Kumite! Kumite! Kumite! Jean-Claude Van Damme got his big break with the release of Bloodsport, the martial arts classic from Cannon Films, the fine purveyors of gloriously cheesy schlock. The company and the actor perhaps hit their collective peak with the movie, which introduced the world to the Muscles from Brussels. Read on to find out how well you know the stranger-than-fiction story behind Bloodsport.
1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY ... MAYBE.
Bloodsport is allegedly inspired by the real-life exploits of martial artist Frank Dux (pronounced “dukes”). His story was originally told in a Black Belt Magazine article, which chronicled claims that Dux—who also supposedly took part in covert missions in Southeast Asia for the CIA in the 1980s—infiltrated a secretive, no-holds-barred martial arts tournament known as the “Kumite” to take down the criminal organization that oversaw the fight.
Dux became the first American champion of the tournament, which took place in cities around the world every five years and gathered the world’s top fighters in a variety of styles to determine who reigned supreme. Or not.
While the real-life Dux claims the Kumite and his record are fact, some say his backstory about the Kumite and the CIA is completely fabricated. (Even the Black Belt piece came with a warning: “Although there is no convenient way to verify each and every detail connected with this story, the editors have verified enough of the basic facts to feel confident in publishing it. But since we are not at liberty to share the corroborating evidence with the public, we acknowledge that each reader may have a different idea of what the facts permit him to believe.”) On May 1, 1988, more than two months after Bloodsport hit theaters, the Los Angeles Times published an exposé calling into question the majority of Dux’s claims.
2. THE WRITER KNEW IT WAS BASED ON A LIE, BUT WANTED TO MAKE A MOVIE ANYWAY.
Screenwriter Sheldon Lettich first met the real-life Dux when his agent needed help cutting down Dux’s unpublished Vietnam War novel, The Last Rainbow. Lettich recalled in an interview with /Film that “...we just kind of hit it off.” He later told website AsianMoviePulse.com, “Frank told me a lot of tall tales, most of which turned out to be bullshit,” yet “his stories about participating in this so-called ‘Kumite’ event sounded like a great idea for a movie."
Eventually Lettich’s own screenwriting credits on the Sylvester Stallone threequel Rambo III got him a meeting with producer Mark DiSalle, who pitched Lettich the idea for a movie called Kickboxer (another martial arts movie that would eventually also star Jean-Claude Van Damme). Lettich countered with a movie pitching Dux’s supposed life story, causing DiSalle to move forward with that film first.
3. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF STORIES ABOUT HOW JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME LANDED THE LEAD.
Van Damme, who’s real name is Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg, moved to Los Angeles from his native Belgium in the early 1980s, only to hold a series of short-term, menial jobs—including driving a limo, delivering pizzas, and working in a carpet factory—with the hopes of using his martial arts talent to break into the movie business. The young Van Damme allegedly spotted Cannon Films head Menahem Golan outside a restaurant, and literally showed off his moves by doing his signature high kick in front of Golan’s face.
Golan reportedly hired Van Damme for Bloodsport on the spot for a $25,000 contract. Dux disputes the high-flying kick story, saying it was Lettich who first saw the potential of the Belgian’s high kicks in the 1986 low-budget karate film No Retreat, No Surrender. Van Damme was also an extra in previous Cannon films like Breakin’ and Missing in Action.
In a hilarious 1987 interview promoting Bloodsport, in which Van Damme insists the interviewer train with him while she conducts her questions, the Muscles from Brussels says he got the gig by calling Cannon Films and lying by saying he was a personal friend that had a meeting with Golan. The exec’s curiosity was piqued, and Van Damme said, “I did my split, I showed my muscles, I said ‘I’m the best, and I’m not too expensive right now,’” which got him the part.
Fun fact: Van Damme’s original big break was supposed to be as the title monster in the 1987 film Predator, but he ended up being fired from the movie because he complained about the original monster suit’s restrictive nature and the film’s lack of martial arts.
4. DUX CLAIMED HE WROTE THE MOVIE HIMSELF.
Dux said the idea for Bloodsport was taken from an original script he wrote called “Enter the Ninja” (not to be confused by the other Cannon Films, Menahem Golan-directed karate classic Enter the Ninja), written under the pseudonym “Benjamin Wolf.”
