Why you should care
In 1973 bell-bottomed Blaxploitation hero Jim Kelly inspired a generation to get to a dojo.
In the 2006 Nike “Chamber of Fear” commercial, basketball great Lebron James worked his way through a manga maze of perils. Bouncing the ball past peril #3, James comes face to face with a face that’s eerily reminiscent of one of the greatest martial artists to ever hit the screen, Jim Kelly.
Probably because it was Jim Kelly.
The 67-year old Kelly, who spin kicked off this mortal coil this past June after succumbing to cancer, kept himself fighting fit through 40 years, 17 TV and film titles, and multiple martial arts championships. He lived a full life doing what he did best: tennis.
Kelly once competed in basketball and track and field before getting into the University of Louisville on a football scholarship. After a year of that, he left to follow his peripatetic muse into the study and eventual teaching of martial arts. He was discovered there in his karate studio, which led quickly to his pas de deux with Bruce Lee in the genre-defining Enter the Dragon, the film that launched a thousand stripmall karate schools.
When you measure the grace and speed needed to do both sports effectively, it’s not strange that after years of turning people on to the joys of martial arts in his dojo and films Kelly added tennis to his quiver. And did it well enough to play professionally on the USTA Senior Men’s Circuit where he was ranked in the top 10 for a period of time.
All that aside, when the 6’2”, 27-year-old Kelly burst into the public consciousness in 1973 as the ill-fated character Williams who was invited by international drug dealer Mr. Han to fight in a death match tournament on a mysterious island, it was not just Black kids who took note. Enter the Dragon, mega-star Bruce Lee’s last film before his death, grossed $25 million in the U.S. on an estimated budget of $850,000. And $90 million worldwide.
Jim Kelly had arrived.
And even though he outlived Lee, Kelly never saw the same fame enjoyed by his martial arts contemporary Chuck Norris, whose break came in Lee’s previous hit, The Way of the Dragon (1972). But through it all Kelly’s worldview remained appropriately eastern, as when he once observed, “All of my movies made money. And I’m doing and living exactly the way I want.”
His fan base included everyone from football great Marcus Allen to former Mr. Olympia Lee Haney and even, maybe a little predictably, Quentin Tarantino. An inspiration to many, Kelly even continued training himself, with a move into boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with the esteemed Gracie family.
When asked by bad guy Mr. Han if he worries about defeat, as Williams, Kelly actually sums himself up pretty well: “When it comes, I won’t even notice. I’ll be too busy looking good.”
And he was.