Before the great mixed martial artists of today could be seen as professional athletes, there was a generation that laid the path for combat sports.
Many of these pioneers were persons of color and their story is one that is seldom told. From the promoter-polarization marketing model that has reaped millions from silver screen, black martial artists have a vast and storied legacy now seen in today's black fighters.
In boxing, before “Money” Mayweather, there was Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight champion of the world and first black ‘heel’ in boxing. Johnson was the most notorious man in the world then because he was fearless both in the ring and in the face of an extremely racist American climate.
Johnson used a unique defensive style that waited for his opponents to tire out before he finished them with his power. He would go on to become a legend both for his in ring dominance and his out of competition controversial lifestyle.
While Black boxers are common, the world of martial arts is not traditionally recognized as a home for Black talent. But in reality, this could not be further from the truth, for in traditional martial arts, innovators like Jim Kelly and Dr. Moses Powell proved that black martial artists could perform their craft on the biggest stage, innovating and creating new systems and styles in the process.
Jim Kelly, who passed away two years ago at the age of 67, was the world’s first Black martial arts star. Famous for his roles in Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones, Kelly was a former collegiate football player who left the sport for the martial arts, specifically Shorin-ryu karate. After opening his own studio in the Crenshaw section of Los Angeles, Kelly began acting during the Blaxploitation era of the seventies. These films, along with Kelly’s confidence, helped spawn a new generation of martial arts adherents globally. Most will always remember him for his most famous role, playing "Williams" in "Enter the Dragon", starring Bruce Lee.
But many forget that he also starred in "Three the Hard Way" with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. The movie, directed by Gordon Parks Jr. during the height of the Blaxploitation era, gave Black America it's first heroic Black trio, a move that Hollywood hasn't seen since. "Bad Boys" had two Black stars, thanks to the power of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, but none have dared to put three on the silver screen, especially not with a plot as sinister and bold as three Black men aiming to destroy the efforts of a white supremist who is trying to eliminate Black people through a toxin that only affects them. These movies may appear simplistic compared to today's big budget films and CGI effects, but in the 70's, stars like Jim Kelly and movies like "Three the Hard Way", were trailblazers for a Black America that was struggling to get ahead, especially those in the rough inner cities like New York and Chicago. They demonstrated that Black people could fight back, literally, against racism, oppression and the strangle hold that Hollywood had over the industry and the roles that Black actors were allowed to take on.
Kelly would move on to other films, such as the aforementioned "Black Belt Jones", "Hot Potato" and "Black Samurai", and while his movies weren't block busters by any means, the impact, significance and influence of his films and roles are elements that can't be measured or quantified by revenues or ticket sales. "Afro Samurai", although based upon the Black samurai Yasuke from the 1550's, was influenced by Black culture and has some semblance to Kelly's character, Robert Sand, in "Black Samurai."
Jim Kelly was an originator and inspiration to young Black men trying to pursue both the martial arts and an on-screen career, journeys that take years to perfect
Another man of color, not as well recognized but carrying just as much importance, is Dr. Moses Powell, also known as Master Musa Muhammad. He was a trailblazer who created the Sanuces Ryu jujutsu system. The 10th degree black belt is the first martial artist invited to perform for the United Nations and was famous for his one finger roll. Powell was relentless in establishing his martial arts system as one that was created by, and for, people of color. For that reason, Powell never co-signed other martial arts systems.
Today’s black martial artists range from Dorian Price, a journeyman Thai boxer from Baltimore, Maryland that achieved his dream to live, train and fight in Southeast Asia to any kickboxer or MMA fighter you see on television. And while many don't recognize the impact of Kelly and Powell, their contributions should be acknowledged, admired and respected.
The relationship between Black culture and the martial arts is varied and significant, and we will bring these stories to the forefront as a part of our continuous search of provision of the full picture of combat sports history. Until then, listen to the echoes of the past in each jab thrown and countered and every submission that resulted in a tap out. Martial arts has a past as colorful as it is vast and those stories are beckoning not only for a retell, but a proper iteration.
I'm sure Taimak would agree.