Twenty-five years ago today, Oscar-winner-featuring* action classic Bloodsport premiered in theaters. Though not Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first film (that would be Monaco Forever, in which he played “Gay Karate Man”), Bloodsport certainly was the one that put him and his spaghetti-strap tank tops on the map. Muscles in all the right places and awkward pauses in all the wrong ones, Bloodsport tells the story of Frank Dux, an expert martial artist who travels from the U.S. to Hong Kong for the hardest core of hardcore superfights known as the Kumite.
Two nights ago, sitting on my bathroom floor, ignoring my guests during the first hour of my Oscars party, I spoke with the real Frank Dux over the phone and asked him how he felt about the movie’s quarter-century milestone. Now living in Seattle, Dux says he spends his time training Special Forces units, hosting martial arts clinics, and working on his two books — one of which is titled The Complete History of the Ninja. Awesome.
It’s impossible to talk about Dux without mentioning the rampant speculation — much of it more than just speculation, as outlined in this Los Angeles Times piece published a few months following the film’s release — that the details of his life as portrayed in Bloodsport aren’t entirely accurate.
I asked Dux about the article and specifically about the accusation that he not only lied about winning the Kumite but that he also lied about it existing at all. Not surprisingly, he categorically denied the claims of the piece, calling it “paid-for slander” and “a libelous hatchet-job.” When I asked him who would pay the Los Angeles Times to write the story, he said it was “complicated” and “nobody knows for sure,” but that it had something to do with his strong stance that ninjas aren’t trained masters (see No. 5 below) and maybe even involved Oliver North. Look, I could write an entire long read about Dux’s wild explanations for each of the story’s claims, but today is about celebrating the film Bloodsport, which we all know with 100% certainty did happen and did launch the career of one of the best action stars of all time. So let’s focus on that.
Here are 15 new details about Bloodsport as revealed by Dux himself:
1. The story of how young Frank met his shidoshi wasn’t true.
“Breaking into his home through a window, that didn’t happen. That isn’t how we met. That was Sheldon [Lettich, who adapted Frank’s screenplay] taking liberties. I almost went to court with the producers over that. It was so disrespectful.”
2. Dux owes much of his fighting success to being born handicapped.
“I became accustomed to great pain and adversity at a very young age because my feet went 180 degrees in the wrong direction. To get them forward, I wore braces that moved them a little bit every day.”
3. Jean-Claude is a dog person!
“He used to always bring his dog Buffy — I think that was its name — to the set and to the gym. It was black, maybe a Lab or a Lab mix, I’m not sure. He really loved that dog.”
4. Jean-Claude probably can’t kill anyone with a roundhouse kick.
Hesitant to say it outright, Dux ducked my question by responding, “All I’ll say is, Jean-Claude is an OK fighter and a great performer. He really wanted the part and was so anxious that he almost separated his shoulder trying to do something he didn’t know how to do. I trained him three times a week and taught him to fight for the movies. We learned together how to make him look good on-screen.”
5. According to Dux, any of us can be a ninja.
“Ninja is like ‘janitor’ in that it’s just a job title. The misconception is, you don’t actually have to do anything special or know how to do anything special to be a ninja.”
6. Bolo Yeung, who plays the terrifying Chong Li, is actually a big ol’ pussycat.
“Sweetest guy you could ever know,” says Dux of the man whose pecs are the size of garbage-can lids. “He was famous for being Mr. Asia and this big bodybuilder, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He brought his son to set every day and spent all of his downtime with him.”
7. In addition to serving as the film’s fight choreographer, Dux was also its Edith Head.
“The costumes were all wrong at first. There was no room in the budget for anything, so I ended up paying out of pocket for what Jean-Claude wore in the fights. I am the guy who started the whole shorts thing. After always getting criticized by the Chinese for wearing a Japanese uniform or getting criticized by the Koreans for wearing a Chinese uniform — I just thought, it’s man versus man, not style versus style, you know what I mean? So finally, I just decided to make my own damn uniform by essentially modifying bicycle shorts.”
8. There wasn’t a single stuntman in the film.
“They weren’t paying for any stuntmen, so when we cast the guys, it wasn’t necessary that they be martial artists, but everyone needed to be able to take a punch. Many of the guys had professional dance backgrounds.”
9. This really happened.
“I learned that coin trick from watching Bruce Lee. His was more of a magic trick than mine, though.”
10. This godforsaken thing really is a thing.
“Oh yeah, Jean-Claude and I both did that. It’s called drawn and quartered: being tied to a tree and then stretched. It’s about, can you reach a state of nirvana absent of pain. It’s a primal ritual. Sometimes you’re beaten too. The point is, you’re in chaos and you have to find your inner calm. This separates the thugs from the real martial artists.”
11. Having your body stretched into an uppercase “I” in training really does translate to success on fight day.
“That scene in the finals where Van Damme can’t see and has to fight through it — that really happened to me. When you’re in a desperate situation like that, your training kicks in, and you find that nirvana that centers you and you get back in the fight.”
12. “Bloodsport” is part science documentary.
On dim mak, or “death touch”: “It’s working with your internals, not just about raw power. It’s generating internal energy to a single point — like a cue ball, when you hit it hard and fast with focus, it stops when it hits the other ball and then that one goes flying. It’s that transfer of kinetic energy but harnessing the body’s electrical energy and focusing it.”
13. Dux’s “nut punch” to Pumola wasn’t a nut punch.
“That was actually a punch to the bladder, not the nuts. But everyone thinks it’s to the nuts because of the angle. But even if it was to the nuts, in the Kumite, anything goes. Sometimes we wore steel cups, so if you took that chance, you took that chance.”
14. The real Frank Dux is crazier than the one in the movie.
“Jean-Claude and I went at it for real one day on set, both of us real mad, and I told him to meet me on the roof of the Victoria Hotel, and I’ll show him who’s a champion. We met there, 60 stories up, and I stood on this section that was no wider than 18 inches. I told him we’d fight right there, then did a full-rotation kick and stared him down. You could see his heart fall into his chest and he said, ‘Frank, you’re crazy.’ After that, we went to dinner and he never raised his voice to me again. Not even when I took him to court.”
15. We all watch “Bloodsport” more than Frank does.
“For me, it’s just a memory now. I don’t watch it. I’m proud of it and proud that it’s inspired so many people. I think it’s a classic that people will still be watching 25 years from now. It’s the one film that made Jean-Claude a star and will keep him a star.”
*Hi, it’s me, Forest Whitaker!
I have an Academy Award for Best Actor and was also in this movie. I used a stun gun.