The Jet : Born to Brawl, Benny Urquidez Lived Through a Death Match to Become One of the Greatest Unknown Fighters in America

Times Staff Writer

"T o the death! "

Benny (the Jet) Urquidez's eyes nearly shot out of their sockets when he heard the words. Foam collected on his lips and sweat slipped off his chin. Across a dark, dingy ring without ropes in Hong Kong, a square-jawed Chinese champion kick boxer had his arms thrust upward as he slowly approached Urquidez.

Above the spirited banter of hundreds of onlookers, most of them wielding handfuls of cash, and music sounding like a thousand screeching cats, Urquidez heard his opponent scream again, " To the death! "

"Bits and pieces of my life flashed before my eyes," recalls Urquidez, 33, a World Karate Assn. champion kick boxer.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Urquidez often had to fight his way out of fixes. Half-Spanish, half-Mexican and all-American in a martial arts world dominated by Asians, having defended world titles in four continents, he was accustomed to being in strange places.

But this was different.

He was alone in Hong Kong in November, 1980, only to promote a karate movie on a talk show. Look what had transpired in 24 hours, he thought.

Someone in the TV studio audience had stood up and called him nothing but an actor, a sham of a fighter. The man--who turned out to be a Hong Kong kick boxing champion--challenged Urquidez to a death match. Urquidez demanded $20,000 and a mink coat, calling the man's bluff. The challenger's promoter met Urquidez the next day, however, handed over the cash and the coat and drove him to the noisy warehouse.

A horn sounded, the opponent shouted and Urquidez sprang out of his corner. He sent a shin kick to the cheekbone, another to the ribs. Spinning 360 degrees, Urquidez then landed a backfist to the face.

"By the third round, he looked like the Elephant Man," says Urquidez, who declines to reveal the opponent's name.

In Round 4, repeated rib shots laid the guy on his back, wheezing for air. The crowd clamored around the ring, shouting and whistling.

Says Urquidez: "I was confused. They wanted a kill and I wouldn't give it to them. The promoter pulled me into an adjoining room, where I stood for four hours waiting for the riot to end."

Although Urquidez's death match didn't follow the form of most of his fights in the Far East, Europe and North and South America, the outcome was the same. This modern-day conquistador claims never to have been defeated in battle.

"I have traveled to many lands, fought the best men, eaten the best food and returned with riches," he states softly with a characteristic chop of his hand.

Comparing Urquidez's exploits to those of early Spanish conquistadores Hernando Cortes or Francisco Pizarro--who are remembered as much for spilled guts as glory--is not completely fair to the Jet, however. His machismo is tempered with the discipline required in the martial arts.

"Control is the key to understanding," Urquidez says. "Control of the body, of the mind, of the spirit and of the heart.

"I don't fight out of anger. I am a sportsman. Through my sport I have learned self-respect and discipline."

He speaks of spiritual understanding in the same controlled cadence that he tells of his grandmother riding with Pancho Villa and of his Valley upbringing.

Urquidez roamed the streets of Van Nuys, San Fernando and North Hollywood as a youngster along with four brothers and four sisters, fighters all. Benny's mother supported the family with work as a professional wrestler at venues like the Olympic Auditorium; his father, who left the household when Benny was 8, was a professional boxer.

Benny's sister, Lilly, 37, has been a world champion super bantamweight kick boxer. At 21, she married Benny's 15-year-old friend, Blinky Rodriguez, who has been a super middleweight kick boxing champion.

"When we fought in the street, we fought for real," Urquidez says. "We didn't believe in leaving the other guy standing, because he might come back with a 2-by-4 and cave in our skulls.

"We owned the Valley. We would walk the streets and a hundred kids would follow behind."

Urquidez, in turn, followed the teachings of North Hollywood-based karate and judo instructor Bill Ryusaki from ages 9 to 13. Ryusaki remembers Benny as a born brawler.

