Don Wilson Interview

Don Wilson

Don “The Dragon” Wilson, having won the World Titles of 7 different pro kickboxing sanctioning organizations, is the most prolific kickboxing champion of our time. The Dragon, in a career that spans four decades, has won 11 different world titles in 3 different weight classes. He has answered challenges from Thailand to Timbuktu, fought under full contact, low kick and Muay Thai rules and, in the process, defeated 12 World Champions, 15 number one contenders and 15 National Champions. Regardless of injuries, rules, location or hometown politics obviously stacked against him, Don “The Dragon” Wilson always answered the challenge. Even more impressive than the above-listed statistics, is the fact that, as only a light heavyweight, he also defeated the 3 top World Heavyweight Champions of the 80s: Maurice Smith, James Waring and Dennis Alexio. Each of those great World Champions had only one loss on their very impressive records at that time, and that loss was to Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Still active at age 48, Wilson recently TKOed former World Champion, Eddie Butcher, at the Tropicana in Atlantic City while nursing a freshly broken rib. Wilson’s record currently stands at 72 wins, 5 losses and 2 draws. He has knocked out 48 of his opponents. Wilson has earned more money kickboxing than any fighter in the history of the sport. The energetic “Don of the Ring”, films between fights. He has starred, or co-starred, in 32 motion pictures in addition to many appearances on television shows. The versatile fighter-actor has also produced, or co-produced, 5 films. His latest production, which was recently released, is “Redemption”. This film co-stars Chris Penn and martial art stars Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton.

Q: Here we are in Rockledge, Florida where, over 30 years ago, you graduated from high school. In the past three months we have run into each other on three different continents. Let’s proceed, beginning with your earliest recollection. I mean, here we are, where 30 years ago we had just graduated.

Wilson: I started High School here in Rockledge, but I graduated from Saint Andrews in Boca Raton.

Q: But you know, when you started school here, things were different. Segregation was still in effect. What are your early impressions of childhood life, and growing up here in Rockledge, Florida?

Wilson: I think that was very significant, the fact that I was probably the only Asian person in my school. I think there was one girl that was Asian. Basically I didn’t fit in with any of the groups in school because I looked so different. Then, in junior high the schools were integrated. There were black students and white students, and then there was me. So I got involved in sports, because I found out that, if you could sink a basketball, they didn’t care what color you were.

Q: So sports definitely played an instrumental role in your feeling like fitting into the clique?

Wilson: In the beginning it did, but then I grew to just be, well, an athlete that loved sports just for the sake of sports.

Q: As an athlete, you started out in basketball. You also played football. Tell us a little bit about your high school career in sports.

Wilson: I played basketball and football in the eighth and ninth grade. In my ninth grade year, we were undefeated in football and undefeated in basketball. So, I went to a really good junior high. Then later, when I went to high school, my first year I was voted as All Area in Brevard County. Then, I ended up transferring to St. Andrews in Boca Raton There, I was the captain of the football and basketball teams and was the MVP in football and basketball my senior year.

Q: How did these sports lead to karate and, I guess, karate eventually lead to kickboxing?

Wilson: My brother, Jim, was studying Kung Fu in the early 1970’s. When I was in the Coast Guard Academy, although they didn’t have Kung Fu there, he got me interested in martial arts. I looked around, and discovered that Chuck Merriman was teaching the Goju style of Japanese karate, at the Coast Guard Academy; so, I studied under Chuck Merriman, originally.

PKA fight
One of the first fullcontact fights in Florida in the early days of the dragon’s fighting career.

Q: You left the Coast Guard Academy, as I know, then we wrestled on the same team back here at Brevard Community College. How did you get involved?

Wilson: Well, I got involved in Kung Fu because my brother had a school. Kung Fu’s a good martial art, but the main incentive at that time – it was free.

Q: But you also wrestled in college, right?

Wilson: Yes, I did. Remember, you suggested that I try out for the wrestling team, even though I had never even seen a wrestling match; but, I ended up wrestling for two years and taking fourth in the State of Florida in the second year in my weight division.

Q: I remember you were quite a fine wrestler. Now, how did Kung Fu lead to kickboxing?

Wilson: In 1974, when Mike Anderson promoted the first full contact karate matches in Los Angeles. That’s where he established the first World Kickboxing Champions and I saw it on TV This is what inspired me to become a kickboxer. Immediately thereafter, I fought in the first kickboxing fights in the state of Florida, which was in 1974.

Paulo Tocha and Choreographer Art Camacho in discussion with Don Wilson while filming the movie “Manhunt”

Q: You fought many kickboxing styles. You fought under Muay Thai, low kick and high kick rules. Can you tell us a little bit about each style and your challenges with them?

Wilson: I fought most of my fights with low kicks. That’s really my forte, as my specialty is kicking. Its better for me. I was the WKA Champion for 12 years, where every fight was with low kicks. I also was rated number one by the Muay Thai Association in Thailand at 175 lbs. So, I am very familiar with low kicks and that is my main strength. When you have the low kicks, you can’t box very effectively.

