American Black Belt Academy History

"American Black Belt Academy" is the oldest and longest running karate school in West Houston. It opened its doors for enrollment in 1972 as Black Belt Academy, and was one of seven schools owned by Houston's renown karate instructor and promoter, Mr. George Minshew.  Mr. Minshew, personally, selected Larry Ritchie, a student of J.Pat Burleson, who relocated from Ft. Worth, to operate the school as Chief Instructor.

The original location was in the Spring Branch area at Gessner and Long Point Road. After a year the location became too small for the fast growing school's enrollment, and it was moved to a larger facility on the Katy Freeway between Wilcrest and Kirkwood. The school operated at this location for over 10-years, until in 1984 – it moved to its current Hwy-6 location.

 

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left to right- Mr. J. Pat Burleson who was Mr. Ritchie's instructor, Senior Instructor Ms. Shelly Walrath and Chief Instructor Mr. Larry Ritchie

Grandmaster Larry Ritchie:

Mr. Larry Ritchie has been the chief instructor of American Black Belt Academy from the beginning of the school.    He   began his long tenured martial arts career in Ft Worth, Texas in January of 1965 under legendary Texas martial arts pioneer, Mr. J. Pat Burleson. He had just returned to Ft. Worth after serving a stint in the Navy. He, originally, trained under Mr. Burleson in general Choi's Tang Soo Do (way of Chinese hand) Tae Kwon Do style, which later became Oh Do Kwan (school of my way), and finally; Tae Kwon Do Chung Do Kwan (school of the blue wave).

Mr. Ritchie's martial arts roots reach far back to the masters and founders of karate in America. His instructor, Pat Burleson, was the first black belt of Allen Steen.  Mr. Allen R. Steen was the first American black belt under Jhoon Rhee.  Mr. Ritchie honorably tested before the "Father of American Tae Kwon Do", Grand Master Jhoon Rhee, and the "Founder of Tae Kwon Do", Grand Master General Hong Hi Choi for his blue belt. Other noted who officiated at this test were: "American Karate System Founder", Mr. J.Pat Burleson, Mr.Allen R. Steen known as the "Father of Texas Karate" and five-time world champ, Mr. Skipper Mullins who (at that time) was reigning Light-heavyweight World Champ.

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See Mr. Ritchie's listing on the World Martial Arts Ranking Association

His first classmates included: now, well-known martial artists John and Pat Worley, Jim Butin, and Gary Hestilow (who went on to become president of Century Martial Arts).  In 1968, after being promoted to brown belt, Mr. Ritchie was asked by Mr. Burleson if he would like to run a school for him.  At the time he had a high paying union job at Bell Helicopter, and drove a muscle car; although; the pay wasn't very good, Mr. Ritchie jumped at the opportunity – as he considered it an honor to teach for Mr. Burleson.  Mr.Ritchie sold his car, quit his job, and moved into the new school.   He taught karate during the week and entered tournaments on the weekends.

Mr. Ritchie competed in any and all the tournaments he could travel to.  Some of those included Mr. Steen's U.S. Karate Championships in Dallas, Mr.Burleson's Texas State Championships in Ft Worth, Mr. Jack Hwang's All-American Open in OKC, Oklahoma, and Mr. Minshew's Karate Olympics in Houston; to name a few.  He fought in some of the first tournaments, before safety equipment was used, in the bare knuckles "Blood and Guts" days of karate – which was virtually a full-contact sport.  If you didn't win the match, you probably got knocked out, anyway. Broken bones and loosened or lost teeth were commonplace. One of Mr. Ritchie's toughest opponents in those day was Mr. Ronnie Cox, who was a great fighter and instructor (Mr. Cox was a law enforcement officer who was tragically killed in a drug raid by friendly fire). In a recount of one of their fights: the match began when Mr. Ritchie flew across the ring and hit Mr. Cox breaking his nose; one point for Mr.Ritchie. Next, Mr. Cox returned the favor by "nailing" Mr.Ritchie with a kick, breaking two of his ribs; point for Mr. Cox. Sounds rough? "It was!" 

Mr. Ritchie competed and won in tournaments for almost twenty years, in both the days of bare knuckles and feet, and after protective hand equipment was introduced by Jhoon Rhee in 1972.

The same year, Mr. Ritchie moved from Ft. Worth to Houston for the purpose of opening a new school for Mr. Minshew. After opening the new school, Mr. Ritchie started a security and bodyguard service. His service was contracted by the largest concert promoters at the time – Pace Concerts and Concerts West, to protect the performers and to perform crowd control. Most of the time this was a very dangerous job, as many of the audience in those days were either; stoned or drunk, and wild and very rowdy. This venue proved to be an excellent testing ground for his, and his staff's, martial arts skills. Through his experiences of real life hand to hand combat, Mr. Ritchie refined the techniques that work, and which he teaches his students today, while discarding the weaker ones that didn't.

