Boy Is Kidnapped — Learns Martial Arts for Self-Defense — Becomes Tournament Powerhouse — Founds Century Martial Arts — Vows to Pay It Forward by Creating Martial Arts Industry Association!
by Robert W. Young
I can’t say for sure how an incident in which my home was invaded, my mother was tied up and I was abducted would affect me, but I like to think it wouldn’t reduce my childhood to a kittenhood. I hope I’d be able to recover from the emotional trauma and at least live out my life with a semblance of normalcy.
Spend any time with Mike Dillard, and you’ll begin to see how, for some people, such adversity can breed success. Instead of being ruined for life, he channeled his anxiety into a drive to learn self-defense, then into a string of victories on the karate circuit and finally into a startup that exploded into a business empire, all using the principles and concepts he acquired from the martial arts.
After the crafting of that empire came bouts with one adrenaline-pumping sport after another and, more important for posterity, the launch of an association devoted to helping others enjoy the very same benefits of training that took him to the top — by both practicing the arts and by adopting them as a vocation.
Abduction Inspires Training
“When I was 3 years old, I was kidnapped,” Dillard says, fingering a newspaper clipping from August 26, 1953. “At the time, my dad was running a grocery store. A kidnapper came into my house, tied up and beat my mother, and took me so he could rob the store. It was a big deal in Oklahoma City, which was a relatively small town at the time.
“That kind of thing traumatizes a family so much. You grow up with a protective instinct.”
The natural question is, Was that the inspiration for him to take up the martial arts as a boy? “Yes. I think it had a lot to do with it,” Dillard says. “It definitely changed me — that and the fact that I later went to a rough high school in a bad part of town. On my way to enroll in the seventh grade, my friend and I were jumped by a gang. In school, it didn’t take me long to figure out that nobody messed with the wrestlers. So I started wrestling and continued into my first two years of college.”
Those workouts served a dual purpose: They taught the youth how to grapple, and they exposed him to something totally foreign, something the small-town 13-year-old might not otherwise have encountered. “One of the kids I wrestled with was a practitioner of the Korean martial arts,” Dillard says. “I was intrigued by this guy I could beat at wrestling but who could kick me in the head, so I started working out with him.”
His appetite whetted, he beat a path to every dojo he could find to learn everything he could. “I was amazed by the fact that the martial arts worked so well but were so unknown to so many people,” says Dillard, now a ninth-degree black belt under Roger Greene and an eighth degree in the United Fighting Arts Federation. “There was so much potential.”
Throughout junior and senior high school, he remained smitten. “In college, my adviser told me, ‘You can do most anything you want, but your interests don’t match up with anything we teach.’ In my junior year, I still didn’t have a major. My dad wanted me to major in accounting, which is where I landed, but I never wanted to be an accountant. I wanted to be a fighter and continue my martial arts studies.”
The youth had already had a taste of the fighter’s life. “I fought for the first time in 1969,” he says. “Altogether, I competed in over 300 tournaments. I didn’t win them all, of course, but I won a lot as a brown belt and most of them as a black belt.”
His final fight came in 1991, when he was almost 41. “Someone asked me the other day why I retired,” Dillard says. “I told him, ‘I didn’t retire; I just got too old to keep winning.’”
Enter the Work Force
Dillard worked his way through college, teaching martial arts at Oklahoma State University. “When I got out, I drove to California and stopped at all the martial arts schools up and down the coast,” he recalls. “That’s how I met Chuck Norris. I wanted to train with him because I’d read about him in Black Belt. I’d read all about how good the fighters out there were. If you wanted to be a fighter, you had to go to the West Coast, so I did.”
His relocation to California wasn’t to last, however, because of the nagging need to start a career in a “respectable” field. “I got a job as an accountant with a company that ran several offshore drilling rigs,” Dillard says. “They sent me to help a rig manager in Bombay, India. He had to deal with the most unruly bunch of people — they were cooped up on a rig for two weeks, then they got a week off.
“On my first day, a big rig hand was yelling at me, standing 3 inches from my nose. He had some expense reports that hadn’t been paid, and he was telling me how he wouldn’t stand for it. It was an obvious attempt at intimidation. I ended up knocking him over the chair — I was a senior brown belt at the time and had fought in more than 100 tournaments. I told him that he wasn’t to talk to me that way and that once he stopped, I’d treat him with respect, too.”
The rig manager seemed pleased, telling Dillard he’d been waiting for someone to do that for years. “He then said he had an offer to work in Dubai,” Dillard recalls. “I was in charge less than 24 hours after I arrived. I got along with the rig hands fine after that, even though they would occasionally push me a little. Martial arts gave me the self-confidence to deal with them.”
Dillard spent a year in Bombay, squirreling away every penny he earned. “Then I went to Korea in the mid-’70s and stayed a while to train,” he says. After a quick lesson in international relations — “I found out quickly that if you spent your time hustling local girls, the local guys would resent you” — he hit it off with an instructor and made his way to Kukkiwon, the nation’s taekwondo headquarters.
