From the late ’80s and well into the ’90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme rose to prominence as one of the most famous action stars in Hollywood. Known as the ‘Muscles from Brussels,’ the Belgian-born actor became known for his stunning physique and amazing martial arts moves on-screen.
However, while many other action stars rely on stunt doubles and fancy tricks to make them appear more skillful than they are, many people may not know that Van Damme was actually the real deal. As a real-life martial artist and a black belt, he could back up his awesome fighting moves from the screen with real life skills. Here’s the story of how Jean-Claude Van Damme used his real skills as a martial artist to become a successful action star.
An Early Start
Jean-Claude Van Damme
From the age of 10, Van Damme (born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg) had already begun training as a martial artist when his father enrolled him in a Shōtōkan karate school. From there, he went on to develop his fighting skills, both in Shōtōkan karate and kickboxing. By age 18, he had already earned his black belt.
By age 16, he also began developing his physical stature by adding bodybuilding to his repertoire. When we think of some of his most famous fighting movies, such as the foreign actor’s breakout feature Bloodsport in 1988, it’s hard to imagine this serial tough guy also being a dancer.
However, to augment his physical training and martial arts skills, as a teenager, Van Damme also took up ballet dancing, which he described as a very physically grueling art form. Between his fighting training, ballet dancing for five years, and his body building, Van Damme eventually won himself a Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title. As remarkable as his achievements already were by such a young age, his impressive feats were only just beginning.
Van Damme’s Real Martial Arts Career
Van Damme in Kickboxer
The Cannon Group
Van Damme’s swift rise in the world of martial arts earned him a spot on the Belgian Karate Team that won a European Karate Championship. By the age of 15 he had wracked up an amazing record of 44 wins and only four defeats in competitive semi-contact karate.
By 1977, he had moved on to full-contact karate and his record was just as impressive as he managed 18 wins and only one defeat. By 1979, he made a small appearance in a Belgian film, and his star was firmly on the rise. Despite all his accolades though, being of European descent meant he was still virtually unknown in North America.
This posed a problem since he had designs on breaking into Hollywood. By 1982, he retired from competitive martial arts as a serial winner and set his sights higher. The USA was beckoning the young Belgian, but it wasn’t going to be easy to make a name for himself in one of the most competitive industries in the world.
Early Hollywood Career
Van Damme in Bloodsport
The Cannon Group
After moving to the USA with a friend, Van Damme had to work a number of odd jobs to support himself. His first acting job saw him playing a hip hop dancer in a dance film called Breakin’ in 1984. Fortunately, Van Damme would later meet and develop a friendship with fellow actor and real-life martial artist, Chuck Norris.
Van Damme was given the chance to spar with Norris and Norris later hired him a bouncer. Norris would later also include him in the stunt team for his film, Missing in Action in 1984. After a few minor roles in martial arts films, Van Damme was almost cast to play the alien in Predator but lost the role to Kevin peter Hall due to Hall’s immense height being a better fit for the iconic alien. Van Damme”s struggles were, however, almost at an end as his big break was just around the corner.
Van Damme in Bloodsport
The Cannon Group
In 1988, Van Damme was cast as the lead in the low budget martial arts film called Bloodsport. The movie, made my Cannon Films, was a smash hit at the box office and made back its budget 50 times over. Although critically panned for being a cliché-laden fight movie with terrible acting, audiences loved the movie and especially Van Damme’s role in it.
With the full breadth of his physique, martial arts skills, and Belgian charm on display, Van Damme became an overnight sensation as an action star. His high kicks, splits, toned body, and incredible fighting moves were riveting to young kids and older generations both – firmly establishing him as an action star.
Into the ’90s and What Van Damme Is Doing Now
Van Damme in Street Fighter
Jean-Claude Van Damme may be 62 now, but the legacy from a string of hit action movies he made between the late ’80s and ’90s will never be forgotten. Some of his most notable films in this period included Kickboxer, Hard Target, Timecop, Universal Soldier, and Street Fighter, which was based on the legendary video game.
By the 2000s, Van Damme’s star began to dim a bit as his roles mostly became B-rated ones, and he slowly dropped out of the public eye. However, the actor began a career resurgence after starring as himself in the underrated masterpiece JCVD from 2008, which was his most (or perhaps only) critically acclaimed film at the time. He was then cast as a voice actor in the Kung Fu Panda films and was added to the mix for Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables 2. Van Damme starred in Kickboxer: Retaliation in 2018, which earned the best reviews of his career.
Van Damme has long since cemented himself as a legendary action star in Hollywood and his awesome martial arts moves are firmly imprinted in the minds of many a ’90s youngster. His feats on-screen are made that more impressive when you consider that he truly was the real deal and was a real life competitive fighting champion. Whatever the future holds for the star, many of his most famous movies will always remain iconic to his millions of fans around the world.