Updated: Oct 25
For 99 percent of the martial artists out there, Joe Lewis needs no introduction. But for the 1 percent who may be new to the arts, here goes.
Joe Lewis is particularly famous for three accomplishments: He earned a black belt in three styles in less than one year, he practically created the sport of kickboxing and he successfully made the transition from champion noncontact fighter to champion semicontact fighter to champion full-contact fighter. Enough said?
Ever since he was a teenager, Joe Lewis knew he loved the physical side of life. By the time he turned 14, he was heavily into wrestling and pumping iron. When he joined the Marines in 1962, he started learning hand-to-hand combat as part of basic training.
Ernie Cates, a seven-time Marine Corps judo champ who taught self-defense techniques to recruits, gave Joe Lewis his first real exposure to the martial arts. He wasn’t impressed. “Wrestlers would put on a gi and beat the heck out of the judo guys on the mat,” Lewis said.
“I had the opportunity to be exposed to karate in Cherry Point, North Carolina, when I was still in the Marine Corps,” Joe Lewis continued. “The styles were primarily Japanese and Okinawan, such as wado-ryu and isshin-ryu karate.
“At first, I wasn’t really attracted to the arts. My loves were still wrestling and weightlifting. Back then, if a person was skinny and didn’t have muscles or weigh 200 pounds, I wasn’t impressed. I came from a weightlifting world where guys could bench-press 400 pounds and squat 600 pounds. That impressed me, as did someone who could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds. I loved speed and power, and if it didn’t look like you could produce them, you didn’t get any respect from me.
"I gradually became attracted to the exotic and abstract look of karate, the visual appeal of the striking maneuvers. I finally got the bug to learn it, so I told my commander I wanted to go to Okinawa.”
Joe Lewis’ superiors were more than happy to oblige. They shipped the 19-year-old off to Okinawa, where he stayed for almost two years.
“I started training in a couple styles of shorin-ryu,” Lewis said. “In the first year, I made black belt in kobayashi-ryu, matsubayashi-ryu and Okinawan kempo.
“The man who taught me how to spar in Okinawa was an American, a man named John Korab. He was a black belt in wado-ryu, then went to Okinawa and started over again in shorin-ryu karate.”
Joe Lewis also trained under some Okinawan instructors, including Eizo Shimabuko and Kinjo Chinsoku. But with the destruction of World War II still fresh in the mind of most locals, resentment against the Americans ran high. Were the instructors open about teaching their cultural treasures to their conquerors?
“They were open about making money,” Joe Lewis said. “And they liked Americans because we were big and they enjoyed watching us pound on each other.” He credited those pioneering American martial artists with spearheading the fighting side of the arts.
“Most of the Japanese and Okinawans I met then were just into doing the kata and the traditional ceremonies,” he said. “They didn’t care that much about sparring, and I didn’t think they knew that much about tactics and strategy. The Americans were the ones who made a science of it, who really enjoyed it. They spent most of their time competing.”
Joe Lewis, on the other hand, spent most of his time practicing. “I trained about four to five hours a day,” he said. “On a bad night, I would get in only a two- or three-hour workout. On weekends, I got a chance to train two or three times. The last six months I was in Okinawa, I would go to a kempo school at noon, a judo school at 6 o’clock and a karate school at 9 o’clock.
“What I liked about training overseas was that there were no distractions. We didn’t go home every night; we went to the barracks. We weren’t distracted by hobbies, dating, football games or basketball games — there was nothing going on. We would train in the military all day, and then at night we would train in the martial arts. There were always plenty of young, tough guys around to spar with and beat on.”
Joe Lewis tried his hand at competition when the Okinawan Championships were held in 1964. He was a brown belt and wanted to see what tournament sparring was all about. His first foray into American competition came in 1966 at Jhoon Rhee’s U.S. National Championships in Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t understand the rules, so I just wanted to go there and watch,” he said. “But I went to Jhoon Rhee’s school the night before, and he talked me into competing.”
Jhoon Rhee told Joe Lewis to report for duty the next day at 9 o’clock. “I showed up at 8:30, like a good Marine, but I didn’t start competing until 5 o’clock,” Lewis said. “I sat there all day long with no food or anything. That’s when I decided I would never arrive early at a tournament again.”
But an empty stomach didn’t deter the young fighter. “I did real well,” he said. “I tore the gi off three of my opponents that day, and no one scored a point on me till the very last match. A kid from a shorin-ryu school came at me with two kicks, and I stepped out of the ring and looked behind me to see if I was still in the ring. That’s when he threw a low kick to my belt line and scored a point.”
Yet Joe Lewis triumphed. He took first in sparring and black-belt forms, and he won the grand championship. He didn’t stop winning until he retired from competition in 1971. Not bad for a guy who once thought wrestling and weightlifting were the ultimate physical pursuits!
Text by Robert W. Young