FROM BEGINNER TO BLACK BELT
By John Corcoran
Believe it or not, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, like everyone else in the martial arts, was once a beginner. Here, for the first time in print, “Superfoot,” today one of the world’s most famous martial artists, recalls his early training and how he made black belt in just nine months. Due to a serious knee injury sustained in judo, Wallace took up karate. To compensate for that untimely injury, he created a one-sided kicking style and the phenomenal ability to kick with a delivery speed of 60 miles per hour. Unknown to him at the time, Wallace’s technical innovations would later have a profound impact on modern karate.
When Bill Wallace graduated from LaFayette (Indiana) High School in 1963 and joined the Air Force three days later, the man who would become one of its greatest champions in history had never even heard of karate. As he puts it.”You hear stories about this all the time and in my case it’s true: I was your basic 130-pound wimp. I learned to wrestle in high school. I was a good wrestler, but I didn’t know how to fight.” After being shuffled around to various bases, Wallace was stationed at Wurtsmith AFB in December 1963. He sought a wrestling program where he could continue his training. “I met a staff sergeant there,” he says. “a gentleman whose name I’m sorry I can’t remember, who was my judo instructor. ‘Excuse me, do you have a wrestling team?’ I asked. He said, ‘No. Do you wrestle?’ When I told him I did, he asked to wrestle me. So we did and I beat him. I took him down and pinned him a couple of times. He said, ‘That’s very good. Now, put this little jacket on.’ “I didn’t know what the hell the jacket was: I soon learned it was a judo jacket. So I put it on and he said, ‘Okay, now try it again.’ ‘Shit, he threw me all over the place, and when I asked what he was doing he said it was ‘judo.’ So I started training under him that very day in judo. In the next year and a half I became an ik-kyu [brown belt].” From July 1966 to June 1967, Wallace was restationed at Norton AFB in San Bernadino, California. It was a major turning point in his life. what he calls “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Because it was there that he started his lifetime love affair with karate. “They had a judo program there and I started training right away. In the middle of November, I was training for the California State Judo Championships. I weighed about 145-150 pounds and was wo rking out with a guy about 210. I came in to apply my favorite throw, the osoto-otoshi [a leg throw in which the opponent is tossed backwards]. “He countered the move by stepping over my leg, so I used a counter to his technique, an ouchi-gari [a foot throw in which one foot is swept out from under an opponent in a circular sweeping motion]. When I caught his leg, he just fell, with all his weight, on my right knee.” It viciously tore the ligaments and cartilage in Wallace’s leg. “I was in a complete leg cast for, like, a month and a half. I was told I wouldn’t be able to play judo anymore. I was distraught. I couldn’t do judo and there was no wrestling program. I was just completely bummed out. “One day I went to the gym where everybody was working out. A guy came up to me and said, ‘There’s a new karate school opening up downtown. Let’s go check it out.’ “Now this was the day after I got out of the hospital and my leg was in the cast. So we went down to Highland Avenue to visit this Shorin-ryu School of Karate. I walked in and met the owners and instructors, Mickey Gneck and George Torbett. “I told them my dilemma and they said, `We’d be glad to have you work out with us. When we kick with our left leg and then switch to our right leg, you just continue using your left leg until you build it up.’ I agreed. By the end of December 1966, the cast was removed from Wallace’s leg and he began his karate training with Gneck and Torbett. Recalls Wallace, They told me, `Because you’re a brown belt in judo we’ll let you wear your brown belt in class.’ But, basically, I was a white belt; I didn’t know shit about karate. After the first month, I picked it up real fast.” Wallace had, however, learned the basic atemi-waza [striking techniques] of judo. So his instructors considered it was worth about three months of karate training.
