “yeah yeah” but he kept pushing so eventually the producer came down to the school. I did a little demo for him and that’s how we got started. I signed a 4-picture deal with him and then after that he took all 4 of those options and went to Paramount Pictures who took the deal. All options were assigned to Paramount with him of course and then the first movie that we did was called “The Perfect Weapon” which was written for me at Paramount.
It never happens that a movie is written for an actor, and it had never happened before at Paramount because back then in 1990, they were the biggest studio in the world. It was unheard of that they would do what they did and ironically at the end of the movie, when I watched it for the first time, I kept saying: “Wait a minute, you left this out (in the fight scene) and this goes this way and that goes that way”. They said: “Since you know, why don’t you come in and edit the fight scenes yourself?” I said that I have never been to an editing room before. I showed up and learned all about it and re-edit all the fight scenes. They turned out much better. And the most important thing is, they became longer. That is really important because, for example the big fight in the movie in the Tae Kwan Do gym, that was two and a half days of twelve hours a day filming, 150 takes a day. This turned out to be less than 2 minutes on film. The most expensive of a martial arts film are the fight scenes because it takes forever, and they turned out to be 15-20 seconds on film, so they have to be great. The way that I did the editing, gave us a few more seconds. Made them a thrill beyond belief.
KB: I read that the TV Show Kung Fu got you interested in martial arts? You started studying Goju-rya?
That is completely correct. I was really hooked on that show. It was really not so much the martial arts, which was really cool, but it was the philosophy behind it. The personal growth and going through life as a martial artist. That really appealed to me. And that’s really why I got into it. When I was very young, growing up all the way through high school, I was a gymnast in the winter. That was in Chicago and winters there are very cold. So, we were inside as a gymnast and then I was a springboard diver in the summer. All my life I did both of those things. When I went away to college in South-West Missouri, I thought I was either going into dance or martial arts which seemed a logical thing to do next. Ironically it just so happened that my roommate turned out to be a black belt in Japanese Goju-rya with this guy called Lou Angel. That’s how I got started in martial arts.
KB: Your then instructor told you to look for Master Ed Parker and he taught you American Kenpo?
When I graduated from the university there, Lou Angel said: “Look if you want to make martial arts your life, you should move to California and study from Ed Parker because he is the best in the world”. I worked my way through college. I didn’t borrow any money. It took me six years to get a 4-year degree because of that. But when I graduated, I had no debts. I sold my car to pay for the moving van. I had friends in California, so I moved there to study Kenpo. Lou Angel was good friends with Ed Parker, back in the late 1950s. There were only a handful of karate schools in America back then, so they all knew each other. Lou Angel wrote me a letter of introduction for Mr. Parker, and it was the summer of 1983 when I moved to California. It just so happened that right then Ed Parker’s world-famous Karate tournament was going on and that was in Long Beach. I walked into that place, and you can imagine, coming from a little town in Missouri, to this gigantic West Coast facility with thousands of competitors, it blew my mind you know. I walked around and found Ed Parker, I gave him the letter from Lou Angel, and he said: “Oh My God, my old friend, this is great”. He gave me his home phone number and said: “Give me two weeks to get done with this. Call me at home and we get you started”. And that’s how I began Kenpo. I was a full 2nd degree black belt in Japanese Goju-Rya when I left university.
I studied Kenpo. I re-tested for my first. I re-tested for my second and then continued. Before Ed Parker died, I had earned a 4th degree black belt directly from him. There are 10 degrees. Just like most martials arts. At that time and all the time Ed Parker was alive, he was the only one in the world with 10 degrees in Kenpo. Then he died, very unexpectedly, at age 59 from a massive heart attack. It was 3 weeks after we finished filming “The Lethal Weapon”. He never got to see the movie. But he was on the set with me every day, all day all night. If it was a night shoot, he was there 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, standing next to me, helping me, guiding me, coaching me and sort of critiquing my fight scenes. We worked together. We choreographed them together. Right after the filming was done, we were done at the very end of November 1990, and he died on 15 December 1990. So Tragic. It was very difficult. It was for everyone. But you can imagine, over the years I went to his house for 3,5 years, a personal student of his and then I got more and more involved into acting and all the auditions. I got the job with Paramount for The Perfect Weapon, so I brought him with me, and they loved the idea of sending us, Master and Student, around the world to promote the movie. It was a very big thing for him. Because of that we became very close. We were together all the time. People who knew him all his life said that they only time they have seen him that happy, was for the birth of his children. It was both tragic and beautiful at the same time.
