Sensei McLain’s Story

Sensei James McLain 1960’s

Mr. James McLain began his karate training under Master Phillip Koeppel in 1960. The young man met his future Sensei by chance while working at the Sno-Cap Root Beer Stand. He became interested in martial arts when his half-brother, an officer in the US Army, taught him a few judo techniques. While working at the root beer stand in Peoria, IL, he met Thurman Albertan, a local football star who played ball with Mr. Koeppel’s brother. On day young James asked Thurman if he knew of anyone who taught martial arts. Thurman replied that he did; the man lived just down the street

Young James walked to the house Thurman indicated after work that day and knocked on the door. “Here I was this skinny little fifteen year old looking up at this big man”, said Mr. McLain. At first, Mr. Koeppel was skeptical. They tried to run him off, but young James was persistent. After a few months of serious grilling as to why he wanted to learn and stern treatment from the Sensei and other students, the young man was accepted into the club. At this time, Mr. Koeppel trained his students in Kajukenbo. Mr. Doug Grose taught Jujitsu in the same school, and Mr. McLain received his first formal Judo training from Mr. Bernie Chaufin at Mr. Keoppel’s second Peoria dojo. Classes were three hours in length. The first hour was devoted to body conditioning, the second to perfection of basic techniques, and the third to kata, waza, and sparring. The training was rigorous with a strong emphasis on hand conditioning, throwing, and combinations. Ippon kumite was not emphasized. The dojo was an austere environment where the utmost respect and loyalty were practiced. It was also a place where the young man encountered people who treated each other with love and dignity. Mr. McLain would like to express his gratitude to both Mr. Biggs and Reverend Foster for their kindness to him.

Mr. McLain lived in his Sensei’s dojo until 1963. The sixteen year old had no ties and was consumed with a desire to learn the martial arts. He slept on a picnic table in the basement of the school and spent countless hours pounding his fists against a tree in the back courtyard. This sort of training made a big impression when Mr. Koeppel took his students to compete.

Mr. Koeppel, Mr. Richard Demerse & Mr. Jerry Fastbender, and Mr. John Keehan held the first tournament in the state of Illinois in 1962. After the tournament, Mr. Demerse asked Mr. Koeppel, “What do you do with these guys, lock em’ up and feed em’ raw meat?” Connections began to form both at home and across state lines. The early sixties saw Mr. McLain traveling to Phoenix, AZ to study under the emerging Mr. Trias. This period became the second major phase of Mr. McLain’s early training. Mr. Trias sent him on many adventures. One notable instance occurred when Mr. Trias realized that the Denver Shotokan group had marked their National tournament as “open.” Mr. McLain and Mr. Ray Cooper were told to pack their uniforms – they were going to represent the USKA in Colorado. Needless to say, the Shotokan guys were in for a little surprise from Region Three. Both men were disqualified from the kumite for “excessive contact,” but Mr. McLain walked away with a first place trophy in kata that was undeniable his.

After leaving Phoenix, Mr. McLain headed back to his home state of TN. Little did the young man know he would end up in Nashville again someday, but not for many more years. It was 1964, and the southeast knew very little about Karate. “People thought it was something to eat,” said Mr. McLain later. There was only one school in Nashville, operated by Mr. Cecil Patterson who instantly recognized Mr. McLain’s talent and put him to work teaching all of his classes. Mr. McLain met his good friend and Karate Brother, Mr. Robert Yarnall, at a tournament in TN.

The story goes that Mr. Yarnall became a little concerned after he watched the young man do a barrage of one-armed pushups. Also, after witnessing Mr. McLain climb right up the body of his first opponent, while hitting him with over the top shots before taking him to the ground, he was convinced playtime was over. When the two lined up, Mr. McLain went off like a rocket, but he encountered an unexpected surprise in his path – Mr. Yarnall’s lead leg sidekick.