Many of the finest black belts in Texas worked for Mr. Ritchie's security service which he ran until 1980. In 1978 Mr. Ritchie finally earned his black belt under Mr. Minshew.

 

Mr. Ritchie on the winner stand at Mr. Burleson's tournament 

Mr. Cox and Mr. Ritchie on the winners stand

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 Mr. Ritchie lands a round kick on Chuck Beard

Mr. Ritchie's Karate Family Tree

1965-1972

Trained under J. Pat Burleson to 1st Brown

1972 Moved to Houston to run school for George Minshew

1978 Promoted to 1st Black by Mr. Minshew

1985 Promoted to 3rd Black by Joe Lewis

1985   Promoted to 4th Black by Mr. Lewis

1997   Promoted to 6th Black by Mr. Burleson

2004   Promoted to 8th Black by Mr. Burleson

Click here to find Mr.Ritchie under 

World Champion Joe Lewis Black Belts

Mr. Ritchie's Black Belt Staff in the 80's

Left to right to: Mike Gilbert, Kevin Lavorgna, Doug Wilson, Carol Long,LR, John Epling, Rick Williams, Sally Morales.

 

 Still kicking in his 40's, Mr. Ritchie scores with a kick

 

Mr. Ritchie has held many kick boxing matches at his schools.  Here he is with Jimmy "Gata" Tabares and Raymond McCallum   

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1997 and 1998 IAKSA American Kickboxing team members Doug & Shelly Walrath.  MS. Shelly won the world championship in 1998.

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1999 Staff left to right: John Darner, Doug Walrath, Chris Saylor, Shelly Walrath, Mr. Ritchie, Stevie Caruana, Scott Holman III, Nathan Burcham

2001 ABBA Staff - Scott Holman III,  Mr. Larry Ritchie, John Darner, Dan Smith, Julie Stauffer and Wanda Reves

2004 ABBA Staff -  Jeff DeNicola, Wanda Reves, Honored Guest Grand Master Richard Jenkins, Mitch Tiffin,  Mr. Ritchie,  Scott Holman III,  Elizabeth Udah (not pictured Rosie Udah)

Meanwhile, the west side of Houston was very receptive to Mr. Ritchie's excellent and professional teaching, and the Katy Freeway school thrived. His students excelled on the tournament circuit and captured many titles. In 1975, Mr. Ritchie left Black Belt Academy. This was the only time period in its 27-year history that Mr. Ritchie wasn't Head Instructor of the school. He continued to work the security service and was teaching a small group of students on the side.

After about a year had passed, Mr. Minshew contacted Mr. Ritchie and asked if he would like to buy the West Houston school from him. Mr. Ritchie jumped at the opportunity, they worked out an agreement, but the school remained a part of Mr. Minshew’s Black Belt Academy chain. Mr. Minshew, eventually, sold all of his schools except for the one he ran. The schools remained under the Black Belt Academy umbrella name, sharing office space, cooping advertisement, and they all worked together maintaining a very closely knitted group.

Along with running his school and security service, Mr. Ritchie also worked as a freelance photographer. He had taken pictures at tournaments he competed in for years. Many of his pictures were published in national magazines. Most of the time he wasn't given credit for his photos when he sold them to the staff photographer for the magazine, who then would submit them as their own. Even so, you can still find him credited for his photos in "The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia". Mr. Ritchie’s timely photographs have helped preserve the history of American Karate for many future generations of martial artists.

In 1985, after much deliberation due to the respect for Mr. Minshew, Mr. Ritchie and his black belts felt it was time to separate from Black Belt Academy.  They selected the name "American Black Belt Academy" to retain a connection to the school’s history while simultaneously, moving in a new direction. Also, in 1985 Mr. Ritchie affiliated with Joe Lewis' American Independent Karate Instructors Association (AIKIA). Mr. Lewis promoted Mr. Ritchie to 3rd Dan that same year. AIKIA was designated as "an association for independent thinking martial artists", which Mr. Ritchie certainly is. Over the years, he has taken the techniques he was taught; and, through real world practical application, has refined them into the ones that work. These are a strong part of the art which he has developed and teaches, now.

At the end of 1985, Mr. Ritchie tested for 4th Dan under Mr. Lewis, who was one of the greatest full-contact fighters in American Karate history. To be promoted to 4th Dan, Mr. Lewis required the candidates to fight him in a 3-round full contact match. During that same year, Mr. Lewis tested four other candidates and had knocked them all out.

