In 1974, Patrick Wrenn was invited by Elvis Presley, Elvis sidekick/bodyguard Red West and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace to help establish what has since been called “the greatest martial arts school of all time.” It’s the 4,300-square-foot, Memphis-based Tennessee Karate Institute (TKI). The original TKI only lasted four years, but, 39 years later, Wrenn has reopened it at its original location as part museum/part school.
Recipient of the Martial Arts Lifetime Achievement Award and Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior, the indomitable 10th-dan Wrenn has continued over the years to teach his Combative Arts despite continuous injuries and ill-health.
Herb Borkland: Where did you grow up, and what did yourdad do?
Patrick Wrenn: I was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. My father was a self-made, multimillionaire real-estate developer.
After college, I went into business for myself importing birds of prey, reptiles and saltwater fish for zoos. I’ve been an animal-keeper all my life. One day, I was sitting in a Knoxville Zoo cage with my 300-pound jaguar, a guy came up and said, “You need to learn karate.” I told him to get out, you don’t hit the creatures, but he said, “What if she tried to scratch you?”
I started studying with Mac Dickinson, a tough Joe Lewis-looking lawyer, and went on to train with Al Holcomb, an Allen Steen student from Texas. I did bodyguard work in Vegas for country-music star Charlie Rich. This steers to Elvis
HB: Turning point?
PW: Earning my green belt was so hard, I quit. Within two weeks I came back because I just honest-to-God couldn’t quit. First thing in my life I couldn’t quit at.
In 1974, I broke my back at the Dallas Nationals and all of a sudden became a business partner of Bill Wallace and Elvis. We all put in money and ran the studio [Tennessee Karate Institute] for four years as a corporation. Elvis filmed [the documentary] The New Gladiators there.
TKI taught no katas. No traditional karate occurred in that room. I learned that super glue closed a face cut cheaper than going to the emergency room. Bill was training to be a kickboxing champ and not playing. Serious stuff. I remember counting [him delivering] 147 kicks to a heavy bag in a two minute round!
Elvis died in 1977. Bill left Memphis soon for his movie roles and worldwide travel, and I hadn’t tended properly to my back. So, it went out on me when I was alone in the studio. I vacated the premises literally crawling on my belly. TKI closed in 1978.
Thank God, the martial arts saved me. Instead of drinking, I worked out harder and applied our value system to my daily life, to live karate rather than just do karate. I also worked with problem kids by using physical/discipline skills. The program lasted 16 years, and I still hear from some of them.
I’m the only non-football player to belong to the NFL because of my NFL Tackles Drugs Head On program. I broke 5,412 boards in 47 minutes before 26,000 spectators, set a world’s record and raised $187,000 for the Ronald McDonald House.
I am a 10th dan — human, not perfect — but I’m not going to let karate down. Now, TKI is both a museum and a karate school. Busloads of people from other countries come to see where Elvis worked out. We have a wall for Elvis, Wallace, George Foreman, Sly Stone and Isaac Hayes. How can I let that down?
I’ve been stabbed, shot, had my jaw rebuilt, suffered broken bones, and beat a staph infection, cancer and alcohol. I’m still here, still teaching, and I will fight anything that comes through the door, however they want to go.
Herb Borkland can be reached at [email protected]
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