With the entrance of Atlantic Refining as a corporate sponsor, semi-contact karate has just taken a giant leap forward. Atlantic is financing the newly formed 18-member Atlantic World Karate Team as well as three major point tournaments offering a precedent-setting $40,000 each in prize money. Finally, sport karate professionals can make a good living doing what they do best — training and competing.
For an activity that is known to be one of the most expensive participation sports in the world, Atlantic Refining and Marketing Corp. recently made a move that could change the complexion of sport karate overnight. Proponents believe Atlantic’s involvement could lift tournament karate to undreamed of heights and affect the lives of everyone involved in the sport, from white to black belt. The extraordinary success of the Bermuda Invitational Grand (BIG) Championships since 1985 is what prompted Atlantic to announce its sponsorship of three semi-contact tournaments of the same high caliber. The BIG is the premier tournament of the point karate circuit. It is the first tournament in the sport’s history to offer competitors $24,000 in cash prizes and all-expenses-paid trips to Bermuda. Atlantic, a major marketer and distributor of petroleum products in the eastern United States, is owned by John Duess, a Bermuda resident, who sponsored the BIG tournaments for the past three years. The sponsorship also embraces an 18-member Atlantic World Karate Team (see accompanying story). For sport karate to progress, says Atlantic’s new sports director, Chuck Merriman of Connecticut, “We need a higher level of competition; a level where the money is bigger and the competition is tougher.” This is where the Atlantic tournaments will come into play. “Each tournament,” Merriman declares, “will offer competitors $40,000 in prize money.” The Atlantic events are targeted for Boston, New York and Philadelphia. These are tied into a circuit of 15 events.
“What we are trying to do is to involve the local organizers where we hold a tournament,” Merriman explains. “These are the people who have built karate in their areas. We want them to run the tournament and take credit for its success.” Merriman stresses that the Atlantic sports program is designed to enhance karate competition and the quality of tournaments in general. For Atlantic’s program to work, he points out, the people involved will have to work closely together. “It can’t be all take and no giving,” he adds. “I’m not going to spend my time or energy lining the pockets of a small group of people. “The Atlantic Team pays its own entry fees, accommodations, and traveling expenses, and we bring in the best men and women competitors in the country,” says Merriman. That’s good news. Atlantic’s efforts will raise the caliber of the tournament and the promoter will not have to provide Atlantic’s team with inducements to participate. Merriman believes the time has come for the promoters to give something back to the competitors. “The tournament promoters will have to raise the [amount of] prize money,” he says. “When you have events that are growing larger and larger and the prize money they offer remains the same, you ask yourself, ‘How come? How can the sport progress?’ ” Merriman insists that the prize money offered to the competitors should grow accordingly. “At the moment, it’s all lopsided,” he adds. “The promoter benefits, the competitor doesn’t.” He notes that one of the best known point tournaments in the country offers only $250 to its grand champion. “We need to change this condition before sport karate can grow.”
The Atlantic Team Selection Merriman was very selective when he decided who would become members of Atlantic’s karate team. “I looked for their attitudes, team spirit and, above all, their willingness to work. All of this comes into play when making a selection. The team members selected have the potential to be the best in the world, if not already the best. We have some seasoned competitors and some yet to be tested.” Many people were disappointed because they were not chosen for the Atlantic Team, Merriman acknowledges. “Some of them took it personally,” he says. “I’m sorry they feel that way. Unfortunately, I can’t have everyone in the world on the team. I can’t just put my friends or students on the team. I have to select objectively.” Showing he’s a man of his word, Merriman did not add his own son, Chad, to the Atlantic roster. “He’s not on the team for the same reasons a lot of others are not on the team — he’s still lacking in experience,” explains Merriman. “Chad has beaten some of the top competitors in the country, but not consistently.” “This isn’t friendship,” says former AAU World Karate Champion Tokey Hill, whom Merriman chose as Atlantic’s assistant coach. “There’s no favoritism; it’s professional. They [the team members] are all grownups and have to go out there and perform. They are under contract and are paid like professionals. The sponsor treats them like pros and wants them to give 100 percent.” Some of the team members were champions before they put Atlantic’s logo on their backs. Merriman cites Tokey Hill as a good example. “Tokey is the only American ever to win a silver and a bronze medal in the WUKO World Championships,” he points out. “Domingo Llanos took second place in kata at a WUKO World Championships. He was also a five-time AAU National Kata Champion and four-time overall champion in kata, weapons and sparring. The team also includes heavy-hitting veterans from the open tournament circuit like Steve “Nasty” Anderson and Billy Blanks, probably the two best male fighters in point karate today.
