The Lost Interview: Joe Lewis
on the Origin of Full-Contact Martial Arts
A candid conversation with the late iconic grand master, Golden Boy of tournament karate and the father of full-contact competition: Grand Master Joe Lewis – the legendary world heavyweight kickboxing and karate champion – passed away August 2012 from a malignant brain tumor. In tribute to his memory, we provide this lost interview from 1981 during which Joe Lewis reflects on the origin of kickboxing, his personal mentor Bruce Lee and the first televised world championships that launched international full-contact competition.
By Paul Maslak
Based on a 1981 interview conducted by James Lew
Washington, DC – 7th of May 1966…
A young man quietly pops in from a nearby military base and melds into the crowd of 5,000 at Jhoon Rhee’s third National Karate Championships. He emerges onto the tournament floor in a black Okinawan gi that suddenly heightens his Nordic good looks and Olympic physique against a seascape of white-clad contestants. Quickly assuming the stern demeanor of a Viking warrior, he explodes for the first time with unstoppable thunder in his side kick. It scores again, and again, and again, and again. Finally, a referee asks, “Why don’t you use something other than a side kick?” “Because they can’t block it,” he explains.
He wins his first national championship tournament with just one technique: the side kick. In subsequent tournaments, he would also unleash lighting in his backknuckle that instantly intimidates and, on the inside, fierce firebolts in his reverse punch that, later in the prize ring, would become the staggering jolts in his double hooks. His ferocious fighting prowess would dominate the martial arts competitive scene for the next decade. He becomes the first martial arts fighting champion featured on the covers of national newsstand magazines (Black Belt September 1967, Inside Kung-Fu November 1979). By 1975, he is inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as “Competitor of the Year”.
He briefly crowns his championship career as a Hollywood action lead, starring in AIP’s Jaguar Lives (1979) and American Cinema’s Force: Five (1981), before returning to his traditional karate roots as sage master and much sought-after seminar instructor. Influenced by Bruce Lee, he distills elements of classic fencing theory into “angular attacks” with innovative applications for tournament and full-contact competition as well as self-defense. By 1986, he is again inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as “Instructor of the Year”. The once brash and colorful fighting champion, feared for his bravado and menacing physical presence, has become the reserved and sensible thinking man’s champion who changed everything.
This legendary champion is Joe Lewis.
Both inside and outside the arena, Lewis provided the essential spark that ignited a passion within the martial arts community for a contact sport that eventually spread around the globe. Certainly other prominent American martial artists, such as Bruce Lee, Maung Gyi and Count Dante (aka John Keehan), advocated and experimented with full-contact competition before Lewis. Also, after Lewis’ landmark ring championships, very many prominent behind-the-scenes promoters contributed to the evolution of a contact sport, among them sequentially Lee Faulkner (USKA), Aaron Banks (WPKO), Mike Anderson (PKA, WAKO), Tommy Lee (WSMAC), Don and Judy Quine (PKA), Chuck Norris (NKL, IKL), Howard Hanson (WKA), Georg Bruckner (PKA, WAKO), Joe Corley (PKA), Mike Sawyer (ISKA), Rorion and Royce Gracie (UFC), Art Davie (UFC), Rick Blume (Battlecade) and Dana White (UFC).
But Joe Lewis – and Joe Lewis alone – made it all happen. He was the vital ingredient that brought together nationally-recognized championship competitors, quality promoters, large audiences, national print media and American network television coverage. In short, he provided credibility for the martial arts as a contact sport. He was both John L. Sullivan – the last great champion of the old way of doing things – and “Gentleman Jim” James Corbett – the first champion of the new way of doing things. For these ground- breaking accomplishments, he remains rightfully respected as the father of modern kickboxing and, by succession, of the current mixed martial arts movement.
Raised on a farm in Knightdale just outside Raleigh, North Carolina, Lewis enlisted in the US Marines and was among the initial 16,000-man advisory force sent to Vietnam by President Kennedy in 1963. A year later, while stationed in Okinawa, he began Shorin-ryu karate training with Eizo Shimabuku, John Korab and Kinjo Kinsoku. He entered his first karate tournament in 1966, winning grand championships at Grandmaster Rhee’s National Karate Championships in Washington, DC, in both fighting and kata against a then-record 549 contestants who included many nationally regarded competitors. At the time, tournament light-contact karate was the only form of sport martial arts in America, and Lewis was not yet familiar with the rules.
