After the death of Bruce Lee, audiences were hungry for a similar breed of action hero, one that could provide moviegoers with the same kind of primal athleticism and martial arts skills. In 1988, Bloodsport gave a first starring role to Jean-Claude Van Damme (who celebrates his 55th birthday this week), a Belgian brawler skilled in the martial art of karate. Van Damme possessed some of the same qualities of Lee: handsome, chiseled from granite, and able to perform difficult feats including flying spin kicks and full splits. Bloodsport wasn’t an Oscar-worthy film in any manner (the original cut was deemed unwatchable and a re-edit was completed before release), but Van Damme’s stoic charisma and the memorable fighting scenes helped turn it into a hit: On a budget of $1.5 million, the film grossed over $11 million worldwide.
Van Damme plays Frank Dux, a man who goes AWOL from the U.S. Army to compete in the Kumite martial arts tournament. The character and story are purportedly based on the real-life Frank Dux — he is also credited in Bloodsport as the fight coordinator — who claims to have served in the military in Southeast Asia. In 1975, the real Frank Dux, per his account, didn’t shirk his military duties, but he did claim to compete in the shadowy Kumite tournament, a three-day proceeding in the Bahamas that involved some of the best martial artists in the world fighting each other for a chance to call themselves the champion of their respective weight class. Dux’s participation in the 1975 Kumite — which was held once every five years and sponsored by the International Fighting Arts Association (I.F.A.A.) — was detailed in a Black Belt magazine feature in 1980, and served as the inspiration for the Van Damme film. To take the interview with Dux as fact, though, is a shaky proposition from the start — it starts with this disclaimer:
Although there is no convenient way to verify each and every detail connected with this story, the editors have verified enough of the basic facts to feel confident in publishing it. But since we are not a liberty to share the corroborating evidence with the public, we acknowledge that each reader may have a different idea of what the facts permit him to believe.