The real King of the death match Bloodsport
When the movie Bloodsportemerged as one of the summer’s top hits, martial artists became fascinated with the so-called underground tournaments, the fabled “kumite” and secret “death matches.” Did they ever exist? If so, what were they really like? New Yorks’s Paul Vizzio, a veteran of many such contests and a victor in all of them, provides a rare and exclusive look at an era when full contact meant bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fights to the finish. For the first time in print, here are the real facts about the real bloodsport.
Back in the 1960s and even as late as the ’70s, clandestine tournaments featuring bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fights were held in the United States, as an extension of those contests typically conducted for decades in Asia — specifically China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Few Americans had any knowledge whatsoever of these events. Martial artists had only heard of them — most of the time referred to as “death matches” — through whispered rumors spread by the Chinese martial arts community. These fights were as secret as the art of kung-fu used to be. To most serious martial artists, these matches — the reputed “life or death kumite” — were a joke, only because there was never any material evidence, concrete proof, or verifiable facts to support the dubious claims surrounding these affairs. Those who occasionally emerged to claim to have won these tournaments for the most part concocted ambiguous stories and “facts’ that could not be substantiated. Martial arts magazine editors were therefore understandably suspicious of anyone who came forth with such a story. That’s why no such stories have previously appeared in print.
Never before could a legitimate and well-known martial artist who had truly participated in these underground tournaments be found. That is, until now, when Fighter correspondent Steve Shear got the cooperation of, and an exclusive interview with Vizzio, the real bare-knuckle baron of the bloodsport. Vizzio’s public fame came by way of winning the PKA world super lightweight kickboxing title on November 13, 1981. But before that he was the reigning king of the fight to the finish. Vizzio, much to his credit, did not come forward boasting and bragging of his kumite adventures. In fact, he didn’t come forward at all. We had to seek him out and coax him to go public with his story.
Before doing so, Vizzio got permission from his sifu, Master Wai Hong of New York, the man who coordinated and directed Vizzio’s participation in the underground tournaments. The interest in the kumite peaked in May 1988 when the motion picture Bloodsport, starring new martial arts screen sensation Jean Claude Van Damme (see cover story), became a box-office hit. Bloodsport was touted as being based on a “true story” of one Frank Dux, today a North Hollywood, California nin-jutsu instructor. When Bloodsport’s credits rolled, many claims were presented to the public about Dux’s reputed record in the kumite contests: such as having won 355 matches with no losses; having recorded the fastest knockout —1.8 seconds in the first round; having registered the fastest kicking speed — 58 miles per hour (one wonders how they measured this; so does Vizzio), and so on. Too, Dux’s victory, upon which Bloodsport is based, reportedly took place in the Bahamas, an unlikely although not impossible site for such an event. Vizzio never fought in the Bahamas. What’s more, Vizzio, a legitimate champion of the kumite for almost a decade, from 1969 to 1977, never fought Frank Dux and, moreover, never heard of him. These underground contests were for the most part no-frills events conducted without the benefit of rules and safety measures. Participants fought to the knockout with bare knuckles and raw courage. These were not the conventional karate tournaments out of which emerged such stellar champions as Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. Nor were they the early fullcontact karate bouts, complete with rules and regulations, featuring Lewis, Wallace and Benny The Jet” Urquidez. No, these were tournaments in which the earliest participants were chiefly students of Chinese kung-fu instructors; it was only in 1972 that other martial artists competed. In many cases these tournaments were indeed held publicly; that is, in front of an audience. But most, if not all of them were attended exclusively by Chinese spectators, who placed bets on the most likely winner. It was in actuality an underground gambling sport, aptly described in Bloodsport as “a cock fight with people instead of roosters.” This, then, was the genuine kumite, popularized by and glamorized in the movie Bloodsport. Enter the “Legslinger” There was an element of unreality to the way this stranger had come into town — literally from out of nowhere. He hadn’t come in quietly either; this “legslinger” claimed to have left behind him a string of unconscious kung-fu fighters that stretched across the country. In the newspapers he’d publicly challenged then heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Challenges had also been issued to New York’s Ron Van Clief and a host of other well-known martial artists. The legslinger’s name was Ming Chin Lee. He billed himself as a “grandmaster” in the seven-animal system of kung-fu, and the winner of full-contact matches in 48 states. The year was 1977, and by this time Fu Jow Pai Sifu Paul Vizzio, who stands only 5-foot-4 and weighs 132 pounds, had been the king of underground fullcontact competition for nearly a decade. Vizzio’s instructor, Master Wai Hong, had read all about Ming Chin Lee’s various challenges in the papers, and listened impassively to all of the talk circulating in Chinatown. “Lee did demonstrations for the [newspaper] Daily News,” recalls Vizzio, “throwing chopsticks through plywood. He was very strong.” Then Lee announced that because he was one of the best qualified to represent kung-fu, he would open a school. That led to a private match between Lee and Vizzio, set up by Wai Hong. A “life-and-death match” was set up for April 24, 1977 at Seward Park High School in New York. The match was the talk of Chinatown. All tickets sold for $500 a seat, and the event was covered live on Chinese television and radio.
