What can you say to an outraged U.S. Customs man? Not much. At best, you assume an air of deference, hoping he won't pull you out of line and make you peel down to your underwear. This particular customs agent at Montreal's Dorval Airport is upset with Bob Thurman, a clean-cut youth from Kansas City, who isn't a diamond smuggler, a doper or a rumrunner. He doesn't even have a Cuban cigar on him. Thurman's sin is that he has been pointed out as the world super middleweight champion of a thing called PKA full-contact karate, and the customs guy is having none of it. "They don't let dogs fight anymore—you know, pit bulls—and they've banned roosters from going at it," he says. "Which is exactly what they ought to do with your vicious sport."
Everybody looks innocently at the ceiling. Then Dave Cannady, Thurman's boxing trainer, steps softly to the defense. "Do you like hockey?" he asks.
The customs man draws himself up, as if his sanity had been questioned. "Of course I like hockey."
Cannady shrugs. "Well, then."
January 24, 1983
And while the officer considers the proposition that full-contact karate is every bit as gentle and tame as pro hockey, the Thurman party sort of sidesteps aboard a flight to Chicago, with a connection to Kansas City. Thurman settles into his seat and rolls his shoulders, a gesture he uses to spin off excess energy. Lord, is this kid ever deceptive. Look at him: His face is smooth and unmarked. He has close-cropped, kind of messed-around curly hair, the hint of a dimple in his right cheek and pale-blue eyes ashine with innocence. In another era, he might have come dancing right out of an Andy Hardy movie. But now he wrinkles his forehead earnestly and says, "You know, I don't feel a bit tired or worn out. I'm not even sore anyplace. The thing is, I didn't get to hit that guy enough."
Consider that last statement and thank God we've cleared customs and are airborne. For what Thurman had done the night before in suburban Montreal's Verdun Arena was destroy a worthy contender, one Eddie McCray of Detroit. He had belted him through the ropes and out onto the ring apron in Round 1. And then, 55 seconds into Round 2, Thurman had coolly stepped off to one side and kicked McCray into oblivion with a left foot to the jaw.
What we're talking about is creative violence, and the 22-year-old Thurman is one of its foremost practitioners, a man to be watched. That's because he's still growing into his sport, even while he's world champion: He has won 21 of 22 fights since turning pro in 1979, 15 by knockout. He won his title last April and now has defended it three times, KO, TKO and KO. At 5'11" and 165 or so pounds, he's a puncher of hammering force, and a steadily improving kicker. Imagine it: Thurman has two coaches, one who teaches his upper body what to do and another who tutors his lower body, as if the two were separate principalities. Whenever Thurman fights these men share his corner, consulting each other on whether or not the opponent is being properly destroyed. It takes a moment for the mind to adjust to what's going on here: Thurman might come back between rounds to hear something like, "I think this guy's a sucker for a left roundhouse kick." And he's only too eager to deliver it.
Indeed, it's Thurman who appears endlessly in the ESPN television promotional clip for PKA full-contact karate. The clip, from a 1981 fight, starts just after Thurman has stunned Emilio Narvaez with a spectacular left hook. The TV audience sees the dazed Narvaez half-doubled over; he seems to be looking at the floor for a spot to lie down. Thurman carefully arranges Narvaez, as if he were an artist setting up a piece of soft sculpture—and then he leans to one side and kicks Narvaez so savagely in the head that he rises up sharply and disappears backward, off-camera, as the voice-over informs you, "PKA karate is the kick of the '80s!"
Maybe so. In any case, Thurman's lengthening string of victories and the constant airing of the promo spot are gaining him more and more recognition and respect. "You know," he says, "I must be mellowing out. I haven't been in a street fight in a long time." A new air of respect also greets him at the Kansas City karate studio and boxing gym where he works out and at the International Fitness Center, the health spa where he pretends to train while lining up shapely girls at the club bar. Occasionally folks steal sidelong glances at Thurman, and some even confront him directly, as did two little old ladies recently in a Kansas City department store. Peering up at him, one said, "Ah, hah! You're in that TV commercial. You brute! How could you be so cold as to kick that poor young man in the head like that?"
