Kickboxing: USA vs. Japan

Benny Urquidez

TOKYO: Sitting in the downstairs locker room of the Budokan Auditorium, Benny Urquidez looked unusually pensive. The deep set eyes, which usually don’t betray a sign of emotion, seemed troubled. Though there are 40 pro fights under Urquidez’s belt, this was not just “another” fight for him. Not only was his World Lightweight Title at stake, but he was defending it in a foreign country—without the usual support of his fans. Furthermore, this was for “The Jet” what could conceivably be the toughest fight in his entire career.

Kunimatsu Okao, his opponent, had retired unbeaten a year ago as the Japanese Kickboxing Champion, never having lost in 55 bouts. Last August 2, 1977, Urquidez had come to Tokyo to fight the No. 1 contender, Katsayuki Suzuki. Urquidez beat him severely for five rounds and put him away for good in the sixth, knocking him out cold for fifteen minutes. Okao, Suzuki’s friend and former stablemate, angered at seeing his countryman humiliated had made an on the spot challenge to Urquidez. What made the move particularly dramatic was that Okao would he coming out of his retirement specifically to defeat Urquidez. Benny, of course accepted Okao’s invitation. What that brought about was an over-the-board challenge from the Japanese to the World Karate Association to fight America’s top contenders, bringing into being what was probably the biggest Professional Karate card ever to be promoted between the U.S. and Japan. At approximately 6:00 p.m. on November 14, 12,1977 ardent karate and kickboxing fans had filled the Budokan, Tokyo’s largest arena to its capacity. The fight, to them was not only one between kickboxers and karateka, but between the U.S. and Japan. With both the All Japan Pro Karate Association and the Muay-Thai Kickboxing Association on the board of advisors, the WKA has become the first internationally recognized sanctioning body for full-contact. However, some confusion still surrounds the sport. “People are still mixed up by all the names,” said Howard Hanson, president of International Karate Enterprises, who co-promoted the event with the Japanese. “Here, we have kick-boxers fighting karate practitioners. Now, these guys usually use elbows, and even head-butts, but under our rules they have to eliminate those weapons.

Tokyo kickboxing

A WKA title means exactly that; the man who holds that title must be able to defend himself against any style of fighter in the world, be he a gung-fu man, or a kickboxer. That’s the only way this sport will ever really be considered legitimate. For this event, the only title fight will be the Urquidez match, but all of the other boys are top contenders. But the Japanese aren’t fooling around. Two of their guys are Kickboxing champions here, while Okao, Benny’s fighter retired unbeaten. So it promises to be some fight.” And some fight it was … unfortunately, unfortunately, for the Americans, the night had gone sour from the onset, and now, down in his locker room waiting to go on, Benny Urquidez was feeling the weight of what had taken place so far. In the four fights previous to his own, all of his teammates had succumbed to the Japanese fighters. Two of the bouts, that between the WKA’s Blinky Rodriguez and Japan’s Makato Hirato, and the next bout between Tony Lopez and Kunimatsu Nagae had looked all too much like “home town decisions.” Rodriguez had pummelled his opponent for all six rounds of their fight, wobbled him in the last round, yet still he lost the decision. Tony Lopez, a flashy fighter out of Bill McDonald’s stable had dazzled the audience and his opponent, Kunimatsu Nagae, which was the Japanese Champion, with some lightning fast kicking that resembled Bill Wallace. For the major portion of the match, Lopez attacked, bobbed and weaved, and executed beautiful combinations while Nagae never really threw much of anything. In round six, Lopez was tagged with a solid hooking heel kick that rocked him, but he came back to pepper Nagae until the round’s end with good fast punching and kicking. Still, Nagae won the bout. At this point the Americans’ spirits began to sag, as they saw that the only way they were going to take any of these matches would be to knock the kickboxers out. But the next two fights of the night only made things worse. Brendan Leddy, a good looking young fighter simply lacked the experience (9-0) to go against Gensano Igari (41-5). Igari had KO’d his last 33 opponents. Leddy was game, and came storming out looking like he wanted to finish things off early, but Igari threw kick after kick at Leddy’s kneecaps, smashing away time and again on either side of the leg as well as to the back of the calf. This went on for 5 rounds and though Leddy tagged Igari, and got in some good blows, by the end of round 5, he simply had no further use of the left leg. His trainer, Arnold Urquidez called a halt to the match…something you never see in Japan. There, a fighter is thrown back into the ring no matter what his condition. At any rate, Leddy lost, and the next fight of the night was almost a replay of this drama. Freddy Aviles, another of Urquidez’ boys was punished throughout four rounds by Masanobu Sato. Like Igari, Sato went to work on Aviles’ legs and never let up. Aviles, who had gone into the match with a bad calf muscle was forced to stop in round four, and it looked, at this point like the Americans might well be on their way to losing the entire card. Of course, the fight the people were waiting for was still to come, and that was the Urquidez-Okao match, which was to be shown live over Japanese television. Urquidez had come over to Japan last August a virtual unknown, but his performance against Suzuki, his flashy style and good looks had captured the hearts of the Japanese people. All but Kunimatsu Okao, that is. To Okao, Urquidez represented an injury to the national pride.

