In the annals of professional kickboxing, few names command the same level of respect as Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s does. His professional fighting career dates back to the stone age of full-contact martial-arts competition, when “kickboxing” was still known as “full-contact karate”. Over the course of his career, Don has fought some of the best kickboxers the world has to offer, and knows more about what it takes to rise to the top of the kickboxing world than most of us will ever hope to.
Today, Don is also known for his equally long career making martial arts films, including the popular “Bloodfist” series, along with his more recent work in “The Martial Arts Kid” and “Paying Mr. McGetty”. His success in front of the camera is, of course, no surprise, since he simply applied the same discipline and work ethic to making movies that he utilized in his kickboxing career – proof positive that we need not ever be satisfied with being successful in just one arena.
Today, Don sits down with KFK to talk about his careers in both the ring and the movies, the adventures he’s had being a part of both, as well as offering some very insightful thoughts on how you can take your own potential, both physically and spiritually, to the maximum!
Hi there, Don. Thank you so much for the pleasure of this interview. How are you keeping?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks!
Fantastic. Well, let’s start out with some basics. When and where were you born?
I was born in Alton, Illinois on September 10th, 1954.
What is your height and weight?
I’m 6ft (1.82m) and 180lbs (81.6kg).
Beginning & Influences
Well, let’s start with your beginnings in martial arts. How old were you, and what different arts have you practiced?
I was about 17 or 18. I was in the Coast Guard Academy at the time, and while I was home on vacation, I sparred with my brother. He was already a black belt by then, so if you imagine a white belt going against a black belt, what do you think happened? (Both laugh) He destroyed me, and I’d just never been hit like that, so he made a believer out of me. I started out in Goju-Ryu Karate under Chuck Merriman in about 1973, then after I left the Coast Guard Academy, I started in Pai Lum kung fu, and had my first kickboxing fight in 1974. Full-contact kickboxing was very new in America then, so if I’d started in Thailand or Japan, I’d have gotten my rear-end handed to me! (Both laugh)
Well, going off of that, who would you credit as having influenced you most in martial arts?
One of the biggest influences would be Daniel K. Pai, he’s a teacher in Pai Lum that I studied under. Whenever he came down to Florida to teach seminars, he’d kind of take me away from the group and give me a lot of direct attention. It was like being a student of one of the grandmasters, because he saw I had a lot of potential. Fred Schmidt and my brother James also, they were my first long time instructors. Also, I’d definitely have to say Chuck Merriman and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace.
Great to have access to some great instructors there! Well, let’s talk a bit now about your beginnings in professional kickboxing.
Well, at the time, I really just entered with the mindset of “I want to improve my striking ability, and my defence against strikes, and hopefully, I’ll win, because I like winning better than losing!” Before then, there was point-fighting, but full-contact fighting was very new in the early 70’s. I looked at it as a training exercise because we could finally fight to a knockout, but at that point, nobody had ever made a career out of it. That started happening eventually, but I was paid $100 for my first fight, so I certainly wasn’t looking at it as a career then! (Both laugh)
On that note, which opponent gave you the best fight in your competitive career?
That’s a tough question, because everybody has their own style that’ll be more effective for some fighters, and less effective for others. But, I’d say it was James Warring. It was in Japan, 1982, he was undefeated at the time, and we rocked ‘n’ rolled for 11 rounds. Maurice Smith and Dennis Alexio (from JCVD’s “Kickboxer”) were also great opponents that I fought, as well. I pretty much fought all the best fighters in my weight class of that time.
Definitely. So, what would you say was the most exotic place you ever had the chance to fight in your career?
I liked fighting in Hong Kong a lot, I fought there six times, and I would’ve fought my whole career there if I could have. It’s very modern and very old school all at once. The Kowloon part of Hong Kong is really great, and the dollar is strong there, so you feel like a rich guy. (Both laugh)
Movie Career: Chuck Norris, Batman & more…
Moving ahead, you also had an exhibition match with, and made a few movies with Gary Daniels. What interesting stories can you share about fighting Gary?
I first met Gary in the movie “Ring of Fire”. It was his first speaking role, and I think he actually got his SAG card from that movie. We became friends, and he asked me to do the exhibition fight in England as a favor, and I was free that week, so I agreed. He hadn’t been back to England for a while, so he was able to take a trip back with the exhibition fight.
Indeed, Gary’s a refined fighter, a polished package. Well, speaking of “Ring of Fire”, let’s move ahead to your career in martial arts films. How did you first get started in movie making?
I really got started in the industry through Chuck Norris. He was already in the industry and he was making movies for Cannon Films back then, and he told me “When you retire from fighting, you should try acting as a second career like I have.”
Wise recommendation from Chuck Norris. So, out of the movies you’ve made in your career, what are some of your favorites, and memorable or fun experiences behind the scenes?
