Jean Claude van Damme:
Behind The Public Image
By Don Warrener
In this article you will see the two sides of Jean Claude Van Damme
that few if any have ever seen.
In 1980 in Brussels, Belgium, Mike Anderson’s organization put
on an event that featured American Dan Macaruso vs. French karate legend
Dominique Valera. Valera was the heavy favorite, and the crowd was disappointed
with the outcome when the American won an easy victory over the Frenchman
But to the crowd’s surprise there was a new kid on the block:
Jean Claude Van Varenberg, later to be shortened to Jean Claude Van Damme,
martial artist and martial arts action superstar.
Van Damme fought a tough competitor named Verlugels, according to Geert
Lemmons who was the head of the Belgium team at the time. But I guess
he wasn’t that tough, as the fight had to be stopped by the referee
in the second round as Van Damme hit him with everything but the kitchen
When we asked Jean Claude about the fight and why he has never talked
much about it, he said, “well, that was a long time ago and I am
not sure if anyone really cares about that stuff nowadays.” He
went on to say, “I have never been one to live on my past accomplishments
like this fight, or on my hit films like Kickboxer or Bloodsport. I am
more interested in what is happening right now, and I think my fans think
the same way.”
”One of the things that I really admire about the martial arts
is that real martial artists are very humble, especially the ones that
are really good. I try to be like that in my martial arts, but in my
movie career I can not be like that or I will get lost in the crowd,” said
“When I was a teenager my karate teacher Claude Goetz (the European
karate pioneer who studied with Tsutomu Oshima, a disciple of Gichin
Funakoshi) would teach us that martial artists always live in the now,
not in the past or in the future. He would say that there is nothing
I can do about the past, and the future is just that -- the future. Therefore,
I must live in the now, as this is the only thing I can control. I think
that these early lessons come to the surface for me all the time,” he
In our research of Van Damme the fighter, we talked to Mike Anders (the
famous American Taekwondo stylist and karate event promoter, who won
the All European Karate Championship four times and founded Professional
Karate Magazine in 1972) and Geert Lemmens (a Belgian Shotokan teacher
and European karate champion). They both agreed that although Jean Claude
was not a big name in full contact or semi contact fighting, he was one
of the up and coming fighters of the day. If he hadn’t chosen to
take his martial arts to Hollywood, who knows how big a name he would
have become. “He sure had great kicks, I remember,” said
Lemmens. “He had this terrific jumping spin kick that he used in
his fights. He even uses it in his movies today.”
Wanting to know more about his training as a youth, I talked to his
parents, a lovely couple who were and are totally supportive of their
son. His father, Eugene, said that Jean Claude was fanatical right from
the beginning. As a teenager he would spend three or four hours a day
training in the attic dojo, and then he would come down and practice
his other fascinations like the piano. His mother, Elaine, said that
when Jean Claude was a teenager, his piano teacher even came to the house
and wanted him to become a concert pianist, but his father said no, he
will become a martial artist. The rest, I guess, is history.
Jean Claude is also a lover of animals, and when he does something,
he is fanatical about it. Some people collect old martial arts magazines,
but not Jean Claude. He collects stray dogs. He has three mutts -- and
I mean mutts -- that he collected from the streets around the world.
His latest is a cross between a shepherd and who knows what. His name
is AJAX, named after a Hotel in Sofia Bulgaria. While making the movie “DeRailed,” Jean
Claude and his son were in a taxi, and they saw a stray dog get hit and
killed by another car. They were both shaken up. About a mile further
down the road, another dog ran out in front of the taxi. Jean Claude
ordered the taxi to stop, and he ran out and saved the stray dog doomed
for the same fate as the other mutt. Jean Claude brought the dog into
his taxi and back to Hollywood with him and his son. Perhaps the old
saying, “you lucky dog” applies to this mutt. No matter what
Jean Claude is, he is much more than a fighter. He sure can kick hard,
but he also loves dogs and animals.
When I got the chance to talk to him, though, I focused on his karate,
and what is new in his Hollywood career.
DW: Jean Claude, when you were training in Shotokan karate back in Brussels,
what did your training consist of? Was it like everyone else’s,
doing the repetition of basics, etc., in classes?
