How Jeff Smith Became a Kickboxing Champion —and One of the Most Respected Instructors in the World!
In the early 1960s, when Americans were first hearing about The Beatles, Jhoon Rhee operated four martial arts schools in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland. The man who would become known as the father of taekwondo in America also regularly traveled around the country to a dozen clubs, where he tested students trained by his black belts. One such club was located on the campus of Texas A&M University, where Jeff Smith's mother worked and Jeff, then a teenager, delivered newspapers.
"One day on my route, I noticed a sign for a karate demonstration at the student-union ballroom," Smith recalls. "I went and wanted to enroll [in the club], but it was for college students only. I talked to my mother, she talked to the dean, and they decided to let me and several other of the faculty kids in.
"The college men were not pleased to have Jeff and the other kids training among them because of the nature of the workouts. "Two weeks in, we started fighting, with no safety equipment — pretty hardcore at 14, sparring college guys," Smith says. "This was during the old Texas 'blood-and-guts' era, around 1964 and '65, and they didn't want little junior-high kids.
"Today, given the legend of seven-time light-heavyweight champion Jeff Smith, it's no surprise to hear that he not only survived but also thrived. Later, when he was a brown belt, he became head instructor at the club and ran it for two more years after his 1968 black-belt exam. Smith was also busy making a name for himself competing in hard-hitting tournaments in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
In 1970 Rhee invited Smith to Washington to teach at one of his schools. Smith accepted and enrolled at a local college to put the finishing touches on his business degree. Little did he know that he was making his mark on history as one of the trio of original Rhee protégés — the others were Allen Steen and Pat Burleson — who helped establish the teaching of martial arts as a proud American profession.
"[Rhee] had four schools at the time, and I soon realized martial arts was a real business," Smith explains. "I had thought of it as a club, not as a way to provide a livelihood. This new understanding made me think that someday I wanted to have my own school. So I was learning it all while working for the grandmaster.
"It became a standing joke in the Rhee organization that no chore was too small for Smith to eagerly take on, to gain experience from. Meanwhile, Smith's passion for competition had him engaging in point fighting every weekend.
"I flew from D.C. to tournaments everywhere," he says. "There's not a state in the country where I haven't competed in a point fight." In 1974 Professional Karate magazine named him America's No. 1 point fighter.
Having conquered that world, Smith moved on to the much more demanding sport of American kickboxing, aka full-contact karate. In September 1974, in the fledgling sport's inaugural event, he won the Professional Karate Association world light-heavyweight kickboxing title. His match was later broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment.Smith continued training a new generation of soon-to-be world champions while he managed the business and taught the instructors of the Jhoon Rhee schools in the D.C. area. Just like in his competition endeavors, Smith quickly soared to the top of his management career."At first, I was hired as an instructor by grandmaster Rhee," he says. "Then I became program director, then office manager, then head instructor teaching the other instructors. Finally, as general manager, I taught the other school managers. Nick Cokinos (founder of Educational Funding Co.) helped grandmaster Rhee initiate the [business] systems. Then the grandmaster made me vice president to keep those innovations running smoothly. K.K. Chung, his brother-in-law, handled the business, marketing and accounting. I wanted to learn to do those jobs, too, to [ultimately] get my own schools."I had made myself a promise when I came to D.C.: to compete until I was 35 and then retire."
Back in those days, the majority of martial arts schools were run haphazardly by modern standards. Business-training organizations like the Martial Arts Industry Association didn't exist. Teaching methods were harsh and unsophisticated. Most instructors just taught the old-school way that their instructors had used. It was a recipe for failure.
This shortcoming also afflicted the many point-fighting and kickboxing champions of the era. A number of them opened schools based on a false premise: They believed that their names and trophies would automatically draw students. They didn't. Although the champs were famous in martial arts circles, they were unknown among the general public. Sadly but understandably, most of the schools went out of business. Most of the cham-pions eventually started teaching at other schools or conducting clinics on the seminar circuit.
The Jhoon Rhee schools, however, were unaffected. As the popularity of martial arts grew in the United States and prospective students became more sophisticated, so too did the methods Smith used in Rhee's facilities.
"Our two-hour staff sessions were not enough [to keep up with a changing marketplace], so I had to [innovate] myself so that the other school managers could see how to," Smith explains. "Some did better business than I did. So the best school for the week was always copied by the rest.
"We mentored each other by concentrating on top performers — those with more renewals, more students at tests, etc. We kept strict numbers on retention and dropouts. We competed with each other.
"Smith likes the old expression, "A rising tide lifts all boats," because that was exactly what was happening in the schools.
"We copied each other's successes," he says. "I gave them homework, like studying motivational sales experts' audiotapes and videos. They rotated weekly, then reported an overview of what they got out of it. I made them read all the motivational books.
"The same strategy of sharing also sharpened the schools' competitiveness. Smith traveled to tournaments with a homegrown team that included either a world champion or someone ranked No. 1 nationally. When light-heavyweight Smith switched to kickboxing, the team did, too. When one member performed better, it made the others redouble their efforts, and they all learned from each other.
