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They’re black belts? Five celebrities who might just surprise you

You expect action stars to excel in the world of martial arts, but here are some entertainers with black belts who may just surprise you

Musician Willie Nelson Gets Promoted To 5th Degree Black Belt Gong Kwon Yu Sul
Willie Nelson watches a martial arts demonstration during his 5th Degree black belt award ceremony at Master Martial Arts on April 28, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images

The benefits of martial arts goes far beyond the ability to defend oneself. Discipline, mental focus, and physical fitness are just some of the rewards practitioners reap. For these celebrities, martial arts became more than just a sideline interest. Serious dedication led each of these stars to earn a black belt or better.

1. Willie Nelson - Now aged 86, Nelson is best known for country music and cannabis, but he is also a devoted practitioner of Gongkwon Yusul. At age 81, Nelson received his 5th degree black belt and was given the honorific, “Master.” At that point, Nelson had been training with Master Sam Um for twenty years. Now 86, he still goes to the dojo. A relatively recent Korean form, Gongkwon Yusul is described by Um as being similar to MMA, utilizing a wide variety of skills. Nelson first went to Um to put his children into Tae Kwon Do, and wound up taking it up himself. He eventually earned two black belts before moving on to Gongkwon Yusul. Willie Nelson struggled with his temper as a young man, getting into a lot of fights. His music, his weed, and his martial arts practice have all been vehicles of self-mastery for the Red Headed Stranger.

Musician Willie Nelson Gets Promoted To 5th Degree Black Belt Gong Kwon Yu Sul
Musician Willie Nelson is presented with his 5th Degree Black Belt by Grand Master Sam Um on April 28, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage

2. Ed O’Neill - The comedic actor has made a career out of playing former athletes, but the Modern Family star actively studies with the Gracie family. Rorion Gracie, with whom O’Neill takes weekly private lessons, gave O’Neill his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jistu in 2007. He has studied BJJ for twenty-two years, and does his part to promote the sport, often participating in videos. Rener Gracie posted this video of O’Neill describing his very first class in BJJ.

3. James Caan - The legendary Hollywood actor is dedicated to the study of Gosoku Ryu Karate. A 6th degree black belt, Caan has trained for forty-four years with karate legend Takayuki Kubota. Kubota is the founder and president of the International Karate Association and inventor of the Kubotan key chain. A genuine believer in the benefits of martial arts, Caan gives back to the community by instructing Culver City police officers in the ways of karate.

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James Caan attends UFC 60, but doesn’t like what he sees.

4. Elvis Presley - While Elvis made much of his passion for karate during his lifetime, it has been forty-two years since The King passed away, and as time goes by history forgets. Presley first began studying martial arts while stationed in Germany in the Army. Once back in the States, Presley happened to see a kenpo master, Ed Parker, give a demonstration at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Presley studied with Parker on and off until Presley died. Later, in Memphis, Presley would be awarded his first black belt under Chito-Ryu stylist Hank Slemansky in 1960. While Elvis would later be given a 7th degree black belt that many felt was illegitimate, his first was properly earned, according to fellow students of Parker and Slemansky. Elvis wanted to see karate go mainstream, and toward that end helped produce a documentary in 1974. Unfortunately, The New Gladiator was never released, but footage remains.

5. John Cusack - Anyone who has seen Say Anything (1989) may not be too surprised to learn about Cusack’s pursuit of kickboxing. As it so happens, it was that film that introduced the actor to the “sport of the future.” He has trained with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez for over twenty years, achieving a 6th level black belt in Urquidez Ukidokan Kickboxing. Cusack’s martial arts experience led to him being cast opposite Jackie Chan in Dragon Blade (2015).

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John Cusack, Lin Peng, and Jackie Chan at the Shangai International Film Festival in 2014
Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images