Hai! Karate fans, this is a hard post to write for many reasons. The great Jim Kelly made his transition this past Sunday at the age of 67. With his passing, the martial arts and film world has lost one of its most influential stars.
He was the first legit Black martial arts movie star. Multitudes still remember his show-stealing turn in Bruce Lee's 'Enter The Dragon' as Williams, the stylish soul brother with the tightest Afro in the Western Hemisphere at the time. But Jim Kelly's legend began way back in his home state of Kentucky, where he was a star football and basketball player in addition to performing in track and field. He attended the University of Louisville, but left to pursue training in the martial arts, specifially Shorin-ryu and Okinawa-te Karate. After earning his green belt studying under Parker Shelton in 1969, he went to Chicago and trained until he was a brown belt. In 1969 Jim got his black belt under Marine Corps Sgt. LeRoy Edwards. Kelly went on to be a world champion beginning the next year. 1971 would be a landmark year for him. He won the World Middleweight Karate title that year, and opened up his own dojo. Below is a clip of one of his matches en route to that title.
Jim's dojo was loosely affiliated with the Black Karate Foundation (trivia:their logo can be found on the wall of Williams' dojo in ETD), and through its popularity, he got his big chance to get into Hollywood by training the late Calvin Lockhart for fight scenes in his film, Melinda. Kelly got a supporting role in the film. But his next role wouldn't happen without a bit of chance.
Producer Fred Weintraub had a HUGE problem. It was a few days until shooting began in Hong Kong for Enter The Dragonand Rockne Tarkington, who was the original Williams, dropped out without an explanation. Fred got hipped to Jim as a fighter and was impressed on sight after visiting his dojo. As much as the movie was Bruce's masterpiece, you CANNOT deny Jim Kelly's impact on the world in his role. How many times have you said: 'You come right out of a comic book!!!!' I was always a bit upset that he didn't make it to the end. He was too damn FLY not to make it to the end. But that role got him a three-film contract with Warner Bros., a major achievement at that time. And it coincided with the growing Blaxplotiation era. That deal saw him grow in stature with films like Black Belt Jones, Three The Hard Way and Hot Potato. He also teamed up with Fred Williamson again in Take A Hard Ride and starred in Black Samurai.
As the Blaxploitation era declined, so did the amount of choice roles for Kelly. Outside of his appearance in the 1982 pic One Down, Two To Go that was a Blaxploitation reunion of sorts, Kelly basically left Hollywood alone. Instead, he got deeper into tennis, playing on the US Senior Mens circuit and reveled in many appearances at comic cons and martial arts tournaments. Here's a cameo he did for a certain basketball player you may know.
Jim Kelly lost his battle with cancer, but he should always be remembered as a pioneer. Without him, other Black martial artists wouldn't have had the chance to get in front of the camera and show the world just how bad we really are. It was a source of pride seeing him kick ass with that Afro. Rest in power, sensei. We won't forget you.