ABOUT A YEAR or so ago, Fast Billy Wallace and his lightning left leg went the way of Humpty Dumpty, and it didn’t look like any of the king’s horses could help. It was a kick in the calf that did it, and Wallace gradually but unmistakably lost his uncanny ability to play taps on people’s noses with his foot. He slowed down, started losing, and eventually couldn’t even walk without a limp or a grimace. America’s top karateka three years running was finished. Or so they said. Fortunately, medical science had improved markedly since the days of Dumpty’s demise, and Wallace was called on one day by the king’s acupuncturist. The mystical healer came to the palace, laid out his funny needles, and shazam! Fast Billy was fast again, his left leg once more kicking like a rubber tree with St. Vitus’ dance. The entire kingdom is now in agreement: Fast Billy is again as good as he ever was — some say better. To prove it, he toured Europe with the U.S. All-Stars last summer, drawing rave notices on the continent, then waxed the opposition in Los Angeles to win the professional middleweight title of the world. Hook kicks, wheel kicks, double kicks and roundhouses, Wallace used them all to show that high kicks work just as well in full contact as in non-contact if you’re good enough. Of course, there is more than a leg to Bill Wallace, and this month’s PK interview offers at least a fleeting glimpse into the mind that throws the kicks. We say fleeting because while many of his peers insist he doesn’t have a serious bone in his flexible body, others say he is highly intelligent and sensitive, and thus he is a moving target outside the ring as well as in. How many people do you know who live mainly on hamburgers, wear Howdy Doody tee shirts because it feels good, talk about little other than karate, and yet write textbooks for college students? You should enjoy the following interview, but if you come away ‘feeling you’ve missed something, don’t be surprised. Bill Wallace’s conversation is a lot like his left leg — you don’t always see it coming.
PK: Last year, when you hurt your leg and dropped from the top of the karate ratings, some people were predicting Bill Wallace was through. Also, the critics often labeled you a “runner” and said your style would not be adaptable to full-contact competition. What, then, does winning the World Professional Middleweight title mean to you?
WALLACE: Well, before — when people considered me a runner — I thought it was kind of funny. Because all I did was play the game the way it was supposed to be played. You’d go out there and you’d throw a technique at a guy and if it was close enough to score, they’d call it. If it wasn’t close enough, you’d just try it again. Karate was supposed to be finesse and fine technique and all this, and this is the way I was taught karate. This is the way I always fought in karate. Even with the full-contact.
PK: Who was your instructor?
WALLACE: My first instructor was a guy named Michael Gneck, and then George Torbett from San Bernadino, California. When I got discharged from the Air Force in 1967, I went back to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. At that time, I met a man who became one of my best friends — Glenn Keeney, who worked out in goju-ryu in Anderson, Indiana. We started working out all the time together, and he was the first one who taught me how to throw a round-house kick.
PK: What was your frame of mind going into the World Championships and how did you prepare?
WALLACE: I was scared to death when I went into the championships. Up to that time, I had been able to throw techniques pretty hard and bop people pretty good with them, but I didn’t know how I’d be able to do against people who were trying to drop me too. One thing I do pride myself on: I’ve been fighting since 1967, and I’ve never had the wind knocked out of me, and I’ve never been dropped. Never been knocked out, or anything like this. So, I think I had that psychologically in my favor when I went into the championships.
PK: Did your training methods for this event differ from those you used for non-contact and semi-contact competition?
WALLACE: Yeah, I had some of my friends from Memphis, Tennessee when I was training for this thing just come out there and I explained to them, ‘If I can whop you real good, I’m gonna,’ and they said, ‘Well, okay, if it’ll help ya.’ I didn’t change my other training methods any, and I didn’t change my fighting style any. All I tried to do was just hit a little harder. The throws I used in the World
Championships came directly from my judo training when I was in the service.
PK: Will you train any differently in the future?
WALLACE: No. One thing that has helped me five hundred or six hundred percent in the last two years has been the flexibility exercises I’ve been working with. They give me a lot more strength in my legs, and in my endurance and so forth. I’ll continue to stretch out and work with flexibility exercises.
PK: Do you lift weights and everything?
WALLACE: No. I’ve never lifted a weight in my life.
PK: Did your fights against Grothe and Richer go as you expected them to?
WALLACE: Yeah, pretty much. The only thing was I thought I’d drop the German. I thought with the hook kick I could knock him out, but I didn’t hit him good enough with it, I guess. (Wallace, in fact, knocked Grothe down to end the first round, but the German fighter rose before the count of five.)
PK: What about Richer?
WALLACE: I didn’t think I’d knock Daniel out. He fights a lot like I do, and I figured we’d just put on a good kicking demonstration.
PK: Did you try to use the same strategy against each fighter?
WALLACE: No, I didn’t. Daniel stands and fights a lot like I do, where the German started bouncing around. So, I just had to kinda like let the German come to me. Daniel I could move on.