Around this time, Mr. McLain met two more tough fighters who he came to admire and call Karate Brothers: Mr. Parker Shelton and Mr. Jim Harrison. It was at a tournament in Louisville, KY, when Mr. McLain was refereeing the kumite that two hardnosed looking fellows stepped up to the line. “As soon as I started the fight, they were all over each other – they fought right on out of the ring, over tables and folding chairs, all the way to the other side of the room. I thought to myself, ‘now these old boys fight about the same way we do.’ I told em’, ‘fight your way back to the ring fellas.’ They looked at me kinda surprised and then looked at each other like, ‘hey, this guy is alright’…”

The next stop for Mr. McLain was Kansas City where he met Mr. Jim Kennedy, Mr. Melvin Wise, and many more. Mr. McLain found work teaching Karate for Dr. Yinney. This was an eventful time in Midwest Karate and he had the opportunity to participate in many tournaments, including Mr. Harrison’s Kansas City Nationals. It was at this tournament that Mr. McLain recalls fighting with an incapacitated right shoulder. With the kind of competition that was around in those days, it made for exciting – but painful – memories!

After that came Chicago where he found work teaching under Mr. Charlie Brown. It was here that he had the great pleasure to meet and train under Judo great Mr. Anthony Zvirblis. In this period, he was also reunited with his Sensei. Mr. McLain remembers one night when Mr. Koeppel slept at the Brown dojo with him. He knew Mr. Koeppel had to work quite early in the morning, but he had a burning desire to hit the makiwara. Through the darkness in the dojo, Mr. McLain heard a deep voice, “MR. MCLAIN! WILL YOU PLEASE WORK THE MAKIWARE BOARD TOMORROW?”

In 1963, the Chicago Field House became the site of one of Mr. McLain’s proudest achievements. Along with Mr. Koeppel and Mr. Trias, McLain represented the Shorei system demonstrating the Taezu Naru Waza forms. Subsequent to that, in 1967, Mr. McLain opened the Grand Rapids Karate school where he met three of his most distinguished students and friends: Mr. Michael, Richard, and Thomas Awad. The three brothers were sent to Grand Rapids by their parents each summer to train with Mr. McLain who is honored to have watched the three grow up to be strong and accomplished karate men. At this dojo, Mr. McLain met Mr. Bob Daeglish and Mr. Walter Slokey. These men opened the door for Mr. McLain to train and compete in Canada. After this period, Mr. McLain lived his title of Roving Chief Instructor for the USKA and traveled with his friends or Mr. Wise, Mr. Shelton, and Mr. Keeney to name a few while he gave seminars and trained Karate students across the country.

In Cleveland, Mr. McLain went to work for Ohio Judo and Karate – eventually purchasing one of their schools. Mr. McLain fondly remembers teaching Mr. Don Sonney, Mr. Chuck Dunlap, and Mr. Milt Calender at this school. Mr. Sonney drove 180 miles to attend class! Mr. McLain also remembers the car ride when he found out how the then Ohio State Policeman made the trip – at high speeds.

Mr. McLain is very proud of hosting the 1973 USKA Grand Nationals in Cleveland – where he remembers more high ranks and martial arts celebrities than he had ever seen in one place; moreover, the USKA held casting for Mr. Trias’ film “Black Karate” at this tournament. The school at this location was one of Mr. McLain’s favorites and he recalls a consistent flow of good karate men coming through the doors to train.

Some of the society members may recall a fight Mr. McLain had against Mr. Dave Foreman around this time. Mr. McLain had been off the circuit for a while but decided to compete in Mr. Bob Yarnall’s state Tournament with his good friend Mr. Glenn Keeney. In this tournament, Mr. Keeney was seeded to fight Mr. McLain. Mr. Dave Foreman pulled Mr. Fred Wren. Mr. Keeney had no real desire to face off against Mr. McLain in the first round. On the other hand, he had beaten Mr. Fred Wren several times and had a strategy that worked well on him. So, Mr. Keeney, ever the strategic competitor, decided to pull a little trick on the unsuspecting Foreman. “You see that guy over there, Dave?” Mr. Keeney said, indicating Mr. McLain. “You see how his belt is all worn out? Well, the truth is he’s full of it. All washed up and never that good anyway. He twists and washes that obi to make it look old………..”

