MOVIES : The Next Action Hero? : Kathy Long is a champion kickboxer whose movie moves remind some of Norris and Van Damme

Davis Miller is a former kickboxer and the boxing editor at Sport magazine. He also writes for Men's Journal, Esquire and Sports Illustrated.

Kathy Long steps into the prizefighting ring dressed in a white floor-length robe. Male attendants precede her, carrying her five world's championship kickboxing belts. Long spins in a circle while removing the robe, revealing a white midriff spandex tank top and a pair of fringed and beaded white trunks that have been sewn from bridal satin. Long's musculature is so highly defined that fat cells seem to have no place to hide in her body.

At 27, Long is at the height of her career as the premier kickboxer in the world. Tonight, 11,000 fans have come to watch her fight Japanese champion Kyoko Kamikaze; it is the largest attendance in the 20-year history of kickboxing--men's or women's.

Long dominates virtually every moment of the Kamikaze bout. Watching her, one soon forgets how strange it is that she fights for a living. After only a few moments, one sees the dazzle and downright elegance with which she moves. Her straight right lead is a razor, her left hook sears the night air. Lead leg round-kicks and spinning back-kicks regularly startle Kamikaze with their power and suddenness. In the final round, Long catches Kamikaze with a thought-shattering hook to the jaw. Kamikaze crumples like a soiled shirt thrown to the floor and, although she manages to get up, Long feints a jab, then spears her with a short right cross. As Kamikaze hits the canvas, the force of the blow causes her to roll back on her shoulders. She makes it to her feet again, but the fight is over. The crowd explodes into applause. Hundreds of spectators chant, "Kathy! Kathy!"

For nearly an hour after she leaves the ring, Long is surrounded by a crush of autograph-seeking fans.

Can Long become the latest kickboxer or martial arts star to duplicate her success in the sport at the movies? Apparently, plenty of Hollywood types think so.

This past winter, Long got her first exposure to the movies by working as Michelle Pfeiffer's stunt double for fight scenes in "Batman Returns" and as Goldie Hawn's double in "Death Becomes Her." But she's clearly set her sights beyond stunt work.

Long recently signed a non-exclusive multi-movie deal with King's Road Entertainment. Last month, she finished shooting her first starring feature, a post-apocalyptic action fantasy called "Knights," which co-stars Kris Kristofferson and Lance Henriksen. "Knights" is scheduled for theatrical release in November.

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Other things in the development stage: a multi-picture pact with New Line Cinema; a send-up of chop-socky movies that would be shown in Malaysia this fall; a continuing role on the TV series "Street Justice" (she filmed her first episode this week) and a weekly series created for Long by TriStar Television.

"What I'm impressed with more than anything about Kathy," says Chuck Norris, "is the presence she's developed both in and out of the ring. She just glows and I think that'll translate itself well to the big screen."

When asked about buzz that Oliver Stone is developing a kickboxing project that would use Long in a starring role, Tom Haislip of Stone's Ixtlan Productions says, "Oliver's been watching her and wanting to see who she is and what she's about. We'd like to be able to get the two of them together soon."

Other female martial-arts competitors, including Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, have gained a kind of fame on the chop-socky video store circuit. With the release of "Knights," though, Long will become the only actual women's kickboxing champion to have made the leap from ring to screen.

"She's got something very special in her face," Jean-Claude Van Damme once said of Long, when he served as a commentator during one of her bouts. "She's beautiful and she's got (a) broken nose. It's very appealing, very, very real. (She'll) make a great leading lady."

So far the level of physicality that acting requires has been easy for Long. "To me, what I did was way easy. It was mentally taxing but it didn't physically challenge me. It was hard to get a good workout."

But she hopes her work will bring a verisimilitude to fight scenes that people haven't seen. "I fight with intensity, exploding into my strikes," she says. "People have gotten little bits and pieces of reality with Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal, but I hope to show them what personal combat's really about."

According to John Soet, editor of Inside Kung-Fu magazine, "What little attention female kickboxers received in the past, they got simply because they were women. Kathy is a standout because she's a great kickboxer. Her skills are as good as those of the best champion-level men. And her kung-fu skills are of an even higher caliber than her kickboxing. If you look at Kathy as a complete martial artist, she's on a level almost all by herself."

In 1991, Long was named to the Black Belt magazine hall of fame and also to the Inside Kung-Fu hall of fame, considered to be the most prestigious awards a martial artist can attain in the United States. She signed a promotional agreement with the leading manufacturer of martial-arts training equipment, and there are also plans to market Kathy Long posters, calendars and a line of women's athletic wear.

