Double Trouble

Twin dragons Mick and Martin McNamara make kick boxing a Canadian craze

by Gil Zohar


Kick Boxing superheroes Michael (Mick) and Martin McNamara have chips on their shoulders the size of boulders.

With a physique of Atlas-like strength, the gritty five foot six, 138 lb. Identical twins carry their burden with a definite grace. Indeed they both express horror at violence and senseless fighting. But underneath their surface calm the twin dragons are volcanoes ready to erupt at any moment. And that belligerent never-say-die streak has fueled their careers over the last 25 years as professional fighters, promoters, stuntmen, film stars and action movie producers.

After moving at the age of 8 from the brawling streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland - where they were child boxers - to Toronto in 1959, the McNamara twins joined a local karate club specializing in the Okinawan method of self-defence. There, they met their mentor, Paul Morin, under whose tutelage they won their first of scores of trophies at the international competitions in New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

Speaking with an Ulster brogue in a city that was slowly losing its staunch British character thanks to a liberal postwar immigration policy, the teenage twins encountered an ugly anti-Irish prejudice in inner-city Anglo-Saxon Toronto. Not surprisingly, they found the fight ring more to their taste than formal education.

Mick still winces at the memory of being strapped on the first day at Brockton High School for refusing to stand for the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. They both dropped out after grade 10 to concentrate on martial arts training. "I was bitter at the country," Mick recalls, with an edge that has never left.

Subsequent run-ins with authority were to mark the McNamara twins' life. Having mastered karate, they extended their martial horizons to encompass Kung Fu, Tolefoot, Hung Gar and Do Pie. In 1973, they became the first non-Asians in North America honored with the prestigious Masters Red Sash award.

With this stature, the tough as nails 22-year-olds opened their Twin Dragon Academy on Yonge Street in Willowdale. Today, there are eight across Ontario. They own the North York one, and former students operate the others as franchises. More than 3,000 people ranging in age from 8 to 65 are enrolled in the Twin Dragon self-defence courses. The majority are women, anxious about their physical safety.

The schools teach the twins' unique synthesis of Kung Fu and Thai Kick Boxing or Muay Thai. The new sport, which they termed North American Kick Boxing, has become the rage in recent years in martial arts circles in Canada and the United States.

"It's not as vicious as Thai boxing," explains Mick of the sport he co-invented with his brother. "We evolved out of boxing to karate to fung-fu. And then we said, "It's not working" and started kick boxing."

Much less violent than European or Thai boxing, the new sport requires that a fighter give eight kicks per two-minute round. Amateur bouts consist of five rounds for men and three for women, while world title bouts are twelve rounds for men and nine for women. Blows with the elbows or knees are prohibited below the waist. Closed headgear, shin pads, jock straps and 14 or 16 oz. Boxing gloves are mandatory for amateur fight contests, while professionals face off using a mouthpiece and 8 or 10 oz. Gloves, as well as a jock strap and shin pads.

North American Kick Boxing's strict regulations and tight enforcement have meant the brothers have never had a serious injury at one of their schools in 25 years. The worst wounds have been the occasional bloody nose or black eye. In contrast, two deaths resulted in kick boxing matches in Ireland and Russia in 1998, where the less stringent Thai rules were applied.

"There are people hurt in karate tournaments every week," Mick notes of Twin Dragon's impressive safety record. "We've worked too hard to have anyone else come in and ruin (North American) kick boxing."

That hard work has resulted in an impressive roster of 30 licensed fighters whom the McNamara's represent. Chantal Nandon of North Bay, one of their proteges, won the prestigious Fight Factory Karate Association world championship at a tournament the twins sponsored here last September. Other kick boxing world champions include Rico Tatangelo, Mike Reid, Leo Lucks, Peter Freer, Paul Biafore, and Rob Borden. Tomasz Trojanowski became North American Champion while Roger Ying won both the Canadian and U.S. championships.

"We know how to make World Champions," Mick states matter-of-factly. Beginning in 1986, the twins began staging professional kick boxing fights every few months. Besides garnering tens of thousands of grassroots devotees, the new sport attracted the attention of the Ontario Athletic Commission. In 1988, the OAC, concerned over unscrupulous promoters staging unsafe fights, announced a six-month moratorium on further fights, pending a study.

That ban, instituted by OAC Commissioner Ken Hayashi, wasn't lifted until May 1994, when the twins staged a showdown at Lamport Arena - complete with 7,000 fans, corrupt police on the take from jealous boxing promoters, Mafiosi, anxious to preserve their traditional turf, motorcycle gangs, irate OAC officials and a dragon parade through the streets of Chinatown.

That bizarre but completely true story, enhanced by a bevy of blond bimbettes, forms the plot of The Right To Fight, a feature-length action film which the twins produced and co-starred in. The docu-drama, scheduled for this fall, recounts the McNamara brothers' travails in getting their sport legalized. True to character, the ever-independent twins are staging the daylong debut - which will include a prize match, film premiere and party - all on their own.

"Every martial arts movie doesn't have to be a brother-kills-brother story," Mick reflects. "How about a plot that's real? I took them (the Ontario Athletic Commission) on and I beat them."

The film is the brothers' most ambitious to date, and includes a theme song, "The Right To Fight", performed by pop-rock star Billy Butt. Their two earlier low budget B movies, Twin Dragon Encounter and Dragon Hunt, made in 1988 and 1989 respectively, still enjoy a cult status among those who consider Bruce Lee a gifted actor.

What of the future?

Besides ongoing Twin Dragon-run kick boxing matches, the brothers are busy finishing up their latest feature film.

"The clubs are our bread and butter," Mick acknowledges. "The fights are big risk. We're hoping to take kick boxing to TV. That's where the money is."

But for the Twin Dragons, lucre seems secondary.

Reflecting back on a quarter century in the martial arts industry, Mick concludes: "We've seen the biggest health clubs and the biggest karate schools come and go. And we're still here."

Flexing his rock hard abdomen muscles, he notes that neither he nor Martin have gained or lost a pound in 25 years. "You get commercial, you get soft. We love what we do."