Don Wilson’s Kung Fu Story

Pai Lum Kung Fu 4.0.2

Don “THE DRAGON” Wilson has a secret wish, one he rarely admits. A movie deal with Paramount for a million bucks per picture? Naw, too typical. A date with leggy Supermodel Claudia Schiffer? Nein! Wilson’s girlfriend would kill him. Come out of retirement and fight Dennis Alexio? Nope, the Dragon already beat him once. What, then? “I’d like to compete again some day.” says Wilson, who was named “The greatest kickboxer of all time” by the STAR SYSTEM RATINGS ORGANIZATION. So who does he want to fight? Rick Roufus? Jean Yves Theriault (again)? George Foreman? Wilson laughs. “While it’s true I have been approached to kickbox again, when it’s all over I’d like to compete in forms … Kung-fu forms. You know, weapons, empty hand routines, the traditional stuff.” With Wilson’s movie career taking off, it’s hard to believe that he would even consider returning to amateur competition. But after all the battles Don has faced in and out of the ring, he retains the fondest memories of the days he practiced with the late Master Danny Pai and Fred Schmitz, Pai’s man in Florida. But Wilson’s martial arts training did not start with Kung-fu. “In 1973, I trained with Goju stylist Chuck Merriman at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticutt. I liked the power of the direct, linear movements. Still,I felt a little restricted.”
Wilson left the Academy after one year and went back to his home town of Cocoa Beach, Florida. A former All-State linebacker in high school, Wilson had also captained the basketball team and was considered one of the best athletes to ever come from his area. Don, who had also competed in track and field, “needed an outlet” for his physical skills. “My brother Jim had become an instructor under the Pai-Lum system, and I thought I’d give it a try. I was used to karate, however, and I didn’t know what to expect.”
After a few weeks of training, Wilson realized that Kung Fu came much more natural to him than karate. “Danny’s style was harder than most soft styles,” says Wilson, who enjoyed the extra contact. “And it seemed to flow from me, as if my body were better suited for kung-fu, the circular movements, the elusiveness, it just felt more natural. Wilson was particularly impressed with the big man himself, Danny Pai. “He was very stocky, very powerful.” says Wilson, who remembers Pai as a great teacher and showman. “And he taught me that a fighter must be able to kick as easily as he can punch. I never forgot that, not even when I started boxing.”
Don remembers an incident at an early seventies seminar that has stuck in his mind to this day. “One of the heavyweight white belts was the toughest streetfighter in my county. He was a real bully, and everybody around the area was afraid of him. Well, he started knocking around this smaller kid and Mr. Pai saw it. Danny quietly went over and asked the big guy to spar with him.” Wilson grins at the memory. “Mr. Pai swept him almost instantly, then held him down and began spanking him. I mean, like a baby. No one could believe it, especially not the bully. He quit the next day.” Wilson trained in the Pai-lum intensively for two years. “I was practising at least five hours a day, six to seven days a week. I was hooked.”
Wilson advanced in rank quickly and entered competition. He placed in every tournament he entered in forms competition. “I wasn’t that great of a point fighter, but I loved the forms, with or without weapons. It was very pure, very enjoyable.” It was soon after this period that Wilson would start his meteoric rise in kickboxing. His first match was on a concrete floor, and both fighters wore not boxing gloves but “Safe-T Chops.” Wilson shakes his head as he recalls the match. “The darn things weigh less than three ounces. We were lucky we didn’t kill each other.” In those early years, the Dragon used pure kung-fu in his kickboxing matches. Videos of his old, earliest fights reveal an extremely gifted athlete throwing incredible kick combinations: flying side-kick, spinning hook, double-front kick, very flashy but still effective. “I hadn’t trained as a boxer yet. Kung-fu was pretty much all I knew, and it was working fine.” Like all fighters who grew with the sport, however, Wilson would soon begin heavy training in the boxing ring, sparring with World Champions Michael Nunn, John “The Beast” Mugabe, and many other standouts.
Likewise, Wilson would learn leg kicks from the Thais, “superkicks” from Bill Wallace, and would soon start collecting Championship Belts like trading cards. On the way to the Hall of Fame, he would beat Dennis Alexio, Maurice Smith, James Warring, “Oak Tree” Edwards, Panya Sornoi of Thailand, and other great champions, often in their home town or overseas. “You have to be able to win under pressure, with the cards stacked against you.” insists Wilson. “That’s the mark of a true champion.” In the mid-Eighties, Wilson moved to Los Angeles in hopes of launching a movie career. He soon landed a role on GENERAL HOSPITAL, followed by a part in the John Cusack movie, SAY ANYTHING.

Don Wilson
Pose from Red Sun Rising movie poster

But Wilson’s big break came as a direct result of his kickboxing record. CONCORDE FILM President Roger Corman was making a kickboxing movie and wanted to hire real champions in the lead roles. Corman bought a few martial arts magazines and saw Don’s name at the head of the list of World Champs. He called Don in his office to read, signed him to a three-picture deal, and the rest is history. “I made the first movie, BLOODFIST, in the Phillippines under incredibly tough conditions.” claims Wilson. “It was real low budget, and none of us knew how the movie would do.” Corman must have had an inkling. After a theatrical release, MGM/UA took it to video where it became a money-making machine. BLOODFIST II AND III followed, and soon other producers were knocking on Wilson’s door. “P.M. Productions called me and we made a deal for the RING OF FIRE series.” says Wilson, who recently finished the glossy, hightech CYBERTRACKER for the same company. “One of them, OUT FOR BLOOD, was an HBO World Premiere Movie and did very well.” To date, Wilson has starred in almost twenty movies. He is earning in the mid-six figure range and recently signed a nonexclusive deal with AMRITRAJ ENTERTAINMENT, the company that produced the Van Damme vehicle, DOUBLE IMPACT. “I did RED SUN RISING with them last year, and we’re working on a sci-fi thriller for this summer. It has a great premise and should be good-looking film as well.”
The one thing Wilson does not have is time. After working non-stop for almost two years, Don took a couple months off to promote his L.A. charity event, THE CHALLENGE OF THE DRAGON, in which the eventual Grand Champion would win a guaranteed movie role from P.M. along with a number of prizes. “We hope to repeat THE CHALLENGE OF THE DRAGON in every major city. Our beneficiary, the non-profit organization CITIES IN SCHOOLS, is the largest antidropout program in America. It’s a wonderful cause. Not only that, I’m always looking for new talent and want to give everybody a chance at a movie career.” For now, the DRAGON is going to make as many good movies as he can and hopes to produce his own films in the near future. “I’ve been learning everything I can along the way, editing, writing, lighting, you name it. This has been a goal of mine from day one.” Wilson pauses, .then turns toward the writer, smiling. He lifts his hands slowly, then suddenly moves them in a blur as he performs a kung-fu form. “But don’t forget, I’m coming back!” he laughs, clearly enjoying the moment. “It may not be until I’m old, grey, with a bald spot the size of Rhode Island, but you haven’t seen the last of this kung-fu stylist.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A standout member of the Japan Karate Association’s u.s. National Shotokan Team, in 1982 Timothy Baker became the first American to win Tak Kubota’s I.K.A. World Championships in individual kumite. Now an actor and writer living in Los Angeles, Baker has appeared in such films as NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, BLOODFIST II, and SCORPION, and recently was featured on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT.

Timothy Baker
Timothy Baker framed between Christine Bannon-Rodrigues (left) and kickboxing champion Kathy Long.

This article appeared in the June, 94 issue of MASTERS OF KUNG FU