From The Saint to the James Bond franchise, the late Sir Roger Moore knew how to make the best of his moderate martial arts abilities. He also wrote extensively about self-defense for a children's book in 1966.
In the July 1988 issue of Black Belt Magazine, Aaron Banks, "Karate's Mr. Controversy" gave a wide-ranging interview covering everything from state of funding in karate, to the impact of Bruce Lee's death on the martial arts community, to how he felt that Chuck Norris had betrayed that same community. Wedged somewhere in between the interview's more contentious answers, Banks drops a relatively innocuous story about an appearance that he made on The Mike Douglas Show with one of his more famous pupils: Sir Roger Moore.
"Originally, we planned that I was going to take him down, but we decided against it. Then all of a sudden Roger, out of nowhere, throws a punch at me on camera. I blocked it and swept him, and I took him right down, put him on the floor. During the commercial break, Roger came up and said he had to do it back to me because his image as 007 was in jeopardy," Banks recalled without a trace of resentment. "So I said 'no problem,' and when we got back on, he took me down."
There's a lot of truth about Moore's fighting style buried in this amusing little anecdote. While the star, who died yesterday at the age of 89, was not entirely without talent or training in when it came to physical combat, his greatest skill of all was knowing what would make James Bond look good—and believable—when it came to these matters.
This wasn't a matter of laziness. Moore wasn't afraid to put in the work when a role called for it. In his pre-Bond television spy life as The Saint, the actor took up judo to help him properly play the scrappy Simon Templar. The influence of those lessons doesn't just show in the judo throws and chops he deals out over the course of the series, but also in the psychology behind those fights and their role in the story. And even how these things could translate to his public life now that he was famous for playing a renegade judoka of sorts.
He wrote fairly extensively on his training for The Saint and his use of combat skills off screen in the 1966 publication The Roger Moore Adventure Book:
It's a good thing to know how to take good care of yourself - on, and off, the screen. The Saint has to pull a few judo, and other, strokes from time to time to get himself out of scrapes - and sometimes into them! But the art of self defense is a very useful thing to know. The Saint usually fights the Queensberry rules, with a little judo thrown in, and I often find I am unable to leave The Saint behind me when I leave the studios.
Trouble isn't hard to find. Play a tough part, get identified with it, and there are always idiots ready to take you seriously. If this happens, I don't allow it to develop into a brawl. Fights are a bit like chess - you take the initiative from the start, and work out the moves.
So when somebody tries to prove that The Saint is a pushover when he is off duty, I play it cool. And if the chess bit doesn't work, and the man still wants to throw a punch, I move on.
Or at least, if he is bigger than me. But I also know how to take care of myself - if I really have to. I have learnt. Don't run away with the idea that The Saint on television is an easy life. It can be rough, and it is always hard work, so I always keep myself up to scratch with my karate, boxing, fencing, and judo. Which brings me to the point that some judo know-how is a very handy thing for anyone to learn. With judo, size doesn't matter. It is knowing the right place to grab that counts. You are just as strong as anyone else in the places that matter.
It is balance that counts. You have to learn to distribute your weight on both legs. Never, never get caught with your feet together when you have to defend yourself. Legs apart, always, and they will have a hard time knocking you over.
There are so many fabulous judo tricks. For some strategic attacks on the nerve centers you can't beat judo. Someone tries to throttle you. You simply pull his little finger a certain way, or his thumb, and you will have him off you in no time. It really works. You can paralyze anyone who creeps up behind you. But remember, I am not talking about playing games. Judo is serious self defense that you should learn, and use, seriously.
Nosher Powell, the heavyweight boxer who taught me to spar, once got into an argument with my judo instructor. The judo man said his skill gave him the edge on a boxer. Hosher just grinned. Waved a massive right fist in the air and reminded him: "You've got to get past that, chum."
The discussion got a bit warmer, both men convinced that theirs was the best system. Finally, the judo expert said: "You'd be nearly helpless if we each fought according to his own rules. Supposing I got down on the floor and attacked you from there?"
Nosher thought about it for an instant. Then a big grin spread over his face. "Simple - I'd blooming well count you out!" he chuckled.
But, whatever the respective merits of boxing versus judo, there is no doubt that judo is the handiest art of self defense because size and strength are not the important factors. Knowing what to do, and doing it right, is what matters.
As he grew older and transitioned from prime television roles to high profile film gigs, taking over the 007 mantle from Sean Connery with Live and Let Die in 1973, Moore began to trade the physicality of The Saint (and The Persuaders!) for the keen wit—paired with the occasional Ric Flair-like dramatic chop—that became a hallmark of his Bond.
In a 2013 post called "The Fighting Styles of James Bond," Marc Zirogiannis broke down the balance between physical and mental prowess that Moore navigated through his seven film reign as the iconic character: "While Roger Moore always appeared to be more concerned about his hair and appearance to get his hands dirty, he was, in fact, an adept karate student of Aaron Banks. There are numbers of hand to hand sequences in the Moore films, many include 'karate chops' and some low kicks and many campy uses of props but his fight scenes never reach the intensity and grit of Connery's, or later, Craig's, fight scenes. Moore understood his limitations in this area, and opted for cunning rather than grit in gaining the upper hand on his opponents in hand-to-hand combat scenes. The series aided this paradigm by introducing characters such as Tee Hee of Live and Let Die (1973) and Jaws from The Spy Who Loves Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) to make Moore's mortal fighting deficit seem less personal in light of these super-villains' extraordinary strength and size."
"Not since Odd Job in Goldfinger had Bond encountered a henchman as menacing, physically superior and virtually indestructible as Jaws. He was a man that seemed to be able to ski off a cliff and survive without a parachute. He literally drove off a cliff and survived the fall. Jaws made an already physically unassuming Bond look even less so," '60s spy expert Krissy Myers writes of the famous showdown between Jaws and James in The Spy Who Loved Me. "Although ultimately Jaws survives and makes his way into the next adventure, Moonraker, it did not necessarily mean that he was not bested by Bond. When Bond does defeat Jaws, it's with his cunning more than anything: be it by super magnet, electrical current or just by simply ducking out of the way at the right time. While not a physical domination, it's still just as effective and admittedly much more clever and fun."
While Roger Moore's combat career will probably be best remembered for his saintly judo throws and his campy 007 chops, it's the intelligence of his game plan and his economy of physical expenditure that should really endear him to the martial arts community. Even if he did occasionally throw his sensei around on live TV for the sake of Bond's image.