KB: Did you go any further than your 4th degree after Mr. Parker died?
I continued. There aren’t many people in Kenpo who are my seniors so I would ask their permission and I would test in front of them. I continued to do that. Waited the exact correct number of years or more. Sometimes it is called for 5 years between 2 different ranks, and I would wait 6 or 7. I tested for all my ranks. I never just put a stripe on my belt. I always got it in line with all my black belts, testing in front of that board, every single time. I am currently in the 9th degree of black belts. We evolved the system of Kenpo as requested by Ed Parker. He always said that he hoped no one would traditionalize his art after he was gone. He always wanted us to evolve. In the Art of American Kenpo there never was any ground fighting. We decided to figure out how to include ground fighting in the system of Kenpo. Which is why we call it Kenpo 5.0 instead of Kenpo Karate because it is the fifth evolution of the art. Now we really have our own world. I have franchise schools in 20 countries. We have become the biggest Kenpo organization in history. And if everything goes alright, this coming July 7th here in Las Vegas, when we have our big annual event, I will be testing for my 10th degree black belt. It is a lifelong goal, a dream. By the time I test, I will be in martial arts for 45 years and have done everything exactly by the book. I never cheated, I never went ahead of time, I always learned all the information I was supposed to. And of course, as you can guess, I demand that from all my students. I have a lot on my shoulders as it is less than 2 months away, but I am aiming for it, and I expect to do well.
KB: I counted how many schools you have: 18 in America and 27 Worldwide. That is pretty impressive.
I love what I do, I have a great life. I did the movies which we were talking about. I built this amazing world of schools all over the place. I am very very close to all my black belts around the world. We are really a family. We have 3 other countries that are training right now to switch over to Kenpo 5.0 and coming with us: Denmark, I am very excited about that as I have no schools in Denmark so that would be great, South Africa and Argentina.
KB: What about Ireland? Would you love to have a school in Ireland?
I would love, love to have a school in Ireland. I probably been to Ireland twenty times in my life. Visiting Kenpo schools, teaching and just love it there. Unfortunately, I personally don’t have any schools there, but I would love to have one. Kenpo is huge in Ireland, but I haven’t had anyone come and reach out to me of becoming a Kenpo 5.0 school. Maybe with this interview I will have someone approach me. I would love to have a relationship with the Irish people again. I absolutely loved being there.
KB: Are there any countries you would love to have a Kenpo school but currently don’t have one and why?
I think it would be amazing to have a school in China. Since that is where it all began over a thousand years ago. But that would be one I really really love to have. I have schools everywhere else. But the Chinese would be a personal goal of mine to achieve.
KB: Are you visiting all your schools over the world?
Normally pre-Covid life I used to be out of the United States at least 25% of the year. So, I would go to Australia and New Zealand once a year, South America, I come to Europe twice a year and of course travel around the United States. Each time I would go to Europe, one trip would be France and Germany. And then the other trip would be Spain and England. Whenever I would go to all these schools, they would come over to where I am. But in November we have a system of competition called 5.0 Fighter which is a continuous fight, stand up and on the ground, with some very different rules. For one, the groin is a full contact target. That changes that world a lot. And the other is, the tap out is not the end of the fight, it is the only thing you can win 3 points for. You tap somebody out, stand them up is worth 3 points. You keep fighting. We have a European 5.0 Fighter Championship on 12th-13th of November in a Southern area of Paris called Etampes. I look forward coming back to Europe this November, assuming something crazy like a pandemic doesn’t happen again.
KB: You mentioned that there is a difference between martial arts and Kenpo martial arts: Could you explain that again? What is the difference?