"Benny was from a bad area and he had a bad attitude," said Ryusaki. "He had a complex about being small and felt he had to prove himself by fighting. I wouldn't let him fight. I made him work on form and learn discipline."

Urquidez attended Grant and Polytechnic high schools before graduating from North Hollywood High in 1969. He wrestled at Poly and played football at North Hollywood.

"My football coach would tell me, 'See that guy, put him out of business,' " Urquidez says. "I was a hyper little defensive back."

Now, Benny, all 145 pounds of him, commands the rapture of the martial arts world. In Japan, he is the great " Yukiide-san ," and is claimed to be half Japanese.

"The Japanese are a proud people and there is no other acceptable explanation to them for my domination over their best martial artists," Urquidez says.

Urquidez's exploits are chronicled in Japanese "Benny the Jet" comic strips. Art imitates life: The Jet always wins.

He has been named Full-Contact Fighter of the Year five times by the Standardized Tournaments and Ratings Service (STAR) and is listed by STAR as having a 56-1 record, although the Urquidez camp vehemently disputes the loss.

Currently, he holds the super lightweight (140 pounds) title and is planning to fight for the welterweight (147 pounds) title against No. 1 contender Tom LaRoche in October.

Says Paul Maslak, a kick boxing authority who heads STAR: "Benny Urquidez is the only active great from the early days of full-contact karate. He is unquestionably a legend in the Orient, and in parts of South America and Europe. Benny's stature is similar to that of Muhammad Ali about the time he fought Joe Frazier in Manila--still the greatest, but perhaps slipping a bit."

In the late 1970s, Urquidez fought six to 10 times a year. He has cut down to two bouts a year since 1980, and his last fight was a fifth-round technical knockout over European Muay-Thai Nederland middleweight champion Iwan Sprang on Jan. 15, 1984.

Despite its popularity abroad, kick boxing has mostly drawn yawns in the United States. Cable network ESPN broadcasts Professional Karate Assn. bouts.

Similarly, Urquidez hasn't been able to capture the imagination of American sports fans. You won't see him in a breakfast cereal ad like Mary Lou Retton or Pete Rose, smiling over a bowl of Urqui-ties.

Only four of Urquidez's fights have been broadcast on network TV, and his purses have rarely exceeded $10,000 in the United States. He has earned as much as $50,000 for bouts in Japan, Canada and Holland. Yet Urquidez, who lives in Tarzana, says that he is "not rich, not poor, but very comfortable."

So, while the Jet has kept his spinning kicks and backfists flying, kick boxing promoters have spun their wheels. And one of the world's most colorful sportsmen is virtually anonymous in his homeland.

Urquidez's greatest recognition in the United States came while delivering a barrage of leaping leg kicks during a WKA lightweight title bout at Madison Square Garden in 1975. A spectator stood and screamed, "He looks like a Jet!" Whereupon the crowd stomped its feet and chanted, "Jet, Jet, Jet." Urquidez won the title and thanked the crowd for its rousing support by doing a back flip in the center of the ring.

The nickname and back flip have remained Urquidez trademarks.

"Benny Urquidez has become Benny the Jet," Benny says. "In other countries, my wife and I are addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Jet."

The Jet moniker was a play on the popular 1974 Elton John song, "Benny and the Jets." A "Benny the Jet Theme" was released as a single in Japan in 1978, a song Urquidez's manager Stuart Sobel says sounds like the theme from Rocky.

"I should have gotten residuals from the Elton John song, too," Urquidez says. "I've signed thousands of those records."

Life has been weird and wonderful for Urquidez ever since he donned the traditional karate gi and earned his black belt at 14.

"My oldest brother, Arnold, would send the family out to seek new fighting techniques," Urquidez says. "We would return and share our knowledge with the others. Judo, karate, kick-boxing, western boxing--we blended them into a family style."

Benny was the runt of the family (at 5-6, he is still shorter than his brothers) and was often challenged.

"Guys would always fight Benny because of his baby face," says Rodriguez, Benny's brother-in-law. "They would all end up in the same position--on their heads."

