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Five 80’s & 90’s action stars with legit martial arts backgrounds

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Ranging from proficient to world calibre, these five stars were the real deal

Jean Claude Van Damme And Dolph Lundgren In ‘Universal Soldier’
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren at the height of their powers in Universal Soldier (1992)
Photo by TriStar/Getty Images

1.) Patrick Swayze - Much is made of his ballet dancer background, and it is by far the most impressive accomplishment on his pre-fame resume. Swayze danced with the Joffrey Ballet before a knee injury cut short his career. However, Swayze grew up struggling with his temper and turned to martial arts for self-mastery. He practiced wushu, taekwondo, aikido, and judo over the years. These skills that would serve him well once destiny called and he answered, agreeing to star in a little film called Road House. Now, there are as many reasons to dismiss Road House as there are stars in the sky, but let it be known that the players left it all out on the field. During the climactic fight sequence, Swayze suffered broken ribs and his opponent a broken orbital bone but they just kept going. Legendary stunt coordinator Benny “The Jet” Urquidez was proud of his star pupil Patrick Swayze—by the time The Jet had Swayze on set he could routinely kick a cigarette out of his trainer’s mouth.

Patrick Swayze In ‘Road House’
Patrick Swayze as über bar bouncer Dalton, stitches up his own knife wound. Does he flinch? No he does not.
Photo by United Artists/Getty Images

2.) Dolph Lundgren - Just as Swayze is better known for his ballet, Lundgren is widely known as the action star who is also a genius. (Dude got a Fulbright scholarship to M.I.T., not exactly a lightweight, as Walter Sobchak might say.) In addition to being a brilliant chemical engineer, an accomplished musician, a member of Warhol’s Factory, and a living mannequin, Lundgren has excelled in martial arts. He began in judo at 16, but switched to karate a year later. Initially he studied Goju-ryu, but quickly moved on to Kyokushinkai. While serving in the Swedish Marine Corps, Lundgren, a green belt, was elected to represent the Swedish Marines at the World Championships in Tokyo. He borrowed someone’s brown belt in order to compete. Did he becomes world champion? No, but he got incredibly close, knocking out his first two opponents and then lining up against the overwhelming favorite, a second degree black belt, in an epic contest that went to extended rounds. The favorite was awarded the win, but it was controversial, with many believing the judges’ decision was political. Lundgren went on to nab British, European, and Australian championships, was offered a lucrative boxing contract he turned down, and would have competed at Worlds again had other forms of success not gotten in the way. He is now a 3rd Dan, an honor he earned in part by fighting 20 opponents in succession without a break. Other than all that he’s led a pretty normal life.

New Year’s Eve Party
Before he was Ivan Drago, Lundgren was Grace Jones’s boyfriend. He has complained she’d routinely bring home five women at a time for group sex, something he found “exhausting.”
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

3.) Steven Seagal - Seagal is a complicated character. On the one hand, his life has been almost as varied as Lundgren’s. In addition to a being a cop, bizarrely enough, he has actually brokered international political meetings between US politicians and Chechen warlords. On the other hand, he has had many serious allegations of sexual assault levied against him. On the other other hand, it’s really, really fun to laugh at him. Tom Segura has made a cottage industry out of it. But there is no questioning his status as a 90’s action star, nor his martial arts bonafides. A 7th Dan black belt in Aikido, Steven Seagal made history by become the first foreigner to lead a dojo in Japan. This achievement was considered so remarkable it made the news. Seagal moved to Japan while still a teenager, dedicating his life to the study of martial arts, and overcoming a great deal of xenophobia while there. However, it is worth noting that Seagal also married into that success, as his first wife, Miyako Fujitano, herself a 7th Dan black belt, came from a dojo-owning family. In the end, he left Fujitano for Kelly LeBrock, with whom he was having an affair, leaving his ex-wife and children destitute in Japan. The Tenshin Dojo founded by Seagal and Fujitano is still in existence, run solely by Fujitano, and after many years of struggle it has regained its initial glory.

Steven Seagal , Kelly LeBrock
Seagal and LeBrock in their Hollywood heyday in 1989.
Photo by Paul Harris/Getty Images

4.) Jean-Claude Van Damme - The Muscles from Brussels began his martial arts education at age 10, studying Shōtōkan Karate. Six years later he made the Belgian Karate Team. That same year, at age 16, he began ballet and would continue to dance for five years. He also supplemented his training with Muay Thai and Taekwondo. He compiled an impressive record—with 44 wins and 4 defeats—while he was with the Belgian Karate Team, including winning the European Championships. He moved into full contact competition in 1977 and went on to score 18 victories—all through knockout—with one defeat. However, Van Damme always had an eye on Hollywood, and also adopted bodybuilding as a part of his arsenal, winning Mr. Belgium. After trying and failing to make it in the Hong Kong action scene, Van Damme moved to the heart of the beast. While in Los Angeles, he worked a variety of odd jobs, finally getting a bouncer gig with the help of Chuck Norris. Norris even got Van Damme a role in his movie Missing in Action. Soon after, he landed his iconic role in Bloodsport. Fun fact—Van Damme’s real name is Jean-Claude Camille François van Varenberg. Jean-Claude had a friend named Van Damme, which he liked the sound of a lot better than van Varenberg, and upon moving to America he changed it.

Jean-Claude Van Damme In ‘Death Warrant’
Sun’s out, guns out. Death Warrant (1990).
Photo by Cannon Pictures/Getty Images

5.) Chuck Norris - No one epitomizes the strange dichotomy of the cheesy action hero with an actually legit martial arts background like Chuck Norris. Norris holds black belts in judo, Tang Soo Do, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Chuck Norris had a had a tough childhood, growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father. He escaped into the military, and while serving in the Air Force he found Tang Soo Do. Martial arts gave him a way out of the dysfunctions brought on by his youth. Once he was discharged from the Air Force, Norris opened a karate studio and began competing. Between 1962 and 1969 he won national and world titles. He held the national Professional Middleweight Karate champion title six consecutive years. In 1969, he successfully defended his world championship title at the International Karate Championship, won karate’s triple for most tournament wins in a year, and was named Fighter of the Year by Black Belt magazine. That same year he made his acting debut in the Dean Martin film The Wrecking Crew, accidentally kicking the Rat Pack star airborne at one point. He subsequently was given his first real role by his old training partner, Bruce Lee, in Way of the Dragon. Famously, their climactic fight scene was not choreographed, the two martial arts pros simply did what came naturally. From there, he played another villain in Lo Wei’s Yellow Faced Tiger. The movie was subsequently re-released as Slaughter in San Francisco with the publicity strongly insinuating the newly rising star was the lead. From that film forward, Chuck Norris was cast as the hero.

Slaughter In San Francisco (aka Huang Mian Lao Hu)
False advertising.
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images