The First Professional Karate Team In History According to sports director Merriman, the Atlantic Team is the first truly professional sport karate team in point-tournament history. “If somebody says that’s wrong,” he says, “then they’re going to have to produce documentation to prove it.”m Jim Harrison (see his autobiography in this issue) conducted an event in 1968 at which he gave Joe Lewis, its winner, one dollar as a token payment. “That might be said to be professional,” gauges Merriman, “but you would have a hard time living on a dollar.” The definition of the word “professional” means to engage in an activity as a means of livelihood or for gain. It means a person who earns his or her living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs. Merriman says he doesn’t know of anyone in karate who has paid a per diem or anything else Atlantic offers. “We want to emphasize teamwork and team spirit,” says Merriman. “We’re all on an equal level. We haven’t any superstars. We might have people a little larger than life, but once out of their own field they are relatively unknown. What we’re trying to do is make super-stars.”
The Atlantic Sponsorship Merriman believes that Atlantic’s entry into karate is the best thing that’s ever happened to the sport. “If I had this opportunity five or ten years ago, I don’t know if I could have handled it. So I don’t think it’s overdue. Karate is at a point where we can justify the kind of money we’re getting and the kind of sponsorship that the Atlantic Refining and Marketing Corp. is willing to give us.” He insists that the Atlantic deal doesn’t mean he’s looking out only for his team’s interest. “The whole purpose of Atlantic’s sponsorship,” says Merriman, “is to elevate sport karate. When other corporate sponsors recognize the value of Atlantic’s program and join in, then sport karate will really begin to grow.” According to Merriman, a world professional sport karate championship is a possibility. “When I say professional, I’m talking about semi-contact. This is a real possibility in the future.” He also realizes that with Atlantic’s help, he will be in a position to help the promoters and the competitors. He cites that, already, several karate promoters are able to see where this program can lead. “Tom Letuli [of Chicago] has come forward to offer a prize of $1,000 for team fighting at his L.A.M.A. Nationals,” Merriman says. “Atlantic is willing to put up $500 to the loser. Ken Eubanks said he would do the same at his Bluegrass Nationals. Don Rodrigues helped the Atlantic Team their first time out at his Ocean State Grand Nationals. Anything he could do for us, he did.”
Signing The Contracts The Atlantic Team contracts were drawn up in plain English, not legalese. Kelee Anderson was the first competitor to sign the historic document. Some competitors were a little hesitant, Merriman says, but Anderson raised her hand during the meeting and said, “Can I sign this thing and get out of here?” One competitor said, “If I don’t sign this [contract], where will you find someone as good as me?” Replied Merriman, “They don’t need to be as good, only good.” The competitor signed.
An Open Challenge Merriman pulled no punches when he said Atlantic’s team will take on the best in the world. “Someone made a statement in a magazine saying the United States may never catch up with Europe in karate,” says Merriman. “I disagree. This gentleman said that they take teams to Europe and get beaten up. We fought the French team, one of the best teams in Europe, in 1979. A European magazine wrote that, obviously, the French have something to learn about sport karate from the United States. In 1980,” Merriman adds, “we took a gold, silver and bronze medal in world competition. It’s never been done before or since. “Now we have a sponsor who is giving us a chance to show who the best really is. I’ll take my team anywhere in the world and we will clean their clocks for them. This is an open challenge. The Atlantic Team members are the most adaptable team players in the world.” Concludes Merriman, “To me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s not likely to happen again. I want the people who paid their dues to be a part of it. Those who deserve the benefits. I don’t think the people who are out only for themselves, the ones trying to feather their own nests, should be the ones reaping the benefits. If we were to have that in this program, we wouldn’t have a program. The people I’ve been talking to are willing to help. What they are saying is that it’s a great opportunity and they want to be a part of it.” To those others not willing to cooperate — who typically think of personal gain first and foremost — Merriman has a message. “Ted Turner [the entertainment mogul] said it a long time ago,” Merriman points out. ” `Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.’ ” For schedule of events, see Atlantic’s ad on the inside front cover of this issue.
