There is no denying the faces that everyone pictures when martial arts is mentioned. Often on the big screen or in the public eye, these experts have gained the respect of the martial arts community. Whether you are a super fan of martial arts movies, it is undeniable the faces that have changed the popularity and reputation of the arts. It is necessary to honor those who paved the way. Don\’t worry – we know it is women\’s appreciation month, and they are included too!
Thought of by many as the world’s best martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee was a Chinese American who found trouble with the gangs in Hong Kong as a teen. Although he trained with his father as a young boy, it is said that after Lee suffered defeat from a rival gang, he got serious about martial arts style, Wing Chun. Bruce Lee was a model in martial arts as he dabbled in acting, directing, and instructing. Lee was an analyst of the competition, watching footwork and seeing moves ahead, allowing him to counter moves with grace. Lee created Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee passed away in 1973 at 32 but remains a strong figure in today\’s pop culture.
Chuck Norris came on the scene regardless of an introverted youth without natural athletic ability. First, being exposed to martial arts while serving in the United States military, Chuck\’s passion began with Tang Soo Do and took off from there. After winning the All American Karate Championship, Norris started a school. Ultimately, Chuck\’s passion and excellence in martial arts led to creating two of his own style of martial arts, firmly based in Tang Soo Do. Chuck, being in competitions, recognized the work it took to achieve black belts and did achieve high-level black belts in five systems. Chuck also graced the screen with his rugged exterior and impressive martial arts moves.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
At the age of ten, Jean-Claude began training, found his place and built a career around fighting martial arts style. His career includes acting, filmmaking, and fight sequence choreography. Early on, Jean-Claude was bodybuilding which won him the title of Mr. Belgium. Interestingly, he also spent five years learning ballet which helped with his impressive coordination, balance, grace, and sheer strength on the big screen. The martial arts styles Van Damme trained in are Shōtōkan Karate and Kickboxing. Later, he added Taekwondo and Muay Thai. All his training, from bodybuilding, martial arts, and ballet, have helped him achieve incredible success both on and off the screen. He worked on the stunt team for Chuck Norris and has been involved in the entertainment industry since he moved to the United States in 1982.
Born in China, Li studied Wushu (Kung Fu) and competed for China in many tournaments. Li won his first youth championship at 11, only three years after beginning training. Coming from poverty, Li embraced every experience he came across. He worked diligently and tirelessly to achieve his goals in martial arts. Li had many injuries that led to early retirement from martial arts at the age of 18. This was when he began acting. His face and name have been in many American western and action films as he built his acting career internationally.
To be consistent with those known for their high level of martial arts that have taken it to the big screen, we choose Gina Carano*. Carano is a mixed martial artist who began training in Muay Thai and even began cage fighting, where she took on legendary fighters and won. Winner of the Chuck Norris Award, Caraco is recognized as a force to be reckoned with both on and off the screen. She successfully mastered martial arts fight scenes in the Fast and Furious and Deadpool movies. Carano and other women who mastered martial arts show that strength comes from hard work, and mastery comes from relentless dedication and commitment to excellence.
So, who didn\’t make the list that you would have included? There are many faces of martial arts and disagreements about who the best martial artist of all time is. Regardless, these experts have brought more exposure and appreciation to martial arts as they take their skills to the screen. There are many physical and mental benefits from martial arts training. However, what is clear is anyone can succeed and achieve through hard work and dedication. Working with a passionate sensei that pushes students to achieve great things is essential when looking for a studio. This small group of martial arts influencers has different backgrounds, personalities, and strengths. They have in common how martial arts positively influenced their lives and how they share that with those watching the big screen.
* Since it is women appreciation month, it is essential to note the significant impact of Keiko Fukuda and Mayu Hamada. Fukuda was the highest-ranked female Judo artist of all time and trained with the style’s inventor. Hamada competed in the Olympics in 2012 and 2016 in Taekwondo and has won multiple medals in championships.