Gary Palmer


Blitz Magazine, December 2014

For Gary Palmer, martial arts have been part of his life for as long as he can remember.

“I started with boxing,” says Gary, “I grew up with it. I come from a boxing family. My grandfather was Dave Palmer, who was both heavy and light-heavyweight champion of Australia. He held several titles – that was back in the days when they weren’t so strict about weight; they let you fight up a division.

The Fighting Palmers: Billy, Dave and Ambrose

The Fighting Palmers: Billy, Dave and Ambrose

“My biggest thrill as a kid was going to his house and looking in his trophy cabinet, which stretched from wall to wall and from the floor to the ceiling. My prized possession is his gloves which he wore when he won his Australian title.”

Dave’s brother was Ambrose Palmer, famous both as an Australian boxer who held titles at middleweight, light-heavy and heavyweight as well as having played eighty-three games for the Footscray Football Club, between 1933 and 1943.

“He was also Johnny Famechon’s trainer when he won his world title in 1969.”

b. Ambrose Palmer

Boxing was part of the family heritage and his grandfather’s advice remains at the core of his practice today.

“Many of my tools came from my grandfather and father. ‘You can’t hit a moving target’, and ‘Soon as you plant your feet, you’re a target.”

Gary set about honing these skills at the local Police Boys’ Club in Paramatta, where some of the other influential figures of Gary’s early years were larger-than-life.

“The trainer was a man-giant named Gunther,” Gary remembers. “If you weren’t training hard enough, he’d push your partner out of the way and take over!”

Boxing is alive in many of Gary’s early memories.

“I remember sparring in the backyard with pop and dad. They were the best memories. My dad was away a lot in the Navy; I adored my grandfather. I really enjoyed those times. My dad’s ethics and standards have set the benchmark for everything I do in my life.”

These older role models made a significant impact on Gary. He also pursued a career in the military, eventually becoming an instructor of artillery.

c. Army   on the left

Gary is seated far left

“I was an instructor in the school of artillery at Manly. ‘Bullshit castle’, we used to call it. My father was a career sailor in the Navy, and my grandfather had been in the army during World War Two. Having military parents meant they instilled a strict sense of self-discipline, self-reliance and respect. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Military life gave him direction by bringing him to a sense of his own calling as an instructor.

“I started instructing in the army in 1975 as a twenty-two year old,” he says. “It was a big buzz. I found that for me, being appointed as an instructor was a turning point, because I discovered leadership. It seemed to suit me. I enjoyed being in a position to help people.”

This is an unusual definition of leadership, but is at the core of the best instructors and teachers.

Army life also bought Gary to his experience of eastern martial arts.

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“I played rugby and squash while I was in the army. Toward the end of the Vietnam war, I suffered a training injury playing rugby; my shoulder and elbow were smashed. A friend of mine was doing tae kwon do. This was during the seventies, when I was about twenty-three.”

Gary had been well-prepared for the rigors through his experience of contact sports.

“I loved it. It was hard training. I got broken fingers and toes! Then, when I got out of the army, around twenty-six or twenty-seven, family life took over.”

Some years later, Gary found himself returning to training after a family member was assaulted.

“I had a young family, and my then-wife’s sister was attacked at work. It led us back to wanting skills to protect our family and ourselves. We went back as a family venture; my wife and my two kids all went back together.”

“I’ve been training with Gary for twenty years,” says Wayne Morrison, long-time friend and fellow instructor in Chikara Kenpo.

“All the kids joined; he made us feel welcome. He’s thoughtful and family-oriented. Gary works to accommodate them as much as possible.”

That approach was successful; all three of Wayne’s children went on to achieve their black belts under Gary’s instruction.

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“My original purpose [behind joining] was because my son was being picked on at school,” says Wayne. “Gary began by giving him a crash-course in defense; no retaliation.”

“He was a good-natured, soft sort of kid,” says Gary, “And he was being picked on by a group. Rather than starting with the white belt syllabus, I showed him how to break away from holds if someone put their hands on him, and how to get away.

“He came to class one afternoon and went straight up the back of the dojo and Wayne came to me and said there had been another incident. It turned out this time, his son had been suspended. The group had tried to attack him and he used a palm-heel strike to the chest.

“It sent the other kid flying into an air-conditioning unit and broke it. If anything, Wayne’s son ended up becoming someone to whom other kids who were being picked on would come to because they couldn’t defend themselves.

“If asked this question, ‘What’s the best defense?’ All my black belts would answer the same way: ‘Don’t be there.’ Don’t walk down that side-street, don’t walk into the darkened car park on your own. It’s all well and good to be wise after the fact. If you are aware of the environment, you won’t put yourself in harm’s way in the first place.”

