Benny Urquidez tells a story about the exact moment in time when he knew his future would forever be linked to the fortunes of martial arts.
Like a generation of wannabes in the United States of the 1960s, Urquidez had heard about a young upstart from Hong Kong and how this guy was doing things that had to be seen to be believed.
This was years before Benny had become “The Jet” and had established his own legend as one of the world’s great fighters. And so – at age 12 – Urquidez found himself heading to the Long Beach International Karate Championships in August 1964 to find out, first-hand, what this Bruce Lee dude was all about.
“My mother had always talked about internal power but I’d never seen it until that moment,” says Urquidez. “Bruce Lee had this guy in front of him, about 245 pounds, six-foot-three. He puts a chair behind him and boom. The one-inch punch. This guy goes flying and I jump up and I say ‘I want to do that!’ That was the first time I’d seen Bruce. I asked my brother if I could spar with Bruce but I didn’t have enough experience. So Bruce was my inspiration and I went on to fight for every belt that I could.”
Twelve world titles and some 55 years later and today, Urquidez is talking down the phone from California. Initially we’ve been wanting to talk about another moment in time, specifically, a “Death Match” that Urquidez was involved in back in 1981 in Hong Kong. But such is the man’s storied past and skills as a natural story-teller, that we’ve been able to spin that particular yarn and settle down to paint the bigger picture about the man’s life and his times.
Now, at 67, Urquidez offers the following rundown of his martial arts journey: boxing (1958), judo (1960), karate (1963), full contact karate (1973), kickboxing (1975 and beyond).
“My mother was native American, she was a wrestler and she was a very spiritual woman. My father was Spanish and a boxer, and he was very external. I had good balance between both of them,” says Urquidez. “At the age of three, when other kids had fire trucks, I had boxing gloves.”
Benny Urquidez would, along with four brothers and one of his sisters, go on to be graded a black belt. But no one did things quite like Benny.
Long before people were mixing their martial arts – officially at least – Urquidez was blazing a trail across combat sports in all its many and varied guises.
“Back in the 60s and 70s everybody stuck to the one style,” says Urquidez. “I was mixing things up and my brother would say ‘Give up on the fou-fou [soft] stuff.’ But I proved my brother wrong. Back then you didn’t go to different dojos. You stayed true to your system. But I liked different stuff. I loved to create.”
Eventually, this would lead to Urquidez creating his own school which mixed up elements of all the styles he had learned.
“I designed Ukidokan [style of martial arts],” says Urquidez. “It means ‘a way of life’ and in life there are no rules. That’s what I built my system on – reality. In MMA you have a chance to get creative. You can do something that nobody has ever seen – which is what I did. People said I wasn’t true to the art, but I was true to me, and to my life and my journey. That’s what you are seeing in MMA today. People are being true to themselves.”
Part of Urquidez’s skill when it came to adapting elements of all styles was developed through curiosity. Later, he reveals, it was more through necessity, as Urquidez starting taking his world titles on the road and to the farthest reaches of the planet.
“In ‘73 there were no rules,” he says. “We were going to other countries with the ‘World Kickboxing Association,’ but it was just a label. It was just something to get people in. Once you stepped in the ring, there then it was anything goes. I knew what I was getting in to. Sometimes the toughest fight was getting back into the dressing room, after I had beaten their countryman or their family member. It was scary.”
In 1977, Urquidez faced off against multiple Muay Thai champion Narongnoi Kiatbandit in what was a ground-breaker in terms of “international” bouts that saw the West’s best heading out to Asia.
“I had no idea what Muay Thai was,” he says. “The first time I faced someone I actually thought Muay Thai was his name. I’d never seen it before. I’d never had anyone kick me that hard. My eyes bulged out of my forehead. That was my introduction to thigh kicks. I knew from then if I was fighting overseas, if I was fighting foreign fighters, I had to stop them or I just wouldn’t win. They could pick you apart.”
This was all around the time “MMA” was slowly coming into shape across the globe as fighters stretched the rules within their own codes, took on fights in order to explore other disciplines and we’re lured into challenge matches by promoters who say the potential that today is being realized across the globe.
“I was already doing that sort of thing in ‘73,” says Urquidez. “But there were no rules, no weight divisions. Whoever stood in front of you, you fought. If you stopped him you went on to the next one. That’s what it was back then. When I started throwing people they’d get upset. Then they started to put in rules. But I grew up on the streets and on the streets I didn’t care how big you were or how small you were.”
While Bruce Lee was the man who turned Urquidez’s life around, it was another of Hong Kong’s martial arts masters who helped introduce the American to a whole new audience.
Intrigued by Urquidez’s fighting pedigree and by his achievements, Jackie Chan put in a call just as his own star was heading skyward, thanks to the support of the Golden Harvest studio that had also championed Lee’s cause. So Urquidez headed to Hong Kong for a contract with Chan that would produce two films, 1984’s Wheels on Meals and 1988’s Dragons Forever.
One of them had arguably the best fight scene the martial arts genre has seen at the time.
In the Sammo Hung-directed Wheels on Meals, Chan played a fast food delivery boy, and Urquidez, a thug he must contend with. The two martial artists go at it for more than five minutes, throwing every kind of shape possible, and even managing to blow out candles with their moves.
“It’s all about an internal understanding of warfare,” Urquidez recalls. “When I first met Jackie [Chan], he knew me as a champion but he wanted to know what I did and how I did it. He had about 20 stunt guys around him. He wanted to see how hard I could kick. So he got one of his guys to hold a bag. I kicked it and knocked the wind out of the guy.
“The Jackie goes down a hallway, about three feet wide. He’s goes flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop all the way down. Then he waves his fingers at me like it’s my turn. I go flip-flop, flip-flop and crash into the wall. I told him I’m not a gymnast. But the first day was about testing me. Am I real? Everyone was checking me out.”
Come time to let the cameras rolls and each had the other’s measure in terms of how far they could push things, says Urquidez.
“Once we got going, we got it to the point where he could throw as hard as he could and I would take it,” says Urquidez. “He was throwing pretty hard and I said ok, this is a give-and-take situation. I’m going to give it too. And I did and we had a blast.
“He had a huge team and to go out there and work with them was incredible. They each had their own specialty of movement. It was a Hong Kong style but they each had their own way of presenting it. I was able to change my way, my techniques, my way of warfare after working with them. I was learning to change my energy.”
Urquidez still has plenty of that. Asked how he is feeling, and how he is looking to the future, the response is a purely positive way to bring this conversation to an end.
“If life gets any better than this, it gets scary,” says Urquidez.