Joe Lewis died last week.
That’s a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to most younger martial arts practitioners. But to those who know the history of American martial arts, Lewis was an immense figure whose influence was as far reaching as almost anyone.
A United States Marine, Lewis was stationed in Okinawa in the early 1960s where he began training in karate and was reputed to have earned his black belt in just seven months. Upon returning to the United States, he became the most successful tournament karate competitor of the 1960s. Continually seeking to expand his fighting skills in a time when most martial artists were content to stick with one traditional style, Lewis was among the first major martial arts figures to train extensively with leading boxers and would go on to work, for a brief period, with Bruce Lee.
Dissatisfied with the unrealistic nature of tournament karate competition, Lewis is credited with inventing the sport of kickboxing – later referred to as full-contact karate – in America in 1970. Though muay Thai style bouts had been held in parts of Asia for many years, this was the first time legitimate, sanctioned, full-contact fights including both kicks and punches were held in the U.S.
But beyond his role as the father of American kickboxing, Lewis had an outstanding and innovative mind for martial arts. Having trained with him on several occasions over the years and having viewed a number of his instructional videos, I can say he was one of the few true geniuses I have ever met when it comes to understanding and analyzing the technical and strategic side of martial arts. His knowledge of the kicking and punching phases of standing combat may have been unsurpassed.
For all that, Lewis never quite achieved the kind of recognition or legacy that many of his peers did. Though he had an undeniable charisma about him and starred in a couple of B movies, he never attained the film success of his old tournament rival, Chuck Norris. Nor did his Joe Lewis Fighting System ever gain the following that Lee’s jeet kune do did. This is, perhaps, unsurprising since Lewis was a mercurial man, often not easy to get along with. He had an arrogant bluntness about him which might lead him to tell a group of traditional karate or taekwondo students, who had paid to bring him in for a seminar, that their style was useless. He was equally arrogant about his own skills, occasionally boasting of his wrestling and grappling prowess, though from having watched him work with good grapplers in private, I would say his ability in this area was marginal at best.
Al Tracy, the founder of the first nationally franchised chain of martial arts schools, who at one point brought Lewis in to supervise the training of his fighters throughout the chain, once mentioned how Lewis’s brashness was a means of hiding his own feelings of insecurity stemming from a difficult childhood with a demanding father. Lewis, himself, admitted in an interview that, deep down, he was basically a very shy individual.
Personality aside, Lewis was truly one of the most significant figures in the history of American martial arts. From his early advocacy of boxing to his creation of kickboxing to his deep analysis of key fighting principles like critical distance and the angles of attack, his influence was vast and his passing is a loss to the martial arts world.
Joe Lewis died last week.