During his subsequent tournament career, Lewis won more than 30 major titles: In April 1967, Black Belt magazine ranked him America’s top tournament fighter in the sport’s first-ever top-10 ratings. In November 1968, he won the World Professional Heavyweight Light-Contact Karate Championship in New York City. In August 1969, he won the first of an unprecedented three consecutive grand championships at Ed Parker’s celebrated International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California. Together with Mike Stone and Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis stood among the “Big Three” great American tournament champions of the golden era in light-contact karate. Lewis proved preeminent. He was voted the greatest karate fighter of all time by his peers in an August 1983 Karate Illustrated survey of the world’s 23 top tournament fighters. Chuck Norris and Bill Wallace tied for second place.
Despite his supremacy on the tournament circuit, Lewis continued to study and to refine his fighting technique. In 1966, he trained in Okinawa-te with Gordon Doversola and, in 1968, in Jeet Kune Do with Bruce Lee. Also, while briefly contemplating a career in professional boxing, he trained with former heavyweight contender Joey Orbillo, and even picked up a few tips from the famous “Sugar” Ray Robinson. However, his disaffection for the ambiguity of point karate’s scoring system, in combination with the proactive influence of these mentors, ultimately led to a longing in Lewis to prove that the martial arts could provide audiences with an exciting professional contact sport.
In January 1970, Hollywood stuntman-turned-tournament promoter Lee Faulkner agreed to headline the first full-contact kickboxing bout in North America as the main event on Faulkner’s Professional Team Karate Championships at the Long Beach Arena. Lewis knocked out Kenpo stylist Greg Baines in the second round inside a boxing ring wearing 12-ounce gloves. Although Lewis regarded the bout as “full-contact karate”, the ringside announcer referred to it as “American kickboxing”. The term caught on and immediately showed up in the May 1970 issue of Black Belt magazine. Lewis fought another nine bouts, knocking out all his opponents and catching the attention of The Ring (December 1970) and Sports Illustrated (April 26, 1971) magazines.
Although several promoters began to add an occasional kickboxing bout to their tournament finales, traditional martial artists were scandalized by the new sport. Many regarded full-contact competition as equally demeaning to the spirit of the arts and degrading to the street lethal integrity of their techniques. Moreover few black belts were qualified to step inside a kickboxing ring because few trained like professional athletes. By 1972, Lewis had run out of opponents and noteworthy promotional activity gradually ceased.
Then ABC-TV’s hit series Kung-Fu, starring David Carradine, followed by the theatrical hit Enter the Dragon, starring Bruce Lee, triggered a tsunami of public interest in the martial arts. Propelled by the warmer popular climate, Lewis began an effort to reboot the sport. He raised the notion of a televised championship with his karate student Tom Tannenbaum, an exec vice-president at Universal Television and onetime Bruce Lee student. Next, working with Lewis, Tannenbaum packaged the first World Professional Karate Championships to feature this now-renowned karate champion as a 90-minute late night network television special for ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment. Tannenbaum brought in veteran Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football director Andy Sidaris to helm the television production, as well as sports broadcaster-turned-TV and movie star Telly Savalas (Kojak) to host the broadcast. He also secured on-camera audience appearances from Hollywood celebrities David Carradine (Kung-Fu), Lorne Greene (Bonanza), Jim Kelly (Enter the Dragon), Ryan O’Neal (Love Story), George Peppard (The A-Team), Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), Peter Fonda (Easy Rider), Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Christopher George (The Rat Patrol) and special guest Linda Lee, Bruce Lee’s widow. Lewis, in turn, brought in Professional Karate magazine publisher and taekwondo black belt Mike Anderson to promote the live sports event. Anderson’s own black belt student Georg Bruckner, whom Anderson trained while stationed in Germany with the US Air Force, connected the promotion with Europe’s top tournament karate competitors. Anderson also formed the Professional Karate Association (PKA) with Hollywood couple Don and Judy Quine, who learned about the upcoming broadcast from their son’s karate teacher, Chuck Norris. Don Quine had been a series regular actor on NBC-TV’s The Virginian and on ABC-TV’s Peyton Place whereas Judy Quine’s father, Barney Balaban, had been president of Paramount Pictures. They lent the services of their pricey entertainment attorneys to structure the new sanctioning organization and to field any follow-up television deals.
