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.
The Secret Man
As described by Dux, the Black Belt article breaks down the Kumite — predating the Ultimate Fighting Championship by decades — as a no-holds-barred tournament where only biting and eye-gouging are frowned upon. There’s no point system, and the winner of each match-up is declared by knockout, submission, or when one opponent simply cannot continue. Each day of the three-day event holds a different stage: the first day, fighters competed on a 12 x 12 platform; the second, a 12 x 4 “runway”; the final stage, a rooftop. As in the film, Dux claims to have received his Ninjutsu training from a man named Tanaka, who had participated in past Kumite events. In the article, he claims to be the first American to ever win the secretive tournament (the lead picture in the piece shows Frank holding the championship trophy) and to hold several world records, including the fastest knockout and most consecutive knockouts. The article also features him boasting of an overall record of 329-1-7 (win/loss/draw).
Despite the alleged secrecy of the Kumite, Dux said that he was allowed to speak to Black Belt in 1980 because the IFAA, the organization behind it, wanted more American fighters as part of their institution. He was serving as a sort of spokesperson. Dux goes into even greater detail, describing the clashing fighting styles, strategies for the various stages and opponents, and even the selection process — via videotape — in which competitors are chosen.
In the years preceding Bloodsport, Dux became a regular in various martial arts publications. In their pages — and in California social circles — he made numerous claims about his military career: that he won the Medal of Honor for heroism, rescued a handful of orphans from Philippine pirates, and completed clandestine missions for the CIA from 1981 to 1987 under director William Casey, which he elaborated on in detail in his 1996 memoir, The Secret Man. In an interview with Martial Arts Magazine, Dux says that he was brought into the agency because Casey suspected there was a mole.
Casey didn’t know exactly who he could trust. And when you’re dealing with problems at this level, and working within normal channels, information frequently leaks to the press or becomes public knowledge. Casey wanted to avoid that at all costs. In situations where things got really dirty and nasty, my job was to seek the truth. Once I discovered it, I had authority to dispense justice as I saw fit. I was essentially acting as judge, jury and executioner.
There’s only one problem with Frank Dux’s stories, both of the kumite tournament and his military and government escapades: They may be completely fabricated. The validity of his claims has been much disputed in the years since Bloodsport. But, even those objections have been disputed, leading to a mess of false evidence, lies, and somewhere in the middle, the truth.