The tactic had the desired effect. Mr. Keeney is set to fight Mr. Wren and Mr. Foreman is fighting this faker who washes his obi. Mr. Foreman really got the bad end of the deal in that one because he had no idea who he was up against and Mr. McLain already knew whom Mr. Foreman was.

Mr. Koeppel yelled hajime and the fight was on. Within a few minutes all the other rings at the tournament stopped so contestants and spectators alike could watch. The men scored point after point but the judges wouldn’t award anything. “I guess they were enjoying the show,” remembers Mr. McLain. He also remembers taking Foreman down time after time and hitting him with four and five clean shots. “It was like we were running waza on each other.” The fight lasted fifteen minutes, and Mr. Trias stepped in halfway through to give Mr. Koeppel a breather. Finally, the judges scored a hook sidekick for Mr. Foreman. Mr. McLain will never forget the smile on Mr. Keeney’s face as Mr. Foreman glared at him in anger.

In 1974, money troubles necessitated Mr. McLain’s departure from Cleveland. He stayed first in Cincinnati with Mr. Mike Awad and then in Anderson, IN with Mr. Ross Scott. Finally, Mr. McLain ended up at the school of his old friend, Mr. Keeney, who supplied him with food, shelter, and even clothing. At that time, Mr. McLain taught a certain drop leg takeout to Mr. Keeney and some time after, while refereeing a fight between Mr. Keeney and Mr. Al Dallas, around the middle of the fight, Mr. Keeney looked at Mr. McLain, winked, and executed the technique!

Mr. McLain’s next stop was Kokomo, IN where he took over Mr. Jim Kennedy’s old school. Mr. McLain is proud to have been associated with the school and with Mr. Kennedy’s students. After his stay in Indiana, Mr. McLain moved to Champaign, IL and stayed with Mr. Dave Hamann. It was during this time that Mr. McLain lost his dear friend and student – Dr. Melvin Wise. The event was very sad for Mr. McLain and many of the Bushido Society brothers and sisters remember how close Mr. McLain and Mr. Wise were – raveling together to tournaments and seminars all over the country – and he still feels the pain of his absence and wishes to express his deep gratitude to Mr. Hamann for driving him cross-country to the funeral.

In 1979, Mr. McLain returned to Peoria to ask Mr. Koeppel for permission to open a karate school in nearby Sunnyland and the request was granted. It was at this school that Mr. McLain met two more of his best friends and favorite Karate-ka –Mr. Lou Fyock and Mr. Jim Duffy. Those who were present will remember Mr. Duffy’s yellow belt review where students were treated to a two-hour workout with Mr. Fyock, followed by two more hours under Mr. Koeppel. Mr. McLain and Mr. Koeppel finished the review with a demonstration of Kajukenbo techniques, complete with brutal against the joint takedowns. Some of the students seemed quite surprised that Mr. McLain was still alive.

This period marked the end of Mr. McLain’s residence in the Mid-West. Caterpillar went on strike later that year making it difficult to keep a martial arts school open. Sensei McLain is very grateful to his close friend and karate brother – Mr. Mark Shear – for helping him in this difficult time. After closing his school in Washington, IL, Mr. McLain decided to permanently relocate to his native TN. He currently lives in Nashville and teaches karate-do at his 30th Avenue school. He is the TN State Director for the USKK and still studies under Mr. Phillip Koeppel.

Sensei at his school in Nashville, Tennessee 1960’s

Master Trias presents the first Trias International Society Awards.
Sensei James McLain: second from right.

Achievements/Memorable Tournaments:

2nd Inductee – Trias International Society

2nd Recipient – Master Phillip Koeppel’s Large Double Bladed Axe Award

USKA Coach of the Year – 1972

Recipient of Melvin Wise Award

Recipient of Phillip Koeppel Award of Excellence

USKK Bushido International Society Member

Creator of Shorei Geri-Waza Forms

Demonstrated Kankusho Bunkai in Sudberry, Canada against 4 opponents




In Attendance at:

