Conference of Greatness

Conference of Greatness

An exclusive, behind-the-scenes glimpse into Joe Lewis’ “Masterpiece Event”… and how his devastating brain cancer diagnosis almost prevented it from happening.

Some martial arts events are good. Some are great. But very few…are legendary.

The 12th Annual Joe Lewis Research Conference, orchestrated by Mike Allen and family, exceeded everyone’s highest expectations—and the banquet proved to be one of the most “magical” evenings in martial arts history.

What’s unfathomable, however, is that this extraordinary event almost didn’t happen.

A few months before show time, the legendary Joe Lewis was diagnosed with a grade four, malignant brain tumor in his left temporal lobe.

1. Joe Lewis enters the room to conduct black belt testing for his association. 2. Lewis, proudly enjoying the love, support and friendship at his banquet. 3. Cameron and Kristina Lewis…with their dad.

Doctors informed Joe that if he didn’t have the tumor removed immediately, he could die within just a few weeks. So Lewis was rushed to the hospital where he underwent emergency brain surgery to remove the life threatening mass.

The Champ’s operation was extensive; his skull cut wide-open, then artfully pieced back together with a clip of staples. The good news is that the surgery was a success—no complications.

Next, Lewis began his long and challenging road to recovery. This included grappling with all of the nasty side effects that result from heavy doses of steroids, chemotherapy and radiation.

Of course, there’s no convenient time to be diagnosed with brain cancer—and this tragic health crisis happened approximately ten weeks prior to Lewis’ Annual Research Conference—making it doubtful as to whether or not he would even be able to attend his own event.

However, as the conference neared, word trickled out that Lewis simply refused to miss his own event…even if he had to ignore his doctor’s orders.

On the morning his conference began in Tampa, Lewis underwent a mandatory radiation treatment at a Philadelphia Hospital near his home in Pennsylvania. Immediately following the treatment, he was driven to the airport where he boarded a plane and flew to Tampa.
The sheer strength and determination of Lewis—even with brain cancer—remains incomparable to this day.

1. Lewis speaking about Rob Colasanti (the author) from the stage. 2. Walter Anderson receives the only honorary black belt ever given by Lewis. 3. Lewis observing the show with Dr. Maung Gyi, Sr. Mentor of JLFS. 4. Linda Lee Cadwell and Joe Lewis enjoying a laugh together.

No One Knew What to Expect

At 3pm, on Thursday, October 6th, Joe Lewis Fighting Systems (JLFS) began its annual black belt exam.

The room was packed with martial arts students, instructors and school owners—all of whom were putting forth the maximum effort to display their technical and attitudinal skills to become a Joe Lewis black belt, or to obtain a higher degree of black belt in Lewis’ system.

At approximately 4pm, a small cadre entered the room carrying an American flag. An announcement was made that Joe Lewis was in the hotel and heading toward the testing room.

Suddenly, the entire mood of the room changed; excitement, anxiousness, speculation and nervous energy instantly took over.

Heartfelt speeches were given by (left to right) Linda Lee Cadwell, Rob Colasanti, John Graden, Mike Anderson and many others.

Many, including the author of this story, were momentarily thrown into a trance. Time began to slow down and adrenaline began to speed up. Everyone was thinking the same thing: What are we gonna see when we take our first glance at “the greatest fighter in the history of karate”—post brain surgery—when he steps through that door?”

Will our hearts abruptly drop, when we see the toll his awful illness has taken on him?

Would he be bald from the chemotherapy and radiation?

Would his movie star face be disfigured after having his skull cracked open like a coconut just a few weeks ago?

Would he be in a wheelchair…or slowly brought in with the assistance of others?

Other distinguished JLFS Conference speakers included: 1. Mike Allen 2. Nelson Lebron 3. Colonel Dane S. Harden 4. Dr. Roger Greene 5. Chris Pollman 6. Joe Hess

Would he be frail, timid or sick looking?

Frankly, no one knew exactly what to expect. Then, the moment of truth had finally arrived. Like a superhero valiantly appearing out of thin air…Joe Lewis entered the room…and the crowd gasped.

