by Louis-Philippe Simard, of Montréal, Black Belt 3rd DAN, Taekwondo WTF,
 Dr. Rob Witmer, PhD Motivational Counselor, Sport Specialist, Sebring Florida
In Association with AJ of

JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME was born Jean-Claude François Camille Van Varenberg, on October 18, 1960 in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, outside Brussels Belgium. He epitomizes the action karate actor. He has choreographed, written, and directed several of the almost 40 movies he has acted in from 1984 to 2008. As a teenager he won under his birth name “Van Varenberg” the 1979 Professional European International Full Contact Kickboxing Championship and thus a legitimate karate fighter and real black belt champion. By age 19, he had extraordinarily command over his demanding sport. His impressive tournament wins are not his claim to fame. He intentionally gave up ordeals of fighting for acting — and it is his splendid karate movie fight scenes that makes Van Damme utterly qualified as an international icon to truly represent the mixed martial arts before the world audience. By popularizing his sport theatrically in his movies the world obtained an appreciation for this ancient Asian activity. First it was Bruce Lee, and then 15 years later it was Van Damme who re-awoke the public’s perception of the martial arts. The martial arts world is a lot larger because of the two.

KARATE ICON: In the movies, Van Damme’s well-developed physique was put to use in his action stunts which were impressive like his ability to do his signature full-split. His fight scenes typically choreographed by him to deliver the skill of his karate moves in perfect motion; although not always accurate of a true fight his mesmerizing fight scenes are a spectacular delight showcasing not only karate, but also pay homage to those who dedicatedly fight in the unforgiving full contact karate ring. World wide, many capable fighters have benefited directly from Van Damme’s limelight as he has come to personally highlight the mixed martial arts. From Van Damme’s inspiration, boys haves learned to become a more confident and capable man. Karate is not for the weak. That is what makes Van Damme such an interesting story. He was not born great or gifted or of courageous attitude. 

CHILDHOOD: Van Damme’s parents were simple, everyday people owning a flower shop. Van Damme states he “grew up sadly as skinny kid wearing big, thick glasses and was much a nerd”. He was shy, timid, and enjoying books, and Beethoven; he was not the “hands-on type”. His early childhood photos make it clear he was no athlete either; nonetheless, he emerges as a coveted European full contact black belt champion. Van Damme had to earn every inch of being a champion and ultimately blossomed into an accomplished body builder and skilled classical dancer. The unimaginable transformation started when his father in 1971 enrolled him at 10 going on 11 in Shotokan – a martial art devoted to total mind-body control.

However, Van Damme had to train with older 16 and 17 years olds. He overcame his fear of the stronger boys; he trained hard, lifted weights, and “rolled with the punches”. Training under his talented master, Claude Goetz, Van Damme became inspired developing an uncommonly impressive array of high kicks and fast strikes. He also trained in ballet learning to be more flexible and became known as “the Balloon” for his high jumps; he was invited to join the Paris Opera as a dancer, but declined to further pursue karate after choosing to drop from school at 16. Despite that, he is known for having a sharp mind, is multilingual, and cultured in the fine arts.

As the Full Contact European Karate Champion, he opened a successful gym in his hometown and studied Tae Kwon Do, Muay Tai and kickboxing with Dominique Valera. When offered a minor role in the 1984 French film Rue Barbare (Barbarian Streets) cast as a policeman, Van Damme energetically changed his interest from karate to becoming an actor. Philippe Graton, author of “Van Damme an Anatomy of Determination” quotes Van Damme saying in an October 1991 interview: "I wanted to become a star, making people dream... Whereas competition is taking hits all our life, getting your brain crushed and often end in misery and leave nothing behind."

In pursuit of his acting goal and desire not to get “crushed” only to be forgotten, he abandoned home life and traveled first to Hong Kong as a model with no real success; then on to Hollywood in the USA in 1981. Despite his good looks and athletic skills, his lack of English held him back. Van Damme’s difficulties underscore how hard it can be to break into the movies based on raw strength and good looks alone. “But, the only way to fail in Hollywood is to quit” and Van Damme refused to quit. He landed a simple role in 1984 movie “Breakin” as a passerby who stops to watch a dance sequence.

