Earnest Hart Jr., a four-time world-class martial arts champion, was just 22 years old when he won his first kickboxing title, in 1977. He quickly earned a reputation in the rink as “the man to beat” and now holds black belts in 15 different styles of martial arts. Inside Karate magazine once named him one of the “Top 10 Kickboxers of All Time.”

Hart, who grew up the oldest of six kids in the St. Louis housing projects, says that as a child he never dreamed he had a chance at success. “We were poor and had rats and guns in our apartment,” Hart recalls. Hart says he learned as a youngster to dive into a bathtub for protection at night when shooting started on the street. A graduate of St. Louis’ Roosevelt High School, Hart says he was bullied by gang members until he decided to master the art of self-defense.

His passion for martial arts became a reality at age 14, when he was caught staring into the window of a karate school. “The teacher came out and said, ‘Hey kid! Want to come in and watch?’” Hart recalls. “Later he let me clean the karate school in exchange for lessons.”

Now standing 5 feet, 10 inches and weighing 205 pounds, the handsome, well-built martial artist with an approachable smile radiates the confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO. His impressive career has included work as a personal safety and self-defense expert, an author, an actor and a motivational speaker. Hart was also the official martial arts trainer for the St. Louis Rams in 2000, when they won the Super Bowl.

“It isn’t the black belts or titles that make you a good person,” he says. “I have been helped by many people along the way, and I get pleasure using my experience, education and skills to give back and help others.”

Married to his wife Marcy for 38 years, the couple live in Chesterfield and have two grown children. The family’s local history extends much further back than all that, though, into historic history: His wife’s great-great-grandfather was Dred Scott, the enslaved African-American who attempted to sue for his freedom (as well as that of his wife and their two children) in 1857 but was denied it by the U.S. Supreme Court. “This was a very sad time in our country’s history,” Hart says.

Today, Hart works as a sensei, the Japanese term for a martial arts teacher. “I give school kids the tools to get ready for the real world and use my martial arts as a catalyst,” he says. “I teach respect and responsibility. Some kids are troubled and need accountability. I tell them stories about what I went through, and it gives them hope for their future. All kids need confidence; they all need to learn about respect. I teach kids that if you respect yourself and respect other people, you will meet people on the same level. I teach listening skills and the importance of having empathy for others.” Twice a week, he teaches kids at Olivette’s Logos School, and he also has mentored and trained children at Creve Coeur’s Whitfield School, at St. Louis’ Mann Elementary School and at Innovative Concept Academy at Blewett Middle School, also in St. Louis.

Hart offers one-on-one martial arts training in private homes. “I began doing this when I was working on movies in Los Angeles,” he says. “The stars of the movies and their friends asked me to teach their kids.” Hart is proud that his talents have been used for acting, in difficult stunts and in outstanding fight scenes in 15 Hollywood movies, including Mortal Combat (1995), Shootfighter: Fight to the Death (1993) and Batman Returns (1992). He also appeared in the 1985 American action thriller To Live and Die in LA. “I got shot and killed in the movie,” Hart relates. “Afterward, I got calls from many friends to see if I was OK. Believe it or not, some thought it was for real.”

With great honor, Hart once demonstrated his art at a royal command performance for the late Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco, before the 1982 death of the iconic actress born as Grace Kelly. “It was like a dream,” he says. “A kid from the South Side of St. Louis performs and then has dinner with the prince and princess of Monaco. This only happens in the movies.” 

Those interested in learning more about Earnest Hart Jr.’s mentoring and martial arts training should call 636-537-0078 or email earnesthartjr@gmail.com.

An innate storyteller and award-winning photographer and writer, Alice Handelman provides Ladue News readers with a glimpse into lives that enrich St. Louis.

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