"But, ma'am," Thurman said (and this is his standard reply and sincere belief), "if I hadn't done it to him, he would've done it to me."
Which seems to be a fair enough assessment of what one-on-one combat sports are all about, and because of that attitude, PKA karate may, indeed, become something of a kick in the '80s. Certainly, the sport is beginning to attract attention, and fresh blood is coming into it—which assuredly isn't a play on words. Once karate was populated mostly by purists, engaged in what was originally an essentially defensive physical discipline, as well as a mental and spiritual undertaking. The most spectacular aspect of karate then was the footwork, the kicks; the fighters used only the traditional hand blows—karate is Japanese for "empty hand." Boxing was tacked on later, and for a time there, full-contact looked awkward, even a little berserk.
That was a few years ago, when the sport began drawing boxers who thought they saw in full-contact karate the chance for success they couldn't gain in their own sport. They weren't the best boxers, understand; the best didn't cross over. But for those eager to switch, the lure of full-contact was that it looked easy. All you had to do was learn a few basic kicks and always remember to bow politely to your opponent just before you proceeded to pound the yogurt out of him.
"The unique result," says Jay T. Will, the PKA's No. 1 referee, "is that all of this is now potentially more violent than boxing—with both punching and kicking—but not nearly as destructive."
Thurman was one such recruit, perhaps the best example of that new breed, because he proved capable of developing into a kicker. All the PKA's world-ranked fighters are black belts, a status that few boxers other than Thurman have attained. Thurman's a gem, a natural brawler who made it to the 1980 Golden Gloves national middleweight quarterfinals on what looked like energy alone. He saw his first full-contact karate fight about three years ago and marveled, "You mean you get to kick, too?" He promptly announced to anyone who would listen, "Hey, I'm going to be the next world champion of this, uh...whatever it is."
Now in the Chicago airport, Cannady reveals that Thurman had made his Montreal title defense with a broken nose. The break had come nine days earlier in training—they figured it had been caused by a modest instructional kick delivered by Thurman's karate teacher, Steve Mackey. The fracture was high across the bridge of the nose, and Thurman's crew had practically tippy-toed into Canada because he was afraid someone would find out and not let him fight. "So at the very last minute," he says, "we had to work on a lot of new stuff. I mean, like suddenly I was fighting very upright, with my head high, like ol' John L. Sullivan or somebody, because I sure didn't want McCray hauling off and kicking me in the nose."
Not that such a kick would necessarily have done Thurman in. He has been knocked off his feet only three times in his career, and been knocked out only once—not in the ring, but with a Coke bottle in a bar.
To understand where full-contact karate is going, one should take a quick look at where it has been. One doesn't have to go all the way back to some dim Far Eastern past, with a gang of guys jumping around in floppy pajamas and yelling HIIII-YA! while making chopping motions with their open hands. One need return only to the early 1970s in the U.S., when the martial arts scene was in turmoil. Karate was fragmented into innumerable styles and schools, and several governing organizations, with everybody staging his own tournaments and claiming to have the only real world champions. In some groups the fighters made only light contact; in some, it was heavier; in some, there was none. And there were the disciplines in which weapons—swords and staffs and nunchakus—were the thing. Karate and kung fu styles abounded—in fact, still abound—in their hundreds: in karate, the Korean tae kwon do and innumerable other forms with their innumerable variations; and in kung fu, The Way of the Tiger, The Drunken Monkey and, who knows, The Kick to the Shinbone and The Thumb in the Eye. Naturally, each was the true discipline. By one count, in 1974, there were 19 different "official" martial-arts magazines on the stands, and the entire mess looked to an outsider like one big Bruce Lee-David Carradine-Chuck Norris spinoff.