CHUCK MERRIMAN AT A GLANCE
- 1960 Judo instruction under Korean judo master In Soo Hwang 1962 – Karate instruction under Sensei Chris Debaise 1966 Karate instruction under Master Peter Urban
- 1970 – Opened first karate dojo, Karate International
- 1974 Ranked among the top 10 kata champions in the country in the first such set of form ratings, published in Official Karate Magazine
Served as chief arbitrator and referee for the 1st National AAU Karate Championships in Cleveland, Ohio
Arbitrator and chief referee at the Latin American/Caribbean/U.S. Championships
- 1975 Arbitrator and chief referee at the National AAU Championships in Joplin, Missouri
– Arbitrator and judge at the WUKO World Championships in Long Beach, California
– Arbitrator and chief referee at the Latin American/Caribbean/U.S. Championships
- 1977 – Arbitrator and chief referee at the WUKO World Championships in Tokyo, Japan
- 1980 Named to the Black Belt Hall of Fame as “Instructor of the Year”
– Coached the U.S. AAU Karate Team for the WUKO World Championships in Madrid, Spain. At this event, he was the first U.S. coach ever to coach members to a world championship title
- 1984 – New England Karate Team coach 1985 Co-organized the Bermuda Invitational Grand (BIG) Championships -87 and chief arbitrator 1987 Named Sports Director for Atlantic Refining and Marketing Corp. – Organizer of, and coach for, the Atlantic World Karate Team
The Atlantic Sports Program
The first hint of professionalism in sport karate occurred in Kansas City in 1968. Jim Harrison awarded one dollar to Joe Lewis for winning Harrison’s tournament. Since those “blood-and-guts” days, the sport of karate has come a long way, making almost as many retreats as advances. Over the last decade, karate entrepreneurs have tried, mostly in vain, to interest the corporate sector to sponsor semi-contact teams and events. Only recently have corporate giants such as Budweiser, Miller Lite, Cadbury and others offered sponsorship on a limited basis. Although equipment and transportation costs have been paid by some of these companies, team members received no payment.
Enter Chuck Merriman One of the most highly respected personalities in karate, Chuck Merriman is a man of many dimensions. He is an internationally known instructor, coach, arbitrator and organizer. Merriman has spent almost three decades furthering the interests of sport karate. He has travelled hundreds of thousands of miles in his efforts to bring professionalism to this sport.
Enter Atlantic Refining and Marketing Corp. The Atlantic Refining and Marketing Corp. recently announced that it hired Connecticut’s Chuck Merriman as its sports director and coach to the new Atlantic World Karate Team. Merriman said the success of the Bermuda International Grand (BIG) Championships, led by Skipper Ingham and supported by Merriman and Kristina Ingham, provided the concept and motivation to form the new Atlantic team. The BIG is the premiere tournament of the sport karate circuit and is the first event in the history of sport karate to offer competitors $24,000 in prize money. Atlantic’s owner, John Deuss, is the financial force behind the BIG tournament and the Atlantic team. Merriman, who was hired to promote Atlantic’s products through his sports directorship, began the remarkable task of assembling the top international players for his new team.
Paid Competitors In a two-week period, Merriman signed to exclusive Atlantic contracts 18 male and female competitors, 16 of which are distinguished champions (see “Roster” sidebar). World Karate Champion (AAU) Tokey Hill was signed as assistant coach and trainer. Iowa’s Sonny Onowo is the team liaison. In a history-making breakthrough, the Atlantic contracts call for $100 per day to be paid to these competitors the day before, the day of, and the day after each tournament they attend. A food allowance of $50 each day is provided and bonus money of $300 for a divisional win and $1,000 for a grand championship victory is awarded. Also included is full insurance coverage. The Atlantic Team is scheduled to attend four paid training camps this year and participate in a circuit of 15 tournaments culminating in the BIG in Bermuda. Atlantic is also sponsoring three major tournaments on the East Coast, in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Each tournament will offer $40,000 in prize money. Last, each event’s grand champions in men’s and women’s fighting, and the grand champ in kata, will win all-expenses-paid trips to the 1988 BIG. In a two-week span, Merriman contracted for the Atlantic Team’s equipment. It includes uniforms, sweatshirts, traveling bags, t-shirts and protective gear. Merriman also selected the team logo and picked the team colors — red, white and blue. He also arranged for accommodations and transportation for team members. When you hear all these positive factors it’s easy to believe Merriman when he says the Atlantic sponsorship marks sport karate’s entrance into the big leagues. The truth is, sport karate may never be the same again.
