Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Chuck Norris' Eight Special Guests

I wrote this article for Black Belt magazine.

Arnold Howard

To the average viewer watching the “Legends” episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, the kickboxing champions are a subplot to the main Rangers-versus-killers story.

“Joe Lewis. Wasn’t he the boxer?”

“Don Wilson. I think he’s a kung fu actor.”

“Bill Wallace—who’s he?”

But to martial arts fans, the main story in the “Legends” episode is the gathering of two generations of kickboxing champions: Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace, Howard Jackson, and Don Wilson, from the early generation; and Olando Rivera, Jean-Claude Leuyer, Alex Gong, and Danny Steele of today’s generation.

For most of the champions, it was their first appearance at the Walker, Texas Ranger film studio. From the outside, the building in the industrial district of Farmers Branch, Texas looks like surrounding warehouses. The only sign outside, marked “CBS,” is as small as a for-sale real estate sign.

Inside the conventional looking building is a bustling world of make-believe far removed from the typical business setting. Past the front offices, behind soundproof double sets of doors and thick walls, sprawls the Walker studio. This is a familiar world to Walker fans. They would recognize the giant gold Ranger star painted on the glass office window as they walked down a hallway. They would remember the Ranger office where Walker and Trivette were almost killed by a time bomb. They would peer into the courtroom, where Walker, Alex and others stood before a robed judge while crew members remained motionless in the background, off-camera silence disturbed only by an occasional squeak of a cameraman’s tennis shoe.

Around the corner is the Walker training gym, scene of numerous karate matches from past episodes. The champions assembled there one by one on Tuesday, January 30, to film their first scenes for “Legends.”

The gym reminded Danny Steele of House of Champions, where he prepares for fights. In the center of the gym stood a raised boxing ring covered with red canvas. Training posters decorated the walls. Lockers formed a backdrop along one side of the room.

Only on close scrutiny were the visitors reminded that the Walker gym was a film studio. The light shining into the frosted windows came from floodlights mounted outside the room. Electrical cords snaked across the floor.

As the champions wandered into the gym, a buzzer sounded to signal that the cameras were rolling somewhere in the studio. The buzzer meant no talking allowed. According to the crewmembers, woe to anyone whose pager went off during shooting.

Soon after the champions began assembling in the gym, the crew wheeled in cameras and erected lights. The quiet gym awakened to a frenzy of activity. The crew moved with the efficiency of operating room surgeons.

For one of the first scenes, the four older champions lined up along the edge of the boxing ring outside the ropes. The four newer champions lined up on the opposite side. The old feeling of adrenalin pumping hard before a fight was replaced with the excitement of a being in a television studio.

The Early Champions

Joe Lewis, in his black sleeveless tee shirt and black gi pants, clutched the rope with boxing gloves. This was the first time since 1969 that he had worked with Chuck Norris on a film set, when they had assisted Bruce Lee in The Wrecking Crew.

Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris first met in 1965. A young Marine, Lewis found Chuck Norris’ karate ad in the Torrance, California yellow pages. Lewis had just returned to the States from Okinawa, and he was looking for sparring partners. Several schools had already turned him down, but Norris was friendly. “Sure, come on by,” Norris told him.

“Probably the biggest mistake I ever made was letting Joe Lewis work out with us,” Norris says with a smile. “When he first came, it wasn’t too difficult to score on him. But Joe is one of those fast learners. It was no time at all before he was very difficult to score on.

“As fate would have it,” Norris remembers, “about three months after Joe came to us, I had to fight him in New York City at the Tournament of Champions. We fought and we fought and we fought, and neither one of us could score on the other. The match went on and on, and finally they awarded me the decision.”

Sparked by magazine writers and students, a rivalry developed between Norris and Lewis. But there was never animosity between them. There was only the respect that warriors feel toward worthy opponents.

In 1996, 31 years after they first met, Norris surprised Lewis at a United Fighting Arts Federation banquet. Norris stood on stage awarding plaques to members of UFAF. Lewis, sitting at a table, was only half-listening. Almost dozing, Lewis perked up when he heard, “. . . and this next one is awarded to the best karate fighter. I ought to know--he beat me.”

Who could that be? I’m the only one in this room who ever beat him, Lewis thought.

“This one is for Joe Lewis.”

Lewis sat at his table, motionless. The audience clapped, but Lewis remained seated. Norris, holding the plaque, stood on stage waiting for Lewis to come forward. The applause continued, but Lewis remained at his table. Norris smiled at Lewis, then stepped off the stage and walked to Lewis’ table. Lewis stood, they embraced, and Norris handed him the plaque. “Chuck, you put me on the spot here.” It was difficult for Lewis to speak.

“What I said that day about Joe was the truth,” says Norris. “In my mind, Joe was the greatest fighter the tournament scene has ever had. And the greatest to this day, as far as I’m concerned.”