Dillard’s workouts proved to be yet another adventure. “My idea of sparring was to reach out, grab the guy’s sleeve and punch him in the head — or sweep him to the ground and stomp him because of the training I’d had in Okinawan and Japanese karate, as well as judo,” he says. “In Korea, you didn’t do that in taekwondo. I got lambasted right off the bat. It was a new set of rules.
“It was a very good time for me, though. I learned a lot, and I decided that perhaps a way to make a living was to import uniforms designed to fit American martial artists that were a little taller. I still loved to fight, but a match in those days might earn you $500, and you couldn’t survive on that. So I came back to Oklahoma and moved in with my parents and started importing uniforms from Korea. I would do the importing during the day, and I would teach in the afternoon and work in the bars at night. Back then, most black belts worked in bars at night.”
So began Century Martial Arts.
His business plan was simple and suited his workaholic personality: He’d hit the tournament circuit and hawk his wares at each stop. “In 1979 I fought in 49 tournaments — sometimes one on Saturday and one on Sunday of the same weekend,” Dillard recalls. “I’d meet the black belts, shake their hands and give them my catalog. I’d stand at the table, then go judge, then stand at the table, then go fight. If I won, I’d have enough money for a hotel room. If not, I’d sleep in the van.”
In the beginning, his ads in Black Belt — the first one ran in the July 1977 issue — featured his own mug. “Being a businessperson, I quickly figured out having pictures of Chuck Norris and Bill Wallace sold a lot more uniforms,” he says, smiling. “Norris and Wallace were willing to help, as were Keith Vitali, Jeff Smith, Pat Burleson and others.”
Nurturing Century occupied most of his time, but once the company could stand on its own, Dillard found he could sneak off now and then to engage in adventure sports that produced the same adrenaline rush as fighting, including motorcycle racing, car racing, whitewater rafting, scuba diving and downhill skiing — not to mention some insane stunt work for Norris.
Unfortunately, the high risks resulted in a high number of injuries. “I broke this arm doing a stunt for Mr. Norris: A 55-gallon drum hit me,” Dillard says, pointing. “I broke three ribs when he threw me down a flight of stairs for another stunt. I broke some ribs while riding a horse — we think we’re cowboys in Oklahoma, but we’re not all good ones. I broke my back in 1989 in a motocross accident. In 1999 I hit the wall at Daytona at 170 miles an hour and broke my neck.”
During the many months he spent in plaster, his devotion to high-octane pursuits — and to the martial arts — never wavered. “I kept fighting and competing,” he says. “I broke fingers in a bare-knuckle match, some of which I still can’t straighten out. I broke my left leg and both ankles. Once a guy threw a spinning heel kick at me and I loosely blocked it with my hand, and it separated my shoulder. I’ve broken most of my toes. I broke my eye orbit, which crushed my sinus.” He says they were typical injuries for contact fighters.
The downtime that followed each injury was mostly a matter of Dillard chomping at the bit to get back in action. “When I broke my back in late 1989, I was put in a body brace on November 1,” he recalls. “On January 2, 1990, it was taken off, and that’s when I started training again in martial arts. On Valentine’s Day, I went to Russia as captain of the four teams Chuck Norris sent over.
“We landed in Leningrad, and Russian television was waiting. They wanted to see how hard we all could hit. We used to sell a machine that used piezoelectric film to measure impact. In short, it measured how hard you could punch or kick. I could hit it at 96 or 97, and a good punch might reach 100.
“Now, this was a goodwill tour; it wasn’t Rocky V. They wanted us to train with the Russians. The crowd parted in the gym, and in walked a giant of a man. His first punch scored 156 on the machine. Nobody had ever hit it that hard! He came over to me and said, ‘You, me, tonight.’ I had the bad draw, I guess. The matches allowed contact, but it wasn’t supposed to be excessive. The first thing he did was tear my nose half off. The doctor wanted to stop the fight. I told him, ‘The fight’s been going on for 14 seconds; I’m not going to stop the fight!’
“He said, ‘You need to go to the hospital.’
“I said: ‘I’m not going to the hospital after 14 seconds. Give me a few more clashes with him.’
“To make a long story short, I got lucky and won. That was the toughest fight I had.”
Dillard ended up winning every one of his matches in Russia, and his team won every team fight. “It was fun — I was young and motivated,” he says.
Since he retired, he’s migrated to a new hobby that entails just as much risk as fighting but a lot less skeletal damage. “I love to go spear fishing,” he says. “I like being in an environment where you’re not at the top of the food chain. There’s no doubt you get addicted to the adrenaline — you need that rush and you need goals to achieve. I’m not a very sedentary person, and I don’t think most martial artists are. We need excitement in life.”
His unspoken message: Good things come to those who are able to channel that drive, that need for an adrenaline dump, into productive pursuits.