The first USA Movie Role was in the short 1984 comical film “Monaco Forever”. He is credited as “VanDam” not Van Damme. He performed 2 minutes and 13 seconds as a muscular, barefoot “gay”. Driving a Jaguar, he offers a lift to a hitchhiker who then challenges the driver to a fight for making a pass. But, the hitchhiker runs for his life when seeing the dramatic karate kicks of the “gay” driver. In reality, Van Damme is “all male” — but was desperate for an acting job and daringly took this role. At 23, and having recently won the International Professional European Kickboxing Championship, Van Damme was more than man enough to play this somewhat embarrassing role as a “gay” even though most other male actors would cringe. Today, the film provides an inconceivable good laugh! The movie director, W. Levy, and Charles Pitt, who played the hitchhiker, praised Van Damme’s relaxed acting and his precision kicks skillfully aimed a fraction of an inch from Pitt’s face. Van Damme’s role was shot in one day; he spoke in French contributing to his considerable ease undertaking his first real role. 

Subsequently, Van Damme became the personal trainer for karate star Chuck Norris and through this contact landed a bit role as a stunt man in Norris’ half-bit movie “Missing in Action”. The movie was not overly successful and did little to advance Van Damme’s acting career – except to fiercely wet his appetite for more acting.

From his earlier trip to Hong Kong, Van Damme made contacts that later paid off when the highly acclaimed action director, Corey Yuen Kwai, came to America from Hong Kong to direct the groundbreaking 1985 film “No Retreat, No Surrender”. This was the first American movies to enjoy a true Asian influence and became a cult-classic. It gave Van Damme his most meaningful role in a movie so far by playing the “bad guy” who is defeated in the closing match. The shorter Van Damme abandoned his movie part in Schwarzenegger’s 1987 movie the “Predator” of wearing the extraterrestrial “Predator Suit” since Kevin P. Hall his 7ft. 2½ in. replacement was far more adapt at wearing the theatrically revised and bulky “Suit”. 

BIG BREAK IN MOVIES: The 1988 movie “Bloodsport” electrified Van Damme’s fame at last. This movie based on Frank Dux’s creative account of being the first American winner of the Kumite, an international deadly full contact contest. Filmed in Hong Kong, the movie became a definite classic. Van Damme went on a roller coaster ride of his life dazzling and dazing movie audiences with his heart thumping martial art scenes playing the strong but silent action hero. Van Damme was not only a champion of karate in real life, but more importantly — a champion for karate in his movie roles!

SKILLED KARATE ACTOR: Because of his ballet and intense bodybuilding routines, Van Damme was capable of performing genuinely remarkable athletic feats. As an actor, he excelled in his karate tournament scenes which reflected far greater appeal then that typically found during true ringside fights. His powerfully erupting scenes relied little on props, special effects or contrived editing as common for most movie fight scenes as with Steven Seagal. Cameras were placed strategically around the ring for close ups and for low-angle shots to capture the beauty of his nearly unbelievable high jumps and 360 degree spins. Unlike a real match, the beauty of Van Damme’s karate abilities are choreographically presented so the viewer can more fully appreciate the skillful high kicks, fast punches and accurate twirling spins. 


In historical context, the martial arts exploded into worldwide awareness first through the films of martial artiste Bruce Lee (Lee Jun Fan) "The Dragon of Asia", and who remains one of the biggest stars even after his untimely death in 1973. Attempts to fill the void left by Lee's unexpected and mysterious death at 32 - said to result from taking a pain killing medication - was made by many such as Steven Seagal, Billy Blanks, Brandon Lee, Chuck Norris, Gary Daniels, Wesley Snipes, Jeff Wincott, Loren Avedon, Don Wilson, and Daniel Bernhardt. All had made bid for that honor. But, in response to Asia sending us Bruce Lee - we sent Asia Van Damme, the one and only charismatic name most commonly mentioned internationally who then ultimately proved to be the true — "White Tiger of the West"!

