Without becoming a "must" or a "cult-film", New Gladiators remains as the best karate documentary, concerning the Seventies.
For this article, our sources are the interview with George Waite, included in the DVD, as various articles published on this subject.
Film History :
In 1973, George Waite proposes a movie project about karate to his coach Ed Parker. The latter presents the project to Elvis Presley, his karate student (see article Tournaments and Promoters).
Elvis Presley is excited and gives a check for the film, possibly for USD 50,000 .--. It was decided to follow a US karate team through various journeys in Europe, for tournaments. The initial project also planned to include a karate demonstration, performed by Elvis Presley (see below) and an exhibition, filmed in colour, made by Bruce Lee in 1967, during Ed Parker's Internationals.
Bob Hammer shoots nearly 50 hours of various scenes, in 16 mm of the time. After Elvis Presley's death, in 1977, the sequences have remained nearly 25 years in a car, in George Waite's garage.
Don Warrener, founder of the production company, specialized in Martial Arts, Rising Sun Productions, based in Los Angeles, is a Goju-Ryu practitioner. He was able to decide George Waite to give back his movie. They restore and finally edit a 93 minutes documentary, named "New Gladiators", title possibly inspired by Elvis Presley himself.
David Crosby and Graham Nash, from the famous group Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, made the music.
George Waite was also the editor of numerous documentaries, for example for Disney.
Elvis Presley and karate :
It is very difficult to establish an accurate history of the relationship between Elvis Presley and karate. He started with Shotokan, while on duty in the army. He went to Ed Parker's Kenpo, while also training with Kang Rhee, in Memphis, in a style close to Taekwondo, the Pasaryu. With Kenpo, Elvis has received various degrees, including an 8th dan honorary degree.
Ed Parker and Elvis have organized a seminar in the Tennessee Karate Institute, on July 4th, 1974. Elvis presented also a demonstration in the same Institute, on September 16th, 1974. This demonstration is not part of the film, as planned during the project, for copyright problems. The video also includes a short interview of Jerry Schilling, a producer who worked with Elvis Presley. He explains the history of these images. Bill Wallace makes a short appearance, wearing a Gi similar to the one he wore two days before, during the first PKA championships, on September 14th, 1974.
The King and Superfoot
According to some sources, Elvis would have even proposed a lot of money to Bill Wallace, for not participating to this championship, for unclear reasons. Video internet address : http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=qvehGcMMOmY
Elvis also made short demonstrations of Martial Arts, during his concerts in Las Vegas, in August and September 1974.
We will not speak about the lack of seriousness of these exhibitions, but we advise readers to not miss the white shirt with large collar, under the Elvis Gi, as well as his superb red belt. Remember also that according to many sources, Elvis was very generous with his instructors.
The film :
The U.S. team members are John Natividad, Darnell Garcia, Tom Kelly, Ron Marchini and Benny Urquidez and the team is managed by Ed Parker. In 1973, they went to London, possibly at Wembley, for a tournament against the English team, with Eugene Codrington, David Cooper, Ticky Donovan, Graham Mitchell and Toby Francis (phonetic names). The competition took place at the same time that the 10th national championship. Finally, the USA win the confrontation. A short excerpt : http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=JX5iZRUOBvw&feature=related.
Tom Kelly in his works
The same U.S. team then went to Belgium, for a tournament against a team led by Belgian Geert Lemmens. Behind on points, the Americans must win the last fight, disputed between Ron Marchini and Lemmens, to win the teams confrontation. With a hook, Geert Lemmens wounds Marchini's face. The doctors want to stop the fight and referees want to disqualify the Belgian. Marchini refuses and continues to fight. He wins with a kick straight to… his opponent's groin. Without much damage, Lemmens is recovering immediately. Second excerpt : http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=VGIWdspFxE4&feature=related.
Ron Marchini receives the Geert Lemmens punch
Both confrontations took place without contact and without protection.
Back in the USA. We see the finals, during the 1st Annual Los Angeles Open in 1974. Bob Alegria won these finals.
At the Beverly Hill Invitational, the following fights are represented : Steve Sanders (Muhammad) def Hernandez by disqualification. Roy Kurban beats Blinky Rodriguez, Cecil Peoples and Ray Sua, before beating Steve Sanders during the finals. Fighters are wearing foot protections. Only body contact is allowed.
