On this episode, we profile famed martial arts actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about “The Muscles from Brussels.”
Jean-Claude Van Damme (Profile) – Episode 123
Hey, you. Yeah, you. What are you doing? I know what you’re doing. You’re getting ready to listen to today’s episode of Martial Arts Radio. Well, here we are. Episode 123 is coming at you in just a moment, and it’s all about Jean-Claude Van Damme.
I’m whistlekick’s founder but I’m better known as your host, Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, if you don’t know, makes the absolute best sparring gear, apparel and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome all of our new listeners and thank everyone that’s come back again.
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Getting to Know Jean-Claude Van Damme
Today, like I said in the intro, is all about Jean-Claude Van Damme. I bet you didn’t know that’s a stage name. His given name is Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg. Quite a mouthful, and certainly not a name destined for international stardom. You’ve probably heard his nickname, though – the muscles from Brussels.
JCVD, as his still-long name is often abbreviated, was born in 1960, making him 55. He was born in Belgium and started martial arts at 10. Specifically, his father put him in a Shotokan Karate school because he felt he was weak. He studied ballet from 16 to 21 and at 18 he earned his black belt. Not long after he started weight training and won a Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title.
While some people may look at martial arts and weight training, then see ballet as an odd choice, Van Damme would disagree:
…ballet “is an art, but it’s also one of the most difficult sports. If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport.”
More Martial Arts Cred Than People Think
During his time training in karate, he earned a spot on the Belgian National Karate Team. In fact, that spot only took him four years. Starting at 15 he spent four years competing in semi-contact karate, compiling a record of 44 and 4. A lot of people point at Van Damme and say he’s not a legitimate martial artist, that he didn’t put in the time. The research shows otherwise.
He was on the team when the Belgian National Karate team won the European Championship in 1979.
In 1977 he started his full-contact kickboxing career, with 18 wins – all by knockout – and a single loss over the next 5 years. He retired after that, in 1982, the same year that Mike Anderson of Professional Karate Magazine named JCVD as an upcoming prospect.
His Movie Career Unfolds
That was when he moved to the US to become an action star. He had a few small roles before his role in No Retreat, No Surrender, where he played the villain, Ivan the Russian. He’d spent some time as a bouncer at a club owned by Chuck Norris – a job Norris himself gave him. There’s even some evidence the two of them used to spar in the early 80s.
He was the original choice to play the alien in Predator but was replaced. It seems he was a bit disgruntled with being unseen and he didn’t like how hot the suit was. Which may be fair, because he passed out at least once while wearing it.
Of course, his breakout role was as Frank Dux in the 1988 movie Bloodsport. The film was actually considered so bad that when it was finished, it was shelved. In fact, the film sat for 2 years while Van Damme pushed the studio to release it, even helping them to recut the film. Despite the 1.5 million dollar budget it did 30 million worldwide.
One of the most interesting facts about Bloodsport was how he got the role. He was waiting tables when he spotted a producer for Cannon Pictures, and started showing off his martial arts skills. He was impressed enough to invite him to an audition.
Next was Cyborg, Kickboxer, and then, Lionheart. He had a number of successful films which culminated with Timecop in 1994. It was downhill from there. Some claim it was his personal life – a string of marriages and divorces – that stole his focus and led to the poor films.
Street Fighter, Sudden Death, The Quest (which he directed) and other disappointments led to his almost-final theatrical release, Universal Soldier: The Return. That was in 1999 and it wasn’t until 2008 we’d see Van Damme in a movie theatre again.
Through all of this, the stress of constant filming and promotion led to a massive drug habit, which took years to kick.
The original Mortal Kombat was meant to be based, at least in part, on Jean-Claude, but he was involved in another game. The creators ended up creating the character Johnny Cage and basing it on him instead. If you find that hard to believe, go back and look at the character. One of his signature moves is performing a split and punching the opponent in the groin. The same move his character in Bloodsport does against the Sumo opponent.
That year saw the film JCVD, which had some critical success. Time magazine said his performance was so impressive, it was second only to Heath Ledger’s role of The Joker in the Batman film that year. Van Damme said during a 2009 interview that during the film’s promotion he hit rough times, ending up homeless for a bit;
“sleeping on the street and starving in L.A,”
as he put it.
Sylvester Stallone offered him a lead role in The Expendables, but he turned it down. I’ve heard, but I can’t find any proof now, that the role was that of a villain and Van Damme was expected to lose, and that was why he wouldn’t do it. Of course, he did show up in The Expendables 2.
He’s been diversifying his roles as he’s aged, doing commercials and even sitcoms. It seems that his dramatic stuff is better received overseas.
He has an upcoming role in Kickboxer: Retaliation planned, following the 2016 release of Kickboxer: Vengeance.
More Van Damme
And in some recent news, Amazon has approved a JCVD-starring exclusive for their content arm, titled Jean-Claude Van Johnson. He’s an actor by day and a retired secret-ops agent by night. It sounds every bit as delightfully terrible as we’ve come to expect of Van Damme, and I’m quite excited to see it.
What’s your favorite Van Damme movie? Let us know at whistlekickMartialArtsRadio.com or on social media – we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest & Instagram – all with the username whistlekick.
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That’s all for today, so, until next time, Train hard, smile, and have a great day.