BENNY THE JET, A MARTIAL ARTS ICON
By Terry L. Wilson
From the moment he laced on his boxing gloves at the age of 5 Benny Urquidez was destined to become one of the most famous names in the history of the martial arts.
“My dad was a boxer and so all of us kids learned to fight at an early age,” said Benny. “I didn’t know anything about karate until I saw my brother Arnold wearing a gi. The first time I saw him in his uniform I almost fell down I was laughing so hard. He talked me into starting karate and the only reason I did was to get a chance to beat him up. In fact that’s why all of us started, we just wanted to have a shot at beating up our older brother.”
At the ripe old age of 7 Benny traded in his boxing gloves for a gi and began training under Bill Ryusaki. His knack for learning the art was uncanny; Benny was a natural at the sport. Due to his superior skill and learning ability Benny was promoted to black belt when he was only 14. At the time this was an unprecedented promotion, however Benny’s talent and competitive spirit was put to task during a grueling two-day test. Under the discerning eye of his brother Arnold, Ed Parker, Clarence Akuda, Tino Tullosega and Tak Kubota Benny was passed to the rank of Shodan, and with that took his first step down the road that would eventually lead him to superstar status.
In the early 70’s Benny and his clan became The First Family of martial arts. Arnold Urquidez was the senior member of the family, a black belt champion himself, he guided Benny and his siblings as their trainer and coach. Next was his brother Ruben, a bulky former army sergeant who was like a locomotive in the ring. Then came Joe, known to everyone as “Smiley” and sister Lilly.
“Smiley was very fast,” said Benny. “He had so much talent in the ring, and Lilly had a punch that could put anyone down. They were all fantastic.”
When Lilly married Blinkey Rodriguez he also became a member of the fighting Urquidez family. And while all of the family members went on to be international champions in their own right, it was Benny who led the pack, and it was Benny who would eventually change the sport of full contact karate forever.
During his days as a point fighter Benny was unstoppable. Not only did he win, but he won using a wide array of breath taking techniques that left spectators screaming for more. As Benny was winning trophy after trophy he was also doing something else, something that had never been done before. Benny was filling the house. People treated a Benny Urquidez fight as if it were a rock concert. They stood in line to buy tickets; people drove hundreds of miles just to get a glimpse of “The Jet” in action. In short, Benny was almost single handedly breathing financial life into the fledgling sport of point karate.
Over the years Benny has been associated with some of the most exciting fights in the history of the sport. One of those immortal moments in the ring occurred in 1974 at Ed Parker’s Internationals when Benny “The Jet” squared off against John Natividad. What resulted was a fight that is still the topic of conversation among martial artists.
The Long Beach Arena was packed from the floor to the rafters. The huge building rocked with enthusiasm. Both fighters put on a clinic that cumulated in an unprecedented 25-point match that went into three overtimes. Amidst a flurry of punches John Natividad got the flag for a reverse punch to the body as Benny threw a punch to Natividad’s head in sudden death.
John Natividad had defeated the undefeated Benny Urquidez. In a career spanning four decades it would be his only loss. More than 25 years later the controversy continues over who really won that fight. I guess it depends upon where you were sitting. From the viewpoint of three of the judges Natividad got there first. However from my perspective at ringside, I saw Benny block Natividad’s punch with his elbow and land a solid, controlled punch to Natividad’s chin. And I have a photo to prove it. However the title of Grand Champion along with its $2,500 purse went home with Natividad.
“I have nothing but respect for John, he’s a great fighter,” Benny said. “But in my heart I knew that if we were going at it in the streets I’d have won that fight.”
Disappointed over the way traditional karate bouts were decided, with non-contact points, Benny decided to trade in his gi for a pair of boxing gloves. The Jet was going to become a professional prizefighter.
“That’s when I started to box with Bobby Chacon and Randy Shields,” Benny said. “Bobby gave me my first bloody nose and I loved it. He was the first person to draw blood from me and I knew right then and there that this (boxing) was what I wanted to do. So I became Bobby’s sparring partner. I was ready to turn pro when the Professional Karate Association (PKA) started talking about doing the World Series of martial arts. I wanted to do both full contact karate and box but my brother Arnold convinced me I had to do one or the other. Since I had so many years invested in the martial arts I decided to see where full contact karate would take me.”
