The first time you see a full-contact karate kick-boxing match, you have to wonder what barroom brawl these guys stumbled out of.
At first glance, the two combatants look no different from other boxers, except for their preference for long pants. They circle the ring, gloves cocked to throw a left hook or a right cross. But then, all of sudden, one boxer will flick out his foot in a whip-like motion, slapping his opponent across the temple. The other man will respond with a well-placed foot in the chest of his adversary.
What's next, a ringside chair smashed over the head? Or Hulk Hogan coming over the ropes to apply a headlock?
Not quite. Kick boxing may be mayhem, but it's controlled mayhem. Boxers may not kick below the waist in Professional Karate Association matches; they may kick on the calf, thigh, body or head in the rival World Karate Association.
Kick boxing has a tradition that stretches back two centuries to Thailand, its believed birthplace. The game has existed as a spectator sport in its present form in this country for only a dozen years, but Blinky Rodriguez calls it "the sport of the '90s."
Blinky is not a man to argue with. He's been fighting in this country for a lot longer than a dozen years--and not always in a spectator sport.
He and his best friend, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, grew up in San Fernando where, along with kick boxing, there was stomp boxing, stab boxing and other forms of violence.
Rodriquez and Urquidez survived and wound up in karate. They both fought for the L.A. Stars in the National Karate League, which began a decade ago but lasted little more than a year.
Then it was on to kick boxing, in which Rodriguez has won 44 of 48 matches, 36 by knockout, and has been the WKA U.S. middleweight champion for the last 10 years. Urquidez has had even greater success, winning all 61 of his career matches, 54 by knockout. He has held three WKA titles (lightweight, super lightweight and welterweight) and is a legend in the Far East.
Rodriguez and Urquidez are brothers-in-law now, Blinky having married Benny's sister, Lilly.
With all of his success, however, there has been frustration for Blinky. Twice he tried to capture a world title, and twice he failed. He lost a title match to Bill Wallace after being penalized for a low kick. Then he lost to Bobby Ryan. He agonized. He brooded.
But then, he decided to rap his imposing fists around a hammer and a wrench and take on a new challenge.
After a year and a half of labor, they opened in Van Nuys Benny the Jet's Jet Center, which Rodriguez refers to as "the West Point of martial arts."
Everyone from boxers to kick boxers to karate and judo students can be found working out daily or taking classes in the Jet Center gym. There is a health-food bar, a sauna, a weight room and plans for a physical therapy and chiropractic unit.
"It haunted me for a long time," Rodriguez, 32, says of his failure to win a world championship. "I figured I was born to lose. But I have five sons and I realized I was not portraying a good image for them. When we started working on the Jet Center, the lights went on and I learned to reach through the ceiling for the stars."
Rodriguez and his partners will put on a kick boxing show at the Reseda Country Club today. WKA super featherweight champion Dave Johnston will defend his title against Yohan Kim, while light heavyweights John Hackleman and Roger Hurd will meet for the North American championship.
Rodriguez and his partners have plans for once-a-month kick boxing shows at the Reseda Country Club, expanding to twice monthly by the end of summer, and perhaps weekly shows by next year.
As he talks about his plans, Rodriguez looks at a magazine article about PKA middleweight champ John-Yves Theriault, whom Rodriguez once knocked out in the first round of a non-title fight. "You know," Rodriguez says, "they're talking about giving him $100,000 for his next fight."
Rodriguez smiles. He loves his new life as a businessman, but you get the feeling he'd be tempted to trade it all for just one more shot at a world title.