Over time, Gary began to gravitate away from karate and towards kenpo.

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“The thing that attracted me to kenpo was the self-defense aspect,” says Gary. “It’s a self-defense art. Ed Parker [kenpo luminary] said that, ‘Kenpo people don’t get involved in a fight; they use a technique to finish it.”

“My style, Chikara Kenpo, is a hybrid. We incorporate other influences and things. These days, if I see or learn something of use or benefit, I’m going to bring it in. I want to [produce] well-rounded martial artists, rather than a ‘pure’ expert.”

The goal is to produce the most effective practitioner.

“To me, a martial artist has to have a well-rounded background. They transcend their learning and enter ‘mushin’, or ‘no mind’. You learn [the technique], but employ it without having to think too much about it. There’s an old saying, ‘If you have to think about it, then you don’t know it.’

While this is true, self-defense is the purpose that functions as a guiding light in Chikara Kenpo.

“Kenpo is fairly complicated; there’s a lot of techniques. Kenpo people do three things at once; kick, punch and avoid [but] the idea is not to get involved in a fight. You execute a technique and finish a situation.”

Gary was a natural fit as an instructor. Often those that gravitate to positions of authority do so for the position of status. In Gary’s case, he was motivated by the desire to help others, which informs his strategies as a teacher.

“I always found he conducted himself very well,” says Jim Casey, president of the National All Styles and founder of Kenshin Kan Karate. “Glenn Coxon was in charge for about twenty years and after he left his position, I got talking to Gary. He’s taken it on… and we haven’t looked back.”

p. Nationals 2013

“I like… that his background in the army and the police force [means] that he’s disciplined and has integrity. There are plenty of people [in martial arts] that are out to make a buck. Gary takes pride in promoting others, rather than himself.”

Jim’s faith in Gary is so assured, he paid him the ultimate compliment by grading him to the rank of shihan in his own organization.

“I graded him over five hours. He had forty fights of one-and-a-half minute rounds. He did them at sixty years old. He was pretty sore and tired after it! I never grade anyone outside my organization, but I did [grade] him.”

By Jim’s reckoning, Shihan is a rank that should only be awarded in recognition of the most significant commitment, demonstrated through significant contribution to the art.

“Has he contributed to the community? Is he a good citizen? He has to have conducted himself as honorably as possible.”

Grading. 1

Gary’s fifth Dan grading with Kancho James Casey

“I started with Gary when I was in year seven,” says Matthew Bryce, a black belt in Chikara Kenpo and long-standing NAS competitor. “At that point, I was slowly becoming an adult and learning about the world around me. Shihan Gary stood out; he actually took an interest in us as people.”

Matthew swiftly returns to Gary’s established theme of family.

“[Chikara Kenpo] is a family-friendly club,” Matthew explains. “Gary’s interested in teaching you the art, but also that you grow up into a decent human being. He has a fatherly tone as a teacher, and really is a mentor to us.

“That’s important when teaching something that is handed from generation to generation; there has to be a certain level of trust. The biggest single group [in the club] is kids and teenagers. [They are] looking for guidance for how they want to grow up and how they want to be. An instructor plays an instrumental role in people’s lives.”

“There’s got to be a line in the sand,” says Gary. “You’ve got to identify what works for each individual student. Try and identify early on how that student needs to receive information.” This outlook sees the onus for learning shift from pupil to instructor.

“Some students need words, others can mimic and copy. Others need you to physically move their hands and feet to where you need them to be. [The main thing is that] they have to feel good about themselves. They have to see the positive outcomes from it.

“Teaching is all about how someone needs to receive that information. You can yell your head off and one student will take it all in, while the other [student] may as well have heard French. Every student is different.”

“I try to put a correction in between two compliments,” says Gary. “It tends to work! It’s an ethic I’m trying to put into my own black belts.”

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Gary is the state director of the National All Styles Tournament in New South Wales and the ACT as well as being the assistant national director under Jim Casey. His involvement with the tournament began in his own time of competing, with Renshu Kai.

“I’ve been [with the NAS] for eighteen to twenty years now,” he says. “Our club had branches in Melbourne and Brisbane, and I competed in both [states]. I also competed on the Gold Coast, and then I started to run tournaments here [in New South Wales]. It became a big club thing.”

As with his time in the military, Gary was quickly attracted to a supervisory role for pragmatic – as well as idealistic – reasons.

“The officials knew the rules. It helped you as an instructor. Right from the early days, I was competing and refereeing, back and forth [at the same event]. Now, I ask people to do exactly the same thing. And they do it!

“From the early stages, I wanted to become an official. I saw the dedication of those doing it; without officials, there’s no tournament. You have to have people willing to give their time in order to make it happen.”

