As both a kung fu movie fan and a student of the martial arts for 20 plus years many martial artists and martial arts film stars have been an inspiration to me. Last year on June 29th a tragic event happened in the martial arts world, Master Jim Kelly passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. There are may sites including his own personal site, where one can find factual information about Master Kelly. With this post I aim to tell you what Master Kelly means to me. Being an African-American martial artist the influence of Master Kelly has been profound on my life. Unlike many others, my first exposure to Jim Kelly was not Enter The Dragon, rather, it was Tattoo Connection. It was 1981 on a cold Saturday afternoon; I sat there eagerly anticipating the Channel 4 afternoon kung fu movie. It started out rather standard (good guy kicks the crap out of the bad guy)and a few scenes later this tall handsome black dude enters the room in a suit and says “they call me the Black six million dollar man.” I was hooked! During the commercial break following that scene I darted up the stairs to tell my mother that there was a black man in a kung fu movie( I had never saw that before)! She calmed me down and asked what I was talking about and I grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the living room. She sat and watched a few scenes with me and she said, “Boy that’s Jim Kelly.” I said “Ok, who is he?” Momma replied “He’s a black Karate Master and he’s been in some other movies.” In that moment my interest in the martial arts was sparked. I always liked the movies, but when I saw Jim Kelly punching, kicking, and generally beating up the bad guys I knew I could pursue the martial arts and become as good as Master Kelly ( at least in my own mind). I had never seen a black guy in a kung fu movie and I never saw a person who looked like me be the hero!
Unfortunately due to our financial situation at the time I could not afford martial arts lessons(there was a United Tae Kwon Do school near me, but my parents weren’t going for those prices). Fast forward to 1989 tons of Inside Karate magazines, Blaxplotation and hundreds of kung fu movies later I was able to start training in Kenpo Karate with a group then known as the World Kenpo Federation. A good friend recommended me to them ( one could train by invitation only) and I was accepted after an initial class and a WKF initiation. When I was told that some of the brothers in the early days competed against Jim Kelly, Steve Sanders ( now Muhammad), and other famous Karate tournament champions my mind raced back to the moment when I saw Jim Kelly grace the screen in Tattoo Connection. I remembered that I wanted to be as good as Master Kelly and I plunged myself into the training. Kenpo was rough and there were many times I wanted to quit but the line: “They call me the black six million dollar man” kept popping into my head! “I must become as good as Jim Kelly” was a constant mantra that kept me focused during the full contact sparring and self-defense scenarios.
Fast forward to 2010 after a few years of Kenpo ( no black belt though), a couple of Ninjutsu, a few of Wing Chun, and a lot of Capoeira and I am standing in a short line at the Motor City Comic Con (along with 2 of my boys) to meet my idol Jim Kelly. I was ecstatic, nervous, and I felt like that little kid again! To see Master Kelly standing there smiling, looking if he only aged a couple of years( his ‘fro was shorter), was a sight to behold. I could not believe that I was going to meet and actually talk to Master Jim Kelly, Black Belt Jones himself! It was my turn;
Me: “Master Kelly it is an honor to meet you. You were a huge inspiration to me growing up.”
Master Kelly: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Gary, Sir.”
Master Kelly: “Do you train martial arts?”
Me: “Yes sir, Capoeira, but I also have trained Kenpo, Wing Chun, and Ninjutsu.”
Master Kelly: “Good, all those are good.”
Master Kelly (smiles):“Do you like MMA?”
Master Kelly (serious face):“Who’s your favorite?”
Me (scared): “Don’t know, I just like to watch it.”
Master Kelly (smiles again):“Cool. You want a picture?”
Me (relieved):“Yes, sir!”
We both struck a fighting stance and my boy took the picture that I will cherish for the rest of my life!
The rest of the day I felt like I accomplished one of my many martial arts fantasies! As I think back on that day, on that moment, I realize how much a person, who one may see on the court, in the media, or even in a magazine can inspire you to better your life or achieve a goal. As a 40 year old man, I still enjoy kung fu movies, Jim Kelly movies, and a whole variety of pop culture entertainment. I still train in the martial arts ( Capoeira and Wing Chun), yet I think back to how I thought I could do it ( seeing Jim Kelly as Lucas in Tattoo Connection) and I want to pay tribute to one of my main influences to become a better person and achieve my dreams: Mr. Jim Kelly! Master Kelly was a great man, a champion in Karate, a tennis pro and a humble man with a GIANT spirit. The Film Fan Dojo and Gary Williams thank Master Jim Kelly for simply being who he was and inspiring greatness, overcoming obstacles, and for being a hero to admire!
Thank you Master Kelly. Your spirit will live on and you will continue to inspire all who come in contact with your movies, interviews, and the many tributes to your life and work.
The Film Fan Dojo
A tribute album to the great Master Jim Kelly: