I Coulda Been a Contender!
12 Well-Known Martial Artists From the 1960s and ’70s Who Had What It Takes to Be an MMA Champion
When the editor of Black Belt proposed an article on prominent fighters from the 1960s and ’70s who would have excelled in mixed martial arts if MMA had been created three decades earlier, I found the concept intriguing. After some thought as to what methodology I could use, I agreed to write it. Much research and analysis followed, then I settled on a dozen names.
I based my selections on the following. First, all the people had to be well-known fighters in that era. Second, all had to be legitimate competitors/champions in their martial art or combat sport or had to have legitimately proved themselves in combat behind closed doors. Third, all had to possess full-contact experience. Fourth, all had to have the talent, fight IQ, open-mindedness and adaptability to transition to MMA. Finally, all of them had to own an indomitable will to win.
Here are those 12 martial artists listed in no particular order.
An eclectic martial artist, Benny Urquidez was arguably the greatest American kickboxer of all time. He started as a kenpo and shotokan karate stylist, then segued into other fighting arts such as boxing, judo and wrestling. Afterward, he merged them into a system he dubbed ukidokan.
In competition, “The Jet” seamlessly transitioned from semi-contact point karate to full-contact karate to kickboxing — and succeeded in all of them for nearly 20 years. In fact, he started his full-contact tenure by showcasing his skill set in a predecessor to the UFC, an open-weight Hawaii-based event known as the World Series of Fighting. The rules permitted punches, kicks (to the legs, body and head), elbows, knees, throws, takedowns and immobilizations in the form of five-second pins for points.
Urquidez dominated, winning every match in which he fought. In the finals of the first World Series event, he won the championship by decisively beating Dana Goodson, a heavyweight who was much bigger.
Verdict: The combination of a well-rounded skill set, a superb fight IQ and an indomitable fighting spirit would have made Benny Urquidez’s transition to MMA much easier than many fighters of his time. He undoubtedly would have become a champion.
Known in martial arts circles as the “genius karate fighter” and the “dragon of kyokushin,” Terutomo Yamazaki was among the first to travel to Thailand and defeat high-ranked muay Thai fighters on their own turf. Out of the 10 kickboxing fights in which he competed, he won eight (all by knockout) and lost only two (by decision).After his short tenure in kickboxing, Yamazaki returned to kyokushin competition, where he became the first champ at the All-Japan Full-Contact Karate Open Championships. His fighting acumen stayed strong even after he retired: As a respected teacher, he produced several champions.
Verdict: Terutomo Yamazaki was universally praised as a genius in the fight game. This, coupled with his background in judo, would have allowed him to excel in MMA.
This shorin-ryu karate practitioner achieved success in all the combat-sports arenas in which he competed. In conjunction with his incomparable karate skills, Joe Lewis had a strong background in boxing, wrestling and judo. He was the man who ushered into America the sport of kickboxing in 1970, when he was crowned the first American heavyweight champion. That occurred after he ruled semi-contact point karate for many years.
Verdict: Given his blend of power, speed and athleticism, coupled with his open-mindedness and high fight IQ, Joe Lewis would have done well in MMA.
Although he was not a prolific competitor in karate and judo — in part because of his outspoken nature and the martial arts politics of the period — Jon Bluming demonstrated his inimitable prowess in kyokushin karate and judo. He often engaged in closed-door fights with world champions and Olympic competitors, and he reportedly defeated every challenger. Additionally, he had numerous real-life encounters, which earned him quite the reputation as a street fighter extraordinaire.
From all accounts, Bluming’s newaza (judo ground fighting) was outstanding, which built him a reputation as a monster on the mat. Demonstrating his mastery of combat, he became a respected teacher who wound up guiding numerous martial artists to successful careers in karate, judo, kickboxing, sambo and MMA.
Verdict: There’s no doubt in the minds of many martial arts pundits that Jon Bluming, affectionately known as the “beast of Amsterdam,” would have readily adapted to MMA and then continued his winning ways if the sport had existed in the ’60s.
Known as “the toughest man alive” and “the godfather of grappling,” Gene LeBell was a judo exponent of the highest caliber. He dominated competitive judo in 1954 and 1955 when he was in his early 20s, then made the jump to the more lucrative world of professional wrestling. Complementing his formidable judo skills, LeBell also was a master of catch wrestling and had a strong background in boxing.
In 1963 he participated in one of the first mixed-fighting matches in America: the infamous bout with pro-boxer Milo Savage. In a fight scheduled for five three-minute rounds, LeBell rendered the striker unconscious with a rear-naked choke in round four.
Verdict: “Judo” Gene LeBell’s combat prowess, coupled with his drive to win, would have served him well in MMA and likely left him with a championship belt wrapped around his waist.
You may not have heard his name, but Christian Guillaume was a renowned French savate champion in the ’60s. He built his stellar reputation because of his bouts with Japanese kickboxers. Guillaume traveled to Japan twice, where he competed in seven fights. The Frenchman won six (three by knockout) and fought one to a draw. In addition to his mastery of savate, he also was a high-level judoka.
Verdict: Christian Guillaume’s prowess in striking and grappling would have served him well in the MMA cage.
