Father, Fighter Puts His Best Foot Forward : Once Infirm, Mullen Finds New Strength in Son, Kickboxing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no escape from the stifling canopy of heat. Inside Strongbow Stadium, an outdated ventilation system labors to stir the heavy air. Rows of small triangular flags, the kind that decorate a second-rate used-car lot, droop from the rafters.

The arena seats 1,600, but there is barely enough room for a half-court basketball game. There are five rows of metal folding chairs and a few rows of wooden bleacher-style seats surrounding the kickboxing ring.

Kickboxers enjoy neither the luxuries nor the respect of other sports. You take what you can get. And sometimes--especially if you are an amateur--it isn't much.

Sometimes your opponent doesn't show. Sometimes you'll spend months training for one fight--and get knocked out in 15 seconds.

Sometimes there's a crowd. Other times they simply clear space for spectators around a ring in one of the local gyms. Sometimes, like tonight, more than 500 will pay $15 each to watch you do things that would get you arrested in a bar, or land you a part in a Chuck Norris movie.

You spend Saturday nights in places like this--where the announcer's microphone screeches and the paint peels from the walls and you have to wipe your seat before sitting down. All of this, for three rounds in the ring and a chance to beat the daylights out of somebody.

*

Difficult to believe that 23-year-old Jim Mullen has come this far. It takes two hours to reach Bakersfield from his home in Simi Valley, but a few years ago it looked as if he might end up in a wheelchair, not a kickboxing ring.

He was 16 years old and 280 pounds when his condition was diagnosed as children's rheumatoid arthritis. His mother says doctors predicted would be in a wheelchair before he was 30. His knees were so badly affected by his weight that it hurt even to walk across the Simi Valley High campus. The condition rarely affects him these days.

He started taking karate lessons and found it boosted his self-confidence and trimmed his weight. He was naturally flexible and he worked his way up to a brown belt, one step below the black belt. After about five years in martial arts, he took up kickboxing.

A year and a half later and 77 pounds lighter, Mullen has fashioned himself into one of the nation's top amateur heavyweight kickboxers. He holds three amateur heavyweight titles (the Worldwide Kickboxing Federation North American title, the World Kickboxing Assn. U.S. title and the WKA world title).

Ruben Urquidez, a former cruiserweight champion who has coached 12 world champion kickboxers, calls Mullen "one of the hottest new prospects to come along in a long time."

"I've never seen anyone who is so in demand," Urquidez said. "Everybody wants to fight him."

Although Mullen will not turn pro until August, Urquidez rates him among the top 20 heavyweight professionals in the world.

Mullen (9-1-1) trains three hours a day with Mike Wheeler, a 41-year-old kickboxer who has trained for 20 years. He also spars with the professionals at Urquidez's martial arts gym in Tarzana.

"He's dedicated himself so much that he's easy to train," Wheeler said. "It's hard for a fighter to keep healthy and on track, and he does that all himself. He's a dream student to find."

Mullen's only loss came to a former state champion in his first fight in April, 1992. It was only three months after he began kickboxing. He weighed 240.

His scheduled opponent didn't show up, and Sean Tuttle, the reigning state champion, was the only heavyweight fighter available.

"(Mullen) said, 'Let me fight him,' " Urquidez recalled. "I said, 'Are you crazy? This guy is a state champion.' But he wanted to do it anyway."

Mullen held strong through nearly three rounds, but in the closing seconds of the match, Tuttle, who already had 16 fights, knocked him out.

"I was so tired that I dropped my hands down to rest them and he kicked me in the head with his shin, which is like a baseball bat," Mullen said. "I went out instantly. I went down and broke my ankle and sprained my knee. I was injured pretty bad.

"It made me realize that I either better get serious and get in shape, or get out of it."

Eleven months later, Mullen came back and knocked out Tuttle in the first round for the WKA U.S. heavyweight title.

"That first fight really taught him a lesson," Urquidez said. "I told him afterward, 'If you come back to the gym, you will be a good fighter.' "

But Mullen doesn't want to be just another good fighter. He wants to be the professional heavyweight champion kickboxer of the world.

*

Three punching bags hang from the steel beams in the back room of the stadium, and Mullen begins his dance with the blue bag in the corner. His size belies his grace. His kicks are as precise as any ballet dancer's, his turns as fluid as any pirouette.

Only his voice gives him away. He bellows when he kicks and he hisses when he punches.

Athletic tape litters the wood floor. Mullen's cornermen--Dave Hall and Tim Mullen, Jim's brother--shine two of his title belts until the gold reflects like the six mirrors on the wall. Wheeler's 9-year-old son, Jeffery, wraps the red WWKF belt around his waist and raises his arms like a champion fighter. Jeffery notches it on the last hole, but it's still too big for his waist.

Mullen and Wheeler lean back in two chairs in the corner, talking about the fight. Mullen looks relaxed, but he taps his legs impatiently. He jumps up and paces about the room.

