Aaron Banks

Aaron Banks
Photo by Rene Carson of By Hand Media

Aaron Banks was a Grand Master in the martial arts and he made it his personal mission to share the different forms of martial arts in the western world. He brought Chinese Kung Fu, Korean Moo Duk Kwan, Japanese and Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate, judo and boxing into his New York Karate Academy. During his life, he has promoted 352 karate tournaments, conducted more than 1,000 demonstrations, and organized 250+ martial arts shows. His karate influence could be seen through his karate school, which he operated for 30 years and the 200,000+ students he taught. Great Grandmaster Aaron Banks promoted martial arts to the public with his Oriental World of Self-Defense shows that played in Madison Square Garden for over 20 years via ABC-Wide World of Sports, NBC Sports World, CBS Sports, and HBO Sports. His “Oriental World of Self-Defense” had millions of viewers.

Aaron Banks was born in 1928, a year before the Great Depression in Bronx, New York. His mother was nurse and his father was an editor of sports, writing for the New York newspaper Morning Journal.

At the age of 19, Aaron Banks decided he wanted to be an actor. He managed to get the part of a gangster in the movie Greenwich Village Story and the Broadway play Two by Saroyan. When he failed to achieve any star roles, Banks decided to start a singing career. He studied under the tutelage of Alan Greene along with Harry Belafonte. When Banks failed to make the big-time as a singer, he moved onto to his third career as a director of plays. He started his first studio and held auditions. One of his memories was of a girl singing. “She’s terrible,” he commented not knowing that this girl was Barbra Streisand. He also ran through many small jobs such as salad-maker, dishwasher, short-order cook, and theater usher. Finally his string of jobs ended when he tried to be a salesmen at a Colony record shop. His simple and short statement on the incident that changed his life was, “I had a fight and lost.” While the original argument was trivial, Banks exploded and while he was obviously the smaller opponent, he fought ferociously. In the end, it took 6 policemen to drag Arron away from the fight. Banks then decided to study karate under John Slocum. After 10 lessons, his drug and alcohol use ceased. He trained under multiple teachers and learned many different techniques. Within four years, Banks earned his black belt in Goju Ryu.

In an attempt to bring knowledge of martial arts to America, Aaron Banks started the successful Oriental World of Self Defense. This television show was unprecedented and brought the martial arts into the public eye. The show toured the world playing in packed houses. Near its peak, the show sold out twice in one day at the 20,000 seat arena in Madison Square Garden. Banks’ first show premiered in 1966 and featured many of the best martial artist on the East Coast. The show sold out the Town Hall’s 1700 seats in Manhattan, New York.

Though there was public suspicion, Bank’s show grew until he believed that it was time to approach Madison Square Garden. When Banks met with the vice president of Madison Square in 1972, Banks was so confident he let the Garden have a signed bond guaranteeing them a certain amount of money. In fact, he volunteered to sign anything they wanted. Starting with the Felt Forum, Banks quickly graduated to the main arena within 2 years. Many new artists gained notoriety through Aaron Banks such as Chuck Norris who achieved some of his first major exposure in the Oriental World of Self Defense’s competitions held monthly. Lou Neglia, a Karate Hall Famer and name fighter of the year in 1984, admits to owing much of his success to Banks due to the fact that he gained recognition by fighting in the Oriental World of Self Defense and the World Karate Championships. At age 82, Banks still put on scaled-down versions of his show, which played to significantly smaller crowds at a local theater in New York.

10 events that are important to the memory of Aaron Banks and essential for the movement of the martial arts:

  1. Earned a black belt in 1962. His span of arts included:  Shotokan karate taught by John Slocum, Moo Duk Kwan by Richard Chun, Goju-ryu by Peter Urban and Gonnohye Yamamoto, Southern Praying Mantis Kung Gu, Tai Chi Chuan.
  2. Organized karate demonstration in 1963. which wa held in the 41st Street Theater. It was the start of many karate presentations.
  3. Launched the Oriental World of Self-Defense in 1966. The venue was the Town Hall in New York City. It presented different martial artist of jujitsu, aikido, kung fu, taekwondo, aikido etc. Many Americans learned of the various arts besides karate and judo.
  4. Organized the East Coast vs. West Coast Team Competition in 1967. Hosted in Manhattan Center. The West Coast Team consisted of Steve Sanders, Jerry Taylor, Joe Lewis, and Chuck Norris. Banks’ East Coast Team consisted of Thomas Carroll (martial artist), Joe Hayes, Louis Delgado, and Kazuyoshi Tanaka. 3,800 spectators showed up and the West Coasters won the competition.
  5. Held the First Professional Karate Championship in 1968. Joe Lewis defeated Vic Moore in the heavyweight category. Mike Stone beat Bob Tiani in the light-heavyweight category. Chuck Norris defeated Louis Delgado in the middleweight categories. Banks predicted Norris would become famous when he picked himself up after Delgado almost knocked Norris out with illegal contact. Skipper Mullis beat Kazuyoshi Tanaka in the lightweight championship In a show that had Norris, Lewis, Stone, and LaPuppet fighting against a group of Asian fighters, the Americans won 4 out of 6 fights.
  6. Began his tournament-a-month competition in 1969. It ran in the Sunnyside Gardens Arena in Queens, once a month for three years. This tournament included George Cofield, Joe Hess, Moses Powell, Frank Ruiz, Tom LaPuppet, J.T. Will, Jerry Piddington, Nick Cerio and Joe Lewis.
  7. Toured the USA in 1973. Banks hosted the Oriental World on the road and toured 25 US States before moving to Europe. He entertained cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. He then appeared in Royal Albert Hall which was also watched by the Queen of England.
  8. The Oriental World attracted 19,000 spectators in 1974. The show which moved to Madison Square Garden in 1972, attracted 4,000 people the first year it was held. Two years later, the viewers number 20,000.
  9. He shattered 58 boards in 60 seconds in 1982 on the Mike Douglas Show.
  10. Held The World Professional Martial Arts Organization Hall of Fame Banquet in Madison Square Garden on January 17, 2010.

Grandmaster Aaron Banks, a true pioneer and one of the original promoters of martial arts in the United States, died on May 2, 2013 at the age of 85. He died peacefully in his sleep.