Steve Anderson is an icon in the sport-karate universe. The native of Toledo, Ohio, spent time in various parts of the country before settling in Southern California in 1973, where he rose to the top of the circuit and acquired the nickname “Nasty.”
The Black Belt Hall of Famer now operates two schools in Ontario, Canada, and oversees the instruction of some 500 students. We caught up with him for the purposes of this interview. We’re confident you will find his recollections as enlightening and entertaining as we did.
You started training with your first instructors, “Chicken” Gabriel and Reynaldo Leal, when you were 15. What was it about karate that appealed to you?
Steve Anderson: It was the Bruce Lee thing. Karate carried a mysticism back in those days. All the Orientals were doing it, and I wanted to have their speed and power. I wanted to be able to touch somebody and then have that person die in a few years. (laughs)
How did you get interested in competition?
Steve Anderson: Chicken’s school was the most dominant one in Southern California — and in all of California. It was right there with the Black Karate Federation. We were actually a bit better, I thought. Rey was one of the top brown belts in Southern California, and Chicken was one of the top black belts.
What enabled you to build your phenomenal tournament record?
Steve Anderson: Those guys were so competitive, and that helped me set my sights on winning. I thought, If they can do it, I’ve got a good opportunity to do it, too, because I was a better athlete than most of those guys. So I started going to tournaments every week — even when they didn’t go, I’d go by myself. And I’d win and win. It was an addiction.
What was your first significant win?
Steve Anderson: It was in 1980 at a tournament run by Steve Fisher. That was where I first beat Keith Vitali, the No. 1 fighter. Then I beat him again later that year in the U.S. Top 10 Nationals in Stockton, California. Then I beat him in Atlanta at the U.S. Open in October of the same year. So we had three fights that year, and I won them all. Karate Illustrated rated me the No. 1 fighter in the country — in my rookie year.
The newest release from combatives authority Kelly McCann and Black Belt is titled Kelly McCann Combatives 2: Stick & Ground Combat. It’s a streaming-video course you can watch on your digital device. Click here to watch the trailer and then sign up.
Where did you go from there?
Steve Anderson: I felt had to win every single tournament. Other guys would go through a year and win two major tournaments, but I’d win 13. I was the Tiger Woods of the time. I’m not bragging; the record speaks for itself. I went 18 months without a loss, from 1984 to some point in ’85. In ’87 I won my first seven tournaments in a row, so I thought I was headed for another undefeated year, but I lost two or three later that year. Unlike today’s fighters, I was winning overall. I’d win my division, then have to fight four or five more fights to be the grand champion of the tournament. There was only one grand champion when I was around. There weren’t three, four or five of them like there are now.
What do you consider to be the highlight of that part of your career?
Steve Anderson: Winning the U.S. Open in 1980. That pushed me over the hump and made me realize I was someone special. It made the people in Southern California recognize me. As a brown belt, I won 92 tournaments in a row. After I became a black belt, it wasn’t so much that I might lose a match; it was how badly I was going to beat the opposition. I didn’t just want to win; I wanted to annihilate the opposition. I didn’t hurt anybody, of course. It was the embarrassment factor, the way I would talk to them before and during the fight. I would tell them flat out: “You’ve got no chance. You shouldn’t have even come to this tournament. You’re a joke.” I wouldn’t say that stuff now, and if I had it to do all over again, I probably would not have done it then. But when you brag, you’ve got to back it up or people will be real hard on you. So I had to go out and pull off those things. Plus, I was broke most of the time, and I had to make my rent money.
How does fighting now differ from fighting in those days?
Steve Anderson: The competitors are more talented now. A lot of them have adopted things that Billy Blanks and I were doing: weight training, cross-training, doing a little bit of this and that. They kick better, they punch better and they’re faster. But I don’t think they are as smart. One of the things that made me good was I followed the fighters before me. I would often talk to them and see what they did.
Are you saying the mind is as important as the body?
Steve Anderson: Tournament fighting is more mental than physical. You have to be able to deal with the stress year after year as you put up with the referees, who may not be so good all the time, and the hotels. A lot of today’s guys complain about the stress of waiting around to [fight in] tournaments that sometimes aren’t organized well. That didn’t matter to me. The bottom line was when I fought at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, which I often did, all I looked at was winning. But a lot of fighters of today aren’t like that; they have no sense of history. They don’t even know that Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace, Benny Urquidez, Skipper Mullins, Thomas LaPuppet and Howard Jackson were great fighters. But where talent is concerned, today’s guys are better. They don’t have it as hard, but they’re more talented.
The karate/kobudo master teamed up with Black Belt mag to make Fumio Demura Karate Weapons: Complete Video Course. Merging Demura’s classic DVDs with new new kata footage, the program streams lessons on the nunchaku, bo, kama, sai, tonfa and eku bo to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Details here!
Are their techniques different from the ones you used?
Steve Anderson: No. It’s hard to change the fighting techniques much. The biggest changes have been in kata and in weapons.
What are some of the techniques you relied on back then?
Steve Anderson: The “California blitz,” my dive-bomb reverse punch and the different ways I did the backfist. My punching skills were the best of anybody out there. My jump-away side kick was also great. With my defensive side kick and defensive hook kick, I could keep people off long enough to go forward and hit them.
Did you have any weaknesses?
