Have you ever got done watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie for the 38th time and thought to yourself, “I wonder how this fictional character from the early 90s would do as a professional fighter in modern-day MMA?”
If you haven’t, congratulations: You might just be a reasonable person with normal thought processes. If you have, I’m sorry about the ways in which society has obviously failed you, but hopefully you can find solace in the fact that you are not alone.
I, too, have spent many a night covered in the crumbs of my shattered hopes and dreams asking myself the same question. And after years of being haunted by the hypotheticals, I decided to do something about it.
Over the course of several days, I conducted a rigorously scientific analysis of some of the leading men played by The Muscles from Brussels. It was under some emotional strain and with great awareness of my responsibility that I was able to narrow the research field down to eight movies. Each character was judged based on objective standards such as technique, cardio, and whether they look good in leggings; as well as more abstract criteria such as emotional balance and the ability to pilot a pedicab while under the influence. I weighed the pros and cons and issued a final verdict based on my expertise of both Van Damme’s vastly misunderstood filmography and the art of sanctioned violence.
This process cost me time, energy and probably a handful of irreplaceable synaptic connections. But it did produce a document that I hope will serve to inspire future generations and silence the snobs who refuse to acknowledge the indisputable fact that Van Damme is a timeless cultural treasure.
You’re welcome, science.
Bloodsport (Frank Dux)*
Bloodsport tells the story of Frank Dux, a kid who once breaks into the wrong house and ends up being trained to become a badass fighter who can do the splits on every surface and also looks nothing like his kid self. The movie focuses on Dux’s journey in the Kumite — a no-holds-barred tournament in which fighters from all over the world compete in their respective martial arts and sometimes die. It’s a ruthless competition, but Dux manages to thrive despite the fact that he’s also evading authorities and having sex with a hot journalist (with questionable ethics) called Janice. He also befriends a charming salt-of-the-earth American by the name of Jackson, who gets seriously hurt in a fight with Chong Li (the villain).
Chong Li kills another guy, but no one seems to care that much. On the bright side, Van Damme’s butt appears once (it’s a great butt). Dux has to deal with some dirty tactics by Chong Li, but eventually, he wins the whole thing. We are then informed that Dux is actually a real guy who totally did all that stuff in that tournament that totally existed.
Pros: Can escape incompetent guards in alarmingly non-secure military setting, can do a full split between trees, can serve tea while blindfolded, is honorable and loyal to his Shidoshi, can do the dim-mak, can do full split between chairs, has a technical spinning elbow + spinning backfist combo, can escape Academy Award Winner Forrest Whittaker after scenic chase throughout Hong Kong, he’s not above fighting a little dirty (R.I.P Pumola’s testicles), can do splits to beautiful city background, has solid core strength (goes kick for kick with Paco and doesn’t die), possesses a great tan, is focused (doesn’t fall for Chong Li’s head games), has agile legs (can throw several kicks in succession without ever touching the ground, which is useless but looks great), swimming in charisma & showmanship (the crowd loves him), has resilience (is almost killed by Chong Li but then doesn’t die), is a good learner (gets blinded by Chong Li but remembers his blindfolded lessons and thrives regardless), has good cardio (spends a lot of energy trowing dumb kicks that don’t work but never gets tired), just the right amount of petty (could have just let it go, but wants to hear Chong Li say matte), according to final credits is the best and most accomplished fighter who has ever lived.
Cons: Rousimar Palhares-like tendency to celebrate too soon, maybe lacks a little snap on his strikes, can be a little slow to pull the trigger, too attached to revenge, a little too comfortable with taking shots to land shots (not particularly smart in a tournament-type setting)
Verdict: Considering the Kumite is basically a prototype of early days UFC, Dux would technically be a shoo-in for any big MMA promotion. We got to see how well he pairs with different styles — Pumola, for instance, is a sumo wrestler, while Paco is a muay Thai guy — and his ability to adapt. He is clearly in good shape and also has no qualms about the occasional low blow — which, according to most current referees, is a totally valid strategy as long as he only does it twice per fight.
