Portrait of the Classic Underdog
If Corley fights like he thinks, he might just surprise everybody, even Bill Wallace.
JOE CORLEY, MASTER OF THE DEADPAN put-on, looked up from his plate. He was eating a steak, because the protein would be good for his tired muscles, and some carrots, because the vitamin A would help cure the aggravating sty that had developed on his eyelid. The question he had been asked had something to do with how he compared his kicking ability to that of middleweight karate champion Bill Wallace. Corley responded promptly, softly and matter-of-factly: “We both have two legs. He can kick better with his left leg than I can with my left leg. He can kick better with his left leg than I can with my right leg. I can kick better with my left leg than he can with his right leg. I can kick better with my right leg than he can with his right leg. So, that means that both my left leg and my right leg are better than his right leg. His left leg is better than both my legs.”
It’s just possible that Joe Corley is the funniest man in the world. Of course, nobody knows it, because when it takes your audience 30 seconds to realize you’ve told a joke, there’s not much of a future for you in show business. But that’s the way Joe Corley is. He never lets you know where he is coming from. He never changes his facial expression or the volume of his voice, regardless of whether he’s describing the weather, contriving a punch line, delivering an insult or making a startling revelation. His monotone is so hypnotic that he can tell you the building’s on fire and the odds are overwhelming that you’ll answer, “I see. Well, that’s nice.” This is the man who on May 3rd 1995 will step into a ropeless ring in Atlanta’s 17,000-seat Omni and present Bill Wallace with the first challenge to his world title. The first of its kind, the bout will consist of 15 90-second rounds and will be staged as a separate event at the end of the Battle of Atlanta, Corley’s annual karate tournament. The new PKA full-contact rules will be in effect. The winner is guaranteed $5,000 the loser $2,000.
(Three contender bouts are also scheduled, including Mike Warren vs. Cecil Peoples.)
Corley, listed seventh in the PKA ratings for the 165-pound division, is an obvious underdog. He is charged with the unenviable task of taming the fastest left leg in karate, a flesh-covered jack hammer that turned Canada’s Daniel Richer from a damned fine fighter into a sitting duck in a shooting gallery. Very few of the experts, if any, give Corley much of a chance to escape the fate that befell Richer last September. Of course, it was the experts who made Sonny Liston and George Foreman 7-to-1 shoe-ins to wallop Cassius Clay in 1964 and Muhammad Ali in 1974.
But whether the prognosticators are right or wrong, the crafty Georgian knows he has nothing to lose. If he wins, he’ll be the miracle champion who pulled another one of those surprises that nobody saw coming and who got the last laugh. He’ll also be very famous and at least a little bit richer. If he loses, he’ll go down In karate history as the first world challenger of the new full-contact era, and the publicity generated before, after and during the bout will give a nice shot in the enrolment to his chain of schools in Atlanta. (Actually, he sold out last year but still has a vested interest in the operation.) Someday, he can sit back on his Southern veranda sipping mint juleps and telling his grandchildren how he once fought for the karate championship of the whole world.
Corley readily admits that he is a sizeable underdog but says that fact doesn’t really affect him one way or the other; it will neither hurt nor help. “Bill Wallace, who is the only one who really matters, has fought me. The people who rate me as an underdog have to think about it differently. I think Bill has respect for my ability, and I’m sure he thinks he can win. And I’m confident I can win, too, and I respect his ability.” An avid fan of boxing’s Ali, Corley has a pet story about the
pitfalls of being the pre-fight favorite: “George Foreman is a classic example. Just before he went into the ring with Ali Archie Moore (one of Foreman’s handlers) said a prayer like they always do. And in this prayer, Moore said, ‘Dear God please don’t let George hurt Muhammad too bad.’ And George was so overconfident when he got in the ring he was just ineffective.
