Jim Harrison is a hair’s breadth away from retirement age, and the body that has carried him through six and a half decades of an astonishing life is beginning to show signs of breaking down. His piercing blue eyes lay in a pool of wrinkles and blaze behind thin wire-framed bifocals, and his short, curly hair is shot through with streaks of gray. The middle finger of his right hand bends towards the index finger in a severe parabolic arc, and the middle finger on his left hand is knobbed like a crooked tree branch. One of his knees is now made of space-age plastic, a condition that has kept him off his beloved telemark skis for the past year; the other knee is destined to follow soon.
But as two Missoula martial arts instructors recently discovered, Jim Harrison is confident that his body, compromised though it is, remains fully capable of doing what it has done for the last half-century, namely, kick some serious ass.
When Summit Martial Arts ran an ad this fall in Fresh Facts (the Independent’s annual newcomers’ guide to Missoula) proclaiming to teach “Missoula’s Best Self Defense,” Harrison took offense to the statement. In response, Harrison, who owns and operates Sakura Warrior Arts, placed a half-page ad in the Nov. 15 issue of the Independent challenging both the veracity of Summit’s claims and the testicular fortitude of Todd Taylor, Summit’s owner and chief instructor. The ad reads:
“We at SAKURA vigorously dispute those unfounded undeserved allegations, because we believe that before one presumes or boasts, and certainly before misleading the unsuspecting and uninformed public that they are the ‘BEST’ they should first prove it.”
Harrison then laid out his challenge: a no-holds-barred, no-rules, no-protective-gear, no-referee match between himself and Taylor, with the winner decided by knock-out or submission. He also proposed a match-up pitting his best students against the cream of Summit’s crop, and for good measure threw in an identical challenge to Chris Crews, an instructor at American Kenpo Karate School in Missoula. The ad proposes a fight date of Dec. 15 and 16, when Sakura holds its own intra-school tournament, and ends with an ultimatum: “Show up or shut up! LET’S PROVE IT!”
A reader of the ad, uninitiated to Jim Harrison’s story, might very likely think one—or both—of the following: 1) this is a crazy bastard with balls the size of Cleveland, and 2) this is a prime example of why testosterone junkies should not be allowed in positions of power. That same reader enlightened about the life and adventures of Jim Harrison might think those things as well, but you can bet your bottom dollar he wouldn’t say as much to Harrison. The simple fact remains that Jim Harrison is one of the fiercest creatures ever to roam God’s green earth, dinosaurs and grizzly bears included. He also happens to be a gentleman, courteous and polite, gregarious and inviting.
The phrase “living legend” is an overused one, but there is no better way of describing Jim Harrison’s reputation in the martial arts community. One martial arts magazine editor labeled him “the closest thing to a Samurai the 20th century can produce,” with a list of achievements to back up that claim. A veteran of some 300 judo and 500 karate matches—the karate fights occurred during the fabled “Blood and Guts” era of the late ’60s—Harrison was also the first U.S. Light-Heavyweight Kickboxing champion. According to several accounts, Bruce Lee reportedly said that Harrison was one of the two men he would never want to meet in an alley fight (the other being the legendary Mike Stone). Appropriately enough, Harrison served for a time as a bodyguard to Lee’s widow.
Harrison has created and registered two separate styles of martial arts, both of which he continues to teach at Sakura. The first is Bushidokan karate, a classic discipline that combines several different styles (“Bushido” means “way of the warrior” and “kan” meaning “school”), and Ronin Jutsu a distilled, street-defense version of Bushidokan, (“Ronin” refers to a masterless Samurai and “jutsu” means “art”).
He counts among his many students the incomparable kickboxer Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, as well as numerous other national champions and several commanding officers in the Army’s elite Delta Force. He has been inducted into both the American and the International Karate Hall of Fame, the latter alongside his good friend, Chuck Norris, whom Harrison describes as a “genuine TAK” (or “Total Ass-Kicker”).
