52 Discovered These Feet Can’t Be Beat : David Rivisto Is the Champion of Sport That Has at Least One Leg Up on Boxing

W ho is this guy? In 52 fights spanning the last 13 years, no opponent’s hand has ever been raised above him in victory. Forty-eight of his foes had to be scraped up off the canvas.

Larry Holmes?

Marvelous Marvin Hagler?

Neither. It’s David Michael Rivisto, the World Kick Boxing Assn. heavyweight champion, born among the martial arts of Japan and apprentice to one of the world’s greatest heavyweight boxers.


On July 13, he will defend his title at the Jet Center in Van Nuys in his 53rd and, perhaps, final bout.

At 35, Rivisto is ready to give up the beating and the beatings. And a guy from Canada wants nothing more than to kick Rivisto into retirement. Dennis Cleveland of Vancouver, British Columbia, (40-4, 33 KOs) kicked his last 11 foes into submission with KOs.

Is Rivisto shaking in his trunks?

“No, I think I’ll knock him out,” said Rivisto of the challenger. “We have about the same skills. Neither of us has anything more to learn. It’s just a matter of who is in better shape. The guy who is properly prepared for the latter rounds, the championship rounds, will win.


“Vince Lombardi used to say, ‘Fatigue makes cowards of us all.’ ”

Ah yes, those championship rounds, where the studs are separated from the stiffs.

When Barry McGuigan of Ireland fought WBA featherweight champion Eusebio Pedroza on June 8, the challenger was in better shape--and won a unanimous decision. Pedroza had held the title since 1978 and successfully defended it 19 times before McGuigan pummeled his face.

“Pedroza had all the skills and was bigger and faster,” Rivisto said, “but the kid was was in better shape and fought as well in the last round as he did in the first.”


Cleveland, the challenger from Canada, has decent credentials and stands in the way of Rivisto’s last goal as a fighter. His first goal was to win the world title. His second: to act like a gentleman while holding the title. Third: to retire with the title.

His first and last goals are easy to understand, but in an era when guys call themselves Bone Crusher and Hit Man, the idea of two gentlemen busting each other’s chops may seem odd.

“I’m more of a gentlemen like (Rocky) Marciano was,” said Rivisto softly. “I like to practice a little quiet humility. Fighters don’t need to be gregarious. I saw Michael Spinks talking to reporters after a fight, after he won but got knocked around by the other fighter. He was telling them that the kid was nothing and that he had him beat all the way. But there were times when the kid was kicking his butt.

“I think a fighter should do his talking in the ring. Why talk bad about other pros? It doesn’t do anything positive for the sport. I think all fighters should act like a champion, even if they never are a champion.”


Rivisto uses one of the greatest all-time boxers as his model.

In September, 1966, after Rivisto fought a sloppy amateur bout in Seattle, the huge figure of a boxer appeared in his locker room with a few pointers. It was Marciano.

“You have good speed but no power,” said the veteran to Rivisto. “You look like a fly slapping an elephant. You have great coordination but you’re wasting your body.”

The next day, Marciano took Rivisto down Interstate 5 to the Sugar Ray Seales Gym in Tacoma.


“He took me to the gym and made me hit the bag for hours and hours,” said Rivisto, who works as a biochemist at a nutritional research firm in Studio City. “He was from the old school and that’s the way they did it. Just keep hitting the bag. As most everybody knows, there were not too many people who could hit as hard as Rocky Marciano.”

Marciano, who was a client and old Army buddy of Rivisto’s father, was ready to handle the kid as a boxer. He liked the way he fought and liked his attitude. But while Rivisto was finishing a stint in the Marine Corps, Marciano died.

With Marciano also died the probability that Rivisto would earn his living with his hands alone.

“If he hadn’t died in that plane crash, I’d probably be a boxer today,” Rivisto said. “But I was into karate and martial arts. All my friends were into karate and martial arts. I stuck with it.”


Good choice. Rivisto has stuck it to every professional opponent he has faced.

In his last fight, Rivisto knocked out the “Eastern Assassin,” Eddie Munfista Muhammed, in a World Kick Boxing Assn. match. The WBKA is one of a handful of athletic federations that sanction kick boxing or martial arts contests.