He spars with his trainer, he spars with his cornermen, he spars with a make-believe opponent. He knocks off Dave's hat. When he moves into the ring, he'll want to knock off Kelly Dynge's head, just as he wanted to when he beat Dynge the first time a year ago.

Wheeler laces Mullen's gloves and rubs his forehead and cheekbones with Vaseline. Jeffery runs into the dressing room and reports, "Kelly's going in there right now."

They grab two ice buckets and head for the entrance to the ring. Tonight, Mullen is the main event.

*

When Mullen and his brother, Tim, were young, their father used a rubber hose to make a boxing ring in the front yard.

"He put gloves on me and my brother and threw us in," Mullen said. "(Tim) was a couple of years older than me and he bloodied my nose. I said I wanted to quit but my father yelled, 'Get back in there!' "

Since then, it seems as if Mullen has always been "getting back in there." He could never balance his weight when he was growing up. Now he's down to 203, and he balances something equally difficult--his life as a fighter, and his life as a single father to his 13-month-old son, Trace Trevor Mullen. A full-time job would disrupt his training, so Mullen works occasionally as a bouncer and teaches private kickboxing lessons at his home.

"He's what I'm doing all this for," Mullen said. "All of my hard work is for (Trace).

"I've always had to fight for everything I've ever wanted, I've had to work hard. That's how I grew up, and that's still what I'm doing."

Mullen sometimes brings Trevor when he trains at Wheeler's house, and the tot will sit in a highchair near the heavy bag and imitate his father's punching motions. He stays at home in the playpen when Mullen teaches students kickboxing in his living room three times a week.

Mullen's tough-guy appearance--complete with a half-shaven head and a gold hoop earring-- disguises his tender heart.

"I'm a completely loving, gentle person," he insists with a smile. "My son is the most important thing to me. He makes me melt every time I look at him."

He pauses. "But I do have a real hard side to me."

It is easy to see that tough side when Mullen "sets his trigger" in the ring. He leaves little doubt that kickboxing is a violent sport.

Some martial arts tournaments restrict fighters to hitting only above the waist, but in kickboxing fighters can strike their opponents almost anywhere on the legs, chest and head. Mullen left competitive karate because he often was disqualified for hitting his opponents too hard.

"(In kickboxing) that's the whole idea--to hit hard and knock the guy out," he said. "They don't disqualify you for that."

A kickboxer punches like a boxer and uses his shins and feet to kick an opponent in the head. Picture Barry Bonds playing tee-ball with your skull.

Fighters wear only boxing gloves, a mouthpiece and a cup for protection. Most boxers also tape their ankles to support the tender arches in their bare feet. A regular fight has three two-minute rounds; a title fight has five.

Blocking out the pain is as important as blocking kicks and punches. Mullen uses meditation and hypnosis techniques to help him maintain his focus.

"There is no pain in the ring," Mullen said. "Once in a while you'll get hit real hard and wrong and you'll feel the pain, but boom, it's gone right away.

"It's mental. Sometimes you're actually fearing for your life in there. I am a warrior and I will not quit, I will not fall down. So (my opponent) is going to have to smash me and make me fall down to make me quit."

*

Dynge has lasted two rounds, but he doesn't look good. His body is beginning to resemble the American flag-print trunks that cling to his 215-pound frame. He is red, white and bruised.

Mullen continues the lopsided assault. He pounds Dynge with a right and a right and a right then a left. He swings around and catches Dynge with a swift reverse kick to the temple.

Another kick brings Dynge to his knees, but he manages to pull himself to his feet. He stumbles across the ring on wobbly legs and the referee restrains Mullen for a moment. The crowd moans in anticipation, pleading for a knockout. "Jimbo, Jimbo," they chant.

The ringside doctor jumps from his seat, clutching the ropes and demanding the fight be stopped. But Mullen has Dynge locked in the opposite corner and the referee doesn't see the doctor frantically waving his arms.

The bell rings and the second round ends. Somehow Dynge survived. But Mullen lands nearly every punch and every kick in the next round. The referee finally calls it off.

Once again, Jimbo is the winner. He raises his arms like a champion, the same way Jeffery did in the dressing room.

"My favorite part is the knockout," Mullen said. "When I hit someone real hard, I get that pit bull instinct. I want to finish them, but most of the time the ref jumps in and won't let me. . . .

"It's a bloodthirsty crowd out there and they want to see a knockout--and that's what I like to give them."

*

Most of Mullen's fans have left. It's late, and it's a long trek home.

Tim lingers outside under the lights and recalls how he used to beat up the little brother he called 'Meatball.' Now he wouldn't think of laying a hand on Jimbo.

"He pulled me off into a room just before the fight and he gave me a great big hug," Tim confides. "He didn't want anyone to see him."

Soon Mullen will want everyone to see him. He says he will turn pro by the end of the summer. Get paid for what he loves to do. Maybe he'll open his own gym, or get into the movies. Make something of himself, make a future for his son.

But if anyone forgets who he is now, he reminds them as he hangs out of the passenger window of the car and bellows into the night:

"Heavyweight champion of the world!"

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