Jerry Clarke, professional karate's most accomplished flyweight, was lucky he was wearing his world championship jacket on Saturday night in Daytona Beach, Fla. At least then he was able to convince a wary motorist that he needed to hitch a ride to the Ocean Center, where in a few hours he was scheduled to fight No. 8-ranked Aldaberto Leal in the nontitle showpiece of the Kenwood U.S. Open National Karate Championships. But his jacket didn't help him any at the arena when one suspicious security guard refused to let him in and another threatened to have him arrested because he was unable to produce a proper credential.
Life in the backwater world of flashing feet and fists, known by a few as the Professional Karate Association, can be a jump-spinning back kick to the ego. If you are a gifted world champion like Clarke, it can be downright demeaning to fight for $2,100 and then to go home and mow lawns for a living. But that's only if you let it.
"Aw, it could be a lot worse," said the 5'7" 23-year-old. "I had my first full contact fight in a bar in Tampa when I was 16. When the fight was over, my purse was a beer."
That was 35 fights and not a lot of money ago. Leal was the 36th. Clarke finally got into the arena after Bill Clark, who was to referee his eight-round fight, rescued him from the grasp of the second security guard.
"I thought I was going to jail," said Clarke. "The whole day was crazy like that."
For Clarke, who finally fought at 11:30 p.m., the day had begun at 6 a.m. After breakfast and a restless morning, he rode with some friends to the bustling Ocean Center. Not counting the dozen professionals who fought at night, the Kenwood Open drew more than 1,100 entries, white belts to black, from 6-year-olds to 39-year-old Steve (Mad Dawg) Curran, all competing for one of the 67 six-foot trophies given to the winner in each division.
"To tell you the truth," said light-contact heavyweight Mike Green, "you can't win much money at one of these tournaments, but you see an awful lot of three-foot kids carrying home their six-foot trophies."
By light contact, or points fighting, the karate people want you to know that one is only supposed to softly hit (or kick) an opponent to score a point—as opposed to the hard-hitting full-contact professionals. "Light?" said Mad Dawg, who runs two karate schools in Tacoma, Wash. "How am I going to go home and tell all my students that I lost because I was pulling my punches? When I hit a guy, I want everybody to know I hit him."
Most others seemed to share that sentiment, which probably explains why the Open's two young promoters, black belts Mike Sawyer and Mike McCoy, have been softly hit for a collective 14 broken noses.
"God, isn't this wonderful?" said Clarke, his thin 122 pounds covered by shorts and a light blue T shirt, as he strode into what looked like a remake of Fists of Fury. "This is my life. I was born for karate."