Steve Anderson: Offensive kicks. I wasn’t so good at going after people with my kicks.
Are there any techniques you used then but are no longer seen in competition?
Steve Anderson: Now there are no throws or takedowns. I used to throw; I really used to throw Billy Blanks to the ground and punch him a lot. I would do that to a lot of fighters, but I especially liked to do it to the bigger guys because it was an intimidation thing. I weighed 175 pounds when I was throwing those guys around.
What do you think of modern tournament fighters?
Steve Anderson: The fighters are probably better trained, and they spend more time doing it than most of the fighters [when I was competing]. But there are more fighters nowadays, so you have more of a chance of getting some good ones out of that greater pool. Mike Pombeiro was great once, but I don’t hear much about him right now. They used to say Raymond Daniels was going to be something else. I have a guy, Ben Stewart, who’s doing super well. Then you’ve got Jadi Tention, but he’s dropped out of sight. A lot of the young guys can’t last more than three or four years. Some of the fighters of today would have been significant a long time ago, but I don’t know if they would have stayed around for a long time — and that’s how you judge greatness.
Announcing a new low price on the Greg Jackson Mixed Martial Arts Core Curriculum, an online course from Black Belt magazine and the world’s leading MMA coach! Learn the best fighting techniques, combinations and strategies on your tablet or smartphone. More info here!
Why don’t competitors stick around as long as they used to?
Steve Anderson: There aren’t enough financial benefits for them. I made a lot more money than the guys are making now, and they have sponsored teams. I was on a sponsored team — the Atlantic World Karate Team, which was the biggest, the baddest and had the most money — but that was at the end of my career. Now you have teams like the Paul Mitchell Team and all these straight-up teams, and sometimes the guys have full sponsorship when they’re only 18 or 21 years old. Once you know that winning a tournament won’t determine whether you get to the next tournament, you’re no longer hungry. But people like Billy Blanks, Richard Plowden, Anthony Price, Anthony Halloway, Kevin Thompson and I needed to make money at tournaments. We had an incentive to win at all costs.
Were there any fighters you tried to avoid?
Steve Anderson: It wasn’t like that. If Billy Blanks and Richard Plowden were fighting in a $1,000 tournament on this side of the street, and there was a $1,000 tournament on that side, I would go to the tournament on the other side because it was still $1,000. I knew that if I had to deal with Billy and those guys, I was going to have a rough time. I needed the money, so I would go to the easier side of the street because I knew I would have to face those guys somewhere down the road, and the more wins you get now, the more confident you will be then. So when I did go up against Billy, I would win because I had that [previous] win. I wasn’t running or ducking anyone, but given a choice I would rather not fight a great fighter all the time — especially at a tournament. You didn’t want to fight Billy Blanks, Richard Plowden, Anthony Price or Keith Vitali in your first fight because that’s your worst fight. You want to fight a “donor,” somebody who’s easy, so you can build your confidence up. Then you fight a guy who’s a little better and next time a guy who’s a little better than that. Then you’re ready to fight the best guy.
Do you have any regrets?
Steve Anderson: Yes. The first time Billy beat me [was] at the California State Championship in ’83. I wish I had gone forward a little bit more in that fight. Another time, at a West Coast National Karate Association [event] in 1981, I fought when I had pneumonia. I had won the tournament three or four years in a row. This time, I won my division, so I was fighting a guy named Foster for the grand championship. In the first round I had the lead, but the scorekeeper made a mistake; instead of a two-point lead, he thought I had a one-point lead. All I had to do was remind the referee of the score and he would have fixed it, but I forgot to do it. So in the second round, for whatever reason, he won the fight. It wasn’t a good day for me. If I had it to do over again, I’d have got more points in that first round to put a little bit of room between him and me so in the second round when I started to get sick, I would have been able to hold him off. But I fought him six months later in Las Vegas and won $1,600, which was more than the [previous] tournament in San Jose.
What are your most memorable moments in sport karate?
Steve Anderson: The most fun I ever had was in 1985 when I was on the Atlantic World Karate Team with Billy Blanks, Richard Plowden, Anthony Price, Terry Kramer and those guys. The best fighter I ever fought was Price; he never let me beat him by more than one point. The next best was probably Blanks and then Plowden.
Silat for the Street is the title of an online course from Black Belt Hall of Famer Burton Richardson and Black Belt magazine. Now you can learn the most functional silat techniques whenever and wherever you want on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Get more info here!
Some people say you ruined sport karate because you stretched the rules too much.
Steve Anderson: Wilt Chamberlain once said they changed the rules because of me. They tried to put in two-point kicks because they figured I wouldn’t win any more, but I kicked everybody in the head and still won. Keith Vitali did as much to change the rules as I did by doing the jump-away side kick and things like that. What we and what my rivalry with Billy Blanks did was make sport karate. It was way more significant than what Bill Wallace and Joe Lewis did in terms of sport-style tournament karate. We taught people how to really use the safety equipment. If we stretched the rules, it was bad refereeing all around the country because they allowed us to. But I don’t believe that. Sport karate is at an all-time high right now. It doesn’t have as much magazine coverage, but promoters are making more money than they ever made off tournaments. So I don’t think I ruined it. But hey, if they’re talking about you, that’s good.
Photos by Robert Reiff