The Jhoon Rhee Story
Part 7: Rising Fame (1972 - 1980)
Given the role that movies played in forming the teenaged Rhee’s dream to eventually live in America and teach Tae Kwon Do, it seems only fitting that Rhee would himself star in a movie one day. In 1972, Bruce Lee wrote Rhee that he had approached Golden Harvest Films about making a Tae Kwon Do movie starring Rhee. The opportunity was exciting, but Rhee could scarcely believe it would come to pass—he had never thought of himself as an actor.
Poster for Jhoon Rhee’s 1973 film.
Nevertheless, a year later, in the summer of 1973, Rhee flew to Hong Kong to film The Sting of the Dragon Master, aka When Taekwondo Strikes. In the movie, Rhee plays Grandmaster Lee, the underground leader of a group of patriots in Japanese-occupied Korea. Not only the star of the film, Rhee also wrote the synopsis on which the plot was based. Production didn’t take long; Rhee was back in America by July 19 when Bruce Lee called to say that the movie had been edited and was ready for release. The very next day, Rhee received shocking news: Bruce Lee had passed away. Rhee was probably the last person in the U.S. to talk to the legendary “Little Dragon.”
The death of Bruce Lee was devastating for Rhee. He mourned not only the loss of his friend, but the loss to the world of martial arts. Rhee knew that Lee would have continued to make invaluable contributions to the philosophy and influence of their shared passion. So it was with special satisfaction that Rhee was later able to pass along part of Bruce Lee’s legacy to one of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali.
Rhee with Muhammad Ali.
Rhee first met Ali in 1975, before his “Thrilla in Manila” championship fight with Joe Frazier. Rhee knew that Ali and Bruce Lee never had the chance to meet, so he took the opportunity to show Ali a punch that Rhee had learned from Lee, and for which Rhee had coined a name: the “Accupunch.” An extraordinarily fast punch that is almost impossible to block, the Accupunch is based on human reaction time—the idea is to finish the execution of the punch before the opponent can complete the brain-to-wrist communication. When Rhee demonstrated the punch to Ali, Ali was unable to block it.
At Ali’s request, Rhee taught him the punch, which he used in his fight against Frazier. Later, Ali also used the Accupunch in a bout with the British champion Richard Dunn—for a knockout blow. During an interview on national TV, a reporter showed Ali a slow-motion replay of the punch and asked about its origin. “That is Mr. Jhoon Rhee’s Accupunch,” Ali explained. He later elaborated, “I learned the Accupunch from Mr. Jhoon Rhee. It acts at the exact moment you decide to hit, and there is no lag time at all. It is instantaneous. It moves at tremendous speed with no warning and accelerates like a bullet in flight. You can hardly see it.”
Rhee worked as Ali’s head coach for both the Dunn fight and for a rare boxing vs. wrestling match in Japan against the famous wrestling champion Inoki. In 1976, Rhee asked Ali to accompany him to South Korea, so its citizens could meet the man who was, at that time, the most popular athlete in the word. When they arrived in June, more than one million people showed up to cheer for Ali in an open-car parade. Rhee and Ali were in Seoul for four days, during which time Ali made more than 12 personal appearances and attended several special events.
Rhee receives the Bicentennial Sports Award as “Martial Arts Man of the Century” from columnist Jack Anderson.
Also in 1976, Rhee received a special honor of his own: he was named “Martial Arts Man of the Century” by the Washington Touchdown Sports Club. Comedian Bob Hope was the master of ceremonies at the event, a 2,000-person dinner attended by luminaries including Henry Kissinger, Wilt Chamberlain, and Rhee’s friend Muhammad Ali.