There’s one Chuck Norris joke that’s no joke: There was someone who could beat Chuck Norris.
He grew up in Knightdale, he died from a brain tumor last week at a veterans hospital in Pennsylvania and he will be buried Saturday back in Knightdale. Joe Lewis was 68, and he was the best the world of martial arts ever saw.
“In my mind, Joe was the greatest fighter the tournament scene has ever had,” Norris told Black Belt magazine in 2004. “And the greatest to this day, as far as I’m concerned.”
Lewis learned karate while serving in Okinawa with the Marines, won the very first karate tournament he entered and would go on to win 11 straight national and world championships.
He became an icon in the martial-arts world, a man who popularized full-contact karate and kickboxing as we know them today, trained under Bruce Lee and not only beat Norris but sold him his Los Angeles karate studio. A member of more than a dozen Halls of Fame, in 1983 Lewis was voted the greatest fighter of all time by Karate Illustrated magazine.
Trace the path of martial arts into mainstream culture, from Lee to “The Karate Kid” to ultimate fighting, and Lewis might as well have been holding the pen.
“He was the missing link,” said Radford University professor Jerry Beasley, a martial-arts historian and black-belt instructor who studied under Lewis. “When martial arts were first brought here, there was always an Asian instructor in charge. Americans were taught they could never be as good. Joe Lewis came along and fought them in competitions and beat them. He was endorsed by Bruce Lee. He’s the guy Americans looked to and said, ‘If Joe can do it, we can do it.’
“Americans developed their own martial arts, kickboxing and now MMA. It’s an American creation. To some extent, it goes back to Bruce Lee’s theory, but the guy that made Bruce Lee’s theory work was one of his students, Joe Lewis.”
His professional fighting career began with plenty of old-fashioned backyard fighting. Lewis was the fourth of five brothers who ran so wild in Raleigh that their father, an N.C. State professor, moved them out to a farm in Knightdale when Lewis was about 10.
“They were mean and wild as hell,” said Steve Wilder, who grew up with the Lewis boys. “I didn’t realize at first Joe was the very same age I was, but I got to know all of them real well. I ended up being good friends with some of them, used to roll around in the dirt with them.”
After Lewis encountered martial arts for the first time in the Marines, he asked to be assigned to Okinawa so he could study karate. He assimilated in seven months teachings that usually take two or three years to absorb.
Lewis took the quickness emphasized by martial arts and added power to the sport. He trained as hard as any boxer, yet practiced the thoughtful and careful approach to technique Lee taught called Jeet Kune Do. Successful in the ring and a specimen of physical fitness out of it, Lewis became the sport’s most prolific practitioner, a fixture as a cover model on martial-arts magazines and Playgirl alike.
The photos of Lewis from back then, with his white uniform, black belt and explosion of unkempt blonde hair, are as evocative of the sporting world of that era as the “We Are Family” Pirates or the red-white-and-blue ABA basketball.
Lewis starred in four action movies and did scores of television guest shots, but turned down what may have been his biggest role. Lee asked him to play the villain in “Way of the Dragon,” but Lewis passed. The role went instead to Norris, whose acting career went on to make him a huge crossover star.
He spent the 1980s traveling the country, teaching and doing seminars, before moving to Wilmington in the late ’80s. John Maynard had just moved from West Virginia to open a martial-arts studio, offering a month’s worth of karate lessons and a free uniform for $9.99. Lewis walked in the door one day in 1989, told an 18-year-old student to hold a pad to and knocked him down three times with kicks to his chest.
“That’s power,” Lewis said, and walked out the door.
Once Maynard recovered from the shock of the random appearance of one of his heroes, he tracked Lewis down in Carolina Beach and asked if Lewis would train him. That spawned a friendship that lasted two decades. Maynard became Lewis’ local sparring partner and even fought him once, in an exhibition bout in Connecticut.
“Why would anybody care about me?” Maynard said. “I was nobody. Joe understands that. He came from Knightdale, N.C. He got it. He went to Hollywood. He made a name as a fighter and an actor. Who am I? Just nobody. He made me somebody.”
Joe Lewis will be laid to rest in Knightdale on Saturday, ending a journey that took him around the world and back to North Carolina, one punch, one kick, one knockout at a time.