“We fought in Anchorage, Alaska, nine months ago,” Rivisto said. “He was a big guy. I beat him with a knockout. I knocked him down a few times before the knockout, but he kept getting back up. Sometimes they unnerve you when they get back up. You start thinking that you’re in the wrong profession.”

The record shows that Rivisto is in the right profession, but he has done some thinking nonetheless.


Age is catching up with him, and he’s bent on employment outside the ring. Although he works steadily as a counselor for Biotics Research Inc., Rivisto plans to return to college and study to become a chiropractor. He already has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Seattle University.

“After beating up on people for so many years, I feel I owe it to society to start healing some people,” he said, only half joking.

“I just don’t see where I’ll have the time to continue fighting,” said the 5-11, 185-pound pugilist at his office. “Mentally, I’m not there anymore. I don’t think I have suffered any amount of brain damage or anything like that. I have accomplished almost all my goals.”

Rivisto set his goals early. At 10, he aspired to win a world title. He just wasn’t sure what sport. He soon found his calling while watching the kids in his neighborhood fighting just for kicks.


“Just about every kid walking the streets in America knows a little something about baseball,” he said. “Just about every kid walking the streets in Japan knows a little something about judo.”

Born in 1949 to a junior Army officer stationed in Tokyo under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Rivisto picked up on the martial arts while growing up.

Rivisto, who trains at the Jet Center and in the makeshift gym behind his office, came to the United States at 14 when his father was transferred to Ft. Lewis, just south of Tacoma. He combined the martial arts skills he learned in the Japan with boxing skills that Marciano taught him.

The result was a knack for kick boxing that he wouldn’t trade for the big-buck world of professional boxing.


“I did it because I like the sport,” said Rivisto behind a mustache that sits below a prominent snout. “Kick boxing just hasn’t come as far as boxing and wrestling have. It’s all in the promoters. It’s having the right people behind you. Everybody knows wrestling is just an exhibition but they have television and the big money. You could pack a house for a tiddlywinks match if you had the right promoter.

On the other hand, Rivisto is far from hurting financially. He has a home in Beverly Hills and putts around town in an ’85 Porsche. Dressed for the office, he wears gold rings, a gold collar bar and a gold watch.

But dressed in boxing shorts, there is money to be made in kick boxing--if you’re good. There aren’t that many kick boxers and there are fewer good ones.

“You can win $10,000 for winning a fight that has a good promoter,” said Rivisto, who once walked out of Madison Square Garden with a $90,000 check. “It has everything to do with television. The Professional Karate Assn. got their contract with ESPN because (promoter) Ed Corley struck a good deal. That’s great, because it gives the people the exposure to karate and the martial arts.”


In comparison, the best-paid fighter in the PKA receives a minimum of $25,000 a fight.

“Look what happened to professional wrestling, he added. “I watched it for years. It’s just a sideshow, entertainment, but they get the big money. They are athletes. They’re like acrobats. Look at their moves. I certainly wouldn’t want to get in a ring and get bounced around by those guys.

“They have so many people following that sport now. Guys like Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant are good for that sport. I think boxing has lost a lot of followers because Ali is gone. It has lost some of that color. I think a little of that could help kick boxing.”

Joe Sanchez, chief executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, is less sanguine about Rivisto’s sport.


“They don’t even have enough bouts for us to keep records or stats on them,” he said. “In California, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in kick boxing and karate. Promoters will have to get fighters from all over the country just to fill a fight card.

“On the other hand, I think it’s starting to grow, with as much television as it gets. ESPN has a contract with the PKA and that seems to be doing very well--for ESPN and the PKA. And that all depends on promoters.”

But don’t expect to see Rivisto popping off to reporters trying to make headlines. And don’t expect to see him crying in his beer, thinking he got a raw deal from the megabuck world of professional athletics. He has accomplished about everything he wanted and has a few new goals on the horizon. And although he is virtually unknown in the sports mainstream, Rivisto says he’ll rest easy after he steps from the ring for good.

“Being the world champ is important,” said Rivisto summing up his career. “Everybody wants to be a success.”


He has been successful, but will most likely leave the ring with about as much fame as he had when he first stepped in.

“When I’m in the ring for that one hour,” he said. “I’m doing what I do better than anybody in the world for that hour. And nobody in the world can take that away from me.”

At least nobody in their right mind.