What can you say to an outraged U.S. Customs man? Not much. At best, you assume an air of deference, hoping he won't pull you out of line and make you peel down to your underwear. This particular customs agent at Montreal's Dorval Airport is upset with Bob Thurman, a clean-cut youth from Kansas City, who isn't a diamond smuggler, a doper or a rumrunner. He doesn't even have a Cuban cigar on him. Thurman's sin is that he has been pointed out as the world super middleweight champion of a thing called PKA full-contact karate, and the customs guy is having none of it. "They don't let dogs fight anymore—you know, pit bulls—and they've banned roosters from going at it," he says. "Which is exactly what they ought to do with your vicious sport."
Everybody looks innocently at the ceiling. Then Dave Cannady, Thurman's boxing trainer, steps softly to the defense. "Do you like hockey?" he asks.
The customs man draws himself up, as if his sanity had been questioned. "Of course I like hockey."
Cannady shrugs. "Well, then."
And while the officer considers the proposition that full-contact karate is every bit as gentle and tame as pro hockey, the Thurman party sort of sidesteps aboard a flight to Chicago, with a connection to Kansas City. Thurman settles into his seat and rolls his shoulders, a gesture he uses to spin off excess energy. Lord, is this kid ever deceptive. Look at him: His face is smooth and unmarked. He has close-cropped, kind of messed-around curly hair, the hint of a dimple in his right cheek and pale-blue eyes ashine with innocence. In another era, he might have come dancing right out of an Andy Hardy movie. But now he wrinkles his forehead earnestly and says, "You know, I don't feel a bit tired or worn out. I'm not even sore anyplace. The thing is, I didn't get to hit that guy enough."
Consider that last statement and thank God we've cleared customs and are airborne. For what Thurman had done the night before in suburban Montreal's Verdun Arena was destroy a worthy contender, one Eddie McCray of Detroit. He had belted him through the ropes and out onto the ring apron in Round 1. And then, 55 seconds into Round 2, Thurman had coolly stepped off to one side and kicked McCray into oblivion with a left foot to the jaw.
What we're talking about is creative violence, and the 22-year-old Thurman is one of its foremost practitioners, a man to be watched. That's because he's still growing into his sport, even while he's world champion: He has won 21 of 22 fights since turning pro in 1979, 15 by knockout. He won his title last April and now has defended it three times, KO, TKO and KO. At 5'11" and 165 or so pounds, he's a puncher of hammering force, and a steadily improving kicker. Imagine it: Thurman has two coaches, one who teaches his upper body what to do and another who tutors his lower body, as if the two were separate principalities. Whenever Thurman fights these men share his corner, consulting each other on whether or not the opponent is being properly destroyed. It takes a moment for the mind to adjust to what's going on here: Thurman might come back between rounds to hear something like, "I think this guy's a sucker for a left roundhouse kick." And he's only too eager to deliver it.
Indeed, it's Thurman who appears endlessly in the ESPN television promotional clip for PKA full-contact karate. The clip, from a 1981 fight, starts just after Thurman has stunned Emilio Narvaez with a spectacular left hook. The TV audience sees the dazed Narvaez half-doubled over; he seems to be looking at the floor for a spot to lie down. Thurman carefully arranges Narvaez, as if he were an artist setting up a piece of soft sculpture—and then he leans to one side and kicks Narvaez so savagely in the head that he rises up sharply and disappears backward, off-camera, as the voice-over informs you, "PKA karate is the kick of the '80s!"
Maybe so. In any case, Thurman's lengthening string of victories and the constant airing of the promo spot are gaining him more and more recognition and respect. "You know," he says, "I must be mellowing out. I haven't been in a street fight in a long time." A new air of respect also greets him at the Kansas City karate studio and boxing gym where he works out and at the International Fitness Center, the health spa where he pretends to train while lining up shapely girls at the club bar. Occasionally folks steal sidelong glances at Thurman, and some even confront him directly, as did two little old ladies recently in a Kansas City department store. Peering up at him, one said, "Ah, hah! You're in that TV commercial. You brute! How could you be so cold as to kick that poor young man in the head like that?"
"But, ma'am," Thurman said (and this is his standard reply and sincere belief), "if I hadn't done it to him, he would've done it to me."