With a fighting and acting career spanning over four decades, Don “The Dragon” Wilson has become one of the most recognized names and decorated fighters in martial arts history. Known for plenty of cult classic movies, including the Bloodfist series, Future Kick and many, many more, Don Wilson has also competed against former MMA champions, world renowned coaches and plenty of top caliber fighters in his kickboxing career. More recently, he has been active in martial arts movies once again with Showdown in Manila and some unique roles in Traditionz Entertainment’s The Martial Arts Kid and Paying Mr. McGetty. Don provides his valuable time discussing his career and upcoming work in this interview.
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FOG!: Tell us a bit about your early life, before even your illustrious martial arts career. What was life like growing up?
Don Wilson: I was born in Alton, Illinois but moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida when I was 5 so I have very few memories there. Most of my early years as a child were spent near the beach watching the launches from Kennedy Space Center because my father was a NASA Engineer and my first desire for a career was to be an Astronaut. I was the only Asian looking kid in my school but learned very early that if one was good in sports, anyone would be accepted. I ended up being the MVP of my High School Football and Basketball Teams. We moved to Rockledge, which was about 15 miles inland, when I was about in the 3rd Grade and I lived there until my Junior Year in High School when I enrolled in a Prep School St Andrews in Boca Raton, Florida. After Graduating in 1972, I attended the US Coast Guard Academy for 1 year and then transferred to BCC in Cocoa, Florida graduating with an AA in Electrical Engineering. I went to Fort Knox, Kentucky and competed a 6 week Basic Training Camp in case I needed financial help for school. I then attended FIT but dropped out to become a Kickboxer. In 1985 I retired the first time as the World Lightheavyweight Champion and moved to LA to become an actor.
Was there any one particular moment when you knew martial arts would be your path, or did things just happen to fall into place at the right time? Is there anything you would have changed, if given the chance?
I knew very early on that I enjoyed studying the Martial Arts. It had aspects of learning and practicing that were missing in many sports. The Honor, Respect, Discipline, Humility, etc. taught in Traditional Martial Arts took “Good Sportsmanship” to another Level for me. My desire to improve as a martial artist began to consume me and I loved working every day to improve my skills and gain more knowledge in the Fighting Arts. I did not know in the beginning how far I could go but I wanted to find out and was willing to do whatever it took to improve.
Timing is everything and I started in 1972. Kickboxing in the US started in 1974; I moved to LA to be an actor in 1985; In 1987 Blood Sport was released and the Martial Arts Movie Boom time started.
I’ve always been very lucky….I am careful not to desire a change in my past because EVERY experience has the potential to improve you as a human being, even the Bad Ones!
You have starred in numerous cult classic martial arts and action films. What are your personal favorites to have been a part of?
Red Sun Rising is one of my all-time favorites and was one of my four HBO World Premieres. It was produced by my former personal manager Paul Maslak, Neva Friedenn, and Ashok Amritraj. The character “Hoshino” is probably the closet one to me so far in my career as an actor. That made some things easier, but also forced me to make some adjustments as well.
Forced to Fight was a fun project because Richard Roundtree did such a fantastic job as “Stark” that I would forget we were in a movie while watching and listening to him. That is a fantastic feeling on a movie set and one that I really respect in an actor….that ability to make you forget you’re “acting”.
The recent Traditionz Entertainment films have brought you back working with Cynthia Rothrock as you have a few times before. How much does it help to have somebody around who comes from the same era and has a similar veteran status?
It’s great to work with Cynthia Rothrock for many reasons. First, I have great respect for her as a martial artist and actor, Second, we have been friends since the mid 80’s, so when we are together working on a movie, I totally trust her instincts regarding her character in a scene as well as her handling the skills necessary to make the action safe.
We had the same agent for many years and both got our Black Belts in Pai Lum Kung Fu. That’s a lot of unlikely coincidences… I think when we work together, we bring out the best in each other. It’s been a lot of fun and I hope we can work together again in the future.
In The Martial Arts Kid, you are given a change of pace, this time playing the role of mentor. How was it for you having to adjust to a very different style of character than in years past?
I have been a professional actor since my first film ABC in New York City Chinatown filmed in 1982. I’ve played good guys and bad guys so that gives an actor a lot of “range” to play with and experience. “Uncle Glen” was a fun character because he liked to “mess” with Robbie a little, such as telling him he is “getting him some wheels”, while parking next to some cars for sale. Most of my “Action Leading Man” characters don’t have a sense of humor like that and therefore are more straight-forward. It is always more interesting to experiment with different character traits, etc. than just keep repeating things that have worked for me in the past. Jansen was such an interesting actor in that he was able to portray Robbie as sympathetic while outwardly being a somewhat trouble maker with attitude.