Says Urquidez: "I developed spinning kicks and back knuckles in elementary school. Soon, my reputation preceded me. The biggest kids would stand aside."

In 1974, the Urquidezes rose from the Valley and went nationwide.

Chuck Norris, a pioneer of full contact karate, had begun the National Karate League. His team, the Los Angeles Stars, included 22-year-old lightweight Benny Urquidez and middleweight Blinky Rodriguez. Two of Benny's brothers, Adam and Manuel, were alternates and two others, Arnold and Ruben, were trainers.

Benny's first five professional full-contact karate bouts came later that year in the World Series of Martial Arts, a two-day extravaganza held in Honolulu.

Recalls Urquidez: "There were street fighters, boxers, every kind of martial artist, sumo wrestlers, western wrestlers--about 200 in all. There were no rules and no weight divisions. I won my three fights the first day and my first fight the second day by knockout. I had to beat Dana Goodson for the title."

Goodson was a 6-1, 225-pound Hawaiian heavyweight kick boxing champion. Urquidez knocked him out in the third round.

"I attacked him like a leech sucking blood," Urquidez says. "I am a stone survivor and that day I proved it to the martial arts world."

With the WSMA title under his black belt, the Jet's career took off. He captured the NKL lightweight title in 1975 and the PKA lightweight title in 1976.

Urquidez's most discussed fight, of course, is the purported loss. When a fighter is 56-1, attention is focused on the defeat. Did the Jet really lose?

That depends on who you believe. Benny scowls at the mention of the August night in 1980 in West Palm Beach, Fla., when a virtual unknown from Texas named Billye Jackson took a seven-round decision.

Stuart Sobel, Benny's manager, offers this version: "Thirty minutes before the fight, Jackson said he wouldn't get in the ring unless Urquidez agreed not to use leg kicks--Benny's speciality. I told Benny, 'This is ridiculous, we can walk.'

"There were 6,000 people in the stands and the promoter nearly fainted. Benny agreed to the change, but without leg kicks his rhythm was off. The last couple of rounds, Benny pummeled the guy. If the fight would have went one more round, Jackson wouldn't have been standing."

Jackson wouldn't fight with leg kicks because of a leg injury, Jackson's manager told Official Karate magazine in February. Jackson retired from kick boxing last year with a 22-2 record.

WKA President Howard Hanson denied Sobel's formal appeal for a no-contest ruling. He says the Jet was grounded fair and square, but adds that the loss revealed more about Urquidez's integrity than any win.

"Benny lost the fight," Hanson says. "Sobel's version is essentially correct, but a loss is a loss. Benny proved what kind of gentleman he is, though. When Jackson requested no leg kicks, rather than leave the promoter with a riot on his hands, Benny stepped in the ring."

The calm in Urquidez's voice and the dignity in his demeanor leave a deep first impression on a visitor. His tone is a decibel above a whisper and conversation invariably steers to his family.

"My family is the source of my strength," says Urquidez, looking at photos of Sara, his wife of 11 years, and Monique, his 7-year-old daughter. "My wife and daughter, my brothers and sisters, my parents--we are a strong tribe."

Urquidez returned two years ago to his birthplace, Van Nuys, to build what he believes is the consummate martial arts facility. He, Rodriguez and Jan Sirchuk, a contractor and friend, are partners in Benny the Jet's Jet Center. Similar Jet Centers have opened in Japan, Canada and Holland.

The Urquidez family remains deeply involved in the Valley community. Project Heavy brings local toughs off the street into the Jet Center, where they are taught Ukidokan--Benny's personal blend of martial arts and philosophy.

The Jet Center has dormitories where kick boxers from around the world stay for monthlong internships under Benny. They emerge as Jet fighters.

"My fighting career may be near its end, but I will never stop fighting through my students," Urquidez says, his face unmarked by more than a decade of kick boxing competition. "I will teach honor, discipline and respect throughout the world.

"It's going to be hard to get rid of me. Benny the Jet will create an empire."

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