PK: You appeared outwardly very confident in each bout and were constantly smiling. Was the smile some kind of deliberate psychological ploy?
WALLACE: Uh, no. You’ve seen me fight fourteen thousand times before, and I’ve always had that smile. I don’t know it’s just there. Even when I’m mad, it’s there, I guess.
PK: While even the skeptics were overawed by your ability to throw and land kicks at will, you seemed reluctant to follow through many times when you had your opponents dazed. Did you back off out of habit — the conventional rule of backing off after each clash — or did you have something else in mind?
WALLACE: I think that was more or less habit. I think the only guy who didn’t back off, of the Americans who fought in the World Championships, was Joe Lewis. Jeff Smith — even he backed off after he had dazed Slocki a little bit. We are used to getting that one good shot in and then backing off.
PK: Do you intend to rely more heavily on follow-up punches in future bouts?
WALLACE: (facetiously) Follow-up what?
WALLACE: What’s a punch? Is that something you do with your leg?
PK: Okay. Did the size of the crowd and the presence of the TV cameras have any effect on you, either way?
WALLACE: Well, at the start of it, it did. But after I started fighting, after awhile, it didn’t make any difference. At first, I was really nervous, because I’d never had that many people watch me fight before. But after I started fighting, the grummies went away.
PK: Your first title defense is scheduled to be against Joe Corley in Atlanta. Do you regard him as a serious threat?
WALLACE: (facetiously) I’ll kill him.
PK: Will you do anything differently against Corley . . . .
WALLACE: (interrupting) I’ll kill him.
PK: that you wouldn’t do against other fighters?
WALLACE: kill him.
PK: How do you feel about defending in Atlanta, Corley’s backyard?
WALLACE: I’ll kill him.
PK: Of the other rated middleweights, who do you think is the biggest challenge to your title?
WALLACE: I’ll kill them all. Uh (turning serious again), of the rated middle-weights?
PK: Yup. You’ve got Evans, you’ve got Wren, you’ve got …
WALLACE: As far as full contact goes, I would have to say Freddie (Wren), because I know he hits real hard, and he’s also hard to hurt. Uh, maybe Mike Warren . . . is he in my division?
PK: No, he’s a lightweight.
WALLACE: Then it would definitely have to be Fred. Well, either Fred or Marshall Collins. Marshall and I fought in Ocean City, and he gave me a real hard time.
PK: Collins is very tough. He just might be the guy who beats you in a couple of years.
WALLACE: No he won’t. Because I’m going to retire by then. I ain’t dumb. I can’t keep up with these young kids anymore.
PK: What fighter do you have the most respect for?
WALLACE: I would have to say Joe Lewis.
WALLACE: Well, you hear a lot of people say about some fighters, “Hey, he could hit me with that thing, but it wouldn’t hurt me.” But when Joe Lewis hits you with it, you know you’ve been hit. I’ve never heard anybody say they thought they could beat Lewis; I know some have beaten Lewis, but I just feel that when it comes down to the nitty gritty — a real fight Lewis will win. He’s proven that.
PK: What does the advent of the professional karate movement mean to you? Money, recognition, or what?
WALLACE: Well, I think I’ve had enough recognition in the last four years or so. It definitely helps in the money aspect of it. But I’m really glad … and this may sound a little corny . . . but I’m really glad that young kids are starting to come up who have had a rough way to go. I’ve had it made; my parents are pretty well off and everything, so when I wanted to go to a tournament, I could just say, `Hey, Mom, give me some money, I want to go to a tournament.’ And I could go. But now, with the advent of money, they (the less affluent) have a reason to go, and if they win or they place in the top three or four, they get compensated for it rather just getting a little piece of metal that says you did good in this tournament. I’m really glad about that. This way, you’ll get more people in it (tournament karate), more spectators. And it will upgrade karate, which is more or less my life right now.
PK: Is it true that you work for Elvis Presley?
WALLACE: Yes, I work for Elvis Presley and I teach at a karate school owned by his chief of security, Red West. I teach there full time.
PK: Do you teach Elvis’ bodyguards?
WALLACE: Well, I work out with them. He’s got about two or three bodyguards working out up there.
PK: What was the exact nature of the leg injury that hampered you last year?
WALLACE: I fought in a tournament in Chatanooga, Tennessee. I fought Larry Reinhardt for the grand championship. I threw a roundhouse kick — a low roundhouse kick to his groin — at the same time he threw a low roundhouse kick to my groin. I tried to counter his kick and his knee hit my gastronemius muscle, the calf muscle, and it caused a contusion on my muscle, or inside the muscle — a blood bruise. And the bruise was more or less a hematoma.
PK: Have you had any trouble with it since?
WALLACE: No, none at all. Do you want to know who took care of it?