Perhaps not so ironically, “Professional Karate Association” was the same name promoter Lee Faulkner initially contemplated for the sport’s defunct original sanctioning body, the United States Kickboxing Association (USKA). The PKA’s World Professional Karate Championships took place on September 14, 1974, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena before an audience of 10,000 spectators. Joe Lewis won the heavyweight world title with a second-round knockout of Yugoslavia’s Franc Brodar. Jeff Smith, Bill Wallace and Isaias Duenas won, respectively, the light-heavyweight, middleweight and lightweight crowns. The event was telecast over ABC-TV on December 27, 1974, at 11:30 p.m. and attracted media coverage from major TV network news, Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times. Lewis and his then-fiancée actress Barbara Leigh also made the cover of Playgirl (January 1975) magazine.
What follows is a previously unpublished interview with Joe Lewis that was conducted in late March 1981, and was reviewed for accuracy by both Lewis himself and reference author John Corcoran in July 2011. On the interview day thirty years ago, Lewis has retired from active competition and is awaiting the theatrical release of his second starring role in Force Five. By then, a televised professional sport has separated itself from Muay Thai through its prohibition of striking-and-holding techniques, yet a contentious internal debate still rages over whether to include or exclude “leg kicks” and whether to call the new sport “full-contact karate” or by the simpler name that ultimately prevails: kickboxing.
With the momentous events behind this sport’s origin still fresh in mind, Lewis provides his behind-the- scenes impressions of the bygone “blood ‘n’ guts” light-contact karate mentality of the 1960s and early 1970s, when black belts believed they need train only for two-minute self-defense situations, when karate masters worried that boxing-gloved competition would destroy the empty hands effectiveness of their fighting techniques, and when Joe Lewis, almost alone, comprehended what would be demanded of his athletic colleagues to prepare for the martial arts as a professional contact sport.
Q: What attracted you to the martial arts?
JOE LEWIS: When I was a child I had two idols. One was a guy named Dave Sime. At one time he was the fastest man in the world. I admired Dave Sime because he was also an intellectual, not just an athlete. He was studying at Duke University. He ran in the 1964 Olympics and this German (Armin Hary) beat him in the 100 meter dash (for the Gold Medal). But he only beat him by an arm’s length. So Dave looked at the film to find out how… This German was known to have an exceptional, very gifted ability to dive off the starting block very explosively. He would be two or three feet down the track almost before the other runners even heard the gun go off. They tested him and found that he was far, far above normal when it came to his ability to react to an external stimulus. So that became one of my goals: explosive speed.
My other idol was Paul Anderson (1956 Olympic Weightlifting Gold Medalist). He was once publicized as the strongest man in the world. They say that the Olympic champions in weightlifting are the world’s strongest, but people who know the game say the power lifters are the strongest. He was both weightlifter and power lifter.
What I wanted to do was put the two abilities together: Maximum explosive speed with the maximum amount of strength. Karate afforded me the opportunity to do that. I had no desire to be a competitive athlete. I just wanted to be an athlete. Once I became a world champion, I started receiving recognition and visibility from all the networks. I got so caught up with it that I got off the track of what I really wanted out of life. I think it was fulfilling a number of needs that I had not fulfilled when I was a child. I wasn’t allowed to participate in school sports because I had obligations to work on the farm.
Q: Then how did you get started in karate?
LEWIS: Well, first, I joined the Marine Corps to cut the umbilical cord with my childhood. While I was in the Marines, I became involved in the martial arts. Physical efficacy was very important to me all of my life, so karate appealed to me very much. There was an aesthetic beauty in it that I liked. I also liked wrestling, but I never saw a beauty in wrestling … though I still think wrestlers are the best conditioned athletes.