Ed Parker’s Long Beach Nat’ls

Glenn Keeney’s Anderson, IN USKA Nat’ls

1st USKA Nat’ls – Chicago Field House

Bob Yarnall’s Gateway

Pat Wyatt Memorial Tournament

Jim Kennedy Memorial Tournament

Phillip Koeppel’s USKK Internationals

Numerous Canadian National Championships

State & Regional Tournaments across the country

History of Official Positions:

Currently Serving as USKK Southeastern Regional Senior Advisor

Currently Serving as USKK State Director for Tennessee Under Master Phillip Koeppel

Roving Chief Instructor for the USKA by Master Robert A. Trias

USKA State Representative for MI, OH, & TN by Master Robert A. Trias

Director of USKA Nat’ls – 1973 – Cleveland, OH

12 thoughts on “Sensei McLain’s Story

  1. Pingback: Without a teacher « Bear's House

  2. I was a brown belt in Jim Harrison’s Bushidokan in 1967. Jim McLain would come in and workout frequently. I clearly remember him as very fast, very strong and having all the techniques. last year I had lunch with a former student of Jim McLain. We were talking about him and both agreed, “Jim was the real deal”!

  3. Dear McClain, sensei, I doubt you will remember me but for a while I was your student at the E185th St dojo in Cleveland Ohio, in the late 70s. I hope things are well with you. Sincerely, Jim Brumbaugh

  4. I was a junior student for four years..then, I lived with Master McLain at the Kosho Ryu Dojo for two years after my fiance’ passed away of cancer…he would not let me feel alone or sad..he became one of the best friends I have ever had, an example of the way people should treat each other…he is the finest man I have ever met…I continued to learn from him whilst I lived there, and wasn’t just Karate’, it was about life and how to cope with everything…he is my hero and he saved my life…I love you O’ Sensei McLain..ous…and for corrections, it is 205 30th ave N. Nash., TN….

  5. I’m Sensei Anthony W. Zvirblis’s son, Tony, a Chiropractor in Angola IN. Dad was a Chiropractor in Chicago before he passed away in 2009. I enjoyed reading your journey and glad my dad was part of it. I wish you well. “I AM” God Bless!

  6. Shalom Jim;
    You probably don’t remember me from the late 1960’s and the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Karate Academy on South Division. I helped you a little to advertise the Academy with bumper stickers. We went together with some other students to Miami for an international tournament. I only trained with you for about a year. I quit coming after a practice sparring match with you when I received a fractured sternum from one of your kick blows. I tried to block your kick with everything I had, but it still scored. You said later; “I didn’t hit you that hard.” It eventually healed. I have since become a “born again Christan” and pray for you and yours to meet the most powerful of all, Yeshua Mashiach” (Jesus the Messiah).

    In His name, love and prayers,

    TL Adamson

  7. Sensi James Mclain was the most talented sensi i’ve ever trained under he’s the real deal, and has been my sensi and a real friend since 1979 god bless him and all who have had the privilege to train under sensi

  8. Jimmy how you doing!!!!!!! We lived together in Grand Rapids. Do you remember me chasing Sue Fisk down the beach at the Thorn apple River and running over a broken beer bottle. You came into the bathroom and stopped the blood coming out of my foot. That night you took me to the hospital. I was a crutches a long time. We met in Saginaw with Bob Yarbrough when you came up to give a demonstration at the Do Jo there. Remember Debbie Teague…..yep I was also there 🙂 How about the time I brought over the nurse from the local hospital who decided she loved Black Belts and gave them all the Clapp!!!! 🙂 Remember that goofy bleach blond brown belt ….Dolf something or other….he was after me for a month. I was in cleveland graduating from law school in 73 and saw you at a bar. we said hi but you seemed a bit out of sorts. I wish I had known you were not doing well you could have come and lived with me. As for me…..I am now living in California and worth 30 million…..go figure !!!!!!! :):):):) Life is pretty strange……….best always your friend george shillaire

  9. To my Sensei,Thank you for your toughness,and giving me the opportunity to be one of your students,you were our Sensei at the Cleveland Dojo e 185th in the mid 70,s you were there for the first of my 3 U.S.k.A grand nationals first place kata wins thank you Ray D DiRenzo thank you for teaching me your famous yoko geri and Mawashi geri

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