Memories fade. There’s nothing we can do about it.
Although nowadays, modern media devices – and platforms – are now able to keep significant moments in history alive, forever.
So it is with September 4, 1981 and what went down inside the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in the Hong Kong waterside suburb of Wan Chai, famed for its red-light district, then as now, as well as its role as a base for martial arts schools that continue to keep ancient traditions alive.
Rumors in the 24 hours previous had spread about a “Death Match” that was about to go down between the visiting American karate and kickboxing star Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and a relative unknown in the local fighter by the name of Kong Fu Tak.
Over the almost four decades since, the bout has become the stuff of myth and of legend, but there are clips around that at least prove that it really did happen. And that it was brutal.
The fight looks to be a mixture of styles and of rules and Kong gets hit, often and hard, but just keeps coming forward as a massive haematoma swells his face to grotesque proportions. Until, in the fourth, he’s knocked down, and out.
Urquidez was then still in the process of becoming one of the most acclaimed martial artists of all time, with a record of 63-1-1 when he called it quits, along with six world titles, movie appearances and schools, and disciples all over the world.
Less is known — globally — about Kong, but he too went on to an acclaimed career with Hong Kong’s short-lived Full Contact Boxing promotion of the 1980s, and then the wider world of Muay Thai. He turned a career record of 34-3-1 into a chain of gyms across Greater China, and to guiding the lives of generations of students.
But what actually went on back in 1981, and how much do those involved remember of the fight, and the night?
We’ve taken a leaf from the Rashomon playbook — the 1950 Japanese samurai classic that showed how memories shed different light on events, depending who you ask. We’ve tracked down the two stars of the show. And now we’ll now let their memories speak for themselves.
Benny Urquidez, 67: “After I had won all these world titles, I started to travel and I had learned pretty quickly that when I faced a fighter from another country I had to stop them or I just wasn’t going to win. The other thing I learned was that most of the time it was a case of anything goes. But I knew what I was getting in to. The scary part was not my opponent. The scary part was getting from the ring to my dressing room.
“I’d gone over there to film and Jackie Chan had said ‘I’m going to show you Hong Kong style fighting.’ I said I’d show him Western style and that’s how we started.
“I was actually doing an interview during my time over there and somebody started yelling from the stands. He was saying something I couldn’t understand. Then the host turns to me as says ‘He’s saying you’re not a real fighter, you’re an actor, and he’s challenging you … to the death.’ I laughed. I said ‘I fight for a living.’ The interpreter told him and the guy starts yelling and screaming. The host says ‘He’s challenging you. To the death! Do you accept?’ I just said ‘Hey, I fight for living, I’ll fight anybody.
“Next thing you know these promoters come up to me and ask when I want to fight this guy. They came to my hotel and they asked what I wanted to be paid to fight this guy. I just started saying stupid things. I said $50,000. I wanted 15 per cent of the TV revenue. I said give me two weeks. I’ll go home and prepare and come back. They said ‘No. Tomorrow.”
“So, honest to god, I thought it was going to be an exhibition. Anyway, they gave me the money. I had nothing with me so I went out and bought my gear to wear in the fight. They picked me up and the next thing I know I’m in this room, more like a cupboard, and I’m wrapping my hands – there was no one else there to do it. No one understood anything I said and then I am getting up on stage, on this platform, in front of all these people. I had no cornerman, I had nothing. Next thing I know I am looking across at this guy and this horn sounds. He raises his arms and yells ‘To the death!’
“I thought it was just something this guy always says! So I still think it’s an exhibition. I’m dancing around, I’m doing the Muhammad Ali shuffle. I had no idea I was in fight so I was showing off. This guy keeps coming at me, trying to elbow me and knee me, so I just think, fine, and I shoot a round-kick and bust him right in the side of his head. It just blew up. I’m telling the ref ‘He can’t see me’ but the guy just keeps coming at me.
“Second round he turns and again he says “To the death!’ and I realize this is serious.
“So we clinch. I go to work on his ribs and I hear a crack. Now he’s having a hard time breathing, he can’t see me out of one eye – but he is still coming at me. He can’t see me, he can’t breathe. I throw him on his back. Boom! But here he comes again.
“Third round, there’s no ‘To the death!’
“He can’t breathe, he can’t see out of one eye, his nose is almost turned. Then I went after him. I knew they are not going to stop until I put this guy out. So in the fourth I went boom. It was over.
“Man what a beautiful soul that guy but, wow, what about his heart. That guy had a big, big heart.”
Kong Fu Tak, 63: “In the beginning I wasn’t gifted in martial arts. To learn a set of moves, it normally takes three months, but I needed six months to a year. My teacher said ‘Why don’t you quit then? You are too stupid.’ As I was physically weak, I put a lot of effort in strengthening myself. I went to Happy Valley [racecourse] every morning to run with the horses there. I was hard-working. I was not talented but I worked hard to make up for that. I learned that to practise a move, you didn’t spend one minute but you practised 10,000 times, or 100,000 times.
“I had heard Benny was up for challenges from any kickboxer in the world. He was world famous and no one could beat him or would dare to fight with him. I was actually looking for UK and US champions to compete with. A kickboxing promoter then approached me and suggested that I challenge him, and we call it a ‘Death Match.’ I met Benny in a hotel, at an event. I asked Benny if he really wanted to compete with me. He said yes and would accept any conditions.
“In those days, a promoter could get $50,000 in bonus if his kickboxer won. And there was a lot of money being gambled. I proposed to Benny that we would go by Thai kickboxing rules, not karate rules, and that we would use elbows. He said no problem. And I suggested seven rounds. He was okay with that, too. I went home and mulled over whether to do it or not. I couldn’t sleep as I was about to compete with the world’s number one. But I decided that was the way to be a real hero. I called the promoter and said I would do the competition.
“When I turned up on stage, I realized the rules had been changed. I’d asked for us to wear 10 ounce gloves, but Benny had six ounce ones. And he had no foot gear and it was not going to be Thai rules that we went by but kickboxing rules. I was scared and shocked. It was all wrong and I didn’t want to fight. But I got booed by 3,000 to 4,000 people in the audience. They were saying I chickened out. So I was becoming the one who didn’t keep his word. I had no choice but to fight.
“All along, there was immense pressure with the doctor and the referee coming to me at the end of every round saying I would die. Also in the first round I was careless enough to get hit by Benny with his foot. That affected my vision, but I couldn’t care too much. I moved forward and fought as long as I saw a figure in front of me.
“I pulled out all the stops. But there was another more serious problem. As I got punched in the eye, the corner of my eye was swollen. But the doctor didn’t treat me with ice even though the whole world knew ice should be used in that kind of situation. He treated me with a needle instead, and my eye got more swollen to a point where I couldn’t see anything. I think it was a deliberate effort to get me KO’s by Benny. In the third round, Benny’s performance went downhill as he was exhausted. I wanted to use my elbows but was not allowed to. In the fourth round, I thought to myself that he cheated and so was there any point for me to comply with the rules still? I decided to call it quits. I’d just let them decide who the winner was.
“That was a very high-profile event. I became famous and was known as the best Chinese fighter in Hong Kong. After that [local promoters] James Elms and Wai Kee-shun wanted to get to know me. They saw me as a young man with a fighting spirit. So we met. They were supportive and gave me a lot of encouragement, and we started Hong Kong’s Full Contact Boxing organization and after that my whole life changed.”