"The better your training partners, the better you do all over the world," Smith states. "Having such a stable made us all better. Many of them are still running successful schools today by using the methods we did.
"The educational tapes, the implementation of new business systems, and the constant desire to train harder and learn more paid off big time. The result was excellence at all levels. No other martial arts schools in the nation were doing better businesswise than Rhee's. On top of that, the schools were producing the top fighting and forms competitors.
"When I turned 35 [in 1982], I retired from competition as planned and took over two of grandmaster Rhee's schools while I was still training the staff in all his other locations," Smith recalls. "The grandmaster had given me stock in his company, which I exchanged for ownership of two of his schools. I ran them for a number of years and expanded my own schools when Rhee's son took over his father's business.
"By the late 1980s, Smith had transformed himself into a grandmaster in the art of running a martial arts business. His retention rate soared to 90 percent, while most schools strived for 50 percent. Even today, with all the sophisticated and streamlined systems at play, a 10-percent dropout rate is practically impossible to achieve.
Smith was also known industrywide as a savvy money manager. Although he would never admit to it, then or now, it was widely rumored that he was one of the rare millionaires in the martial arts industry. He'd built his fortune on profits from his thriving schools and smart financial management.
In 2017 Smith turned 70. His schools have been sold, but he continues to train, run and lift weights three or four days a week. He also plays as hard as he used to work. Among his many endeavors are serving as pitcher for a baseball team, playing tennis and billiards, and taking cross-country jaunts on his Harley motorcycle. He's also been known to skydive, bungee jump and kayak through class-five and class-six rapids.
Now in his senior years, Jeff Smith is enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of hard work and hard-won victories. Despite the long hours he had to invest, he considers himself fortunate to have been able to do so in the martial arts, a pursuit that he loves dearly.
Herb Borkland is a black belt and freelance writer based in Front Royal, Virginia. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact Jeff Smith, send email to GMJeffSmith@gmail.com.
When a Kickboxing Title Fight Scored 50 Million Views!
To this day, Jeff Smith holds an audience record for a championship kickboxing bout. On October 1, 1975, his heavyweight title fight against Karriem Allah was seen by more than 50 million closed-circuit TV viewers around the world.How was that possible? Especially at a time when the sport was just a year old and kickboxing matches typically reached audiences that numbered in the low millions?The breakthrough occurred because the Smith/Allah bout was broadcast worldwide on closed-circuit TV as a preliminary to the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier "Thrilla in Manila" main event. Closed circuit was like watching sports on a giant TV screen. The only difference was that you had to pay a high entry fee at a major arena or convention center to watch. It wasn't broadcast into homes.Ali was the most famous person on the planet at this time and had catapulted the sport of pro boxing beyond its usual fan base and made it a worldwide phenomenon. People watched his fights as much to see him lose as to see him win.While the Ali/Frazier match took place in the Philippines, the Smith/Allah kickboxing bout was broadcast from the Capital Centre arena in Washington, D.C. The live kickboxing event was promoted and financed by grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, Smith's instructor.Jeff Smith ultimately won a unanimous decision after11 rounds.This landmark match still reportedly holds the record for the largest viewing audience of any martial sport in history. That includes any professional kickboxing fight, any UFC pay-per-view event and any global broadcast of an Olympic fight sport such as taekwondo, boxing and judo.
What It Takes to Become a Martial Arts Superman
How in the world did Jeff Smith find the time to manage, first four and then 12, martial arts schools, to train the instructors so they can teach like professionals and to undergo the physical hardships one needs to endure to become a world-champion kickboxer?This was the seemingly preposterous challenge Smith not only faced but also took on with enthusiasm. To succeed, he'd have to be a one-man army with the work ethic of Superman!"I was training hard once a day with a morning workout thrown in, which was hard," Smith says, "but not nearly as hard as life became in 1974 when I started kickboxing."Going flat-out for three rounds at the first Professional Karate Association World Championships required more stamina than point fighting [did]. Once inside the ring, the time kept running, not like point fighting's stop-and-go action. That's why a lot of talented people didn't make a good transition to kickboxing."Smith won the first PKA world light-heavyweight championship. Thirty seconds into the semifinal, he used a ridgehand strike to KO the European champ, a tall Yugoslavian who took 20 minutes to get back on his feet. In the final, he beat Canadian champ Wally Slocki by unanimous decision.But the original three two-minute rounds in PKA kickboxing soon soared to nine, and eventually 12, rounds.Smith was unfazed."I was able to bring myself up as the number of rounds increased," he says. "I was already training six days a week. So I did three two-hour workouts a day in between running all the schools. I was also the chief instructor at a single school, where on Fridays, we all met for a couple hours of training in fighting and then in business."Smith's regimen consisted of getting up at 7 o'clock, training until 9, eating breakfast and gulping down a protein drink. Then he'd go to work at 11 for the noon and 1 o'clock classes. Later, after classes from 2 o'clock until 4, he squeezed in his afternoon workout. Evening classes continued until 9:30. Afterward, he'd train again until 11:30. Then he'd head home, eat, sleep and repeat.