The “death match” was a bareknuckle, no-holds-barred contest conducted with no protective gear whatsoever. There were no designated number of rounds. Each round was three minutes in duration with one-minute rest periods between rounds. The pair would fight until one man dropped. As it turned out, that didn’t take long. “I don’t know how much he weighed,” says Vizzio. “He was only slightly bigger than me. He came with leather straps attached to his arms, shoes, and around his shins. If you block, it cuts.” Because of the publicity surrounding Lee’s skill, Vizzio decided that the wisest course of action was to end things quickly. After 5.8 seconds of the first round, Ming Chin Lee shared the same fate suffered by 53 others, a knockout at the hands of Paul Vizzio. “Everyone rushed in and tried to revive him so he could continue fighting,” Vizzio recalls. “They had paid $500 to see the fight and they were upset that it ended so fast. But it took 45 minutes for Lee to be revived.” The hands are the first thing you notice about Paul Vizzio. His fingers are abnormally thick. The densely calloused and scarred knuckles speak volumes about the wars they’ve been through. Sometimes when he struggles to come up with just the right word, out of habit the knuckles of the back of his hand come slamming down on the desktop. The sound his hand issues functions as an all-purpose fill-in word when English no longer suffices. The PKA super lightweight full-contact champion, now a resident of Union, New Jersey — where he owns and operates a kwoon — was raised in a section of New York known as Alphabet City. His childhood was as tough as his choice of occupation. Where the Streets Have No Name New York is a city divided into an abundance of territories, sections, neighborhoods and small towns, each with its own customs and mores. The upper east side shelters the rich and famous, while the artistic community traditionally resides in Greenwich Village. Alphabet City, located on the lower east side of Manhattan, is so named because the streets are identified by letters instead of names. Real estate tycoon Donald Trump will not be holding any parties here. Alphabet City has been, and remains, the home of the hardcore poor. Vizzio was raised there on 13th Street between Avenues B and C. “We were the only Italians over there,” he says. “It was a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and so we had to grow up in the street. My father worked two jobs and my mother had health problems. So when I was 10 years old I was out by myself. I had a hard life…a very hard life. I only finished up to the seventh grade in school. I had no education at all. I worked in a candy store when I was nine. My father took all my money. He didn’t care about [my attending] school. My mother was in very, very bad shape. So we struggled hard. We slept three in a bed till I was 11. The TV and furniture we had were from the street.” The street seemed to be the one constant in Vizzio’s youth and it was there that he learned his values. “1 always fought for people when I was a kid. I was the littlest guy, but whenever there was trouble they would come to me [for help]. I hated people picking on people. It always bothered me.” For many, growing up in this harsh and often violent environment would be a traumatizing experience. For Vizzio, the streets were his natural habitat. “Now they call ’em riots,” he says, fondly re-calling an oft-practiced social ritual, “we called ’em rumbles.- But sometimes his home life was tougher than the streets, especially if he got home late. It was there he’d have to face his Sicilian father. There were nails hammered into Vizzio’s apartment wall. If his father discovered that he’d been up to no good out in the streets, he’d hang Paul up on the wall by his shirt’s collar like a steer on a hook. “Come five o’clock, if I wasn’t there [at the table] to eat, forget it; I hung on the nail.” It stood to reason, then, that the more time one spent on the streets the more likely one would be to find trouble — at both ends. So to avoid “the nail,” in 1959 Vizzio started going to the local Boys Club. It was there, despite a steady diet of “bloody noses and puffed eyes,” that it became evident young Vizzio had thunder in his hands. Whenever he hit his opponents, they went down and stayed down. Vizzio himself had no fear of being hit; in fact, he enjoyed the contact. At the Boys Club he fought twice each week. “I lost one fight [out of over 100] in the club. It was this guy named Green,” he says, recalling the loss that still burns in his memory. “He wore an earring in his ear. I could never forget him