Tournaments such as the National All Styles provide the opportunity for students and practitioners to test themselves and their training, to discover if they have simply learned a technique, or actually know it.

“Anyone can set a goal, but unless it’s your goal, you won’t care,” says Gary. “I have students that don’t want to be champions but want to test their skills. The trophy is a bonus. You can get students to try their hardest, to do the best they can. I say to them, ‘The only person you have to defeat, or be better than, is yourself.”

This sounds like an idealistic piece of wisdom, but in the pantheon of Gary’s teaching, is a very practical piece of instruction.

“I can’t say [to a student], ‘Come back tomorrow and be better than Matthew. Just come in tomorrow and be better than yourself.”


“The beauty of the National All Styles is that it gets you out of your comfort zone. It teaches you to adapt; you might have six opponents on the day, and you can’t fight all of them the same way. You have to adapt to each one and the situation you’re in. If you can’t adapt, you get beaten. If you get attacked [on the street], you can’t define the rules. You’ve got to cope with what comes.”

This perspective gives confidence that Chikara Kenpo isn’t an abstract art; it ties back directly into its origins as a system of self-defense.

“I also find that… students that compete progress faster than those that don’t. Sometimes, the best teacher is yourself. I’ve got the utmost respect for those who step onto the mat to be judged. It’s a big step in anyone’s training career.”

The values taught through competition can seem somewhat abstract, in comparison with the practical realities of kicking, punching and blocking.

“They learn to have faith in themselves; trust themselves,” Gary says. “I tell them, ‘When you line up on the mat… the other person has the same worries. Psyche them out by the way you conduct yourself. [As an instructor you] want them to have self-esteem.”

This confidence comes from deploying their learning under pressure.

“NAS is a great tournament for learning that your style doesn’t have the answer to everything,” says Matthew. “A fighter from tae kwon do will use his legs for a jab and will want to fight at long range. Then, you might get a boxer who wants to be in-close and body block. For each style, in its strength lies its weakness. You learn the ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses of different styles, which makes for a better-rounded martial artist.”

Gary officiating far right.

Gary officiating far right.

Gary’s perspective takes in the practical aspects of competition, along with the boarder implications for every participant.

“[Students get confidence] by using their assets. They learn what their good techniques and strong points are. One student used to tell me how nervous he was. I used to tell him, ‘If you weren’t, I’d be worried.’ You’d be apathetic. If you’re nervous, it makes you adrenalized and sharp. It’s positive energy.”

All this takes place in a spirit of inclusion and enjoyment, across a range of styles of martial arts that often have nothing other to connect them aside from rivalry.

“The range of ages of the participants is between five and fifty-five. It’s a place to practice [their] art in a safe environment; the spirit and camaraderie on the floor is amazing. The students fight each other and hug at the end. That’s what it’s all about.”

Gary has worked for the last eleven years with the New South Wales Police force in the role of security and protection. If anything, policing highlighted the strengths of his martial arts training.

“In a ‘serving the public’ kind of role, to have good reactions and to be alert and aware [are]… great assets to have. Your skills become an inherent part of you that you’re not always conscious of,” he says. Gary’s training in martial arts has “heightened all areas of my role and awareness and reactions to things, and how I respond to situations. It’s given me a level of confidence that I wouldn’t have had.”

“There’s a difference between martial arts and police ‘deftac’ [short for defensive tactics], which are non-confrontational by nature. They’re designed to diffuse things, not pre-empt them. Your objective is to protect the officer, the member of the community, or even sometimes protect people from themselves.”

m. Police

Gary’s career as a martial artist effectively began after his experience in the military, and was bought into focus through the lens of boxing as taught to him by his father and grandfather. This practical experience has shaped Gary’s opinions on the notion of ‘realistic’ martial arts training.

“I came from military training to martial arts training. Military training is, by nature, real life. It’s ‘life or death’ sort of training, by necessity.”

That sensibility guided Gary’s choice of a suitable art.

“I sought out ‘real’ martial arts training. It needed to be hard and realistic. ‘Reality-based training’ has become a bit of a cliché. Instructors want training to be relevant. I hate training which is soft and compliant with a partner; soft and touchy-feely.

“If someone grabs you in real life, they’re not just going to let you roll their hand over. You have to execute some sort of ‘pain compliance’, as we call it in kenpo. You attack the groin, throat or eyes to create a reaction and work off that reaction. No one’s just going to softly comply.”

The word ‘budo’, often used in traditional Japanese martial arts, literally refers to ‘the warrior’s road’. Gary’s career in martial arts has been vocational, and features a number of significant destinations along the way.

Those destinations, namely boxing, a military career followed by immersion in karate, then kenpo, culminating in a career in policing define a leader who walks his road especially mindful of those following behind him.

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