Benny went on to defeat every opponent in the world of full contact karate. Then in 1976 the WKA and Benny made martial arts history when they signed to do the first ever Muay Thai fight in the United States.
“This was the first time anyone in the states had ever fought a Thai fighter,” Benny recalled. “Nobody knew anything about them. When they told me I was going to fight Muay Thai, I thought that was the guy’s name. I said ‘sure I’ll fight Muay Thai’, I just thought I was going to fight a guy named Muay Thai.”
No one including Benny had any idea of what to expect from the Thai fighters. Nobody knew how they fought, or how they’d trained. The Jet didn’t care either. To him a fight was a fight was a fight. The system, style or rules of the contest were immaterial to The Jet. Although Benny had never even seen a Thai fighter, he did get a glimpse of what they could do just prior to going into the ring.
“I was downstairs warming up when they carried Earnest Hart down on a stretcher,” Benny said. “I have never seen anybody so knocked out. I asked him if he was okay but he couldn’t say anything. His eyes had this glazed look and he was almost cross-eyed. Earnest was a tough fighter, so I knew these Thai fighters must be good to put him on his back like that. I knew then and there that this was going to be an interesting fight.”
As Benny made his way through the tunnel toward the ring it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary fight and it surely wasn’t an ordinary crowd.
“I felt like I was waking into a steam,” Benny said. “It was the kind of heat brought about by a massive outlet of emotional energy. The crowd was chanting Thai-Land, Thai-Land, USA, USA. I could feel this wave of energy passing through my body. I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
Benny still hadn’t seen a Muay Thai fighter in action so when his opponent entered the ring wearing the traditional Thai headwear and began the ceremony dance Benny watched in awe.
“When I saw the guy I though to myself ‘that’s a nice costume.’ Then I though I should have worn a costume too. Then when he started doing his dance I asked Arnold what that was all about. Arnold told me the guy was praying. I thought ‘that was a funny way of praying’. Then I started smelling this strong aroma that was coming off the Thai fighter. I learned later that it was a special Thai lineament they used to numb their muscles. He had it all over his body.”
When the bell rang starting round 1 Benny came face-to-face and leg-to-leg with the National sport of Thailand for the first time. His opponent was Narong Noi, the kickboxing champion of Thailand. For a moment he watched as Noi took a strange looking stance.
“I’d never seen anything like that before,” Benny said. He just stood there tapping the mat with his front toe so I kicked him. But it didn’t do anything. Next I hit him with a ball kick to the body and he still didn’t do anything. This was the first time in my life I’d hit someone and it didn’t budge them. Then this guy kicked me in the legs. That was my first Thai kick. Do you want to know how bad that hurt? Have you ever seen one of those toys that when you squeeze it the eyes pop out? Well that’s how I felt. That kick landed with such power even my ancestors felt it man. I tried to stay away from those kicks by circling him, but he landed a kick to my thigh then he went to my other thigh. I actually jumped in the air and put my hands down on my thighs in an attempt to block em’.
“Then I went crazy. I charged him with a flurry of punches. He grabbed me by the neck and threw me into a circle then he began to knee me. The first one went to my groin the second knee landed in my solarplexes. I thought ‘okay so you want to street fight. I can do that.’ I grabbed him and threw him on his head and jumped back and said ‘you want to play dirty? Okay, let’s go!’”
Benny exploded into a series of techniques that the Thai fighter had never seen before. From the “Jet’s bag of tricks he pulled jump spinning back kicks, spinning back fists, change up kicks, you name it and Benny landed it.
“I was hitting him with all kinds of stuff but this guy wasn’t feeling it,” Benny remembered. “He kept getting up and coming back for more. Then I started kicking his legs like he was kicking mine. But he blocked my kicks with his shin. I’d never seen a leg check before, and it hurt like crazy. We stood there trading kicks but I’ll be honest with you, I was getting the worse end of the deal.
