The Daunt­less Dragon

Th­ese days, Amer­ica lags be­hind the rest of the world in kick­box­ing, but it wasn’t al­ways so.

Black Belt - - FIGHTBOOK - by Mark Ja­cobs

Back in the 1970s and early ’80s, with fighters like Bill Wal­lace and Benny Urquidez, Amer­ica stood atop the kick­box­ing land­scape. And no one stood taller than Don “The Dragon” Wil­son.

While Wil­son, 60, is now known pri­mar­ily as an ac­tor, he should be re­mem­bered as per­haps the great­est kick­boxer of all time. He earned that rep­u­ta­tion with vic­to­ries in ev­ery form of the sport — from old-school PKA full-con­tact karate to pure muay Thai — against a host of cham­pi­ons that in­cluded kick­box­ing/MMA leg­end Mau­rice Smith and boxing/kick­box­ing ti­tle­holder James War­ring. De­spite all his suc­cess, Wil­son never re­garded him­self as a kick­boxer.

“Kick­box­ing is a sport — it’s not mar­tial arts, and it’s not self-de­fense,” he said. “I was never a kick­boxer; I was a mar­tial artist who did kick­box­ing to im­prove my strik­ing and my de­fense against strikes.”

A HIGH-SCHOOL STAND­OUT in bas­ket­ball and foot­ball, Wil­son used ath­let­ics as his equal­izer while grow­ing up in Florida in the 1960s, where he was the only per­son of Asian de­scent at his school.

“When you grow up look­ing to­tally dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­one, it’s a strange feel­ing,” he said. “I can’t say I con­sciously thought about it, but when I ex­celled in sports, it was pay­back for the taunts. And the ac­cep­tance you gain from your peers when you suc­ceed is in­stan­ta­neous.”

Wil­son be­came ad­dicted to all sports, even­tu­ally play­ing foot­ball and wrestling at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Af­ter his first year there, he re­ceived his ini­tial ex­po­sure to the mar­tial arts: His older brother Jim, who’d stud­ied

pai lum kung fu for three years, in­vited him to put on the gloves for some friendly spar­ring.

When his smaller brother got the bet­ter of him, Wil­son be­came a be­liever in the ef­fec­tive­ness of the arts. Upon re­turn­ing to the Coast Guard Academy, he took up goju-ryu karate un­der Black

Belt Hall of Famer Chuck Mer­ri­man. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he started train­ing with his brother’s in­struc­tor Daniel K. Pai, along with any­one else who could teach him some­thing use­ful.

WIL­SON STARTED in point karate but quickly be­came at­tracted to a new sport called “full-con­tact karate.” He fought his first match in 1974 on a con­crete floor rather than in a ring, wear­ing light foam hand pads in­stead of boxing gloves. His first pro­fes­sional

bout net­ted him a grand to­tal of $100. The hos­pi­tal bill for the bro­ken hand he suf­fered cost him sig­nif­i­cantly more.

Nev­er­the­less, he per­sisted — and be­came the Pro­fes­sional Karate As­so­ci­a­tion’s No. 1 con­tender for its va­cant ti­tle. But in­stead of fight­ing for it, Wil­son be­gan com­pet­ing for the ri­val World Karate As­so­ci­a­tion, even­tu­ally win­ning his first ma­jor cham­pi­onship there.

“Be­ing part Ja­panese, I wanted to fight in Ja­pan,” Wil­son said about the next phase of his ca­reer. “But the PKA didn’t al­low leg kicks in its fights. To me, if you’re go­ing to be a world cham­pion, you have to fight all over the world, and you’re not go­ing to fight in the Ori­ent if you only fight above the waist.”

While many of his PKA con­tem­po­raries shied away from in­ter­na­tional bouts that per­mit­ted leg kicks, Wil­son never had trou­ble ad­just­ing his fight­ing style. “I re­ally be­lieve it’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal thing for a lot of fighters,” he said. “I played run­ning back in foot­ball and took a lot of big hits to my legs, so I was pre­pared for the pain. But if you’re not men­tally pre­pared to deal with the pain of a leg kick, it can come as a shock.”

WIL­SON EVEN­TU­ALLY “re­tired” from kick­box­ing — although he’s staged nu­mer­ous come­backs and even now is ne­go­ti­at­ing for a fight in Brazil. On the ad­vice of Chuck Nor­ris, he moved to Hol­ly­wood to pur­sue act­ing. Wil­son fol­lowed Nor­ris’ game plan of tak­ing act­ing lessons and be­ing se­ri­ous about his new ca­reer, rather than just try­ing to cash in on his rep­u­ta­tion as a mar­tial artist.

Wil­son’s ef­forts paid big div­i­dends: He was cast by B-movie mogul Roger Cor­man to star in a low-bud­get film called ϔ Ǥ The movie was suc­cess­ful enough to spawn seven se­quels.

Now a vet­eran of dozens of films, Wil­son still keeps his hand in the fight game. He served as an an­nouncer at sev­eral early UFC events — in­trigu­ingly, he says it was part of a scheme to build in­ter­est in a fight be­tween him­self and Royce Gra­cie. A few years back, Wil­son also en­gaged in talks for a bout with then-UFC wel­ter­weight champ Matt Hughes. He said that although he was ea­ger to get it on, the pro­mo­tion wasn’t will­ing to pay enough to make it hap­pen.

While he never got a chance to com­pete in MMA, Wil­son ex­pressed a love for the sport, say­ing he al­ways felt he was do­ing mixed mar­tial arts even be­fore that term was coined.

“I was a wrestler in col­lege and have al­ways be­lieved in us­ing ev­ery­thing when it comes to mar­tial arts,” he said. “I pre­fer MMA to kick­box­ing be­cause you’re still do­ing kick­box­ing but with the added el­e­ment of grap­pling. I’m a fan of MMA, but you have to re­mem­ber [that] it’s still a sport, not a real fight.”

Po­ten­tial come­backs aside, Wil­son does all his fight­ing on-screen nowa­days — most re­cently in The Mar­tial

Arts Kid, a film co-pro­duced by his brother Jim. His co-star is none other than Cyn­thia Rothrock.

Wil­son’s other pas­sion is Tra­di­tionz, a cloth­ing com­pany he and his brother cre­ated. They wanted to pay trib­ute to the philoso­phies, val­ues and tra­di­tions of the arts, some­thing most cloth­ing mak­ers ne­glect to do, he said. “Re­mem­ber, as mod­ern as he was, Bruce Lee was also a philoso­pher. He didn’t say to take all the phi­los­o­phy of mar­tial arts and just throw it out. It’s im­por­tant.”

The plot of The Mar­tial Arts Kid re­volves around 'oQ :ilVoQ·V Hf­forWV Wo WHaFh WradiWioQal marWial arWV val­ues and skills to a trou­bled teen.

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