"T o the death! "
Benny (the Jet) Urquidez's eyes nearly shot out of their sockets when he heard the words. Foam collected on his lips and sweat slipped off his chin. Across a dark, dingy ring without ropes in Hong Kong, a square-jawed Chinese champion kick boxer had his arms thrust upward as he slowly approached Urquidez.
Above the spirited banter of hundreds of onlookers, most of them wielding handfuls of cash, and music sounding like a thousand screeching cats, Urquidez heard his opponent scream again, " To the death! "
"Bits and pieces of my life flashed before my eyes," recalls Urquidez, 33, a World Karate Assn. champion kick boxer.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Urquidez often had to fight his way out of fixes. Half-Spanish, half-Mexican and all-American in a martial arts world dominated by Asians, having defended world titles in four continents, he was accustomed to being in strange places.
But this was different.
He was alone in Hong Kong in November, 1980, only to promote a karate movie on a talk show. Look what had transpired in 24 hours, he thought.
Someone in the TV studio audience had stood up and called him nothing but an actor, a sham of a fighter. The man--who turned out to be a Hong Kong kick boxing champion--challenged Urquidez to a death match. Urquidez demanded $20,000 and a mink coat, calling the man's bluff. The challenger's promoter met Urquidez the next day, however, handed over the cash and the coat and drove him to the noisy warehouse.
A horn sounded, the opponent shouted and Urquidez sprang out of his corner. He sent a shin kick to the cheekbone, another to the ribs. Spinning 360 degrees, Urquidez then landed a backfist to the face.
"By the third round, he looked like the Elephant Man," says Urquidez, who declines to reveal the opponent's name.
In Round 4, repeated rib shots laid the guy on his back, wheezing for air. The crowd clamored around the ring, shouting and whistling.
Says Urquidez: "I was confused. They wanted a kill and I wouldn't give it to them. The promoter pulled me into an adjoining room, where I stood for four hours waiting for the riot to end."
Although Urquidez's death match didn't follow the form of most of his fights in the Far East, Europe and North and South America, the outcome was the same. This modern-day conquistador claims never to have been defeated in battle.
"I have traveled to many lands, fought the best men, eaten the best food and returned with riches," he states softly with a characteristic chop of his hand.
Comparing Urquidez's exploits to those of early Spanish conquistadores Hernando Cortes or Francisco Pizarro--who are remembered as much for spilled guts as glory--is not completely fair to the Jet, however. His machismo is tempered with the discipline required in the martial arts.
"Control is the key to understanding," Urquidez says. "Control of the body, of the mind, of the spirit and of the heart.
"I don't fight out of anger. I am a sportsman. Through my sport I have learned self-respect and discipline."
He speaks of spiritual understanding in the same controlled cadence that he tells of his grandmother riding with Pancho Villa and of his Valley upbringing.
Urquidez roamed the streets of Van Nuys, San Fernando and North Hollywood as a youngster along with four brothers and four sisters, fighters all. Benny's mother supported the family with work as a professional wrestler at venues like the Olympic Auditorium; his father, who left the household when Benny was 8, was a professional boxer.
Benny's sister, Lilly, 37, has been a world champion super bantamweight kick boxer. At 21, she married Benny's 15-year-old friend, Blinky Rodriguez, who has been a super middleweight kick boxing champion.
"When we fought in the street, we fought for real," Urquidez says. "We didn't believe in leaving the other guy standing, because he might come back with a 2-by-4 and cave in our skulls.
"We owned the Valley. We would walk the streets and a hundred kids would follow behind."
Urquidez, in turn, followed the teachings of North Hollywood-based karate and judo instructor Bill Ryusaki from ages 9 to 13. Ryusaki remembers Benny as a born brawler.
"Benny was from a bad area and he had a bad attitude," said Ryusaki. "He had a complex about being small and felt he had to prove himself by fighting. I wouldn't let him fight. I made him work on form and learn discipline."
Urquidez attended Grant and Polytechnic high schools before graduating from North Hollywood High in 1969. He wrestled at Poly and played football at North Hollywood.
"My football coach would tell me, 'See that guy, put him out of business,' " Urquidez says. "I was a hyper little defensive back."
Now, Benny, all 145 pounds of him, commands the rapture of the martial arts world. In Japan, he is the great " Yukiide-san ," and is claimed to be half Japanese.