I would say the most fun to make was “Ring of Fire III: Lion Strike”, since my son, who was five years-old at the time, was actually in the movie with me, and my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, was also a part of it. So making that movie was basically a working vacation. My good friends Rick Jacobsen and Art Camacho were also a part of the film as director and fight choreographer, and the story of the film was also my idea. It was just an experience where all the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in terms of movie happiness.
An ideal, albeit rare film making experience! Moving ahead, another movie you featured in was “Batman Forever”, where you portrayed a gang leader fighting Robin in the alley. What interesting stories can you share about making the film?
Joel Schumacher had contacted my agent about me playing one of Two-Face’s henchmen in the film. He told me it would be about three and a half months, but I was committed to another project at the time, so I couldn’t spend that amount of time on the film. It wasn’t more than a week later that I heard back from Joel, and he showed me this script that looked like a CIA document. (Both laugh) It was the part of the film where Robin steals the Batmobile and runs into the gang leader, and Joel asked if that part of the film would fit into my schedule, and it did. I was able to bring my son to the premiere of the film, he was down in the front row where they had the kids sit, and as soon as I showed up, he screamed at the top of his lungs, “That’s my Dad!” That alone made doing “Batman Forever” worth it!
Great story, thanks for sharing. Let’s talk about 2015’s “The Martial Arts Kid”. How did the film come about and what interesting stories can you share about making it?
“The Martial Arts Kid” began with my brother, James. He’d seen the success of the Jackie Chan remake of “The Karate Kid“, and he had the idea of doing it at the independent movie level. He decided that the kid would have two mentors, played by myself and Cynthia Rothrock, who were his aunt and uncle. In the original, Mr. Miyagi is kind of a broken man, he’s drinking, depressed, mourning his family, and he gains from the relationship with his student, as well. For “The Martial Arts Kid”, we wanted the teachers to be much more stable and serve more as an example of what the kid can become. James also thought about using the popularity of MMA to say what a lot of teachers are worried about today, which is that we’re teaching people to fight without teaching them the philosophy behind it. And, of course, we aimed for the film to have a very strong anti-bullying message.
Absolutely, it certainly did that! On that note, you also reunited with Cynthia for “Showdown in Manila”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with Mark Dacascos, who also directed the film?
Anything Mark touches is gold. He’s been in movies, won martial arts competitions, been on “Dancing with the Stars”, he’s done “Iron Chef: America”, if he had screwed up directing “Showdown in Manila”, it would’ve been a first for him! It was a great experience to go back to Manila, which was where I’d done my first two movies. Actually, the crew on “Showdown in Manila” was the same crew from those two films. When I was sitting for makeup, it was the same make-up artist from back in 1988.
Surprising odds. Going off of that, what are some of your favorite fight scenes out of the films you’ve made?
I really liked the end fight of “Red Sun Rising” with James Lew. The film was also one of four of mine that premiered on HBO, along with “Bloodfist VI: Ground Zero”, “Out for Blood”, and “Virtual Combat”. Back in the 90’s, if your movie wasn’t released theatrically, an HBO world premiere was seen as the next best thing. There’s some martial arts mysticism in that fight, since I use the “Death Touch” to defeat him. His character had been using it throughout the film, and it had been taught to my character by Mako, who was a really great actor, of course. It was an integral part of the story, and James’ character was almost like Jason Voorhees. We’d built their confrontation up throughout the film, and I think we gave it a pretty good payoff.
James…a legend in martial arts films. On that note, what is the most daring stunt you’ve ever performed?
I did a fight scene on a moving train in the movie “The Capitol Conspiracy”. We’d tied my foot down so that if I fell, I’d end up dangling off the side of the train by one leg until they could stop the train, and of course, trains don’t stop very quickly!
That must’ve been nerve-racking! Tell us, who are some of the people you really admire in martial arts movies?
Chuck Norris is a big one. He’s my mentor, and he made the transition from fighting to movies and then to television with “Walker, Texas Ranger”. I really like Scott Adkins, as well, and I respect all the teaching he does in kickboxing seminars, too. Donnie Yen is great, as well, I really like “Ip Man“, and Jet Li is fantastic, too. I got to meet him in Beijing in 2010.
Don’s Favourite Martial Arts Movies
Excellent choices all round. What are some of The Dragon’s top martial arts movies?
I could definitely name a lot, but some of my favorites are “Enter the Dragon”, “A Force of One”, “The Matrix”, “Hero”, “Rush Hour”, “Ip Man”, “Kill Bill”, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Also, it’s not really a martial arts film, but I like to count “The Crow” because Brandon Lee was a martial arts actor.
Classics, right there. On that note, are there any actors or martial arts you’d want to work with in the future?
