How Willie ‘The Bam’ Johnson used Martial Arts to beat the odds and escape the broken streets of Mid-East America to become a modern day Kung Fu Renaissance Man.
It was author and motivation speaker Napoleon Hill who first coined the term Positive Mental Attitude (PMA), but if you were to look up that term in the dictionary, you would probably see a picture of Willie "The Bam" Johnson staring back at you.
"The Bam" has been promoting PMA in MMA, for over 37 years.
In that time, "The Bam`s" multi-faceted training programmes and workshops have successfully guided thousands of children, teenagers and adults away from the negative influences that are sadly still rife in current day mid-east America.
Johnson turned is own life around in the mid-1980's by abandoning the gangland crime culture and delinquency that plagued his home city of Baltimore Maryland USA, to become one of the first African Americans to own a martial arts school in the Maryland area and subsequently going on to appear on the cover of Kung-fu Karate Illustrated and Blackbelt magazine, as well as starring in movies, and as a main character in the cult television programme WMAC Masters, hosted by Shannon Lee, the daughter of Johnson`s idol – Bruce Lee.
Elements of Johnson's life story have now been adapted into an award winning movie, 1 Out Of 100 ( 2022). The movie has been described by Blackbelt Magazine as a coming of age martial arts movie for the youth of America.
The title is taken from the statistic of how many students go on to succeed in the world of martial arts, with 99 percent choosing to give up training before obtaining certification. It is a statistic that Johnson wants to remedy through his teachings, scholarship programme and via the medium of film-making.
Following the success of Johnson's documentary ( The Bam: The Willie Johnson Story 2021), he once again teamed up with his collaborator, writer/ director Robert Parham ( Ron Van Clief`s The Hanged Man 2020, Snowblack 2021 ) who returns to take on directorial duties, with Johnson himself starring as the main character and crafting the script alongside co-writer Stephen Wilkes.
The film is indeed a family affair, with "The Bam" starring alongside his two children Marshieh and Zarion Johnson, with his wife Kimber Johnson (Kimber is an inspirational person in her own-right and whose life story is worthy of it's own movie),serving as the film's producer.
The film centres around an ex-criminal (Willie "The Bam" Johnsonwho has been paroled and now works at a local martial arts dojo and oversees a young student (Marshieh Johnson) who strives to balance family life supporting his mother and younger brother, whilst acting as a role model for younger children and preparing for a local martial arts competition which could lead to a brighter existence for himself and his family- all themes that "The Bam" has had to deal with in his own life off-screen.
Johnson's love for his family has always been pivotal to his mindset and was the catalyst for him moving away from the gang culture that funded the perpetual spiral of self abuse from drugs and alcohol which he was using as an emotional panacea to deal with his childhood traumas, living in a broken home and the grief of losing his mother.
By his own admission there were no local role models in Baltimore, Maryland that he could identify with and at times was almost ashamed to be a person of color. It wasn't until he saw Bruce Lee in The Chinese Connection (Internationally Known as Fist Of Fury- 1971), that he could identify with a believable role model.
Building on his childhood obsession with the little dragon, Martial Arts Gymnastics , many self taught styles, along with his love of kung-fu cinema and blaxploitation movies, Johnson sort the tutelage of renowned Martial Artist Dennis Brown in the neighbouring state of Washington D.C., often taking the interstate bus to get to his lessons, even when he didn't have enough money to pay for the bus fare.
Through hard work and diligence, Johnson quickly progressed up the ranks, gaining a 7th degree black belt in Karate/ Kang Du Kwon, 5th degree blackbelt in Shaolin Wu Shu kung fu and 1st degree black belt in Karate / Death Ke Do. His hunger for perfection saw him successfully become 7 times U.M.A.C world Champion, 2-time All American Champion, leading him to be one of the first African Americans to visit the Shaolin Temple in China the home of eastern martial arts. Johnson was inspired by the philosophical aspects of martial arts encountered in China, and brought back a new outlook on life and applied it to his own street style of martial arts.
