Aaron Banks — the late, great, granddaddy of martial arts, who discovered Chuck Norris and brought combat sports as a form of entertainment to Brooklyn — was laid to rest last week in the Bronx, where he grew up as a Depression-era kid.
The prolific promoter, who spent his early years in Flatbush, died peacefully in his sleep early last month. He was 85.
Banks — whose motto was “stay strong, be positive, help others to achieve their dreams” — ran several martial arts gigs in Brooklyn, including a popular “Under the Brooklyn Bridge” tournament series at Gleason’s Gym in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when it was a sports arena located directly below the Brooklyn Bridge.
Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade was a regular attendee. He attributes the contests’ success to Bank’s scrupulous management style, which set the stage for every thrilling Anaconda choke, double leg take-down, and ground and pound.
“Aaron was a terrific person and a great businessman — a real character,” said Silverglade. “He was in total control, every ‘i’ had to be dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, and it was.”
Banks, who was married and divorced twice, resembled horror-flick grandmasters Peter Cushing and Bela Lugosi with his long, flowing hair and theatrical flair. He had been an aspiring entertainer who stumbled into martial arts after his Broadway dreams fizzled, although he did land bit parts in movies later on.
He immersed himself in the ancient forms of self-defense, became a black belt, and quickly earned a reputation as an ultimate sports pioneer. He coordinated martial arts events around the world, bringing taekwondo, kung fu, karate, Muay Thai, and other full-contact sports into the entertainment arena.
Banks, who once famously pulverized 59 boards in 60 seconds, launched the careers of many mixed martial-arts stars, including Gogen Yamaguchi and Maurice Elmalem, through his widely acclaimed “Oriental World of Self Defense” events that left a lasting impression.
“Everyone was ecstatic to do their best, and sometimes the impossible was all Mr. Banks desired,” said Elmalem. “There will never be another like him.”
Banks’ priorities were well known.
“Never retire from what [you] do best,” he once said. “But use martial arts as a journey for health purposes or self defense, live martial arts, eat martial arts, sleep martial arts.”
A media darling who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Banks continued to promote martial arts events up until last year, holding his annual Hall of Fame awards at the Sunset Park Martial Arts studio.
He was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx on May 24.