Sugar Ray Leonard walks this way. It is a very deliberate manner of moving: measured, self-contained steps on the balls of the feet, shoulders slightly back, chest out, head held level. There is a regal quality to it. It is a little removed, cool but not snooty.
Kathy Long has the walk of champions, and she has earned it. She is the undisputed women's featherweight world kick-boxing champion. And during the past year she has become perhaps the most popular kick boxer on the planet.
Long teaches kung fu and kick boxing at the Academy of International Martial Arts in Bakersfield, Calif. She trains there six days a week, even when she doesn't have a bout scheduled. Her conditioning regimen, surely one of the most rigorous in professional sports, includes such exercises as jumping rope, shadow-boxing, going 12 rounds each day with a 225-pound heavy bag and having a 16-pound medicine ball repeatedly bounced off her stomach. In addition, she regularly squeezes out dozens of one-armed push-ups, runs two five-mile uphill courses as well as eight flat half-milers and, upon completing her roadwork, trudges up and down the steps at Bakersfield College stadium with a 140-pound sparring partner on her back.
As she walks into the academy's gym, Long winks at the little crowd of spectators who have been waiting for her and approaches the boxing ring, a big smile splashed across her face. She is startlingly good-looking, with high cheekbones and clear blue eyes. Her blonde hair cascades down her shoulders and spills across her back in ringlets. She's wearing matching black shorts and a loose-fitting tank top. Her deltoids are large, firm, round and highly defined; the muscle groups in her forearms dance. Using yellow elastic bandaging, she quickly and expertly wraps her wrists and hands. "What do you weigh, Kathy?" shouts an appreciative male voice from ringside. "Twenty-four," she says, meaning 124 pounds. "I always weigh 24." As she speaks, she tugs on a pair of 12-ounce boxing gloves.
Long always weighs 124 because she is perpetually on a training diet. She seldom eats anything other than grilled chicken and steamed fresh vegetables; sometimes she has a pasta dish without cheese. She drinks orange juice, water and, once in a while, a decaffeinated hot tea. On an occasional Sunday evening—"cheat day," she calls it—she will allow herself a half-dozen Oreo cookies.
Now she fastens her curls in a ponytail, wraps her ankles and feet, then steps barefoot through the ropes to meet a male sparring partner who outweighs her by about 20 pounds. The tissue around his eyebrows is deeply scarred; he has a thick mustache and badly bruised thighs and calves.
The bell rings for the first round, and Long dances a few steps to her left. She throws a couple of clean, crisp jabs that get her inside, from where she digs a straight right in under his rib cage. She springs a hook in near his right kidney, doubles it up to the head, then dances to the side and out of reach, her hair bounding behind her. After a couple of minutes, you notice the elegance with which she moves. The mechanics of her punches are nearly perfect. Former world lightweight boxing champion Pernell Whitaker, a fan of Long's, has said, "She's the only woman I've ever seen who can fight, the only one who can really do it."
Long drops her gloves to her side, sticks her face out, teasing the sparring mate, pulls her head back when he throws a jab, and immediately leans back in and stabs him flat on the bridge of the nose with her own straight left. It is a move that was patented by Leonard, her boxing idol. The sparring partner throws a couple of jabs that Long slips; then she spears him again with a left and kicks him hard on the inside of his left thigh. The slapping sound is explosive in the small room. The crowd oohs and aahs. He catches her with a right cross that snaps her head back and to the side. She grits her teeth and kicks him on the right shin with her own shin. The noise the blow makes is unmistakably that of bone against bone. One spectator winces and unconsciously bends to rub the bottom of his own leg. As the source of the bruises on the sparring partner's legs becomes obvious, so does the fact that kick boxing rules have changed fairly dramatically in recent years. Kicks to the legs are not allowed by several sanctioning bodies.
Long goes 12 three-minute rounds, frequently changing sparring partners. When she steps from the ring she spends a few minutes signing publicity photos for people who want autographs—"Hugs and punches, from Kathy Long, 5-time world champ," she usually writes. When she has finished signing, she reaches into the pocket of her shorts and produces a necklace with a small gold boxing glove attached to it. She fastens it about her neck as if it were a talisman, and then she leaves the gym.
Over a lunch of broccoli, carrots and rice, Long is prompted to talk about herself, something she seems a bit uncomfortable doing. Although she's soft spoken, her voice is rich and deep. She has a dead-on way of looking at you that is disarming. She talks about the '60s and '70s folk music she listens to (Carole King and Don McLean are favorite performers), about the poetry she writes and about her pencil sketches. Before she became a martial arts celebrity, she had hoped to make a living as a commercial artist. When asked to talk about her fights, she recounts the story of her first ring experience, against a 190-pound opponent. "I was way scared," she says. "The other girl had had several amateur fights and was so damned big that she couldn't find anyone to fight. Because of the difference in weight, it was called an exhibition. I only had nine days to prepare. I didn't even know how to throw a jab. After the contest everyone said I broke her nose. I don't know, but I do know she immediately retired from kick boxing."