Lewis Stuns and Inspires His Students

As Lewis made his way through the doorway, everyone instantly rose to their feet.

At the same time, a thunderous round of applause ensued that could only be compared to the kinds that take place at the beginning of a State of the Union Address. The clapping, cheering and whistling seemed to go on forever.

Many people thought their eyes were deceiving them as they took their first look at the great champion, post emergency brain surgery. Why? Well, not because Lewis appeared weak, sick or terminal…but because he looked so incredibly strong!

Lewis’ arms were toned and muscular. The tendons in his forearms resembled steel cables working beneath the surface of his flesh. And his famed golf ball sized knuckles could be seen from across the room.

As Lewis stood there absorbing the applause and scanning the room, he clenched a pair of hand grippers, which he repeatedly closed with his powerful grip.  He and only three other martial artists worldwide can close the #2.5 (237.5-lbs of torque) gripper.

From the back, Lewis was shaped like a “V.”

From the front, he appeared mighty and was beaming with command-presence.

But, perhaps the most amazing thing of all is the fact that at age 67—and after going through round after round of toxic chemotherapy and radiation—Lewis still had all his hair!

At the same time, a few “battle scars” were evident.

Lewis was ordered to take powerful steroids as part of his treatment regimen. This caused his head and lower neck to swell and appear much larger than normal. The same with his stomach, which he repeatedly pounded to demonstrate that it was still all muscle—had been just puffed out due to the steroid medication.


“Joe, I meant it from the bottom of my heart when I said at the UFAF convention that you are the greatest champion in the history of the martial arts.”

Chuck Norris

Lewis was also experiencing some vision problems with his left eye. He lost some of his hearing in his left ear. And, he was exhibiting some random memory recall issues. Further, the left side of his head was red and swollen due to the radiation blasts. But all-in-all…Lewis looked phenomenal considering all he’d endured, up to and including that morning.

When the applause finally came to an end, Lewis spoke to everyone from deep within his soul.

He explained that in life, you’ve got to follow your heart—not what others want you to do, or be. He discussed what it means to be a Joe Lewis black belt and the responsibility that comes with it. He spoke with conviction, emotion and wisdom. And this impromptu “mat chat” set the stage for the second half of the JLFS black belt promotion—FIGHTING, FIGHTING AND MORE FIGHTING!

Lewis wows the crowd with his teaching mastery…again and again!

Rock-Solid Content from an All-Star
Lineup of Martial Teachers

For the next three days, JLFS delivered an all-star lineup of prestigious presenters who taught seminars on a wide range of combative topics and concepts.

The presenters included Dr. Maung Gyi, Mike Allen, Danny Dring, Walt Lysak, Richard Ryan, Dr. Roger Greene, Bill Wallace, Dennis Nackord, Bill D’Urso, Joe Hess, John Maynard, Col. Dane Harden and many others. The brain trust of knowledge these presenters collectively brought to bear was deep and unrivaled.

Joe Lewis also taught a seminar, which captivated the attendees for several hours. This was yet another testament to the amazing vigor and willpower of Lewis. To be blunt—a man of lesser conviction, confronted with the same health crisis as Lewis, would NOT be leading a kickboxing workout for several hundred people. Instead, he’d probably be laid up in bed, sulking, or planning his own funeral!

Clearly, Lewis continues to defy conventional norms—and regardless what the data says about his illness, everyone believes in their heart-of-hearts that he will beat even the most optimistic survival odds by a long shot.

In fact, Lewis is so damn tough—mentally and physically—that he may even KO this brain cancer “intruder” completely!


Night of a Thousand Memories

On the evening of Saturday, October 8th, JLFS hosted an extraordinary banquet that is already being hailed by many as one of the most “magical” events in martial arts history.

At the very top of the prestigious VIP list was Linda Lee Cadwell; Bruce Lee’s only wife. And, Walter Anderson; former Chairman and CEO of Parade Publications—one of the largest publishing firms in America.

The three original World Full-Contact Champions were also present under one roof: Lewis, Wallace and Smith.

The triumphant evening began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner. Next, Walt Lysak delivered the prayer.