Although most kickboxing world champions make less than $1,000 per match, Long is fielding six-figure offers to fight in places as diverse as Las Vegas, Brazil, Hawaii, Australia and Korea.

Not only is Long recognized by the martial-arts community as the best in the history of her sport, she's the only kickboxer to have received any real public or media attention for her art. She has been profiled on "Entertainment Tonight," on KNBC and on Showtime cable network. In May, she hosted a weekend festival of martial-arts movies on the Movie Channel--functioning as sort of the Elvira of kung fu. She's been asked to fight a three-round exhibition on "Arsenio" in early September.

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Long, who teaches kickboxing and kung fu at Eric Nolan's Academy of International Martial Arts in Bakersfield, was born in St. Louis. She grew up in Southern California, moving from town to town, living in trailer parks and tenements with her father, who's now serving prison time for robbing banks and shooting an FBI agent.

Long is soft-spoken, a careful observer of people. Yet this otherwise gentle person doesn't regard kickboxing as being brutal enough to call real fighting. She says she may soon retire as a fighter but that doesn't mean she'll be giving up the martial arts.

"Kickboxing is a sport," she explains. "There's so much more at stake outside of the ring. You can easily get killed, I can get raped. Fighting, real fighting, is about sticking your fingers in people's eyes, grabbing groins, breaking knees; you bite, you claw, you reshape people's skeletons."

Such recent films as "Terminator 2" and "Thelma & Louise" have brought more strong, powerful women to the screen. But Nolan, her manager and trainer, differentiates Long from the characters of those movies. "Kathy's a real live superwoman, not a cartoon or a movie creation. And that's something none of us has seen before."

As an action star, Long would be the most skillful martial artist to have appeared on celluloid since the death of Bruce Lee in July, 1973. "She's more physical than anybody I've worked with," says "Knights" stunt coordinator Bob Brown. "While filming, Kathy'd do 30 fights in a day, against multiple attackers--from five to 30 at a time. I've never seen so many fights done so flawlessly. We'd be on a cliff 2,000 feet up, right on the edge of it. Nothing would faze her. When people go to this movie, they're going to see something they've never seen. I was definitely blown away by her."

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On a recent drive from West Hollywood to Bakersfield, Long talked about herself and her martial art, and about what she hopes to achieve in fight scenes and as an actress. Although she speaks at a volume scarcely louder than a whisper, her husky voice is rich and deep and evocative.

"When I'm doing a scene, I don't think about the words," she says. "The words are nothing. I think about the way a scene makes me feel, and that's what I try to get across."

When told about Brown's comments about her stamina on the set, Long smiled and said, "I think I'm used to a different level of athleticism than they expected."

She says that one of the problems she had on the set of "Knights" is that she was seldom able to move as quickly as she'd have liked; many of her techniques had to be thrown at half-speed or less in order for the camera operators to keep up with her movements and for the stunt people to properly react to her strikes.

Long choreographed her own fights in "Knights." "My fights have a greater intricacy than what I've seen before," she says. "There's a practicality to what I do, a purpose for every movement. I don't do things just to be flashy. This is animalistic, low morals/no morals fighting."

As she speaks, she's tooling her small Honda up Interstate 5 toward Bakersfield at nearly 100 m.p.h. Her right hand firmly grips the wheel, the muscle groups in her forearms dance. She's wearing a pair of tight jeans, a loose-fitting black cotton tank top, and a thin necklace with a small gold boxing glove attached to it. She comes across as small-town real, with an aura of tomboy androgyny: tough physically but genuinely nice, capable yet vulnerable, sexy and nurturing.

When asked how she evaluates her current skill level as an actress, she says, "I realize I'm a novice, but lots of people keep telling me how easy it comes for me, so I think I'm probably pretty good. It feels good. The most important thing is to perfect the craft. I care more about that than I do about becoming some huge star.

She is in no hurry to step beyond straight action movies and into films that feature her as solely an actress. "If I have that kind of range in me, those roles will happen. I don't want to rush it. Four years ago, I didn't have a clue how to kickbox. I didn't even know how to throw a jab. Now, I'm champ of the world. I intend to use that same discipline and patience to develop my acting skills. I want to be good at it. I want to do work I can be proud of, quality work.

"It puzzles me," she says. "Usually, somebody only has to know me a couple of hours or see me fight one time and they treat me like a member of the family. They see me beat people up, then they want to tuck me under their wings and protect me. Maybe that's going to happen when people see me in movies, too."

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