Van Damme was very different from the others, because of his expert ballet training, his exceptional proficiency in karate, and astonishing flexibility unmatched by such greats as even Tony Jaa who is often referred to as the second “Bruce Lee”. Van Damme pushed the martial arts to the extremes in himself and to extreme paroxysm in his movies. The majestic magnificence of his nimble athletic dance, spins and leaps were wed and intertwined to the brute, powerful forces of karate. Thus, Van Damme is the icon who transformed the raw, hard, and blunt martial arts into a thing of pure brute breathtaking beauty. Van Damme excelled Bruce Lee in this particular regard. However, both Lee and Van Damme are the only two karate actors who project a telltale scream resonating deep from within their body as if from the soul of karate itself as they land their hard smashing victory blow upon their screen opponent. At moment of victory, the screen freezes and the victor with muscles pumped and bulging lets out his conquest scream, which is recognized everywhere on the Earth and will likely echo forever. It is a trademark separating these two Titians from all others and joins them in a common spirit. Despite their unique differences, much in their lives bears remarkable resemblance of the one to the other.

Uncannily, there is a balance of East and West on both, but Lee and Van Damme also share a strange and yet a strong synchronization in how their professional careers and private lives have intermingled — and paralleled one another. Lee was born in San Francisco in the USA but at three months taken to Hong Kong by his parents to be raised. Van Damme was born in Belgium and came briefly to the USA in 1979 to attend the World Karate Championship in Orlando Florida winning superbly with lightening KOs his first two of his three matches as witnessed first hand by this Sport Specialist. 

Bruce Lee and Van Damme In Amazing Comparison:

1. Both came from a cultural background different then that of the USA, but still were openly accepted by an exceptionally large following in the USA.

2. Both settled in USA in their youths, Lee at 18 Van Damme at 21. Both needed to learn English and survive without direct support of family or friends. 

3. Both were marital artistes; Lee with Asian and Van Damme of European influence.

4. Both held Championship Tittles; Lee 1958 Hong Kong Boxing Champion, 1964 & 1967 Long Beach International Karate Championship and Van Damme the 1979 Middleweight European Kickboxing Championship. 

5. Both in their tournaments required but 2 or 3 hits or less to typically bring down an opponent, whereas Jackie Chan and Jet Li required multiple series of their hits. 

6. Both popularize the martial arts through their movies winning appreciation and an audience for the sport far greater than that coming out of ringside matches. 

7. Both renowned worldwide for their well developed physique which placed them in a class rarely equaled by other body builders. 

8. Both took Hollywood names; Lee Jun-Fan became: “Bruce Lee”, Van Varenberg became: “Van Damme”.

9. Both were coveted stars and receiving record breaking press coverage— more than any other martial artiste. 

10. Both Lee and Van Damme became “larger than life” as their Hollywood stardom outstripped their former martial art accomplishments. Lee was seen in Asia as portraying Chinese national pride; Van Damme known as the “King of the Belgians” owing to superstardom and held in esteem throughout Europe and the world as the karate ambassador. Known as “Wham Bam Van Damme” and for “Van Dammage”. 

11. Both bellowed the now famous full-throat paroxysm victory scream. 

12. Both actors worked with karate star Chuck Norris; Lee in “Fury of the Dragon” aka “Return of the Dragon or Revenge of the Dragon or “Way of the Dragon”, and Van Damme in “Missing in Action” as a stuntman. 

13. Both were mystically coupled in movie “No Retreat, No Surrender” when the movie hero is inspired by the “spirit” of Bruce Lee to tackle the villain Van Damme in combat.

14. Both actors best known for their “signature” film which depicts a fighting quest utilizing best fighters from around the world in support; for Lee it was 1972 “Enter the Dragon” for Van Damme his 1988 “Bloodsport”. Van Damme also a trainer and spar partner of Norris. 