As the champions stood by the ropes, the crewmembers adjusted their cameras and took light readings. The champions joked with each other as they waited. Bill Wallace, bare-chested, muscular, and wearing black gi pants, stood next to Joe Lewis at the ropes. Wallace, a great fighter himself, had always admired Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris. He fought Lewis twice in point tournaments.

Though Wallace and Norris never faced each other in competition, they sparred once in Wallace’s Memphis, Tennessee karate school. It was in the early 70s when Norris was visiting. After Wallace had finished teaching a class and the students had all left, they were alone.

“I had a wonderful time. I learned a lot from him,” says Wallace.

“I wouldn’t call it sparring. I would call it a beating,” Norris remembers. “Bill worked me over pretty good.”

“Hell, if it was a beating, I got it,” says Wallace. “Chuck taught me some really good things, because he had a lot more experience than I had. I didn’t give him a beating at all. Matter of fact, he hit me a bunch of times.”

Bill Wallace played the villain in A Force of One, one of Norris’ early films. “That was an enjoyable film,” says Norris. “Bill did a great job. He helped make it the success that it was.

“We could never get a serious publicity shot together,” says Norris. “The only time we ever got any serious shots was when we were actually filming the fight stuff. But to try to get him to be serious in a regular photo session—forget it!” Norris laughs.

Next to Bill Wallace, adjusting his mouth piece, stood Don Wilson. His shiny black gi pants reflected the glare of the studio lights. Wilson, a veteran of the film world, looked comfortable in the Walker studio. After all, he had appeared in 25 films.

And it was Chuck Norris who nudged Wilson toward an acting career. One evening after a kickboxing match in Florida, Norris told Wilson, “You have what it takes to be a success in Hollywood.” Little did Norris know that he had changed the direction of a man’s career.

“Chuck Norris is an example we can all look up to,” says Wilson. “Money and fame have a corrupting influence on people, but if Chuck has changed over the years, it has only been for the better.

“When I hear that a comedian’s a jerk or that an actor has locked himself in his dressing room doing drugs, it doesn’t really affect me,” says Wilson. “But when I hear that a martial arts actor has been corrupted, I take it personally. That’s why I admire Chuck so much—he is a fine example of a great martial artist.”

The crew was ready to start filming. Howard Jackson and Danny Steele stepped under the ropes and into the ring from opposite sides as the lights on the cameras blinked. Howard Jackson, his bare upper body glistening in sweat, began the fight with hooking heel kicks that raked past Danny Steele’s head.

Howard Jackson was a Marine when he met Chuck Norris. Jackson had just moved to Oceanside, California from Detroit. He had trained in traditional tangsoodo.

“You look like you just got off the boat from Korea the way you’re throwing those kicks,” Chuck Norris told him at the tournament where they met. Norris had modified his style of tangsoodo to include hand techniques he learned from Tak Kubota and Fumio Demura. Jackson’s traditional tangsoodo looked almost foreign to him.

“At the time, Chuck Norris was a semi-retired world champion,” reminisces Jackson. “He had seven karate schools, and he was the name in karate. Yet he invited me, a stranger, to stay with him for the next weekend. He picked me up from the bus station and let me sleep in his house. He trusted me.

“That weekend,” Jackson continues, “he took me to the annual Tangsoodo Congress banquet. I was the only black there, but they didn’t make me feel like that. Everyone there treated me with respect. They were glad to have me.”

Within a year of training with Norris, Jackson was rated 7th in the nation in point fighting. After two years with Norris, Jackson made it to the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame.

By then Jackson was teaching for Norris at the last school left in the Norris system. The other schools had been sold to pay off debt in a business deal that had gone bad. “This is the last school I have,” Chuck Norris told Jackson. “I have to let you go, and I hate it.” After a pause, he said, “But you’ll work for me again.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Norris, I’ll be fine,” Jackson said.

“But you’ll work for me again,” Norris said.

Today Howard Jackson is Norris’ executive assistant on Walker. “Chuck’s been a big inspiration in my life for 28 years,” Jackson says.

After Howard Jackson and Danny Steele sparred before the cameras, one of the crewmen said, “Howard, I didn’t know you could kick like that.” The crew had known Jackson for years but had never seen him perform his martial arts moves.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” Jackson said with a laugh.

The Current Champions

Danny Steele removed his gloves. He sat on the red canvas in the ring to rest a moment while the crew prepared for the next scene. Sweat trickled down his muscular, tattooed upper body.

Steele was thrilled to be with the great fighters he had read about while growing up. As a small child, Steele saw little of his divorced parents and lived with an aunt in Hawaii. It was martial arts action heroes, such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Bob Wall, who kept him company in his imagination. Steele watched Enter the Dragon in darkened theaters dozens of times, where his heroes chased away the loneliness.