In 1987, shortly after that bout, Long fought two three-rounders as an amateur in regular boxing. Against men. "I felt a little sorry for the guys," she says. "Going in, it was a no-win situation for them. If they won, big deal, they beat up a girl; if they lost, oh, no, they got whipped by a skirt." How did she do? "I'm undefeated as a boxer," she says. "If they allowed professional fighters to compete in the Olympics, I'd try for it."
Long grew up in Southern California, though her family seldom stayed long in any one town because her father, James, held a succession of jobs. He and her mother, Evelyn, raised four children, one of whom is Long's twin sister, Jennifer. As a child, Long was a wiry jock who picked up most sports easily, and though she's known primarily as a kick boxer (her professional record is 18-1-1), Long's martial arts background is extensive and multidimensional. She began studying aikido at 15, and at 18 she earned a black belt. A year later she switched to kung fu. She was awarded her black belt in kung fu 4½ years ago, when she was 23. She says that kung fu is more freewheeling than ring fighting. "Kick boxing is a sport," she explains. "Inside the ring, although the opponent is trying to knock you out, if worse comes to worst, you can quit. There's so much more at stake outside of the ring. You can easily get killed; I can get raped. Fighting, real fighting, is about sticking your fingers in people's eyes, grabbing groins, breaking knees."
Though Long is no street ruffian, she has had occasion to put her martial artistry to use. Most champion kick boxers make less than $5,000 per fight, and Long has defended her world titles for as little as $1,200, though she did earn $20,000 for her last fight. Until this past year, to supplement her kick boxing income she took jobs waiting tables and working as the head bouncer in a Bakersfield bar frequented by oil-field workers.
David Cochran, who worked as a bouncer with Long, describes one Saturday night encounter: "There was this guy who'd gotten way out of hand. He had a tattoo on his face. He was pretty large, about 220, maybe 235. A couple times Kathy asked him to calm down. When she walked away, he talked junk behind her back. You know the kind of stuff—'Yeah, she's a kick boxer. So what? What's a little——like that gonna do to me?' Well, I asked him to leave, and he came after me. I put him on the ground and had him in a wrist leverage. He started screaming and yelling at me, but I couldn't get him to move. He wouldn't get up, wouldn't walk. I tried to pick him up and I couldn't. Kathy comes over to us, and he starts calling her names. She looks at me and calmly says, 'Where do you want him?' I say, 'Outside.' And Kathy reaches down and grabs him, one hand at the back of his head, one hand around his windpipe, picks him up, feet dangling off the ground. She takes three running steps with him and throws him out into the parking lot."
Long says she never again wants to wait on tables, and she probably won't need to. After doing lucrative work as Michelle Pfeiffer's stunt double for the fight scenes in Batman Returns, Long recently signed a $700,000, five-picture deal with Kings Road Entertainment. Knights, the working title of the first film, is in production.
"She's got something very special in her face," kick boxing film star Jean-Claude Van Damme has said. "She's beautiful, and she's got [a] broken nose. It's very appealing, very, very real. She'd make a great leading lady."
The speed with which Long has become a legend within the martial arts community rivals that of her punches and kicks. "You'll never meet a better, more committed athlete than Kathy Long," says actor and former karate competitor Chuck Norris. "She's the best female fighter I've ever seen." In 1991, Long was named to both the Black Belt magazine and the Inside Kung-Fu magazine halls of fame, the first martial artist to be so honored in the same year. And during that time she was on the cover of at least nine martial arts periodicals. She recently signed a promotional agreement with the leading manufacturer of martial arts training equipment. There are also plans to market Kathy Long posters and calendars and a line of women's athletic wear.
Long wants to kick box for at least the next two years. Possible opponents include Holland's Lucia Riker and England's Lisa Halworth, who won a controversial decision (the fight was held in England and was changed at the last minute from a seven-round kick boxing match to a three-round Thai boxing match) over Long early in Long's career. Five-time men's world champion Benny Urquidez, who is generally regarded as the best kick boxer ever to have fought, says Riker and Halworth would give Long tough lights but that "Kathy would beat both of them because she's a better strategist, a better chess player." In April, Showtime aired Long's easy eight-round decision win over Nora Daigle, who was undefeated before the fight. It was the network's first kick boxing show. Promoter Jim Fitzgerald is putting on several Long fights. The first was a pay-per-view telecast on March 16 from Las Vegas. Long's opponent, whom she defeated by unanimous decision in a five-round fight, was Japanese women's champion Kyoko Kamikaze, and Long added a fifth title, the newly created World Martial Arts Challenge championship, to her collection.
Long hasn't campaigned for fame and recognition, and she is chief among those who have been surprised by her success. "I like to fight, and I love to do kung fu," she says, "but my dream is to buy some horses and a few acres and have enough money not to take this ambition thing too seriously."
Which brings us to the one knock against Long as a fighter, if not as a human being: She's too nice. She doesn't like to hurt people, and in several fights in which she could have KO'd opponents, she chose to back off.
Norris doesn't see this as as problem. "Kathy's one of the sweetest gals you'll ever meet," he says, "but in the ring she's the dominant force. What impresses me even more is the presence she's developing both in and out of the ring. She has a winning spirit, she knows exactly what she has to do at all times, and she's getting better with every fight."
Davis Miller is a free-lance writer who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.