Something we’re very used to seeing in martial arts movies are training montage segments. However, one thing that seemed very different in The Martial Arts Kid, as opposed to plenty of other similar films, was the use of actual instruction during said segments, in a way that might even convince the viewers to try some of the tricks and techniques out themselves. How much creative input did you have in that process, and was that something that was given deliberate focus?
My brother James did not want us to use “movie teaching” lessons in the film. He wanted real-life training for practical fighting techniques so that is what we taught. We did not “chase chickens” like Rocky did or wash cars like The Karate Kid. I taught Robbie lessons which I show all over the world in my “Dragon Fighting Seminars”. Watching The Martial Arts Kid provides some very real “lessons” and the teaching is authentic. I’d like to take credit for it but it was James” idea and Michael Baumgarten and I worked together to make those “school” scenes work as necessary for the story.
In Paying Mr. McGetty, once again you appear in an atypical role, this time providing some interesting deadpan humor as a feared man of few words. This had to have been one of the more unique and different experiences for you as an actor. How did that come about?
I really had fun playing “Shota” in Paying Mr McGetty. I combined 2 Hit Men who I found interesting, “Leon” in The Professional and the hitman in No Country for Old Men. They were both unique, scary, funny, and dangerous at the same time. I wanted Shota to have some “code” and, hopefully, the audience would be interested in why he is helping Tyrell instead of giving him the “beat down” for which he was paid. My brother and Michael asked me to play Shota, I read the script , said “Yes” immediately, and “the rest is history”.
In your heavily decorated kickboxing career, you hold wins over the likes of Maurice Smith and Mike Winkeljohn, both of whom became prominent figures in what is now known as MMA; Smith became a UFC champion, while Winkeljohn runs one of the most prominent MMA training camps in the world. Do you ever think about how you essentially pioneered a movement via your martial arts experience and movies to eventually bring martial arts to a more mainstream level?
I am only one of MANY Martial Artists who have helped move Martial Arts more into the mainstream for people all over the world.
I feel the study of the Martial Arts is really a way of life that encourages the constant desire to improve in every way. It focuses our attention on the evolution of the entire person, which includes Body, Mind, and Spirit. This is something that brings humanity together in respect, friendship, and hope.
The more we promote the study and practice of the Martial Arts….the better the world will be for everyone.
If I have been a part of that, I would am honored.
Along those same lines, you have done some commentary for early UFC events. What is your opinion of the current MMA landscape, not only in the US but on an international level? Who are some of your favorite fighters, past or present?
I enjoy watching MMA bouts and believe it can be a very important part of Traditional Martial Arts. It is just the combination of Kickboxing with the grappling arts.
As a former collegiate wrestler, the average untrained opponent would be no problem “on the ground” , however, by studying submission fighting, ground and pound, etc. we can defend ourselves better in case we end up on the ground in a self defense situation.
I prefer to stand on my feet and fight because I do not want my groin or eyes attacked while rolling on the ground. That said, I am very hard to hit and move much better than an untrained “street fighter” so my superior offensive weapons would do a lot of damage while my defense holds his strikes at bay. I think MMA training can help overall self defense skills but I just prefer to keep on my feet in any self defense confrontation. I like a LOT of different fighters but do not want to name any because I will surely forget one I should have mentioned. So, I’ll just say I like a lot of the young fighters today as well as many of the retired MMA Fighters.
You have been very active for well over four decades, not only as a professional kickboxer but also as an actor. How have you managed to maintain yourself so consistently for so long?
I feel great after playing College Football, Basketball, and Wrestling, Boxing, Point-Fighting, Kickboxing, etc. All those contact sports caused me LOTS of damage and injuries. But, at 45 I began taking Vitamin, Mineral, Protein Supplements as well as improving my diet and, now, I am COMPLETELY HEALED and PAIN FREE! I think everyone can improve their health if they live and train for “LIFE” not a sport or competition. Go to a Health Food Store and buy the best quality products you can afford, improve your eating habits, exercise, meditate away all negative thoughts, and let your 3 million years of evolution give you a new, healthy, happy body-life! I am now 63 and feel better than when I was 45!
Are there any projects we can look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I have a script Blood Raid, which is an ALL OUT ACTION FILM designed to be a B-Movie Star Expendables style action film. It is “Die Hard meets From Dusk ’til Dawn” and we’ll film in LA as soon as “the money’s in the bank”. I’m hoping to be filming later this year. They are also writing the script for The Martial Art Kid 2-Payback so I’m looking forward to a busy year. Thanks for letting me speak to your audience and thanks to all my fans for supporting my work! It is appreciated!!!