On September 22, 1931, Steve Armstrong was
born in the small ranching town of Guymon, Oklahoma. He soon moved to Texas.
There he became pretty good amateur boxer. Perhaps, his boxing career kindled
his interest in karate.
Later, Armstrong began studying karate in Japan with the Marine Corps. Armstrong traveled to China in 1949 and studied karate in the Orient for a year and a half and earned a black belt there. Next, he was stationed in Japan at the Yokohama Marine Barracks and earned a black belt in a different style of karate before being sent to fight in the Korean War in 1950 (Wansu Kata of Isshinryu Karate).
Returning from Korea, Armstrong was assigned to President Truman’s Honor Guard. After that he attended the University of Texas before reenlisting in the Marines. This time, he was sent to Okinawa where he met Master Shimabuku (“Steve Armstrong: Isshinryu”).
He had earned a black belt in both Shorin Ryu and in Goju Ryu karate before he met Tatsuo Shimabuku in 1956. In front of Shimabuku, Armstrong confidently stated that he was a Ni Dan, but after Shimabuku watched a short demonstration by Armstrong, he said, “Nidan, you, ha, ha. You white belt” (Isshinryu TextBook). This comment was not well received by Armstrong, and a Kumite match was set up between Okinawan student, Kikuama, and Armstrong. Armstrong at 6’3” towered over the much smaller Kikuama, who was just 5’ tall (Isshinryu TextBook). As the story goes, later, Armstrong woke up in a hospital with several broken bones, but the fight impressed Shimabuku who agreed to teach Armstrong. Of course, he began this training as a white belt. Several months later, Armstrong was promoted to black belt and became Shimabuku’s number two student. He said in this dojo he “started learning Karate and what it is all about.” (Steve Armstrong: Isshinryu). He studied with Shimabuku in 1956 and again in 1959 and 1960 after returning to Okinawa from other assignments.
In a meeting in Agena, Okinawa in 1960, the Okinawan-American Karate Association was formed. Harold Mitchum was named president, and Armstrong was installed as one of the officers. The organization’s name was later changed to the American-Okinawa Karate Association.
When his tour of duty was up in Okinawa, he returned
home. He took one of the original Isshin-Ryu patches designed by Arseno James
Advincula with him and had patches made using that design. “But instead of
having the patch made in the shape of a vertical fist, it was changed to an
oval because it was easier made commercially. The (real) gold thread was
changed to an orange color” (Secrets of Isshinryu Karate). This is the patch
that the majority of the Isshin-Ryu karate-ka wear on their gi jackets today.
In 1960 he opened the Isshin-Ryu Karate School in his garage. Over the years he moved his school to downtown Tacoma, Washington, to the YMCA, to Washington Street, and then to its permanent home at 54th and South Tacoma Way. He also expanded his school to several satellite locations. (Steve Armstrong: Isshinryu).
Master Shimabuku traveled to the U.S. in
1966. He flew from Okinawa with Armstrong to Armstrong’s home in Tacoma, Washington.
The Master continued his journey in the U.S. by flying to Knoxville, TN to
visit Harold Long, and then to New Jersey to meet with Don Nagle. Then he
returned to the Tacoma Dojo. While he was in Washington, Armstrong filmed his
master performing all fourteen katas in the Isshin-Ryu system. This is very
significant because few styles have a record of the founder doing their katas.
Armstrong continued to teach at his dojo and trained many fine black belts. It was also rumored that Armstrong served on the black belt testing committee for Elvis Presley (“Forms of Isshinryu”). During these years, Armstrong was promoted to 10th Dan.
In the fall of 1977, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the subsequent surgery left him physically and mentally diminished. Although he did make a partial recovery, he was never the same.
In 1985, he received a great honor by being inducted into the Isshin-Ryu Hall of Fame. Shortly before his death, he closed his dojo. On November 15, 2006, he died at the Washington Veteran’s Hospital (“Forms of Isshinryu”).
Steve Armstrong is to be remembered as one of the four original pioneers of Isshin-Ryu Karate who were responsible for starting the spread of Isshin-Ryu across the United States.
Armstrong, Steve. Wansu Kata of Isshinryu. United States: Lewis A. Lizotte, 1993.
Chandler, Joel. Secrets of Isshinryu. Joel Chandler, 1989.
Evseeff, Donald D. and Milledge Murphey. Isshinryu: The History and Evolution of the One Heart Way. Glen Bernie Business Center, 1995.
“The Forms of Isshinryu.” McCabe and Associates, 2018.