According to Dux, Lettich didn’t like the script—which also allegedly came with programs from the ‘real’ Kumite and actual fight footage provided by Dux—though Lettich claimed “there was no script prior to the Bloodsport script.”
5. THE STUDIO’S FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY FRANK DUX WAS TOO TALL.
The character of Frank Dux was originally supposed to be played by actor Michael Dudikoff, who previously appeared in Cannon schlock like American Ninja, Avenging Force, and Platoon Leader. The filmmakers behind Bloodsport apparently passed on Dudikoff because the 6’2” actor was too tall.
6. THE COSTUMES WERE ALL WRONG.
Van Damme’s character was originally outfitted for his fight scenes in silk pajamas the filmmakers bought locally in Hong Kong, where the movie was shot, but the real-life Dux found them to be unrealistic, based on his alleged experience in the Kumite. There was no extra money in the budget to revamp the uniforms, so Dux made himself the de-facto costume designer and paid out of pocket to have his wife buy uniforms in the United States to send to China for the fighters in the film.
“The costumes were all wrong at first,” Dux told BuzzFeed in 2013, recounting how he modified his onscreen persona’s look for his final fight. “So finally, I just decided to make my own damn uniform by essentially modifying bicycle shorts.”
7. THERE WERE NO STUNT PEOPLE.
While the movie is predominantly made up of actors like Van Damme and actress Leah Ayres, the production wanted the Kumite to be as authentic as possible. So they hired real-life martial artists to fight alongside Van Damme. For instance, Paulo Tocha, who plays the Muay Thai fighter Paco, is a real-life Muay Thai champion, and one of the first westerners to train in the martial art.
Michel Qissi, who played kickboxer Suan Paredes, was a fellow martial artist and friend of Van Damme’s who trained at the same Shotokan Karate dojo with him in Belgium. Qissi followed Van Damme to Los Angeles and found himself in a bit part in Bloodsport and eventually played the villain, Tong Po, in Kickboxer.
8. JCVD RE-EDITED THE MOVIE HIMSELF TO GET IT RELEASED.
The movie was shelved for two years after filming was completed because Golan didn’t like it. Lettich told /Film that the first cut of the film was “really bad,” and that Golan told him, “I’m not gonna release it in theaters. That movie’s terrible; I’m putting it straight to video.” But instead of letting it languish further, Golan let in-house editor Michael J. Duthie edit the movie around the fights, which were then edited by Van Damme himself.
9. THE MOVIE IS ALMOST SINGLE-HANDEDLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CREATION OF THE MORTAL KOMBAT VIDEO GAME.
The bloody fighting game Mortal Kombat, first released in 1992, took more than a few cues from Bloodsport beyond the winner-take-all martial arts tournament conceit.
Developers were initially asked to create a game based on the Van Damme movie Universal Soldier, but the deal fell through, forcing the developers to scramble to not lose their work. Instead, they capitalized on the Van Damme persona by creating the character Johnny Cage (note the same initials), a conceited Hollywood actor-type whose signature move was a split and whose spandex and sash costume is exactly the same as Van Damme’s in Bloodsport.
Fun fact: The arcade game Frank and Ray Jackson (Donald GIbb) play in the lobby of the hotel is the 1984 pioneering fighting game “Karate Champ.” You can now download the game and play it on your iPhone.
10. VAN DAMME REPORTEDLY LIKED THE MUSIC MORE THAN HE LIKED THE MOVIE.
Musician Stan Bush—the guy behind memorably cheesy 1980s movie soundtrack tunes like “The Touch” from 1986’s Transformers: The Movie—created two songs for the Bloodsport soundtrack: “Fight to Survive” and “On My Own—Alone.” (He’d also go on to write three songs for Van Damme’s Kickboxer: "Never Surrender," "Streets of Siam," and "Fight for Love.")
Years after the movie was released, Bush convinced bouncers to let the then-super-famous Van Damme and his entourage into a packed venue where the musician was playing. When Van Damme recognized the musician from his work on Bloodsport, he allegedly said, “The music was better than the movie!"