Dux also has an exciting style that could make him easily marketable, and the fact he doesn’t seem to commit to a nationality could help widen that scope. Also, great butt. He did get a pretty easy fight in the first round, though, and we never really see him against someone willing to really utilize their wrestling to annul his attacks. Dux also takes too much damage, and relies too much on his chin. He might also want to reassess his strategy — a lot of the stuff he does is cute, but tiring and ineffective — and we don’t know how a weight cut might affect his abilities. That is, after we establish what weight division that would even be. In any case, that’s between Dux and his inevitably shady manager. I still think Dux would be a solid addition to any roster and, while I don’t see him ever becoming UFC champion, I do see him evolving into an Edson Barboza-like fan-favorite before launching a series of failed business ventures and getting indicted for running a Ponzi scheme.
*For the purposes of this write-up, we’re addressing only the fictionalized version of Dux
Death Warrant (Louis Burke):
In underrated 1990 gem Death Warrant, Louis Burke is a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who is sent undercover to a penitentiary to investigate a series of suspicious deaths. But, first, we see him shoot a creepy guy several times, which becomes important later on. In prison, Burke is immediately targeted by several prison stereotypes, but especially a Mexican guy who wears a bandana. They fight in a laundry room and it’s great.
But Burke is more than just a good fighter: He’s smart, and he starts uncovering the mystery with the help of a hot young lawyer and a pair of colorful prison characters. He and hot lawyer bang, obviously. They also manage to discover that the inmates who died were all healthy men with good organs who were part of a hit list. Oh, and Burke is next. They discover the state’s attorney is behind the operation, which started after his wife needed a transplant. Back at the prison, Burke discovers the creepy guy whom he shot several times isn’t dead and also happens to be a hero among the prison population. Creepy guy, who goes by “The Sandman,” starts at a riot. He and Burke have a final showdown, and Burke kills him, earning the respect of the rest of the inmates and managing to escape. He runs into the embrace of hot young lawyer. They presumably bang some more, but we don’t see it.
Pros: Not above hitting balls to get out of bad situations, can fight in tight jeans, not intimidated by stereotypical Mexican and/or scary bad guy with mullet, creative striker (will spin and fly), technical and potent kicks, great cardio (outruns entire prison), sturdy (doesn’t die after falling on his face after being dropped several floors by Sandman), nerves of steel (keeps his cool despite having face held against blade thingy that probably shouldn’t be on the inside of a prison), not intimidated by large audiences (really comes alive in adversarial setting), master of the flying kick, crowd-pleaser, good aim (kicks Sandman right into spiky-thingy that also probably shouldn’t be on the inside of a prison), comeback king (gets hit a lot and probably should have died but wins).
Cons: Can’t dodge flying wrenches, doesn’t know how to land (falls flat on his face when dropped several floors by Sandman), shoddy defense (leaves mid-section too exposed), a little distracted (allows Sandman to pick up several tools with which to hurt him), hasn’t learned anything from Bloodsport and celebrates too soon (thinks a little furnace is going to stop Sandman)
Verdict: Burke is obviously resourceful and quick to adapt to tough situations, which are certainly useful skills in an MMA fight. As usual, the striking is the true stand-out here, but Burke’s seemingly endless gas tank should also be noted. Burke is clearly good under pressure and doesn’t mind a crowd. In fact, it seems to be the opposite: While he ends up surrounded by dangerous individuals who love his opponent and probably don’t love cops, he seems to thrive in the hostility.
Also, the fact that he isn’t intimidated by a psychotic serial killer who dies about four times before actually dying says it’s going to take more than some weigh-in posturing to throw him off. Marketing-wise, too, Burke is a catch; not only does the MMA fanbase generally love law enforcement, but the lawyer’s unwavering thirst indicates likely success with the ladies. Again, though, the issues are the unknowns — namely, Burke’s chances against capable wrestlers or talented grapplers. While he does appear to be able to get out of scrambles and think on his feet, his insistence on throwing several kicks that don’t do much could make him an easy target for takedowns.
