LAS VEGAS — Kathy Long steps into the prizefighting ring dressed in a white floor-length robe. Male attendants precede her, carrying her five world's championship kickboxing belts. Long spins in a circle while removing the robe, revealing a white midriff spandex tank top and a pair of fringed and beaded white trunks that have been sewn from bridal satin. Long's musculature is so highly defined that fat cells seem to have no place to hide in her body.
At 27, Long is at the height of her career as the premier kickboxer in the world. Tonight, 11,000 fans have come to watch her fight Japanese champion Kyoko Kamikaze; it is the largest attendance in the 20-year history of kickboxing--men's or women's.
Long dominates virtually every moment of the Kamikaze bout. Watching her, one soon forgets how strange it is that she fights for a living. After only a few moments, one sees the dazzle and downright elegance with which she moves. Her straight right lead is a razor, her left hook sears the night air. Lead leg round-kicks and spinning back-kicks regularly startle Kamikaze with their power and suddenness. In the final round, Long catches Kamikaze with a thought-shattering hook to the jaw. Kamikaze crumples like a soiled shirt thrown to the floor and, although she manages to get up, Long feints a jab, then spears her with a short right cross. As Kamikaze hits the canvas, the force of the blow causes her to roll back on her shoulders. She makes it to her feet again, but the fight is over. The crowd explodes into applause. Hundreds of spectators chant, "Kathy! Kathy!"
For nearly an hour after she leaves the ring, Long is surrounded by a crush of autograph-seeking fans.
Can Long become the latest kickboxer or martial arts star to duplicate her success in the sport at the movies? Apparently, plenty of Hollywood types think so.
This past winter, Long got her first exposure to the movies by working as Michelle Pfeiffer's stunt double for fight scenes in "Batman Returns" and as Goldie Hawn's double in "Death Becomes Her." But she's clearly set her sights beyond stunt work.
Long recently signed a non-exclusive multi-movie deal with King's Road Entertainment. Last month, she finished shooting her first starring feature, a post-apocalyptic action fantasy called "Knights," which co-stars Kris Kristofferson and Lance Henriksen. "Knights" is scheduled for theatrical release in November.
Other things in the development stage: a multi-picture pact with New Line Cinema; a send-up of chop-socky movies that would be shown in Malaysia this fall; a continuing role on the TV series "Street Justice" (she filmed her first episode this week) and a weekly series created for Long by TriStar Television.
"What I'm impressed with more than anything about Kathy," says Chuck Norris, "is the presence she's developed both in and out of the ring. She just glows and I think that'll translate itself well to the big screen."
When asked about buzz that Oliver Stone is developing a kickboxing project that would use Long in a starring role, Tom Haislip of Stone's Ixtlan Productions says, "Oliver's been watching her and wanting to see who she is and what she's about. We'd like to be able to get the two of them together soon."
Other female martial-arts competitors, including Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, have gained a kind of fame on the chop-socky video store circuit. With the release of "Knights," though, Long will become the only actual women's kickboxing champion to have made the leap from ring to screen.
"She's got something very special in her face," Jean-Claude Van Damme once said of Long, when he served as a commentator during one of her bouts. "She's beautiful and she's got (a) broken nose. It's very appealing, very, very real. (She'll) make a great leading lady."
So far the level of physicality that acting requires has been easy for Long. "To me, what I did was way easy. It was mentally taxing but it didn't physically challenge me. It was hard to get a good workout."
But she hopes her work will bring a verisimilitude to fight scenes that people haven't seen. "I fight with intensity, exploding into my strikes," she says. "People have gotten little bits and pieces of reality with Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal, but I hope to show them what personal combat's really about."
According to John Soet, editor of Inside Kung-Fu magazine, "What little attention female kickboxers received in the past, they got simply because they were women. Kathy is a standout because she's a great kickboxer. Her skills are as good as those of the best champion-level men. And her kung-fu skills are of an even higher caliber than her kickboxing. If you look at Kathy as a complete martial artist, she's on a level almost all by herself."