because I couldn’t believe that I lost the three-round decision. I was mad! I knocked him out in the first round of our rematch.” A knockout artist was born. “Bust the Brick, Bust the Head” Several years later Vizzio found him-self in the Chinatown kung-fu school of Wai Hong. “They were breaking rocks and bricks and I wanted to see how they did that.” It is pertinent to note that at this point in time, around 1968, the Chinatown kung-fu kwoons had a tradition of accepting only Chinese pupils. Vizzio was among the first non-Orientals to be accepted into Wai Hong’s kwoon. The primary goal he set for himself initially in the martial arts was quite modest. “I wanted to get my hand really strong so I could bust that brick. Bust the brick, bust the head,” was Vizzio’s early analysis. By 1969, the year of the Woodstock festival, while the rest of his generation was preaching flower power and practicing pacifism, Paul Vizzio began racking up bare-knuckle knockouts. “Wai Hong, my instructor in Fu Jow Pai, is a very high authority, but he keeps a very low profile. He was the first fullcontact promoter in the United States, so if there were any full-contact fights, in a bare-fisted contest, they went through him first. And anyone who wanted to represent kung-fu at that time would have to beat me.” The early years of full-contact competition was described perfectly in the movie Bloodsport as “a cock fight with people instead of roosters.” Explains Vizzio, “It wasn’t called full-contact karate or full-contact kung-fu. It was just full contact.” In the early “invitational” bouts, flyers were sent out from kwoon to kwoon, teachers would take their best fighters, bets were placed, and the fists would fly. “You could come in off the street. You didn’t have to be a martial artist. Anyone could fight. There were no weight divisions. I’d have maybe three, four fights a day and that’s how you bring up your [number of] knockouts. If you hit someone with a bare hand, it’ll hurt.” In those first matches the fighters wore headgear, chest protectors and shoes, but no gloves. A big part of the strategy back then was to find the kind of footwear that hurt the most and cut the best. “I used to like desert boots,” Vizzio points out, “because they had a rim of leather around them and when you hit, oW’
New York’s Paul Vizzio, a veteran of many so-called “death matches” and a victor in all of them, concludes his extraordinary disclosure of his blood sport background. For the first time in print, here are the real facts about the real bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fights to the finish.
When a Pig Was the Purse In planes, trains, cars and buses, New York’s Paul Vizzio and his instructor, Wai Hong, traveled from Hong Kong to Formosa (now Taiwan) to Canada, from Texas to Topeka, to take part in the bloodsport. In the best of times, Vizzio fought in large auditoriums and plush rented facilities such as Town Hall in New York, the Coliseum in Washington, D.C., and John Hancock Auditorium in Boston. In the worst of times, he had to compete in battered old schools with splinters and nails protruding out of the floor. “We had no rules,” he recalls. “Knees and elbows were allowed and you’d just go. [Sometimes] we fought on wooden floors. There was no mat or roped-in area…none of that stuff.” In those days, before fullcontact organizations and corporate sponsorship, either the fighter or the fighter’s instructor paid for his travel and lodging out of his own pocket. Vizzio was — and remains — completely disinterested in personal aggrandizement in any way. For that reason the only momentos he has from those early adventures are a few photographs, photocopies of photos appearing in print, and clippings of coverages of his matches from old Chinese newspapers. Interestingly, while the style of clothes and the way the contestants wore their hair change from picture to picture, there is a certain sameness to the photos. They usually capture the moment before the match where the fighters stand facing each other, and the moment after, when all the sifus are gathered around the prone, motionless body of Vizzio’s opponents.
Unlike the “conventional” tournament circuit, where one sees the same faces from place to place, once Vizzio knocked out an opponent, that would be the last time he’d see him. “There were a lot of inexperienced fighters,” he says. “They would fight once and lose and never show up again. A lot of people say they were so-called fullcontact fighters. Let me see some proof. I never met anybody twice in those fullcontact days. Only when the PKA came out did I start to fight people twice.”