The man known as the “Ronin” was a ferocious karate fighter in the blood-and-guts era of the ’60s. Like Lewis, Jim Harrison successfully transitioned from semi-contact karate to full-contact kickboxing, becoming America’s first light-heavyweight kickboxing champ in 1970 — at the same event at which Lewis won the heavyweight title.
Harrison struck fear into the hearts of all who faced him because of his ruthless and relentless style. At least equal to his karate prowess was his mastery of judo. By all accounts, he was an exceptional technician. His skill set extended beyond the stand-up aspects of judo; he was an expert at newaza, as well. Harrison seamlessly combined his karate and judo abilities with his formidable kickboxing and jujitsu skills, eventually giving birth to a martial art he called bushidokan.
Verdict: In addition to his competitive martial arts background, Jim Harrison possessed plenty of real-world fight experience, and together, those assets would have taken him to the top in MMA.
The man we call “Superfoot” because of his extraordinary kicking prowess was America’s top semi-contact point-karate fighter in the ’70s — a mantle he assumed from Lewis, who won every tournament of note during his heyday. Following in his footsteps, Bill Wallace won all there was to win in that arena, and, like Urquidez and Lewis, he transitioned to kickboxing without so much as a hiccup. Wallace won the PKA world middleweight kickboxing championship and retired undefeated. In addition to his phenomenal karate and kickboxing skills, he had a strong background in boxing, wrestling and judo.
Verdict: This knowledge base, along with his indomitable spirit, would have enabled Bill Wallace to adapt to and prevail in MMA. I must insert one caveat, however: He suffered a terrible knee injury early in his fight career. It’s very possible that would have ended his MMA stint. Now if that hadn’t occurred, the sky would have been the limit for him.
Originally a shito-ryu karate stylist, Toshio Fujiwara transitioned to Japanese kickboxing and became his country’s most revered kickboxer. He was the first non-Thai to win a major muay Thai lightweight championship at the famous Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok. To this day, his record is astonishing: 126 wins, 99 of them by knockout.
Verdict: While Toshio Fujiwara isn’t known to have any grappling background, he possessed an exceptional fight IQ, as well as a prodigious work ethic. I believe he would have adeptly made the necessary adaptations and learned the necessary skills to succeed in MMA.
He started as a kyokushin practitioner but switched to Ashihara karate before developing his own system of enshin karate. Joko Ninomiya also was a highly regarded competitor, having won the All-Japan Full-Contact Karate Open Championships in 1978. After relocating to Denver, he founded the Sabaki Challenge, the premier bare-knuckle competition in the world.
Verdict: The fluidity of his unique fighting style, coupled with his advanced judo skills and exceptional fight IQ, would have taken Joko Ninomiya to the top in MMA.
This taekwondo practitioner prevailed in every combat arena in which he competed. Like Lewis and Wallace, Jeff Smith started as a semi-contact point-karate fighter and won every tournament there was to win. After conquering that world, he moved into kickboxing, where he bolstered his taekwondo kicks with top-notch boxing strikes — and won the PKA light-heavyweight kickboxing championship. He held the title until his last bout.
In 22 bouts, he suffered only one loss (by split decision) in his final fight. After many fruitless attempts to secure a rematch with that opponent — Dan Macaruso — Smith opted to bring his career to a close.
Verdict: While he had no known grappling background, he did have a will to win that was second to none. This, coupled with his proven fight IQ and unquenchable thirst to be the best in whatever he competed in, would have propelled Jeff Smith upward through the ranks in MMA.
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He’s the most famous and influential martial artist of all time. He founded the eclectic system known as jeet kune do, which is why many consider him the “godfather of MMA.” Even so, his inclusion here will be controversial because Bruce Lee had a very limited combat-sports/competition background to prove proficiency in that environment. Specifically, he had one amateur boxing match in 1958 when he was 18 years old (which he won). Many of his supporters will counter that stat by bringing up the many street fights in which Lee engaged as a teenager, along with the few he had as an adult. Meanwhile, many of his detractors will insist that those don’t qualify as fights that would translate to professional MMA.
From all the accounts I’ve come across, Lee was never seriously challenged by any adversary he faced in a street fight or full-contact sparring match. So no one knows how he would have fared if he was put on the defensive. Would he have had the will to win needed to carry on when the going gets tough?
It’s widely known that Lee wasn’t interested in competing in the combat sports that existed during his time (especially semi-contact point karate) because he believed they were poor representations of fighting as he defined it. He may have had no interest in competing, but he did respect combat sports like boxing, real wrestling (i.e., catch-as-catch-can, freestyle, folkstyle and Greco-Roman), fencing and judo. And he learned much from them.
Verdict: With this being a speculative article, let’s imagine that Bruce Lee would have jumped at the chance to compete in MMA had it existed when he was in his prime. I believe he would have done well because he possessed all the necessary physical attributes and was already more well-rounded than the vast majority of his peers. The big question mark pertains to his mindset, but let’s say that he had a resolute, tenacious attitude to complement his undeniable skills and that he trained specifically for MMA. In that case, I believe he would have done extremely well in the fight sport.
Well, that’s my list. There were other martial artists I considered who were no less worthy, but they were more obscure. I intentionally kept it to prominent fighters, those who are more accessible in case readers wish to learn about their fighting philosophies.
Lito Angeles is a retired police officer and the brains behind Black Belt’s new Battle Plan column. To order his book Fight Night! The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts, visit shop.blackbeltmag.com.
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