By Herb Borkland
John Duncan began studying martial arts in 1963. At age 14 he began training at the legendary Texas Karate Institute under Fred Wren. Allen Steen, Jhoon Rhee’s original American black belt, tested Duncan for his first dan. Later, Duncan became an instructor, and then head instructor, at Texas Karate, from 1972 to 1974.
In 1978, Duncan moved to Oklahoma, to study philosophy and literature at the University of Oklahoma. Close to earning his Ph.D., he quit academia to join the police force. Duncan eventually became an Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics undercover agent, head of an elite firearms program, and a street-lethal combatives instructor.
In 2007, Duncan retired from law enforcement and became a full-time professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Herbert Borkland: Where did you grow up, and what did your dad do?
John Duncan: (I was) born in Pampa, Texas, and ended up at the West Texas Permian Basin because my father owned an oil well servicing company.
HB: How did you first hear about martial arts?
JD: At age six, I studied my brother’s copy of Judo at a Glance. By 10, I was training in judo at a local YMCA. I bought every Bruce Tegner martial arts paperback and watched Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet. I answered a classified ad in the back of Popular Science magazine and received a copy of Chinese Gung-Fu: Philosophic Art of Self-Defense by Bruce Lee. He also sent me a copy of his famous yin/yang essay.
When the family moved to Dallas, I found the Texas Karate Institute. I could already do Chinese splits, knee-to-shoulder ax kicks and knew some forms. I drove over early one evening and signed up for an $180 brown belt course. Fred Wren taught in street clothes. You bled in his classes – no apologies when he hurt you. Chuck Norris was there, too.
I got brown belt in about 18 months. Steen made Fred look like a Girl Scout! Everybody was terrified of him — an “animal,” with an intense, scary look. I became summer school manager at 17 and, at 18, also an instructor. I got first dan from Steen. The testing was unimaginable by today’s standards — a rite of passage you earned with suffering!
HB: What was your turning point?
JD: Steen and I had a falling out, so I left to go to the University of Oklahoma in 1978. The same commitment and intensity which karate had taught me brought me, by age 26, close to finishing my Philosophy Ph.D., but a friend told me the police department was hiring. So, I cut my hair and shaved the beard, worked through the Academy and became a patrol man.
After 20 years of martial arts, a tough street guy nearly killed me! I used every martial arts move, but only survived by blind instinct. There’s a point where you have to fight for your life. No winner, no loser — only a survivor. For law enforcement, martial arts were not desperate or brutal enough.
I became a State Bureau of Narcotics undercover officer and head of a firearms program and combatives instructor. I was Chief Agent when I retired.
Nowadays, I still work with law enforcement officers, mostly teaching firearms and defensive tactics, and, at the University, I teach a Master's degree program in criminal justice. I like to teach "reality-based" combatives to police and train daily just to keep my old body in shape.
Martial arts teach how to live authentically, how to claim the freedom of our existence. The true martial artist is a life artist.
Herb Borkland is a veteran black belt who can be reached at [email protected]
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