Jerry Clarke, professional karate's most accomplished flyweight, was lucky he was wearing his world championship jacket on Saturday night in Daytona Beach, Fla. At least then he was able to convince a wary motorist that he needed to hitch a ride to the Ocean Center, where in a few hours he was scheduled to fight No. 8-ranked Aldaberto Leal in the nontitle showpiece of the Kenwood U.S. Open National Karate Championships. But his jacket didn't help him any at the arena when one suspicious security guard refused to let him in and another threatened to have him arrested because he was unable to produce a proper credential.
Life in the backwater world of flashing feet and fists, known by a few as the Professional Karate Association, can be a jump-spinning back kick to the ego. If you are a gifted world champion like Clarke, it can be downright demeaning to fight for $2,100 and then to go home and mow lawns for a living. But that's only if you let it.
"Aw, it could be a lot worse," said the 5'7" 23-year-old. "I had my first full contact fight in a bar in Tampa when I was 16. When the fight was over, my purse was a beer."
That was 35 fights and not a lot of money ago. Leal was the 36th. Clarke finally got into the arena after Bill Clark, who was to referee his eight-round fight, rescued him from the grasp of the second security guard.
"I thought I was going to jail," said Clarke. "The whole day was crazy like that."
For Clarke, who finally fought at 11:30 p.m., the day had begun at 6 a.m. After breakfast and a restless morning, he rode with some friends to the bustling Ocean Center. Not counting the dozen professionals who fought at night, the Kenwood Open drew more than 1,100 entries, white belts to black, from 6-year-olds to 39-year-old Steve (Mad Dawg) Curran, all competing for one of the 67 six-foot trophies given to the winner in each division.
"To tell you the truth," said light-contact heavyweight Mike Green, "you can't win much money at one of these tournaments, but you see an awful lot of three-foot kids carrying home their six-foot trophies."
By light contact, or points fighting, the karate people want you to know that one is only supposed to softly hit (or kick) an opponent to score a point—as opposed to the hard-hitting full-contact professionals. "Light?" said Mad Dawg, who runs two karate schools in Tacoma, Wash. "How am I going to go home and tell all my students that I lost because I was pulling my punches? When I hit a guy, I want everybody to know I hit him."
Most others seemed to share that sentiment, which probably explains why the Open's two young promoters, black belts Mike Sawyer and Mike McCoy, have been softly hit for a collective 14 broken noses.
"God, isn't this wonderful?" said Clarke, his thin 122 pounds covered by shorts and a light blue T shirt, as he strode into what looked like a remake of Fists of Fury. "This is my life. I was born for karate."
Soon thereafter, the world champion volunteered to judge the girls' 13-15 age group event. "Oh, Lord," he said as 5'9" Kimberly LaByer squared off against Daphene Nelson, who was at least a foot shorter. "Hey," he said in a low voice to LaByer, "control your contact."
The taller girl won very gently, 3-1, but not before Clarke squealed with delight and hugged tiny Daphene for scoring a point. "You're wonderful," he yelled.
Clarke enthusiastically judged another age group and then watched two more before returning to the Holiday Inn Surfside at 5:30 for a prefight interview with ESPN, which taped his fight. "I hate to leave. I love this," he said. Before leaving, he deposited his gym bag, which held his wallet, in the dressing room.
After the ESPN interview, he ate a light meal of a banana, an apple, part of an orange and a few grapes. Then he went back to his room to dress for the fight, putting on the loose red pants of the traditional gi and his black championship jacket. "Can you believe this?" he had said a day earlier. "A lousy $70 jacket. No, I love my jacket, but I can't wear it in the ring. You'd think the PKA would spend some of the money they make and buy belts for the champions. They make enough off of ESPN, $12,000 a show, and not one dime comes directly back to the promoters or the fighters. I'm not mad at them, I'm just disturbed."
After dressing, Clarke remembered that his money was in his wallet at the arena. He went downstairs and saw some karate fans getting into a car. He asked the driver if he would give him a lift to the Ocean Center, about two miles south.
"Who are you?" the driver asked.
"The Sting," Clarke said, using his karate nickname. He then turned and showed them the lettered back of his jacket. "Hey, look, I'm no fruitcake. I'm the world champion, and I'm fighting tonight."
"That's O.K. We know the Sting."
At the arena, he told a security guard he was Jerry Clarke.
"I don't know no Jerry Clarke," the guard said. "Jog around to the other side, and maybe they'll let you in there."
The guard on the far side thought Clarke was a gate-crasher, and he had a strong grip on Clarke's right arm when Bill Clark interceded.
"It's damn embarrassing," said Clarke, more amused than annoyed.
The fight was much easier. Clarke is a fighter with incredible speed and power. In the second round, Leal was dropped by a jump-spinning back kick, Clarke's trademark, the sting. In the fifth, he went down twice more, first on a right hand to the body followed by a hook to the head, then on a jump-spinning back kick to the forehead. With a few seconds to go in the two-minute round, it was Leal's turn to be rescued by referee Clark.
After making sure his opponent was not seriously injured, Clarke put his arms around Leal and kissed him on the cheek. Later, he spent 15 minutes explaining to Leal what he had done wrong. "You have to learn to listen to your corner," he said. "I was listening, and they were telling you things that would have worked, but you didn't listen. Aw, I'll buy you a beer."
"I don't drink," said Leal.
Clarke laughed. "O.K., I'll buy you a Coke."
Leal was Clarke's third victim in 1985, and counting the $2,100 the flyweight champion earned for that fight, he has made $8,720 for the year—a lot less than he has earned with his lawn-mowing company in Bradenton, Fla. His biggest purse since winning the title in July 1983 was the $5,620 he received in his last fight, a four-round victory by disqualification over Rico Brockington. For two title fights last year he earned about $6,000.
"Marvin Hagler makes a few bucks more," he said, laughing. "But I'm happy. I'm a world champion and I drive a 1976 Ford Grenada. And I love it. I've saved money, and I could afford a nice new sports car. But I want to put a down payment on a home and have something left over to start my marriage with. [He will marry karate green belt Tammy Weaks next May.] I've got what is important: I've got people I care about and people who care about me. What more could I want?"
Besides a championship belt, that is.