Karate should first be a martial art. Then, sport is used to test your levels and skill.Frank Smith
The legendary Bill “Superfoot” Wallace named him in his list of “Top 10 Karate Fighters of All Time”, and he has also been described as “America’s greatest JKA Fighter“. Frank Smith was one of the big stars of the tournament scene in the 1960s and 70s. He was a big man who was extremely agile and smooth in his movements. He was so good that many of the top fighters of the day, including Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris sought him out to train with him.
Frank Smith was born in Los Angeles County in 1945. He grew up in the 1950s when there was a strong gang culture in the area. He had frequent run-ins with some of the Mexican gangs and this made him into a tough kid.
Around 1956 Smith began learning Judo. He joined a club with his best friend and trained for about six months. However, the instructor quit and the club closed.
By the time Smith was in high school, he was a physical specimen. Being fed well by his mother he had reached the height of 6ft 1in and weighed 200lbs. His high school coaches wanted him to play sports like Basketball, American Football, or Wrestling. They tried everything to convince him to join their teams. However, he was more interested in fighting.
In 1958 Smith switched from Judo to Shorin-ryu Karate, training under Bill Babich. Classes were held in the nearby city of Commerce, on the outskirts of Los Angeles County.
Under Babich, Smith reached brown belt. He travelled to Phoenix, Arizona once a month to receive extra lessons from Robert Trias, an early pioneer of Karate in America.
Smith graduated from high school in 1966. He was also promoted to 1st Dan that year.
In 1961 the JKA gave a demonstration at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Demonstrations were given by Hidetaka Nishiyama and Teruyuki Okazaki. Smith attended the event and was blown away by the performances he saw. He knew he had to train with these JKA instructors.
November of 1962 saw Smith join Nishiyama’s All-American Karate Federation (AAKF). Smith has said that Nishiyama was the best instructor he ever trained with. He had the ability to motivate his students. He managed to get every ounce of sweat from them, by pushing them to their mental and physical limits. Smith loved training with him.
By 1964 Smith’s dedication to his training had seen him promoted to 1st Dan, JKA. That year he won the kumite title at the California State Championships, He also won an AAKF regional qualifying tournament for the Nationals.
The 1964 AAKF National Tournament was held in Philadelphia. Having earlier qualified through the regional qualifying tournament, Smith took part. Although only 19 years, he put in a dominant display that saw him win the title.
1965 was a pivotal year in Smith’s Karate journey. The 1st United States vs Japan Goodwill Games took place at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. It was organised by Nishiyama. The American team comprised of Smith, Harry Kresse, Takashi Aoki, Ray Dalke, Jake Webb, and Gene Takahashi. They faced an All Japan Collegiate Karate Team. Japan won 4-1, with Dalke registering the only win.
1965 also saw the visit of a JKA party touring the world. The touring party comprised of Taiji Kase, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda, and Hiroshi Shirai. Smith looked forward to training with them. He idolised Enoeda, who was a former JKA All Japan Kumite Champion. Smith had asked for Enoeda’s autograph on meeting him.
During a training session held at Nishiyama’s dojo, the best black belts at the club were selected to spar against Enoeda and Shirai. They were told to be respectful but to also show good spirit.
Smith had first sparred against Shirai. He next sparred against his idol Enoeda. At the time Enoeda was a 32-year old 5th Dan and Smith, an 18-year old 1st Dan. Ray Dalke recalled that Smith had mounted a spirited attack against Enoeda, but his attack missed by a considerable amount. Even so, Enoeda stepped back and kicked Smith squarely in the face. Smith’s face was a bloody mess. His jaw was broken in three places. No one knows why this happened. Some of those present believe this had been intentional on Enoeda’s part. We will never truly know.
James Field, another present at the training session, recalled that something changed in Smith after the incident. He became slightly colder. When his jaw healed he became a “killer” when it came to kumite, taking no prisoners. Smith never held a grudge against Enoeda over the incident. In fact, he believes it changed him from a naive boy to a man dedicated to being the best he could be.