Then, one by one, the students who tested for their black belts three days earlier were presented with their rank certificates, as they received a momentous photo with Grandmaster Lewis.

Next, a series of notables stepped in front of the mic to deliver brief, heartfelt messages aimed at how Joe Lewis helped change their lives and the lives of so many others during his nearly-five-decade-long journey through the martial arts. The speakers, who at times had to fight back the tears, included Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Dennis Nackord, Mike Allen, Nelson LeBron, Col. Dane Harden, Joe Hess, Mike Anderson, Don Warrener, Jeff Smith, Bill D’Urso and Rob Colasanti.

The Graden brothers (Jim, Mark and John – All former world champions) also spoke.

Jim Graden, former president of The Project Action Foundation, revealed his plans to create a National Joe Lewis Day.

Then, Mark Graden spoke about an exclusive video montage that he put together to symbolize Lewis’ inimitable career. The video was played and the audience was once again reminded that there never has been—and never will be—another martial arts champion like Joe Lewis.

Bob Mueller’s stunning rendition of the one-and-only Joe Lewis, commissioned by John Graden.


Then, 8th Degree Joe Lewis black belt, John Graden, took the stage with a speech that focused on the historical significance of Joe Lewis’ career; how he helped pave the way for all martial artists; how he defined the sport of karate back in the 60’s and 70’s; how he set the standard for all fighters. Then, for the grand finale, Graden unveiled a one-of-a-kind painting of Lewis, which he commissioned famed sports artist Bob Mueller to create. To try to describe this masterpiece in writing would be an effort in futility. Instead, I suggest you take a moment to marvel at the accompanying photo, so you can see its beauty for yourself.


“Joe – I was profoundly moved by the spirit in the room and the great waves of love for you.  The night was magic. I have never been more proud of you, my brother.  Stay strong.”

Walter Anderson
Former CEO, Parade Magazine


The banquet was also filled with plenty of spontaneous humor. At one point, the audience viewed a hilarious video message from a pink gi wearing Judo Gene LeBell, a.k.a The Godfather of Grappling, who ended with, “When it doubt…CHOKE ‘EM OUT!” as he quickly moved-in to strangle the camera

As the evening progressed, the “spirit” in the room became so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Rob Colasanti, Ambassador of the Martial Arts, took the podium to read a hand-written letter that he received from Chuck and Gena Norris, who were unable to attend because they were in Bulgaria filming Expendables 2. The audience listened attentively as Colasanti read off lines such as, “Joe, I meant it from the bottom of my heart when I said at the UFAF convention that you are the greatest champion in the history of the martial arts!”

Everyone in attendance was deeply moved by Mr. Norris’ letter, especially Lewis’ beautiful children, Cameron and Kristina. To say they were proud of their daddy would be an understatement.

Next, Colasanti played a stunning, surprise video that he was able to get from Dr. Nathaniel Branden—Lewis’ “Intellectual Godfather” and one of only two main mentors that Joe Lewis has had in his life.

Dr. Branden is best known for his works involving the psychology of self-esteem and for his role in promoting Ayn Rand’s controversial philosophy, Objectivism, as connoted in the book Atlas Shrugged, which Dr. Branden helped her write during a ten year timeframe.

Due to his ailing health, Dr. Branden was physically unable to fly from Los Angeles to Tampa. But even with his Parkinson’s disease and dementia, the eighty-something-year-old still demonstrated his tremendous love, friendship and admiration for Joe Lewis by recording a dramatic video message for all to see.

With the camera zoomed-in tightly on his face, Dr. Branden struggled to download the information from his brain to his mouth. The pauses between his sentences, combined with the profoundness of his words, caused the room to go into a deep silence. It also caused Joe Lewis to slide down in his chair and wrap his arms snugly around his head—as he wept profusely—while being embraced by Dr. Maung Gyi, Senior Mentor of JLFS. (This was a sight to behold.)

JLFS also presented a few prestigious awards, as determined by the association’s board; Fighter of the Year, Gallantry Award, Fight Trainer of the Year, etc. Mike Allen received the coveted Instructor of the Year Award.

