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What Ever Happened to Jim Kelly?

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Lannes Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jun-05-05 03:01 PM
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What Ever Happened to Jim Kelly?
I was a big fan of his when I was a kid.I found this interview a few years ago,thought some of you might enjoy it.BTW he was recently in a commercial with Lebron James.I cant find a link to the article anymore so I hope the mods dont mind if I paste it...

What Ever Happened to Jim Kelly?
Enter the Dragon Star Resurfaces in Black Belt Exclusive
Interview by David W. Clary

Jim Kelly (far right) and former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (far left) nearly squared off in a boxing-versus-karate match in the 1970s.
Born in Paris, Kentucky, Jim Kelly (not to be confused with the Buffalo Bills football player of the same name) grew up with uncanny athletic ability. He ran track and played football and basketball in junior high and high school, was voted the most inspirational junior high athlete in San Diego, and had a chance to become a professional football player. He first found interest in karate after leaving the University of Louisville as a freshman and moving to Lexington, where he began studying the martial arts under shorin-ryu karate instructor Parker Sheldon.
Kelly rocketed to fame in the martial arts community after an impressive showing at Ed Parker's 1971 Internationals, and he appeared as one of Bruce Lee's co-stars in the legendary film, Enter the Dragon. Since then, Kelly has faded out of the martial arts limelight as his interests have
broadened. In 1975, he turned to tennis and became a professional player, rising to number two in California in the senior men's doubles rankings and reaching the top ten in the state in senior men's singles. Following a short stint in 1990 as a boxer, Kelly is currently working with the Gracie brothers, studying their unique form of jujitsu, while teaching both tennis and martial arts across the United States and overseas.
Black Belt took an opportunity recently to catch up with the 46-year-old Kelly and reacquaint readers with the man. Who many last saw hanging by chains in the evil Mr. Han's opium factory in Enter the Dragon. -Ed.

BLACK BELT: When did you start competing in the martial arts?

JIM KELLY: I started competing almost immediately. My first tournament was as a white belt at the University of Kentucky. Two days before the tournament, I broke two toes on my right foot in practice. I broke two toes on my right foot in practice. I was really upset. I went to the hospital and the doctors said Your toes won't heal in two days. Maybe you shouldn't fight." But I was so into going to this tournament, I just wrapped the toes myself and went and fought. I didnt win but I did pretty good. That tournament inspired me, because it was the first time I ever saw Bill Wallace fight. He fought against my instructor, Parker Sheldon, for the championship. When you think about all the great full-contact fighters, you'll see that all of them- Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace, Benny Urquidez- were first champion tournament fighters. They all came up through point karate. Sometimes people talk about point karate and they say things like "That's just a game of tag." But all of kickboxing's biggest champions were point karate champions first. Point karate has some very good things to offer as far as fighting is concerned.
BB: There are critics who claim that tournament sparring doesn't have anything to do with fighting because there's no contact. Do you agree?

KELLY: I can't believe these guys who say that there was no contact in point karate. When I was competing, you couldn't disqualify a black belt for kicking or punching too hard to the body. The general feeling was "If you're a black belt, you either should be able to block that attack, or handle it if it hits you." We had incredible contact. You were supposed to have control to the head, and usually you stopped the attack right before hitting the guy. Most of the time there was control, sometimes there wasn't. Some- times you got disqualified, sometimes you didn't. Man, tell Joe Lewis there wasn't any contact. Tell Bill Wallace there wasn't any contact Tell Chuck Norris. We all know better than that. Some guys came to the tournament to hit you, to hurt you, so you had to be alert during the whole match. There were certain guys out there who wouldn't hold back, and I have to admit that, against them I didn't hold back either, because I knew they were out to get me.

BB: Were there any competitors back then who had such exceptional control that they could stop a full-power punch just short of your face?

KELLY: Yes, Steve Sanders. He was the greatest fighter to ever come out of Ed Parker's kenpo system. He was an incredible fighter, but he was the kind of guy you knew wouldn't hurt you. He had the best control, but I think he was a little too nice in the ring. People try to make us out to be enemies because we competed a lot against each other, but he's a great friend, and no one can take that away from us. We used to spar all the time, and once even had schools one block from each other. We worked out to- gether all the time, in the dojo, in the park, wherever we could find room to spar.

BB: What were some of the highlights of your tournament career?

KELLY: I never did reach my true potential as a fighter because I got the opportunity to get in the movie business, which I took advantage of. That was one of my ultimate goals: to become an actor. Another goal was to win my sparring division at Ed Parker's Internationals, and I did that in 1971.

BB: Tell us about that tournament.