This dojo was a “fighting” school. “We did nine forms from white to black belt,” says Wallace. That was it. Nothing fancy.” One thing Wallace respected very much was the school’s teaching philosophy. ‘Mickey Gneck and George Torbett taught basic karate. What I liked about them is that they never said, “This technique will kill someone [which was a common fallacy back then]. All they said to me was, ‘We’re gonna teach you how to fight and defend yourself.’ “If you did something wrong in the old days, the instructor usually said, ‘Give me 50 push-ups.’ But in my school, if you made a mistake, they’d stop the whole class and come over and correct you, much like I do now in my seminars. “That impressed me because the old instructors used to tell you to `try harder’ while they’d let you continue doing it wrong. Wallace also learned Japanese and English terminology for the techniques. “I’ve seen schools where you have to learn the terminology before you can learn the art, which seems awful silly to me.” On February 5, 1967 (Bill remembers the exact date], a karate tournament was held in Santa Ana and his instructors asked Wallace to compete in this, his first tournament. “There I saw for the first time all of these rugged-looking martial artists,” Wallace recalls. “There were lots of kenpo stylists in beards and black uniforms, Ralph Castellanos and other guys. I thought, ‘My God, I’m gonna get killed out here.'” “As it turned out, I won second place in the brown belt division. Jim Bottoms [who later became nationally ranked] beat me by one point in overtime. Right after the tournament he got promoted to black belt. That tournament “enlightened” the future tournament kingpin. but it didn’t create an excessive need to compete. “I competed in three more tournaments in California before I got out of the service in 1967. In one tournament. the Las Vegas Nationals. promoted by Chuck Norris. I won fourth place. The New Black Belt On June 3. 1967. just before he was released from the Air Force. Wallace was promoted to black belt. “I told my instructors, ‘Look. I don’t deserve black belt.’ They replied. ‘You’re fighting and you’re winning. You can do all the techniques. and you have a natural instinct.’ “So I made black belt in nine months (six months of karate training plus the three months credit for his judo atemi-waza training). sort of like Joe Lewis did. I got promoted with some guys that had been there two or three years. but I was training in the dojo about five hours a night. “You see. I lived off-base on a street six or seven blocks from the karate school. I drove to the base to do my job from eight o’clock to four in the afternoon. then I went right to the karate school.” Wallace maintains he wasn’t “obsessed- with karate. “I don’t drink or smoke.” he points out, “and, for the benefit of those reading this article, in the service there was basically two things to do: get drunk every night or chase women. Or both. I preferred to work out. Karate was new and exciting to me then. It’s like golf is to me now. In golf, if I can’t hit a perfect shot every time I want to keep playing until I can. It’s like karate: I want to keep doing it till I do it right. I want to keep stretching until I can do that perfect high side kick and hold it up there forever. “I wanted to be able to do karate.” he adds. “but I never thought I was gonna be good at it.” Wallace liked karate for a unique reason. “In judo,” he says, “you picked up the guy and then threw him down, and you
got back up,and did it again. In wrestling, you took the guy down and held him down, and then started all over again. I didn’t know you could knock a guy down with your foot. That’s what I found neat about karate. Back then, there was no such thing as safety equipment other than, maybe, a shin pad and a groin cup (which Wallace never wore anyway even when they were mandatory, even in the kickboxing ring!). Ironically. there weren’t as many injuries then as there are today — because you had to trust your opponent when sparring. Confirms Wallace, “If you were sparring with someone, you thought. ‘If I pull my punch, will he pull his?’ Or, ‘If I don’t kick him hard, is he going to try to nail me hard? You’d consider these things. But as you worked with each other, you could plainly see when somebody was trying to nail you. But we had to trust each other because we weren’t wearing any pads and it was easier to get hurt.
How Wallace Turned His Biggest Obstacle Into An Asset
The early karate training methods were naturally far cruder than they are today. Says Wallace. “If you were a Shorin-ryu stylist, as I was at that time. you did a side kick only one particular way. Same with the other techniques. We practiced four stances. a reverse punch and a backfist.” Wallace. then 21-22. was in good physical condition from his previous wrestling and judo training. The knee injury was his biggest obstacle. But where many people might have failed. Wallace turned that disadvantage into an asset. What he did to compensate for that injury. unknown to him at the time. would later have a profound effect on sport karate fighting throughout the world.
