“In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down, or cut him, ’till he cried out in his anger and his shame, ‘I am leaving, I am leaving, I am leaving’, but the fighter still remains.” (1969) “The Boxer” Recorded by: Simon & Garfunkel Composed by: Paul Simon
No worries if you are not a fan of the martial arts. This memory, I hold dear to my heart, is really not about the martial arts, per se, but rather about the essence of the spirit of an individual.
The cover photo above the title is a promotional shot of an old friend, Demetrius “Greek” Havanas. His friends simply called him, “Greek”. I believe I have written about him before a couple of years ago. Greek was a third degree black belt and kickboxer. He won 90 consecutive tournaments, and in 1971 he racked up 13 grand championships at the age of 21.
He was ranked in the top ten of American Karate fighters between 1971-1975. He was Texas State Karate champ for 6 years straight, and Louisiana State Champ 4 years straight. In 1975, Greek went full blown full-contact fighting in 1975.
He earned the PKA U.S. Welterweight Championship title. Turning his focus as a world contender in full-contact kickboxing. Greek amassed a record of 39 wins, 4 losses, with 24 wins as knockouts. The Star System ranked Greek #1 in the world in the welterweight division in 1980-1981. His garage was packed with trophies, wall-to-wall. In fact, he sold some to collectors when money ran short to pay for airfare when fighting in other countries.
Prior to moving to the Dallas, Texas area, I had spent three years in Sherman, Texas, about an hour north on Dallas. In those days, 7th grade was the first year of what they once called, Jr. High School. I entered Dillingham Jr. High School where they were still working out the issues of integration. Many African American kids and white kids mixed for the very first time, and it didn’t always go so well. This was 1972/1973, when race riots still popped up in the streets, gyms, and little league baseball fields. 7th grade was hard for me. I saw the ugly side of racial distrust and rage as civil rights issues were still fresh. There was gang warfare, mob brutality, and ambush violence in my school. I received the bitter end many times. There was so much a young guy shouldn’t have seen and heard.
During that same year, a church friend of mine taught me some basics in the art form of Japanese Aikido. Meanwhile, my army vet uncle, and former Golden Gloves boxer, did the same for me every so often. Before you could say jump, I became a fairly good street fighter at 12 years old…because I had to.
My single mom and I moved to the Dallas area the following summer (1973). Trust me, it was a much needed move. Although the north Dallas suburb we moved to was quiet and calm, with very little violence, I was not going to be surprised. I searched for a karate school, but found nothing in our new neighborhood. I talked my mom into letting me take the Korean form, Tae-Kwon-Do at a gym once a week at the campus where she worked, (Texas Instruments). It was free for employees and their families. Even though it was only once a week, I started and was hooked immediately!
Not long after, a top-notch Tae-Kwon-Do school opened up just five blocks from our apartment. BINGO! Great place. My instructor was once a Marine hand-to-hand combat instructor and a world karate champ from the early-mid 1960’s. Once again, I talked her into joining the school. About a year later, the school had to shut down. I was broken-hearted. I was alone with my instructor as he was packing up his belongings in the rented space. He told me of some karate champs he had trained and asked if I was sincere about continuing on with training. After he got my exuberant answer, he introduced me to this young, 5′-5″ stout sweaty guy in a shag haircut. It was Greek. He invited me to his small training center in the downtown Dallas area. Yes, I talked my mom into it. My karate buddy, Steve & I, caught a ride for workouts at Greek’s school. As soon as we walked in, we could see we were entering into the realm of some serious competitive fighters. We were sparing with national & world contenders. You might say we had landed in the cream of the crop in the karate/kickboxing world.
Through most of my high school years, we ate, slept, and breathed Karate/kickboxing. Chuck Norris would come to visit from time to time as we trained, or fought in tournaments.
Greek was highly respected around the world, and we were grateful to be trained by the very best. I was even more grateful to hear his voice from my corner cheering me on, and giving vocal cues as I fought my opponents in the ring. Being trained by, and placed around talent like that, caused an attitude of never thinking about the possibility of losing bouts. And of course, it was good training for the stuff of life’s struggles.
One summer, when I was 14 or so, I got into a fight while away at summer camp. I lost that one. I was very ashamed. When I was brave enough to tell Greek about it, he said, “You didn’t tell him who trained you, I hope.” Although it was a tongue-in-cheek remark, it was a tad hurtful. But in his own way, he was teaching me something with those words. I had to remember who I was representing with my skills. Greek didn’t train losers. It was understood I was to be an ambassador, a representative of the House Of Greek wherever I went. It was birthed out of the idea of belonging, yet sharing the quality of Greek’s training with those around me who didn’t have a clue. It was a hard lesson. I never forgot it.
