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 this Saturday, the 41-year-old, baby-faced bomber plans to come out of semi-retirement to launch himself one final time in a bout in the Grand Ballroom at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Billed as the biggest-ever in the United States, the event is to pit the kick-boxing legend against Yoshihisa Tagami, the undefeated Japanese World Kickboxing Assn. welterweight champion, for the world light middleweight crown.
Despite a 16-year 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 will 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," he said. He agreed that his trademark leg kicks take enormous stamina and often do not hit the mark, but he promised to keep them in his repertoire.
The battle between age and youth, between legend and newcomer, between the preeminent American in the sport and his Japanese opponent is the talk of the Jet Center in Van Nuys, the martial arts academy that also serves as the headquarters for efforts by Urquidez and members of his family to help troubled kids gain self-respect in the boxing ring.
A promotional videotape runs nonstop in the center's lobby, reviewing the high points of the Jet's 20-year career and touting the upcoming fight. It also touts the matches of the other four Jet Center fighters on the Las Vegas bill. The television monitor is near a wall lined with karate magazine covers from around the world featuring the Jet.
"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-oldswho consider Urquidez their idol, plan to be in Las Vegas next month. "Everyone wants to see the Jet fly," Urquidez said.
David Hernandez, 10, said he wants to see the kicks he has heretofore only 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 a heel is landed in the opponent's midsection.
"He knocks the wind out of them, and then he starts punching them," said David, who has used some of Urquidez's moves to win 22 karate matches this year.
Dorin Bickers, 31, who has been working out at the center for two years, said the atmosphere there has been intense as Urquidez prepares for the match. "We always see Benny in here, but we've never seen him work out like this," Bickers 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, a world-ranked boxer and former Olympic medal winner, finished a brutal round of hands-only sparring with heavily padded practice gloves.
"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, before 54,600 fans in Tokyo. Since then, he has concentrated on choreographing fight scenes for movies and on training actors, including Louis 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, began putting together the pieces, including a deal with the Showtime cable channel to televise a two-hour kick-boxing show after the fight.
Rodriguez and Urquidez have worked to help young people around the San Fernando Valley stay out of gangs, and an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 of the event's proceeds are to go toward setting up a "Knockdown Dropout Academy" at the center. Cities and Schools, a national dropout-prevention organization, will help to start the project, which is to conduct martial arts training and provide social, legal and health services.
"We teach a discipline here," said Urquidez, relaxing after a workout this week. "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 kicks that have given him a 57-0-1 record, with more than 50 knockouts.
He has won titles under American rules, which require players to wear more padding and forbid the use of elbows or blows to the head. And he has won them under less restrictive rules in Holland, Thailand and Japan. Although he is only 5-foot-6 and weighs 150 pounds, his legs are as big around as fence posts and his arms are as big many people's legs.
He has been working out with a coach, Stan Ward of Northridge, since August. He starts two hours of running and calisthenics each morning at 5:30. Ward said Urquidez was in decent shape when he started but had to shed about 10 pounds. Now the Jet is ready to take off, Ward said.
"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 will not have an easy time of it. 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.
But Urquidez 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."