Story: Martial arts

Page 3. Martial arts from the 1970s

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Growing interest

From the 1970s a growing interest in Asian cultures, and the impact of Asian migration, led more people to take up a martial art. The Rembuden Institute of Martial Arts, founded by John Jarvis in 1968, had over 3,000 karate students in 25 clubs throughout New Zealand and the South Pacific by the mid-1970s. The physical fitness craze of the 1980s also had an impact. Gyms included martial-arts elements in fitness routines, prompting some people to take up the practice more formally. For others, especially women, the self-defence aspects of martial arts were important. Kendo (Japanese ‘fencing’) practitioner Sue Lytollis ran women’s self-defence courses for the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) from 1979.

Martial arts and popular culture

Popular culture has had a major impact on the growth of martial arts. Hit 1960s television series The avengers introduced judo to new people, especially women attracted by the svelte and feisty Mrs Peel, who could hurl opponents to the ground with ease. The Bruce Lee movies and the Kung fu television series of the 1970s boosted the popularity of kung fu. Films such as The karate kid or those featuring Jackie Chan introduced later generations to the martial arts.

New styles

New styles of martial arts appeared. In 1980 the New Zealand Martial Arts Council listed 166 registered martial arts clubs. Less than a decade later there were over 150 in Auckland alone, and another 100 in Christchurch. The Korean martial art of tae kwon do, developed in the 1950s, opened its first club in 1970 in Palmerston North. The style grew rapidly, boosted by the visit of its founder, General Choi Hong Hi, in 1976, and then by migration from Korea during the 1990s. Muay Thai kick-boxing clubs opened in the mid-1970s, incorporating a traditional kicking and punching style with a competitive element. Different forms of karate and kung fu emerged, sometimes as established styles splintered due to internal politics, changes at an international level, new personnel or new philosophies.

Martial-arts professionals

New Zealand’s first live-in martial-arts centre opened in Porirua in 1985. Its founder, Bob Gemmell, played a lead role in the spread of Chinese martial arts in the 1970s, especially kempo and forms of t’ai chi. As a professional martial-arts instructor, he also taught self-defence and use of martial-arts weapons to the New Zealand police.

The Western influence

While Asian martial-arts styles dominated, more westernised styles also appeared, such as Zen-do-kai, a hybrid style developed in Australia in 1970. Some of these modern styles placed less emphasis on the traditional Asian aspects and more on self-defence. Others had a more overt competitive approach, such as MMA (mixed martial arts). This developed in the 1990s, based on a mix of grappling, throwing, boxing and karate. Like kick-boxing, MMA is also a professional sport with regular tournaments attracting large crowds. New Zealanders Dan Hooker and Israel Adesanya have excelled in the brutal Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) franchise. Adesanya became UFC world middleweight champion in 2019, a feat which saw him named New Zealand Sportsman of the Year at the Halberg Awards.


As styles and clubs proliferated during the 1980s, some styles emerged whose founders took little heed of a traditional, disciplined approach, or awarded themselves a high level of black belt with little regard to experience or training. Established practitioners commented on the tension that existed between some styles in the 1970s, often focused around standards of instruction and the qualifications of instructors. Karate was most prone to such tensions, and the Federation of New Zealand Karate Organisations was formed in 1976 partly to improve relations between styles. By the 1980s disputes between the various forms of martial arts had largely died away as the various styles became more established.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Martial arts - Martial arts from the 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2021)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 27 Jan 2015