Upon Mr. Lewis’ arrival for the test, he was shocked to see the school jammed packed with students and parents who had come to watch the match between he and Mr. Ritchie. Mr. Lewis told Mr. Ritchie, "No one else has ever invited their students to

 watch the test, because they didn't want them to see their teacher get whipped!" Mr. Ritchie not only successfully completed his match against Mr. Lewis, he was the only candidate to finish the fight on his feet that year, and was one of only two to be promoted!

After Mr. Ritchie "earned" his 4th Dan, he promoted Ms. Carol Long to 3rd Dan. Ms. Long had been one of Mr. Ritchie's instructors and a prominent competitor in the 1980s. She was featured in a local magazine and on television commercials. Ms. Long helped manage Mr. Ritchie's school for a number of years. Business was very good during the 1980's as students from  "American Black Belt Academy" were quite successful on the tournament circuit. Mr. Ritchie, remarkably, continued to compete in tournaments until he was 42-years old. Most competitors rarely compete for more than a few years, and usually retire in their early thirties or sooner.

In the early 1990s; although, karate schools popped up at almost every block within a few miles from his school, Mr. Ritchie continued to run his school in the rough and tough Texas tradition pioneered by his teachers, while other schools opted for  softer styles and training (what we call black belt factories). Mr. Ritchie still holds his standards high while other schools have dropped theirs to keep a student base. Mr. Drew Scoggins replaced Ms. Long as Mr. Ritchie's manager when she retired from karate.

In 1996 Shelly (Michelle) Taylor joined ABBA as Senior Instructor.  MS. Shelly "Taylor" began her training under Sam Chapman and Bobby Tucker in South Carolina, at the age of seven. Both, Mr. Chapman and Mr. Tucker were well known fighters in the 1970's and 1980's.

Her karate career has taken her across the country and to Europe as a member of the U.S. team for the World Association of Kickboxing Organization (WAKO) and the International Amateur Kickboxing Sport Association (I.S.K.S.A.).

In 1991, MS. Shelly was inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame. In that same year she was the Black Belt Women's Fighting Champion on the Professional Karate League National circuit. MS. Taylor has won so many of the nation's largest tournaments that there is not enough room here to list them. In 1996, Ms. Taylor and her then - fiancée, Doug Walrath, joined Mr. Ritchie's school.   Some of her many achievements include:

  • 2001 1st place and World Champion I.A.K.S.A
  • 1998 1st place and World Champion I.A.K.S.A.
  • 1997 at the WAKO World Games where she won 1st in point and placed 2nd in continuous
  • 1997 2nd place I.A.K.S.A. World Championships

MS. Shelly has dominated her division in all the tournaments in Texas that she has entered, some include The Masters in Austin and The Yellow Rose in San Antonio. She also has fought in two amateur full-contact fights, and won them both.

With Ms.Shelly as senior instructor at ABBA resulted is a bend of Texas karate with improved techniques that help our students better compete in today's tournaments. The school benefited as enrollment  increased and Mr. Ritchie's coaching helped Ms. Shelly win two World Championships.  In 1997 Ms. Shelly began leading Kardio Kickbox classes at the school. This combination of karate punches and kicks in a non-contact aerobic workout proved to be very popular and has brought in additional students into the school. In 1997 Doug Walrath and Shelly Taylor were married.  Mr. Walrath was, also on the 1997,1998, and 1999 United States I.A.K.S.A. team and received his back belt from Mr. Ritchie in 1997. 

 

Today Mr. Ritchie's black belts staff comprises of the  Wanda Reves 4th Dan, Scott Holman III 3rd Dan, Elizabeth Udah 3rd Dan, Rosie Udah 3rd Dan,  Jeff DeNicola 1st Dan and Terry Davidson 1st Dan. 

Elizabeth and Rosie Udah teach  Kardio Kickbox classes.  Mr. Holman was a brown belt of Mr. Ritchie's in the 1970's and worked for his security services.

In 1997 Mr. J. Pat Burleson promoted Mr. Larry Ritchie to 6th Dan and MS. Shelly Walrath to 5th Dan. Of the seven original Black Belt Academy Schools, Mr. Ritchie's and Mr. Jimmy "Gata" Tabares school on the are the only ones still operating.

In 1998 Mr. Burleson posted a ranking association for the hundreds of current black belts in American Karate.  Click to see Mr. Ritchie's and Ms. Walrath's links. 

In 2004 Grand Master Larry Ritchie was inducted into the Texas Martial Arts Hall of Fame on May 15th in Waco, TX.  Along with his induction into the hall of fame, Mr. Ritchie was promoted to 8th Dan, Grandmaster rank by Grandmaster Pat Burleson in a special presentation.

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written by John Darner and edited by Mr. Richard Jenkins