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Little Known Kick-Boxing Gets Toehold in Hollywood

September 17, 1989|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

The guys down at the Jet Center gym in Van Nuys won't admit that their beloved sport of kick-boxing has gone Hollywood.

But they don't deny that recent events have brought some glitz to the ancient Thai fighting style that had previously been thought of in terms of blood, sweat and toenails.

The Jet Center is run by Benny (The Jet) Urquidez, a San Fernando native who is recognized as one of the greatest kick-boxers ever, and it may be the best-known kick-boxing gym in the United States--which is to say that it remains virtually unknown.

Big Sport in Asia

Kick-boxing is a major sport in Asia, but Urquidez has been struggling for 15 years to sell the sport to America. He has been promoting fights across the country and trying unsuccessfully for big crowds and big money.

Now, all of a sudden, Hollywood has gotten into the act. Over the last two years, half a dozen movies featuring kick-boxing have been released. Some have been purely action-adventure affairs, films with titles such as "Bloodsport" and "Bloodfist." Jean-Claude Van Damme's new movie "Kick Boxer" opened recently, and Chuck Norris is planning a kick-boxing movie as well.

But others have been regular movies. John Cusack played a kick-boxing teen-ager in "Say Anything." Patrick Swayze used kick-boxing techniques as a bouncer in "Road House." The sport has become almost, well, hip.

"The sport of the future," Cusack says, if somewhat facetiously, in his movie role.

All of which has the guys down at the Jet Center smelling a chance at success. All of which led to fight night on a recent Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium.

The "Evening of World Championship KickBoxing" was as much a scene as it was a sporting event.

A ring was erected in the Palladium's red-carpeted ballroom, beneath massive chandeliers. Jacketed waiters scurried about with trays of drinks from the bar.

"Boxing has a beer-drinking crowd," Urquidez said. "Kick-boxing has a champagne-drinking crowd."

A pair of Australian publicity men hired for this event were promising that such celebrities as Swayze, Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone would soon arrive.

Paid $100

But by the time the first of six bouts began at 8 p.m., the only luminaries in attendance were David Lee Roth and Iron Eyes Cody.

The initial matches were conducted by less-experienced fighters paid $100 a round to beat each other up. They would circle within the ring, suddenly charge together in a mass of arms and legs, then separate and repeat the process.

"If you worry about pain, you're in the wrong sport," said Melvin Murray, a Canadian welterweight who was hit often and hard while losing his bout.

The crowd of about 2,000 seemed pleased with the action. This was a mixed audience.

Despite Urquidez's proclamation, they were the kind of people who drink beer. "A lot of beer," said Carl, one of the bartenders at the Palladium. And they were the kind of people who said they were fed up with boxing.

"With kick-boxing," one man said, "there are less rules involved."

"This is like real fighting," another said.

Kick-boxing may feature some of the Oriental grace associated with martial arts, but it emphasizes all-out combat: fists, elbows, knees and feet. Combatants fight three-minute rounds and wear virtually no padding.

Thrust kicks will land flush on an opponent's jaw and snap his head back. A roundhouse kick will smack against the opponent's thigh with a meaty thud.

"There's nothing like a good kick," said Kevin Gow, one of the publicity men. "People can feel a kick in the bloody crowd."

Jill Schwartz and Tiffany Miami said they could feel the kicks. The women, both in their early 20s, were making their first visit to see kick-boxing and sat close together for the first hour, clutching each other's hands.

"We thought, 'This is a horrible, aggressive, terrifying sport,' " Schwartz said. "But now we're really into it."

Promoters Scramble

By 9:30 p.m., the preliminary bouts were finished and the promoters were sent scrambling: Word was that Stallone and Rourke were about to arrive, bringing along "Batman" producer Jon Peters. Was their table ready?

The bouts at the Palladium were meant as a kickoff for a worldwide campaign orchestrated from the Jet Center just off Van Nuys Boulevard. The "Evening of KickBoxing" is scheduled to go on the road soon, a sort of traveling sideshow of knuckles and heels that will visit 12 cities in the United States and Japan, England, Mexico and the Soviet Union.

Urquidez and co-promoter Blinky Rodriguez, his brother-in-law, are not attempting this feat alone. They persuaded Norris to lend his name to the events. And they enlisted Joe Kaufenberg, a T-shirt maker who boasts of extensive connections in Las Vegas, boxing circles and corporate America.

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