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Karate students meet martial arts legend Bill "Superfoot" Wallace

ST. PETERSBURG

On a muggy Monday evening in July, a handful of karate students gathered at Paul Acklin's karate school to rub shoulders with a legend.

Bill "Superfoot" Wallace may not be a household name like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris, but in martial arts circles, the 63-year-old Indianan is a superstar.

After suffering a debilitating knee injury during a judo match, the former high school and college wrestler took up Shorin-ryu karate while serving in the Air Force in Okinawa.

"I didn't think I could do it because I had a bad knee," Wallace recalled. "My teacher said 'No problem, just use your left leg.' "

Wallace practiced, practiced and practiced. "When other guys would train they would throw 300 kicks," he said. "I would throw 30,000."

The hard work paid off. At one match, Wallace's devastating left kick was clocked at 60 mph.

After a successful amateur career, Wallace turned pro. One day, after leaving a fight, his manager noticed a vendor selling "super foot-long" hot dogs on the street.

"His manager decided he needed a catchy name," explained Acklin, a Wallace protégé. "So that is where Superfoot came from. And it stuck."

Wallace walked around the school shaking hands and exchanging smiles. His mild-mannered demeanor put the students at ease.

"I am a disciplinarian," he said. "But you have got to keep it fun."

Acklin, who founded his school Superkicks based on Wallace's teaching principles, first met the former world champion when he was 8-years-old.

"I saw him fight and was literally blown away," said Acklin, now 40. "He threw kicks as fast as a professional boxer would throw punches."

The two struck up a friendship that has endured for decades. When Acklin eventually formed his school, Wallace, who has a bachelor's degree in physical education from Ball State University and a master's degree in kinesiology from Memphis State University, agreed to come by two or three times a year and help test black belt candidates.

On this particular night, a mother and son who have trained together for years stood before the legend and showed their skills.

"Are you nervous?" he asked before the session started. "Don't be. You have trained for this moment. You can do it."

Wallace retired from the ring in 1980 after 23 undefeated fights. His notoriety helped land roles in a variety of movies, including the Norris classic, A Force of One.

While living in Memphis, he suffered what some might consider a career-ending injury. Fortunately, his friend Elvis Presley flew in a noted acupuncturist from Los Angeles, who then treated the martial artist at Graceland manor.

Years later, Wallace would work as a bodyguard and trainer for another entertainment icon, John Belushi. It was Wallace who found the former Saturday Night Live star's body after he died from an accidental drug overdose.

But despite Wallace's brushes with celebrity, he still maintains a mild-mannered Midwestern charm.

"And how old are you?" he asked a starry eyed 8-year-old who had come to watch the black belt exhibition. "Have you been practicing?"

Wallace's philosophy toward the martial arts can be summed up simply: "Speed over power," he explained.

"Anybody can practice the martial arts," he said. "It doesn't matter if you are young or old, big or small, male or female. But unlike golf or tennis, it is something that someday, some time, might just save your life."

The 5-foot 10-inch, 160-pound martial arts master, is in top shape and can still do a full split on the floor, despite one knee and three hip replacements.

Despite his ring record, he admits he has never been in a street fight.

"People get in fights because they want to see what they can do. There is no question in my mind. I know what I am capable of.

"That is what the martial arts will do for you. They will give you the confidence and self mastery it takes to walk away when that is the right thing to do," he said.

Learning technique

Bill "Superfoot" Wallace, 62, pretends to cry during an exhibition for kids at SuperKicks in St. Petersburg in March. To learn more about Wallace and Paul Acklin's teaching methods, go to www.superkicks.com.

Karate students meet martial arts legend Bill "Superfoot" Wallace 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 4:30am]
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