First interview is with Midlands karate legend Mike Genova, other interviews are with Loren Avedon and Cynthia Rothrock
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Two years ago I met with several good friends – martial arts champions all – over lunch at Travinia’s in northeast Columbia, where I pressed them for information about the history of karate in the Palmetto State. These martial artists – men like Keith Vitali, Bruce Brutschy, and Mike Genova – were among the foundational fighters in what has come to be known as the “golden age” of karate in the United States, specifically South Carolina and Texas where two dominantly powerful, though not disconnected, karate cultures emerged.
The result of that lunch meeting was a series of articles that were published in THE SOUTHERN EDGE magazine, MidlandsBiz, and elsewhere. That said, being that I was not part of that karate culture emerging from the “golden age” of the 1970s and 1980s, I felt I could not get my head around it all except for pulling together lots of fascinating anecdotal material and boiling it down into a few articles.
ENTER WORLD CHAMPION KEITH VITALI [pictured] and his new podcast, ‘SIDEKICKS PODCASTS hosted by Keith Vitali.’ a Columbia-born, University of South Carolina-educated Hollywood martial arts movie star, former #1-ranked U.S. karate champion, and one of BLACK BELT magazine’s top 10 fighters of all time. In addition to his extensive fighting and acting portfolio, Vitali is also a writer, producer, fight coordinator, stuntman, and stunt director. Today he lives and works from his home in Atlanta, Georgia.
Launched Feb. 15, the first episode of SIDEKICKS succinctly does what I believe I was unable to adequately do: That is: detail the history from the beginning of South Carolina’s wholly unique karate culture from its origins to the present day with a focus on the why, the how, and key players involved.
In episode one, Vitali interviews his lifelong friend Mike Genova, a legendary martial arts instructor in the Palmetto State and, like Vitali, one of the great American tournament fighters of all time.
About 12 minutes into the interview, Vitali asks Genova why the big-named karate magazines of the 20th and 21st centuries no longer feature or focus on “phenomenal fighters” of the present day. “There is very little coverage of martial arts anymore [as opposed to the golden age],” says Vitali. “Why is that? Speak to the fact that world champions in tournaments [today] don’t receive the same press [that martial artists did receive in the 1970s, 1980s, even 1990s]?”
Genova responds: “When you [Vitali] retired, the bottom fell out. It really did. I know you’re my best friend in the whole world and you don’t want me to boast about you, but you were a larger-than-life personality in the ring. You were a walking champion. I saw other people win tournaments, but they didn’t sign autographs. Nobody [other fighters] wanted their pictures taken with them. They didn’t carry themselves the way you did. You were the face of martial arts tournaments from the early ‘70s all the way through the mid-80’s. You fought in Madison Square Garden where Rocky Marciano and Cassius Clay [Muhammed Ali] fought. Think about that: Other martial artists weren’t invited to do that.”
Genova continues: “So when you retired I think for a few years Ray McCallum, John Longstreet, Robert Harris, Jimmy Tabares, and Al Francis, some great fighters; they were carrying the torch for a short while. But then so many tournaments popped open that called themselves national champions, world champions, super grand world champions. So we had so many champions that you could go into a tournament and they would introduce 30 world champions. … It bothered me because Bill Wallace, Jeff Smith, Howard Jackson, Chuck Norris, and Joe Lewis: They were world champions when we were coming up, then we took that torch, and after that they just gave it out too quickly. That’s very disappointing to me, and I think that’s what happened.”
The 40-minute episode continues with discussions ranging from the South Carolina culture emerging in the late 1960s, the connection to Texas, the Battle of Atlanta World Karate Championships, Vitali’s work in Hollywood and overseas (numerous roles in top-billed karate movies with Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan among others), Vitali’s and Genova’s career tracks, to the S.C. Black Belt Hall of Fame which both Vitali and Genova are inductees. Vitali is past-president of the Hall of Fame. Genova is the current president.
“You’ve done a phenomenal job as president,” Vitali tells Genova. “I hope you stay president forever.”
Throughout the interview, the two discuss other South Carolina martial artists who have had an “enormous impact” on the state and nation: Sam Chapman, Marty Knight, Bobby Tucker, Kershaw County Councilman Jimmy Jones, Tony Thomas, John Orck, Chuck Elias, Shelly Walrath, Dr. Tom Mullikin, Col. Steve Vitali (Vitali’s career Marine brother) and Rick Vitali (another brother), among others. Most, though not all, are members of the S.C. Black Belt Hall of Fame. All are key contributors to the karate culture which is yet another jewel-in-the-crown for the Palmetto State.
Point being, the first episode of SIDEKICKS is perhaps the best oral history of the S.C. karate culture to date. But there’s so much more.
In episode two, Vitali interviews martial arts champion, writer, producer, director, and – like Vitali – Hollywood action-movie star Loren Avedon (best known for “King of the Kickboxers” and “No Retreat, No Surrender 2”). In the interview with Avedon, Vitali discusses stunt work, favorite fight scenes and other film industry dynamics. Also interviewed is Cynthia Rothrock, in whose forthcoming western film Black Creek, Vitali has been cast. “I only agreed to a cameo role,” says Vitali. “But we’ll see.”
– Watch SIDEKICKS on YouTube or listen to each episode on Spotify at – https://open.spotify.com/show/650Wy52FnCC4xrXB5r7ISl.