During my senior year, I began to be overwhelmed with the music and acting side of my life. For the first time I began to drift a bit from the regular routine of working out at Greek’s place. After graduation in May of 1978, I began to train with him again for about a year.
Through the years, he became more and more of a friend than a martial arts trainer.
A phenomenon became apparent as the years wore on. I started to notice how my peers almost mimicked Greek’s style while sparing, or fighting in the ring. When seeing video of some of my fights, I took notice of it about my own style. Noticeable to some, a certain way of blocking punches and kicks, arm positions, stances, weaving and bobbing, etc. I don’t think it was intentional. Greek always taught us to take what we learned and develop our own style. Even today, when I look at his bouts on YouTube, or any of my peer’s fights, I can see it. Following a master closely can do that.
Once again, I broke away from regular training in 1980 as singing, life, love, and thoughts of marriage began to take more of my time.
In late 1980, or early 1981, I was engaged. One night we were seated at one of our favorite eateries in the north Dallas area. Out of the blue, in walks Greek with a few friends. There he was, looking as he always did after a workout, sweaty cut-off t-shirt and Gi pants in much need of a washing. Our eyes connected, he came over to quickly say hello. I introduced him to my bride-to-be. He made a quick joke to her about questioning my gender. I laughed, he laughed, but she was appalled by the colorful language and topic. She wasn’t impressed. Yet, I knew him and his manners, or the lack thereof. He truly was being friendly in his own way. She was a bit of a stuff-shirt from the other side of the tracks from Greek and his crowd. It was awkward, but grateful it happened. God’s timing is always best.
A few months later, on July 23, 1981, Greek, and four friends, were flying in a single engine plane from Dallas to Atlantic City, New Jersey to work the corner of one of his students who was defending his world title. While over the hills of Tennessee, the plane flew into a horrific storm and broke apart in mid-air. There were no survivors. Just like that, Demetrius “Greek” Havanas was gone at 31 years of age. I wept for days, weeks, even years.
His funeral was packed with the highly notables in the world of the martial arts at the time. Chuck Norris was a pallbearer. With tears, I thanked him for making the trip. He didn’t hide the pain in his eyes. The chapel at the funeral home couldn’t hold the crowd, as many stood in the lobby and outside. A half brother of Greek’s, who was in the Eric Clapton band, sang Joe Cocker’s, “You Are So Beautiful”. There wasn’t a dry eye among us. A minister friend of mine, who was also in Karate, was chosen to officiate the service. In his sermon, he said something like this:
“If you had the misfortune not to have known Demetrius Havanas, just look around you. Look at all of his students, competitors, and close friends. There, you will find Greek.”
He was right. Following a master closely can do that.
Greek was inducted into the World Tae-Kwon-Do Hall of Fame, American Black Belt Hall of Fame, and the Texas Martial Arts Hall of Fame. All of the martial arts publications ran a tribute to Greek, as well as sports broadcasters of that day. And I still grieve.
I honestly don’t recall much of the sermon my old friend delivered, with that one exception. But I still carry a little bit of Greek with me every day. Most who know me wouldn’t know the difference as Greek meshed with me so long ago in so many ways.
The same is true for a person of the Christian faith. If you are not of Jesus, you will not fully understand what I am about to say.
When the heart of Jesus enters, by Spirit, into the believer’s heart and spirit, a “Little Christ” begins to grow within that follower. In fact, that’s what the word, “Christian” means, “Little Christ”. Of course, sometimes the fleshly side of self doesn’t allow His Spirit to fully inject into the daily free-will of a follower. The result is the disciplines suffer. We are not robots, or programmed computers. Each believer must wear the helmet of salvation, the breastplate righteousness provides, and the spiritual cleats for traction up the steep climb of fault-hood. Each one must choose to suit-up each morning, just like the protective gear we wore in our sport.
A part of my grief remains entrenched in my lack of living-out my regenerated heart in those times. I doubt Greek ever knew I was a Christian in all the years he knew me. I was a young believer with only “lite bread” spiritual training.
I’m a big CS Lewis fan. In his book, “Mere Christianity”, he describes this process in a terrific way of imagery.
(Jesus would state:) “No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here, or a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” – CS Lewis “Mere Christianity”
Following a master closely can do that. It will always breed fuel for the race.