Amid the little thickets of tent cards on bureaus and TV sets in the rooms of the Las Vegas Hilton last week (EVENING MAID SERVICE AVAILABLE; WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR VALUABLES UNLESS CHECKED; LAS VEGAS' MOST COMPLETE, MOST MODERN HEALTH FACILITY), there was one advising guests of the full-contact karate championships to be held on Saturday in the hotel's main showroom. As it turned out, these were not featuring Okinawan midgets cutting down redwoods with their hands, or dudes in shorty kimonos catching bullets in their teeth. No kung-foolery here.
There were three world title fights on the showroom stage that' afternoon: six athletes, wearing gloves and padded boots, kicking and punching and throwing each other to the mat in a combination of karate and boxing—a martial-arts derivative that has been described as American kickboxing, although the developing American sport differs profoundly from its Thai namesake, in which kneeing, elbowing and kicking to the knees and groin are all part of the game, and the average life expectancy of a competitor is shorter than that of a human fly with acrophobia. In American full-contact karate, no direct kicks below the waist are allowed and, as in boxing, a bout is not permitted to proceed past a fighter's obvious defeat to the point of his destruction.
Still, any customer groggy from Vegas booze or blackjack who happened to stumble onto the matches would have known right away that he was not seeing a matinee performance by Gladys Knight and the Pips. The kicking is so strenuous in full-contact karate that a championship match goes just nine two-minute rounds. Another rule of the two-year-old Professional Karate Association is the MKR, or minimum kicking requirement, under which each fighter must try at least six kicks per round, or automatically lose that round: the idea is to ensure that a karate bout doesn't turn into just another boxing match.
The safety equipment—gloves, boots and mouthpieces—is still another novelty. At one time in karate matches the barefooted, barefisted fighters had to stop their blows a few millimeters short of the target and the judges would then have to guess who would have won had the blows landed. To the non-aficionado this was only slightly more thrilling than watching a fighter shadowbox, though of course there was always the chance that someone would lose his temper, or miscalculate. Atlanta fighter-promoter Joe Corley, a television commentator at the Vegas championships, says he has seen "30 full KOs" at one "no-contact" tournament. In another, middleweight champion Bill (Superfoot) Wallace lost a testicle because somebody failed to stop short.
Wallace is the best paid of the full-contact champions (at least $5,000 a match), and probably the best known. This is partly because he was once Elvis Presley's karate instructor, and partly because of the "Superfoot" publicity—entirely justified. Due to an old injury to his right knee, he kicks only with his powerful left leg, yet even though opponents do not have to worry about two feet coming at them, it doesn't help much. Wallace is too quick. If he were allowed to put a pen between his toes, he probably could write his name on their foreheads. His specialty is the "hook kick," in which the bottom of that deft left foot is scraped across his opponent's face.
Wallace has Mongol cheekbones that tend to give him a brutish look, and he walks with a peculiar bowlegged gait, but he is anything but animalistic outside the ring. He has a master's degree in kinesiology and teaches at Memphis State University. He does not practice his favorite hook kicks to the heads of his wife and two children.
Wallace became the PKA's middleweight champ at the organization's first event, held on Sept. 14, 1974 in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, and has since defended the title six times. Last March 13 he knocked out Jem Echollas in the second round with what the referee called "the fastest kick I've ever seen in my life." But at 31, he was giving away eight years to his Las Vegas opponent, William (Blinky) Rodriquez, who had never been knocked down by a kick or punch.
The 23-year-old Rodriquez is a member by marriage of the Urquidez family, in which there are eight black-belt holders and the babies teethe on ring ropes. His mother-in-law was a professional wrestler in the 1930s. His brother-in-law, lightweight champ Benny Urquidez, has black belts in karate, judo and kendo, and his wife is a black belt and one of California's first registered female boxers. The leader of the clan, and Blinky's manager, is the oldest brother, Arnold Urquidez, 36, who teaches his charges to deliver punishing leg kicks that rivals say are no more "sweeps" (roundhouse kicks designed to knock an opponent's legs from under him) than a right cross is a love pat. Age was not the factor that most worried Wallace partisans in this fight. The problem was a PKA rule that allows the "sweeps" (kicks to the knee are illegal, however). Wallace fans feared that Rodriquez would batter Wallace's invaluable left leg until it was useless.
At the start of Saturday's fight Rodriquez promptly began treating Wallace's left calf like a soccer ball. A few seconds later he was penalized for kicking Wallace behind the knee. In the second round Rodriquez was warned for an illegal kick; in the fourth for booting Wallace in the rear; and in the fifth he was cited for a major foul, kneeing Wallace in the groin. He denied it. He was cited for the same major in the last round, but this time even Wallace took out his mouthpiece to plead in Rodriquez' behalf, and the foul call was erased.
The cards of the three judges gave the fight to Wallace on a split decision, but with penalty points for fouls deducted, the decision was unanimous for Super-foot. It was not so much a matter of Blinky Rodriquez' being a dirty fighter as a difference of opinion over what full-contact karate should be. One solution seems to be to allow kicks only above the waist, which are much more appealing to the spectators than kicks to the leg anyway.