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An American Karate & Kickboxing Pioneer: Joe Lewis

Joe Lewis after a Workout

By Paul Swaim/AMAM

Legendary martial artist Joe Lewis (March 7th, 1944 – August 31st, 2012) was considered to be the original American Kickboxer by his peers. He was also a popular Karate "Point" fighter, actor and instructor with a legion of loyal students around the globe. After his having won "United States Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion", "World Heavyweight Karate Champion" and "United States National Black Belt Kata Champion" titles under his belt, he has been highly celebrated and voted the greatest fighter in (Kenpo) Karate history.

A True American...

Joe Lewis and his famous side stance

Joe Lewis (Born in Knightdale, North Carolina) joined the United States Marine Corps in 1962. He began studying Shorin-Ryu Karate while stationed in Okinawa, earning his Black Belt after only several months of formal training, a task that normally takes up to four years.

Upon returning to the USA, he then embarked on a winning tournament career. Beginning in 1966, Lewis won the Grand Championship of the first tournament he ever entered. He continued to reign as the U.S. Nationals Grand Champion from 1966-1969, being defeated only once by Chuck Norris.

US National Karate Championships 1968

Soon after returning stateside, he then started his private training with legendary and influential martial arts icon Bruce Lee (Founder of Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do) before he (Lee) eventually moved back to Hong Kong to begin his ground-breaking film career. From 1967 to 1968, Lee had Lewis test out his fighting theories at a series of tournaments. Lewis always credited Lee's expert instruction for his resulting improvements during that period.

It has long been rumored that Lewis was the original choice of Bruce Lee to play the villian named Colt in his film "Way of the Dragon" until Lee and Lewis suddenly had a disagreement before filming began, which led to Chuck Norris filling the role instead.

US National Karate Championships 1968

Joe Lewis on Bruce Lee...

Bruce came to me when he was only 27 (early 1967) and asked me to allow him to teach me the different mechanics from his system ... he gave it no name. I ignored him since he was both of the Chinese race and a Kung-Fu practitioner. I wasn’t fond of Chinese fighters or Kung-Fu non-fighting styles in those days.

Shortly after that, his kicks greatly improved and he added a great deal of tactical and mechanical boxing to his style as he was changing much of his Wing Chun practices. This was the same year when he started using the term Jeet Kune Do.

To capture my attention, he went through Mike Stone to contact me and he focused on his fighting principles instead of the mechanics of his then techniques of Jun Fan Gung-Fu, etc or what ever he called it back then. He did not give it a name around me.

While I was working with him and testing his principles against top fighters, he wanted to get away from all the excessive trapping his style was accepting as “appropriate” and yet not exactly “tactically” effective. His system back then was based on “interception.” However, he felt that if you have time to intercept or “trap,” you have time to hit. In boxing, if you have time to block ... you have time to hit.

Bruce was working in 1968 and ’69 an attempt to avoid all the excessive “trapping” his practitioners were using as an attribute of that system. This was many of the changes Bruce was working on; remember, he was still young and in his twenties. Imagine what changes he would advocate today had he remained alive.

Bruce and Joe 1969

I do not tell many people of all the changes he was working on. Most martial artists are afraid of the word “change” anyway and feel more comfortable avoiding this, and prefer to cling to the past.

In my judgment, remember this quote from my intelligent mentor, “A clinging to the past in the face of new and changing circumstances is itself a product of insecurity, a lack of self-trust.”

Joe Lewis always credited the following persons for providing him with his martial arts instruction: Eliza Shimabukuro, John Korab, Chinsaku Kinjo, Seiyu Oyata, Joe Orbillo, Gordan Doversola and Bruce Lee. To further enhance his skills, Lewis also did some training with boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson.

Full-Contact Impact...

In February of 1968, Joe Lewis along with five other top ranked fighters (Including Bob Wall, David Moon, Skipper Mullens, J. Pat Burleson & Fred Wren) all fought in the original "Heavy Contact" World Professional Karate Championships (WPKC) in Kansas City, MO. Lewis won the tournament and was paid just one-dollar for his efforts, officially making him the first professional Karate champion.

Bruce Lee, Ed Parker and Joe Lewis 1969

Joe Lewis continued to actively compete, winning most and losing some, until the early 1980's when he finally retired form competitions. He is often noted for his epic battles versus fellow veteran sport-fighter Bill "Superfoot" Wallace, a long time friend of Lewis' who remained closely associated with him until his final days.

Throughout the following decades, the great Joe Lewis has remained a highly regarded figure within the worldwide martial arts community. He's been celebrated inside and on the covers of dozens of easily recognized industry magazines, he become an author, and, as an actor he has been a featured in several action films.

Lewis has also had the honor and distiction of becoming inducted into various martial arts halls of fame. He has personally conducted hundreds of training seminars in many different countries and constructed a legacy of certified students around the world.

Joe Lewis has a legion of fans that will miss him sorely.

The sad news of Joe Lewis' final losing battle with brain cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2011, has deeply upset the entire martial arts community. He will always remain an important figure to everyone familiar with his influence within the realm of martial arts.

Joe Lewis
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