Posted on Thursday, March 24th, 2016 by Blake Harris
Unlike so many of the testosterone-fueled films of the ’80s, Bloodsport holds the rare distinction of being based on a true story. It’s the amazing tale of Frank Dux, a Caucasian martial artist who fought in (and won) a ruthless secret tournament that’s held only once every five years. It’s a tale so amazing that two months after the film’s release, it was dismissed by the L.A. Times as nothing but a fabricated “macho fantasy.” And that piece, filled with accusations and allegations, continues even to this day cast doubt upon the reputation of Frank Dux.
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Bloodsport edition of the HDTGM podcast here. What follows is a conversation with Frank Dux, who was the real-life inspiration behind the movie Bloodsport. Please note as always his opinions, recollections and claims are his own, and not necessarily fact.
Bloodsport Oral History
Synopsis: U.S. Army Captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who had been trained as a boy by the legendary Ninjutsu master Senzo Tanaka, decides to honor his mentor by taking the place of Tanaka’s dead son in an illegal, no-holds-barred martial arts tournament called the “Kumite.”
Tagline: The True Story of an American Ninja
“It was a vicious hatchet job,” Dux explained during our interview, “And from that lie, everyone’s been telling the same lie over and over again.”
Dux believes this article was part of a smear campaign orchestrated by business competitors. As a result, he’s spent the past 28 years dealing with perpetual allegations of being a fake and a fraud. During that time, he’s never felt like he had a platform to defuse those lies and tell his side of the story…until now.
Part 1: To Be the Best…
Blake Harris: Since martial arts is, and has been, such a large part of your life, I was wondering if it was also a large part of your childhood.
Frank Dux: Actually, no. Back then, things were so different. When I was growing up, you couldn’t even find “martial arts” in the encyclopedia. I kid you not.
Blake Harris: So you weren’t some kind of jiujutsu prodigy?
Frank Dux: Not at all. In fact, I was born with my foot so pigeon-toed that it actually went backwards; my foot, it could go 180 degrees the other way. So to compensate, they put me in these metal boots. And because of the braces and how the legs were locked together—a steel bar locked them together—you couldn’t even waddle, you know? So I have all these memories of falling down stairs and crawling on my knees. It was horrible. And it was painful. But I got over it.
Blake Harris: Well, given that physically you were not a prime candidate for hand-to-hand combat, how did the idea of martial arts even first cross your radar?
Frank Dux: As a kid, as a young kid, I was a James Bond fan. And I remember watching a movie where James Bond was doing jujitsu. That kind of caught my fancy. I also remember seeing something on Mayberry R.F.D. with Andy Griffith, where Barney Fife was getting picked on and so he goes to learn judo. He’s not very good, of course, but the judo instructor steps in for Barney and then kicks the ass of the guy who’s been picking on him. That’s kind of how it appealed to me. This thing—whatever it was called—it was really cool and it would be a cool way to meet chicks.
Blake Harris: And how did you go from passively enjoying these things to actual participating and learning how to fight?
Frank Dux: I guess one of the things that helped push me in that direction was that I befriended a kid named Grant who had it far worse than myself. He was born with all sorts of birth defects—he had one leg shorter than the other, he didn’t have a jawbone—and because of my own, I don’t know, “disability,” we became friends. I should also back up and say that I was really poor growing up. So Grant’s dad, he basically saw that I was struggling to make money so our family could eat and I could buy myself shoes. So he started taking me to construction sites where I could get work. And at one of these construction sites, there was a guy doing martial arts. He would punch the bricks, breaking them apart. And I’d imitate him.
Blake Harris: Do you remember how old you were around this time?
Frank Dux: I was 11 years old. And then one day I get invited down to the Long Beach Invitationals. And at the Invitationals, there’s Bruce Lee. He’s demonstrating how to do a 1-inch punch and a 1-finger push-up. And he ends up doing a test of speed with this guy named Vic Moore. In front of everybody. It was a best of three, that’s the way I recollect it. They each got three chances to punch (and block) one another. So it should be a total of six blows, except this turned out to be a total of eight because of those two to Vic’s head. That’s what they always show on the history channel, those two to the head. But the real contest was just punches to the chest, and Moore beat Lee like 4-2. And not only did More beat Lee, but he actually let him score one. He felt bad for him. That’s what really happened. And it’s interesting because they hide that, you know? The truth. The whole martial arts thing. So I watched that happen and then I watched Victor Moore fight Chuck Norris.
