Spotlight: Dominique Valera – The King

Arguably Europe’s best known Karate competitor of the 1960s and 1970s, Dominique Valera, a true legend of European Karate, dominated the tournament scene of the era. Fighting as a heavyweight he was a multiple French and European champion. He was held in high regard by other fighters of the era, such as Ticky Donovan and Billy Higgins. Black Belt Magazine named him one of Europe’s top ten fighters on numerous occasions. He was also one of the first European karate-ka to make the successful transition to full-contact Karate.

Valera was born on 18 June 1947 in Lyon, France to a family of Spanish immigrants. He was one of six children, three boys and three girls.  His family had emigrated from Cartagena before World War Two. His father joined the French navy during the war in thanks to his adopted country.

Three of Valera’s siblings had been born in Spain before the war. He and two other siblings were born in France after the war. He and his siblings grew up in a home built by his father, on the banks of the river Rhone. However the family had to relocate following the the winter floods of 1954.

As a young boy Valera had dreams of becoming a world champion in boxing like his hero, the legendary Marcellin “Marcel” Cerdan. His mother had however prevented him from taking boxing lessons as he was already a slightly unruly child. A local priest did manage to persuade her to allow him to take Judo lessons.

In 1960 Valera saw film of Minoru Mochizuki breaking boards during a Karate demonstration. He liked what he saw and was able to take lessons at the Renaissance du Ville, located in Lyon. The club was run by Jean Perrin and François Sanchez and they taught Shotokan Karate. Valera was aged 13 at the time.

Valera soon came to realise that he was well suited to Karate. Within his first year of training he appeared to be learning at a faster rate than his fellow classmates. Karate was all he ever thought about. Although gifted he worked very hard. He recalled that he learnt the sequence of the Kanku Dai kata in only two training sessions.

After four years of training Valera was awarded his 1st Dan in February 1964 by Hiroo Mochizuki, the son of Minoru Mochizuki, who had first got him interested in Karate. In the same year his first tournament success came at the Lyonnais Championship, where he defeated his instructor of the last four years, François Sanchez, in the final.

In 1966 Valera won his first major title. He defeated Alain Sétrouk in the final to become the French Open Champion. That same year he was part of a successful French team that won gold at the European Karate Championships.

Towards the end of 1966 Valera and five other karateka decided to travel to Japan in a bid to further their Karate knowledge. The men accompanying Valera were Patrick Baroux, Jean-Robert Baroux, Philippe Ficheux and Jean-Pierre Lavorato. They bought a Citron Traction and drove to Russia before having to abandon the car just outside Moscow. They proceeded to travel to Khabarovsk. From there they traveled to Nakoka via the Trans-Siberian Railway. They then took a two day boat trip to the Japanese port of Yokohama. They were joined in Japan by Alain Sétrouk and Yoshinao Nanbu. They ended up staying with Nanbu’s grandmother.

Before travelling to Japan the men had imagined a country full of Karate masters with whom they could train. They were disappointed to find that Karate was a fairly new martial art practiced in universities or small private dojos. They traveled around Japan to trying out different styles of Karate. They were well received by Shito-ryu master, Chojiru Tani, in Kobe and Kyokushin master, Masutatsu Oyama, in Tokyo. However, the French men were generally disappointed by their reception at some clubs. As they were foreigners, some clubs refused to teach them. They eventually left Japan feeling a little disappointed.

After doing his obligatory military service Valera resumed his tournament exploits. At the 3rd European Karate Championships held in Paris, he lost to Guy Sauvin in the individual kumite final. However he was part of the successful French team that won the team kumite event.

In 1969 he won his first European title at the 4th European Championships held in London. He had previously refused to take part in the 1967 event held in London because of the political dimension of the selection process for the French National team. In the 1969 final he defeated compatriot Gilbert Gruss. He was also part of the French team that won the team kumite event.

In Europe Valera was virtually unbeatable, earning him the nickname “The King”. Several years earlier Nabu had taught him to perform an ashi-barai (leg sweep). This technique would eventually would eventually become one of his signature moves in his arsenal of techniques.

At World level and especially at the World Karate Championships Valera’s successes were mixed. Although he had team success at the 1972 event held in Paris, he never won gold in the individual event. At the 1st World Championships in 1970, he lost in the semi-finals to the eventual winner Koji Wada and came away with a bronze medal. At the next tournament held in Long Beach, USA in 1975, he was disqualified for bad behavior.

Much has been written about the Long Beach incident. The World Individual Kumite title was the only major title missing from Valera’s collection. He arrived at the tournament with high expectations. In the first round of the tournament he faced Pedro Rivera from the Dominican Republic. Valera had knocked Rivera to the ground several times during the bout. The referee felt that Valera had made excessive contact during the last knockdown and disqualified him. Feeling despondent he attacked the referee and was escorted out of the arena by security guards. Rivera went on to finish third in the tournament.

Jacques Delcourt, the head of the French Federation, was so disappointed in Valera’s behavior and how it reflected on the French nation that he banned him from the federation. Some people have speculated that Valera had used the tournament as a showcase for entry into the professional ranks of full-contact Karate.

Following the incident Valera decided to try his hand at full-contact Karate. He first met Bill ‘”Superfoot” Wallace, one of the best ever full-contact fighters, in 1974 at an exhibition match in Germany. Wallace had been present at the Long Beach tournament and had witnessed the incident. He persuaded Valera that his talents were best suited to the professional ranks. Valera remained in the United States training under Wallace for the next year in Memphis. He eventually signed a professional contract.

The following year, in 1976, Valera began his full-contact career. He won his first four professional fights via knockout. This earned him a number one spot in Black Belt Magazine’s list of “Top 10 European Karatemen”.

In 1976 Valera returned to France with the aim of introducing full-contact Karate into the country. He organised a number of courses. In May of 1976 the first professional tournament took place in France. In a star studded event Valera knocked out his American challenger.

The traditional practitioners of Karate were unhappy with the introduction of professional Karate into France and successfully lobbied the government to prevent the use of the name “Karate” being associated with full-contact. In 1976 the Sports Department of the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MJS) banned the use of the name “Full-Contact Karate”.

1978 was a big year for Valera. He oversaw the growth of full-contact Karate in France,  following his unsuccessful challenge for the World Title. He had fought Jeff Smith, for nine grueling rounds at the Pavillion de Paris. Prior to the fight he had set up the National Federation of American Boxing (FBBA). The same year he met Jacky Gerbet, the President of  the French Federation of Full-Contact. Gerbet helped promote full-contact Karate across France. He would also eventually become Valera’s coach.

Valera’s professional fighting career eventually came to an end in 1982 following his defeat of Swiss fighter Angelo Jacquod. During his professional fight career he had a fight record of 28 fights, 24 wins, 4 losses. He was twice European Champion (1976, 1977). He challenged for the World Title twice and also lost to his good friend Bill Wallace.

Valera’s competitive Karate honors include:

  • French Open Champion (1966, 1969, 1970, 1972,1973, 1975)
  • French Heavyweight Champion (1972, 1973, 1975)
  • European Individual Kumite Champion (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972)
  • European Team Kumite Champion (1968, 1969, 1972, 1975)
  • World Team Champion (1972)

From 1985 to 2000 he appeared in a number of television and movie roles alongside star such as Alain Delon, Johnny Holiday and Sylvester Stallone.

Valera has done a lot to promote Karate around the world through seminars and training courses. He firmly believes that Karate is a life long pursuit and does not stop even after a person can no longer compete. Now in his seventies this legend and pioneer of European Karate continues to train and teach everyday.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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