The day James found out he had prostate cancer just so happened to be his 68th birthday.
Initially, “I threw a pity party,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘What in God’s name am I doing? I’ve been a fighter my whole damn life.’”
James doctor recommended surgery, but after seeing local television ads featuring Olympic ice skater and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton – the “little ice skating guy,” as James calls him – he made it point to learn more about proton therapy.
“For 72 hours straight I was on my computer,” James remembered.
That research led him to start making phone calls. He called other cancer centers, cancer patients, and the Provision CARES Proton Therapy. He learned that proton therapy would significantly lower the risk of common side effects of surgery for prostate cancer, such as impotence and incontinence. It would offer a better chance to maintain a good quality of life after the cancer was gone.
“I called up, canceled my surgery, and said, ‘Later, dude,’” James said.
He has had no regrets. The Provision experience was positive, the staff was wonderful, and he says he felt good throughout the treatment.
A Fighter’s Background
James started out as a “little, scrawny” kid with glasses, growing up in a rough neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. He says his status as a target for bullies drew him into martial arts, which he discovered one day at the local community center. His teacher didn’t show up for the magic class he and his brother were taking, and James wandered into a room with “lots of guys in white pajamas and colored belts.”
The experience was transformational. James soaked up all the local instruction he could find as a child. When he landed as a soldier on the border with Korea during the Vietnam War, his training began in earnest, starting with the Korean Army based just across the river border where he was stationed. Following the war, he re-enlisted and returned to Korea to study with a variety of Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu masters. He spent a total of five years in the country.
The Korean fighters were initially hesitant to accept him into their ranks, James said in an interview for the book, Korean Kung Fu: The Chinese Connection. But they quickly recognized his previous training and skill, and “just accepted me with open arms,” he said.
His connections in the Korean martial arts world led to appearances as the first black man in Korean cinema, with roles in two fighting movies, Wind from the East and The Last Five Fingers.
Upon his return to the U.S, James began a storied career in the martial arts. He won the U.S. Karate Association Grand Nationals in 1977 and was listed as one of 10 “Top Male Karateka in the United States” that same year. He won the World International middleweight championship in 1979. He is an inductee into the International Karate & Kickboxing Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He is the subject of several book chapters and has been featured widely in martial arts publications. As a Master Instructor, he has coached several top names in the field of martial arts.
Additionally, James served in the Army as a military police investigator and hand-to-hand combat instructor. Having left in 2008, James said he was the last Vietnam veteran from Knoxville, Tenn. to retire from military service.
A Second Passion
While “James” is famous in fighting circles, it’s “Jimmy” who made his reputation as a musician. James, whose grandfather taught him to play guitar, started writing songs at age 10. He has worked with The Dazz Band, The Impressions, Lee Greenwood, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Stevens, and others. He was signed as a recording artist by Otis Blackwell – noted songwriter for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Peggy Lee. In 2000, “Jimmy” released an album, Reunion of Life, dedicated to his time in Vietnam.
“Because of my background in martial arts, I got tired of people approaching me while I was on stage performing,” he said, noting that he would use a different last name to help mask his real identity.
Still, he wasn’t able to shed his fame as a fighter completely.
“The first night I performed with that stage name, a guy walked up and said, ‘You look just like another guy I know,'” quipped James.
Lately, James has been living a quiet life in Tennessee, only recently taking up fighting again in the senior ranks and launching a new career making custom guitars. Then came his cancer diagnosis.
“I made a promise that I’d live until I was 120,” he says. “And I’m going to live up to that promise.”
Spoken just like that scrawny little kid from Cleveland who grew up to be a fighter.