Finally, during the 1974 U.S. Nationals Championships, with fighters wearing foot and fist protections, light head contact is authorized, as full body contact. Roy Kurban beats first Darnell Garcia, then Benny Urquidez for the finals. Last excerpt : http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=2ytxHe3YtQg&feature=related.
The April 1975 Black Belt Magazine issue mentions this tournament under the name Western Pro/Am Karate Championships, in Oakland/CA. If the pictures of the fighters in the newspapers are the same as in the film, it is mentioned in Black-Belt that Kurban beats Benny Urquidez in the semi-finals and Darnell Garcia in the finals. This version is confirmed by the March 1975 Professional Karate issue. The movie has probably made the mistake with a false chronology of the semi-finals and finals. The prize-monney for the winner is USD 1,000 .--.
The final bout between Roy Kurban right and Benny Urquidez
The fighters :
Benny Urquidez is the subject of a separate article in this blog.
John Natividad is born in Hawaii. Student of Chuck Norris, practising Tang Soo Do, Natividad retires from the competition in 1975, after winning numerous tournaments in the USA. His most famous battle takes place during Ed Parker's Internationals in Long Beach, in August 1973. He beats Benny Urquidez by 13 to 12, during extra-time.
Steve Muhammad, born Steve Sanders, is one of the BKF founders (Black Karate Federation). He lost a fight against Joe Lewis in 1969. He was possibly stolen. His new federation would have to defend the cause of the Blacks in karate. He is a Kenpo practitioner with Ed Parker and his speed of execution is particularly accurate. More details about his long career are mentioned in this blog in the article about Joe Lewis.
Roy Kurban practices Taekwondo, and retires from competition in 1977, after winning various tournaments. He was an army and police instructor. He also worked as a policeman during 3 years, then served for 16 years as a judge in Texas.
Ron Marchini practices Renbukai (a style near Karate and used mainly in Japan) and lost against Chuck Norris in 1964, during the Tak Kubata's All-Stars Tournament. He later becomes an actor.
Darnell Garcia is an instructor in Chuck Norris's schools. Darnell Garcia wins the Grand Champion Internationals Karate Championships, in 1972, against Joe Lewis. He has written two books, "Explosive Instincts and Mind Power" and "Fighting Art of Tang Soo Do" and worked for various police departments.
Tom Kelly wins the heavyweights All-American Karate Champion title, in 1971, 1972, 1973. In 1972, he lost against Joe Lewis for Grand Champion title ? He practices Kenpo style.
Ticky Donovan was champion of England for many years. He changed style on many occasions, before practicing Isshinryu.
Eugene Codrington, with the United Kingdom team, defeated Japan team, during the 1975 World Championships, in Long-Beach (WUKO). He was silver medallist at the 1977 World Championships, in Tokyo (WUKO).
Geert Lemmens is mentioned in the article about the various federations PKA, WAKO and WKA, for his participation to the WAKO creation. Previously, he took part at the 1970 first karate World Championship in Japan (WUKO).
The film is described by George Waite, in his interview, as a karate "Endless Summer", cult-film produced in 1966 by Bruce Brown. Like surfers searching the perfect wave, these fighters seek the perfect tournament and opponent throughout this road movie. New Gladiators is less "has been" as Endless Summer, with his long parts without change of pace, and also his annoying comments. The excellent film "Morning of the Earth" by Alby Falzon, produced in 1971, has many similarities with "New Gladiators", more about its music than about its pictures.
We note the huge role played by Ed Parker, in the choice of the fighters (overrepresentation of Kenpo), video with Elvis Presley (his students) and demo with Bruce Lee (made in his tournament).
We could ask about the federation in charge of the U.S. team, presented in the film as the United States of America National Team. This is not the team which takes part at the 1972 Teams World Championships in Paris (WUKO). John Natividad and Ron Marchini have also been released from this team, during the US trials. The fighters of New Gladiators, send to England and Belgium, were not the most famous of the time. Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace, Jeff Smith and Howard Jackson were the top of the list of this period of time.
With this film, we can see Benny Urquidez in traditional karate. At this time, he was not a celebrity. We better understand the slow evolution of the karate to full-contact, in 1974.