This is a really important point that largely has been lost around the world. To be a martial artist you should really give out caring about other people and try to make the world a better place before you die. If you want to be a martial fighter than you just will go into competition, so for me MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) should be called MMF (Mixed Martial Fighting) because there isn’t really anything artistic about it. There isn’t anything human that reaches to the higher sense of being human. It’s all about one person advances because they cause another person to fall. That’s Martial Fight. Martial Art is where someone would sacrifice something of themselves to help another person advance in life. That’s Martial Art. That’s what I want to be involved in. I have been all my life. Every single person who is with me, all over the world, in all my schools, they believe the same thing. And that we care, use a very disciplined regimented quality martial art to help change the world before we die, by teaching discipline and respect and achieving goals that are based on making the world a better place instead of just destroying your opponent. I am committed to that. You know, when I am in a place that is full of martial artists and maybe I am just speaking to a group, every time I say something like that, a whole group of them applaud and hoot and holler. They are very grateful that there is somebody out there who is articulating the difference between the heart and the fight. That tells me that there is a desire out there for somebody to speak up for all of us who claim that we are martial artists and not just martial fighters.
KB: Going back to your movies: Are you still active in the movie industry? If somebody would come up to you and offer you a part in a movie or TV show?
A couple things have happened. There was a husband-and-wife team who came to me and wanted to do a reality TV show of what we have accomplished around the world. They worked for 4 or 5 months, spend a lot of their money putting together what is called a sissle reel but it is really a sales reel. They did all this work, and they were wonderful. They were just blown away by everything we did and what we stand for such as the things I just described to you but then their agent in Los Angeles would not support them to take it out and pitch it to the studios because they thought that it would not sell because there is no conflict, and their point was this is exactly why we wanted to do it because it is different. Because there is no conflict. But they wouldn’t support them. We had to let it go for now. It may re-emerge at some other time. And then I just had a guy I knew from the movie business 25 years ago who was just here last week, and he said: “Would you consider doing something if I had something for you?”. I said: “I consider it, but I just don’t want to do another movie just to be in a movie. If this is something that would help me and my Kenpo 5.0 family, then yes, I would be interested in doing it”. But I am not in the game of chasing movies anymore.
KB: The last two years saw the world in several lock downs due to the pandemic: How did you spend your time and how did your schools manage to survive as they were, I presume, closed?
We were completely closed for three months here in Las Vegas. And we had all our protocols to deal with for another year and a half. Those have really just, and in Europe too, coming to an end now. You are right, many of the schools around the world were closed. Some of them closed and re-opened but then had to close again. In Australia that happened. It has been very difficult and very challenging. But this is what we do as Martial Artists: you’re supposed to be a disciplined dedicated intelligent athletic person. Whenever there is a problem, the people hat survive, are the ones who create a solution. I don’t complain. I had stage 4 cancer in 2013. It was only a flip of a coin if I was going to live or not. I made it through that. Once you go through something like that, there is no turning back. You look at yourself in the mirror. I had 18 inches of feeding tubes take to my stomach. I lost 80 pounds which is like 32kg. It was a very difficult time. I was very close to my own death. But I made it passed that. You can imagine, I find very little to complain about these days.
KB: If you are going through something like that, the pandemic should be a piece of cake.
Exactly. So many of the people I know, even my friends and students, say: “I’m so tired of wearing a mask”. I just say “You guys have no idea what it’s like, so I don’t want to hear any complaining. Just shut up and wear the mask, take the shot, and get vaccinated”. I just try to create a solution and move on. It is very tough. I’m not sure what it is like in Ireland, but here in America, many people are so anti-government. They don’t want to get the vaccination because they think it is a government conspiracy. I am vaccinated and boosted. There is the craziest time going on in my country right now. It is really embarrassing. I am so frustrated with it; I just can’t tell you. It is such a crazy thing. There is so much hate here. Obviously, there is a lot of hate in the world. Look at what Russia is doing to Ukraine. It certainly has been true all along: there is no shortage of hate in the world. But for the last many decades we’ve been able to go through transitions without violence. Now we have this tremendous violence going on in front of us. It isn’t necessary. If we talked about what it would be to live in a world where we would actually care about each other instead of trying to take something from other people. If we would just care for each other and help to make the world a better place how much better life would be for all of us humans.
Check out Jeff’s Website: HERE
Find Jeff’s World Training Center on Facebook: HERE