Don “The Dragon” Wilson is one of the very few, if not the only, martial artist who has successfully bridged a career as a full contact champion and a movie star.
According to Don, being an action star has nothing to do with being a good martial artist.
“When a producer sends me a script and makes me an offer, they never ask me about my fight record,” says Wilson. “The reputation I have as a full contact fighter has absolutely nothing to do with my success in films. If your fighting ability is related to your success as an actor then Van Damn & Segal would never have made a dime because neither on them can crack an egg”. By the same token if that were true, then Benny Urquediz would be a major film star”.
Bridging the gap between being a world class professional kick boxer and an international box office icon is something that requires total devotion. When he’s working as an actor, that’s where his focus is, the same holds true when “The Dragon” is preparing for a fight.
“When I am getting ready for a fight, I turn down every script that is sent to me,” says Wilson. “Producers don’t care about my fight record. All they want to know is ‘what did your last movie make, how much will it cost to make a Don Wilson movie and what can they expect to make at the box office?’”
According to Don people have a misconception about how his career as a fighter affects his career as an actor.
“People think that if I win a fight that will help my film career,” explains Wilson. “If that’s the case how come guys like Frank Shamrock aren’t starring in movies? It just doesn’t work that way. We don’t know if Clint Eastwood can even shoot a gun. If the success of a Dirty Harry movie really depended upon marksmanship, they would hire Olympic sharpshooters to be in their movie. Clint may not be able to hit the broad side of a barn, but he look’s great faking it. And that’s what the movies are all about. Movies are make believe”.
While Don plays down the fact that his ability in the ring affects the number of tickets sold for one of his movies he can’t deny that his kick boxing success does factor into his popularity.
Don proved to be as savvy in Hollywood’s arena as he is in the ring. He quickly learned that in order to be a finical success in the film industry it was imperative to be in control of the product.
“After my first film, I started co-producing them,” says Wilson. “What most actors do is after they’ve done 3 successful films they up their price. For example, when I started I was making about a hundred grand per film. So lets say like most actors I could now get three hundred grand because I’ve had a two or three films that have made money. So now some producer comes along and pays you three hundred grand but they do a bad movie. Sure the actor has a lot of money in his back pocket, but if you do two or three bad movies, that’s it. You’re career’s over. So what I did instead, was to co-produce my own films. I had script approval, director approval, casting approval, in other words I had control over the elements that can make the difference between a good movie and a bad one.
While Don’s films aren’t blockbusters they do turn a profit and that’s the name of the game in Hollywood.
“My first film was made for three hundred fifty thousand dollars, took us 15 days to shoot, a cheap movie,” says Wilson. “It grossed 1.7 million. Now that was a pretty good return for the money invested. In Hollywood my films are considered “without risk” because all 23 of my movies have made a profit. Then on top of what is made from a theatrical release there is HBO, video rentals and the foreign market.”
A typical Don “The Dragon” Wilson film is shot for a million or less. Don says the key element to shooting a low budget film is to have a good director, a good script and good actors. His movies are usually shot in less than 30 days and gross about 5 million dollars world wide.
While Don is always keeping his eye open for a good movie, his focus now is on his return to the ring.
“The reason why I started fighting in full contact matches was because in the 70’s Kung stylists were considered to be great in forms, but no one thought we could fight,” explains Wilson. “I wanted to prove that wasn’t true. So I began entering point tournaments and was winning. Then in 74 I fought in the first full contact fight in Florida. I continued to fight from 74 until I retired in 92. Now I am ready to come back out of retirement. I was considering the Ultimate Fighting Championship. At first I thought it might be to dangerous, then I went and watched the 3rd one and realized it was really very safe because you can stop whenever you want. If you start taking to many shots or get in a hold that hurts you can quite. No body boos you and that’s the end of the match. I though, ‘man this is really safe’. Because in kickboxing you don’t quite. You fight until someone gets knocked out. There is a built in safety factor in the UFC that other contact sports don’t have. I was ready to fight, but they just didn’t have the right kind of money for me.”
A consummate businessman, Don realizes that he is a major draw and puts a price on that commodity. If the dollars aren’t there, “The Dragon” won’t be there either. One match-up did intrigue Don however. It was a fight with “Tank” Abbot. The Dragon VRS The Tank sounded great to Don and he agreed to the contest. Unfortunately the financing fell through as did what might have been the fight of the century.
“That would have been a great fight,” says Wilson. “You know it wouldn’t end in a draw. Either “the Tank” would blast through my defense and take me out or I’d catch him in the leg or shin and put him down. There’s no doubt in my mind that a fight with him would end with a lot of damage being dealt out. It’s too bad that deal didn’t work out. It would have been an ideal match for Pay-Per-View and a great fight for the fans.
On the heels of that let down, Don got a call from a Russian fighter who heard that “The Dragon” was looking for a “coming out of retirement “ fight. They agreed on a price and things were looking pretty good. The Russian set a Pay Per View deal with Viewer Choice and Vegas wanted to host the event. Things were looking like it was a “go” until the Russian tried to withdraw funds from his Moscow account.
“The Russians would let him take his money out of the country,” explains Wilson. “They (Russia) said they would release the funds if the fight originated in Moscow. Well, the Pay-Per-View people won’t do it out of Moscow so that blew the whole deal.”
According to the World Champion Kick Boxer other offers are coming “out of the woodwork” for him to get into the ring again. In fact, Wilson told me that even as he and I were speaking a deal was being worked out which would find him fighting from an Indian Casino in the near future.
“I don’t really want to come back and do a title fight for my first fight,” says Wilson. “I’d like a 10 or 12 round main event fight with a creditable contender and see what kind of numbers I get. If there is an audience out there who would like to watch me, then I like to come out of retirement and fight a few fights. I’ like to do a little more kick boxing before I hang my gloves up. And I’d like to prove once and for all that Kung Fu stylists can really fight”.