“I don’t think Bill is the kind of person who could ever be overconfident. He’s just not like that. I don’t think he reads his press clippings and takes them to heart as much as some people do.” Actually, it’s hard to tell where Wallace’s head is at regarding the fight. Quick-witted like Corley, Fast Billy is more animated and outlandish in his conversation. Where Corley always appears serious, even when he is not, Wallace never appears serious, even when he is. Ask him bow he compares his fight style to Joe Corley’s, and he’ll inevitably give you one of these answers: “Joe Who?” or “I’ll kill him.” Ask him if he has any qualms about fighting in Atlanta, the challenger’s hometown and he’ll quip, ‘What’s a qualm’?” Is Wallace working on some new techniques for the fight? “Yeah. I’m working on a punch to the nose.”
(some part missing, sorry) …. up on foot patterns and how to keep from getting pulverized by opponents with 50-pound weight advantages. “In fighting these big guys,” he recalls, “we might have a fight that would last a minute or so, which is a fairly long fight. They’d be throwing these haymaker punches at me, and I’d move out of the way four or five steps and then stop and drill ’em in the eye, or in the
nose, or in the Adam’s apple. “And that type of fighting has carried over to the type of fighting I do now: avoid, avoid, avoid, boom! Nail ’em. Muhammad Ali fights the same way, and Bill Wallace, unless he’s got a turkey, fights the same way. He moves around, picks his shots and misses very, very few. And that’s the same way I fight.
The acupuncture treatments that restored the quicksilver to Wallace’s fabled kick after his left leg was injured two years ago are now a matter of legend. Though it is not nearly as publicized, Corley also underwent acupuncture treatments for a back ailment that wound his muscles up so tight that he couldn’t come within six inches of touching his toes, let alone throwing the arsenal of kicks that is his trademark. The injury occurred in 1970 when he threw a jump round kick at a heavy bag. The kick was thrown with full power, but the hip didn’t get turned all the way over. “When I hit the bag,” Corley says, “I actually felt the power come up my leg, hit my lower spine and twist. It was really painful. After that, I always had trouble with my lower back.”
The initial diagnosis described the problem as a muscle strain, but the Georgian’s legs got tighter and tighter for three years until finally, in December, 1973, another doctor performed surgery to fuse two of the vertabrae in Corley’s spine. It was more than three months before the fighter was out of his back brace and able to work out. Even then, his legs remained tight and refused to respond to repeated stretching exercises.
“The surgery had corrected the problem that had made me tight in the first place,” Corley explains, “but I had been so tight for so long that the muscle tissue was not going to be let itself be stretched, so I exlained this to a man in Columbia, South Carolina named Tom Goldsmith who bad been to Taiwan and who had gotten the acupuncture program accepted by the South Carolina Medical Society. He agreed to treat me as a testt case to see what kind of results he would get. So he did all the treatments right there in the hospital. He treated about twelve points in each leg, putting the needles in and then hooking needles up to an electric neurological stimulator, which was pumping five to ten volts per needle.
After the first session, the patient was able to bend over and touch the floor with his fingertips, something he hadn’t been able to do in more than two years. After the seventh session, he could – with one leg extended in front of him and an assistant pushing on his back – touch his head to his knee. At the end of the ninth session,” he says, “I was able to touch my head to my knee by myself. And that was something I had never done before in my whole life.” What effect this newfound flexibility will have on Corley’s kicks is still a matter of conjecture. Even before the back went bad he had never been what he calls a “flippy-dippy” type of kicker the guy like Wallace who can flip a kick into an opponent’s gut or face with the same alacrity with which an Ali flips a jab. “All my kicks have been strong power kind of kicks,” says Joe, “controlled at the last moment but never just flipped up. I’ve been able to do best in competition where I’ve actually hit something.”
Most experts would tell you this simply means that Corley’s kicks aren’t as fast as Wallace’s, even though Corley can do his with either leg. But the challenger himself won’t go that far. In another of his carefully considered – but elusively abstract explanations, he points out that Wallace doesn’t throw his kicks any faster in terms of initial movement, but that he simply expends less energy than throwing them. And it’s supposed to have something to do with Wallace’s loose, relaxed muscles. Corley: “The idea is that the speed cones from a relaxed muscle. It’s not the speed of acceleration through a certain distance, it is the energy expended to make it go from point A to point B. Wallace can go flip, flip, flip flip, flip for an hour without being in better shape than anyone else is in. He doesn’t get as tired because he doesn’t have to try so hard, to strain with that thing.”
