Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Out Of Nowhere Came Joe Lewis

By Arnold Howard

On a warm May night in Washington, D.C., a young Marine named Joe Lewis walked up three flights of stairs to Jhoon Rhee's taekwondo school. It was the night before Jhoon Rhee's 1966 U. S. National Championships tournament.

Registration started at 8 p.m., but Lewis came early. The Marines had taught him punctuality. He found himself alone in the school, except for Jhoon Rhee and an assistant working in the office. Lewis stood awkwardly, holding his gi bag. He had returned from Okinawa and had never been to an American karate tournament. He didn't know what to expect.

An assistant greeted the boyish, muscular Marine and asked why he had come. "I heard there's a tournament," Lewis replied. He had found a tournament flyer.

Jhoon Rhee looked up from his desk. "Are you a black belt?" Rhee asked. He had noticed Lewis' gi bag and the enlarged two fore?knuckles of each hand.


"Are you competing?"

Lewis had come to buy a ticket to watch the tournament, not to compete in it. His Okinawan style, shorinryu, discouraged tournament competition.

Lewis paused. "You mean am I going to enter the tournament?" he asked.

Rhee nodded.

"No, I hadn't even thought about it," Lewis answered.

"You should enter," Rhee said, handing Lewis an application. "Go ahead," Rhee urged. Lewis took the paper, stared at it a minute, and began filling it out.

The next day Joe Lewis, the unknown, began attracting attention after winning his first matches.

"Where did this guy come from?"

"Did you see that side kick?"

"His name is Lewis, you say?"

When he fought, he stood in a straddle stance, sideways to his opponent, lead fist held low with arm straight, and rear arm held chest high across his body. This was to become his trademark stance.

Joe Lewis made it all the way to the grand championship match that day. He had won every fight using the powerful side kick he had honed in the oppressive heat of Okinawa.

During his last match, Lewis' opponent came in with two round house kicks off the rear leg. Lewis stepped back. New to tournament fighting, he momentarily turned his head to see if he had stepped out of bounds. Just then he was kicked in the stomach, the only point scored against him in that tournament. But he went on to win the match for grand championship. He had trained in karate only 22 months but won both forms and fighting in the first American tournament he ever entered.

When spectators crowded around Lewis for autographs that night, he was stunned. Autographs? A Marine corporal, he was accustomed to being ordered around and cursed at by sergeants. Someone wanted his autograph? For the first time, the painfully shy Joe Lewis was pushed into the spotlight.

Joe Lewis went on to win more major American tournaments than any other competitor before or since. Among his accomplishments, he won Jhoon Rhee's Washington, D. C. U. S. Nationals four times, and the most prestigious tournament of all, Ed Parker's Long Beach Internationals, three times.

Joe Lewis became a legend through grueling work. He trained so hard that tournament fighting, by comparison, was a break for him.

After winning the Long Beach Internationals grand championship one year, Lewis went back to his apartment with several black belt friends.

As Lewis tied his running shoes, one of his friends asked, "Joe, where are you going? Let's go out and party."

"I'm going running," Lewis answered.

"Running. Are you crazy? It's almost midnight."

"Yeah, but I didn't get a work out today."

"What do you mean you didn't get a work out?" his friend asked incredulously. "You fought all day long. You won the whole tournament."

Lewis looked up and said, "You call that a work out?" He laughed as he rose to leave.

Bob Wall, Lewis' first black belt student and former karate school partner, remembers seeing Lewis throw away a second place trophy. Anything less than first place meant nothing to him.

In 1970, Lewis began boxing training with heavyweight boxing champion Joey Orbillo. Lewis defeated Greg Baines at the Long Beach Arena on January 17, 1970, becoming the first U. S. heavyweight kickboxing champion.

That same year, at the 1970 All?Star Team Championships in Long Beach, California, Joey Orbillo and Bruce Lee sat in the stands watching Lewis. He drew their attention, because they had both trained with him. "Bruce Lee said he thought Joe Lewis was the best non?contact fighter he had ever seen at that point," Orbillo remembers.

