Don Wilson Kickboxing

With Pai Lum Kung Fu to the top

Don Wilson Interview from 1991

Film fans and kickboxing experts appreciate the US-American Don „The Dragon“ Wilson as one of the best kickboxers of all times. The 10-time world champion and leading actor in 23 films is aiming for a comeback as a fighter despite his 44 years. In May, he competed in a three-round show fight in Los Angeles, where he got his first taste of ring air since 1991. The day after the fight, we conducted an interview at his new home in North Los Angeles, where we questioned his motivation, his background in kung fu, and his plans for the future.

Pai Lum Kung Fu
Today, Don Wilson still masters techniques of Pai Lum Kung Fu. In the photo we see him when he began training in Kung Fu in Florida in 1973. The Pai Lum helped him a lot in kickboxing, because it made high technical demands on him.

You are the only known kung fu stylist among the very great kickboxing champions. Tell us about your background in kung fu.

I started kung fu in 1972. I learned from my brother James and his partner Fred Schmitz as well as Daniel Pai, the master of our style, Pai Lum Kung Fu. At that time I was still living in Florida. It was shortly after I learned Goyu Ryu Karate under Chuck Merriman. So originally I started with traditional karate. The reason for my move to professional fighting was found in a prejudice of the time. It was said that people who trained Kung Fu couldn’t really fight. When you went to a tournament there were on one side the karatekas with their white gi and us in black clothes. Black meant that you were a bad fighter. In the early seventies most of the tournament fighters were karatekas, a few came from taekwondo. They simply had no respect for kung fu. But that’s what made it so interesting for me. I wanted to learn to fight and prove to everyone that I could.

Do you have any idea why there were so many reservations about the fighting skills of Kung Fu stylists at that time?

The movements and techniques you knew from the forms didn’t look very practical. They were fast and looked good, but traditional athletes claimed that they were not applicable in combat.

How did kung fu shape your fighting style in kickboxing? Did you adopt techniques and movements?

I think so. When people talk about me, they automatically talk about my mobility. I move very well in the ring and I have a good defense. I got the coordination of movement, balance and technique from kung fu. There is no doubt that the forms in Kung Fu are much more demanding than in traditional styles, for example. I used to be a much better form runner than a fighter. In every tournament in which I participated in the form competitions, I placed among the top three. As a fighter (tournament fights in semi or zero contact) I lost almost all my fights. Through my forms, I had good balance, was flexible and moved in a very coordinated way. These difficulties in mastering Kung Fu made kickboxing easier for me. Even in that demo I gave yesterday, I was able to move very well. All the people said that my opponent could hardly hit me when I moved. He couldn’t hit me – that’s a very good defense! Even if I can’t hit him in the process, he can’t be dangerous to me. I learned this ability to move through my Kung Fu training.

At the end of May 1998, after a 7-year absence from the ring, Don Wilson fought a show fight against the American Jim Mullen. Over three rounds, Wilson showed that despite his 44 years, he can still keep up well in the ring, because the DRAKA kickboxing champion Mullen could not become dangerous to him.

Can we say that Kung Fu stylists are the more intelligent fighters, while the representatives of the hard styles are more interested in demonstrating physical strength?

I don’t think you can say that. There are plenty of intelligent people who would rather block a technique, force against force, and hit hard rather than aim. It’s more of a philosophical difference. You can compare it to American football. There are people who evaluate the chances of success according to the passing game, others consider the direct duel to be decisive for the game. It’s not a matter of intelligence. Anyway, I think that for many people it is better to do traditional karate, because their physical stature is more made for it.

Have you also been meditating?

I think we talked a lot about meditation. After every workout we would sit down, close our eyes and mentally review the techniques we learned. It relaxes, relieves stress and eases the body. Today I don’t sit on the floor with my eyes closed after training. I do my meditation during endurance training. I get into a state where I fix my thoughts on the fight and technique sequences. I think about the meaning of the duel, etc. Aerobic exercises are ideal for this. You don’t have to react to anything, but you can clear your mind and concentrate on the important things. In this sense, you can say that I still meditate every day.

You are a successful actor. How has training helped you in your professional life?

My background in martial arts has helped me a lot. It’s mainly the self-confidence you gain from training. As a white or green belt, you feel that confidence when you learn to master techniques. The more you learn the more aware you become that you don’t know everything – but your own assessment becomes more and more conscious. Life changes gradually, as does one’s skill. No one gets black belt after white belt, and as a master of a martial art you don’t become a world champion overnight. As an actor, it’s similar. I think it’s foolhardy to go from an unknown actor to a star in 20 or 30 million dollar productions. Van Damme and Seagal had such a career – today they suffer from it. After just a few years, they are now starring in films that are losing money. Because they got to the top so quickly, your status has replaced experience. Once I can work for the big studios, I will be a very experienced actor. I’ve made 23 films in 10 years. I have the advantage that I can choose the films to reach my audience.

