Joe Lewis (March 7, 1944 – August 31, 2012) was an American kickboxer, point karate fighter, and actor. As a fighter, Lewis gained fame for his matches in the 1960s and 1970s. He has twice been voted the greatest fighter in karate history, having won innumerable karate tournaments, and has attained the titles of "United States Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion," "World Heavyweight Full Contact Karate Champion," and "United States National Black Belt Kata Champion." Bruce Lee also considered him "the Greatest Karate Fighter of all time" and "The greatest Fighter of his time". He was also named by the STAR System Records as the "STAR Historic Undisputed Heavyweight World Champion" and is credited on their site as the "Father of Modern Kickboxing".
Joseph Henry Lewis was born on March 7, 1944, in Knightdale, North Carolina. He joined the United States Marine Corps on March 13, 1962 and was stationed at Cherry Point in Havelock, North Carolina from July 20, 1962 to April 12, 1964. He studied Shorin-ryu Karate with Eizo Shimabukuro, John Korab, Chinsaku Kinjo and Seiyu Oyata while stationed in Okinawa between May 21, 1964 and November 29, 1965, earning his black belt in a mere seven months. He was one of the first Marines stationed in Vietnam, there meeting Anthony (Rocky) Graziano. From February 7 to July 14, 1966, he was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, NC, at which time he was released from Active Duty. Upon returning to the USA, he began a winning tournament career. From 1967 to 1968, he studied privately with the influential Wing-Chun kung fu teacher, Jeet Kune Do founder, and Chinese/Hollywood movie legend Bruce Lee. Hong Kong cinema historian Bey Logan says Lewis was the original pick of Bruce Lee for the villain Colt in Way of the Dragon, but that Lee and Lewis had a falling out before the film and thus Chuck Norris was tapped instead.
In July 2011, he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Doctors told him that if he did nothing, he’d have six to eight weeks to live. On July 18, surgeons removed the tumor. “He had the best doctors, and they think they did a good job of getting it all out,” said Dennis Nackord, Lewis’ senior black belt.
Lewis died one year and forty-five days later, on the morning of August 31, 2012 at Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
In 1966, with only 22 months of training, Lewis won the grand championship of the 1st tournament he entered, The U.S. Nationals promoted by Jhoon Rhee. Lewis defeated 7 opponents before defeating Thomas Carroll by 2-0 decision. Lewis reigned as the U.S. Nationals grand champion from 1966-1969. At the 1967 Nationals in Washington, Lewis won the championship by defeating Mitchell Bobrow in the semi final and beating Frank Hargrove 3-2 in the finals. Previously, Lewis defeated Hargrove in New York City at 'Henry Cho's Karate Tournament'. During that time he defeated Chuck Norris
In 1966, at the Long Beach Internationals, Lewis lost an upset decision to Allen Steen. In 1967, Lewis defeated Weiland Norris (brother of Chuck Norris), Steve LaBounty, Frank Knoll, and Frank Hargrove (for the 3rd time).
In February, 1968, Lewis and five other top rated fighters (Bob Wall, Skipper Mullins, J. Pat Burleson, David Moon, and Fred Wren) fought in the 1st World Professional Karate Championships (WPKC) promoted by Jim Harrison. This was the first "professional" tournament in karate history and took place in Harrison's dojo in Kansas City. The rules allowed "heavy contact." Lewis won the tournament and was paid one dollar, thus officially making him the first professional champion in karate history.
At the 1968 'Orient vs. U.S. Tournament', promoted by Aaron Banks, Lewis lost a decision to Japanese-American N. Tanaka. In Dallas, Texas, at the 'First Professional Karate Tournament', Lewis won the championship trophy by decisioning Larry Whitner, Phil Ola, and Skipper Mullins.
In August, 1968, Lewis was defeated by Victor Moore at the 2nd professional karate tournament in history. The event was called the World's Hemisphere Karate Championships and it took place in San Antonio, Texas; promoted by Robert Trias and Atlee Chittim. Both Moore and Lewis split the championship purse of 1-thousand dollars. That same year, Lewis defeated Louis Delgado (Delgado had beaten Chuck Norris the year before).
On November 24, 1968 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, Lewis won Aaron Banks', World Professional Karate Championships by defeating Victor Moore to win the World Heavyweight Title. Lewis was paid $600 for his title winning effort.
In 1970, Lewis lost in yet another upset to John Natividad at the All-Star Team Championships in Long Beach, California. However, at the 'Battle of Atlanta' promoted by Joe Corley, Joe Lewis defeated Mitchell Bobrow in a closely contested come from behind victory for the Heavyweight Championship, and Joe Hayes for the Grand Championship.
At Ed Parker's 1972 'International Karate Championships', Darnell Garcia scored an upset victory over Lewis.