Smith’s broken jaw kept him in hospital for a week. He had been drafted into the US Army. This was during the time of the Vietnam War. Because of his injury, he received a three-month exemption from reporting for duty. After his recuperation, he joined the California Army National Guard and remained with them for six years.
By 1966 Smith’s aura of invincibility had begun to grow. That year he won every national and international tournament he competed in. He even had victories over the Japanese, which was extraordinary, as they rarely lose.
1969 was another pivotal year in the trajectory of Smith’s life. He was a 3rd Dan. He had also won five AAKF National titles. He was so dominant that some fighters would go home if they knew he had entered the tournament. Some instructors threatened to boycott tournaments if he was allowed to compete.
In 1969 Smith had set his sets on winning an unprecedented sixth AAKF title and then going onto the inaugural World Championships as part of a very strong US team.
A month before the AAKF National tournament was due to start, in what some saw as a politically motivated move, Nishiyama told him that he and Ray Dalke would have to stop competing at a national level.
Smith was 35 years old and had not even hit his prime. It was widely believed that in a few years he would have been unbeatable. Some people felt that both Smith and Dalke were so dominant that the Japanese did not want to lose face at the 1970 World Championships to be held in Japan. Also, some AAKF members were complaining that their students were not winning anything because of Smith.
The relationship between Nishiyama and Smith had begun to deteriorate. Smith was upset that he could not compete. In the January 1984 edition of Black Belt Magazine, he stated, “It was all downhill from there, I lost all respect for Nishiyama after that“.
Smith stopped training for a couple of months, in protest of Nishiyama’s decision. When he resumed training, he felt nor showed any respect to the man he had loyally followed for a number of years. It should be noted that when asked, Nishiyama did not recall any of this happening.
To avoid any awkwardness, Smith would train with Nishiyama’s assistant, Yutaka Yaguchi, privately at the dojo twice a week. For three days he would train by himself. He followed this routine until Yaguchi was sent to Denver, Colorado to open a dojo.
Following Smith’s disappointment, he changed directions and became a firefighter in the Los Angeles area. It could be argued that he could have gone down the Professional Karate route and had a lucrative career. Some professional fighters, such as Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris had heard of him and sought him out as training partner. However, Smith was first and foremost a traditional martial artist and never followed the professional path.
In 1970 the 1st World Karate Championships took place in Tokyo, Japan. The American team, minus Dalke and Smith, made it to the final where they lost to Japan by half a point. History could have been different. The US could have been the first team to defeat Japan if both men were included. Smith did captain the US team at the 2nd World Karate Championships held in Paris, France.
Smith’s last competition came in 1974 at an international match held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the team event, the US beat Brazil. Smith felt that due to a lack of competition, his competitive edge was beginning to slip.
In 1979, dissatisfied with the AAKF, Smith and Dalke joined Teruyuki Okazaki‘s newly formed International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF).
From the mid-1970s to 1980s Smith taught Karate in the Los Angeles area. He even coached a US Team in a tournament held in Mexico City.
Karate politics still plagued Smith. In 1989 he attended an ISKF National tournament, to support and be a part of the event. However, it soon became apparent to him that he was being blackballed. He was not being asked to referee or judge any events.
Disillusioned, Smith resigned from the ISKF in April 1990. He decided to concentrate on his job as a firefighter. Although he was not a part of any organisation or dojo, Karate was an integral part of Smith. He continued training by himself.
Smith built a successful career as a firefighter. He rose to the rank of Chief of the Fire Department, retiring in 2000.
It could be argued that JKA politics prevented us from seeing one of the best competitors of his generation, at his peak. He had never wanted to be a professional Karate instructor, so had never undertaken the AAKF or ISKF Instructor Training course. Training on the course and working fulltime was not possible. This may have hampered his progress in the AAKF and the ISKF.
Smith has stated that he has never regretted any of the choices he made during his Karate journey. One of the greatest competitors American Shotokan Karate has ever seen, he remained true to himself.