But at the same time , Johnson was still embroiled in the gang lifestyle of his childhood. It was not until his Mother's passing that "The Bam" took stock of his life and after a stint in rehabilitation, moved away from the negative influences of the gang and drug culture that was fueling his path of self-destruction.
Applying the customer service skills he gained during his delinquent "Street Entreprepernuership", Johnson re-branded himself "The Bam" ( Incorporating his family nickname, and adjusting it to incorporate his new mindset – There is only ONE "The Bam"), and set about teaching martial arts in Baltimore and surrounding areas. Within a year he was successfully able to buy his own school outright. Something unheard of for a young African American in Baltimore.
Success soon brought media attention and he was the first African American to appear on the cover of several martial arts magazines, and also become a regular publication contributor ,sharing his knowledge of the martial arts throughout the nation.
Johnson's next goal was to get into the world of martial arts action movies ,to try to emulated the success of his kung Fu movie idols who inspired him growing up ,and create a positive role model for the ‘Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Power Ranger’‘generation.
With the encouragement of his friend , Martial Arts film actress Cynthia Rothrock, "The Bam " landed an uncredited role in Godfrey Ho's cult movie Undefeatable (1993) ,and then went on to star as a version of himself in the international hit tv series WMAC Masters ( 1995-1996), the Bloodsport -Karate Kid influenced Superfights (1996/7) and his own self produced urban action drama, Deadly Game Of Death (2005).
Twenty years a head of it's time, there is a strong argument that Deadly Game Of Death (2005) can be categorised as the direct progenitor of the current wave of urban action martial arts movies where a disaffected youth is saved from the peer pressure of gang lifestyle by the teachings of eastern martial arts philosophies, such as the award winning Twisting Tiger 2021 and also serving as blue-print for Johnson's own movie,1 Out of 100 (2022).
His acting work has led to "The Bam" meeting and working with several of his martial arts heroes such a Chuck Norris ,Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, Billy Blanks ,Ron Van Clief and Carl Scott. Also a frequent attendee and patron of the Urban Action Showcase (UASE) film festival, in New York, Johnson actively encourages new talent to progress in the world of martial arts movies, and has passed on his years of knowledge and experience to several rising stars of the industry. In recent years, "The Bam" has devised a workshop programme in conjunction with the UASE, ‘Call 2 Action ’ -which is specifically designed for those who have a passion to make it in the world of martial arts action cinema, to become the next Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen or Cynthia Rothrock, but have no formal training or connections to get into the film industry.
If that is not enough, other than his Martial Arts teaching, instructional videos, film work, and motivational speaking,"The Bam" is also a rapper , DJ and figure head in the local Baltimore Maryland community.
Combining a fusion of all his interests, Johnson strives to motivate all those who wish to better themselves no matter and has become the very role model to the youth of Baltimore, that was absent in his own life growing up.
Johnson has also created the non-profit The Urban Spirit Foundation, with the aim to provide educational scholarships to under-privileged children nationwide, and in true "The Bam" style, has set a goal of granting 1 million scholarships to children who need extra curriculum financial support. The many struggles that "The Bam" and his family have encountered over the years, their strong faith and temerity have proven inspirational and that they embody the fighting spirit whilst remaining humble.
1 Out Of 100 (2022) is the product of it's own ethics, filmed at the tail end of the covid-19 restrictions , on a meagre budget of $2,500 US, and with a limited distribution, and has succeeded against the odds to make it to break into streaming platforms for international audiences to view. It is hoped that the film reaches it's target audience, and that viewers take inspiration from the movie's valuable life lessons and apply "The Bam" mindset to better their own life. Proving, that there are many roads through the journey of life, and its never too early, or too late to change the direction your life is heading , becoming successful through hard work, and determination.
1 Out Of 100 (2022) premieres in late 2022 /early 2023.