Q: But the PKA style, that’s what we see on TV nowadays, is basically above the waist kicking, right?

Wilson: Yes, the PKA doesn’t really exist any more, but the style that you mostly see is still the full contact style. This is because the American audience, I believe, likes boxing, so you can box while not getting kicked in the legs.

Q: America just had the opportunity to see you in a pay-per-view fight in Atlantic City, and that was above the waist for 10 rounds. You want to tell us about that fight?

Wilson: Yes. I fought Eddie Butcher, a good, solid fighter with a lot of experience. He’s a little past his prime but still a very effective fighter. He trained really hard for the fight. I give him all the credit in the world for going as many rounds as he did. But, I was training on Tuesday before the fight when my sparring partner, or the first to spar with me, throws an elbow and hits me in the chest. He broke my rib. I have never had a fighter do a move as dirty as that. That was the dirtiest move I’ve ever experienced in my 30 year career. Then, I had to fight 10 rounds with a broken rib. Therefore, I really couldn’t throw a right hand. I was using it to protect my ribs.

Q: James Waring, the referee, who was the former IBF Cruiser Weight Boxing Champion of the World, said to me afterward, “There goes the bravest man on earth”: He saw all the pain you were in. Coming from a champion like Warring, that’s quite a testimonial.

Marvin Hagler
Champions shaking hands: Don Wilson with legendary professional boxing champion Marvin Hagler.

Wilson: Well, believe me, I wasn’t brave out of choice. If I could have had a choice, I would have fought with good ribs. But, there was basically no other way to help the promotion and to fight. I could not cancel and reschedule this fight, so I fought with a broken rib.

Q: As the ambassador of kickboxing now, and fighting during the golden age of kickboxing, let’s talk about some of those most memorable moments when you fought, say, for instance, Jean-Yves Theirault?

Wilson: I fought Jean-Yves in December of 1984. It was a big milestone in my career, because he was a really great fighter. We fought under a different set of rules than the ones I was familiar with.

Q: Those were the PKA rules that you referred to?

Wilson: It was kicking above the waist only and no association would sanction it. It couldn’t be sanctioned by my association, because I kicked the legs; and in Canada they didn’t allow low kicks. Jean-Yves’ association wouldn’t sanction it, because I would not sign an exclusive contract. So, basically, we fought 12 rounds in Montreal in December of 1984 with no association sanctioning. It was a 12 round war and I thought I won the fight, but it was officially called a draw.

Theriault vs Wilson
Pro kickboxing’s first superfight between Jean-Yves Theriault and Don Wilson – WKA vs. PKA light heavyweight champions – ended in a draw in 1984.

Q: Let’s talk about the leg kicking. Probably one of the best leg kicking fights I ever saw you in was against Dennis Alexio.

Wilson: That was not out of choice either, because I actually fought that fight with the flu. I had, I believe, a 101° fever that we checked the day that I fought. I was right in the middle of having the flu. But then again, there were a lot of circumstances why I had to fight. It was televised on NBC and those opportunities don’t come around often for martial artists. So I would not back out of the fight. I wanted a unanimous decision. I really worked his legs over and there was never a rematch. Basically, because Dennis Alexio ate himself out of my weight division.

Q: Well, you’re the only blemish on his record.

Wilson: No, actually, Stan Longinidis broke his leg in the first round. That was a clean shot that Alexio cried about as being a foul, but that’s Alexio when he loses.

Q: You know, you were talking about great European fighters, and one of the top ten great match-ups that Mike Anderson put together for you that silenced the people in Berlin. It was a fight against Ferdinand Mack.

Wilson: Oh, he was a great fighter. I had seen only one or two of his fights and already knew what a difficult battle it was going to be. First of all, I had to lose 5 more pounds in my weight division which was 175. I had to come in at 170. Now, that was not easy, because it’s always been a struggle making 175. But, I knew that, in his home country and in the new style of gloves we were wearing, the Top Ten gloves; it was going to be next to impossible to knock him out. Top Ten gloves are the most protective gloves you can put on your hands and make a knockout virtually impossible. So, my strategy was to try to wear him out and knock him out to the body. Wearing Mack out, because of his great condition, was also impossible. But my luck held out and I knocked him out with body punches. I was able to win by the 3 knockdown rule in the ninth round, all with body shots.

World champion
Dancing after victory in Berlin, 1989. Wilson beat Germany’s Ferdinand Mack to capture PKO’s light hevyweight world title.

Q: What some of the people in the United States aren’t that familiar with are the great fights that you had over in the Orient, like in Hong Kong and in Thailand.

Wilson: Yes, I fought some of my toughest opponents in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand. Nobody in America ever saw any of them. I fought several Thai champions like Attapong Fanta, who was rated fourth in Thailand. In Hong Kong, I fought James Waring, a great fighter, and fought Maurice Smith in Japan. Also, I fought Samart in Thailand where I lost a pretty close decision. I’m sure the judges’ scorecards were not very far apart on that one.

