IT TOOK ISAIAS DUENAS just one night — September 14, 1974, to kick the knockwurst out of Frank Knittel, give Ramon Smith an acute case of the where-am-I’s, and make off with the lightweight karate championship of the world. Ironically, its taken the rest of us the subsequent 10 months to learn how to pronounce his name. Part of the problem is that the surprise champion who came out of nowhere didn’t hang around very long after his stunning accomplishment. The suddenness with which he burst into the spotlight is matched only by his quick return to what he had been doing before: quietly studying law and practicing karate in Mexico. Although he won a comfortable purse ($3,000) along with the world title and could probably kick his way into a sizeable income, Duenas has other plans. He wants to be an attorney, which in Mexico means prestige and a future free of financial worry. So, in order to incorporate both the martial arts and the legal arts into his busy life, he resists the temptation to simply sit back on his laurels for awhile and bask in the glory. Intensely serious, Duenas trains hard.
In David Moon’s Moo Duk Kwan Institute in downtown Mexico City, he pushes himself through an exhausting routine of exercises. And the muscular champion, who weighs close to the lightweight limit of 152 pounds, watches his weight as religiously as any other fighter in professional karate. Despite his comparative wealth in a country where his winnings that came with the world title surpass the average citizen’s income for a whole year, Duenas drives a rather harrassed VW Bug, wears well-worn and comfortable clothes, and he doesn’t play around. As one might expect of a 22-year-old law student with less than a year to graduation (most U.S. law students are several years older), he carries a full book-load. And yet, he hasn’t let up on his training and neither his grade-point nor his karate skills has suffered. As anyone who watched the World Professional Karate Championships knows, Senor who is a very aggressive fighter in the ring. But outside, he is shy almost to the point of inaudability, even among friends. He thinks carefully before speaking, and when he does he replies briefly, punctuating his words with expressive, obsidian-dark eyes. Duenas, who does not speak English, is interviewed here by freelance writer Chuck Bush, a veteran observer of Latin America as well as the martial arts.
PK: What was your frame of mind when you came to Los Angeles to fight in the World Karate Championships? Were you confident, frightened or what?
DUENAS: First of all, I was intensely concentrating on the fight — I’d studied films of Howard Jackson in his fight in Georgia.
PK: Then you were primarily concentrating on the fight with Jackson?
DUENAS: Yes. I knew I’d be in the finals and figured it would be against Jackson. And, I’m sure, everyone else expected that he would be in the finals.
PK: Were you worried about the fight, especially when you believed you’d be meeting Jackson?
DUENAS: Not exactly worried. I’d trained carefully and was sure that I’d brought myself up to my limit. On the other hand, I wasn’t overconfident, because that can destroy you.
PK: How did you feel about the reception the crowd in Los Angeles gave you?
DUENAS: I felt a lot of enthusiasm from the response of the people there, especially the Mexican-Americans. Like any Mexican, when I hear a warm response from people in other countries for Mexico and Mexicans, it makes me feel very good, very warm inside. It gave me even more confidence.
PK: Did you think it would be an easy match with Knittel?
DUENAS: No, because he was, after all, the European champion. On the other hand, I didn’t think it would be that difficult. When we were in the ring, I honestly didn’t feel that Knittel was doing his best. In fact, I thought that perhaps he might’ve been a little bit afraid that he wasn’t aggressive enough and that gave me more confidence.
PK: At the moment you felt this, that Knittel was perhaps a bit afraid of you did you know, then. perhaps instinctively, that you’d win the match?
PK: Were you surprised when, in the finals in Los Angeles, you fought Ramon Smith instead of Howard Jackson?
DUENAS: Yes. it was sort of a surprise because I’d been concentrating almost totally on Jackson, having studied the films of his fights, his style, his footwork and so on. Smith came up at the last minute, you could say; I hadn’t paid any attention to Smith during the fight I was devoting all my attention to Jackson during the eliminations. But I also knew that Smith hadn’t won against Jackson with a knockout or anything like that it was the new ruling, the takedown and knew, then, that I’d win against Smith. But I also knew that I’d have to fight very aggressively.
PK: Did the ruling discourage you from using more kicking techniques?
DUENAS: Yes, very definitely, because I knew that the rules could be used against my kicking techniques, so I held back for that very reason.
PK: Do You mean that you were afraid of using your footwork against Smith because of the new ruling?
DUENAS: Yes. I favor kicking techniques and had developed some strong ones, but I also knew that the ruling might work against me, that Smith could use a takedown and a follow-up punch – and I’d then lose the round.
