United States Marine Corps in 1962 and was stationed at Cherry Point in Havelock, North Carolina. He studied Shorin-ryu Karate with Eizo Shimabukuro, John Korab, Chinsaku Kinjo and Seiyu Oyata in Okinawa while serving in the United States Marine Corps, earning his black belt in a mere seven months. He was one of the first Marines stationed in Vietnam, there meeting Rocky Marciano. Upon returning to the USA, he began a winning tournament career. From 1967 to 1968, he studied privately with the influential martial artist and Jeet Kune Do founder Bruce Lee. Hong Kong cinema historian Bey Logan says Lewis was the original pick of Bruce Lee for the villain Colt in Way of the Dragon, but that Lee and Lewis had a falling out before the film and thus Chuck Norris was tapped instead.
In 1966, with only 22-months of training, Lewis won the grand championship of the 1st tournament he entered, The U.S. Nationals promoted by Jhoon Rhee. Lewis defeated 7 opponents before defeating Thomas Carroll (martial artist) by 2-0 decision. Lewis reigned as the U.S. Nationals grand champion from 1966-1969. At the 1967 Nationals in Washington, Lewis won the championship by beating Frank Hargrove 3-2 in the finals. Previously, Lewis defeated Hargrove in New York City at 'Henry Cho's Karate Tournament'. During that time he was defeated by Chuck Norris.
In 1966, at the Long Beach Internationals, Lewis lost an upset decision to Allen Steen. In 1967, Lewis defeated Weiland Norris (brother of Chuck Norris), Steve LaBounty, Frank Knoll, and Frank Hargrove (for the 3rd time).
In February, 1968, Lewis and five other top rated fighters (Bob Wall, Skipper Mullins, J. Pat Burleson, David Moon, and Fred Wren) fought in the 1st World Professional Karate Championships (WPKC) promoted by Jim Harrison. This was the first "professional" tournament in karate history and took place in Harrison's dojo in Kansas City. The rules allowed "heavy contact." Lewis won the tournament and was paid 1-dollar, thus officially making him the first professional champion in karate history.
At the 1968 'Orient vs. U.S. Tournament', promoted by Aaron Banks, Lewis lost a decision to Japanese-American N. Tanaka. In Dallas, Texas, at the 'First Professional Karate Tournament', Lewis won the championship trophy by decisioning Larry Whitner, Phil Ola, and Skipper Mullins.
In August, 1968, Lewis was defeated by Victor Moore at the 2nd professional karate tournament in history. The event was called the World's Hemisphere Karate Championships and it took place in San Antonio, Texas; promoted by Robert Trias and Atlee Chittim. Both Moore and Lewis split the championship purse of 1-thousand dollars. That same year, Lewis defeated Louis Delgado (Delgado had beaten Chuck Norris the year before).
On November 24, 1968 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, Lewis won Aaron Banks', World Professional Karate Championships by defeating Victor Moore to win the World Heavyweight Title. Lewis was paid $600 for his title winning effort.
In 1970, Lewis lost in yet another upset to John Natividad at the All-Star Team Championships in Long Beach, California. However, at the 'Battle of Atlanta' promoted by Joe Corley, Joe Lewis defeated Mitchell Bobrow in a closely contested come from behind victory for the Heavyweight Championship, and Joe Hayes for the Grand Championship.
At Ed Parker's 1972 'International Karate Championships', Daniel Garcia scored an upset victory over Lewis.
Joe Lewis was voted by the top fighters and promoters as the greatest karate fighter of all time in 1983. Chuck Norris and Bill Wallace tied for second place. Gene Lebell has credited Joe as the person who "brought us full-contact karate."
1974 was to be a busy year for Joe Lewis and it would mark his final year in tournament karate competition. In May, Lewis lost to Charles Curry in New York at the Hidy Ochiai National Karate Tournament. That same month, Lewis won the PAWAK tournament which lasted from May 11-May 12. Lewis scored victories over Frank Harvey, Smiley Urquidez, Benny Urquidez, and Cecil Peoples in the elimination matches. Joe won the championship with a 4-3 points decision over Steve Sanders. Finally, at Mike Anderson's, 'Top 10 National Professional Karate Tournament', Lewis lost to Eddy "Monster Man" Everett in the finals.
Joe Lewis is a veteran of the Vietnam War where he served in the communications field. He has acted in films and on TV, and was briefly married to actress Barbara Leigh. Today he continues to give seminars and work in the entertainment industry.
Kickboxing and full-contact karate careerStarting in 1967, Lewis began training privately with Bruce Lee. Lee had Lewis test out his theories of fighting at tournaments. Lewis also began training boxing with Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Orbillio, enhancing his skills.