Since 1989, Don Wilson has been wearing the German Top Ten brand, which is owned in the U.S. by
Fighters Incorporated
in the USA.

What advice would you give to a young martial artist who wants to become an actor?

The first thing he should do is come to Los Angeles and take acting classes. If you want to be a doctor, you have to study medicine first. Believe me, becoming a doctor is a difficult thing, but it is not nearly as competitive as acting. There are very few movie stars who are really at the top. Everyone wants to be like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, but very few get that far. The whole industry is here in Los Angeles, so you have to come here! If you want to get a foothold here you have to respect the profession of acting, because the craft has to be learned.

Does that mean that the ability to act is more important than being able to fight spectacularly, for example?

Much more important! There are a lot of martial artists here but very few performers among them. About 10 years ago, there were a lot of fighting movies where only punching was done, action was more important than the book or the plot. At that time, acting was not that important. Today, that’s gone. People have become more demanding.

How good are the opportunities to work as a stuntman?

There are many opportunities here. I know many martial artists who have become well-known stuntmen. They have the best qualifications for the job. They can fall, fight, have good coordination. The transition from martial arts expert to stuntman is quite easy. Cheryll Wheeler and Dana Hee have successfully made this step. I think the business gives martial artists a wide field of activity.

Many years ago – when they were still actively fighting – they mentioned in an interview that they would participate in form competitions after retiring from kickboxing. Is that right?

Yes, that’s what I said! At that time I was still very focused on competition, so I wanted to participate in competitions even without getting into the ring. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that without the competition as a source of income, I would have to be very involved professionally. Acting became much more time-consuming than I initially thought possible. I shot four films a year, and I was involved in both production and post-production. There was no time left for other things like molding.

Miss India Film
As an actor, Wilson became world famous. Here he is filming in India with the reigning Miss India.

Will we never see her as a contestant in a molding tournament then?

You should never say never. I’m returning to the ring, too, after all. I’m taking quite a bit of time for my training now. Here, look at these scripts (points to three piles of files about 40 cm high on his desk) – everyone wants to make a movie with me and I can’t even read through their suggestions. The last fights of my career are very important for me, so I’m not shooting at the moment.

How many more fights do you want to do?

I don’t know. I’ll take one fight at a time. If I feel good, I’ll continue. During the three-round demo I felt good. My next fight will probably be in Moscow and will go 10 rounds. What happens then depends on the outcome of that fight.

Do you want to fight for a world title again?

No, not necessarily. I was once asked by Black Belt magazine if I wasn’t afraid that people might say I was only in the ring for the money. I replied to them, „You can tell everyone that I only fight for money. It’s the only reason I get in the ring. Yes, of course I like the lifestyle of a fighter that I have cultivated for 17 years. But now at 44, I like the idea that because of the popularity I’ve received from my movie roles, I can fight some lucrative fights through pay-per-view TV before I might be too old to do so. That’s my real motivation. I’m not getting back in the ring to beat one particular opponent. I’ve beaten everyone and now I want to make money.

There are rumors that you have offers to participate in a K-1 event. Would that appeal to you?

Sure. I talked on the phone with Art Davie, who is coordinating the American K-1 in Las Vegas in August. They want to hire me to be the announcer for the TV broadcast and maybe a 5-round superfight against one of their champions later. The odds are good if the money is really right.

Would they be interested in participating in the K-1 prize money tournament, which involves 3 round fights?

Dragon Kung Fu
A typical Dragon Kung Fu fighting stance.

No, not at all. I am a professional fighter who fights 12 rounds. I believe that the great professional boxing champion Rocky Marciano would not have won his fights if they had gone only three rounds. He would not have gone down in history then. A 5 round fight against a K-1 champion would be doable, I can’t think of a tournament participation.

Is there a reigning champion you would like to get in the ring against?

Yes, quite a few. There are many champions who would be a challenge for me. Unfortunately, they are all out of my weight class. At the demo, I weighed around 86 kilos, and that was against a man who usually weighs close to 100 kilos. It’s not my weight class. I used to fight up to a limit of about 79 kilos. For twelve years I was world champion in the light heavyweight division. Today I can certainly be a good champion up to 86 kilos. The really good fighters today are in the heavyweight division. For me, the guys are too heavy.

As an actor, Wilson frequently appears as a guest at fitness and bodybuilding events.

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