John Natividad, a Chuck Norris black belt, beat Lewis that night. "You know what's happening," Bruce Lee said thoughtfully to Orbillo.

"Yeah, I know what's happening," Orbillo said. "You can't do both full?contact and point fighting." Lewis, who had been training in full?contact, was holding back in point matches. Orbillo believes this is one reason Joe Lewis lost the 1972 Long Beach Internationals after winning three straight years. In the full?contact arena, however, Lewis beat 14 opponents during that same period. In 1974, he became the first world heavyweight kickboxing champion.

In spite of Joe Lewis' tournament wins, some of his critics believe he was over?rated as a karate fighter. To this, his long?time friend and competitor, Ed Daniel, says with wry humor, "He may have been over?rated, but the problem was no one could beat him."

After Joe Lewis retired from fighting, he turned to acting, starring in Jaguar Lives, Force Five, Death Cage, and Mr. X. In late 1997, he renewed his acting career, playing a police detective in The Cut Off.

In a scene from The Cut Off, Lewis, the detective, found his best friend dead in a pool of blood in a shower. Lewis, the tough detective, wept softly.

After the scene was finished, Art Camacho, the director, sat silently, still watching Lewis, still immersed in the real emotion of the scene. For a long moment, the bustle and noise that follow the shooting of a scene were strangely absent. No one moved. Then the crew slowly came to life and quietly resumed its work.

"Joe Lewis did an incredible job as an actor," says Art Camacho, who also directed Red Sun Rising and The Power Within. "He has a vulnerability that I don't think he was allowed to bring out in his earlier films.

"I think he's very under?rated as an actor. Joe Lewis is more of a character actor than anyone else I've worked with. I think he has a great future ahead of him."

Apart from fighting and acting, what kind of person is Joe Lewis?

Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist who wrote the recently published Six Pillars of Self?Esteem, studied karate privately with Lewis in 1969. After practicing karate for an hour, the two would discuss philosophy for several hours. Dr. Branden found Lewis' innocent, choir?boy appearance to be incongruous with his lethal karate ability. Branden also found, beneath Lewis' shy exterior, a man of intelligence and intuition. On several occasions Lewis surprised Branden by warning him that a seemingly good friend was not really as he appeared. Later events always proved the accuracy of Lewis' warnings.

Parade magazine editor Walter Anderson, Joe Lewis' Marine Corps buddy from Okinawa, says, "I have known champions all my life. I've been editor of Parade magazine 17 years. During that time I've known some of the world's most celebrated and noble people??people who have run nations, who have run corporations; great athletes, actors, writers, directors, Nobel Laureates. Of all these people, I've known no one more noble than my friend Joe Lewis. He is truly an honorable man. He is an authentic champion. And he always has been."

The Joe Lewis of today works at living an old maxim from the fight game: "You can conquer others by force, but you need strength to conquer yourself." In his tournament days, he was known for his temper. The Joe Lewis of today, wiser and more experienced, says, "He who angers you conquers you."

Joe Lewis, at 54 years young, considers his accomplishments as only a beginning. "I haven't even started," he says. He explains that one of his heroes, General George S. Patton of World War Two, won his greatest victories at the age of 57. Joe Lewis doesn't have time to look back. He looks forward.

But for those who watched Joe Lewis in the tournaments; for those who marveled at his piston?like side kick and reverse punch; for those who fought him and trained with him; he will always be Joe Lewis the karate legend.
This article appeared in the August, 1998 issue of Black Belt magazine. Arnold Howard is a freelance writer in Mesquite, Texas and can be reached at arnoldhoward@yahoo.com.


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October 25, 2005  
Blogger bob rosenbaum said...

Thank you for this article, You did point out the Joe Lewis I knew.

August 31, 2014  

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