Either, full contact, Corley claims that the hit-em-for-real karate is perfectly suited for him and that he won’t have to expend any more energy to throw his kicks than he did in flippy-dippy non-contact karate. Wallace, he says, will have to expend more energy in fullcontact kicking. Which seems curious in light of the fact that the champion appeared fresh as a daisy after tatooing footprints all over Grothe and Richer (at the 1974 fullcontact world championships). And Wallace reports that he is now looser than ever, able to get into a Japanese split in less than 15 seconds (if that sounds easy, just try it.) If he gets any looser, they’ll have to put starch in his gi to keep him standing up.
But even if Memphis Billy does have to work a bit harder to get off those blurred kicks, Corley is not about to take any liberties with that left leg. He knows if he doesn’t stop the leg, he’s not going to do very well. And he knows that fast or not, Wallace does have power of his own. “People have said to me, ‘Wallace’s kick is fast, but I just don’t think it could hurt.’ And I’ve said, ‘Bullshit. How do you think a kick could go that fast and not hurt you?’ I mean, it’s just a question of how deep he wants to throw that kick. The force that you strike with is the result of the mass of the object that’s striking, times the acceleration squared.” And if that doesn’t boggle your mind, Georgia Joe will be happy to give you his analogy of a hurricane blowing a piece of straw through a wooden fence. It’s pretty obvious that the challenger will devise some kind of tactic to at least attempt to neutralize the Leg. And since amputation without consent of the patient is outlawed in the state of Georgia, it looks like the tactic will have to be something that he can do in the ring. Like staying in close and jamming the kick. But Corley says no, that he’s not going to stay in close. “I am simply going to break the confidence in the kick. I don’t want to tell him how, because then he can practice against it. But I will take his confidence away in that left round kick. Also in his left wheel kick. I want to destroy totally the confidence in that left leg.”
Although Wallace says,”I’ve been fighting eight years and nobody’s jammed me yet,” one fighter who has yet to lose to the Tennessee champ insists jamming is the only way to fight him. “That’s why Wallace hasn’t beaten me in open competition as far as tag is concerned,” says Howard Jackson, the best in the business until put down by a knee injury last year. “Because I always cut off that left leg.”
Of course, Jackson is an extremely powerful puncher and a relentless fighter who attacks even the heavy bag as if it were his worst enemy. “If Corley knows how to use those hands,” he says “it will help a lot. You gotta get inside, and you gotta use those hands. Wallace can fool you. He doesn’t look strong, but he is strong. Each time I’ve fought him, I’ve never used many kicks against him. I always let him kick and try to draw that left leg and catch him before he can throw it and then get inside and use those combinations. But never try to outkick him, because he is just too good with that left leg.”
Jackson, who’s no slouch with his feet either says most competitors simply don’t know how to fight Wallace : “If you fight him with your left leg forward and he’s got his left leg forward, then he’ll eat you up. Richer fought left leg forward. He fought Wallace’s fight. The main thing Corley has to have is endurance, because Wallace knows how to conserve his energy. And if Corley doesn’t know how to fight that particular fight, he can forget it.
Perhaps taking a lesson from Howard Jackson’s success with hand techniques, particularly since the advent of the “new” karate, Corley been working out with boxers a year ago. Of course, he has been working with Harvey Hastings, his good friend who is a former boxer as well as a highly regarded black belt. But in addition, he has been training steadily with Asa Gordon, the reputed Atlanta boxing coach who has trained fighters like Amory Chapman, America’s best amateur heavyweight at the moment.