After two decades of martial arts, Dillard knew his hand-eye coordination was above average, as was his concentration and ability to repeat the same muscle movements over and over. “You can’t not pay attention when someone’s hitting you,” he says. “That turned out to be the perfect qualification for driving race cars. You can’t have lapses in concentration while racing. I went through several driving courses and schools and raced for the next 10 years, winning three national road-racing championships.”
His martial arts training also helped in less-hazardous sports like racquetball. “It involves long periods of concentration and split-second decisions, both of which martial artists are great at,” he says. “The cardio benefit is also important.”
Another plus of a life spent in the dojo is perseverance. “Martial arts teaches you to ignore pain and discomfort,” Dillard says. “It can make you too stubborn to give up. That’s what got me to the top of Kilimanjaro and a lot of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado and other mountains around the world.”
He describes a final fringe benefit with tongue in cheek, but there’s an element of truth in his message: “Nothing humbles you more than the first time you get your behind kicked in front of 3,000 people, and nothing gives you more self-confidence than the first time you win the big trophy in front of a similar crowd.”
Molding the Future
“About 30 years ago, a group of us would talk about how martial arts needed a facelift,” Dillard says. “Guys running around in white pajamas, screaming at each other — it wasn’t the best image for the arts if they were to grow in this country.”
Loads of other movers and shakers must have shared that vision, for around that time, things started to change. “Great leaders and movie stars helped give the arts a new face,” he says. “The Olympics helped. The UFC helped. XMA and Mike Chat helped an incredible amount. For example, a long time ago, we went to tournaments to fight; forms weren’t the main event. But now, forms are leading the way. Those young athletes have a skill set we never had.
“One of the things that helped Century succeed was the strong belief that martial arts is the greatest sport in the world. That it wasn’t a fad. That it would grow in the Western Hemisphere and worldwide.”
Dillard vowed to do whatever he could to help the arts expand. First up: Make sure his company did the right thing. Always. “You can’t do people wrong and think that nobody’s going to know,” he says. “You’ve got only one reputation. You’ve got to treat people right. It’s your one nonrenewable asset.”
His next mission: Step on as few toes as possible. “We used to promote tournaments, but we figured out that’s how some of our instructor customers make a living, and if we do that, we’re competing with them,” he says.
Finally, preach the gospel of the martial arts as a career path. “We found that a school should clear $10,000 to $20,000 a month — that’s $120,000 to almost a quarter of a million dollars a year,” he says. “That’s why we started the Martial Arts Industry Association. We knew people who were incredibly successful, some with 10 or 15 schools, and we wanted to provide a forum for them to exchange ideas with guys who don’t have access to the same information. And that’s why we hold the Martial Arts SuperShow every year and why we publish [this] magazine.”
MAIA’s goal is to help the martial arts attract the brightest minds in the nation, says Dillard, who is also a business professor at the University of Oklahoma. “I teach graduate students, and when they get out, they’re looking at jobs that pay $60,000 a year. In the time you spend in grad school, you could become a black belt and open a school and make twice that your first year.
“Most people don’t realize what a great career martial arts can be. It’s even better when you start seeing the rewards that come from helping kids. Martial arts training changes people’s lives. The letters and thank-yous from parents remind you of that — which is the best part of this job.”
When you’re a big dog, you get to hang with other big dogs — in Mike Dillard’s case, that means palling around with the legends of the martial arts. The following are some of his faves:
“Bill Wallace is always entertaining and taught all of us how to kick better. Mike Swain is as sincere a person as you could ever meet. Ernie Reyes Sr. is a master of motivation and a great guy. If I could have anybody’s fighting skills, it would be Joe Lewis’. If I have a mentor, it’s Chuck Norris.
“When I was an instructor in Mr. Norris’ organization, he’d bring in so many great people — Pat Johnson was one of the best. And Richard Norton would put on the most incredible weapons demonstrations. I was good friends with Howard Jackson, who was a great competitor. Roger Greene taught me a lot, and I won many championships captaining teams from his school. I learned a lot from Jeff Smith. Jhoon Rhee was an idol of mine. Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell are great. Dave Kovar is an instructor I’d model myself after.”
In case you’ve ever wondered how a company like Century Martial Arts develops new products, here’s the scoop: “We have a staff that gathers ideas from all over — from customers, vendors and so on,” Mike Dillard says.
Going from concept to completion is not as straightforward as you might think. “We draw up specifications, then engineer and test and re-engineer and test,” he says. “Every product has to be child-safe, and we don’t make anything with lead or other harmful chemicals. Needless to say, not every good idea works out as a product.
“Every time someone is injured in this sport and we find out about it, we look at how they got hurt and how we might make things safer. Safety products are probably No. 1 for us. Training products are No. 2. And for both, quality matters. We never substitute anything for quality. It’s more fun selling a Mercedes than a Kia.”
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