Have I mentioned recently how much I love working at Century Martial Arts? Every day brings something new – and some of the best days are those where we get visitors and guest instructors, like Grand Master Ted Sumner, 10th degree kenpo black belt and long-time instructor.
The group at the end of class. Grand Master Sumner is wearing the black-and-white gi top.
GM Sumner began his official martial arts training (not counting the boxing training that took place in a roped-off section in the back of a middle school classroom – I’ll get to that) at the original Tracy Brothers school in San Jose, California. This martial arts training would come in handy when he joined the police force, working as an undercover officer in the Narcotics division at the time of Nixon launching his “war on drugs.”
After training, and learning some new pressure-point tricks, I got the chance to interview the Grand Master. As you can imagine, I was in for quite the story – and now I can share it with you, too!
The Centurion: Who, or what, originally sparked your interest in martial arts?
Ted Sumner: Well, when you’re a skinny kid with blond curly hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks, you’re ripe to get picked on. I learned early on that the world was not a real friendly place. I began boxing at the YMCA when I was about 8 years old. The boxing coach there thought I showed a lot of promise, and he sent me to the camp that was held each year by (Julius) “Julie” Menendez.
There was collegiate boxing in those day, and San Jose and Michigan state were the two powerhouses. So Julia arraigned for a scholarship, and I was being groomed for his boxing team. Before that could happen, however, a young man was tragically killed in a collegiate boxing match, so the sport was dropped.
Training at Century with GM Sumner.
TC: How did you segue from boxing to kenpo?
TS: When I was in the 8th grade, my instructor, he loved boxing. He had a ring taped off in the back of the room, with gloves hanging. He’d tell everyone “Get your books out and read chapter seven,” and then he’d say, “Sumner! Harper! Back of the room! Get the gloves on.” And he’d coach us.
I stopped by there one day, after I was in high school, just to see him and maybe go over a few boxing movements. He said, “No, I gotta show you something else. I started studying this thing called kenpo karate.” After going through a few of the movements with him for about an hour, I was hooked! I had to do it.
So I contacted my good friend rick, Rick Harper, who later became one of the brains at Disney – he was a prodigy; utterly brilliant –and I got him convinced and then we worked on our parents to let us train. There were two schools in town; one was the Kang Duk Kwan school and the other one was the Kempo Karate school, which had just opened. And that’s where my 8th grade instructor was, and that’s where I started. So that is the long answer!
TC: What was it that drew you to kenpo?
TS: Well, the thing was, I was a darned good boxer – but a bigger, stronger boxer could always beat me. I was a mediocre wrestler, but a better wrestler would beat me. Same thing in judo.
But when I got into kenpo, there were a thousand ways I could beat you. I could change the conditions of the confrontation to my advantage. The possibilities just seemed limitless with what I was learning, so I just kept going. And never regretted it; never looked back.
TC: Did martial arts influence your desire to go into law enforcement?
TS: I don’t think I would have had the confidence to go into law enforcement without, you know, the skills that I developed in martial arts. A lot of guys have that urge (to join the police). So when the opportunity presented itself and I took it.
TC: And how did your career in law enforcement start?
TS: Initially, I wanted to work for the San Jose police department. I took the test and out of 1,200 applicants, I was number two. But the test was challenged in court as being unfair to non-English speaking applicants, so that got tied up in court for a while. At the time, the trial of Angela Davis was taking place in San Clara, and the sheriff’s dept was expanding to provide court security. I took their test and was hired on by the Santa Clara’s sheriff’s department as a deputy.
I worked in the jail for a year. The environment of incarceration was utterly toxic to my spirit. I worked with some great officers, but I absolutely hated the environment. When the lawsuit was finished with in San Jose, I got on there.
GM Sumner explains a technique.
TC: And from there, you became an undercover narcotics officer?
TS: Well, there was a drug epidemic that began in 1974, and Nixon declared what he called the War on Drugs. The first thing they did was put pressure on pharmaceutical companies who were manufacturing overseas to stop over-producing. And what they found out was that the American appetite for intoxicants was very, very strong.
When the pharmaceutical supplies dried up, you started seeing other drugs – PCP, LSD, meth, and cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, all these things – taking the place of pharmaceuticals.
These drugs were showing up in schools. There was a lot of pressure from the mayor, because he was getting a lot of pressure from the city council; the city council was getting pressure from the PTA; the PTA was getting pressure from the parents. They decided that they were going to insert two underdoer officers into the high schools.
Initially, it was based on your appearance – you know, could you pass for a teenager? They asked me, and I said, “Well, why do you think I’d be well-suited for it?” and they said, “You’re a black belt, so it’s going to minimize the physical danger. Also, you’re a veteran, and there’s going to be psychological pressure working alone and veterans tend to be a little better adjusted than others.” So they asked me to do it for six months.
TC: But it didn’t up being just a six-month position, did it?
TS: No. I didn’t enroll in school, but I was hanging out around the school. I was buying drugs from parolees, ex-convicts, Hell’s Angels, all kinds of people. A few times I had some close calls. So when the operation finished, one week before graduation, and we rounded up almost 700 dealers… I was ready to get a haircut and go back to patrol.