PK: How do You feel about the new PKA ruling? No holding.
DUENAS: I think that it will give competitors a chance to apply more advanced techniques and that it will permit more exciting and artistic and clean fighting.
PK: How did You feel from the time You won the tournament until You got home to Mexico? How were you received by Your family, your friends and Your fellow fighters?
DUENAS: Well, a lot of the black belts my friends and the other instructors came to see me in Los Angeles before the fight: that gave me a lot of satisfaction. The whole team came to Los Angeles to encourage me: we’d all trained together. They paid their own way, you see, and their motivation was to boost my morale. It was a very fine thing for them to encourage me that way.
PK: Did you have a light-headed feeling – an elation – when you won?
DUENAS: I sure did. And then, afterwards, we all had a dinner party with champagne – and went dancing. It was a great feeling!
PK: Now that you’ve won the championship, have you changed your plans for the future? Before, you’d intended to become a lawyer. Now that You’ve won this title, will professional karate he a major part of your life?
DUENAS: Well, first of all, I have a little more than a year to finish law school. l like tae kwon do very much. but I don’t intend to change my plans about becoming a lawyer. I’ll certainly finish school. But I’d like to compete more often in tournaments and represent Mexico.
PK: Would you prefer to fight as an individual, or as a member of the Mexican team?
DUENAS: They’re nearly the same as long as I’m competing, there are advantages and disadvantages from either point of view. In team tournaments, there is a lot of pressure: if the team does well and one man does badly, then the entire team suffers. When you’re fighting as an individual, there’s no help, you’re all alone.
PK: Were you hurt in your fight with Smith? And why did you fight so recklessly – like an animal, so to speak?
DUENAS: I’ll answer the second part first. At the moment when Smith heat Jackson, I had to change my plans almost immediately. I felt several of Smith’s punches to my face, but they didn’t really register because I was so intent on knocking him out. As I said earlier, I’d concentrated almost entirely on Jackson in the eliminations! I didn’t pay much attention to Smith. But then I fought him, I knew that I’d have to tight very aggressively in order to win and I’d had a lot of physical conditioning.
PK: How do you feel about fighting Smith again? And what, if anything, will you do differently?
DUENAS: I think it would be a very interesting fight — and I look forward to it. But now Smith knows about my techniques and I know his. The new rules of no grabbing, takedown and follow-up punch to determine the round — will make for a much more aggressive fight, both for me and for Ramon Smith.
PK: If Howard Jackson returns to fighting after his injury, how do you feel about a fight with him? How do you rate Jackson?
DUENAS: I think that a fight between us would he very interesting for both of us, and for the public. either here or anywhere else. And if Jackson returns in his full capacity, the fight will determine who the world champion is in this weight division.
PK: Do you think less of your championship award because you fought Smith instead of Howard Jackson?
DUENAS: From the moment Smith heat Jackson, I concentrated on Smith – totally. I no longer considered Jackson as important as he had been before, because Smith had beaten him, and I knew that in the next fight I’d he facing Smith. But whoever comes up in the match following: Smith, Jackson, or anybody else I’ll concentrate on him.
PK: What interested you as a kid: sports, hobbies and such?
DUENAS: I participated in most sports as a kid: soccer, baseball, swimming, basketball and so on — but didn’t do very well in soccer. I’d say that I was average in sports: I certainly didn’t stand out in any of them.
PK: What about other interests? For instance, you’re studying to be a lawyer. Aside from tae kwon do and law, what interests you: art, music, chess, cultural interests?
DUENAS: Well, I’d like to round out my knowledge in all areas, as you say, in music, art and other interests. But I’m intrigued by chess and play it when I can. (NOTE: Jose Navarrete, one of Duenas’s teammates and fellow black belts in David Moon’s Moo Duk Kwan Institute, is a championship chess player, often challenging two or more opponents while he plays blind-folded. Jose can beat Isaias but just barely. Said David Moon during this interview, He didn’t mention it but he’s also a hell of a pool player: he beat me five games in a row!”)
PK: We understand that winning the championship hasn’t changed your plans regarding your future as a law-yer – but how important is karate in your life now? Are you going to combine your work in law with the martial arts?
DUENAS: That’s a difficult question because right now I have no concrete plans. I want to finish law school. After I get my degree, I intend to devote most of my time to martial arts, but I think that my training as a lawyer will help me there. For most of my life, I’ve been looking for some sport to dedicate myself to — and it’s tae kwon do.