For those who grew up in Generation X, the 80’s and 90’s were a unique time. Also dubbed the “MTV Generation,” people generally born between 1965 and 1980 experienced everything from the birth of many musical genres – such as rap, hair bands and grunge – to the crack and AIDS epidemics, and everything in between. It was a time that saw the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of video games, and, of course, the normalization of households with two working parents. And, a big part of growing up was exposure to martial arts.
On the big screen, the 80’s and 90’s gave the world action stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Jackie Chan. And, it seemed like there was a karate or Taekwondo school opening up in every strip mall across America. But, it was also a time that saw full-contact karate and kickboxing, as competitive sports, start to blow up. Ushered in by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, who was a long-reigning Professional Karate Association middleweight champion from the mid-70’s through 1980, the PKA really blew up with such stars as Jean-Yves Thériault and Rick “The Jet” Roufus.
As the Ultimate Fighting Championship began to gain some traction with modern mixed martial arts in the late 90’s, some other combat sports started to lose viewership. However, the newly rebranded PKA is set to kick off events in 2023 with CEO Joe Corley at the helm. A lifelong martial artist, Corley was also one of the original competitors in PKA in the 70’s, and he actually challenged Wallace’s title at one point. From here, it’s best to let Corley, a tenth-degree black belt in karate, explain the origins.
“In 1975, I stood across from Bill Wallace and looked into his eyes in the middle of Atlanta’s Omni, and we had 10,000 people there to watch us fight,” Corley told Combat Press. “That was his very first title defense. That was the first title defense in PKA history, because the champions had just won the titles about eight months earlier in the L.A. Sports Arena. So, this was Wallace’s first title defense. It was my very first fight in full-contact, and it was a nine-round fight. Everybody had fought three rounds prior to that, and, even though I lost the nine-round fight that night, people gave me a lot of credit for being tough. Which I didn’t really appreciate, because I already knew I was tough. I wanted to be good. You know, good trumps tough. Anyway, I got infected on that very night.”
While the PKA held its last event in the 90’s, the promotion never really went away. It just laid dormant.
In 2001, the UFC, which was founded in 1993, was almost defunct. It was purchased from the original owners by brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta after learning of its potential from friend Dana White. White became a small percentage owner of the new Zuffa, LLC, the entity which ultimately owned the UFC. Eventually, the promotion gained global success, and many other promoters began popping up all over the world. But, many of them had either gone out of business, been acquired or simply remained small.
In 2016, the Fertittas and White sold the company to WME-IMG and their group of private equity investors for four billion dollars. WME-IMG was rebranded as Endeavor, which is now a publicly-traded company. White has since remained in place as the UFC President. In 2019, Endeavor made a purchase that circled everything back to Corley and PKA.
“When Dana White bought our PKA library – he bought the digital rights for PKA library – [PKA’s President of Sport Operations and original PKA light heavyweight champion] Jeff Smith and I were there together with Dana, and I said, ‘First of all, before we get started, I want to thank you.’” Corley said. “And, he said, ‘For what?’ And, I said, ‘Well, for pushing across the goal line my dreams from 1979.’ In 1979, which was four years after Wallace and I fought, we wrote down a thing that said we were going to become the world’s first publicly-owned sport. I said, ‘What you guys did was fulfill our dream from 1979.’”
In 2022, it was announced that the original PKA was rebranded as the Professional Kickboxing Association, also known as PKA Worldwide. The next iteration of PKA will be returning to the combat sports arena for the first time in nearly 30 years, starting in 2023. Their new tagline is “Punch. Kick. Repeat,” and the format is simple with striking-only bouts that consist of punches and kicks, only above the waist. For middleweight and above, the athletes will wear 10-ounce gloves, and for the lighter weights, the gloves will be eight ounces. Unlike the old days of PKA, all fights will take place in a cage, as opposed to a ring.
“We’re calling it the ‘striker’s cage,’” Corley said. “The reason we picked that name is because, you know, in a boxing ring, you have four 90-degree corners. And, if you were in an octagon-shaped cage, you’d have eight 45-degree corners. So, that really helps the strikers. It helps them move around, and especially the kickers. And, our rules say you have to throw eight powerful kicks, in each two-minute round, at targets above the waist. That means there’s a lot of action that goes on, and you’re not allowed to hold during those two minutes. So, not being able to put somebody in a 90-degree corner is a real advantage, and we’ve learned that almost by accident in our first fight in New York.”