Directly after his challenge, Okao had disappeared … moving into a mountain top training camp to prepare himself to do battle with Urquidez. No one really knows the exact routine that a kickboxer goes through to prepare for a fight, but suffice it to say, it is one of the most grueling training regimens in the world. The tales of the fighters kicking banana trees to toughen up their legs is no mere fantasy. Kickboxers train from four to six hours a day. They train perhaps harder and more purposefully than any other martial artist, and it is for this reason that the kickboxer has emerged as one of the most devastating fighting machines in existence. Not only can they demolish you with their awesome kicks, but they seem to have developed an almost uncanny ability to take punishment. For Benny Urquidez’ part, he had gone, in the three months prior to the match, through his regular training schedule; an eleven mile morning run followed by 2 hours daily in the gym, where he works on perfecting his techniques and sparring. “I’m always in shape ready to go,” declared Urquidez during one of these workouts. “I never let myself get out of condition, so it’s not a problem for me.” No doubt his 39-0 record is an indication of this statement, yet in those solemn moments before the fight, it was obvious from Urquidez’ countenance that he knew his abilities were about to be put to the ultimate test. Urquidez-Okao fight During the 10 minutes of announcements prior to the match, and in the face-off in ring center, Okao grinned broadly while he and Urquidez stared at one another. He seemed to want to belittle Urquidez with this tactic, but Benny’s face remained unchanged. As the two came out at the bell, Urquidez began to move around Okao, dancing, flicking a jab here and there, trying to find his man. Suddenly it happened … boom! without warning … a looping right from Okao lashed out and caught Urquidez flush on the jaw, and for the second time in 40 fights, he was down. Benny bounced to his feet immediately, but not before the crowd had exploded. Through the screaming and shouting Benny couldn’t hear his trainer, Arnold, yelling, “Move champ, move … stay away from him!”

Urquidez drops Okao teaching him a humilating ring experience.

Urquidez only gave a perfunctory nod to Okao, as if to say “Good shot, man,” and moved forward again. Okao meanwhile, thinking he had Urquidez going seemed to rush in at him, but whap! he was stung by a hard jab, whap! whap! two more snapped his head back, and were followed by a solid left hook which momentarily stopped him in his tracks. Still, the smile remained plastered on his face, and still he came on. But now Benny was dancing, the familiar back and forth movements of the head were in evidence, and as Okao came at him again two lightening fast round kicks caught him, and here Okao began to kick, catching Urquidez in the back of the leg, Urquidez smashing back at Okao with his own low kicks and as the bell ended round one, both men were going at each other full blast. An impartial observer would have had to call the second round even, at least until the very last seconds, when a huge mouse blossomed under Okao’s left eye. As he came out for the third, he seemed even more determined than ever, as he stormed in after Urquidez, throwing kick after kick. But it looked as if Okao was substituting determination for finesse and as he came on again, Urquidez whippedaround, catching him squarely in the mid-section with a spinning back kick, that momentarily doubled Okao up. Now Okao’s determination had turned to anger, and the smile turned into a snarl as he wrestled Urquidez into the ropes, throwing a series of knees into the midsection, but now Benny spun him around and peppered his face with blinding combinations. By the end of this round, the left eye of Okao had completely closed. Round four was all Benny “The Jet”. As the two came out he immediately caught Okao with a left and right round kick, then followed up with a hard right hook followed by a left, and another left. Okao, now on the defensive began to move around, contrary to the straight ahead style he had been employing previously and now it was Urquidez who came after him. Using all his skills now, and knowing it was no time to get careless, Urquidez feinted a punch, and as Okao went to cover up, he unleashed a battering roundhouse that connected with Okao’s skull, and then, in one of the most incredible displays of kicking and punching yet, drove the Japanese entirely across the ring with blows, forcing him back into his own corner. Once there, Okao, though he was dazed, still continued to throw blows, but here, Urquidez stepped back and smashed him in the face with a pile driver right, and as Okao began to fall forward, Benny threw a front ball kick to the stomach, and then came up under the chin with another blow which hit Okao as all his momentum was going forward. He went down like a rock, and he stayed down. Benny, usually complacent after a fight couldn’t keep the look of triumph from his face. Maybe Okao shouldn’t have given him that grin in the first round, or possibly Urquidez was making up for some of the losses of his teammates, but it was clear he wanted this victory, and he got it. With the Japanese audience once again erupting, Urquidez did the traditional victory back handspring that has become his trademark. He and his brother/trainer Arnold, both left the ring with spirits raised, and smiles on their faces. And in the next fight of the night, it looked as if the Americans had cause to regain faith, as Marc Costello severely beat his much larger foe, Satoru Sayama, putting his man on the canvas over ten times during the bout, bloodying his face, and twice knocking him out of the ring. Still, at the end of the fight, the kickboxer was standing, but Costello had chalked up another victory for the WKA. In the final bout of the night, flyweight Leonard “Mighty Mouse” Galiza pounded the Japanese Champ Masayuki Yamazoto all over the ring, but in round two, Galiza took. a knee to the ribs and went down. It was later learned that he’d gone into the match with a broken rib. The fight card ended in a 4-2 victory for the kickboxers. Despite this, things were not all that glum; Benny Urquidez had won the most significant bout of the night, and full-contact karate, under the auspices of the WKA, had taken a huge step towards becoming an international sport. Both the Japanese and the Americans agreed they would look towards putting another card together. At this time, the press reports have it that some rematches are already being set for mid-March (1978).

World Martial arts journal
This article appeared inside the spring issue of The World Martial Arts Journal in 1978. It was the successor to Professional Karate magazine, both published by Mike Anderson. Text by Stuart Goldman.