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