Keith Vitali Interview, one of the 10 best fighters of all time
Keith Vitali began his career in films as a featured player in “Force Five” and then landed the starring role with Sho Kosugi in “Revenge of the Ninja“. Next, he co-starred with the famous Jackie Chan in “Meals on Wheels”. Mr. Vitali went on to star in No Retreat No Surrender 3 and “American Kickboxer”. Later he Co-Produced another Seasonal Film’s production entitled “Bloodmoon” starring Gary Daniels.
Vitali began his martial arts career at the University of South Carolina in 1971 and it only took two years for Mr. Vitali to earn his 1st degree Black Belt. He began competing in regional tournaments then moved on to major events throughout the United States, then the world. Before he was done, Keith was named World Karate Champion one time, and US National Karate point Champion 3 consecutive years. (1978-1980). Keith is considered one of the 10 Best Fighters of all time according to Black Belt Magazine and was inducted into the Black Belt Hall Of Fame. He has appeared on more than a dozen Covers of other National Martial Arts Magazines.
Mr. Vitali has received numerous Lifetime Achievement Awards including being inducted into Officials Karate’s Legion of Honor, into the Diamond Nationals Hall of Fame, Blue Grass Nationals Hall of Fame, and as a Centurion in Joe Corley’s Battle of Atlanta. Keith was also inducted into the prestigious Black Belt Hall of Fame as ‘Fighter of the Year’ in 1981. Keith Vitali was also inducted into South Carolina’s Martial Arts Belt Hall of Fame and Fighter International Hall of Fame.
Budomate: Thank you for your time Mr. Vitali. Please tell us more about your archievements in martial arts, who was your first instructor, how and when did you come to your first club? Who or what was your inspiration?
Keith Vitali: I was encouraged to visit a Tae Kwon Do class at the University of South Carolina in the summer of 1971 by a high school buddy. At that time, I was attending a college in Charleston, SC on a track scholarship. (Distant runner, cross-country, mile, etc) Immediately after meeting John Roper, a solid tough and nails Korean black belt instructor and seeing the martial arts for the very first time, I decided to drop my scholarship, and enroll into USC the next semester to take up Tae Kwon Do.
Looking back, I realize that apparently my personality was and is quite obsessive when I am hooked on something I love. I became obsessed with the kicking aspect of karate and perfected the side kick at an early stage. In the early 1970’s, it was common practice for fighters to visit your karate school and challenge anyone for a fight. It was a different era and being located in Columbia, a city with a major army fort, Fort Jackson, there were was a steady flow of fighters from around the country who visited our school for a challenge.
My instructor, John Roper held me back as a white belt for 1 year, 2 months. It has to be a record for remaining a white belt. During this time, in the pre-gear era, it was usually I who was asked to represent our school in these challenges. By the time I reached green belt, I had cracked the ribs of 51 different fighters with my side kick. I know it sounds sick that I even counted, but the times were different then.
The very first move John Roper taught me was the backfist, side kick combination. I used that move that very first day, that very first year as well as in every Grand Champion match as a black belt around the world. In the early and mid 1970’s, I was basically fighting stand still targets and if my initial backfist was blocked, it opened up a wide corridor for my side kick. It wasn’t until years later that most fighters began moving inside the ring.
My first inspiration was Bruce Lee. In the early 1970’s, Enter the Dragon was released and it blew not only me away, but all of America, but it was Joe Lewis who had the greatest impact on my fighting style. Early in the 1970’s, a couple of local South Carolina martial artist, Mike Genova and Bruce Brutschy brought Joe Lewis in for a fighting seminar. It was at this seminar when I sparred with Lewis that I was found out that incorporating foot movement was okay. He was the Heavy Weight World Champion and if he could move then so could I.
Pretty soon, I perfected all types of footwork; especially angular footwork and from that day on, I was a different fighter. I was so fortunate to have so many talented fighters to train with in Columbia SC. Mike Genova, Bruce Brutschy, Steve Vitali, Michael Goldman, John Orck, Daivd Estaphano, Tony Bell, Andy Seltzer and Richard Jackson just to name a few. From that small southern town in the states, Genova, Goldman, Jackson, Orck and myself were all were nationally rated in the top ten at one time or another. That’s one incredible pool of talent so I was fortunate to have those great fighters to train with.
Budomate: You were inducted into the Black Belt Hall Of Fame and considered one of the 10 Best Fighters of all time. When did it happen and do you remember the ceremony?
Keith Vitali: I was inducted into the Black Belt Magazine’s Black Belt Hall of Fame in 1981. This is the one Hall of Fame award every martial artist hopes for within their career and the one martial arts achievement that I’m most proud of. I received a nice plague later in the mail that I still treasure. Black Belt magazine polled the top fighters in the country and all of top names in martial arts to determine the best fighters of time. I again, was more than honored when I was considered the number 7 of All-Time-Fighter by my peers.
Budomate: First time when I saw you it was No Retreat No Surrender 3 alongside Loren Avedon. Please tell more about this movie, how did you get this role? What was the most difficult part on the sets? Did you meet Loren on the sets or before and are you still in contact (I know he moved to Hawaii not so long ago)?
Keith Vitali: I actually met Loren Avedon on the set of No Retreat No Surrender 3. He was an upcoming black belt from Los Angeles who had already starred in the 1st and 2nd No Retreat, No Surrenders. Loren is a very talented martial artist and his great kicking skills came through in the film. We still talk from time to time through Facebook.
Just a few days before the shooting began I broke my left wrist and had it put into a cast. Fortunately, the writer/producer, Keith Strandberg worked my cast into the script. The pain was almost unbearable at times while filming the fight scenes, but after the final product came out, I was pleased with the fight scenes in the film.
