Benny the Jet is hoping to go out with a supersonic boom.
Easily the most famous American in the sport-spectacle of kick boxing, Benny (the Jet) Urquidez hasn't been in the ring for more than four years.
But on Saturday, the 41-year-old baby-faced bomber will come out of semi-retirement to launch himself for what he says will be his final bout. The fight in the Grand Ballroom at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas is being billed as the biggest-ever such event in the United States. The kick-boxing legend will be vying with Yoshihisa Tagami, the undefeated Japanese World Kickboxing Assn. welterweight champion, who is 16 years his junior, for the world light-middleweight crown.
Despite the age disadvantage, the Jet is confident. "I'm the strongest I've ever been mentally, spiritually, physically and maturity-wise," he said. "I feel at this point . . . better than when I was 20."
But the Sherman Oaks resident acknowledges that he'll have to do a lot of "bobbing and weaving." He also promised some new tricks never before seen in full-contact boxing, as the sport is also known.
"It's not how hard you hit, it's how right you hit" that makes the difference, he said. He agreed that his trademark leg kicks take an enormous amount of stamina and, at least for other kick boxers, often don't even land. But he promised to keep them in his repertoire.
"I'm accurate," he said. "When I take out the ax, I chop deep and eventually he'll fall."
The battle between age and youth, between legend and newcomer, between the sport's preeminent American and his unknown Japanese opponent is the talk of the Jet Center here, the martial-arts academy that also serves as the headquarters for efforts by Urquidez and members of his family to help youths in trouble gain self-respect in the boxing ring.
A promotional videotape runs nonstop in the center's lobby, reviewing high points of the Jet's 20-year career and touting the upcoming fight, as well as the title bids of the other four Jet Center fighters on the bill. The television monitor is near a wall lined with numerous karate magazine covers from around the world featuring the Jet. A somewhat crude, hand-lettered sign advertises tickets ranging in price from $25 to $200.
"You're going to the fights, right?" one member greets another. "Going to see Benny fight?"
Club employees say at least 400 members and their families, starting with skinny 10-year-olds who consider Urquidez their idol, are planning to be in Las Vegas next month to cheer him on. "Everyone wants to see the Jet fly," Urquidez said.
Ten-year-old David Hernandez said he wanted to see in person the kicks he's only heretofore seen on videotape. His favorite Jet-like weapon is the spinning back-kick, a move that gets the whole body whirling like a top before landing a heel to the opponent's midsection.
"He knocks the wind out of them and then he starts punching them," said David, who, attempting similar moves, has won 22 karate matches this year. "I wish I could do that."
Dorin Bickers, 31, who has been working out at the center for two years, said the atmosphere there has been intense as Urquidez finishes his preparations. "We always see Benny in here, but we've never seen him work out like this," he said. "I've never seen anybody train quite as hard."
Dressed in a neck-to-ankle exercise suit, Bickers looked on as Urquidez and his partner, Hector Lopez, himself a world-ranked boxer and former Olympic medal winner, finished up a brutal round of hands-only sparring. As their heavily padded practice gloves landed with sharp slaps, the attention of the others working out in the gym focused on the ring.
"He reminds you of George Foreman," said Bickers, referring to the former heavyweight boxing champion who came out of retirement at age 38. "With him being 41, . . . it inspires more of the older guys to come in here and work out."
Urquidez held five world titles when he fought last, in 1989 before 54,600 fans in Tokyo. Since then, however, he has concentrated on choreographing fight scenes for movies and training actors, including Lou Gossett Jr., Sylvester Stallone, Patrick Swayze and Michael Keaton, who starred as Batman.
Urquidez proposed returning to the ring for one final match 10 months ago. He and his brother-in-law and business partner, Blinky Rodriguez, then began putting together the pieces, including a deal with the Showtime cable channel to televise a tape-delayed, two-hour kick-boxing show.
Rodriguez, who along with Urquidez has worked to help young people around the San Fernando Valley stay out of gangs, also wanted the fight to benefit youths.
As a result, an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 of the event's proceeds will go to set up a "Knockdown Dropout Academy" at the center in conjunction with the nonprofit group known as Cities in Schools, the nation's largest and oldest dropout prevention effort. The academy will be staffed by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, and Cities in Schools will arrange for a menu of other social, legal and health services, in addition to the fitness and martial-arts training to be available there.
Urquidez said the program will help kids get back on the right track.
"We teach a discipline here," said Urquidez as he relaxed after a workout this week, his sharply defined muscles rippling with his quick hand gestures. "Nothing is for free in this world. Not even love. You have to work at it."
Young people today are part of a "cowardly generation that thinks because they're carrying guns they're tough," he said. "I say, if you're tough, get in the ring."
There's no doubt that Urquidez is tough. He was nicknamed "the Jet" for the amount of time he spends airborne during matches, delivering payloads of vicious kicks that have given him a documented record of 57-0-1, with more than 50 knockouts.
He has won titles under American rules, which require more padding and don't allow the use of elbows or blows to the head, as well as under the less-restrictive rules in Holland, Thailand and Japan. Although he is only 5 feet, 6 inches and 150 pounds, his legs are as big around as fence posts and his arms are like other people's legs.
He has been working out with a coach, Stan Ward of Northridge, since August, starting each morning at 5:30 with two hours of running and calisthenics. Ward said Urquidez was in decent shape when he started, but had to shed about 10 pounds. Now, Ward said, the Jet is ready to take off.
"He's a professional, he knows how to . . . psych himself up for a fight," Ward said. "My main thing is to keep him going, keep him in good shape, keep him sharp."
But Dale Floyd, president of the World Kickboxing Assn., said Urquidez won't have an easy time of it in his final fight. Tagami is "young and really, really aggressive," Floyd said.
"This kid grew up watching Benny fight in Japan, and if he beats him it will really make his name in Japan because he will have beat the legend," Floyd said.
Urquidez, who often was challenged to fistfights and knife fights growing up in the Valley, also has something at stake. If he wins, Floyd said, "he'll prove . . . to himself that he's still got it . . . and he'll go out on a high note."