Lies, Litigation, And Jean-Claude Van Damme: An Exploration Into The Reality Behind ‘Bloodsport’

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.

Falsehoods & Fighting

The public damning of Frank Dux began with a 1988 exposé in the Los Angeles Timespublished just a few months after the premiere of Bloodsport. Written by John Johnson, the article goes to great lengths to discredit just about every one of Dux’s statements. Johnson first threw into question the existence of the Kumite tournament in the Bahamas in 1975, quoting a spokesman for the Ministry of Sports who said the event never took place there. As for the trophy that Dux was pictured with in the Black Belt piece, Johnson said he spoke to a trophy shop owner who claims the award was partially made in his shop in the San Fernando Valley, close to Dux’s home. John Stewart, the author of the 1980 Black Belt feature, expressed regret in Johnson’s piece: “Sometimes we were naive enough to think this added up.”

Digging deeper into Dux’s past, the piece even suggests that Dux’s master, Tanaka, likely never existed.

Pressed in an interview for details, Dux said he did not know where Tanaka’s family is and said he is not even sure if Tanaka is dead or alive. The manuscript states that Dux’s teacher was found dead on July 30, 1975, and was buried by a Ninja clan in California. No trace of Tanaka could be found in historical texts or from independent martial arts experts. California state death records show no Tanaka dying on July 30 of any year in the ’70s. Told of the findings, Dux said the man was living under an assumed name.

Confronted about his military background, Johnson said that Dux did serve in the Marines from 1975 to 1981, but that he never saw combat in Southeast Asia, and there was “no indication he ever left the United States.” Furthermore, his military medical records allegedly state that Dux had “flighty and disconnected ideas.” One Marine Johnson interviewed said that Dux never received any medals during his tenure, and after being shown a picture of Dux wearing his medals and ribbons, claimed that they were worn “out of sequence.” Johnson attributed Dux’s lies to a marketing ploy for his Ninjutsu schools.

As martial arts rose to new heights of interest in the United States in the 1970s, so did the competition to recruit students. Many instructors found that an exaggerated resumé could increase revenue. The exaggerations led to hard feelings among other martial artists, and occasional threats.

Johnson and the L.A. Times aren’t the only ones who have raised doubts about Dux’s claims. Sheldon Lettich, who wrote the screenplay for Bloodsport, said he used to hang out with Dux, and was privy to the truth about his questionable participation in the Kumite.

There was one guy who he introduced me to, named Richard Bender, who claimed to have actually been at the Kumite event and who swore everything Frank told me was true. A few years later this guy had a falling-out with Frank, and confessed to me that everything he told me about the Kumite was a lie; Frank had coached him in what to say.

Lettich also believes that Dux’s Medal of Honor award was a fantasy.

Years afterwards, when numerous people began questioning his stories, he stopped claiming that he won the Medal, and then began claiming that he’d never told anyone he won it. He even tried to convince me that he’d never told me he won the Medal, or that he’d even shown it to me, but by then his entire house of cards had collapsed and nearly everyone knew he was just a delusional day-dreamer and a big bullsh*tter.

A Circle of Sabotage

The Frank Dux tale became even more intriguing in 1998, when B. G. Burkett, a retired Army veteran, released a book called Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and History, published by Verity Press. Amongst the phonies exposed in the work is Frank Dux, who Burkett says never served in Vietnam, as the conflict was already over when he began his military service. (Dux claims to have never stated that he fought in the Vietnam War, just that he had missions during the conflict in the region.) Burkett’s book received the Colby Award, but there’s a caveat to this. A search of Verity Press shows that the publishing company has no more than three books in their history, and one site tallies their staff at a mere two people. In fact, if it weren’t for Stolen Valor, Verity Press would almost be a nonexistent entity, which suggests the book was virtually self-published and not subject to a vetting process.

Things get more interesting from there.

Soldier of Fortune Magazine praised Burkett’s book, publishing the photo of Dux in military garb with the out-of-place ribbons and medals, extending the opinion that Dux was a fraud. In response, Dux sued Soldier of Fortune and publisher Robert Brown. In Frank Dux v. Robert Brown, Alexander McColl, Larry Baily and Soldier Of Fortune Magazine, part of Dux’s case was built on his assertion that Brown was developing a film project similar to his, and the Soldier of Fortune piece was meant to slander his name in hopes of tanking his movie. As for the photo, Dux holds that it was simply taken at a college Halloween party — the military outfit was a costume.

Another curious item: In court, a photocopied receipt that John Johnson claims was proof Dux purchased the 1975 Kumite trophy himself was entered as evidence but withdrawn by the judge when several inconsistencies emerged. On the receipt copy, Dux’s name was misspelled, his address was wrong, the dimensions and details of the trophy were off, the purchase date was three years after Dux had possession of the trophy, and it looked as if his signature was cut and copied onto the document. If personal vendettas contributed to the attacks, then what were they?

Dux has an answer for that. According to Dux, Johnson’s L.A. Times editorial was an attack from two sides. Richard Bender (remember him from screenwriter Sheldon Lettich’s earlier statement?) was also an associate of Johnson’s who allegedly had an affair with Dux’s wife as the couple were going through a nasty divorce. Following a bout with cancer, Bender was on his death bed when he supposedly told Dux that he paid $5000 to Johnson to tarnish his name in the paper. Bender also said that Steven K. Hayes helped pay another $5000 for the Johnson piece. This may sound like the delusions of a suspicious man, but there may be some truth to it, which surprisingly comes in the form of Johnson’s article. While Dux has long maintained that Hayes — one of the leading authorities of Ninjutsu training in the U.S. — was one of the men behind the crusade against him, Hayes is quoted in the Johnson editorial as having paranoia of his own: “There’s quite an extensive security system that operates around me.” Johnson also quoted the editor of Ninja magazine who says, “Paranoia abounds in the field.”

Could it be that there was just a commonplace sense of persecution within the Ninjutsu community during the MMA boom in the ’70s and ’80s, one tied to a quest to be the best teacher and have the most profitable schools? And, if it’s not professional paranoia, what of Dux’s story is actually true? He certainly served in the military from 1975 to 1981, but as far as his CIA missions go, that’s hard to prove since his liaison was William Casey, who died in 1987, the same year that Dux stopped his professed service to the intelligence agency. Similarly, it’s hard to prove Dux’s involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia due to the alleged sensitive nature of his work, although U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alexander Martin is quoted in a HistoryVsHollywood piece as admitting in court that Dux was indeed a covert operative. Again, these declarations are hard to verify, and much of the controversy surrounding Dux boils down to a he said/she said rhetoric. It’s just as hard to prove Dux’s statements false as they are to prove them true.

A gaping hole in Johnson’s editorial is the notion that the 1975 Kumite never existed simply because one man said it didn’t. Kumite, is in fact, a real thing. The question is whether or not the Kumite tournament Dux described in the 1980 Black Belt feature actually happened. The Black Dragon Fighting Society, which succeeded the aforementioned IFAA, has a website that identifies Kumite as a part of its history, noting that one of the first recorded tournaments occurred in 1943. The society also recognizes Dux as a past winner of the Kumite. There’s one glaring issue with their version of history, though: Frank Dux is listed as one of the 10 “Patriarchs” of the Black Dragon Society, which would mean he has considerable input in their material.

And around we go.