Origins: The World Karate Association
The World Karate Association (also known as the World Karate and Kickboxing Association and the World Kickboxing Association) was one of the two original sanctioning bodies (the PKA, or Professional Karate Association being the other) for professional Karate, which evolved into kickboxing as we know it today. Conceived in October of 1976 by Howard Hanson, a Shorin Ryu black belt and student of Mike Stone, and Arnold Urquidez, the World Karate Association (WKA) was a non-profit organization governing professional and amateur full contact Karate, with major events promoted throughout the world. The WKA was the first non-profit governing body for the sport, the first governing body to use an independently controlled rating and the first to include countries from Asia. The WKA has sanctioned events in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Australia, Mexico, South America, Europe, and Canada, as well as throughout the United States.
The WKA was the first to use the independent STAR system for rating, which included all of a fighter’s bouts, not merely those bouts fought within an organization; the STAR system also required world champions to defend their titles against the highest ranked world-class fighter available. One of the WKA’s major innovations was its allowance of roundhouse kicks to the outer thigh region above the knee and below the hip joint, which were included in the rules because most Asian fighters refused to compete in the professional karate ring without their use. The WKA’s goal was to elevate professional Karate to a major international sport with recognizable stars and network television coverage of its events. To this end the WKA cooperated with the press and required that only top-caliber competition be shown to national media and television audiences.
On March 12, 1977 in Los Angeles, WKA’s first sanctioned event featured Benny Urquidez, the WKA Super Lightweight World Champion, against Narong Noi, the kickboxing champion of Thailand. On the undercard Earnest Hart, Jr., soon to become a PKA (Professional Karate Association) world champion, was knocked out by Nate Saknarong, the international kick-boxing champion of Thailand; and Lilly Rodriguez defeated Chatlotta Lee by technical knockout. A riot broke out in the audience during the fierce Urquidez-Noi bout, however, and the California State Athletic Commission declared the outcome to be no-contest.
Later that same year, with the help of Ron Holmes, Hisashi Shima and Antonio Inoki (who once faced Muhammad Ali in a mix-match), the WKA made several promotional inroads into Japan. On August 2, 1977, Benny Urquidez defended his title with a six-round knockout over the number one Japanese kickboxing contender, Katsuyuki Suzuki, before a sold-out crowd at the Budokan in Tokyo. The bout was broadcast live on primetime Japanese national television, and set a record for the largest monetary gate in sport Karate history ($300,000).
Following this legendary bout, on November 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 Urquidez for the WKA world title. Even with ringside seats at $200.00 each, the bout once again sold out the Budokan, setting a new gate record in excess of $500,000. Again, the bout was broadcast live on primetime Japanese national television. Okao was knocked out by Urquidez in the fourth round, two rounds earlier than Suzuki had been.
Benny Urquidez immediately became a Japanese folk hero, with Benny “The Jet” comic book distributed throughout Japan. He was recognized both in Japan and in the homeland of Karate, Okinawa, as the first world champion in professional Karate. Other champions soon followed. In another famous bout, Kunimasa Nagae defeated Tony Lopez in Tokyo for the WKA Lightweight world title.
Meanwhile, on May 2, 1979, Benny Urquidez returned to the U.S. to defend his title successfully against Rick Simerly at South Lake Tahoe. The event was telecast on NBC Sportsworld. Later that month, on May 26, Steve Shepard defeated Chris Gallegos in West Palm Beach, Florida, for the WKA Middleweight world championship. Then in October 1979, Urquidez again defended his title in Tokyo against the kickboxing champion of Japan, Yoshimitsu Tamashiro. The bout was carried live on primetime Japanese national television.
Soon afterwards, Hanson announced that women’s professional karate activity warranted the creation of two women’s world championship divisions. As with men’s divisions, the women’s divisions would be sanctioned and expanded to reflect the volume of activity. On December 23, 1979, Graciela Casillas defeated Irene Garcia in Las Vegas for the WKA Women’s Bantamweight world title. Casillas, who simultaneously held the Women’s World Boxing Association (WWBA) Bantamweight title, was the first professional athlete to hold a world title in both Karate and boxing.
On January 26, 1980, the WKA prepared for another network telecast, this time from the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Howard Jackson defeated Yoshimitsu Tamashiro for the WKA Welterweight world title. Benny Urquidez once again successfully defended his title against number one Japanese kickboxing contender Shinobu Onuki. WKA U.S. champion Refugio Flores knocked out PKA world champion Vernon Mason. These two world title bouts aired on NBC-TV opposite the Winter Olympics on ABC-TV. Despite the strong competition, the telecast reportedly received the highest audience rating of any professional Karate event since 1974.
On July 15, 1980 WKA president Hanson replaced the WKA world rating list, which had been published monthly in Official Karate Magazine since mid-1979, with the independent STAR system full contact Karate ratings. At the time, the new rating system was the only rating that ranked professional fighters in accordance with their actual ring performances, independent of organizational affiliations.
On October 13, 1980, Don Wilson knocked out U.S. champion Andy White in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in a WKA Light Heavyweight World Championship bout. The Wilson championship set two precedents. First, half Japanese Don Wilson was the first world champion of Asian descent to win his title in the U.S.; second, Wilson was also the first Kung-fu stylist to hold a world title in professional Karate.
The year 1981 saw the WKA bring Hong Kong into professional Karate. On April 9, 1981, a WKA world team, headed by champions Benny Urquidez, Don Wilson, Tony Morelli, and Graciela Casillas, traveled to Hong Kong to defend their titles against its leading full contact fighters. All of the WKA champions distinguished themselves with early-round knockouts over their challengers. Other team members were Dennis Crawford, Frank Holloway, Stewart Lauper, and Darlina Valdez.
During that period, the WKA had 52 television shows in syndication in Japan, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Australia, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, and Europe, as well as throughout the U.S., possibly producing the largest viewing audience for professional Karate in the world.