While the promotion has not yet settled on a ring design, they are currently reviewing several plans. However, the rules are set and for good reasons. All fights are five, two-minute rounds, and all strikes have to be above the waist, meaning, no leg kicks.
“Everything above the waist,” Corley explained. “We have a couple of things that we’ve counted on over these years, and, in the little bit of common sense that our creator has given us, that is to know that, in no sport in the world – other than kickboxing and MMA – do athletes get rewarded for destroying the legs of their opponents. And, we know there wouldn’t be a Tom Brady if the same rules had been allowed in football. So, we want to see [fighters like Stephen Thompson and Holly Holm fight well into their mid-40’s] and not have their legs destroyed. So, we’ll be doing all of the strikes above the waist.”
Another feature of the PKA action is that fighters will actually be penalized for holding, which is something that rarely gets enforced in other combat sports, such as boxing. Holding kills the action, and that is something the promotion is looking to avoid.
“We know that, over the years, one of the things that’s really made boxing boring, and what gave that [Jake] Paul kid a way to even compete with Anderson Silva, was his ability to hold,” Corley added.
In addition to Corley, some of the biggest names in the sport have joined the effort. And, both venue scouting and athlete recruiting have been in full swing throughout 2022. With a solid 45 athletes already on the roster, they are continuing to scout new talent. Considering the management, there is a lot to look forward to for incoming fighters.
“Bill Wallace is our International Ambassador, and Rick Roufus is our Global Director for Fighter Development,” said Corley. “So, in management, we have three tenth-degree black belts and four ninth-degree black belts, which is kind of interesting in a fight league to actually have people who are fighters managing the sport.
“One of the things that we learned in in our first fight – up there in in New York when we did our first fight for the hunt for the greatest strikers on the planet – is one of the MMA guys who did the interview afterwards. We said, ‘What did you experience here that you didn’t anticipate experiencing?’ He said, ‘I had no idea how much more tired I was going to get trying to throw eight powerful kicks above the waist, because I’m just not used to doing that in a two-minute round.”
Roufus, the older brother of famed MMA and kickboxing coach Duke Roufus, had a long and storied career in kickboxing from 1985 to 2012, racking up a 65-9-3-1 record, while picking up 44 knockouts and 11 titles. He also had 18 pro boxing bouts and 10 MMA fights. For him, he takes a veteran fighter’s view of where he wants PKA to go.
“I carried PKA on my back in the 90’s, and then branched out,” Roufus said. “30 years later, Joe and Jeff came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in being part of the PKA rebuild and coming back to what it was.
“I think big, so it’s either go big or go home. That’s how I’ve always been in my entire career. I thought it was the right opportunity [and] the right time to bring this sport back and be a part of it. I mean it’s an exciting sport. I think the sky has no limits.”
As a longtime fighter, Roufus knows what he is looking for in new talent. However, he is an old-school gritty fighter, and in many ways, the times have changed. So, while he knows what athlete qualities would be a good fit, he also tries to set his past to the side while taking an objective view.
“I set the bar so freaking high, and, when I fought, I was so picky and a perfectionist,” Roufus admitted. “Sometimes, I have to back off that, because that may not be the reality for the people.
“I mean, my whole career was starting at four years old. I went into martial arts, Taekwondo. I was also going to Junior Olympics boxing, and then I went to Golden Gloves boxing, ABF. I played soccer, which helped with footwork. So, it was all planned. I also did point karate, and when I was 18, I turned pro. Some of those things I did are not what can be done today, because the sport has changed. The whole entire sport of martial arts and kickboxing and MMA – everything’s transcending.
“As far as what I’m looking for, it’s people that can carry themselves, show ring generalship, be able to kick, punch, punch kick, and put things together. Of course, if they come from a Taekwondo background – the jumping, the spinning – you know, those are the things, when you’re able to do that, that wow the crowd. You need to be able to sell the sport and yourself.”
