Drinking the Karate Kool-Aid™
The 1974, Florida Karate Championships were held in St. Petersburg, and I begged my dad to take me.
To his full credit, he drove me to this and many other events in the years before I had a driver’s license.
This trip though was tough. It was during the gas crisis of the seventies. It wasn’t unusual to have to wait twenty to thirty minutes in line to get gas.
Once you got to the pumps, you might just get a few gallons. To compound the stress, we were getting lost trying to find the event, but Dad didn’t complain.
Dad was excited because Joe Lewis was going to fight an exhibition fight that night.
Dad read my karate magazines and knew who Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and Joe Lewis were.
On the drive over, he kept saying the blacks would take the sport over because they were faster. He said, “Once Lewis and Superfoot are gone, that will be it. The blacks will dominate.”
I disagreed. I believed that a karate expert didn’t need speed or power. He had the secrets of karate. Of course, I didn’t think that if the other guy had the secrets of karate as well, then speed could be a factor. What did I know? I was just pumped up teen.
The man Joe fought that night was Herbie Thompson. Herbie was a tough black man from the ghettos of Miami. (There is a chapter on Herbie in the appendix) Tough as he was, Joe Lewis dominated the fight, and speed had nothing to do with it. Lewis was fast, but his power decided the outcome of most of his fights.
That day, Walt Bone won both the fighting and forms divisions with Hank Farrah coming in third place, and all of it was in Official Karate magazine six months later. I was so proud of my school.
For years, as a young competitor on the Florida karate tournament circuit, I would see Herbie Thompson compete in the black belt fighting division.
The circuit was racially charged in those days, with Thompson the respected and feared leader of a group of black fighters from Miami. Though he was respectful and friendly with Walt Bone, he was rarely friends with anyone he faced in the ring.
He threw trophies and chairs if he didn’t win first place and always seemed ready to explode into a street fighting rage if things didn’t go his way.
One time we had a black belt team competition between our school and a team led by Thompson.
I was just a brown belt and was settling in to watch what I knew would be a rough, volatile series of matches when Mr. Bone motioned me to come over.
He instructed me to follow him into the locker room where he pulled out a black belt and told me to put it on. I had been instantly recruited onto an adult team of black belts at seventeen. I was terrified.
In the first fight, our biggest fighter got his nose broken six feet out of bounds by a blatantly illegal punch. We got the penalty point, but he got a trip to the hospital.
After cleaning up the blood, in the next fight Don Sturiano got knocked out of the match with a powerful kick to the back, which nearly crippled him. I was next. I survived, but I lost a lot of points.
In the final match, Walt Bone was up against Herbie Thompson. We were way behind in points, but Walt regained the points, and we won the team competition.
Thompson went nuts. While excluding Bone from the tirade, he kicked things, spewed foul language, and threw his equipment across the room.
In a sport based upon principles of respect and courtesy, this was disturbing and, in our view, disgraceful.
Fast-forward twenty years. For my magazine, Martial Arts Professional, we did a profile on Thompson. What I discovered was a great lesson in perspective.
We asked him about the “old days” when he would throw a tantrum after losing. His response was as revealing as it was unexpected.
We discovered that for over thirty years, Herbie Thompson had dedicated his life to using the martial arts to save children in the roughest inner-city communities of Miami from a life of crime.
He has mentored hundreds of kids and has probably saved as many lives.
He explained that he would load as many kids into a van as possible and drive them out of Miami on Saturdays to a karate tournament.
Some of the kids competed and some watched, but all were out of harm’s way for the day. He was using distance as the defense to keep these kids out of the battlefield in the streets of Miami.
However, between the gas and the entry fees, by the time the tournament started, he was out of money.
If he didn’t win the cash prize for first place, he couldn’t feed the kids, and he would have to borrow money for gas to get the kids home.
His story instantly reframed our perception that he was a disrespectful jerk when, in fact, he was a desperate hero to these children, many of whom run their own martial arts schools today.