Editor's Note: This is part VII of a series on Thriving in the Martial Arts. Written by Chris Hershberger, he provides a first-person look at how he went from being a "poor punk kid" from Mansfield to an Olympic Taekwondo All-American coach.
By now, you’ve realized movies (more specifically, visiting the movie theatre) have become a great point of reference in my life. To this day, they still serve me well as a source of escape and some times, outright solitude.
People are aghast when they learn I regularly go to the movies alone. I never could understand why it was such a big deal to most people. It used to be a once-a-week- treat for me, but nowadays my schedule proves a formidable adversary. Though I’ve since found other outlets to quench my sporadic introverted nature.
Author’s Note: Like many people, I’m not super proud of many things I did as a teenager, who could pretty much do whatever he wanted, living virtually unsupervised. This particular column is not meant to glamorize violence as much as it’s an accurate account of how the martial arts led me to where I am today.
Let’s talk Roadhouse now. This movie is a true classic. And it was the first movie that taught me Patrick Swayze was more than a hip-swiveling dancing machine. He was in all ways possible, a kick-butt martial artist, albeit one who wore cowboy boots — a foreign concept to a teenager who viewed colorful sneakers as a fashion staple.
As a 16-year-old, seeing the Double Deuce in Roadhouse made me think, “This place can’t be real. Nobody fights this much in a bar.”
After school one day, one of my closets friends, Chuck, who just so happened to be one of the most feared 16-year-old street fighters (and accomplished boxers) in Mansfield, shared with me the most intriguing news, “Chris... there’s a bar in Marion that does a thing called Tuesday Night Fights. You can make fifty bucks for getting in the ring and a hundred bucks for winning.”
“Whaaaaaaaaaaat!? With a piqued interest, my mind raced at the thought of testing my newfound skills, in a bar no less! I immediately thought, “I can make money from all of the blood, sweat and tears spilled in the last couple of years?”
Just as my excitement reached it’s tipping point, Chuck jumped in, “You have to be 18 though.”
My mind deflated like a party balloon.
“We can always get fake ID’s,” Chuck said as a matter of factly.
While most teenagers I knew were clamoring for a fake ID, for the purpose of drinking alcohol, here I was, entertaining the idea, so I could fight grown men in a bar.
Having just earned my driver’s license, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to afford a car payment. It seemed too good to be true.
We arrived in Marion around 7:00 p.m. the following week.
“Hello. I’m Chris Lee. Here for the fights,” I said with a deepened voice. Since ‘Lee’ is my real middle name, I delivered with a genuine tone, not like it was some made up moniker.
The bouncer looked me up and down, “Are you 18? Are you here to watch, or do you want a fight?
“Yes sir I am... I want to fight too,” I said with a smear of bravado. By this time, I was near 6’4”, so my height carried me in clutch situations where being 18 was a necessity.
He looked at me like I had just tried to sell him a pet rock, “You don’t look Asian.”
I laughed... really loudly. “No, I’m not sir. My mom is from Kentucky... Appalachian, not Asian.” I idolized Bruce Lee at the time, so it was a strange sense of pride to pretend my last name was Lee.
He gave me a weird smile, handed me my ID, and ushered me through the hallway. I remember thinking, “Wait, I’ve never been in a bar before!”
The Honky Tonk Bar and Grill in Marion was about as close as any bar could be to the Double Deuce. It was huge! Had a sunken dance floor that doubled as a perfect spot to erect a boxing ring. Above the ring you could look in any direction to see an overhead area where drunken onlookers draped themselves over a banister, no doubt thirsty for action.
The organizer was a low-level boxing promoter. He waved us down and pointed to a storage room no bigger than the average kitchen.
He looked at us with a cigarette dangling from his pursed lips, speaking from the side of his mouth, “This is where you warm up guys. We have about an hour until the first fight. Chris... since you want to kick and punch, we’ll have to wait and see if a fighter turns up.”
I wasn’t aware at the time, but fighters had to agree on the terms of the bout. Most were just punchers. I quickly learned kicking was not an acceptable form of combat in them there parts.