“Because of the torn ligaments in my right knee, I couldn’t push off with my right foot. I couldn’t stand in a forward stance and drive forward. I couldn’t throw a front kick with my right leg because the knee would come out of joint. So I figured out alternatives. “I stood sideways with my lead arm down, just like Joe Lewis did, simply because we were both Shorin-ryu stylists. This way I could protect my ribs and lean my upper body back if a guy punches at my face. “I couldn’t kick with my right leg and I couldn’t punch with my right hand because I’m left-handed.” Except for rare exceptions, as in the case of Joe Lewis’ side kick, kicks were then thrown with the rear leg. Wallace thought, “I can’t kick with my rear leg; the minute I turn around to kick they’re gonna know it. So I’m gonna start throwing Kicks with my front leg. “I was sparring one night with Mickey Gneck. All of a sudden I went BIP! and threw a front-leg roundhouse kick and smacked him in the face. He said, ‘What did you do?’ I thought, ‘Oh shit, he’s mad.” So Wallace sheepishly explained that he had merely saw an opening and used his lead leg to kick his instructor in the face. ‘SHOW ME,’ Gneck hollered. “So I showed him again,” laughs Wallace, “and he said, ‘We’re gonna start using that.’ “I don’t know where I got that idea. It was the same thing with the hook kick. I had never seen any Korean stylists or anything.” In fact, Wallace adds, “Back in 1967 and ’68, if you were a Korean stylist, you were shit. Ask Chuck Norris what it was like to be a Korean stylist back in the mid-1960s. The two main styles were shotokan and kenpo. Those were your two fighting systems, per se. If you were a tae kwon do stylist, you were a piece of shit. That’s because they stood out there and did all these [fancy] kicks and got beat. Because somebody would run inside and punch them and that was it.”
Later on, Wallace developed that forward-leg kicking style so well he could nail opponents at will. But where did that lightning speed come from? Was he naturally gifted? In a startling disclosure, Wallace, the man who kicks at 60 miles per hour, says he never thought he was fast! “I thought my speed was normal and everyone else could do the same thing. Back in the beginning, when I kicked someone and he couldn’t block it, honest to God I thought I was lucky. You know, to this day, I seriously feel like my kicks are slow. There are times when they feel slow to me even though other people say they’re fast.” So, the terrible knee injury Wallace suffered in judo would ultimately cascade into many benefits for the karate world at large. It also did more than help Bill Wallace develop a unique fighting style. As he puts it, ” Hurting my knee was the major turning point in my martial arts career. If I had not hurt my knee, I wouldn’t be doin’ karate right now.”
WHEN “SUPERFOOT” SAID SAYONARA
By John Corcoran<
The Fighter’s editor knows Bill Wallace perhaps better than any other writer. During Wallace’s heyday, Corcoran wrote countless press releases about the champion for the mainstream media and numerous feature stories that appeared in martial arts magazines around the world in six languages. The following is a reprint of Corcoran’s tribute to Wallace upon the champion’s retirement from the ring in 1980. It gives readers a keen insight into Wallace as a fighter and a human being, and shows why he is one of the most popular and enduring karate champions ever.
Star System: Bill Wallace Fight Record
Every athlete’s body depreciates with age. Even a superstar’s. If it isn’t the speed, its the power. If it isn’t the wind, it’s the legs. Fortunately. age was not a factor when Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. then 35, was carving his name a little deeper in the granite of karate history at his last kickboxing title fight on June 15, 1980 in Anderson, Indiana.
As the 20th consecutive victory of his noble career was recorded shortly after the 12th round, we felt good that Wallace hadn’t let us down in his swan song performance. The kicks were still crisp and commanding as ever. He hardly got hit. And he didn’t get hurt. It was a commendable last hurrah. Funny how protective we become of such men, whether we have seen them in the flesh or only framed on a TV screen. But to watch Wallace enter the ring, assume his famed Japanese split, then fire off a few whiplash kicks seven feet high — to watch him do all of that was to know that there was still order in the universe. It’s hard to accept the end of an era. Perhaps Wallace’s presence was so reassuring because he’s been with us for so long. By the time of his retirement, he had given the sport, in its various forms of light- to full-contact, some 12 years of his life, from the days when he was nothing than a point-tournament “runner” who frustrated aggressive opponents. To some of us he is still “Fast Billy,” a label that came long before the “Superfoot” designation. We well remember his dazzling pre-fullcontact career in which he reigned for three straight years as America’s best point-karate fighter. By the late 1970s, we wondered how many times Wallace would cheat nature by engaging in a contact sport that was quickly becoming the province of athletes ten years younger. While some of our other captains and kings hung around until their glow was tarnished, Wallace, the original middleweight kickboxing champion, went out undefeated after dominating his division, his sport, and his era for six years. What set him apart from his peers was his incomparable left leg, a testimony to convoluted physics that, even in 1989, defies logical argument. Nobody can kick like that but Wallace. Probably, nobody ever will. Even today, he snaps those whiplash kicks at an estimated delivery speed of 60 miles per hour. Quick as the blink of an eye. There were times when we used to stand in front of Bill and try to block his round kick directed to the face.