Blake Harris: Moore fought Bruce Lee and then Chuck Norris? Wow.
Frank Dux: And he knocked Chuck Norris to the ground several times. But Norris was the one, I think, who they declared as the winner. But what’s interesting is that after the fight, I see Norris signing a program for Moore. And on it he writes: To the Man Who Beat Me. I didn’t understand. These guys, after brutally going at each other, now they were just laughing it off. What was all this camaraderie about? But Vic explained it to me. He said, “To be the best, you’ve gotta fight the best, kid.” And then Moore took me and Grant and started showing us some stuff. Later on, Lee took Grant and showed him that one of his legs was shorter than the other. Which kind of made Grant feel better about himself. People don’t really know that about Lee, but he had one leg shorter than the other. I mean, I didn’t really see it myself, but I heard it from Grant later. I thought that was real interesting.
Blake Harris: I imagine that at 11 years old that was a pretty inspiring experience.
Frank Dux: Yeah and then three years later, I saw him again. My body’s fully developed, I jumped up like a bean sprout, and now I was eyeball to eyeball with Moore, who this time fought the Unstoppable Mike Stone at Long Beach. I thought it was Pasadena, but everyone’s told me it was Long Beach. That’s just how funny memory can cloud things. But it was interesting because he’s fighting Mike Stone and Mike Stone had reportedly 91 wins. He was considered “unstoppable” at that time. And here comes Moore, and Moore drops him in under 30 seconds. And separates Mike’s shoulder. He threw a ridge-hand strike and he swept him at the same time. Which was Mike’s move. That’s the thing. He used Mike’s own movements against him and dropped him. After the fight, I go down to him and I said, “Hey, Mr. Moore, do you remember me?” And of course he says he did (but he didn’t). He was just polite. And I said, “To be the best you’ve gotta fight the best. Do you still believe I that?” And he said yeah. “Well, can I show you what I’ve learned since you taught me?” And so he says yeah, sure, give it a shot. Give me your best shot. Well I did, and I landed one right on his nose.
Blake Harris: Really?
Frank Dux: Yeah, and he was not happy about that. And then the fight was on. We probably fought for a good 5-10 minutes before getting split up. And then all the Black Dragons got around me—they were like the Hells Angels of the martial arts world at that time—and I didn’t know what they were going to do. I thought: Oh shit, I’m going to get my ass handed to me. I really screwed up. And tears started to form in my eyes. Then all of the sudden I got hit in the face with a Black Dragon shirt, and that’s how I became the youngest Black Dragon in the history of the Black Dragons.
Blake Harris: That’s unbelievable. How did you feel afterwards?
Frank Dux: It was an enlightening moment. It was a moment where you have to sit back and realize that sometimes when you think something’s wrong, everything is going right. A good example of that is Bloodsport. I thought Bloodsport was going to ruin my career when it was first cut and put together. It was a horrible film. I mean, they put it on the shelf for two years. It wasn’t until they allowed Jean-Claude to go in and recut the film that everything came together and it worked. I mean look at it today, it’s a big cult classic.
Blake Harris: I’m glad that you brought that up, because that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about next…
Part 2: Enter the Ninja
In 1980, Frank Dux first came into the public eye via an article in the November issue of Black Belt magazine. The piece, entitled “Kumite: A Learning Experience,” was written by editor John Stewart and begins with the following note:
From time to time, Black Belt learns of unusual events or occurrences in the martial arts; events that—either because of their nature or because they occurred in the distant past—cannot be easily verified. Because we don’t want our readers to be misinformed, Black Belt has a policy of strict verification of all facts pertaining to any article. In this case several members of the staff have invested considerable amounts of time and energy checking the details of the following article, which was the product of a series of four interviews conducted over a period of three months. 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.
Blake Harris: The Black Belt article got a lot of attention and certainly must have piqued the interest of some folks in Hollywood. Did that piece directly lead to Bloodsport? Or was the movie developed in a totally different way?
Frank Dux: Well I’ll tell you what happened. I met this guy Sheldon Lettich, who had done a play called Tracers and we became friends. Sheldon tells everybody that I told him a story of how I fought these events and he thought that would make a great movie and all this kind of stuff. And then he was inspired to write a script. But the truth is, I had already written a script called Enter the Ninja. And basically what happens is I told the story to Sheldon. He saw the script. He didn’t like it. I turned over the programs from the fights that we had in those days. He had a chance to read them. I showed him some video footage, and that’s how the project started.