JCVD: Yes, my training was just like everyone else’s. The only
difference was that my training did not stop when the class was over.
I would go home and kick the heavy bag my father put up for me in the
attic. It was like my own home dojo, and I would spend hours up there
training and stretching and kicking the heavy bag just like thousands
of other kids do today.
DW: Did you practice kata? Did you ever compete in kata contests?
JCVD: Yes, of course I practiced my kata, and I even competed in kata
a couple of times. But my heart was in fighting. I wanted to be able
to kick like Bill Wallace, fight like Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis, and
act like Bruce Lee. So I would practice all of this constantly. If I
wasn’t training karate or lifting weights, I was practicing the
piano. These were my passions as a teenager. In fact, you might say I
was obsessed with these activities. I just couldn’t get enough
DW: Is that passion still there for the martial arts and training?
JCVD: Yes, it is still there. In fact, I train every day, still working
on my overall conditioning, cardio, weights, and stretching. I train
at least an hour a day in this type of training. But just before I go
into a film, I up this time to about two or three hours a day, so I peak
just as I am about to shoot the film.
Now I am also enjoying working out with my son Christopher. In fact,
I take him to the gym near our house. I am teaching him the basics of
bodybuilding -- you know, making sure he has good form and technique
the same as in his karate training. This is something that my parents
instilled in me as a youngster – quality, not quantity. I have
always insisted on this in everything I do, whether it is making a film
or doing a roundhouse kick. I am very intense and very demanding when
it comes to quality. There is no way to replace this; it is a must.
DW: Since you were a champion in the ring, what can you offer our readers
about training and getting better?
JCVD: When I had my dojo in Brussels and was teaching classes before
moving to Hollywood, I would always insist on giving 100% effort all
the time at whatever I was doing. In fact, when you and I were watching
that old Bruce Lee footage you have, I couldn’t help but think
that Bruce Lee must have had the same attitude. He was so fast, so technically
excellent as a martial artist and in such great shape. He was really
an excellent martial artist.
DW: What is coming in your movie career? How is “The Monk” coming
JCVD: Well, the movie “The Monk” has been shelved at present,
as it was a poor take off on “Rush Hour II.” It is being
re-written at present. The director of the film, Ringo Lam, is now going
to be directing “The Shu,” which is a prison film. I am looking
forward to this because as Ringo said, “it’s time for a new
Van Damme. No more roundhouse kicks and no more flying side kicks.” In
this film we have cast some of the very best grapplers and cage fighters,
so you will see loads of grappling, take downs and chokes -- a lot more
than ever before.
DW: Jean Claude, in summary, is there anything that you would like to
JCVD: Yes, I am going to have a great web site, so please check it out
--jeanclaudevandamme.net. There will finally be a place my fans can go
to join our official fan club and get up to the minute information on
what I am doing -- all the gossip, all the latest news -- and I will
also be offering suggestions on training, nutrition and lots more.
DW: Thanks very much, Jean Claude, for taking the time to sit down and
talk karate. I look forward to our next interview.
JCVD: You’re most welcome, Don, and I too look forward to our
next interview. It gives me a chance to bring back all the fond memories
I have of my karate training days. Now I am not sure if I will go do
some weights, play the piano or maybe I will go play with Ajax.
About the Author:
Don Warrener is a teacher of Goju-ryu
karate who was a student of Richard Kim for more than 30 years. He
is a well known writer of many articles on the martial arts, and author
of the book, "Traditional Goju Karate." Warrener is the founder
of the Canadian martial arts publishing company Masters Publications,
which published Richard Kim's books and republished many translated
classic texts from Okinawan and Japanese karate masters. His most recent
venture is Masters Martial Arts, a video production company, weapons
manufacturer and book distribution company also known for its magazine
Fighting Spirit Magazine. In addition to Richard Kim, Warrener's teachers
also have included Benny Allen, Bob Dalgeish, Frank Lee, Don Lopez
and the legendary Gogen Yamaguchi. In 1973 and 1981 Warrener broke
the world's record for breaking bricks and boards. In 1968 he won the
Canadian National Karate Championship, and in 1973 took kata and kumite
titles at the Eastern Canadian Championship.