You know that movies always seem better when you are a kid, right? But there are certain seminal martial arts movies that along the way help to shape our love for fighting sports. Often with an air of nostalgia, we think back to the good old days of our big screen idols.
Ask almost any professional fighters alive today and they will no doubt tell you how as a young child, they were influenced in some way by a martial arts movie. And for many of those, the answer will no doubt be Kickboxer from 1989 starring Belgian beefcake, Jean Claude Van Damme.
For many, the kickboxer franchise kicked off the mainstream western world fascination with the art of Muay Thai. With American and to a degree European audiences being more familiar with the sport of kickboxing. It was this movie that shone a light on the brutal and deadly world of Muay Thai.
The ISKA American Kickboxing Champion
The movie tells the story of a pair of brothers, Eric Sloane played by former world kickboxing champion Dennis Alexio and Kurt Sloane. Both have spent much of their lives in the world of martial arts, but more specifically kickboxing. Eric who is the older of the two has excelled in the sport and gone on to become the ISKA American kickboxing champion. And with no more true contenders to his title in the US, the brash American is coaxed to Thailand to fight their Muay Thai champion, Tong Po.
And in true American bravado, the pair of brothers arrive in the foreign backwater to teach the locals who true fighting is done, US-style. It’s a journey into the unknown in which the outcome, an obvious win for team USA, is already determined. So with a little light training come fight week, Eric looks to face and defeat Tong Po on home soil.
Losing in Thailand
But it’s not until fight night side the Bangkok Muay Thai stadium that cornerman Kurt gets an unexpected sneak peek of Tong Po inside his dressing room. Reacting to a thudding sound from down the corridor, Kurt happens to wander upon Po as he casually kicks a concrete pillar in his pre-fight warm-up.
It’s a chilling realisation that the Muay Thai champion is not you’re everyday common or garden kickboxer. But it’s too late to turn back now for Eric, as his fate has been sealed. And no matter what Kurt says to try to convince his brother, Eric is determined to show the Thai fighter who is the real champion.
He faces Tong Po and after suffering what can only be described as an ass-kicking in the first round, is determined to continue into the second. Not a wise decision, as Tong Po finishes the beating with a crushing 12 – 6 elbow (illegal in MMA for you rule nerds) to the spine. Which ends the fight, Eric’s career and almost his life, permanently paralysing the kickboxing champion.
Learning Muay Thai
Determined to avenge his brother’s bitter defeat, while Eric lays in a Thai hospital partially recovering from his injuries. Kurt seeks to avenge his brother’s loss by taking on Tong Po at his own game, Muay Thai. Now he’s not a stranger to fighting and so has a base from which to build upon. But as he asks at one Bangkok Muay Thai gym after another, who will train him to face Tong Po, he soon gets laughed out the door.
It’s not until his newfound friend Winston Taylor brings Kurt to meet renowned, yet retired, Muay Thai trainer Xian Chow. That his plan to avenge his brother becomes a reality. Trained in the ancient martial art, in Xian Chow’s very own particular brand of Muay Thai. Kurt slowly but surely edges his way to understanding and becoming completely proificient.
Chow himself already with a backstory when it comes to Tong Po and his boss Freddy Li. And Li is well aware of how significant it is that Sloane is being trained by Chow. Unwilling to take any risks, he kidnaps Eric to ensure that Kurts upcoming fight against his champion Tong Po goes according to plan i.e. a Tong Po victory!
Fighting Tong Po
Now in any regular Muay Thai fight, the fighters would wear the regulation padded gloves. They would also fight in a stadium in front of paying fans, but this is no normal fight. This is very much a bloodsport fight and as such takes place under very different circumstances.
It is determined that Kurt and Tong Po will fight in the ancient Muay Thai tradition of wrapped hands, dipped in resin and broken glass, yes very traditional! Not only that, but the fight will take place in a basement which looks all too like a dungeon. In a circle, not a square and with chains and not ropes on the outside.
This all makes for a very compelling and medieval setting for this battle of wills. As Tong Po sets the pace, letting Kurt know what part of his body he will use, whether it be a knee, elbow, fist or head, with which to attack. And while Kurt has all the tools to take on their champion. He is unable to fight back due to his brother still being held by Freddy Li and his gang.
And it’s not until deep into the fight, after suffering some serious damage at the hands of Tong Po, that Kurt finally gets his opportunity. After an audacious breakout of his brother, he no longer has his hands tied, quite literally. And turns to give Tong Po a taste of his very own medicine.
Free from the shackles, Kurt begins to put on a clinic in the ancient art of Muay Thai he learned in just three months of intensive training, amazing! And before long he has the Thai champion on the back foot and taking a pounding that he could only get from an American/Belgian!
Finishing The Fight
With the end in sight, Kurt puts in a finishing flurry that sends Tong Po hurtling from the ring in the crowd. It’s the last stand for Po, who has really nothing left to give. And fuelled by the knowledge that the sleazy Thai had put his filthy mitts on his now girlfriend Mylee. Kurt seals the deal with a barrage of punches that leaves us wondering if he has actually killed the Thai champion kickboxer?
And it’s not too late for his boss Freddy Li to get his just deserts, as Kurt lashes out with a well-placed kick. Sending the lowlife henchman to the floor. Who is also now $1,000,000 worse for wear after losing the massive bet he had placed on his champion. It’s an iconic moment in combat sports movies with a plethora of classic combat scenes that got the blood racing for many a young fight fan!
Looking back many decades later can be little doubting the distinctive whiff of Damme cheese from West Flanders, semi-hard. But these movies were made in a time when things were all that more simplistic, more believable and our martial arts heroes were often just a little bit silly, but we did not care and still shouldn’t.
Kickboxer was a classic for its time and Jean Claude Van Damme was an iconic martial arts legend to a new generation. Sitting somewhere between Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Van Damme and his particular brand of martial arts always played around with fun. It wasn’t all serious and full-on as were many of our other martial arts heroes.
Van Damme is recognised as the catalyst for the careers of many of today’s great martial artists. For with him and those other great martial arts movie icons, in the mind of many young wild-eyed fight fans, the other world of the lesser-known arts may have laid dormant for many more years.
He helped to push the envelope in his own particular way and his effect on the western world and martial arts overall is still being felt to this day. So for this and your many other iconic combat sports culture moments in cinema, we salute you.
Images courtesy of justwatch.com