Thursday, August 15, 2013

Aaron Banks: Martial Arts' Ultimate Promoter

This past May, Aaron Banks, the prolific martial arts promoter of tournaments and exhibitions, passed away. It was sometime during the first week of May; the exact date of his passing is unknown as he died of an apparent heart attack alone in his New York apartment at the age of 85. Banks began his training in traditional karate in 1958, enduring numerous sparring matches with no protective gear on blood splattered decks on his journey to black belt. By the sixties he began promoting karate tournaments in Manhattan, first at the Felt Forum and then at the much larger Madison Square Garden, showcasing the talents of Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis, among others.

In the seventies his event, now officially dubbed The Oriental World of Self-Defense began to include interdisciplinary matches pitting practitioners of kung fu against karate, judoka against wrestlers, and boxers versus kickboxers. There were other attractions that could be considered carnivalesque in nature, but not in Banks' view:

"May we have absolute quiet, please," he says, "for this master who is going to take his sword and slice a cucumber resting against his student's throat!" Banks has been accused by his critics of putting on a circus, but he replies, "Anything that demonstrates that kind of control, with or without a weapon, is martial arts. When William Chen lies on the stage and shows the strength of his body by allowing himself to be run over by a motorcycle, that is martial arts. When Joseph Greenstein, a 92-year-old vegetarian known as the Mighty Atom, drives spikes through steel with his bare hands and bursts a chain with the strength of his chest, that is martial arts."

In a 1979 interview Banks claimed that Bruce Lee had taught him the basics to dim mak or the "death touch", even claiming that Lee himself succumbed to the ancient Chinese technique. In reality, Lee scoffed at martial arts hocus pocus and even doubted the existence of chi, the vital energy allegedly required to perform the dreaded dim mak.

Ironically, Banks loathed the advent of the UFC in the nineties, claiming that mixed martial arts were not really about true martial arts but more to do with making money. I wholeheartedly agree that the "art" aspect is lost in MMA. But then so is having a ninja catch a flaming arrow with his teeth in front of 20,000 gasping ticket holders.

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