In fact, what you had here was an enormous pool of profoundly dedicated, well-trained athletes, but no sport. Twenty-five hundred competitors could turn up for a tournament, but what karate was was so unclear that it got to the point where TV producers, no matter how hungry for sports programming they may have been, used to groan and hide under their desks whenever the karate folks came around. Finally, in 1974, enter a couple of Californians named Don and Judy Quine, who seemed about as well qualified as anybody to bring a marketable sport out of the chaos.
Well, maybe more qualified. Both had show-biz backgrounds. Judy, now 50, is the daughter of the late Barney Balaban, founder of the Balaban and Katz theater empire and for 30 years the president of Paramount Pictures. Don, 44, was a Universal contract actor in 1965 and 1966, appearing in television's The Virginian and Peyton Place, but already pretty suspicious that he wasn't being groomed to be Paul Newman II. The Quines discovered karate through their kids, as many parents do, although it was perhaps easier for them, because between them they've got six children from earlier marriages. The next thing they knew, having casually agreed to help a pal put on a karate tournament, they found themselves enlisted as co-producers of a September 1974 weekend extravaganza at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
"We called it The First World Professional Karate Championships," says Don, "for this reason: That seemed about as good as anything else to call it." They could just as easily have called it The Kick in the Head Classic. What was important was 1) the event drew an enthusiastic crowd and was taped for television replay and 2) nobody knew quite what was going on. That's about as clear as a message gets, and it was then that the Quines decided to give karate some structure—as Don says, "a parent organization, like the PGA is to pro golf." You can call this one the PKA.
The first order of PKA business was to whomp up a set of rules. "There was still a lot of Far Eastern philosophy hanging in the air," says Judy. "The action was exciting, even pretty, but who could understand it? Some fighters used open hands like ax blades; some used fists. There was even a thing called Texas Light Contact. Forget it. And in some bouts, when a fighter dropped an opponent, he'd quickly kneel and deliver a pretend blow to the head or throat, showing how he'd kill his foe if this were real. So now you're saying to the audience, 'This is real, folks, but it's really not.' "
There were no roped rings then; most bouts were staged on mats, and the fighters wore gis, the traditional baggy tops and bottoms. "Somehow the guys didn't look like they were serious about fighting," says Don. In this attire, the action did, to the non-aficionado, have a sort of dreamy, Doctor Denton quality. Don stripped the fighters to the waist, so fans could see muscled chests and washboard abdomens. And gradually the pants have been slimmed down, so that the principals no longer come out looking like fugitives from a chorus line from The Thief of Baghdad. Boxing gloves were added, eight to 10 ounces these days, plus mouthpieces and protective cups, shin guards and the foam footpieces that are strapped over the tops of bare feet. The footsies are made of closed-cell foam coated with PVC vinyl. Unhappily, no matter how balletic and graceful the sport is at times, the feet look clunky, as if the fighters have strapped on high-gloss prehistoric hooves. But the guards protect the delicate bones of the feet, to say nothing of the delicate bones of the face, and clunkiness seems like a small enough price to pay.
As for combat styles, the Quines quickly set about developing a consistent, comprehensible set of rules. "We had a stylized form at first, three punches, followed by a kick," says Judy. "It was like a conga line out of some Carmen Miranda epic: One, two, three, kick! That had to go."
A lot of the old stuff went, too. Don used the California boxing rule book as a rough PKA guide, stirring in exotic elements as he went. The PKA now has eight regulatory committees, and its rule book runs to 26 pages. The Quines consulted fighters, trainers, doctors and stress experts—"at the beginning we weren't even sure how long a round should last," says Judy—and finally it was determined that rounds should be of two minutes' duration with one-minute rests in between, and that bouts should consist of between five and 12 (for title fights) rounds. Rules call for a minimum of eight serious kicks per round, none below the waist; no clinching, ever; a standing eight count; and none of that nasty Thai kick-boxing stuff, which includes everything from your basic groin shots to kneeing, grabbing, head-butting and general ungentlemanliness. "The audience," says Judy, "wants action, not blood."