But the main award given on this unforgettable night was the immeasurably prominent JLFS Lifetime Achievement Award. Only two remarkable individuals had received this honor, previously. But now, there would be a third.

Lewis told the audience that he wanted to issue one last award of this magnitude—and that would be it. The Champ spoke with pride and dignity as he gave the third and final Lifetime Achievement Award to his close friend, training partner and teacher—the legendary, Bruce Lee.

In doing so, Lewis pointed out the historical significance of the award that no one in the audience realized.

The former CEO of Parade Publications, Walter Anderson (left), and former world champion, Jeff Smith, observe history in the making. 2. Lewis explains why he’s presenting his third and final lifetime achievement award to his late friend, Bruce Lee. 3. JLFS Sr. Mentor, Dr. Maung Gyi and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace absorbed in the moment.

He explained, “During World War II, the Japanese tried to prevent the spread of martial arts to the western world. Their plan was foiled thanks for the efforts of various nations such as Burma, Okinawa and China.

Lewis added, “Each of my three Lifetime Achievement Award recipients represents one of these three nations. Dr. Maung Gyi represents the Burmese nation and received the first ever JLFS Lifetime Achievement Award. The second award was issued about five years later to Bill Wallace. He represents Okinawa, which became unconnected to Japan during its issue. And finally, today, my third and last award goes to Bruce Lee, who represents the country of China.”

To accept the award in her late husband’s honor, Linda Lee Cadwell took the stage and was greeted by a standing ovation that echoed throughout Tampa Bay.

Mrs. Cadwell gave an acceptance speech that no one else in the world could have given.

Cadwell eloquently spoke about the relationship that existed between her late husband and Lewis. She told interesting stories from the past that only she would know. At one point, she began describing a rebellious, headstrong, young man who had no intention of following the conventional norms of the martial arts—a visionary, if you will. She continued to describe this person’s character in detail, as if slowly painting a picture on a canvas, one brushstroke at a time. Then, she asked the audience, “Can you guess if I’m talking about Bruce Lee or Joe Lewis?” She paused for a moment and then said, “I’m talking about both.”


Mrs. Cadwell then gave Lewis the advice she believes her late husband would have given him, as it pertains to Lewis’ fight against brain cancer.

“So, here we are today, and Joe is facing the meanest opponent of his life: this cancer.  And I thought to myself, what would Bruce have to say to Joe right now?  And I think he would say, ‘Joe, you have been preparing to fight your whole, entire life.  And when you’re in a fight, you use all the tools that you have; every bit of strength you possess; every breath you take; every beat of your heart; with never a thought in your mind as to victory or defeat, because nature and the Lord above will take care of that.'”

Mrs. Cadwell added, “Joe, in this fight, we are ALL in your corner, and we want you to know you’re in our minds and in our hearts at all times. So I’m here to say thank you for the Lifetime Achievement Award that you are presenting to Bruce…but it is apparent to me…from all of you [pointing to all the JLFS members & guests in the audience]…that it is fitting and proper to pay tribute to the lifetime achievements of Joe Lewis.  And, from the days of his fighting, when he set unmatched records and championships, to being voted as the foremost fighter of the 20th century by his peers, to the thousands of students he has taught over all the years, Joe Lewis, you have made a difference in this world. Everyone here, including me, has a story to tell, many of which we’ve heard tonight, of how their life is better because of you, Joe.  There is love in this room, there is respect in this room, and there is admiration in this room for Joe Lewis.  And I would like you all to stand one more time and join me in honoring and saluting Joe Lewis’ Lifetime Achievements!”  [Rousing 1-2 minute standing ovation and applause]    

It goes without saying that Mrs. Cadwell’s talk was touching, heartfelt and genuine. She was gracious, elegant and kind.

Again, no one could have delivered such a meaningful acceptance speech, or added such clarity to the Bruce Lee-Joe Lewis connection, as Linda Lee Cadwell.


“Bruce has received many posthumous awards over the years, but none so meaningful as this one presented by you. Joe Lewis and Bruce Lee are forever linked by a common bond of excellence.”