At the 1972 Grande Nationals in Memphis Tennessee ,Joe Lewis beat Jerry Piddington winning his grande title match in a 1 - 0 victory.
Joe Lewis was voted by the top fighters and promoters as the greatest karate fighter of all time in 1983. Chuck Norris and Bill Wallace tied for second place. Gene Lebell has credited Joe as the person who "brought us full-contact karate."
1974 was to be a busy year for Joe Lewis and it would mark his final year in tournament karate competition. In May, Lewis lost to Charles Curry in New York at the Hidy Ochiai National Karate Tournament. That same month, Lewis won the PAWAK tournament which lasted from May 11-May 12. Lewis scored victories over Frank Harvey, Smiley Urquidez, Benny Urquidez, and Cecil Peoples in the elimination matches. Joe won the championship with a 4-3 points decision over Steve Sanders. Finally, at Mike Anderson's, 'Top 10 National Professional Karate Tournament', Lewis lost to Everett "Monster Man" Eddy in the finals.
Joe Lewis was a veteran of the Vietnam War where he served in the communications field. His military decorations include: Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, and "Expert" Rifle Badge. He acted in films and on TV, and was briefly married to actress Barbara Leigh. Throughout his life, he continued to give seminars and work in the entertainment industry.
Kickboxing and full-contact karate career
Starting in 1967, Lewis began training privately with Bruce Lee. Lewis also began training with former heavyweight boxing contender Joe Orbillo, enhancing his skills.
In late 1969 promoter Lee Faulkner contacted Joe Lewis to fight in his upcoming United States Karate Championships. Lewis had retired from point fighting at the time but agreed to fight if Faulkner would promote a full-contact karate bout with Lewis and an opponent who would fight to the knockout. Faulkner agreed. As Lewis and Greg Baines entered the ring wearing boxing gloves the announcer identified the fighters as "kickboxers". That night Joe Lewis won the first-ever kickboxing bout in North America on January 17, 1970 with a second round knockout over Greg Baines.
Previous to this bout, Lewis defeated Chuck Lemmons in point karate at the US Pro Team Karate finals that were held prior to the kickboxing main event.
On June 20, 1970 in Dallas, Texas, Lewis defended his United States Kickboxing Association heavyweight title against "Big" Ed Daniel at the U.S.A. Professional Open Karate Championships promoted by Lee Faulkner and Allen Steen. Daniels had a background in professional wrestling, and amateur boxing, as well has having received his black belt from Lewis' original teacher and being a police officer at the time. He also enjoyed a vast weight and size advantage over Lewis. In a veritable David vs Goliath bout, Lewis knocked out Daniel in 2 rounds. In a later rematch, Lewis KO'd Daniel in 3 rounds.
On January 24, 1971, at the 2nd Annual United Nations Open Karate Championships promoted by Aaron Banks, Lewis knocked out Ronnie Barkoot at 1:25 of the first round. At another Banks promotion; United States Championship Kickboxing Bouts, Lewis scored a 3rd round knockout over "Atlas" Jesse King.
In total, Lewis defended his United States Heavyweight Kickboxing title with 8 straight knockouts between 1970/71. The 1970-71 rules for US kickboxing included striking, kicking, knees, elbows and footsweeps. Only crescent kicks and round kicks were permitted to the head.
Lewis is the first kickboxer to be featured in both The Ring boxing magazine and Sports Illustrated. Although promoter Lee Faulkner attempted to organize a legitimate "world" title fight between US champ Joe Lewis and a Thai kickboxing champion, a fight never materialized.
By the end of 1971, interest in kickboxing had hit an all-time low, with promoters unable to attract a crowd to a kickboxing event. Lewis retired as undefeated United States Heavyweight Kickboxing champion in 1971. His record as the undisputed United States heavyweight kickboxing champion was a perfect 10-0 with 10 KO's.
September 14, 1974 on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment promoter Mike Anderson introduced PKA 'full-contact' karate. In the bouts, competitors wore foam hand and foot protection and fought to the knockout (Kickboxing rules allowed for leg kicks: full-contact karate rules did not permit kicks to the legs). Lewis, the retired US Heavyweight Kickboxing champion was accustomed to full contact fighting. In 1974 he beat his only opponent in the new sport of full contact karate with a 2nd round ridge hand knockout over Yugoslavia's Frank Brodar in Los Angeles, California to win the Professional Karate Association (PKA) Heavyweight full-contact karate title.
The original 1974 PKA world champions, including Joe Lewis (heavyweight), Jeff Smith (light heavyweight) and Bill 'Superfoot' Wallace (middleweight) received so much fanfare from the PKA title wins and resultant publicity in popular martial arts magazines that their status as "legends of the karate world" was guaranteed. Lewis advanced his public persona the next year by appearing on the cover of Playgirl magazine. In 1975 Joe Lewis was inducted into the Black Belt magazine Hall of Fame as the 1974 full contact karate "fighter of the year".