Read more: How can Bill Wallace kick so quick?
Even though we knew what technique he would use and where it was coming, he could still get it in and out, an inch away from contact, before we could block it. To add insult to insult, the snap from the kick blew a gust of wind through your hair, making you look — and feel — like a nerd. He was that fast. There’s more. Wallace was the only kickboxer to use his foot like a fist —slamming that lightning bolt into an opponent’s face like a left jab — and get away with it. Perhaps most impressive was his uncanny ability to strike with multiple kicks — usually hook and round kicks — in one motion, without placing his foot back on the floor. (At the 1988 Olympics, Arlene Limas used this multiple kick technique to secure her tae kwon do gold medal victory, a testimony to Wallace’s influence on the sport.)
Success Never Spoiled Bill
Amidst all the fanfare and adulation surrounding him, Wallace walked away from his sport with the same unadorned values and lifestyle he took into it. He maintains them to this day even in fast-lane Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1979. “I’m first, last and always a karateman,” he once said in an interview. That epitaph will probably someday grace his tombstone. In restaurants — usually McDonald’s — it is still hamburgers and french fries. Cruising around, you might spot Bill in any number of his fancy sports cars— his only flamboyant vice — but it is still the same flannel shirts, well-worn jeans and sneakers. It is still the same policy of regular workouts, too. Nothing supersedes them. Karate is, after all, still his mistress. No wonder karate fans cling to Bill Wallace. They can forget that he’s starred in movies with Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan, or that he taught big-time celebrities like John Belushi, Elvis and Dan Akroyd — because he is so down to earth. Wallace is more at home around karate people in a nondescript dojo than he is on a movie set hobnobbing with celebrities. Around martial artists he’s in his ideal element. On the outside, Wallace is ever the comedian, clowning with fans, shooting 60 m.p.h. kicks at your head as you stand there agape. In his martial arts habitat, he is wise-cracking and outrageous. Nailing him verbally is almost impossible. One who did to my memory was the inimitable Jim Harrison. In 1977, we were raising hell at a Las Vegas restaurant, where the middleweight king was holding court and facetiously boasting about the publicity local newspapers had given him. With perfect timing, Harrison interrupted, “Yeah, but they misspelled your name. They called you Wall-Ass.” Wallace, flattened for the moment, just glared goodnaturedly. The weight of carrying his sport to new heights never seemed to impose on Fast Billy. He was one of the most instrumental champions to put kickboxing on the world sports map. Most of his fights were televised nationally on network sports shows. In 1977, his title defense was the first live broadcast of a kickboxing bout. TV execs loved him because he was mediagenic,” a colorful personality and, via his kicks, a superlative fighter/showmen. Where others may have wilted under the pressure, Wallace met the challenge head on and never seemed to bat an eyelash at the mountain he was climbing. Still, his challengers and detractors found ways to condemn him. First, they claimed his “flippy-dippy” kicks wouldn’t cut it in kickboxing; they berated him for not being a knockout fighter even though he finished with 11 KOs to his credit. Right or wrong, in the final analysis Bill Wallace was a great fighter, an extraordinary kicker, a lovable personality, and a superb credit to the martial arts. Best of all, he’s still all of that today. To reiterate an earlier statement of mine: “If Joe Lewis was the Muhammad Ali of his sport, then Wallace was surely its “Sugar” Ray Leonard. It was Lewis who took contact karate through its first infant step; it was Wallace who gave it “legs.” His has been an incredibly hard act to follow. With characteristic irreverence, Wallace summed up his career this way in 1980: “I’d rather be a has-been than a never-was.” Only “Superfoot” could say something like that.
Read more: Interview with Bill “Superfoot” Wallace