KELLY: Well, I went to the tournament in 1970 and just watched, and got inspired. I went to all my friends and said "You watch. I'm going to win the Internationals middleweight championship next year." They all told me that I couldn't get that good in a year. But I laid out my game plan, looked at the necessary steps I had to take to reach my goal, and I started working for it. I started working under Gordon Doversola in Okinawa-te. He is an incredible instructor. I really credit him with making me a world-class fighter. Gordon also trained Joe Lewis for a period of time. Anyway, I trained hard for the whole year, and in 1971 I went back to the Internationals and I won the middleweight division.

BB: How did you do in the grand championship runoffs after winning the division?

KELLY: I lost. My ultimate goal had been to win the middleweight championship. That night I was on the stage with some of the greatest fighters of all time. Steve Sanders won the lightweight division, and Joe Lewis won the heavyweight division. And there I was standing between them. It's hard to beat that company. But I remember as I was warming up, getting ready for the grand championship, Pat Johnson-who was a tough fighter too- came up to me and said "Jim, you're the only guy here who can beat Joe Lewis. But you have to use your left hand more." I knew what he meant. See, I fought right-leg forward, and my bread and butter was the front-hand backfist and my side kick. Between those two techniques I could confuse my opponent enough to score. But my left-hand reverse punch wasn't that good. I didn't feel that comfortable using it. So whenever I wanted to hit someone with a reverse punch, I would put my left leg for- ward and use the right hand. Since I've been boxing, though, I've learned how to throw a good left cross to the head or the body. But once I won the middleweight championship that day, it was like a letdown. I had won what I wanted to win, and in a way, I wasn't ready to go on. I had accomplished my goal. At that point, the grand championship didnt matter, because I did what I set out to do. I went out to fight Steve in the first match of the grand championship, and it went into overtime. I knew Steve's technique, and he knew mine. He was extremely quick and fast- you couldn't take your eyes off of him for a second. In overtime, we clashed, and- boom!-the judges went his way. I fought him twice more in my career, and completely outpointed him, but on this night, he beat me. He went on to fight Lewis for the grand championship, and lost.

BB: When did you get your first break in the movies?

KELLY: My first break was in 1972, in a movie called Melinda. It really happened almost by accident. I knew I wasn't ready to be an actor, so I wanted to take advantage of my win at the Internationals and open a karate studio, which I did. That way, I could get some money coming in to help pay for acting school. One of my students was the editor of Soul magazine, and the writer of Melinda called her up and asked her if she knew a karate instructor who could teach martial arts to the film's star. That day I went down to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and met the film's producer, director and writer. The next day they told me "We want you to teach karate and be our technical adviser." I had no clue what the movie business was like. I didn't even know what a movie camera looked like or what anyone did on the set. But I said "OK." Then they said "One more thing. We want to give you a co-starring role in the movie." I thought to myself "I'm not ready for this." But I said "OK." It was a great break.

BB: Your most famous film role is in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. How did that come about?

KELLY: After I made Melinda, all these actors came to me and said "Jim, you're great. People are going to beat down your door with roles." But for the next five or six months, nobody called me. So there I was, still teaching at the karate studio, when my agent called. She said "Jim, they're shooting a fight film out at Warner Brothers. They're having a problem negotiating a contract with one of the actors, so I want you to go over there right now and meet them. I don't think you'll get the part, but they're going to do more fight films in the future, so it will be good for you to meet them." So I went out there and I met Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller. They asked me to show them some karate, so I started jumping all over the room, throwing kicks all over the place. Then they said "Do you know Bruce Lee?" I had to say no, because I'd never met him. I just knew of him from his Green Hornet television show. Then Fred looked at me and said "When can you leave for Hong Kong? You have the part." So I flew out to Hong Kong and shot Enter the Dragon with the great Bruce Lee.
Jim Kelly took up boxing to supplement his martial arts skills and learn the boxer's mentality. Kelly claims a lot of martial artists underestimate boxing skills.

BB: What was it like working with Lee?
KELLY: Oh man. That's a story in itself. Bruce is one of my heroes. I had the utmost respect for him, not only as a martial artist, but also as a human being. Because I know what Bruce Lee went through. Most people don't realize that Bruce didn't just pop out and become a star. It was hard as hell for Bruce to become an actor. And the reason why was because he was Chinese. America did not want a Chinese hero, and that's why he left for Hong Kong. He was down and out. He was hurt financially. He told me that he tried to stick it out, but he couldn't get the work he wanted. So he said "Hey, I'm gone." My understanding, from talking to Bruce, was that the Kung Fu series was written for him, and Bruce wanted to do that. But the bottom line was that the networks did not want to project a Chinese guy as the main hero. But Bruce explained to me that he believed that all things happened for a reason. Even though he was very upset about it, he felt that everything would workout. He wasn't going to be denied. I have so much respect for Bruce, because I understand what he went through just by being black in America. He was able to find a way to get around all those problems. He stuck in there, and wouldn't give up. He knew my struggle, and I knew his.
Jim Kelly is perhaps best known for his role in Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee's most famous film.