In the Marines, I chose to go to Okinawa to study karate. I heard that that was the place to learn. My first instructor was a tenth degree red belt, Eizo Shimabuku. The man who promoted me to black belt and who gave me my class, my integrity, my dignity and my character within the martial arts was Kinjo Kinsoku. Neither of them ever said anything about competition. It was my fellow Marines who were always talking about competing. The truth is, fighting in karate really came from the Americans.
Q: When you sparred in Okinawa, was it full-contact?
LEWIS: Yes, often it was full-contact. But it wasn’t like that everywhere. The Uechi-ryu and Goju-ryu schools were pretty big over there, and they did not fight full-contact. The schools I went to did both (full-contact and light-contact). But we always wore kendo gear when we fought. When I came back to the States, it was totally different: There was no full-contact, and that was really a letdown. It didn’t make sense to me. My instructors always told me to stay out of competition, that it didn’t mean anything. But I competed anyway, feeling guilty for it, and I won the national championships. Six months later, I won the amateur world championships in Chicago. I was proud that I had won, but I was also very disappointed because, from my perspective, I had been cheated. I could not believe how out of shape and how lousy the black belts were in this country. I thought, geez, I’ve been in karate less than two years and if I’m the best in the country, what does that say about the standards of the athletes in this sport?
I won not only the fighting competition but I won the forms competition as well. I cleaned house. I went back to the military base and they were real proud of me … wrote me up in the military paper … and my hometown newspaper put me on the front page of the sports section. They made a big deal out of it. After that, it was kind of downhill for me. I wasn’t out to beat anybody. I wasn’t trying to prove anything. It was just a mission. The real fun was in the gym, working with a sparring partner. That’s the real passion behind the sport of fighting. Competition to me was always nonsense. When I got out of the service, I lost my sparring partners. I went around Los Angeles looking for good new sparring partners. I went to Mike Stone – he didn’t want to spar. Others turned me down. Chuck Norris was the only one who would spar with me. But he was so far away. Then the print media started pitting the two of us against each other. I didn’t feel comfortable going down there anymore.
Q: Were you still competing at this time?
LEWIS: Yes, but it still disappointed me that the sport wasn’t real. Going out there and just touching each other and having people say that you beat that other guy: To me, that was all nonsense. If you’re in a contact sport, the only way you can evaluate a punch or a kick’s effectiveness is to make an assessment on the results it produced. But if there’s no result, how do you judge? I just felt humiliated. I didn’t think it was fair, so I wanted to make the sport a reality. The national media weren’t dumb either. They weren’t going to have anything to do with the sport unless it was full-contact. So I decided in the latter part of 1969 that I wasn’t going to have anything more to do with karate unless it was for real. The promoters were hot-to-trot because I was the big name then. So I told them, “I’m not going to fight anymore unless I can go full-contact.” So Lee Faulkner gave me my first full-contact match in 1970.
FA: Was that the first-ever kickboxing bout in America?
LEWIS: That’s right. But I had to find my own opponent. I went after those Shotokan guys first, the JKA (Japan Karate Association) boys in particular. Their arrogance was a little irresponsible: They resented it if you wanted to go over and fight in their closed tournaments, but they would consider it an insult if you invited them to come and fight in your open tournament. I thought they operated on that double standard long enough. I went to their best guys and said, “Hey, come out here and let’s fight in public, and let’s see what’s what.” But they told me they didn’t want to have anything to do with full-contact.
I wasn’t challenging them or anything like that, I just said, “Hey, you guys say that if it came down to the real thing you could beat me, so here’s your opportunity.” The top names in the country all passed until I came to this kid Greg Baines. He was biggest thing going then. He had beaten just about everybody. I thought he was about the best heavyweight in the US, if not in the whole world. And he was the only one who would fight me. Bruce Lee was my instructor at that time. He worked with me for a couple years prior to the Greg Baines match. Bruce was a principle-centered trainer. In other words, he stressed techniques that adhered to certain guiding principles: good strong positioning, being able to bridge the gap fast, being explosive off the initial move, and mobility. Bruce Lee taught me how to put substance into my techniques.