I did appear with Chuck, as myself actually, on an episode of “Walker: Texas Ranger”, but I’ve always wanted to make a movie with Chuck, since he got me started in movies and we both came into it from kickboxing. People ask me all the time who would win in a fight between me and Chuck, and I always say, “Chuck would take me out in two seconds, because I’ve got too much respect for him to throw a punch at him.” (Both laugh)
On Training, Injuries, Diet & Being a 3D Warrior…
I think you just created a Chuck Norris Fact! Talking training now, what is a typical workout like for you; is it mostly martial arts and flexibility, or do you also add weights to it?
Back when I was fighting, I would murder myself training. I’d run six to nine miles in the sand at noon in Florida. If I did that today, they’d be calling the paramedics! Today, I just go to the gym, put on my wraps and gloves, and work the heavy bag. I don’t go by the three-minute clock, because if I’ve hit the bag for three minutes and I’m not tired, why should I stop? (Laughs) Today, I hit the bag like I’m jogging, I don’t look at it as a workout, I’m just having fun hitting the bag.
Definitely. On the topic of physical conditioning, what was your most serious injury, making movies and in your fighting career, and how did you work around it?
The worst injury in kickboxing was a knee to the chest that ruptured my esophagus, so I had a hole there. I had to go into intensive care for a week to make sure there wouldn’t be an infection, which there wasn’t, and fortunately, they didn’t have to operate. Broken bones are nothing compared to the kind of pain you get having a hole ripped in your esophagus!
In movies, the only really bad one I’ve had was when I jumped out of a tree and landed on my knee on one of the roots. I couldn’t go running for about a year after that, but fortunately, my knee was able to heal without having any surgery.
Sounds painful. Glad you came through those with a smile in the end. On the topic of recovery, what do you like to do to recuperate from particularly intense physical activity?
I recommend water therapy and whirlpool therapy. I came out of retirement at 45, and I couldn’t have done it without those.
Interesting. How’s your diet and nutrition?
I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and you want to make sure they’re organic, or you’re going to be putting pesticides in you. And I avoid drinking water out of plastic bottles. I produced a DVD called “The Dragon Way” where I go into a lot of how I’ve trained for fighting and lifestyle where I go deeper into that. I changed my diet and a lot of my lifestyle when I was 45, now I’m in better shape now than I was back then!
The way to think of it is that our consciousness in our bodies is like a radio wave, that was here before your body existed and will be here after it’s gone, and if your body isn’t functioning at its full potential, you’re not experiencing life in three-dimensions. Scientists have said that “reality” is essentially like a three-dimensional hologram, and the way to experience life in three-dimensions is to give your body the kind of nutrients it needs, and after changing my diet and my lifestyle when I was 45, I’m a firm believer that you can rebuild your body with the right kind of nutrients.
Fun & Leisure
3D Warriors – the world could do with more of those! That’s really insightful Don, and perfectly leads into my next question. What’s one geeky thing no one knows about you?
I’m a big “Star Trek” fan, I was into it from the very first episode and I’ve been watching it ever since!
Why not! So, if you could be a superhero or possess a particular superpower, what would it be?
Superman would definitely be the one. He trumps everybody, he’s the peak of superheroes!
Ever green choice. On that note, what is some of your favorite music?
I like a lot of 60’s music, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Favorite movies (non-martial arts)?
As far as action, I really like “Die Hard”, “Lethal Weapon”, “True Lies”, “Predator”, “48 Hours”, and the first two “Terminator” movies. I also like “The Naturals”, “The Godfather”, “Pulp Fiction” and a lot of Tarantino’s movies.
Epic actioners there! So, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
I’m really proud of my kids and being a father. I think John Lennon said that anything you accomplish, someone else could have done, but it’s your children that are completely unique to you.
So true! Speaking of entertainers, what advice would you give to martial artists who aspire to work in the film or burgeoning television industry?
You’ve just got to have a lot of discipline and give it your all, just like in martial arts. It’s funny, because I actually have given that kind of advice to people, one of the best examples being R. Marcos Taylor.
When he was first starting out, he contacted me and told me he wanted to get into the business. So we met up one day, and I took him through all the ins and outs of it, and he’s been in two movies with me now, “The Martial Arts Kid” and “Paying Mr. McGetty”. Not only that, he would of course also go on to play Suge Knight in “Straight Outta Compton”!
Wise advice à la Chuck Norris to you. Well, Don, as we prepare to wrap up here, what final words would you like to share with KFK readers and your fans around the world?
I just want to send out my thanks to everyone who’s followed my work over the years.
Superb. Thank you so much for the pleasure of this interview, Don. It’s been an honor and a privilege!
Thanks Brad. It’s been my pleasure to talk with Kung Fu Kingdom!