In a 1975 comeback fight in Hawaii Lewis lost a 3-round decision (non title) to Teddy Limoz in Hawaii, and in September, he lost a 7-round decision to Ross Scott after suffering a dislocated shoulder. Lewis was stripped of the PKA World Heavyweight championship title after contract disputes. Lewis continued with his acting career and starred in Jaguar Lives in 1978 and Force: Five in 1981.
At the age of 39, in 1983, Joe Lewis launched a comeback which saw him earn a top-10 PKA world ranking. Neglecting an extended training time to begin his comeback for a title Lewis defeated T. Morrison by KO, decisioned Charleton Young and Curtis Crandall and knocked out Melvin Cole. On April 16, Lewis lost a decision to Tom Hall in an upset, in a fight in which Lewis focused on getting a body punch KO and suffered a serious cut. On August 10, Lewis suffered a disappointing 4th round stoppage due to yet another cut to US heavyweight champion Kerry Roop for the PKA US heavyweight title. Lewis retired after the defeat. Joe Lewis's competitive career in kickboxing and PKA full-contact karate ended with a combined record of 17 wins and 4 losses with 15 wins obtained by knockout, a K.O ratio of 71.4% (The PKA World title record was 5 wins 4 losses). In 1990 Lewis (198 lbs) fought one last exhibition kickboxing/karate match with friend Bill Wallace (166 lbs) on pay per view. Both Lewis and Wallace were refused a boxing license because of their age. Though it was only an exhibition, many people believed it was the main event of the night due to the publicity it attracted. The fight was billed "Speed vs Power". The exhibition ended with two judges scoring a tie and one judge giving the fight to Wallace in the exhibition event, however Lewis later recounted that he was warned not to cross the line with Wallace, as Lewis enjoyed a 30-pound advantage on Wallace.
Joe Lewis' seemingly dominating characteristic as a fighter was his phenomenal strength. Thanks to a youth of weight lifting and collegiate wrestling, Lewis was an intimidating adversary and would use his relentless power to see him through. He was considered a very intimidating presence in the Karate tournament scene. However, he was also very fast, which allowed him to score his thunderous signature side kick on his opponents. In later years, Joe would be able to replicate some of Bruce Lee's legendary speed feats, such as asking a volunteer to block his punches, which would prove too fast to be blocked. As a Karate point fighter, Joe was famous for his lead side kick, particularly his left. At one point he was asked by on-lookers why he only used that technique. He replied: "Why not? They can't block it." He also developed a fast back fist punch, and failing that, he would grab his opponent's gi and use the reverse punch until the fight was stopped.
After cross-training in Boxing with Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Orbillio, and then training Jeet Kune Do with Bruce Lee, Lewis would gain a unique view on how to handle distance and closing the gap. His preferred techniques as a full contact Karate and Kickboxing fighter were his trademark side kick, and the hook punch, particularly the left, typically delivered in combinations, he also claimed that it was typical of his style to use low kicks as early as his first kickboxing bout against Greg Baines, and once referred to them as his "main weapon". Thanks to his background as a wrestler, and his studying of Shorin Ryu Karate (both Shobayashi and Matsubayashi), Okinawan Kenpo, Judo, Jeet Kune Do, Boxing and Tai Chi, Joe Lewis was a very well-rounded fighter.
Joe Lewis as a teacher devoted to instructing martial artists in the Five Angles of Attack and other principles which he learned from Bruce Lee's Kung Fu and then modified through his full contact experience.
Legacy and Popular Culture
Lewis left behind his own system of martial arts teaching, called the Joe Lewis American Karate Systems which focuses on full contact fighting. Due to his role in developing and promoting the sport's first event in American continent, Joe Lewis is considered to be the "Father of Kickboxing" in the western world, and he's also been called "the man who brought us Full Contact Karate". Black Belt Magazine describes his process of solo training in boxing and combining those techniques with his Karate techniques as "the result is the martial sport now known as Kickboxing.". His efforts in these fields eventually resulted in the Mixed martial arts competition of today.
The character from the Street Fighter series of fighting video games, Ken Masters, was based upon Joe Lewis' likeness and trajectory, both being American's having learned a traditional karate style in Japan, then returning home to become the United States Champion, to worldwide acclaim. Master's characteristic red uniform and blond hair were patterned after a popular cover in which Joe Lewis appeared, sporting that same look. Lewis, with his personal mixture of Karate, Boxing and Jeet Kune Do, represents the eclectic approach that some of the American martial artists took towards more traditional martial arts. In the same vein, Ken Masters sports a flashier fighting style than his best friend Ryu.
The American kickboxer, Joe, from the Street Fighter's first game, also seems to have been based on Joe Lewis.
16 wins (14 KOs), 4 losses, 1 draw
Legend: Win Loss Draw/No contest