But (my superiors) said, “No, we want you to continue.” I said, “Well, how long do you want me to do this?” The said, “You’re permanently assigned to narcotics.”
I worked there for another three years, but you burn out on that kind of thing. Then I had an opportunity to go to the SWAT team. I stayed there for the last three and a half years that I was on the police department, and then I’d had enough. I’d gotten it out of my system.
TC: And gotten a few bullets into your system!
TS: Yeah, and a few knife blades too.
TC: Can you tell us a few stories about how you used martial arts during your time on the force?
TS: Sure! One, I was working a case involving this guy who was being investigated for murder, but he was a heroin dealer. He was a wild card. Strangely enough, I’d known him in high school. He didn’t go to my school, but we’d both wrestled.
I had an unwitting informant – he didn’t know I was a police officer – and I told I wanted to buy dope from (my high-school acquaintance). He said, “This guy told me not to bring you over.” I said, “Well, then he’s going to get an early Christmas surprise. Let’s go.”
When we walked in, the guy pulled a gun on me. He was obviously loaded on something other than heroin. His eyes were red and wild. He said, “I told you not to bring him over here! That’s it, you’re dead,” and poked the gun and my forehead.
I said, “Hey, be cool, man,” then I dropped and went for the gun. It went off and a bullet hit the ceiling before I took it away from him. When I grabbed the barrel, I saw it had jammed the gun. I threw it down on the coffee table, and said, “You (jerk)! You tried to shoot me!” He says, “No, no, no, I’m sorry man!” I turned to the (guy who’d brought me here) and said, “This guy’s a real (jerk)!”
Then (my high-school acquaintance) picked the gun up off the coffee table and says, “Yeah, a (jerk) who’s going to kill you!” and tried to shoot me again – he didn’t know it was jammed.
So I took the gun away from him again.
It was a simple technique that we teach, a disarm when the gun’s at your head – you put both your hands up, say, “Don’t shoot,” and drop, and push it straight up with the hands like this (demonstrates technique) then you grasp the barrel and pull it back. The gun pries right out of their hands.
Anyway, the man defecated his pants.
Quick author’s note: During the interview, I got to hear firsthand accounts of about half-a-dozen times martial arts or martial arts-based skills saved Sumner from tough situations. I wish I could recount them all in this post – but Grand Master Sumner has a book written about his experiences and I don’t want to spoil it! But if you want to read about the time he got thrown off a nine-foot drop onto a police cruiser, or had to extract an uncooperative (naked) murderer from a jail cell, or got shot by a professional mob hitman, you’ll have to check it out! Link at end of post.
The cover of Sumner's book, Deep Cover Cop.
TC: Changing tack a little – did you make the move to become a martial arts instructor immediately after you left the police force, or was there a transition period?
TS: While I was on the police department, I didn’t do much teaching. When I left, I taught for other people for a while, then I opened my own school in 1990. And I ran that until we moved in 2013. I turned my school in California over to my top guy in California, Vance Murakami.
TC: As a veteran yourself, you’ve seen firsthand some of the challenges our servicemen and women face upon returning. Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done to support them?
TS: It started with my son, a San Jose police officer. He was working something called Crisis Management: officers who help officers who are in trouble. A lot of police officers are active military service, and they’d come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with mild to severe traumatic brain injuries.
My son started working with the VA’s treatment center, which is called Services for Brain Injury. I asked if they wanted me to teach a class for rehabilitation. We worked out a 12-week program, which we called Rehabilitation Through Kenpo.
I ran that program for four years before we moved. Then the guy I turned my school over too, (Murakami,) he’s an engineer at Hewlett-Packard. He’s the only one I would trust to teach it.
You know, these guys (that we’re teaching), they been through a lot. They were all wheelchair-bound, but that doesn’t matter – they’re warriors. They didn’t want to go to physical therapy where it’s, you know, “Catch the beach ball!” They wanted to do martial arts!
It was a very successful program. I’m very happy that it continues.
TC: What inspires you to keep going, even on your off days?
TS: Well, what’s always inspired me is that I keep learning new things. I’m always learning something. And it’s fun. It’s fun to teach and give to other people. Someday, I’m not be here. I’ve accumulated a body of knowledge that is in no curriculum. It’s just my students who learn it. And if I don’t pass it on, it just dies.
TC: What’s the best part about being a martial arts instructor?
TS: The rewards that I’ve received for teaching. With the advent of the internet, at least every week I hear from somebody who I taught. One of my former students is an archbishop in North America for the Methodist church; another one’s a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford University. I ran into his father the other day, and he thanked me. He said (his son) wouldn’t have had the confidence without what I’d done for him. Whereas, as a police officer, no one ever thanked me for putting them in jail.
TC: What advice would you give to someone thinking about training martial arts, but isn’t sure that it’s right for them?
TS: (laughs) Martial arts is right for everybody!
As you can see, Grand Master Sumner has quite the story! I’ve said before, the people I get to interview at Century deserve books, not blog posts. I can only deliver one, but if you’re curious to read more of Grand Master Sumner’s story, you can read his true-life recounting in Deep Cover Cop.
This is my copy. You can't have my copy.