Blake Harris: Before talking about next steps, I’m curious to hear more about your initial script. Can you tell me about writing Enter The Ninja? I imagine it’s hard to write a personal, firsthand account like that.
Frank Dux: Here’s the thing. In Enter the Ninja, I didn’t use my real name. I used my Hebrew name: Benjamin Wolf. And I totally separated it. What I had done was I had the fight, like in Bloodsport, but there was one little caveat difference: In between doing these fights, he was also doing stuff to help people on the street. And that’s why I kept it kind of fictional. But the fights in the story were all real. And what really grabbed Sheldon’s attention was the fights.
Blake Harris: So what happened with the script? Was Sheldon the first person you shared it with?
Frank Dux: Well, it was supposed to be a series. A franchise was the idea. To turn it into a TV series. So I wrote the script and gave it to a guy named Jacov Bresler. He’s a producer, he’s got like 50 films under his belt. It was also seen by Viacom. They passed on it. Later on, after Sheldon and I got to talking, I gave it to Sheldon and we reshaped it.
Blake Harris: And at what point did the script become called Bloodsport. Or, better yet, where does that phrase come from?
Frank Dux: Oh, that’s easy. My very first fight in Tijuana, they were fighting six of us, and there were only five us there; we were waiting for another guy. So I started doing a Howard Cosell imitation and that’s where I came up with the term Bloodsport. That was a term, from England, when they used to fight dogs. And we were dogs being pitted against each other. So I just started calling it Bloodsport, and that was useful because this type of fighting, it had a different name depending on where you were. Like in South America it was called “Vale Tudo” and if the Japanese were running the event it was “Kumite San Soo,” so this was a word that described them all.
Blake Harris: That’s interesting. You had mentioned that you and Sheldon reshaped that original script. How involved were you with that reshaping?
Frank Dux: Every day, when Sheldon was writing the script, I would be in the office with him and Mark DiSalle, the producer. I was there at every meeting and, of course, they were getting all the ideas out of me. I literally wrote a good majority of that script with Sheldon, but I never got credit for it. In fact, I never even got story credit for it.
Blake Harris: That’s rough.
Frank Dux: Well, Sheldon has made a career out of coming in behind me and putting his name on my work, okay? We’re not friends [anymore] and he does everything in his power to try and paint me as being a nutball or a kook because of it.
Blake Harris: That’s why I wanted to focus this piece on you, so you can tell the story in your own words.
Frank Dux: So now you’re starting to hear the real truth of the matter, you know what I mean? And I can cite the evidence.
Blake Harris: Looking back—and considering what eventually happened after the film came out—is there anything you could have done differently?
Frank Dux: You know, it’s part of life. You know what I mean? I saw Sheldon as my friend, and I was trying to help him. And I said, “Okay, Sheldon, you get the credits, and then when you get up to the next level, you just bring me up.” And he agreed to that. But instead, he went back on his word and he did everything in his power to hold me down. And that’s what I found out later in life. He did everything to basically poison the well with Jean-Claude and everybody I worked with. That was the real Sheldon Lettich. To my face he’s pretending to be my best buddy, but behind my back he’s doing everything in his power to undermine me in my career and take credit for my work.
Blake Harris: I’m really sorry to hear that.
Frank Dux: And that’s a typical Hollywood story, right? You see it all the time. And I think it’s because he felt very insecure. Because he’s riding on the coattails of Jean-Claude. And if Jean-Claude had found out that I really was the—at that time, the real force, if you would—that was giving him all these elements, Sheldon’s usefulness would have been short-lived. And he knows it. Because Jean-Claude uses people and chews them up as quick as he can. If he doesn’t have any use for people, he throws them to the side. And he did that to Sheldon several times. Like with Legionnaire. Sheldon wrote Legionnaire and was supposed to direct it, but then Jean-Claude got someone else. And interestingly enough, it was only after Jean-Claude did that to Sheldon that he testified on my behalf in the case for The Quest.
Blake Harris: I understand. And it may be a typical Hollywood story, but you still never see it coming. Especially when you believe that person is your friend.
Frank Dux: Exactly. And that was the difference. I didn’t see it coming.