Q: You know, you’re still fighting now and I understand you’re dealing with the “21st Century Warrior” concept. Tell us a little bit about what you’re looking towards in the future. What kind of styles you’re going to be fighting and where we’re going to see you next on TV?

Wilson: I still like fighting, and I enjoy the kickboxing, the training, and the lifestyle. The pay is pretty good too. Today it’s a lot better than when it was when I was in my prime and I can still do movies. The beauty of fighting is that fighting doesn’t affect my movies positively or negatively. Basically, it’s totally separate from my film career. So, if anything, it helps me because it gives me a source of income. Now I can say “no” to projects which may not be the same quality as the ones I’ve done in the past. So as long as promoters are willing to pay me enough money to make it worth my while, I am going to continue to fight; as long as my body feels like I can do it. Right now, my body is still in pretty good shape. I don’t want this to sound the wrong way, like I’m greedy and it’s all about the money, but, in my first 80 fights, I made what I made in my last fight. Fighters work hard, train hard and are very dedicated in competing in a dangerous sport. We deserve a good payday. My next fight will be against a top contender or world champion on Bert Rodriquez’s 21st Century Warrior card on January 16, 2003 at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. I’ll also be making an appearance at Alan Goldberg’s ACTION MARTIAL ARTS Convention and the ensuing awards banquet that weekend. (Editor’s note: Don Wilson will not be fighting on the 21st Century Warrior card in Atlantic City on January 16, 2003. This show has been cancelled and will be replaced by another mixed martial arts production called “War at the Shore.”

Jhoon Rhee and Don Wilson
Jhoon Rhee celebrates Wilson’s comeback at the Tropicana hotel.

Q: I know you travel a lot. As I said, in the past three months I have run into you on three different continents. In fact, we just got back from Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan together, where you were appearing as the guest star during some WAKO professional fights. Could you tell us about the trip?

Wilson: Yes. Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan are both Muslim nations and the people there love Americans. As far as I know, every American that has been over there loves these countries. They’re great people.

Q: We were treated well by the promoters.

Wilson: Everybody treated us great. The promoter from Kyrgystan, Sasha Voinov, has done great things with the sport of kickboxing and the Kyrg’s are some of the toughest fighters in the world. “Tigre”, Russia’s most famous promoter, has worked with Sasha in bringing some of these great fighters to the United States and introducing the sport called Dracha”. It’s just that there is a small faction of these Muslims that are the problem right now with the Americans, but it is not basically the Muslim nations themselves. In fact, we have an air-base in Kyrgystan where we operate our air support for the Special Forces. So, you know, these guys are actually helping us out in the war on terrorists. These are Muslim nations.

cover story
Wilson graced the covers of countless martial arts magazines like this one in Germany in 1997: Samurai.

Q: I know. We got to meet with General Ashcroft and we had an opportunity to visit our troops. You know, Don, you and I grew up during the Vietnam era, and I know you’re rather an apolitical person; but, I think you have some great insight when you compare and contrast the Viet Nam era with what we’re going through now and how important this is, at least as how you expressed it to the troops.

Wilson: Well, absolutely! I believe they’re doing the most important job that you can do today, and that is to stop this extremist, intolerant, murderous group of people from affecting the future of civilization. Basically, if they get weapons of mass destruction, they can influence political change on an unbelievable scale when they start inflicting huge civilian casualties. This, I believe, is their ultimate goal. They don’t want to convert us, but to eliminate anybody who doesn’t think like them. So this is a war that is not one of choice. We have to create a different civilization. I don’t believe the civilization that Americans want is one where women are not allowed to get an education and must wear hoods on their heads. I think we want to fight for freedom, and they believe freedom is a tool the devil uses to corrupt man. They believe they are virtuous and we are evil. Well, let’s think about weapons of mass destruction, because they have no compulsion about inflicting casualties on civilians. As a matter of fact, from my understanding, that lot blames us for the deeds of our government. Because we pay the taxes to support the “satanic government” that is pushing freedom and democracy around the world, which are seen by them as the devil’s tools to corrupt man. Post: Have you ever thought about any job in politics? You’ve kind of mastered everything else. Wilson: No, I’d never last. Somebody would get rid of me quickly!

Q: Aside from being King of the Ring, you’ve also been King of the Screen. You had a movie come out this year?

Wilson: Yes, I made the movie. I think it’s one of my best and one of my favorites. It’s called “Redemption.” It stars myself, Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Chris Penn, James Russo, Carie Stevens and Sam Jones. It’s got a great cast and a great director, Art Camacho, who has been my choreographer for almost 10 years. I think people will really enjoy it. We shot this film at Universal Studios. l think martial art fans will like it.


martial arts digest
This interview was published as the cover story of Martial Arts Digest edition January/February 2003. Interview by Charles Post, a former high-school mate of Wilson.

Further reading:
Don Wilson in Batman Forever
Lady Dragon vs. The Dragon in Thailand
Training upcoming starlets
Scifighter Movie