It’s also not clear how open he would be to coaching and to making adjustments to his game. Unless he finds a good camp that helps him evolve into a more well-rounded player, chances are he’ll get a trio of knockouts before being outclassed by a marginally capable wrestler and abandoned by his fanbase.
Kickboxer (Kurt Sloane)
In yet another tale of vengeance and full splits set to scenic backgrounds, Eric Sloane (not Van Damme) is a detestable American kickboxer who’s so delusional about his own skills that he thinks can just stroll into Bangkok and easily beat Muay Thai champion Tong Po. Eric is accompanied by his slightly less dumb brother, Kurt (Van Damme), who tries to talk him out of the fight after watching Tong Po rattle an entire building with his bare shins.
Kurt fails and Eric is paralyzed as a result. Having apparently learned nothing, Kurt decides he wants to fight Tong Po himself. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know Muay Thai. Fortunately, he befriends Taylor, a retired US Army special forces member who agrees to help him out. Taylor leads Kurt to Xian, a Muay Thai master who is as wise as he is witty and is supposed to be elderly but is probably like 45. Obviously, Xian has a hot niece whom Van Damme proceeds to bang.
Despite his entitlement and lack of appreciation for those who, unlike his stupid brother, actually try to help, Kurt is dedicated, and gets so good at fighting that he manages to do it while entirely inebriated. That’s enough to get him the fight he wanted. But it wouldn’t be a Van Damme movie if it was simple, and naturally there’s this whole subplot involving Tong Po and criminals and some convoluted dark stuff that they deal with very flippantly. In any case, they also want Kurt to fight Tong Po the old school way — meaning, with resin and pieces of glass wrapped around their bandages. Harsh as that sounds, it looks cool. The fight starts and Van Damme gets his ass kicked for what feels like a whole Peter Jackson movie before invoking the spirit of the ancient Thai warrior gods en route to a heroic win.
Pros: Cultured (speaks three languages and is trained in ballet), family values (loyal even to jerk brother), introspective (ponders deeply all over Bangkok), persistent & highly motivated, heightened sense of justice, flexible, hard worker, is constantly accompanied by prophetic eagle, great leg control, high resistance to physical and emotional pain (undergoes various palm tree-related torture that Xian finds infinitely amusing), can do kata under water, can chop down palm tree with shin, can do splits in between palm trees, lots of flying spinning things, great core strength (can absorb impact of coconut falling from palm tree), terrific dancer, productive while drunk (can fight & drive pedicab under the influence), hits the elusive double jumping kick knockout, strong mindset (doesn’t fall for Tong Po’s head games), resilient (doesn’t get killed by Tong Po), looks great in thong, invokes the power of prophetic eagle and ancient Thai warriors, really comes alive when it counts, can still fly and spin after having his whole shit broke.
Cons: Too impulsive, enables jerk brother, a little culturally insensitive, can’t keep it in his pants, repeatedly an asshole to Taylor, doesn’t land a thing again Tong Po for about 10 rounds, gives up on glass wraps like a total nerd.
Verdict: The issue here is actually pretty obvious: This movie is called “Kickboxer,” not “Well-rounded mixed martial artist with no major defensive flaws.” We have no idea what happens if someone attempts a double-leg against Kurt, or whether he even knows what a double-leg is. We don’t know if he’d be able to get out from under mount, or if he’d end up tapping to some blue belt’s half-assed rear-naked-choke.
We only really just saw one area of his game. Assuming that he would just blindly enter an MMA fight without first taking the time to learn, however, would be discounting everything we learned about Kurt during his journey. He isn’t his dumbass brother. Kurt actively sought the best training when he chose to compete and stuck by it even when Xian dressed him in those unflattering Flintstones rags and told the village men that he said their mothers had sex with mules. He’s a hard worker and a fast learner, and though he would probably never really be able to fully bridge the gap between him more experienced mixed martial artists, I would trust him to become at least defensively proficient enough to be competitive.