And, obviously, no serious mishaps. Indeed, in the eight years since the PKA was born, there have been no fatalities, no crippling injuries. Only twice has a fighter in a PKA-sanctioned bout stayed overnight in a hospital. "There are a couple of reasons for this," says Referee Will. "For one thing, most of these fighters are black belts, and it takes a lot of discipline to earn one. So they're generally in better physical shape than boxers. Look, we don't get just anybody who wanders in off the street. For another thing, there's no punishing in-fighting." The fighters' upright stance—needless to say, nobody can deliver a kick while crouching, and to lean forward is to invite a boot in the nose—serves to keep them farther apart.
Which brings up the old question: Say we throw a boxer and a full-contact karate man into the same ring. Who wins?
It's very simple, says Kerry Roop of Rochester, Mich., the PKA world light heavyweight champion. Roop concedes that the boxer would reduce the karate guy to something like chipped beef on toast. "I've got absolutely no chance against Michael Spinks," he says.
The main problem in the early days of the PKA was a lack of stars to stir up interest. "The sport has a great tradition, but no sense of nostalgia like, say, baseball," says Judy. "What we needed," says Don, "was a hero to catch the imagination of fans." They found him in the legendary middleweight Bill (Superfoot) Wallace, whose career spanned the full confused range of karate competition, from no-contact through PKA bouts. The super foot in question was his left. "You couldn't train for a fight with Wallace. You couldn't find anybody fast enough to spar with," says former middleweight Joe Corley, now the PKA executive vice-president and The Voice of PKA Karate, who does most of the ESPN commentary and has produced 130 events for that network. Among Corley's other accomplishments has been getting "killed" by Benny (The Jet) Urquidez in the film, Force Five. "We did 24 takes of him killing me with a jump roundhouse kick with his combat boots on," Corley says. "A fun way to spend an afternoon."
Corley, who fought Superfoot in 1975 and retired in 1977, observes, "Wallace could come up from the floor to your head before you could throw a punch—his foot would travel six feet before your hand could travel six inches. And he could shift his balance so fast you couldn't see where he was coming from." Wallace won the PKA world title in 1974 and successfully defended it 23 times before retiring undefeated at 33 in 1980.
As more and more marketable fighters have come aboard, the PKA has swelled into an organization that sanctioned 196 events in some 100 cities around the world in 1982, with 32 events being televised. It will easily top those figures in '83. It now has some 2,000 member fighters in 11 weight divisions. The PKA also has two TV contracts, the biggest a two-year pact with ESPN. The 1980 ESPN media stat ratings showed full-contact karate leading all series events, a full point ahead of football, with boxing in third place.
In exchange for licensing the fighters, sanctioning fights and promoting the sport, the PKA negotiates TV contracts and controls the TV rights to all taped fights, which could possibly make this one of the richer mom-and-pop shops in the world. In addition, last spring it began an Associated Schools Program to award the best karate schools the PKA equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The aim: to guide neophytes through the underbrush of karate listings in the Yellow Pages. There's also a new licensing pact with King Features—Judy says that King's first licensee, Wiz Kids, has already sold several thousand dozen T shirts to large chains, and a general air of impending big-time surrounds the PKA, though the main offices are still over the garage of the Quine home on a hilltop in Beverly Hills.
Which brings us back to Thurman, who just may turn out to be the sport's Superduperfoot. Right now, it's a matter of keeping him carefully in check. Thurman himself has only one concern: When's my next fight, and does two-thirty this afternoon sound all right? In addition to the coaches he now has, he probably needs another one to hold him down.
"He's always been, well, active like this," says his stepfather, Ken Seibert (Thurman's parents were divorced when he was small). "When Bob was just a little boy, he had a terrible temper; we used to worry about him." And, "It's hard to understand someone like Bob," says John Brown of the Tomahawk Boxing Club, a coach from Thurman's Golden Gloves days. "I mean, this kid was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and yet he's hungrier and works harder at his craft than any ghetto kid you'll ever see."
