‘I’m going to beat you to death’: inside Bob Wall’s war on Steven Seagal
Never mind Hard to Kill. It’s been hard to take Steven Seagal seriously for 20-odd years. In recent films (yes, he’s churned out films as recently as 2019) his self-proclaimed hardman aura has been reduced to a sorry scene: standing there like a big cupboard of a man – with an impossibly fixed hairdo – while stuntmen throw themselves around in Seagal’s general vicinity.
Back in the early Nineties – around the time of Seagal’s biggest movie, the Die Hard-on-a-boat actioner, Under Siege – Seagal almost got himself in trouble with a crew of martial artists whose credentials were impossible not to take seriously. Nicknamed “the Dirty Dozen”, the gang was put together by martial arts actor Bob Wall, who has died aged 82.
Seagal’s crime? Allegedly trash talking Bob Wall’s former co-stars and real-life pals, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, and challenging anyone who fancied a fight to the death. “I haven’t met anybody who could walk up to me and want to face me,” Seagal told Black Belt Magazine in 1989.
The hot-headed Wall felt obliged to answer. “Two of my closest friends were Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee,” Wall said. “Bruce can’t defend himself. If he were alive, he would hunt Seagal down and rip his face off. And Chuck is such a nice guy, he won’t even acknowledge Seagal’s statements.”
It was not the first time that Bob Wall had stepped up to defend Chuck Norris. Back in 1972, Norris took Wall to the Hong Kong shoot of Way of the Dragon – in which Norris fights Bruce Lee. Norris’ arrival had prompted a number of public challenges. Norris was rattled but didn’t rise to it.
Bob Wall, however, was happy to fight. “My instructor, Chuck Norris, has been challenged,” said Wall in a statement to the press. “Now, Chuck is a much better fighter than I am, so I want you, whoever you are, to fight me first to see if you qualify to face him. Our fight will be held on TV so everyone in Hong Kong can see it, because I’m going to beat you to death.” Nobody accepted Wall’s offer of a televised death. The following year, Wall played the villainous bodyguard O’Hara in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
The trouble with Steve Seagal began in the mid-Eighties. Seagal had spent 15 years in Japan. He was, according to Seagal himself, the first non-Asian to open an Aikido dojo in Tokyo. Upon his return from Japan, Seagal called the state of martial arts in the US “deplorable”. As he told the Los Angeles Times in January 1986: “There are great martial artists in this town and there are imposters in this town. The imposters are the majority.”
Seagal landed some verbal blows to the mighty Chuck Norris. “I can’t stand his movies. I can’t watch them,” Seagal said. “Just because he’s a movie star doesn’t mean he’s a great martial artist”. Just as galling for Bob Wall were comments about American full-contact karate. “I don’t consider it karate,” Seagal said.
Wall had competed in the country’s first full-contact karate fights and tournaments, and managed champion fighter Dennis Alexio (who was later part of Wall’s Dirty Dozen). “When Seagal attacks the sport, he’s really attacking me,” warned Wall.
Seagal also claimed that there were no good martial arts movies – aside from a handful made by Akira Kurosawa. Seagal wasn’t entirely against the film biz, however. He accepted an offer from a movie studio – to show them how martial arts cinema should be done. His first film, the VHS favourite Above the Law, was released in 1988. Bob Wall was unimpressed. “All he’s got is mouth,” said Wall. “If Seagal were one tenth of the martial artist he says he is, he’d have developed a proper attitude.”
The following year, Seagal was interviewed by Black Belt magazine and denied talking trash about either Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. He also addressed the beef with Bob Wall. “I don’t fight in print,” said Seagal. “If Mr Wall has anything bad to say about me, let him come say it to my face.”
The following year, Black Belt – which seemed to take particular pleasure in stirring things up – asked Seagal once again about Bob Wall. Seagal suggested that Wall was suffering from low esteem. Seagal was willing to fight anybody who wanted a piece of him. “If you want me,” said Seagal, “come to fight me to the death.”
Seagal has certainly talked the talk over the years. Bob Wall might have taken less notice if he’d heard other rumoured claims: that Seagal supposedly battled the Yakuza in Japan; that he’d been a secret advisor to the CIA on covert missions; that he gets called in to authenticate antique swords; and that he was a Navy SEAL (confused with his character in Under Siege, perhaps). Seagal’s barminess continues: in 2016 he became a Russian citizen and is good pals with Putin.
In October 1991, Wall assembled his “The Dirty Dozen”, which included Bill Wallace, Howard Jackson, Jim Harrison, Roger Carpenter, Allen Steen, Benny Urquidez, Billy Robertson, Blinky Rodriguez, and Gene LeBell. The purpose of the group was to challenge Seagal and test his mettle once and for all.
“I know five dozen guys who could whip Seagal’s hide,” said Wall. “He’s going around saying ‘No man dares face me’ and ‘I’ll fight anyone to the death’. Well, we want to make it clear to everyone that he’s just full of it… There’s not just one guy who can embarrass Seagal. There’s dozens. I only picked twelve of them.”
Some of the Dirty Dozen were fully behind Wall's beef. As reported in Black Belt magazine, Jim Harrison – winner of the first full-contact kickboxing match held on US soil – had written a letter to Seagal, daring him to “put his money where his mouth is.”
For Allen Steen – a Taekwondo black belt – it was a matter of respect. “He doesn’t show any respect for his fellow martial artists, and therefore doesn’t show any respect for his own art,” said Steen. “For someone who owes his entire career to the martial arts, he should have more respect. Not for me necessarily, but for the martial arts themselves, and for his fellow black belts.”
Others joined because of rumours – denied by Seagal – that the actor had roughed up stuntmen. (And it wasn’t only stuntmen that Seagal allegedly hurt – John Leguizamo claimed that the 6’4”, 200-pound Seagal had blindsided him on the set of Executive Decision.) Though some had to concede to Seagal’s star credentials. “I like his movies,” said Roger Carpenter.
Other members of the Dozen, however, seemed roped in. They’d made the list by answering Wall’s question with the affirmative. Would they turn down a fight with Steven Seagal? Absolutely not.
“I don’t want to be seen as going out and challenging Seagal,” said kickboxer Benny Urquidez. “But I’ve never turned down anybody. If he wants to challenge me, I’ll accept the challenge.”
Members of the dozen pointed out that Seagal was yet to prove himself competitively in the ring. Martial arts legend Karyn Turner was ready to promote a legit showdown if Seagal accepted the challenge.
One reader of Black Belt magazine criticised the back-and-forth challenges. “The thing is getting totally out of hand and is a major embarrassment to the martial arts in general,” they wrote in a letter to the magazine. “What next? A full-scale war? What is all this going to prove?”
Judo star Gene LeBell regretted his inclusion in the Dozen. As a part-time stuntman, he thought the association had cost him work.
“If [Seagal] wants to fight me for a million dollars, I’ll do it and then retire,” he said. “But I don’t want to be part of some list. That’s just looking for trouble.”
Gene LeBell did clash with Seagal while working as a stunt coordinator on Out for Justice. As the story goes, he answered Seagal's claim that he couldn’t be choked out. LeBell proceeded to easily choke Seagal unconscious – at which point Seagal soiled himself. The story seems to be more urban legend, however.
Black Belt magazine – after stirring things up nicely – was right in suggesting that Steven Seagal vs. Bob Wall was little more than tough talk.
Seagal's silence, however, may have said it all. “Just by not accepting the challenge, Seagal tells us where he’s at,” said kickboxer Blinky Rodriguez. “I don’t know if he will or he won’t, but if he doesn’t, maybe he should quit blasting people.”