Often over shadowed by Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon, there was one martial artist who like Ali opened the door for the black community and all races for that matter just as Bruce Lee did, his name was Jim Kelly.
To me he was Mr 70’s, his trademark afro and the air of his martial arts was a part of the old skool era that stood out. He was inspiring and cool, also a little hip like Bruce from what we can see on screen. Let’s look at some areas of this gentleman and join me in paying respects.
Attitude – We can only go by what we have seen and read about his personality as in film he was acting, while his skill did the talking. In his interviews I observed him as humble and polite, he always seemed to make time to answer people. This was either at events or via email; I had a great chat with him about Tennis. (Cross trainer alert right there.) I’m sure the editor in chief Bob Sykes can recall some nice conversations on the phone. If there is one quality he will be remembered for is this, his personality. For it is how we are as a person to ourselves and others that leaves a heart felt legacy, not what you have. Even today there are martial artists who will only give you their time if you can bring them a profit. He was very clever how he would answer a difficult question too, at times just leaving it hanging...
“That’s a really good question, I must think about that one.”
The one element that shone through was his ability to hold supreme self confidence in his ability as a Karate Champion and striker without sounding cock sure. He had the martial warrior spirit and was the right type of human for the martial arts.
Ability - As we are aware Jim studied The Shorin Ryu System of Karate Do, and it is evident that he remained loyal to his chosen style. It is documented that he and Bruce had the same ideals regarding their training, and in many ways the use of the lead side kick and back fist was present in his movies such as Black Belt Jones. Jim Kelly was one of the few people to block Bruce Lees back fist, and Bruce would speak highly of Jim’s back fist also. Although they never faced off as enemies on film, Jim stated when asked about Bruce Lee...
“He would have smashed me up. It didn’t matter if he was sparring a much bigger guy, at our era nobody could touch him, he seemed one step ahead of us all.”
I for one feel Jim Kelly had enough arsenal and class to make any body work hard against him. I like the fight with the guards in Enter the Dragon, how effortless he blends what looks to be a side kick into a powerful sweeping hook kick against the first baddie. He was light on his feet and moved like Bruce in other ways. He also had his own war cry or Kiai. Not so much like a Cat, but more of hyperactive Owl. But what about his physique? It looked natural but impressive, perfect for martial art. He had a low body fat, due to his Tennis and Karate. Strangly enough when I asked his about his conditioning he said he did calisthenics, kata, pad, bag work and sparring. He never mentioned weight lifting. So I’m unsure to whether he used a gym or not. Even so he was quick and lean and had similar qualities to Bruce Lee, but with Jim Kelly you could tell he was a Karate man and I feel this was a nice quality as he used it in the movies just as well as Bruce Lee did with his Jeet Kune Do. I think it’s safe to assume that Jim enjoyed the dynamic tension kata’s too. Let’s face it nobodies going to tell him to come inside, not even a human fly.
Fighter – Jim Kelly was a real fighter. By that I mean he competed in Karate back in the day and become the Middleweight champ. Now I’m not going to put facts or figures up or peep on the net so I’ll just add here the competition qualities of an artist. Jim knew fear, or adrenalin. He faced other Karateka’s in an era where full contact or not, if you got hit...you got hit. So he was tough, tough in body and mind. Tough enough to stay in shape, and tough enough to study other arts into his mature age. Jim Kelly was tough enough not to allow his achievements make him greedy or mean. I feel all styles of martial arts need someone like him that stands out, someone who can represent a style well. That’s true respect for yourself and your fellowman. Competing against other skilled athletes allows you honest feedback of your own talents low or high, so Jim had become humbled by the humbled. This must have helped him work some fight scenes with John Saxon who also had a Karate past and of course his fight with Han. A good judgement of distance can be king. A big factor with Karate training is the Kata practice, you have to look in a lot of directions and in Black Belt Jones, he faces more than one adversary. Evident he could hold his own on film and off.
Jim Kelly will live forever on film, he was a great martial artist who captivated the 70’s in his own charisma. He did well in his films and in his Karate and I like many will hold him dear as a childhood movie hero. So I’ll close with a quote from the son of Lee, and feel not sad for his passing as he left us the ultimate goal in humility... “We will be too busy looking good!”
Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon, of your childhood? An afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty...and yet it all seems limitless.”
- Brandon Lee.