Vizzio says the average number of competitors was 10 to 12. The most contestants he had seen at one event were 30 fighters in Washington, D.C. “In the early 1970s,” he adds, “Americans dominated the [bloodsport] competition. A few Orientals tried but lost.” The only constants in the bloodsport, according to Vizzio, were the full houses and the gambling. The spectators laid down their’Money on the man who looked best. The winning gamblers walked away with their pockets full of money. But not the fighters. “Sometimes I got trophies,” says Vizzio. “The early trophies were [composed of] a figure of a man standing on a wooden platform. If I fought in America and a bank was sponsoring the tournament, I got a trophy with a name plate on it [displaying] the bank’s name and the date. Sometimes I got banners with Chinese lettering on them. Sometimes I got banners and flowers — lots of flowers. I also used to get pigs. That was very big back then. Restaurants would bet on you, and if you won they gave you a pig! Really.” The Life and Death Matches The bloodsport events were treated as big news by the Chinese newspapers, particularly the so-called “life-and-death” matches. Vizzio fought in several of them. While none of those bouts resulted in anyone’s death, they all ended in knockouts. “We were allowed one technique on the floor. [If] you took him down, you were allowed to hit him or kick him one shot. I would never do anything to really disfigure anyone.” Grappling was permitted so whenever he could, Vizzio would try to trap an opponent’s limb and “make him pay.” Vizzio himself paid with black eyes, a nose that was broken and rebroken to the point where all the cartilage had to be removed, and broken bones in his hands. “No mat-ter what anybody tells you, your hands hurt when you hit somebody, especially bare-handed,” says Vizzio. “My hands were always sore for a long time after each tournament.” Sometimes there were rules, sometimes there weren’t, and the few rules that there were, were changed periodically over the years. By the early ’70s the fighters no longer donned chest protectors or footwear. Guided perhaps out of some concern for the safety of the competitors, promoters had them fight barefoot and wear gloves. The gloves they used were bag gloves, the kind boxers used to train on the speed bag. In terms of actually protecting the fighters these bag gloves were a joke, containing less protective padding than the average pair of winter gloves. “These bag gloves weighed maybe an ounce…little skinny things; they were nothing,” explains Vizzio. “I can’t understand why the [Athletic] Commission or anybody let us fight. How can that be legal?” he asks today in disbelief. “To this day I don’t know.” Once the matches started it was every man for himself. Vizzio recalls that many of the early full-contact matches were little more than “three minute arm fights. They’d keep swinging till they got tired. It looked so funny. There were some good people too, but they forgot all their martial arts ‘[training]!” Vizzio liked to try a variety of approaches out on the floor — the sweep followed by the right to the head, a chop, and palm strikes. Weight divisions of light, middle and heavyweight were implemented in 1972 because more Americans, of all sizes, began competing in the bloodsport. Also, Vizzio explains, the tournaments evolved from “invitationals” to “all-style open” events. Prior to that time Vizzio took on all comers of all dimensions. By the mid-1970s, he had amassed a full-contact record of 55-0-1 (55 wins, no losses and one draw). “I got a draw for what they told me was a knee below the belt,” Vizzio explains of his solitary draw. As mentioned before, sometimes there were rules. The “Glamorous” Life of a Pro “Professional karate” is a term that always rankles Paul Vizzio, a kung-fu man,” he points out. Nonetheless, former nationally-ranked fighter and forms champion and New York karate instructor, Toyataro Miyazaki, encouraged Viz-zio to join the Professional Karate Association (PKA). “If I have a friend in this world, it’s Mr. Miyazaki,” says Vizzio. Miyazaki told Vizzio that his participation in the PKA and full-contact karate would be good for the sport and good for business as well. In the final analysis, it didn’t really turn out that way. “[Only] one student out of every 300 who walks into my school, knows me from when I fought on television,” Vizzio says. At the time, however, fullcontact karate seemed like a logical next step. And so, determined to do his part to further the growth of a sport he loved, Paul Vizzio started fighting on the conventional kickboxing circuit. For critics of the then relatively new sport — those who questioned the competence of our athletes in the ring — here indeed was an experiment in reality. Could the baron of the bloodsport function in an environment with safer and more restrictive rules? And, if so, could he ever be defeated? Although there were rules to be followed, and boxing