About two years later:
NEW SPONSORSHIP REPLACES ATLANTIC TEAM AND EVENT ACTIVITIES
East Lyme, CT — The landmark Atlantic Refining and Marketing Corp. karate sponsorship, launched in April 1987, has ended, and former owner John Duess, who has sold his Atlantic holdings, has issued a 1989 personal sport karate sponsorship under the name Transworld Oil Karate Team. Changes were also made in the team roster: eight former members were cut and three new members were added. The Transworld sponsorship, like its Atlantic predecessor, remains the largest and most lucrative for competitors in martial sports. In 1989, the new team will participate in nine major U.S. tournaments and a possible three-week competitive tour in Europe in June or July. The nine major U.S. tournaments which the Transworld Oil Karate Team will support this year all are Professional Karate League-rated events which observe the PKL competition rules. Transworld Oil Karate Team members, whether they win or lose, will each receive $100 the day before, the day of, and the day after each tournament (or $300), plus all expenses for airfare, hotel, food and incidentals. Their uniforms and gear are also paid for by Transworld. They also receive bonuses for winning and placing in each tournament: $500 for a grand championship, $300 for 1st place, $200 for 2nd, and $100 for 3rd. Of course, any prize money the players win at each pro tournament also adds to their personal earnings. The Transworld Oil Karate Team is headed by its sports director, Chuck Merriman, who coaches the team, along with assistant coaches Tokey Hill of Great Neck, NY and Bermuda’s Skipper Ingham; Lillian Hasselmann is the operations manager. The Transworld Oil Karate Team is now composed of 11 men and 4 women. The men include former Atlantic Team members Richard Plowden, Terry Creamer, Anthony Price, Tony Young, Chip Wright, Kevin Thompson, Domingo Llanos, and Jean Frenette; new members are Jeff Gears, Chad Merrimen, and Hosung Pak. The women’s team has been halved and now includes four former Atlantic Team members, Linda Denley, Alice Chung, Christine Bannon and Cheryl Nance. Not on the team roster this year are Steve “Nasty” Anderson, Chavella Aaron and Anthony “Mafia” Holloway (the PKL’s 1988 number-one-ranked female and male fighter, respectively), Doreen Cogliandro, Veronica De-Santos, Nocola Quist, Kelee Anderson, and Billy Blanks. Blanks has moved to Los Angeles to pursue a budding movie career. He recently co-starred in Bloodfist, a martial arts film, opposite world kickboxing champ Don Wilson that was shot in the Philippines, and in The Driving Force with martial artist/actor Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) and Cathy Bach (Dukes of Hazzard). In explaining the changes, Merriman said, “Last year, it was a corporate sponsorship under the banner of Atlantic, which was owned by John Duess. Mr. Duess sold his Atlantic company to Sunoco, but he continued a personal sponsorship this year. When we were Atlantic, we had commercial value to the general public. Transworld Oil is not a public company so advertising has no real commercial value for it. So, obviously, we had to cut members and make changes. “The cuts that were made were thoroughly thought out. We decided to give some new, up-and-coming competitors a chance. The consideration was not necessarily who’s number one. There were other considerations, like, the image of the team and the interaction between team members. The fact is, in the true image of a champion, kicking and punching is only a part of it. “I want to make it plain so far as Chavella, “Nasty” and “Mafia” go, that their being cut is absolutely not an attack on their ability or anything else. I think they’re extremely talented. It has to do only with my own opinions and the way I do business in running my team. In late 1989 or early 1990, Merriman will also promote a big-budget Professional World Karate Championships. The site and exact date are yet to be finalized. This single event will replace the Atlantic Professional Karate Tour that encompassed four events in 1987-88 and awarded prize money exceeding $160,000.