Black Fighting Kings of Detroit


By Mark Lahti

This is the first in a series about legendary warriors from Detroit.

Everybody knows about Detroit’s great boxing history. Joe Louis is remembered by his right fist every time you pass Hart Plaza. Tommy Hearns and Kronk Gym still bring fond memories to plenty of Detroiters.

Here is the thing, oh gentle readers: there are many more warriors in Detroit, who you may never recognize.

Their skills are incredible, their fights legendary. I am talking about the martial arts masters who came up fighting in tournaments and dojos that never got the press, but had the toughest fights around. Some of them dominated in bare knuckle tournaments, some won tournaments in the South during segregation, some were pioneers in areas of martial arts that have changed the paths of the city.

The first on the list is well known in the martial arts community of Detroit, Grandmaster Willie Adams. I have known him and trained under him for many years, and so my tales will be of personal knowledge. He currently runs one of the largest dojos in Michigan, out of Southfield, teaching Isshinryu karate, although he has trained in other disciplines as well.

He also kicked Chuck Norris in the face (in a tournament and then later at a party), fought in the South during the civil rights era, and is also one of the nicest guys you will meet.

Before moving his school to Southfield, it was on Dexter and Davison. Back then, it was just about the last school to sponsor bare knuckle karate tournament fighting. A mouthpiece and cup were the only protective gear. Now, you couldn’t hit hard to the head (knockouts or drawing blood got you disqualified) but kicking the groin or busting someone’s ribs was fine.

So, to the Chuck Norris story: back in the 60s, Adams went to national tournaments. He ended up fighting Chick Norris at the Tournament of Champions. They fought to a draw on points, but draws were not allowed. The judges awarded the match to Chuck Norris based on “style points.”

At the after-tournament party, the two met again and Adams told Norris that he caught him with hook kicks which Norris denied. Norris told him to try it again. Wille Adams kicked Chuck Norris in the face again, in street clothes, at a party (no, he didn’t blast Norris in the face, he pulled his kick and just touched him on the nose). Chuck Norris caught Adam’s leg on the way back down, and bit him on the calf as a joke. This may sound like a made-up story…. so here is the pic, of Chuck Norris biting Willie Adams on the leg after getting kicked in the face:


You can see the fun they were having, while also being a two of the most dangerous fighters on the planet.

Master Adams also fought in the South during the civil rights era, and there were times when he could not go to the dinners or parties after tournaments he won because they were held at segregated establishments. Despite the discrimination in the past, Master Adams has was inducted into the Isshinryu Hall of Fame in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in 1986.

More importantly, Master Adams is in the African American Sports Hall of Fame, being inducted the same day as Satchel Page and Hank Aaron. He is the first African American to be awarded tenth degree black belt (the highest rank in traditional karate) and the first African American to run an international karate organization.

He also used to do some of the most dangerous demonstrations in karate. Some were dangerous for him, some for the people working with him at the demo. He would use nunchakus to knock an apple out of one of his blackbelts mouth, while blindfolded. I mean VAPORIZE the apple with the nunchakus. He would catch a razor-sharp sword being swung at him with his bare hands. I never did either of those demonstrations with him, but I was there when he did them.

I did try to kill him once: on his orders. He told me to try to cut him in half with a sharp Japanese sword for a demo. Now, he also told me if I DIDN’T try to cut him in half, he would be insulted, the demo would be ruined and he would then kick my ass for real. So yeah, I came at him with the sword and honestly tried to cut him in half. I don’t really know what happened, I know I swung, I know he suddenly wasn’t there, I think I saw my own butt before I hit the ground, and he had the sword at my throat.

He never injured anyone at his demos, in over fifty years.

He has trained some of the top martial artists in the nation. Adams has had many masters of martial arts from across the world come to train with him; Emmanuel Stewart even sent Tommy Hearns to work with him. He continues to teach and train today.


Sensei Greybeard

A bit about me: I know about them because I was there. I have been involved in the Detroit martial arts for over 40 years. I saw their demos, saw the fights, and in some cases had the honor of personally getting my ass kicked by some of these warriors. Sometimes I trained with them, sometimes their students. These masters did not seek me out for these articles. I intend no insult to anyone by leaving them out. For example, I know there are many great aikido practitioners, judoka and jiujitsu masters in Detroit; their omissions are only due to my ignorance. Also, some of the greatest warriors prefer to remain private, and I would not go against their wishes to stay out of the public eye.

It is not possible to tell all their stories in one article. This will be a continuing series, and if anyone has any suggestions for people to be included I will welcome them.