The plans moving forward are to hold one event per month for the first half of 2023, and then two per month during the second half of the year. When the PKA had their first few years on ESPN, they held up to 44 events per year. For the reincarnation of the promotion, they do not plan to hold that many events right out of the gate, but want to be prepared to get back to that if the demand is there. One of the biggest loose ends to tie up first is the event locations.
“The casinos were very good homes for us, both in Atlantic City and in Lake Tahoe, in an earlier time,” said Corley. “We believe that would be the case again. We’re in conversations with three different groups of them now. Rich Rose, who is one of our co-presidents on the business side, was the President of Caesars World Sports for ten years, so he’s got great contacts throughout that industry. We have promoters who are beginning to come out of the woodwork now. We’re in month No. 10 of this relaunch, so the promoters are starting to come out of the woodwork. We can actually be anywhere. We’d like to, obviously, simplify it at this point in time and find some good homes. So, if we had four or eight places that we could visit every month or every other month, that would be an ideal world.”
And, with the growth of combat sports – especially, striking sports – in recent years, Corley has a positive outlook on the demand for more action-packed striking bouts.
“We think there are 100 million of us around the world that do that,” said the PKA Worldwide CEO. “We punch, we kick, we repeat. Those 100 million of us aren’t kicking people in the legs, and we aren’t fighting on the ground. We’re not learning and executing 15-hundred BJJ techniques on the ground, while punching, kicking and repeating. The people that would fill that category would be people that basically practice karate, Taekwondo and Kung Fu, and, as you know, they’re literally all over the world.
“There are 211 countries that have been sending Taekwondo people to tournaments – and karate people in the last couple of years to tournaments – to get to the Olympic level. PKA is going to be a place where those people can graduate to. And, when they graduate to that, they’re not going to have to deal with people kicking them in the legs, and they’re not going to have to graduate to a place where people are taking them to the ground and smothering them. We’re going to be a category of one.”
With karate missing out on its bid to be included in the 2024 Summer Olympics, and only so much room for athletes in Olympic Taekwondo, PKA could hit a niche in attracting talent. The same niche that the promotion Karate Combat and other organizations around the world have been able to draw talent and viewers from.
“We’re working closely with the Americans who have had the most impact both on the karate and on the Taekwondo sides of it – really smart guys who were fighters themselves – you know, gold medalists in the Olympics and world champions in karate,” said Corley. “They’re just giving such great feedback from around the world. And, amateur fighters have no place to go. I mean, they really have no place to go. We didn’t have any of that to draw from back in 1974, 1984 or 1994, but now you’ve got all of that. Plus, you’ve got the guys who went into MMA from wrestling, but they found that they had a good potential kicking skill, and they became pretty good kickers.”
The ruleset is not a boring one by any means. While some people are really drawn to the head-to-toe striking of Muay Thai and Dutch kickboxing, there are also some that have been highly critical of low kicks targeting legs and knees, like the infamous and dangerous oblique kick that former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones often employs in his fights. It might be effective in an MMA or street fight, but it can end an athlete’s career, and takes much of the sport out of it. Above-the-waist striking keeps the action fast, with fighters less cautious about closing distance.
“That’s how I started, so I never had a problem with those rules whatsoever,” Roufus said. “You have to make eight kicks per round, and you have to actually hit the person with them. Also, you want to learn how to box. So, you want to be good at not only boxing and kicking, but they could punch, kick, kick, punch, spin, jump, turn and be elusive. I’ve never had a problem with [those rules]. That’s where I started, and that’s where the journey started.
“The door’s open to anyone, as long as they can kick above the belt, make eight kicks per round and be able to fight. The door’s open for anyone.”
The staff at PKA Worldwide has big plans going into 2023. They want to bring what Generation X was able to experience to the next generation of combat-sports fans. With scouting underway, a ring design in motion, and venue deals in the making, plans are underway to bring PKA back into the combat-sports spotlight, and in a big way.
“You know, it’s a slow process, but it’s going to take off,” Roufus said. “I think it can go back to what it was in the 90’s with the right help.”
While no official dates of venues have been set yet, fans can stay apprised of updates through the PKA Worldwide website, as well as their social media accounts.
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