15. Both took control of some of their film production as writer, director, star and choreographer of the fight scenes. Both were accomplished dancers which they combined with their sport.

16. Both played opposite to karate Bolo Yeung; Lee in “Enter the Dragon, Van Damme in “Bloodsport” and “Double Impact”.

17. Both successful in marketing their name recognition merchandise with clothes, figurines, video games and collection cards.

18. Both were victims of drug abuse owing to pressures of being celebrities.

19. Lee distinguished for his incredible “one-inch power punch” and Van Damme for his “full-split” and “flying 360-degree high kick”.

20. Both of their lives were the feature of a film; Lee in: “The Dragon” and Van Damme in: “JCVD The Movie 2008”

From the brilliant execution of the movie classic "Bloodsport" undertaken in his mid twenties to today in his mid forties, Van Damme remains rock-hard yet subtle and flexible. His body nearly a wonder as it appears to easily defy aging much as he made his 360-degree high, spinning kicks appear easy decades ago in his youth. Other action heroes seldom keep their top form in their private life as Van Damme. His splendid execution of a full split is something one could not imagine fellow bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger doing. Van Damme's physical and mental focus acts as a standard encouraging others to strive for a strong, healthily and capable body — just as his strong focus on the martial arts acts as the standard on which we now judge those new action herons who are to follow from his very creative example.

Van Damme, now 47 (in 2007) is still “rip” being in excellent physical shape. He remains popular and in touch with reality from that of movie fantasy. He presents himself to his fans and in interviews as being sensitive and definitely not pompous at heart, but down to earth and yet with his mind and eyes set on matters larger than his own self as he heads into adventure of new movie roles and genre. We remain captivated and glued by Van Damme’s highly challenging karate executions and by his ever improving acting. His genuine French accent adding a touch of universal class to his character and roles which are unmistakable and unmatched in all of Hollywood!

CHRONICLE OF TOURNAMENTS: In Antwerp, fighting only under actual birth name of “Van Varenberg”, and never under Van Damme led to confusion over his fight record. He made his debut knocking out Eric Strauss in just 23 seconds of round one with a spinning back fist. A week later, he stopped Emile Leibman with an axe-kick in 33 seconds of a 3-round full-contact middleweight match in Isegham, Belgium. In following five months, he added impressive all first round victories over Andre Robaeys, Jacques Piniarski, and Rolf Risberg, improving his full-contact karate record to 5-0 (5 knockouts). After knocking out Jean-Claude Bollaert to win the Belgium Middleweight Full-Contact Championship in Brussels, many European martial arts experts viewed Van Damme as “very promising” to include both Mike Anders-founder of Professional Karate Magazine, and the multiple European Karate champion, Gert Lemmens, who echoed the same belief. 

Professional European International Kickboxing Championship: Van Damme as but a teenager captured the European Middleweight Full-Contact Championship by delivering a knockout in 21 seconds. Van Damme was as fast as he was good with KO’s typically within first round and often within seconds of the opening. Frequently he fought older fighters that were more experienced. Full-contact hitting was not child play in these championship games.

ATTEMPT AT WORLD CHAMPION: In 1979, Van Damme went to Orlando, Florida in the United States to fight in the World Full-Contact Championships (WAKO). In his first U.S. match, Van Damme (fighting as Jean-Claude Van Varenberg) defeated Sherman "Big Train" Bergman of Miami, with a first round victory and also Gilberto Diaz-Miranda. However, he then lost to fellow Belgium citizen, Patrick Teugels by “decision” in third round, missing his bid to capture a world title. Returning to Brussels, he scored a knockout over Verlugels in 1980 and then fought a friendly re-match with, Teugels, the World’s Vice Champion, but winning in less than two minutes! Van Damme retired from active competition having his impressive European Full-Contact Championship to his credit prior to 19 years of age along with the full right to his earned Professional black belt.