In late 1969 promoter Lee Faulkner contacted Joe Lewis to fight in his upcoming United States Karate Championships. Lewis had retired from point fighting at the time but agreed to fight if Faulkner would promote a full-contact karate bout with Lewis and an opponent who would fight to the knockout. Faulkner agreed. As Lewis and Greg Baines entered the ring wearing boxing gloves the announcer identified the fighters as "kickboxers". That night Joe Lewis won the first-ever kickboxing bout in North America on January 17, 1970 with a second round knockout over Greg Baines.
Previous to this bout, Lewis defeated Chuck Lemmons in point karate at the US Pro Team Karate finals that were held prior to the kickboxing main event.
On June 20, 1970 in Dallas, Texas, Lewis defended his United States Kickboxing Association heavyweight title against "Big" Ed Daniel at the U.S.A. Professional Open Karate Championships promoted by Lee Faulkner and Allen Steen. Lewis knocked out Daniel in 2 rounds. In a later rematch, Lewis KO'd Daniel in 3 rounds.
On January 24, 1971, at the 2nd Annual United Nations Open Karate Championships promoted by Aaron Banks, Lewis knocked out Ronnie Barkoot at 1:25 of the first round. At another Banks promotion; United States Championship Kickboxing Bouts, Lewis scored a 3rd round knockout over "Atlas" Jesse King.
In total, Lewis defended his United States Heavyweight Kickboxing title with 8 straight knockouts between 1970/71. The 1970-71 rules for US kickboxing included striking, kicking, knees, elbows and footsweeps. Only crescent kicks and round kicks were permitted to the head.
Lewis is the first kickboxer to be featured in both The Ring boxing magazine and Sports Illustrated.Although promoter Lee Faulkner attempted to organize a legitimate "world" title fight between US champ Joe Lewis and a Thai kickboxing champion, a fight never materialized.
By the end of 1971, interest in kickboxing had hit an all time low, with promoters unable to attract a crowd to a kickboxing event. Lewis retired as undefeated United States Heavyweight Kickboxing champion in 1971. His record as the undisputed United States heavyweight kickboxing champion was a perfect 10-0 with 10 KO's.
September 14, 1974 on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment promoter Mike Anderson introduced PKA 'full-contact' karate. In the bouts, competitors wore foam hand and foot protection and fought to the knockout (Kickboxing rules allowed for leg kicks: full-contact karate rules did not permit kicks to the legs). Lewis, the retired US Heavyweight Kickboxing champion was accustomed to full contact fighting. In 1974 he beat his only opponent in the new sport of full contact karate with a 2nd round ridge hand knockout over Yugoslavia's Frank Brodar in Los Angeles, California to win the Professional Karate Association (PKA) Heavyweight full-contact karate title.
The original 1974 PKA world champions, including Joe Lewis (heavyweight), Jeff Smith (light heavyweight) and Bill 'Superfoot' Wallace (middleweight) received so much fanfare from the PKA title wins and resultant publicity in popular martial arts magazines that their status as "legends of the karate world" was guaranteed. Lewis advanced his public persona the next year by appearing on the cover of Playgirl magazine. In 1975 Joe Lewis was inducted into the Black Belt magazine Hall of Fame as the 1974 full contact karate "fighter of the year".
In a 1975 comeback fight in Hawaii Lewis lost a 3-round decision (non title) to Teddy Limoz in Hawaii, and in September, he lost a 7-round decision to Ross Scott after suffering a dislocated shoulder. Lewis was stripped of the PKA World Heavyweight championship title after contract disputes. Lewis continued with his acting career and starred in Jaguar Lives in 1978 and Force Five in 1981.
At the age of 39, in 1983, Joe Lewis launched a comeback which saw him earn a top-10 PKA world ranking. In his bid for a title Lewis defeated T. Morrison, Charlton Young, Melvin Cole and Curtis Crandal. On April 16, Lewis lost to Tom Hall in an upset. On August 10, Lewis suffered a disappointing 4th round technical knockout (TKO) loss to US heavyweight champion Kerry Roop for the PKA US heavyweight title. Lewis retired after the defeat. Joe Lewis's competitive career in kickboxing and PKA full-contact karate ended with a combined record of 15 wins and 4 losses (The PKA World title record was 5 wins 4 losses). In 1990 Lewis (198 lbs) fought one last exhibition kickboxing/karate match with friend Bill Wallace (166 lbs) on pay per view. Both Lewis and Wallace were refused a boxing license because of their age. The exhibition ended with two judges scoring a tie and one judge giving the fight to Wallace in the exhibition event.