After a short break, it was time for Bill Wallace and Alex Gong to dance before the cameras. Gong weaved out of the way of a Wallace head kick and tried to counter with a roundhouse kick to the body, which Wallace blocked.

Alex Gong spent several years growing up in a Tibetan boarding school in India. His father, a follower of the Dalai Lama, wanted him to learn the Tibetan culture. From time to time, Gong sneaked out of the school and watched kung fu videos for two rupees a session in a nearby Indian village. “Even then I was hooked on martial arts,” Gong remembers.

When he moved back to New Hampshire, 12-year-old Gong covered his bedroom walls with martial arts action figures. “Chuck Norris doesn’t know how many kung fu heroes he fought on my bedroom walls,” says Gong with a chuckle.

One afternoon in 1989, Gong’s action hero, Chuck Norris, stepped into Gong’s life, as if materializing off the bedroom wall into real life. Gong, a young adult, was working for American Airlines at the ticket counter of the Fresno Airport. “Chuck Norris just got off the plane!” exclaimed a coworker. “Look, I have his autograph.”

“Where is he?”

“He just went outside.”

Gong, with heart pounding, emerged onto the street in front of the American terminal. There, among travelers struggling with suitcases and idling taxis with motors running, stood Norris. He looked so unobtrusive, in his casual jeans and jacket, that no one noticed him except Gong.

For the next twenty minutes Gong plied Norris with training questions. Norris patiently answered. When his ride came, he disappeared just as suddenly as he had materialized, as if he had never been there at all.

After the Walker crew had filmed the eight champions in their matches, they shot the fighters individually. With light shining into the ring from the corners, a cameraman used a hand-held, super-16mm camera to film each man. Olando Rivera stepped into the ring. As Rivera bobbed, weaved, and punched, the cameraman followed him across the red canvas, weaving with him and capturing the action from a sparring partner’s vantage point. An assistant holding a cord followed the cameraman, moving together as if they were dance partners.

Olando Rivera began training in Brooklyn, New York at age nine. Over the 25 years since then, the highlight of Rivera’s career has been this trip to Walker, Texas Ranger with the other champions. It was even better than defeating the Chinese kickboxing champion in Beijing, China three years ago. “I’ve never been paid very well to fight,” Rivera says, “but coming here is payment over and above any fight I’ve ever had. I would do this at any given moment, even if I had to fly half way around the world to be with these legends.”

“Chuck Norris is real,” continues Rivera. “Coming here and being with him has made me feel that much better about choosing him as a mentor years ago. He’s real, he’s a gentleman, and that’s what I think karate and kickboxing brings out in most martial artists.”

When a crew member shouted “Cut!” Rivera’s punches and kicks slowed, then stopped. His chest rose up and down from exertion. A petite woman rushed to the cameraman and handed him a fresh film cartridge. While he loaded his camera, another woman sprayed water onto Jean-Claude Leuyer, who stepped into the ring. His powerful frame dripped from the cool mist.

Leuyer sprang into action on command. He fired kick after kick toward the camera. Again, the cameraman and assistant danced in unison across the canvas.

Jean-Claude Leuyer began Shotokan karate at age five in Phoenix, Arizona in 1974. he first met Chuck Norris at an amateur kickboxing match in 1989, 15 years later. Leuyer had lost his match and was sitting in a dressing room at the Hollywood Paladium. As he removed his wraps, he mentally relived the mistakes he had made moments ago in the fight.

There was a light rap on the door. In walked Chuck Norris. Through the haze of defeat, Leuyer thought he was seeing things. Chuck Norris? Coming to see an unknown like me?

Leuyer remembers Norris telling him, in a gentle voice, “You were fighting great, but things happen.”

As Leuyer listened, his disappointment faded.

“The important thing to remember is that you’re alright,” Norris said. “Live to fight another day. Fight this guy again another time.” Norris may have been remembering his loss to Louis Delgado. Six months later Norris went back to New York to beat Delgado before retiring.

Norris left as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving Leuyer to ponder. “A lot of people, when they become famous, forget where they came from. He didn’t.”

Parting Thoughts
It was nightfall that Tuesday at the Walker studio when the champions left for their hotel. It had been a long day, and one they would remember. “This is something I will never forget,” says Danny Steele. “Ever. And I can tell my son about this when he gets older.”

“Chuck Norris is real,” says Olando Rivero. “He’s never let stardom go to his head.”

“The respect and camaraderie we feel for each other,” Howard Jackson says, thinking about his friends the champions, “will never die. There’s no ego there. We’re a family.”

When the young champions left Dallas for their respective homes, they carried with them the assurance that their childhood action heroes were real. In an entertainment world of cardboard make-believe heroes, past the Hollywood glitter and fame, there were still heroes that even champions could look up to.