Harrison’s martial arts career developed following his membership in a clandestine unit of the St. Louis Police Department in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Called the “Special Violence Squad,” the unit was formed to combat a surge in violent crime plaguing the city.
Whether he is regarded as an anachronism or a throwback, Harrison wants the reasons behind his beliefs known. He feels that the vast majority of martial arts taught in this country are watered-down exercises designed to provide cheap self-esteem to students while generating hefty profits for instructors.
At a teaching seminar in Texas last week, Harrison was approached by a young fan who sought an autograph. While talking to the boy, Harrison found out that he was an orange belt (the second belt one can earn), despite the fact that he’d been training for only four months.
“My kids don’t even get halfway to a yellow belt in four months,” Harrison says in exasperation. “I’m old-fashioned. I call myself an anachrosaur—but I still have the same traditions and standards that I came up with. My guys are lucky to make a belt once a year. The people who come to me are not status-conscious, or at least the people who stay with me aren’t. They are ability- and results-oriented.”
As for the challenge to Taylor and Crews, Harrison has a long history of defrocking martial arts instructors who he regards as unworthy of the position. “In Kansas City [where he first established himself as an instructor] I had a reputation for running black belts out of town,” Harrison says. “I would simply show up and work out with them. Then I’d say how much fun it was and that I’d be back the next day. Most of them weren’t open very long. If they were good, I acknowledged it, and we got to be friends. I like to have good competition in my town, because it’s good for everybody.”
Although his days of routinely challenging every black belt are mostly behind him, Harrison feels that the claims of Taylor and Crews justify his challenge. “I have standards, I have pride, and I have honor,” he says. “I was brought up in an era where you didn’t take an insult, where if you didn’t amend an insult, you were considered a coward. So consequently, if someone insults me verbally—and I consider him saying he teaches the best in Missoula a verbal insult—I will challenge outright. But I’m not going to fight him with words. I’m a warrior, not a lawyer. If you think you are the best, by God, you prove it to me and prove it to the public.”
Harrison is under no illusions about his own condition. “He probably outweighs me by fifty pounds, and he’s a good twenty years younger,” Harrison says. “Here I am, an old man, crippled with all kinds of injuries, and if he ain’t got the balls to fight me then he ain’t got a ball one.”
Harrison sees the lack of integrity and honor as a problem that runs deeper than the martial arts community. “Our society has become so chickenshit in the fact there’s so many wannabes in this world,” he says. “Everyone wants to boast that they’re this and that when they haven’t done anything. I don’t understand that. You do it, and if you want to brag about it, fine, but I don’t understand that either. You do it for yourself, for your own accomplishment.”
As for the men he challenged, neither Taylor nor Crews would comment on the record about it, and Harrison doesn’t think either will show up (“I think there’s a better chance of me getting hit by a meteorite that day”). Still, they may draw comfort from the fact that they’re in rather famous company. Almost 10 years ago Harrison, along with some of the top figures in martial arts, issued a similar public challenge through a magazine to actor and self-proclaimed martial-artist Steven Seagal, after Seagal had trumpeted his own toughness in a series of interviews. Seagal was also accused of carelessly injuring a number of stuntmen—some of them well-respected among the martial arts community—during the shooting of his movies. No response ever came.
“It’s just like I told Stephanie Seagal,” Harrison says, smiling. “I don’t mind a guy saying he can kick my ass. I just think he should do it first. There’s probably 10 million guys out there who could do it because of my age and injuries. But by God, he’s not one of them. And neither are Crews or Taylor.”
Back-street bully or paragon of lost virtue, Harrison’s take on life is as direct and forceful as the blows he has rained on countless opponents. And in a time loaded with uncertainty and relativism, it’s refreshing to know that until the day he dies, Jim Harrison will be driven–in his mind and in his actions–by the guiding force of a tradition as old as man.