DISCLAIMER: This review was written by a student of Wheeler's Isshinryu and was not condoned or reviewed by the management of the school. It is UNOFFICIAL. Please visit the school page at www.wheelers-isshinryu.com for official information regarding the school.
Wheeler's Isshinryu was founded in 1971 by Allen Wheeler, a student of Harold Long, who was a student of the style's founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku. Mr. Wheeler was awarded 10th dan by vote of the Okinawan Karatedo Union, where the rank seems to denote the leader of the organization as well as a measure of extreme respect. It is worth noting that Mr. Wheeler did not begin studying the martial arts until he was in his forties and was in his late seventies when he was awarded the rank. Upon Mr. Wheeler's death in 2005 the school was passed on to Chuck Reynolds, a 5th dan with over 20 years of experience and a former ISKA forms champion and NAASKA lightweight fighting champion. In addition to Mr. Reynolds there are several older 5th dan and above who are actively involved in teaching at the school. As far as rank is concerned, no one is referred to as "sensei" in class. In fact, the only Japanese terminology used is in the style and kata names. Black belts are referred to as Mr. or Ms. both by other black belts and underbelts. Most black belts refer to kyu rank students the same way. Simple politeness is practiced rather than faux-Japanese etiquette.
The school itself is a large block building that appears to have been, or at least contained a garage at some point in its history since one sealed garage door remains on the structure. The training floor is currently around 800 square feet of mat space, but until the late 1990s the training floor was bare concrete, an experience many of we older students wish we could pass on to the newbies. The dojo has lost all but one hanging heavy bag in recent years to be replaced by eight Wavemaster bags since they are easier to move onto or off of the training floor at need. There are separate men's and women's locker rooms with a single shower each, but limited locker space. For waiting parents with small children there is a separate playroom for children not directly connected to the training floor.
The school offers arnis instruction independent from the karate classes, and I regret that I know less about those classes. Arnis ranks are offered as well, and if anyone needs me to check a lineage or certifying body I can do so. Karate classes are on Mondays and Wednesdays, Arnis classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tuite classes are offered on Fridays. Sunday afternoons are open floor time for individual instruction, sparring, or weapons practice. All classes and all training sessions are open to all students. Contracts are offered for either six or twelve months, and billing is handled by an outside contractor unless a student wishes to pay a contract up-front. I may have understimated the price however because I have both instructor status and have been grandfathered in under an older reduced price in the past. Many of the older high ranking black belts can be found at the dojo on Sundays.
The dojo retains its black belts better than many schools I have seen, with the average class consisting of 5 or 6 black belts teaching to 12-20 colored belt students. The school's business model appears to be more concentrated on retaining students than filling the floor with white belts who are gone in six months. Belt rank testing is performed quarterly with time to black belt centered around 3.5-4 years. Within the karate student body there are two somewhat overlapping cultures, sport-oriented and traditional.
The traditional students gravitate toward an instructor named James Alley, 6th dan, who teaches intensive application of kata techniques in self-defense. Practice in these class sessions has an "aliveness" of what I would call around 20%, depending on the individual practitioners. When a technique is initially demonstrated it appears extremely choreographed and dead. After a couple of repetitions of the initial technique Mr. Alley begins to show variations and ways to overcome resistance to the technique, then encourages students to "play with that" using more resistance, different timing, or to add additional variations. I hesitate to give a higher score for aliveness however because the initial attack is still scripted and the outcome is in little doubt. Students in the traditionalist camp who wish to practice without resistance are able to do so, and if they are paired with a partner who wishes to practice with resistance it can be frustrating. While Mr. Alley and many of the students in the traditionalist group respect tuite and kyusho jitsu principles, pressure points, meridians, elements and the like are no longer referenced during normal class instruction. Self-defense techniques emphasize standing locks and arm strikes. As Mr. Alley says, "If you can get somebody's head down to about knee level you can start thinking about kicking him in the head." For technique and kata execution instructors often refer back to original videos of Shimabuku. Extreme deviation from Shimabuku's techniques is discouraged since any student of sufficient rank is expected to be capable of teaching techniques to lower-ranking students.
The sport-oriented students, who typically train toward competing in point karate tournaments, emphasize standup continuous sparring with above the belt contact most of the time. Since Mr. Reynolds himself appears to be more in the sport camp, the normal class time curriculum shows this emphasis in the form of heavy bag and pad striking drills. Mr. Reynolds and another instructor study Brazilian jiujitsu outside of the dojo and while they do not claim to teach it, they have added techniques to the curriculum so that an average karate student at the dojo can be expected to know how to shoot, sprawl to defend against a shoot, pass guard, and apply basic front and rear chokes and armbars. Students roll around once a month. Standup sparring for one hour after classes on Mondays and Wednesdays is open to anyone with over a month of experience and is typically practiced continuously with above the belt contact. Point sparring is typically only practiced by tournament team members immediately prior to a sport karate tournament. In-class sparring frequently includes leg kicks and allows clenching. Contact is light to medium to the head and medium to hard to the body and foam gloves, footpads, headgear and a mouthpiece are mandatory. Face contact is discouraged but not strictly prohibited. The dojo holds its own sport karate tournament, the Isshinryu Fall Classic (open to all styles despite its name) every year.
In the past the dojo has hosted seminars from GJJ, Sambo, Shinkendo and several other styles, but in recent years the only seminars of which I have been aware have been by Rick Moneymaker or Rich Mooney. While this may appear distasteful to Bullshido readers, I will restate that these seminars are outside of class time, voluntary, and that their material is not subsequently incorporated into the curriculum except during Friday night pressure point fighting classes, which I have not attended in seven or eight years.
Overall I would say that this school is a good fit for someone interested in learning some basic striking skills and competing in light-contact karate. The community atmosphere is also appealing if multiple members of a family wish to practice together, and there is a good number of students in their 50s or older who might be discouraged by a more purely sport-oriented school. There are better options in the Knoxville area if one is interested in mixed martial arts or grappling, but few if any locals would fail to place Wheeler's in the top tier of East Tennessee karate schools.