One of the very few times Benny has ever hit the mat came when Noi landed a kick to Benny’s head as The Jet was attempting a sweep. Benny landed headfirst on the canvas, dazed he propped himself on one knee as the crowd went wild. He got up with a vengeance, throwing and landing every kick and punch in the book. The action was relentless from both fighters. Suddenly Benny and Narong weren’t the only ones who were fighting.
“It happened during the 9th round,” Benny explained. “A riot broke out. I saw Chuck Norris being attacked by a Thai fan. Chuck nailed the guy then the entire arena erupted into a full-scale riot. Narong and I stopped fighting. We stood in the center of the ring and watched everybody else fight. It was crazy. The fight was declared a no contest.”
Benny believes the riot was stated intentionally by several Thai’s who were betting large amounts of cash by the round and they owed Arnold a large sum of money.
“I believe they started the riot on purpose cause they didn’t want to pay,” Benny said. “I fought Noi again in Texas and I cut his eye so badly they had to stop the fight.”
Benny pioneered full contact fighting in the United States and became an international champion in the process. Since it had never been done before, Benny wrote the book on how to fight by using his body as a blackboard. He took on the best fighters Thailand and Japan had to offer and in the process of beating them he studied their techniques then adapted them to his style of fighting.
“I would film my fights then watch what they did and learn from it,” Benny said. “Then I would try to adapt those techniques and make them more effective. I modified a lot of my techniques, especially my round kicks.”
On August 2, 1972 Benny was invited to go to Japan to take on the countries champion kick boxer, Katsuyuki Suzuki at the Budokan in Tokyo.
“They invited me over there because they didn’t believe any American could beat a Japanese fighter,” Benny said.
A stunned nation of Japanese watched the fight on TV as the unknown American knocked out the Japanese champion in the 6th round. Although the fight was another victory for Urquidez it was also another day at school.
“When we started fighting he threw elbows at me and I never saw them coming. I’d never seen that technique before. So after the fight I studied the films and saw how he was using his rotor cup and I taught myself how to do that plus I developed a way to block the technique too.”
On Nov 14, 1977 the former judo and kickboxing champion of Japan, Kunimatsu Okao, embarrassed by the defeat of his countryman at the hands and feet of an American came out of retirement to challenge Benny for the WKA World title. Benny KO’d Okano in the 4th round and immediately became a sports hero to the Japanese.
“When I fought Okao I had their elbows down and had perfected my side kicks too,” Benny explained. “But what I still didn’t understand was how they were doing their inside outside kicks and switching knees on me. I didn’t know how to block that or get away from them. So I studied the tape and saw what he was doing when he clinched me and I developed a way to overcome that.”
With each fight Benny basically used himself as a human giney pig. It didn’t’ take long however until he had mastered all of their techniques, and soon The Jet began re writing the book on full contact fighting.
Benny’s last fight was in 1995 when at the age of 42 he took on a 24-year-old Japanese fighter who had for 5 years been that countries reigning champion. It was billed as The Jets retirement fight and Benny wanted to take on the best fighter in the world.
“I wanted the best out there,” Benny said. “I wanted everybody to remember that fight. So I went to Japan and issued a formal challenge, which he accepted. The Japanese looked at this as their last chance to redeem their honor by beating me.”
Tagami took to the mountains for some serious training Japanese style. Unknown to him two weeks before the fight Benny broke his left hand in a sparring session. Benny knew that the fight would be cancelled if anyone learned of his injury so he kept it a secret from everyone, even brother Arnold.
“The night of the fight I smeared my hand with Ben Gay and wrapped it real tight,” said Benny. “I went through that whole fight without my left hand, and I’m a lefty. Arnold kept asking why I wasn’t using my left hand and I couldn’t tell him it was broken. It was a real rock em’ sock em’ fight too. He knocked me down, I knocked him down and I had him hurt several times but I couldn’t put him down without my left hand. He was a strong fighter and we went non stop for 12 rounds.”
Benny won by decision, which was his 6th title in his 5th weight division. Although it was billed as a retirement fight Benny says he is always ready to go again.
“People say to me ‘have you really retired?’ I say ‘no way’. If somebody worthy comes along just give me 6 weeks to get back into fighting shape and I’m good to go.”