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Parade magazine this past week conducted an online poll, asking the question, “Who would you rate as the toughest martial-arts star ever on the big screen?”

America was given five choices: the late Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and me. The results can be read online.


Of course, movies are quite different than real life. Fighting in the ring is definitely much more difficult than brawling in front of the camera. I always preferred the opened cuts and broken bones on film!

The Parade survey prompted a close associate to ask me, “Chuck, so who is the greatest martial-arts champion ever?”

Decades of gifted contenders

Martial arts have evolved over the last 50 years, with modern forms largely originating from China, Okinawa, Korea, Japan and Brazil. And great fighters have fine-tuned and mastered the techniques developed from each of these countries.

I easily get nostalgic thinking about the competitive champs of yesteryear, men like Allen Steen, Skipper Mullins, Roy Kurban, Benny Urquidez, Mike Stone, Joe Lewis and Bill Wallace. I will always treasure the fights and the fellowship I had with many of these vintage combat warriors.

Of course, our contemporary prot?g?s of mixed martial arts, such as those involved in Pride, have become fearsome contenders in their own right: men like Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Mark Coleman and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Others from the World Combat League include Ray Daniels, Tim Connors, Steve Thompson, Jennifer Santiago and Jeri Sykes – just to mention a few of the great fighters today.

What about Bruce Lee?

Bruce Lee was very fast, and he learned from everybody. He never believed in only one style, or that one style was the best. He said that everything had strengths and weaknesses, and what he wanted to do was find the strengths in each. He had a very open mind, constantly learning from others.

When I first started working out with Bruce, he only believed in kicking below the waist from his training in Wing Chun. I told him not to limit himself, and at least develop the ability to kick high, whether he used it or not.

I started to do my spinning heel kicks and hitting the pads. Then Bruce started doing it, and in six months he could do it as well as anybody. He worked out with me, Joe Lewis and Mike Stone – he learned from all of us, as we learned from him. And in doing so, he added to his repertoire of techniques, as we did. Bruce Lee was far ahead of everybody else in that field. He had a vision that was years ahead of everyone.

As formidable an opponent he was on-screen and off, however, many today don’t realize he never competed professionally. Although I believe if he had, he would have been a world champion. His fame was established with the “Green Hornet” television series and immortalized with such movies as “Enter the Dragon” and “Return of the Dragon,” in which Lee and I fought in the now-famous fighting sequence inside the Roman Coliseum.

In addition to his lighting speed and incredible strength, Lee was a master marketer – a fact demonstrated by his ability to talk the world karate champion, me, into being defeated on-screen! Still, as I pointed out in a previous WND column on Bruce, I totally enjoyed sparring and just spending time with him. He was as charismatic and friendly at home as he was on film.

What about Joe Lewis?

Some years back in Black Belt Magazine, there was a poll asking who was the greatest martial arts champion of all time. Opinions narrowed to two: Joe Lewis and me.

Joe was a great fighter with superb technique. I’ll never forget in 1967, when he and I had won all our matches at the Internationals, we found ourselves in our third fight together for the grand championship in two years! Unlike the last two fights I’d had with him, this one was more of a chess game – neither of us wanted to make a wrong move. The match went into overtime with neither of us scoring. The one who scored the first point would be the winner and Grand Champion.

I attacked Joe, but he defended magnificently. I relaxed for a moment as though I had finished my attack. When I saw him relax too, I shot forward, executing a backhand strike to his face. The judges raised their flags signifying the point was scored – I was the International Grand Champion!

Joe and I fought one more time at Allen Steen’s tournament in Dallas, Texas. This time, Joe beat me for the Grand Championship. I graciously congratulated him on the win and, from that defeat, we finally became friends.

So who is the greatest?

As much as I love competition, the more I study the Bible, the more I realize that beating someone is no way to feel fulfilled in life. Gratification at another’s expense is not a commendable trait, but building up others at our own expense is.

Speaking of developing potential, some might question my efforts to teach martial arts to young people by calling it a form of violence, but actually it is just the opposite. It’s the bullies in this life who are afraid and do all the fighting, not those who develop a sense of worth and security by learning self-defense. They grow in self-esteem and are trained to respect others, not beat them up. When we mature that form of significance in these youngsters, and all of a sudden they have no reason to fight, it’s the most gratifying feeling in the world.

So who’s the greatest?

The truth is I’m not worthy enough to answer that. But there is One who is. And His answer applies to the martial arts as well as any other field of discipline, study or work.

When an argument broke out among Jesus’ disciples as to who was the greatest, He called over a child to their sides, then replied, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest … those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.”

It isn’t being the greatest champion, but the greatest servant that ultimately matters. I know that might seem easy for me to say, having been a six-time world champion, but I mean it. It took me too many years to realize that it isn’t the ladders we climb but the service we offer in this life that truly makes us great.

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