By Michael Schiavello
Michael Schiavello’s love affair with kickboxing and the fight game can be traced back to one specific moment, or more precisely one specific person.
American Dennis Alexio was kickboxing’s heavyweight world champion when I interviewed him in Melbourne in 1992. He was a big shark in a small pond, boasting an unbeaten record as a heavyweight, with his only loss coming to Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson as a light heavyweight. Three years earlier he had shot to international fame with a starring role alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in the hit film Kickboxer. I remember watching Kickboxer in high school and one of my friends saying, ‘That guy who played Van Damme’s brother is the real heavyweight kickboxing champion.’ We didn’t believe him. Of course this was the same friend who said it was illegal to attain any more than a fifth dan black belt practising martial arts in Australia. Strangely I believed that at the time!
Alexio was in Melbourne for the most hyped fight in kickboxing history against Stan ‘The Man’ Longinidis. It had taken more than a year for the fight to come to fruition, since Longinidis first jumped on the ropes following a victory in the USA, picked Alexio out of the crowd of ringside observers and challenged him to a fight. Alexio, who was sitting among such company as Chuck Norris and Priscilla Presley, felt Longinidis had embarrassed him and vowed to make the Australian pay one day. Thanks to some crafty negotiating from promoter and fashion king Christopher Chronis, including giving in to Alexio’s demands that the fight be set for 12 x 3 minute rounds (as opposed to the normal 12 x 2) and that both men wear shin and instep protectors (as opposed to the normal bare shin and bare feet), the fight was set for December 6 1992 at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre.
At the time I was hosting my own Sunday morning sports show on community station Southern FM (3SCB). I was known as “Mr Scoop”, a 17 year old kid who somehow managed to get exclusive interviews with international sports stars where professional journalists failed. I’d interviewed everyone from cricket stars such as Wasim Akram and Richie Richardson to tennis stars such as Goran Ivanisevic and Stefan Edberg, and even soccer great Pele.
I discovered that Alexio was staying at the Rydges Hotel in town and so performed my usual trick of simply calling up and asking to be put through to his room. I dropped my voice an octave again but refrained from faking an American accent for obvious reasons.
“Are you a friend or associate of Mr Alexio’s?” asked the receptionist.
“I’m from a major radio station and have a live interview scheduled with him in two minutes,” I lied with a sense of urgency.
“Of course sir,” came the quick reply. “Connecting you now.”
That afternoon I caught a bus into town and found myself sitting in the hotel room of the world’s heavyweight champion. He was dressed in black tracksuit pants and a sky blue singlet, showing off a massive pair of tanned arms with biceps so large they looked ready to break through the skin. Indeed everything about Alexio screamed larger-than-life. He oozed charisma and it wasn’t hard to see why he had been offered several more silver screen roles and developed the biggest following in kickboxing history – especially among female fans.
There are some interviews you remember in sound bites and some that are so tediously boring that you simply forget them altogether. It says something about Alexio’s persona that I can remember just about every sentence of our interview by heart.
The obvious questions were about his upcoming fight with Longinidis and his thoughts on Australia’s premier kickboxer.
“He’s a different breed of animal,” Alexio responded. “I’m a professional killing fightingmachine. He’s just a prima donna who’s trying to get by with a few Hail Mary’s and stuff like that. He’s calling my house, calling me up, asking me if I want to hang out with him when I come to Australia and party with him. What is that shit? I don’t want to hang out with this guy. I’m just here to kick his ass! You know Stan has beaten some Z-grade fighters and called himself a world champion. What the fuck is that? He fought a guy named Okad Muhammed – I mean what a duck. The guy’s real name is Melvin Cole and he’s fucking horrible. Stan fights him and calls himself a champion? But that’s okay because everyone will know come Sunday night and he’s knocked out cold doing the chicken dance. Ten-four message received brother.”
We then chatted about Don Wilson, Alexio’s nemesis who had also found fame on the silver screen with a string of straight-to-video action films.
“Don Wilson’s a pansy ass, that’s all there is to it. Last time we fought it was a hometown decision to him. I’d love to fight that guy again. If you call him a movie star because of Z-rated movies, well that’s fine and dandy. That’s one guy I’d just love to take care of, in the street or in the ring, I don’t mind I just don’t really care for the guy.”
Finally we spoke about Van Damme.
“Jean-Claude was never a real kickboxer. Everyone knows that. On the set of (Kickboxer) we used to spar but it was never real sparring, it was more like a game of tag. I mean, Jean-Claude has some good kicks and he’s flexible, but he doesn’t have any power. He’s not a fighter, he’s just an actor.”
After nearly forty minutes the interview concluded and I knew once again I had gold on tape. I wished Alexio all the best for the fight and left the room, eager to get outside, rewind the tape and listen to the champ’s mini-tirades again on my bus ride home.
I was standing in the corridor, waiting for the elevator, when Alexio’s door opened. He walked out and stood next to me, looking me up and down curiously. Something was on his mind.
“How old are you anyway?” he asked.I swallowed hard. By this stage I’d interviewed a lot of sports stars – many of higher profile than Alexio – but none had ever asked this question. I don’t know why but I was afraid of telling the truth. Perhaps I liked the guy so much that I didn’t want him to think me a fan boy with a tape recorder. I wanted to be taken seriously. After all, what did my age matter? I researched my subject material as well as any professional, I never faltered in my questions and I never gushed or appeared star struck.
I hesitated to answer, praying that the elevator door would open and provide a timely distraction.
Taking a deep breath I looked Alexio in the eyes and answered that I was seventeen.
Alexio locked onto my gaze and nodded silently. Then after a long moment, as if he was trying to decide what to say next, perhaps even knowing that his words would have an impact on my young mind, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good for you. You’ve got a big future. So where are you going now?”