gloves covering his hands, the results remained pretty much the same. Vizzio hit people, they went down and they stayed down. Still, fighting with gloves on proved to be a major adjustment for the former bloodsport kingpin. “There are ways of pushing people, cutting people, and you’ve got to learn these techniques and tricks.” Instrumental in teaching Vizzio these methods was another PKA fighter, Emilio Narvaez of Vineland, New Jersey. Vizzio saw Narvaez on television on March 11, 1978 fighting Bill “Superfoot” Wallace for Wallace’s PKA world middleweight title and at once recognized a soulmate from the streets. “I had to meet him! He did so many crazy things. He should have won that fight.” Narvaez had cut Wallace on the top of the head with a spinning hook kick. Vizzio says he watched in disbelief as “they stopped the match and they fixed his head!” On TV! From the way I had learned to fight, this was wrong. If you can’t continue, that’s it. You’re out!” So impressed was he by Narvaez that Vizzio decided to track him down. An instant friendship was formed and Narvaez educated Vizzio on how to train properly and how to use the gloves effectively. Often in the PKA, however, there wasn’t time to prepare as thoroughly as he’d have liked. In many cases Vizzio fought with injuries such as broken ribs and a fractured jaw. The story behind his jaw injury — and his first ring war with then world super lightweight champion Cliff Thomas — paints a very telling portrait of the “glamorous” life of the professional fullcontact fighter. Fate Sets Afoot a Dramatic Fight Vizzio was given six days notice prior to his world title fight against Thomas, who would travel from El Paso, Texas to Bally’s Park Place Casino Hotel on July 24, 1981 to defend his crown against Vizzio. Destiny would, perhaps cruelly, play a dramatic part in the performance of both fighters that day. Shortly before this fight, NBC-TV agreed to air it nation-wide on NBC Sports world. Thomas’ original opponent had dropped out or been injured. But again, “for the good of the sport,” Vizzio agreed to take the match on short notice. Three days before that title bout with Thomas, a student caught Vizzio with a spinning hook kick that fractured his jaw. Vizzio himself had no medical insurance. Although he was seriously injured, Vizzio didn’t drop out of the Thomas fight, partly because he intended to use the insurance coverage provided him by the fight promoters to pay his medical bills. Disaster struck for Thomas, too. In the early morning hours prior to the fight, a small plane carrying four passengers to the event, among them Thomas’ manager and trainer, Tony Sandoval, and legendary Texas champion Demetrius “Greek” Havanas, crashed and killed everyone aboard. Thomas, drawing on the rage and frustration of his corner-men’s deaths, fought the fight of his life against the erstwhile Vizzio. Despite an enraged opponent and a broken jaw that suffered further damage, Vizzio put up a courageous battle but lost by a 5th-round technical knockout. But when the two fighters met again in a rematch on November 3, 1981 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, with Thomas now a clear favorite, fight fans were startled to watch Vizzio dominate Thomas to win 12-round unanimous decision. Thomas then decided to move up to the next heavier weight division. This was a wise career move for Thomas since Vizzio went on to rule his weight class for four more years until the demise of the PKA. In retrospect, Vizzio regrets taking that first fight against Thomas on such short notice, and for good reason. In a fighting career that spanned nearly 200 bouts, the Thomas match turned out to be one of the few that he lost. “People remember you for the losses,” he adds. The PKA owners, Don and Judy Quine and Joe Corley, were the only beneficiaries of the PKA glory days. As for the fighters themselves, their compensation was minimal. In the event that a competitor would find a purse too small, someone else in their own or in another weight division would usually take the fight. “The most I ever got for fighting [in the PKA],” says Vizzio, “was $8,500.” When the PKA folded in 1986, Vizzio had yet to relinquish his title in the ring. Speculation was that he had retired. But after all these years nothing could be further from the truth. He is in regular contact with promoters and potential sponsors. Talks thus far have broken down for any of the usual reasons. Provided that acceptable terms can be met, Vizzio says with no hesitation, “I wanna fight.” Of his bloodsport adventures, Vizzio earnestly and humbly concludes, “It was nothing; it was no big deal.” We disagree.
In a sport where injury and even death could decide the outcome, we think it takes an intrepid warrior, a fighter — winner or loser — of resolute courage and conviction to step into that ring. Not many would — or did. And only Paul Vizzio stands tall as the king of the kumite, the bare-knuckle baron of the bloodsport. ?