WALLACE: Elvis Presley.
PK: What did he do?
WALLACE: When I did it, I couldn’t even walk on it. I couldn’t move it, or point my toes, or anything. It was just dying, and then I let it rest for about three or four weeks. This happened on the third of May. On May 31, I fought in the tournament in Ocean City, Maryland (U.S. Pro-Am), and I fought Jeff Smith. It was my left leg that was hurt, and I continued using it to block as well as to throw techniques. And every time Jeff came in, I raised that leg and he accidentally hit it. After our match there, I couldn’t even walk on it. So, it continually got worse and worse, and I had to drop out of the Top Ten Nationals in ’73.
PK: Yeah, right in the middle of the fight.
WALLACE: Well, not in the middle of the fight. I fought Pat (Worley) and beat him, and then I just had Pat go ahead because I couldn’t walk. (Wallace withdrew from the competition, and Worley continued on in his place.)
PK: So, how did Elvis fix it?
WALLACE: He called me up one day and said, “Bill, are you still having problems with that leg?” And I said, “Yeah, I can’t even walk on it,” and he said, “Well, why don’t you come over to my house about seven o’clock, and he brought a doctor. He had called the doctor from Los Angeles and brought’ him out to Graceland Manor in Memphis. Right there, the doctor stuck eighteen needles in my left leg.
WALLACE: Acupuncture. Eighteen needles from my ankle all the way up to my hip. And he used a form of medicine — zylocaine — and some other type of medicine. I’ll swear to this on a stack of Bibles, after he stuck those needles in there, fifteen minutes later, you could kick me in that same leg and it wouldn’t hurt! I haven’t had one problem with it since. Nothing. And I’ve been kicked in it and everything.
PK: A lot has been said about the importance of proper diet and nutrition to athletics .. .
WALLACE: (laughing) You rat.
PK: . . . but the word is that Bill Wallace eats nothing but hamburgers. Hamburgers?
PK: Any comment?
WALLACE: Yeah, I eat hot dogs and french fries, too. It’s true that I eat a lot of hamburgers — plain, nothing on them — and a lot of french fries. But — and this doesn’t come out very often — I’m also a fruit nut. Fruit has a lot of the protein and nutrients that people need, and I eat quite a lot of it, so I imagine this balances out my diet pretty well. But, yeah, I do eat a lot of hamburgers.
PK: Why do your friends call you Howdy Doody?
WALLACE: Joyce Yarnall started that at the ’73 U.S. Championships. I don’t know what it was; I think because every time I got a point I bounced around or something and started smiling. And one of the other things is Joe Alvarado gave me a Howdy Doody tee-shirt; I wear that around, and it makes me feel good.
PK: Is there a serious side to Bill Wallace hidden underneath that Howdy Doody exterior? It seems strange that a flake would be studying for a Ph.D.
WALLACE: Yes, there’s a serious side. Actually, I’m three hours short of my masters degree, and I’ll get that next June; I’m not sure go on for my Ph.D. or not. Incidentally, I’ve got a book out, rat fink, so ha, ha, ha!
PK: You’ve got a book out?
WALLACE: Yeah. Basic Concepts of Karate. It’s an intelligent type of book, too. Of course, these people aren’t going to believe I can write a book. And after they read this interview .. .
PK: What’s in the book?
WALLACE: It’s a college textbook.
PK: You’re kidding.
WALLACE: No, I’m serious. The average karate person couldn’t read it. You know how to throw a side kick, right? But do you know exactly what muscles you’re using, why you throw it in the hyperbolic curve you throw it in, and why you’re striking with the heel and the side of your foot?
PK: Is there any other connection between karate and your pursuit of higher education?
WALLACE: Karate has afforded me the opportunity to get that higher education. When I came to Memphis State University, I came on a graduate assistantship to teach karate. I taught karate for two years while I was on the assistantship working on my masters degree.
PK: Obviously, karate is a pretty big part of your life these days. What did it mean to you when you first got into it?
WALLACE: When I first started karate back in about November of 1966, it didn’t really mean that much. It just meant something to do, because I was in the service and didn’t have a whole lot to do. It gave me something, and I met a whole lot of nice people in it. But now it’s become more or less my entire life. I like it a lot more than I do college. Someday I would like to teach karate in college. I’m into the betterment of karate, more or less. I don’t know how to do it (better karate) right now. A lot of people think they do, and I think they’re wrong, but, well, I want to see politics get out of it.
PK: How old are you?
WALLACE: You rat fink. I just turned 29. Joe Lewis is the only one older than me.
PK: Have you had any thoughts about retiring?
WALLACE: Yeah. I think within the next, uh . . . oh, I’d say within the next year, I’ll retire. I’m just getting too old.
PK: What happens after that?
WALLACE: I’ll probably just go on teaching karate and giving clinics and so forth. I’d like to end up teaching it in college.