“Going to catch a bus home,” I answered, allowing my seventeen-year-old self to come through.
“You want to get some lunch?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said trying to stay calm, but inside me every fibre of my body screamed excitedly. Here I was, a teenager on school holidays, who had just spent more than half an hour chatting to the heavyweight champion of the world; a man who counted Chuck Norris, Steve Sax and Bob Wall among his friends; who was the highest paid kickboxer in history; who had co-starred in a major blockbuster with the biggest action star in the world – and he was asking me to lunch!
We dined in the hotel restaurant: I ate a hamburger while Alexio ate a steak with a slice of pineapple. Now it was his turn to ask the questions as he developed a curiosity about what I did and whom I had interviewed. I rattled off the names of the cricketers I had spoken to, to which he shrugged and said, “Brother, I have no idea about cricket. What is that, like baseball? Except the ball’s aloud to bounce, right? Give me boxing, baseball and basketball… and fishing. I love fishing. I hold records, you know.”
“Really? I love fishing too. Salmon, mullet, bream—”
“Screw that small shit. I’m talking deep-sea spear fishing man. I spear six-foot trevally around the reefs and the underwater caves back home. You ever seen one of those monsters? They’re fucking huge! That’s like combat fishing right there. It’s a buzz man.”
Three days later Alexio squared off against Longinidis in the greatest anti-climax in ring sport history. Alexio’s walk to the ring lasted longer than the fight itself. Only 14 seconds into the first round, Alexio blocked a Longinidis kick with his shin. Crack! As soon as he stepped down on the full weight of his leg, Alexio went to canvas, his fibula and tibia shattering under him.
I was in shock, and so too were the record eight thousand fans who had packed into the arena to watch this most anticipated of fights (and another three thousand at the Metro night club watching on closed circuit TV. These were the days before kickboxing was televised nationally).
While all the hoopla surrounded Longinidis, I slipped backstage to track down Alexio. I had a media pass for the event but it was not to access all areas, and thus the dressing rooms were off limits – a minor hurdle as far as I was concerned. With a briefcase in one hand and a pen and notepad in the other, I kept my head down and walked quickly, remembering the advice of Michael Keaton’s hotshot journalist in the movie The Paper: ‘A clipboard and a confident wave will get you into any building in the world.’
I got past one security guard who himself was too caught up in the euphoria taking place in the ring, turned into the backstage corridor and spotted Alexio’s stretcher being carried towards his room.
I made a beeline for the stretcher, giving a confident wave to two security guards while walking so briskly as to make it look like there was somewhere important I needed to be. I reached Alexio’s dressing room and stepped inside, positioning myself in a corner to get a good look of what was going on without being noticed.
Alexio was laid up and still wearing the Hawaiian grass skirt that was his trademark. Around him stood a couple of medical staff, his friend and manager Bob Wall (also of movie fame, having starred opposite Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon) and boxing world champion Jeff Fenech who kept mumbling over and over, “It’s alright champ. It’s alright champ.”
Amidst all the morbid faces Alexio spotted me in the corner and gestured for me to come closer. I must have looked like I was about to cry for as soon as I got close enough he reached out, touched my arm reassuringly and said, “Don’t worry Mike, I’ll be fine.”
Shortly after he was wheeled to a waiting ambulance.
The day after the fight I sat at my typewriter and wrote a story about my encounter with Alexio. It was a story straight from the heart detailing the impact he’d had on a wet-behind-the-ears kid and the boost of confidence he had given me. I sent the story to the hospital and signed it with my home phone number.
A day later the home phone rang. Mum came into my room telling me that “some American- sounding man” wanted to speak to me. It was Alexio, and he had read my story.
“Mike, I want to thank you for that story. No one has ever written something like that about me and I’m going to take it home to Hawaii and put it on my mantelpiece. Brother, you have a big future ahead of you. If you ever need anything from me, I’m giving you my number and don’t be afraid to call. If you ever come to Hawaii, mi casa su casa my brother.”
Alexio and I kept in contact by phone for several years. Not a birthday, Easter or Christmas went past when he didn’t call my house to say hello. He recovered from the leg injury and continued fighting, winning most every fight by knockout. He also married a beautiful woman from Waianae and they later had a son named Titan.
After not having seen Dennis for 15 years I had the opportunity to catch up with him in Honolulu in 2007 when I was in Hawaii to commentate the K-1 USA. I’d spent my time before the show exploring Honolulu with Ray Sefo and Jan Nortje, both of whom became instantly excited when I invited them to lunch at Duke’s, Waikiki Beach, with Alexio.
As soon as he saw me Dennis wrapped me in a hug. He still exuded the same warmth he’d shown me 15 years ago but there was something different about him now. When I was 17 I’d seen him as a Herculean figure with a physique and aura of almost mythological proportions. Now in his 50s, his once thick mane of jet black hair had whittled down to near baldness and he looked more like a lean super middleweight that the former, muscle-bound heavyweight champion of the world. His skin was as bronze as I remembered but now sagged a little in his cheeks and wrinkled around his eyes. He was just as tall as he’d always been, of course, but in my eyes he seemed shorter and far removed from the human skyscraper I’d view him as through teenage eyes. Most strikingly though, his aura of greatness had gone. Fifteen years ago that aura had burned so bright as to have blinded, but now all that remained was a small flame dancing on a skinny wick.
As happy as I was to see Dennis, a large part of me felt suddenly empty. Seeing him through an adult’s eyes had in an instant obliterated a formative teenage memory that had gone a long way in helping me become a man. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t know what to feel. All I knew was that I should hold onto that hug for as long as I could and that I would hold onto my two Dennis Alexio experiences — 15 years removed — for the rest of my life.