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Phil Wilemon: Training With Legends

motivation sparring Aug 09, 2019

By Herb Borkland

Tenth-dan Texas “Blood-and-Guts” era phenomenon Phil Wilemon started training in 1964. He won Allen Steen’s United States Karate Championships as a blue belt. As a brown belt, he either won or was disqualified in every tournament he entered, causing his longtime instructor Larry Caster to say, “Two out of three aren’t bad.”

Wilemon won 13 consecutive tournaments as a middleweight black belt and fought on national championship teams. A founding officer for the Texas Amateur Contact Karate Association, he also served as a representative for the Professional Karate Association in the Southwest. Wilemon refereed or coordinated more than 100 full-contact karate matches and is still in demand as an instructor and seminar leader.


Herb Borkland: Where did you grow up, and what did your dad do?

Phil Wilemon: I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and moved to Arlington in third grade. My father came from a long line of bankers but ended up buying and running a business.


HB: How did you first hear about martial arts?

PW: I was 4 feet 11 inches in high school — always fast and always involved, but too small for most sports. [Seventies tournament champion] Roy Kurban was my classmate. In the mid-’60s, I was working at Six Flags Amusement Park, and somebody said they were teaching karate down at the rec center. Three guys said they’d go, but only I showed up. Classes were taught by [Allen Steen black belt] Phil Ola, then a brown belt.

Steen wanted quality, not a lot of black belts. He opened schools and put out his students teaching at rec centers. Of the 15 people in our class, 10 ended up getting black belts. Classes started outdoors doing knuckle pushups on concrete. No women or children.

Later on, I was a college freshman with [’70s national champion] Pat Worley. By then I was a 5-foot-9-inch blue belt and had won 13 tournaments in a row, including a U.S. Championship. I stayed out of the brown-belt division exactly because I didn’t want to fight guys like Pat. (laughs)


HB: Turning point?

PW: I trained with great, great fighters. Training is reps and consistency. They say that “practice makes perfect.” Not so. “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Phil Ola was a tremendous instructor. Bow in and fight! People like Fred Wren and Skipper Mullins, Demetrius Havanas and Roy Kurban set the bar so high, you had to get better or else give up. Copying after these guys, it was hard not to get better.

I was on the winning team at the Battle of Atlanta, along with David Archer, James Stevens, Dennis Gocher and Demetrius Havanas. I was also on the U.S. Karate Team with D.P. Hill, Ishmael Robles, Demetrius Havanas and Raymond McCallum, and we won three years in a row.


HB: Who were your toughest opponents?

PW: David Archer, for sure. Demetrius was the most refined and toughest. Ray McCallum was best middleweight, Bill Wallace aside. I fought Wallace as a new black belt; he outclassed me. Joe Lewis was a unique person. David Moon was a tremendous technician — perfect control and could hit you with jump turn kicks. We learned how to block better than a lot of people. (laughs)

At first, it was only about, “How well do you fight?” I like to fight. We did kata just to get rank. But Keith Yates was great with kata and weapons. People like him added to our sport when they started competing.


HB: Future?

PW: Everyone talks about what they have done in the martial arts. I hope people remember me for what I gave back.


Herb Borkland is a veteran black belt who can be reached at [email protected].

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