A big camp with different looks might just be the way to go here — perhaps American Top Team, or even Sayif Saud’s burgeoning Fortis MMA. Plus: charisma, exciting style, and an ass that just won’t quit? Kurt is promotional gold. No self-respecting organization would want to pair him up with the Gregor Gillespies of the world right away. As long as Kurt isn’t stupid enough to accept his brother’s pitch to become his manager only to drunkenly gamble away all his money, he could even make his way to a Bellator title shot that he will lose.
Lionheart (Lyon Gaultier)
This painfully 90’s-ish masterpiece tells the story of Lyon Gaultier, a Legionnaire of dubious nationality who starts competing in an underground fighting circuit after the death of his brother. Gaultier’s journey starts in a Legionnaire camp in North Africa, which he escapes after hearing the news that his brother is dying. Despite not having documents, money or clean underwear, Gaultier manages to make his way into New York.
There, he stumbles across a clandestine fight club, where he easily beats some guy and catches the attention of charismatic clandestine fight club promoter Joshua. Joshua helps Gaultier get to L.A. to visit his dying brother, but it’s too late. Gaultier then tries to help his sister-in-law and niece, but the sister-in-law is pissed that he took so long to get there even though he literally had to escape in a getaway jeep and do forced labor on a ship and literally swim into the U.S.
Oh, and the Legionnaires are pissed that he went away, so he has a couple of guys (including Tong Po) on his trail. A millionaire villain lady takes a liking to Gaultier and wants to bang him, but she also wants to make him fight. Gaultier fights in several unusual locations to entertain bored millionaires until he is scheduled to fight a Lou Ferrigno-type guy with very specific facial hair called Atila. Gaultier has a rib injury, but he bets everything on himself because he’s just that confident. It turns out it’s all a set-up from millionaire villain lady, who knows Gaultier is injured and tells Atila about it. Atila has a cute Siamese cat that he strokes menacingly. Gaultier gets his ass kicked, but beats Atila in the end. He is about to be sent back to finish his legionnaire stuff, but Tong Po and the other guy feel bad and let him stay with his family.
Pros: Good at being a legionnaire (so good that big legionnaire boss guy won’t let him go), can beat other legionnaires in combat, resourceful (can find way out of legionnaire camp and into the U.S.), good at manual labor (so good that big ship boss won’t let him out of ship), well-rounded (can swim out of ship), good cardio (can beat underground fight club guy despite having just swam off ship), skillful with elbows and knees, stamina (can partake in two underground fight clubs and defend himself a gang of extremely buff criminals in a single night), can compete in unusual settings (under bridge, at parking lot, in squash court, inside of half empty pool), can compete on several surfaces (roof of cars, water), motivated & undaunted, principled (will not sell himself out to millionaire villain lady), can come back from adversity (gets hit a lot and doesn’t die), looks good in running montages, can fight with broken rib, can fight wearing jeans, can do spinning shit despite broken rib and broken face and broken everything else, merciful (could have killed Atila in front of Atila’s cat but didn’t)
Cons: Needs to work on takedown defense, leaves neck too exposed, takes too much damage, too reliant on chin, too trusting of other people
Verdict: Gaultier might just be Van Damme’s biggest fighter’s fighter. Again, his striking is the star, but with Gaultier we also get to see more of a street-fight style that could be helpful in a cage-type setting. Gaultier has quick reflexes, can adjust to all kinds of styles of opponent, and is able to inflict damage with basically every corner of his body. He’s also taken part on French Foreign Legion training, which the internet tells me is kind of a big deal. Overall, Gaultier is somewhat unrefined — he absorbs a lot of strikes and gives up his neck — but there’s enough grit, technique and athleticism there to make an enticing prospect.
At this point, it would really come down to being paired with the right coach (someone like Trevor Wittman, or perhaps Firas Zahabi) and doing enough with his defensive wrestling and groundwork to be able to truly showcase his stand-up game. Both Gaultier’s style and riveting backstory would make for stellar promotional material, and I can see Gaultier endearing himself to promoters, fans and fellow fighters. It will be a fun five years before all of the clandestine fighting catch up to him and we all witness his swift decline and inevitable Bare Knuckles FC debut.
Check back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll look at more charismatic Van Damme fighters and judge their prospects in the modern game.