Corley says he has learned a lot from the boxers, some of it the hard way, one thing he learned was the importance of reach in slipping punches. “I’ve done that in karate all these years. I’d fight with my hands down and they couldn’t hit me. But then I tried it against those boxers. You see, Muhammad Ali had the speed and also the reach to do that. Had he bad shorter arms he couldn’t have gotten away with it. And my boxing coach was very quick to point that out to me right after I got knocked out in the gym.”
Another influence on the challenger’s approach to fullcontact fighting is Maung Gyi, the Burmese bando fighter who now teaches his craft in Athens, Ohio when isn’t studying for a PhD in something. (He’s got tow already, in psychology and communications.) Corley has long admired Gyi’s knowledge of the fighting arts, especially sine he saw the 42-year-old professor box a 21-year-old fighter in a film. Gyi, giving away 54 pounds, knocked the boxer out in the second round.
Corley trained in Athens for five days the first week of last September and says his eyes were opened to a lot of areas: “Areas that I didn’t even know existed. Areas of realism as opposed to areas of tournament karate as they have evolved in the last few years. Real fighting with class, not real fighting you do in a bar.” He isn’t being specific about how he will use his new punching prowess when he squares off in the Omni May 3rd, but Corley has been working diligently on combinations. Wallace, meanwhile, has also been hanging out at the boxing gym, tapping the brain of former top-10-rated Jimmy Boyette in Memphis.
If there was any weakness at all in Wallace’s attack at the World Championships, it was his inability (or perhaps his lack of desire) to follow up with the finishing blow after stunning Grothe and Richer with initial kicks. He would stay back and wait for the opponent to recover. Of course, the champion has long been criticized for relying almost exclusively on his left leg, even though it has been more than sufficient up to this point. Corley is not at all surprised that Wallace, too, is trying to improve his punching. “Bill is no dummy,” Joe says.
The boxing lessons represent only one of many similarities between the two karatemen. There’s also the acupuncture, the penchant for stylish kicks, and the fact that both started out in Korean systems before adopting individual, open styles. Both men are intelligent, quick with a punch line (though Wallace is more obvious) and well educated. Bill is working on a masters, while Corley dropped out of college after a semester because he was bored and picked up knowledge on his own.
Physically, champ and challenger have similar statistics. “His upper body is bigger than mine,” says Corley. “‘My lower body is bigger than his. Our weight is within three or four pounds of
each other. I’ve heard him say that he weighed 160, and when I go into the fight, I’ll be weighing 165 (about six or seven pounds less than his normal weight). I’m about five-foot-nine and three-quarters. We’re about the same height.”
Still, it is Corley who is the underdog. The experts say he is too slow and not powerful enough to upset the champion. They also say he’s too old to get any better, though at 27 he’s two years younger than Wallace. The challenger accepts his role and, in fact, seems rather comfortable in it. “Bill is a great champion,” says Corley. “No doubt about it. Nobody can take anything away from him. He’s a gentleman in the ring, the kind of guy who does karate a lot of good. He’s not the kind who purposely intimidates his opponents or tries to beat them up to show that he’s a tougher guy than they are. He doesn’t, when he’s fighting, seem to have any problems with his ego. He seems to be a confident guy who knows a lot of good stuff and uses it well in the ring. He’s the kind of guy who parents want their kids to grow up and be like. He would knock you down but then bend over and offer you a hand to help you up. He’s the kind of guy who gives karate that kind of integrity that we keep talking about, that we want to maintain as separated from other forms of martial combat.”
Joe Corley means every word, but still you can bet he’s hard at training right now, doing everything in his power to knock Wallace’s head off on May 3rd. It’s like we were saying before;
he entrances you with soft spoken seriousness, then without even a hint of smile, zaps you when you’re not looking. Like the friend who told Corley not long ago that it was nice to know someone whose subtle sense of humor was geared to the same level as his own. “Gee,” Corley said gently, “don’t you think I deserve more credit than that?” And if he wasn’t getting so much publicity as the classic underdog, he might say the same thing to those who insist he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell against Bill Wallace.