Budomate: In 1991 you worked on American Kickboxer with John Barrett.
What can you tell about fight choreography, did you make it in your own way or as always producer/director didn’t give you a lot of time to show everything what you want? Was it difficult to find the correct way of fighting with John Barrett (Tang Soo Do) and Roger Yuan (I know they are in connection with Chuck Norris)?
Keith Vitali: I really enjoyed my entire experience on American Kickboxer 1. I started out at first as just the co-star with John Barrett in the film, but as the filming began the executive producer wasn’t satisfied after seeing the fighting scenes in the dailies and I was asked to take over the choreography.
One of the negatives of taking over for someone is that you’re always working behind schedule and I was given little time to put the fights scenes together. On a more positive note though, one of the benefits of doing the choreography was working with our incredible cast and I’m not just saying that because it sounds good. John Barrett and Roger Yuan were both out of the Chuck Norris camp and had incredible martial arts skills.
They were a pleasure to work with and it made my job much easier knowing physically they could perform any task asked of them. And then there was Brad Morris from South Africa who was excellent martial artist who made a really convincing bad guy. He was the perfect antagonist for John Barrett who personalities didn’t always mesh off screen as well. I don’t think they are both best of friends even today, but I loved working with both of them and thought that the young actor, Rodger was going to be a big star himself one day.
I remember one time, the director asked me to also write a new scene for the film that would help tie in the final scenes. I remember working with John Barrett on the dialog together until late at night and then first thing the next morning, I put the fight scene together as we shot it. It was a pretty cool experience, writing something the night before, shooting it the next day and then seeing it on screen once the film came out. It was one of my favorite scenes in the film as well.
Budomate: You were co-producer of Bloodmoon movie with Gary Daniels and Darren Shahlavi. How did you get into this movie and what is the history behind? I sure it is one the greatest movies with amazing fight choreography, how did you come to such a style? You hired Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffrey and Darren Shahlavi for this movie, why did you choose them?
Keith Vitali: I produced Bloodmoon with my good friend, Keith Strandberg. We had worked on films together in the past and were looking for a project to work together again. Keith Wrote a good action script, Bloodmoon and we were excited when it was green lighted.
We shot the film at Screen Gems in Wilmington, NC where a good many films are made. We hired as a producer Screen Gems vice-president of operations, Gerald Waller as one of our producers and he was a tremendous help throughout the production.
Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffrey and Darren Shahlavi were fantastic leads for the film and the action speaks for itself. I had worked with Chuck in the past and knew he was a terrific actor/martial artist who had already made a name in the industry with his Stunt work. Gary Daniels, I had seen in movies, but had never worked with him before and he was everything a producer could ask for; an incredible martial artist and very good actor. I had never heard of Darren Shahlavi, but was told he was top notch so we hired him and were so grateful that we did. He’s as good of a martial artist as I have ever worked. With all that talent the action had to be great.
Budomate: You played a small part the Revenge of the Ninja movie with Sho Kosugi, which became the classic for today. How do you think what is advantage of this movie? Sho Kosugi came back as ninja in the new action Ninja Assasin, have you seen it?
Keith Vitali: Revenge of the Ninja – I was hired by Cannon Films to star with Sho Kosugi from appearing on the cover of Karate Illustrated. Cannon Films was looking for a new face and that year I had appeared on the cover of a good many of karate magazines. I was fortunate to be the number one rated fighter in America for a few years and was at the right place at the right time. Cannon offered me the starring role with Sho Kosugi and I had a great experience making the film on location in Salt Lake City in Utah.
Sho was obsessed with weapons and made most of the weapons used in the film himself. He was pretty much a control freak on the set. He actually played both parts, the good Ninja and the bad Ninja with the mask and had total control of all chorography.
I was pleasantly surprised when the movie became a national hit because I thought it was the bloodiest movie I had ever seen. It actually didn’t look like to me on the set that this movie would make it, but ask anyone in Hollywood and they will tell you, that you never know when a film will be a hit or miss. It opened up across every major screen in America and was one of the first successes for martial art films on a national level. A year or so after that movie, Sho basically vanished from the movies, but I was told he started making movies back in Japan.
And no, we couldn’t work together in Revenge 2 because Sho was adamant with the director that my role be killed off so I couldn’t ever return in the sequel. It wasn’t nothing personal, just good business if I died. I remember hearing Sho arguing with the director that he wanted to cut off my hand in my dying scene, but the director wouldn’t go for it.
Budomate: I was really impressed with fights of Wheels on Meals movie, where you united with the great Benny Urquidez, Jackie Chan and his brothers. Not many martial artists were so lucky to work with Jackie, how did you get into this? Were you a part of Jackie’s search activities for new faces? Was it absolutely another style of fight choreography?
Keith Vitali: I’ve probably written and talk about the most of my film with Benny and the great Jackie Chan. One of the greatest experiences any martial artist could ask for and I loved every minute of it. We shot on location in Barcelona, Spain and I fit in pretty quickly with the Chinese cast and crew. The cast was so incredibly talented and Benny and I knew we would have to be at our best to match up in fight scenes with that great cast.
Where I thought Revenge of the Ninja would fail at the box office while making it, I thought the opposite working on the Wheels on Meals set. The fight scenes were incredible as we shot them even without any post production like music, editing, etc.; it was pure atheistic beauty of martial art techniques. I loved fighting Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung and Jackie. I’m very proud of my role in that film and have had people tell me, it’s one of their favorites as well.
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