Unfortunately, for several months before the match we could not work together. I had no trainer. I had no sparring partners. I came into the match basically all alone. I was working out at Chuck Norris’ karate school. I went down there every morning at 7 o’clock to work on the heavy bag, then I did a little roadwork in the afternoon. I knocked out Greg Baines in the second round with a double right hook combination. The double right hook was one of the moves Bruce Lee showed me. I got tired of full-contact right away because nobody in this country could fight. I felt kind of humiliated going out there and fighting guys who weren’t great athletes. They weren’t ready for me.
Q: Could you tell me a little about what Bruce Lee was like as a person?
LEWIS: Okay, well, I remember the thing I liked most about Bruce Lee was his boyish qualities. He was fun to be around. There was an energy that came from him. When you were in his presence, you felt ignited. You felt charged. I remember he used to like to draw. He was a very gifted and talented artist. And for some strange reason, people don’t know that about him … just as they don’t know that about me. It’s something that we had in common, that passion for the aesthetic, the beauty in the universe.
Bruce always played it down. Those were things he took for granted like I took the physical for granted. But his ego was all hooked up in the physical, trying to develop muscles like I had. He was always asking me questions like, “How do you develop this muscle? That muscle?” Muscular development was something that just came to me.
I remember one time, he and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and I went downtown to Chinatown to eat. Bruce was always doing what I called “cutting the monkey”. That doesn’t mean misbehaving; it just means expressing yourself in a very free way. And he’d get very childlike. We came out of the restaurant and he was wearing a suit and a tie. He started jumping around in the parking lot, doing these Wing Chun forms. I would always ask him to do things. I would press his button. I knew he liked to show off. I’d say it in such as way that he’d be proud to perform. He loved to entertain people. So I’d say, “Okay, Bruce, let me see you do some of those flying kicks … some tornado kicks. I’ve never seen any of those in Chinese styles. Do Chinese styles really have any?” Here we were wearing suits and ties and we’re coming out of a restaurant after eating and it’s night. That’s not the time to start jumping around. Well, he’d say, “Are you kidding?” Then he starts flying through the air, doing these
incredibly perfect broad angle 360 degree turns in mid-air, like a ballet dancer doing these kicks. It was almost like a kata; he had them all linked together.
In his mind, he could just choreograph four or five moves together instantly and make them work, and make them seem like a dance that he’d rehearsed many, many times before. He was that fluid and that free that he could just make moves interlock together. I loved to watch him jump around and have fun like that. It’s interesting. People don’t know this about him: He was a real supersensitive guy.
Sometimes people misinterpreted his sensitivity for insecurity. That was because they couldn’t believe that a person who was as sensitive as he was could be as powerful and as gifted as he was. They couldn’t deny his gifts, but they could deny his sensitivity. They would say, “Well, he’s not sensitive, he’s insecure. He’s on an ego trip.”
The top people in the film industry and the top people in the martial arts … they all treated him that way. But the Bruce that I knew had a couple goals that he wanted to fulfill. They didn’t make any sense to me, but they meant something to him: He wanted to be the first international oriental superstar and he wanted to be recognized by his peers as a master in the martial arts.
I didn’t see why either of those things was important. The thing I thought was important was the thing he never talked about: He wanted to do comedy. I think he would have been sensational at that because that was the part of him I liked the most. That was his real power. He really knew how to entertain people. He really knew how to make people feel good.
Q: I read in an old Martial Arts Illustrated magazine that Lee Faulkner’s US Kickboxing Association (USKA) was trying to set up a world title fight for you in 1971. Why did it wait until the first Professional Karate worldchampionships in 1974?
LEWIS: The president of sports at ABC-TV, John Martin, said he hadn’t put karate on the Wide World of Sports for years because they thought it was nonsense. But ABC said they had been following my career. They said, “Wherever you fight, Joe Lewis, if it’s full-contact, we’ll put it on the air.” So at that time, I was the only person in the country who could put karate on national TV. I asked the USKA promoters to get me a world title shot with the Asian champion. But there were no heavyweights in Asia. The heaviest guy weighed 162 pounds. Here I wanted to become a credible world champion and there was nobody to fight. I had all this power, but nowhere to use it.