Linda Lee Cadwell

As the banquet reached the home stretch, Joe Lewis took the stage one final time. Here, he began speaking from the heart about his best friend and mentor in life—Walter Anderson

Anderson is the recently retired Chairman/CEO of Parade Publications, the media empire that produces Parade Magazine, which is delivered to more than 33 million homes per week.

Then, out of the blue, Lewis did something he’s never done before. He awarded his dear friend with the first honorary Joe Lewis black belt—EVER!

The Joe Lewis’ “Family” of black belts — October 2011

According to Lewis, “This honorary black belt given to Walter Anderson is the first one I’ve ever given by our Joe Lewis Fighting Systems and it will be the last one I ever give. It’s from the heart!”

When Mr. Anderson spoke, he moved the crowd with stories of when he and Joe were invincible young men in the Marine Corps. He told humorous tales about the follies of their youth. And he shocked the audience when he described how the two nearly died together in battle—trapped in a foxhole in Vietnam—as the enemy had them surrounded from every angle.

One thing’s clear: Joe Lewis and Walter Anderson are bonded by a friendship that can never be broken. As Mr. Anderson said, “He would trust Joe with his life.” And Mr. Lewis echoed the same.

One for the History Books!

When the banquet finally came to a close (after 2 a.m.), countless photos were taken among Mr. Lewis, his special guests and the attendees who were cheerfully celebrating with one another.

The banquet attendees took hundreds of photos and keepsake videos of Joe Lewis and his cadre of VIP guests at the conclusion of the evening.

Everyone was wearing big smiles. Laughter could be heard from all corners of the room. And no one seemed to have a care in the world. No one, except for Joe Lewis, I assume. Who knows what thoughts were really going through his mind, despite his outwardly strong, in-control and unconcerned guise?

The sobering reality is that Lewis has brain cancer and his prognosis is, well, Google it and see for yourself.

Though he mustered every drop of energy in his being to endure the labors of his annual conference for the sole benefit of his “family” and friends, the fact is that the man has barely even begun the toughest fight of his entire life. Immediately after the conference, it’ll be more rounds of exhaustive chemo and radiation. Visits with eye specialists and audiologists. Additional brain scans and other high-tech tests. New medications, constant doctor follow-ups, physical recovery and on and on and on.

Oh, and what about work? Will he ever be healthy enough to get back on the road and teach again, consistently?

I wish this story had a fairy tale ending—and someday it may—since we’re dealing with a rather “superhuman” individual here. But, at this moment, let’s not forget that Joe Lewis’ plight has just started. He has not “beat this thing” yet and only the Good Lord knows how the chips will eventually fall for him.


I was one of the last people to leave the banquet hall—when the clean-up crew began removing the tables and chairs.

As I walked through the hotel towards the VIP room to meet up with Joe Lewis, Linda Lee Cadwell, Walter Anderson, etc., I bowed my head for a moment and began reflecting on what I had just witnessed.

Frankly, there were no big stages, teleprompters or spot lights at this show. No fancy martial arts demonstrations. No one trying to sell you something. No egos. No false praise. No comedy routines. No canned speeches. No superficial awards being given out like candy. No special effects. And, no high-priced celebrities, brought-in by the host to sell more tickets.

This event had none of that stuff—THANK GOD!

What it did have is tons of inspiration, gratitude, brotherhood, pride, love, healing energy and historical significance.

The 12th Annual Joe Lewis Research Conference was about dignity, honor, principles, valor, camaraderie and family. Even more, it masterfully integrated all of these attributes with good ole’ fashioned martial arts spirit and powerful content that was delivered with effortless ease.

And to think that this amazing event almost didn’t happen because of Joe Lewis’ brain cancer crisis—then for it to be so massively successful despite the circumstances—can only be explained by one word. Fate.

As I continued down the hallway that night, I quietly thought to myself, “Wow…there will never again be another event like this one…in the history of the martial arts.”


* * * * * * * * * *

About the Author:
Rob Colasanti is the former president of NAPMA and Martial Arts Professional Magazine. He is the author of the book, The Martial Arts Business Bible and he is a JLFS black belt. He can be reached at

Photos courtesy of Joanne Allen
, official  photographer of JLFS.










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