The Seiberts are a gentle and quietly wealthy family—Ken owns several hotels around the country. Bob still lives in the Seibert ranch-style house on K.C.'s exclusive South Side, with his mother, Shirley; brothers David, 17, and Mike, seven; and sister, Amy, 10. Thurman has taken over a wing of the house, in which he has converted a morning room into a gym, one wall of which is plastered with fight posters and pinups. It was a picture window looking out on the yard until Thurman kicked a sparring partner through it and it was boarded over. The sparring partner wasn't hurt, but, "I was shattered," says Shirley. One day, no matter how many interrupted quarters it takes, Thurman expects to get his degree, probably in business administration, from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
With a kid who has had everything, it seems puzzling that Thurman's fighting style doesn't reflect his life-style in some subtle way: Why isn't it more elegant, perhaps, or studied? Full-contact karate is a rare sport that permits a man the opportunity to look a bit cool and aloof; it's the upright posture that does it. At times it has an aura of politesse and gentlemanly combat about it, and traditionally, one of respect. Not, however, in Thurman's case. Thurman comes on as if driven by angry demons; he's all offense. Anybody with any right hand at all can get through to him with ease. But hitting him is one thing; taking him out is another. "I know, I know," Thurman says with a shrug. "It's my own fault. I keep dropping my left hand, and, I swear, sometimes I've been hit so hard I thought I was going to die. But all that is changing."
For sure, and with every fight he shows more maturity, more moves and even touches of guile. Says Cannady, "At the start we knew he wasn't coordinated, but we were impressed with his strength and tenacity. And what an appetite to learn!" Says Mackey, "I think I've created a monster."
The monster trains—almost continuously, it seems—at Mackey's modest Bushidokan studio in the K.C. suburb of Overland Park. (Bushido means Way of the Warrior and kan means, loosely, school.) "It's a tough discipline," says Mackey, "but Bob puts up with it because it adds to his skills."
Then Cannady takes over. "I want you to throw a punch every time this flashlight blinks on." Flash, flash, flash. On other days, there's Thurman, standing on a tennis court, with Cannady aiming a ball-firing machine at him. "You ready?" Cannady asks. He fires away, point-blank, with Thurman darting about, trying to dodge the 90-plus mph balls. "It teaches me agility," he says, involuntarily covering his crotch with his hands. At last, instructed to get some sleep, Thurman goes home and into his bedroom, which is just off his gym. "But in the middle of the night we'll hear crashing about," says Shirley, "and it'll be Bob—out of bed and working out."
"It's hard for me not to be an extremist," Thurman says. "I just want to be the best at this. Karate has changed my whole life. I mean, look, I played hockey in school. That didn't do it. I wanted to box all along, but Dad [Ken] wouldn't let me. Then I was roving linebacker in high school, the monsterman on defense. But I hate team sports; you've got to rely too much on somebody else. I tried high school rodeo, bareback and bull riding. When I was finally permitted to box, I went 36 and one as an amateur, including a couple of Golden Glove titles. But now I've found out just what I want to do."
Specifically, right now, this very day, what Thurman wants to do is dominate two PKA divisions by winning the world middleweight title from Jean-Yves Theriault of Canada. It sounds like a swell plan, except that Theriault is to full-contact karate what Gregory Hines is to tap dancing, and this particular clash had best be put off, and off, and off, until Thurman gets more seasoning.
He's getting that. Thurman represents the spirit of change blowing through the sport, according to Will. As the sport draws tougher, more exciting fighters, many of them display a firm lack of reverence toward the old forms. "The old guard, the martial arts people, might not like this, but the public finds full-contact karate vastly more thrilling," says Will. He figures the new breed comes to karate with what he calls a linebacker mentality: "The linebacker doesn't merely hit you, like everybody else in football. He also inflicts pain, if at all possible."
That may be the new karate, ideal for a non-contemplative sort like Thurman. Standing just outside the health spa on a gray winter day, he gestures at Kansas City sprawled on all sides. "There ain't no seashore here, or no mountains," he says. "Which means there's nothing to do around here but fight."