Finally they set up a match. The promoters offered me a thousand dollars to fight this All-Asian champion. I said, “How much are you paying him?” They said, “$3,000.” I said, “Wait a minute. Sports Illustrated will do a write-up on this match, which is the biggest sports magazine in the world, and ABC Wide World of Sports will come in, put it on the air and they’ll give you $3,000 for the rights. Right off the bat I know I’m worth more than $3,000. How come you’re giving him $3,000 and you’re only giving me $1,000?”
They replied, “Well, he’s the champion. He’s known and you’re not.” I said, “Well, that’s an insult. I can’t even pronounce the guy’s name and I’m in the sport. I don’t know him. What makes you think he’s known over here?” But that was their attitude. So I said, “I want double what you’re giving him or I’m not going to fight.” Now I wanted that title more than anything else in the world. I’d seen those Asian kick-boxers back then. They were good outside kickers but they couldn’t punch on the inside. They couldn’t take a punch either. I could drop a man with a six-inch punch with either hand. I knew all I had to do was get inside their legs, throw a left hook and the title would be mine. No guy who weighs 162 pounds is going to beat me. I don’t care how hard he can hit.
They asked me to lose ten pounds and they’d get this guy to gain ten pounds. I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” But they wouldn’t pay me the money so, although it meant a lot to me, I turned it down. I stuck by my principles and I gave up something which would have meant more than anything I’d ever done in my life as far as sports go. It never came to be: The world heavyweight kick-boxing champion. It would have been a real credible title. Instead I said, “The hell with it,” and I retired. Then I came out of retirement for the PKA championships in 1974 because I again had a chance to put the sport in the limelight and to get the credible recognition. We couldn’t get any Orientals to fight me, with no Japanese or Koreans in the heavyweight division. I fought this All-European champion (Franc Brodar). At the time Europe was really backwards in martial arts and the guy looked like a klutz. But it was a credible title and I won the world full-contact karate title. The Professional Karate championships aired in about 40 countries around the world. From 1968 on, I was ready for a world title. I finally got recognized and that’s all I wanted.
Q: At the end of day, you became the country’s top tournament karate champion, you started the modern kickboxing movement, you brought full-contact competition to national television, and then you capped it all off by establishing the first heavyweight world crown. At that point, did you feel your sports career had hit its highpoint of success?
LEWIS: Oh, absolutely not… I remember an interview I saw once where gossip columnist Rona Barrett asked Willie Nelson a similar question. I was in awe of the answer Willie Nelson gave. I’m paraphrasing now, but Willie said, “Rona, my sister and I used to love to play the guitar and sit down together and just sing. We just loved and enjoyed the hell out of it. We used to do it all the time. One day, the high school asked us to play in the auditorium for the school.”
Nelson had never thought of playing for other people. It was just something he loved to do. He said he experienced himself playing for those people the first time he ever played for an audience. He realized right then what success was: “Rona,” he said, “I’ve always been a success because I’ve always done what I’ve always loved.”
That’s my definition, too. Doing what you really love doing for yourself. You’re not thinking about anybody else or anything else. You’re not making any evaluations about what you’re doing. You’re not thinking about achieving any goals, but you are enjoying sharing something with yourself. You have that innate feeling that it’s right, that it’s life-centered, and that it’s productive. The fact that someone else enjoys it, or wants to pay you for it, or wants to say that it’s the best in the world – that’s all extra. But that’s not success. Success produces those things. It’s not the result of those things.
About the Author: A past Inside Kung-Fu editor-in-chief and martial arts book author, Paul Maslak served as the first WKA and KICK ratings commissioner. Between 1980-89, he administered the independent STAR System World Kickboxing Ratings as syndicated in fifteen sports magazines across the globe. More recently, he produced over a dozen motion pictures for cable television.
Further Reading: How Joe Lewis Professionalized Sport Martial Arts