BB: What did you think of Lee's martial arts skills?
KELLY: There's a lot of stuff that people aren't saying about Bruce and his abilities. It's like a code of silence, and people aren't saying how good he really was because they're protecting their friends and their own reputations and tremendous egos. On film, as a martial artist, Bruce was the greatest. He had soul. He had rhythm. He had style. And there's not a martial artist today who's doing films that has any of that. I'm not saying they're no good, I'm just saying that Bruce was incredible. There may never be another martial arts film star who will be equal to Bruce.
BB: What was your impression of Lee's martial skill outside of film?
KELLY: When people ask me "Who was the greatest tournament fighter ever?" I would love to say Bruce Lee, but I can't, because he never fought in tournaments or for competition. Bruce did spar, in practice, but when you get in competition, you may not be the same guy. There are some guys who are great in practice, but when someone says "Play ball!" they're not that good. Then there are guys who are better in competition than in practice. I'm that kind of guy. In practice I fool around and don't really concentrate as much as I should. But if there's money or a trophy on the line, if it's the real deal, then I'm on my game. But I would bet my life that Bruce would have done very, very well in tournament competition. As a matter of fact, I doubt there was anyone in the world who could have beaten him.
BB: Did you ever train with Lee?
KELLY: I trained very briefly with Bruce. He gave me some pointers on some techniques. I never sparred with him. We did some prearranged techniques, but we never freestyled. I've heard stories about some of the people he sparred against, and not just John Doe martial artists, but name martial artists. These are the people who don't tell all they know about Bruce's ability. But from what I understand, Bruce was just awesome in his sparring sessions.

BB: What kind of impact did your role in Enter the Dragon have. on your film career?

KELLY: Are you kidding? When I got back from Hong Kong, I was immediately signed for a three-movie deal with Warner Brothers. It's just gone on from there. I've made about 13 films now, and I get new offers all the time. My first starring role was in Black Belt Jones, which I filmed shortly after Enter the Dragon.

BB: Films aren't the only area in which you have received attention. Didn't you once cause quite a stir by challenging heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali to a fight?

KELLY: Muhammad's my man. He has always been my hero. At one point there was discussion of Ali and I getting in the ring together. Ali was interested. I was interested. I would have done my martial arts and he would have boxed. But it never took off. Ali got in the ring with (Kanji Antonio) Inoke, and we all saw how that went.

BB: You've done some boxing yourself recently, haven't you?

KELLY: Yeah, I've realized what every karate guy has to realize sooner or later. Even though I know how to kick and punch, I admit I wouldn't be able to handle a boxer or a good grappler. So I said "I'm going to empty my cup and fill it again with boxing." Because I wanted to learn the boxer's mentality. his techniques, and his whole psychology. And I wanted to learn how to slip a punch, and to bob and weave. So I worked six days a week, four hours a day, for a whole year. I took everything that was good and worked it into my martial arts. A lot of martial artists underestimate boxers, but boxers are tough. They don't care about getting hit. It's in their psyche.
Jim Kelly disarms a gun-wielding opponent with a front kick, above, in a scene from Black Belt Jones. It was Kelly's first starring role in a film.

BB: havent you also been training in jujitsu with some of the Gracie brothers?

KELLY: Yeah, for almost two years now, and I love it. I got involved with them for the same reasons I had for studying boxing. What would have happened if I got in a fight with a real good grappler, like a wrestler or a judo guy? If he got inside of my kicks and punches, would I be able to use all my eye gouges and elbow techniques? I was curious, so I decided I better learn some grappling. After looking around, I chose the Gracie brothers. Those guys are awesome. Their techniques are really good, really interesting. I've been working on putting together a self-defense system that combines the best elements of the arts that I've learned-karate, boxing and jujitsu. I truly believe a martial artist should have a working knowledge of all three.

BB: Do you see yourself as a role model for others?

KELLY: Oh yeah. One of the main reasons why I became an actor is because I wanted to touch people and motivate people. Especially youth, and especially black youth. Because sometimes it's hard to find good black heroes or role models. I want to help people see that they can achieve their goals. If I never make another movie, I'll have achieved my goals. I've touched people. Marcus Allen, one of the greatest football players of all time, came up to me once and said "You may not believe this Jim, but when I was growing up in San Diego and I was playing football, you were one of my heroes." Lee Haney, the baddest bodybuilder in the world, said the same thing. So I know that I have done what I really wanted to do. And I feel really good about it.
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