Chuck was up first fight. I told him, “Got get ‘em TYGER.” We were the only fighters from Mansfield. I howled off an uncomfortable scream, “TY baby!”
Chuck was an accomplished boxer who was by far the scariest street fighter I’d known. Why, you ask? Just imagine a mix of Mike Tyson and the Joker. Chuck wasn’t satisfied with crushing your face with his fists... he needed to laugh while punching you too. It was eerily disturbing. It left his fellow pugilists confused during and after the bout. It’s one reason why it’s not hard to believe he was an All-Marine Boxing Team Member just a short four years later.
Cigarette smoke plumes hovered over the ring in the most picturesque way possible. It was like a scene from a movie.
Chuck stalked his opponent while laughing uncontrollably. He unleashed a barrage of punches. It took a mere thirty seconds for Chuck to dispense his opponent. I could hear the other fighters near me saying, “Why is he laughing?” The crowd in the bar went nuts!
Chuck came back, looked at me and said, “Easiest hundred bucks ever!”
Four other bouts followed. I asked the promoter if anyone wanted to kick-box. He said, “We’re going to announce it.”
“What?” I thought.
He grabbed a mic and bellowed out, “Anyone want to fight this kickboxer!?”
Panic consumed me. Before I could soak in what was happening, a big bruiser of a man (in his 30’s) throws his hands up, “I’ll fight him!”
He rushed down from the upper level with an entourage of friends screaming, “Whooo hoo! Let’s go!”
Clearly, this bunch had had their fair share of beers.
I took a deep breath. Chuck looked at me and said, “Just kick him in the face.”
This guy easily outweighed me by over 100 pounds. I told Chuck later he was a Cowboy Terminator. He just came at me with no reservation... swinging wildly. For a whole minute I just dodged his punches. It was like I could see everything in slow motion. I started hearing the crowd get frustrated with my elusiveness. The boos multiplied by the second.
“Fight you sissy!”
I started to notice a pattern. He’d punch three times and then regroup.
I was getting impatient. Finally, I whispered to myself, “One... two... three... now!”
All of the hours. All of the repetitions. Every kick I’d ever thrown up to that point mattered.
My signature kick was called an axe kick. It’s where you swing your leg up, vertically, over your opponents head, and drop it down on your target, leading with the back of the heel. It’s a devastating kick.
He walked right into it. My heel found its new home firmly on the bridge of his nose. I felt his nose conform to my heel.
He immediately grabbed his nose to stop the waterfall of blood flowing down his shirt. He looked up at me and gave me the, “You’re going to die” look.
End of round one.
This guy was beyond drunk. Otherwise he would have stopped. Now you know why I dubbed him the Cowboy Terminator.
Chuck was working my corner. I said to him, “Umm... shouldn’t he be done now?”
Chuck laughed and said “Do it again.”
This time I was on the offensive. He wasn’t going to stalk me anymore. I threw some jabs to get his attention high and swung my leg around as fast as I could delivering the hardest spinning-side-kick I could muster up. My foot blasted his stomach. I felt the contact. I felt the air leave his body. I heard the moan. I knew it was solid. I told myself, “There’s no way he’s getting up. If you can’t breathe, you can’t fight.”
He fell to his knees gasping for any iota of oxygen he could get. To my surprise, he tried to get up.
Remember when Ivan Drago, during the instant classic, climactic bout, told his trainer, “He’s not human” when referencing Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV?
I felt like Ivan Drago for a second. Before he could get all the way up from his knees, I pounced, delivering punches to the back of his head. The referee jumped on me and stopped the bout.
I hadn’t been touched. Chuck was right. It was the easiest hundred bucks I had ever earned. As a highly trained martial artist, my eyes were opened to the gap between trained and untrained.
Remember, this was before the first UFC in 1993. We were in foreign waters. It didn’t seem conceivable, in 1991, to make money doing what we had viewed as survival in our formative years. On Rowland Avenue, we were given the opportunity to make much more money than 100 bucks a week selling drugs. For two punks just trying to get by, punching and kicking willing opponents in a bar full of drunks seemed the ethical choice.
Stay tuned for Part VIII.
MORE ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES: